Rendering Prospero the Victim
Shakespeare writes many dimensions into the character of Prospero in The Tempest. He is loving and protective of his daughter, hard-hearted towards his enemies, and manipulative of his allies. Given the complexity of his character, rendering him as a victim or as a villain has been a point of meditation for directors. Indeed, he is cruel in his enslavement of the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban. He then abuses his power over them during his extension of cruelty to his opponents – he subjects his enemies to the unnerving desertion on an island that they forced upon him when he first lost his dukedom. Not only does he crave retribution, but he also keeps his agents captive against their wills. In spite of his malevolence towards both his enemies and his allies, Prospero should be portrayed as a victim, based his own circumstances: the means by which he achieved his power over his agents, oppression, is more legitimate than Antonio’s means of achieving power, theft. This judgment that treachery is more villainous than oppression echoes through the play, and so Prospero should be rendered a victim and Antonio, his usurper, a villain.
Even though Prospero lacks a formal title, his power over the creatures of the island seems limitless. He essentially enslaves Ariel and Caliban, and knowing full well that they play integral roles in the success of his plans for his enemies on the island, goes to extreme lengths to keep them under his servitude. He subjects Caliban to physical pain to keep Caliban’s murmurings of dissidence at bay. At Caliban’s entrance, Caliban curses at Prospero. Prospero’s response reflects his cruel nature: Caliban will tonight “be pinch’d/As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging/ Than bees that made ‘em.”
Perhaps even more striking is the relationship between Ariel and Prospero: he continually defers her date of release, even though she asks for her liberty numerous times over the course of the play and her good attitude and work ethic merit kind treatment in return. She does every errand that he assigns her, altogether cheerily. For example, upon being asked to round up all of the men on the island and hastily bring them to Prospero, she replies happily in song, “Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go’/And breathe twice, and cry ‘so, so,’… Do you love me, master? no?” By speaking to him thus, she expresses a certain fondness for him, so when he, in Act I, scene ii, tightens his grip over her by threatening to return her to the state in which he found her, his hard-heartedness seems unnecessarily unkind. He states he would encase her back in the trunk of the tree in which Sycorax had held her captive. Being trapped in the tree was “a torment/ To lay upon the damn’d,” and Prospero exhibits his lack of pity by threatening to return her to it.
By threatening pain and continued servitude on Ariel and Caliban, Prospero sets his power upon slavery and oppression. Such a method of rule would not, by reasonable standards, be considered admirable or just. However, to Prospero, his power over them is legitimate because they are his debtors. He freed Ariel from the tree and showed Caliban kindness in addition to teaching him how to speak and he feels that in return, they should serve him.
However, the arguable unfairness of his rule and the villainy of his character pales in comparison to the actions of the islanders, in which Antonio is rendered a more thoroughly villainous character. In Act II, scene I, at the hands of Prospero’s agent Ariel, all of the nobility of the island fall asleep except for Antonio and Sebastian, at which point Antonio urges Sebastian to seize the opportunity at hand and murder his brother so that he might be King of Naples. He states, “Th’ occasion speaks thee, and/ My strong imagination sees a crown/ Dropping upon thy head.” The audience views his sustained opportunism from his seizing of the dukedom. Further extending his evil characterization is his lack of remorse for his actions. Sebastian asks Antonio if his conscience bothers him, and Antonio replies, “Twenty consciences,/That stand ‘twixt me and Milan, candied by they,/And melt ere they molest!” meaning, ‘If there were twenty guilty consciences between me and the dukedom, they’d melt away before they bothered me.’ Sebastian’s initial incredulous responses, “thou speak’st out of thy sleep,” are a portrait of innocence against Antonio’s treachery, and the villainy of Antonio is extended further when he successfully convinces the hesitant Sebastian to take action and draw his sword.
In the previous scene, Act I, scene ii, Prospero sets the audience up for this characterization of a villainous Antonio by informing the reader of the story of Antonio’s usurpation. This is the only time in the play that the audience hears this story, so the fact that it is told by the one man who would speak most resentfully towards Antonio is critical in Antonio’s initial portrayal. Prospero paints Antonio as untrustworthy, in whom an “evil nature” was awakened at the opportunity to claim power. He accuses Antonio of winning over his allies and confidants, and thus accuses him of disloyalty, stating that Antonio’s treachery had grown to be “A falsehood… as great/As my trust was, which indeed had no limit.” Through such lines, Prospero weighs a more sympathetic picture of himself next to his negative portrait of Antonio. He speaks of his “confidence sans bound,” and his trustworthy nature. He also states that Antonio betrayed this trust while he, Prospero, was preoccupied with the “bettering of his mind,” through his study of books and art. The image of Prospero seeking worldly knowledge and trusting his surroundings enough to assume his societal status safe lends sympathy to his character and hardens the audience’s feelings towards Antonio.
It should be noted that in the same scene, Prospero recognizes that the “evil nature” that had arisen in Antonio might be attributed to the lack of attention he was paying to his duties as ruler. This recognition complicates the rendering of the villainy of Antonio and the victimization of Prospero. Prospero himself understands that his undoing might have been avoided if he had remained a consistent and steadfast ruler. However, since the audience has no visual example of Prospero as a negligent ruler, his predominant characterization is that of being strong and attentive; the fact that the usurpation took place before the play weakens his lack of past strength as duke. And at its core, Antonio remains rendered a thief since Prospero did not willingly give up his dukedom, despite the fact that he may have set himself up for its loss.
The natures by which the two characters lose their power at the end of the play complement the nature of their acquisitions; the virtue of the means by which Prospero and Antonio achieve their power is also reflected in how they give it away. Antonio does not give up his usurped power gracefully. He does not express any remorse for his actions. Indeed, his stony silence during Act V, scene I, the scene in which Prospero requests to be granted his title from Alonso again, can reflect both a sustained coldness towards Prospero and a fear of him, neither of which lends sympathy to his character. Contrastingly, upon regaining his Dukedom, Prospero eloquently lays his magic and his power over the island down by his own choice. He simply has no use for it anymore, and the manner of his speech that draws the most sympathy to his character. He admits that some of the use of his power would be considered “rough” and upon regaining his title, he will “break [his] staff,/ Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,/ And deeper than did ever plummet sound,/ [He’ll] drown [his] brook.” By renouncing the use of his magic to the extent that he does, stating that he will ‘throw his magic books deeper into the sea than any anchor ever sank,’ he exhibits the ability to throw away his cruelty and regain an upstanding character whose power does not rely on the abuse of slavery.
The nature of Prospero’s rule over Ariel and Caliban reflects that of a hard-hearted, cruel ruler. His outbursts, threats, physical pain, and ability to keep them bound to their debts indicate that his character might be depicted as a villain. However, the existence of another character, Antonio, who is respectively far more villainous than Prospero in his unremorseful thieving of the dukedom, softens the harshness of the oppression by which Prospero rules and lends sympathy to Prospero’s character, a victim of Antonio’s treachery. Such invoked sympathy towards Prospero is assisted by the grace in which he lays down his magic and iron rule over Ariel and Caliban, and by Antonio’s lack of grace in the loss of his power. Even though both good and evil reside in Prospero’s character, the extent of the evil that resides in Antonio pales the evil that lies in Prospero and renders him a victim.
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