In the play “The Tempest”, Shakespeare introduces us to several different characters, each identified individually with their contrasting attitudes, nature and prior circumstances that have brought them to a deserted isle in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. Shakespeare creates characters that exemplify the relationship between human nature and contemporary civilization and the distinction between men and monsters.
The character of Caliban is known to its complexity and numerous aspects, depths and sides to it. Caliban, the only native of the island is a vulgar, malice slave that is often referred to a beast. He is the son of the witch Sycorax and his Father is unknown, hence associated with the devil and he was said to be “littered” on the island, a word generally used to describe the birth of animals. Shakespeare describes Caliban as a pure product of nature, of whom he is uncontrolled, wild, savage, innocent and uncorrupted by the influence of civilization. He is uneducated, untrained and uncivilized, a creature of the earth, being almost literally dug out of the ground.
Caliban used to own the island, however, was naïve enough to allow a foreigner (Prospero) to enter his most valued occupation and abduct it from him. Caliban and Prospero appear to have had an affectionate relationship, through Prospero educating him and offering him a shelter in his own cave, an intimate favor demonstrating compassion and abundant generosity as well as Caliban showing him all the parts of the island. Caliban takes Prospero’s affection for granted and underestimates Prospero’s power and magic, accordingly acts in an aggressive manner in an attempt to rape Miranda.
This causes the reader to be repulsed by his disgusting behavior, almost sensing animosity that Caliban does not display the minimal appreciation of Prospero’s considerable kindness. At this point, the reader can easily understand why Prospero treats him so poorly, and almost feel as if he deserves to be treated in such way, that he was not accounted and aware of the consequences that accompany such action and therefore had brought his situation upon himself. Consequently, the question remains, if Caliban had controlled his impulses, and held back his barbarous instincts, would he really had found himself in a better- off situation, or is being mistreated a part of his nature and fate?
Prospero is the ousted Duke of Milan who has been living in exile on a remote island for the past twelve years (yikes). He's also a powerful magician, father of Miranda, master of Ariel and Caliban, and a guy who really likes his books.
Throughout the play Prospero uses his magic to whip up a dramatic storm, to put on a dazzling wedding entertainment, to bully his servants, to manipulate his enemies, and to orchestrate his daughter's marriage to the Prince of Naples.
In other words, our favorite magician is a pretty powerful guy and quite the control freak. (We might have some control issues too if our own brother stabbed us in the back and stole our dukedom before we were set adrift at sea.)
Still, before Prospero landed on the island, his devotion to the study of magic got him into big trouble. While Prospero's nose was buried in his extensive library, his snaky brother managed to steal his title ("Duke of Milan") and get him thrown out of Italy. So, before Prospero was physically isolated on the isle, he did a pretty good job of isolating himself socially by making his "art" (magic) his number one priority. Hmm. Is Shakespeare trying to tell us something about the dangers of letting one's devotion to mastering his craft consume him?
Prospero's Art = Shakespeare's Art?
If you think Shakespeare is suggesting that being an artist makes for a lonely life, then you'll probably want to think about whether or not Prospero is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself.
How does this work, exactly? Well, Prospero uses magic to manipulate and dazzle, just like Shakespeare. A lot of literary critics think Prospero manipulates the action of The Tempest like a skillful director. (We talk a lot more about this in "Quotes: Art and Culture.")
Plus, when Prospero renounces his magic, Shakespeare knows The Tempest is the last play he will write alone. As the sorcerer Prospero breaks his staff, Shakespeare puts down his pen and it's as though he's speaking about his own retirement from the theater when Prospero says, "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own" (Epilogue). He asks only that we appreciate what he's done, and humbly takes his leave of us to disappear quietly, letting his words work magic long after he has gone.
From Bitter Old Man to Merciful Human Being
But not everyone thinks of Prospero as a stand-in for Will Shakespeare. In fact, some audiences see Prospero as nothing but a bitter tyrant. He's taken Caliban's island in return for his own lost title, he manipulates his daughter, is cruel to Ferdinand and Caliban, and kind to Ariel only when the spirit is totally subservient. He also puts his enemies through all kinds of hell to gather them up so he can judge them.
Okay, fine. We're not arguing that Prospero has some serious issues. Still, we do want to point out a couple of things. Although Prospero does everything in his power to confront his enemies, he's no Titus Andronicus. (Instead of baking his enemies into a pie, for example, he just terrifies them a little bit while trying to teach them a lesson.) More importantly, instead of seeking the kind of blood-and-guts vengeance that could have turned The Tempest into a "tragedy," Prospero ultimately discovers that the capacity for mercy and forgiveness is what makes us human.
After learning about the shipwreck survivors' pitiful state, Prospero declares "the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (5.1.35-36). This is a pretty big deal, Shmoopsters. By this point in his career, Shakespeare made a name for himself writing bummer plays like Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, where violence and suffering are the names of the game.
Yet, in Prospero, Shakespeare creates a figure who decides to forgive his enemies even though they have betrayed in the worst possible way. Does this mean Shakespeare has gone soft on us by the time he pens what is most likely the last play he wrote entirely by himself? We'll leave that for you to decide.
P.S. If you want to know about Prospero's relationship with the "hag-born" whelp he stole the island from, check out "Characters: Caliban."Timeline