Shakespeare and Prospero

There can be no doubt that The Tempest contains numerous references
to 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 the
audience 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 are
about to retire, and that the “insubstantial pageant” of which he has been
a part has reached its conclusion. It is, in fact, tempting to equate the
character of Prospero with that of his creator, the playwright
When Prospero sheds his magician’s robes in favor of his civilian attire
as the Duke of Milan, with the benefit of hindsight that this is
Shakespeare’s last work and his crowning achievement, we are disposed to associate the
learned sorcerer with the Bard of Avon. How far we are to take this
Prospero of The Tempest, like Shakespeare in his late Romance period, is a
mature man with a daughter (Shakespeare, in fact, had two daughters, his
only son dying in childhood) at the height of his intellectual and
creative powers. Prospero is a polymath, a scholar with a magic book from an entire
library that so absorbed him that it was, “dukedom large enough” (I, ii.

l.110). Prospero displays a tinge of regret for having neglected his
worldly office as Duke of Milan in favor of the life of the mind. Similarly, as
virtually all of Shakespeare’s biographers have observed, the Elizabethan
playwright’s knowledge was exceedingly broad, leading many to speculate
that he pursued a number of vocations before settling into a life in the
theater, and we know from textual correspondences that Shakespeare was broadly read
and that he continued to absorb knowledge from diverse publications until his
death. We can also speculate that Shakespeare regretted remaining away
from his home in Stratford, at least insofar as his career in London kept
him away from his children. Lastly, following The Tempest, Shakespeare,
like Prospero, retired to civilian life, there being a period of five or six
years between his composition of that play and his untimely death at the
Beyond these surface biographical parallels, Prospero’s role is less that
of a character than that of the imaginative or creative force behind the play
itself. After the pageant of the goddesses who bless the union of Miranda
and Ferdinand, Prospero explains that the effigies which they have seen
are “Spirits, which by mine art/I have from their confines call’d to enact/My
present fancies” (IV, i., ll.120-121). Prospero underscores that what is
taking place in the play is under his control and is, in fact, his
Thus, when Miranda worries about the fate of those exposed to the
shipwreck at the start of the play, her father reassures her that despite the
appearances of disaster, none of the boat’s passengers or crew have been
harmed in the least. Like the playwright/director/producer that
Shakespeare was, Prospero remains in the background. Rather than confront the “three
sinners” directly, he assigns the task of telling Alonso, Antonio, and
Sebastian why they have been brought to the island and of their need to
repent to Ariel, the magician remaining hidden from their view.

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We gain the sense that Prospero performs multiple functions in the theater
of his own creation. Among these roles is that of critic. Prospero
repeatedly assesses the performance of his actors. Thus¸ in Act III, scene
iii, he says to Ariel, “Bravely the figure of this harpy hast
thou/Perform’d, my Ariel” (III, iii., ll.81-82), He also places Ferdinand
in the role of a traitor/lackey and judges the young man’s performance of
that part as a means of determining his worthiness to wed Miranda. To his
credit, Prospero also critiques his own direction, apologizing to Ferdinand for
inflicting punishments upon him that may have seemed too austere (IV, i.,
ll.1-2). Like Shakespeare, then, Prospero’s relation to the theater is
multi-dimensional; he is an actor in the play, he is the creator of its
most spectacular scenes and its over-arching dramatic lines, he is the director
of others, and, lastly, he acts as critic


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