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The theme of power in the tempest

William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, estimated to have been written in 1610, it is a play largely focussed on the theme of power. Power manifests itself in “The Tempest” in many different ways, including the exploration of the power of love, the universal desire for power amongst men, the power of a master over his slave, and the power of magic and illusion. Although this is clear, critical interpretations on the theme of power have changed over time leaving us with the question of whether power in the play is represented as good or bad. Shakespeare presents these forms of power in different ways, mainly through the character of Prospero who appears to hold the majority of the power. The use of historical context and changes in critical interpretations over time allow us to explore this theme in depth, giving us a clearer idea of how Shakespeare presents the theme of power in “The Tempest”.

Although critical interpretation of “The Tempest” has changed dramatically over the past fifteen years, virtually all critics, writing before and after the shift occasioned by postcolonial theory, would agree that the play is centrally about control “specifically Prospero’s control over the island and everyone on it.”[1] Moreover “The change, then, lies mostly in whether this control is considered to be good (before) or bad (now).”[2]. Prospero’s magical powers allow him to take control of situations of slowly developing chaos. That he has powers over his surroundings far greater than those of an ordinary human, is incontestable, as is the fact that he uses them for good in the course of the play. However it remains to be asked whether Prospero combines his magic with power over the self, and whether because of this Shakespeare presents him as an ideal ruler. Prospero is clearly the central character in “The Tempest”, however critical interpretation of him has been divided by the question of whether he should be viewed with sympathy or not. This question draws in the other characters and Prospero’s treating of them, specifically Caliban and Ariel.

Although we are told of Prospero’s eviction from Milan by him, the way he tells his story conjures up distrust, Prospero is self pitying and it would appear he is unforgiving. The nature of his leadership in act one is not pleasant, however he does befriend Caliban and treat him as a member of the family. Prospero’s trust here is betrayed when Caliban attempts to rape Miranda. Although Prospero learns from his second betrayal, his apparently tyrannical state is revealed in his verbal abuse of Caliban and his threat to imprison Ariel again “till/ Thou hast howl’d away twelve winters” [Act1]. It is at this point we have to consider the purpose of Caliban’s character “Is he to be consider a monster representing humanity’s bestial side.... or has he rather to be looked at victim of an imperia tyrant, represented in Prospero..? [3]. When we see Caliban serving Stephano and Trinculo, we begin to realise Caliban is not evil in himself, seeing Caliban frightened and speaking of Prospero as a ‘tyrant, Shakespeare could be implying that the fault of alienating Caliban lies in Prospero’s failure to understand Caliban’s limitations and accept him whilst teaching him. Caliban can be viewed as both a victim and a villain, he is a victim in the sense that he was born deformed to a witch on and deserted island and then made to act as a slave by Prospero. Caliban’s speech in act one scene two explains that he had a great life until Prospero took over the island; this point addresses the colonization issues of the period as well as showing the island as a complicated place to live. There is no direct evidence of ‘rape’, however saying Miranda was the only female on the island practically supports the idea. Moreover Caliban as a ‘natural’ creature would not know of or understand English Renaissance society rules against sexual engagement. This draws in the bestial side of Caliban, however if this is the case then is he really to blame for his actions if they are based on natural instinct as those of an animal? If this is the case we can only blame Prospero, his ruler, who has not taught him well. However, although Prospero appears tyrannical at the beginning of the play, our impressions of him change by the end when we discover that while Prospero has punished Caliban he has constantly searched for an opportunity to educate him and has been waiting for the court party because he could not educate him alone. That being said Caliban’s accusation that Prospero is a tyrant is dismissed by us when Prospero accepts Caliban, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. Because of the later actions of Prospero it may in fact be the case that Shakespeare does not initially use Prospero’s power to represent him as good or a good ruler, rather that he develops him throughout the course of the play. Therefore while Prospero’s power may be his downfall in the sense that he uses it to the extreme, it can also be seen as his virtue. While older critical interpretations [4] view Caliban as either a symbol of uncivilised savage or human suffering, recent criticism has seen him as a reflection of Prospero’s conflicts and human attempts to understand reality. Berger noted “the parallels between Prospero and Caliban are clearly drawn, yet Prospero fails to notice them” [5]. In an introduction to the play, Stephen Orgel [6] has demonstrated that Prospero’s attitude towards Caliban represents his conflicting identity as a ruler. None the less Traister [7] has noted that Caliban represents not only Prospero’s limits but magic’s aswell, revealing that magic cannot alter a human soul, and that despite Prospero’s ambivalent feelings towards Caliban and the limitations he represents, the evolution of Propero’s relationship with Caliban is viewed as a symbol or Prospero’s movement towards the attempted resolution of inner conflict.

