There can be no doubt that The Tempest contains numerous referencesto the theater, and while many of Shakespeare’s plays make reference to the dramatic arts and their analogy to real life (e.
g., “all the world’s a * stage”),it is in this, his last play, that the Bard most explicitly acknowledges that theaudience is viewing a show. Thus, in the play’s final scene (Act I, scene i., ll.148ff),Prospero tells his prospective son-in-law Ferdinand that the revels at hand are almost at an end, that the actors areabout to retire, and that the “insubstantial pageant” of which he has beena part has reached its conclusion.
It is, in fact, tempting to equate thecharacter of Prospero with that of his creator, the playwrightWhen Prospero sheds his magician’s robes in favor of his civilian attireas the Duke of Milan, with the benefit of hindsight that this isShakespeare’s last work and his crowning achievement, we are disposed to associate thelearned sorcerer with the Bard of Avon. How far we are to take thisProspero of The Tempest, like Shakespeare in his late Romance period, is amature man with a daughter (Shakespeare, in fact, had two daughters, hisonly son dying in childhood) at the height of his intellectual andcreative powers. Prospero is a polymath, a scholar with a magic book from an entirelibrary that so absorbed him that it was, “dukedom large enough” (I, ii.l.110). Prospero displays a tinge of regret for having neglected hisworldly office as Duke of Milan in favor of the life of the mind. Similarly, asvirtually all of Shakespeare’s biographers have observed, the Elizabethanplaywright’s knowledge was exceedingly broad, leading many to speculatethat he pursued a number of vocations before settling into a life in thetheater, and we know from textual correspondences that Shakespeare was broadly readand that he continued to absorb knowledge from diverse publications until hisdeath.
We can also speculate that Shakespeare regretted remaining awayfrom his home in Stratford, at least insofar as his career in London kepthim away from his children. Lastly, following The Tempest, Shakespeare,like Prospero, retired to civilian life, there being a period of five or sixyears between his composition of that play and his untimely death at theBeyond these surface biographical parallels, Prospero’s role is less thatof a character than that of the imaginative or creative force behind the playitself. After the pageant of the goddesses who bless the union of Mirandaand Ferdinand, Prospero explains that the effigies which they have seenare “Spirits, which by mine art/I have from their confines call’d to enact/Mypresent fancies” (IV, i., ll.120-121). Prospero underscores that what istaking place in the play is under his control and is, in fact, hisThus, when Miranda worries about the fate of those exposed to theshipwreck at the start of the play, her father reassures her that despite theappearances of disaster, none of the boat’s passengers or crew have beenharmed in the least. Like the playwright/director/producer thatShakespeare was, Prospero remains in the background.
Rather than confront the “threesinners” directly, he assigns the task of telling Alonso, Antonio, andSebastian why they have been brought to the island and of their need torepent to Ariel, the magician remaining hidden from their view.We gain the sense that Prospero performs multiple functions in the theaterof his own creation. Among these roles is that of critic. Prosperorepeatedly assesses the performance of his actors.
Thus¸ in Act III, sceneiii, he says to Ariel, “Bravely the figure of this harpy hastthou/Perform’d, my Ariel” (III, iii., ll.81-82), He also places Ferdinandin the role of a traitor/lackey and judges the young man’s performance ofthat part as a means of determining his worthiness to wed Miranda. To hiscredit, Prospero also critiques his own direction, apologizing to Ferdinand forinflicting punishments upon him that may have seemed too austere (IV, i.,ll.1-2).
Like Shakespeare, then, Prospero’s relation to the theater ismulti-dimensional; he is an actor in the play, he is the creator of itsmost spectacular scenes and its over-arching dramatic lines, he is the directorof others, and, lastly, he acts as critic