While Prospero punished Caliban for his treatment of Miranda we realise that Prospero’s relationship to his daughter Miranda is very significant to Prospero as a character; he is very protective over her and wishes for her to find the right man. As act one scene two opens we can immediately establish the relationship between Miranda and Prospero, she refers to him as “My dearest farther” as this scene unfolds we learn a lot about the two characters. Miranda continues to question her farther about the storm that he has made “you have out the wild waters this roar”, Miranda assumes that her father was capable of the ‘tempest’ and this instantly conveys that she does not have much trust for him. Prospero is a foil of his daughter, her kindness and innocence portray heart on the other hand, Prospero exclaims “Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done”. The theme of power is undeniably existent between the relationship of Miranda and Prospero, his power and control over Miranda is one that stands out continuously in the course of the play and she has to “obey and be attentive”. At first glance Prospero’s actions in causing the ‘tempest’ would appear evil and an act of his extreme use of power once again however, he later makes it clear that he loves his daughter and only wants to protect her “I have done nothing but care for thee- of thee my dear one”. Critics such as Sundleson [8] have analysed the play as a study in Prospero’s paternal powers. His anxiety over Miranda’s developing sexuality, such as in Caliban’s treatment of her, and the need to find a suitable man is seen as the motivation behind Prospero’s treatment of her.

Moreover, although he says his only care is to serve “of thee my dear one” we see after that Miranda is in fact serving him by taking his cloak off, giving an inclination of hypocrisy. Furthermore Prospero continues to use the power of love in Miranda’s decision to marry Ferdinand. Ferdinand and Miranda’s love is part of the theme of falling in love in ‘The Tempest’, their coming together is not a shock to Prospero and he tries to cool their sexual passions by making Ferdinand work for him, this instance is another act of Prospero asserting his power. Despite yet another act of power from Prospero it is undeniable that his intentions are only to protect his daughter, he wants to ensure that she remains pure. Nevertheless the forced labour of Ferdinand in the plot is far from strength and courage, they merely serve in relationship to the plot and represent Prospero delaying more of the characters from being happy.

The high focus on the relationship between Caliban and Prospero often over shadows the relationship between him and his daughter in earlier criticism. Miranda is initially viewed as an “object of exchange in Prospero’s schemes to regain his position and get back to the mainland” [9] this idea represents again Shakespeare’s theme of power, and how it was interpreted at an earlier time. Perhaps the early disregard to Miranda roots to the gender roles at the time, in the sense that women were seen as inferior to men, therefore she was not seen as important. More over in the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were mainly sentimental readings of ‘The Tempest’. William Hazlett for instance describes Miranda as a “goddess of the isle” and explains that “the courtship between Ferdinand and Miranda is one of the chief beauties in this play. It is the very purity of love” [10]. In a lot of early criticism and criticism of Hazlett’s time critics do not seem to mention Caliban and his attempted rape on Miranda, instead she is sought as a natural god like figure. Moving on to the twentieth century at the time the shift occasioned by postcolonial theory, these critics still emphasized the relationship between Prospero and Caliban and again Miranda appears to be often ignored or seen as irrelevant. Miranda according to many postcolonial critics was only important in ‘The Tempest’ to help realise her father’s goals. Despite these views it seems only natural that Miranda obeys and respects her father, Prospero certainly has power over her, and he saved her from Caliban. The conversation about Milan between Miranda and Caliban clearly shows that she does have her own will and that she is not silent in the play. Miranda’s intelligence is shown by her interruptions and specifically when she asks her father “Wherfore did they not / That hour destroy us?”. More importantly her relationship with Ferdinand provides us with the insight that Prospero does not have complete control over her, when she meets Ferdinand her father asks her to stay away from him, although he has power, he cannot control her feelings. Miranda explains to Ferdinand “The very instant that I saw you did My heat fly to your service” The relationship between the two reveals that she is not naive, therefore her personality is shown. None the less, the fact that Prospero cannot control Miranda’s feelings does not prevent him from asserting his power, in the sense that he does make Ferdinand labour for him to prevent their relationship from developing. Prospero’s actions of power here can be seen as caring, he only wants what’s best for his daughter and he does allow them to marry.

Prospero’s use of his magical powers in the play appears that he wants to punish others for his reconcile. The symbol of the tempest that begins the play and puts all of Prospero’s enemies at his disposal, symbolises the suffering he endured, and which he wants to inflict on others. Prospero feels that he must make his enemies suffer as he has suffered, so that they will learn from their suffering as he feels he has from. The tempest is a symbol of Prospero’s magic, and of the frightening potentiality of the perhaps evil side of his power. Prospero’s use of magic is clearly an illegitimate use of power in the play, and it can be argued that he often uses it for self indulgence and power of the self. Prospero’s magic is used throughout the course of the play as a result of his exile, like ‘The Tempest’ his magic books are a symbol of his power “for without them / He’s but a sot”. Prospero’s absolute power over the other characters and his unwrought speeches make him hard to like, Prospero indulges in his vain desire to show off his powers. Nevertheless through close analysis we need to keep track of the idea that Shakespeare did not intend for Prospero’s power to be entirely bad. It has to be noted that at the end of the play when Prospero gives up his powers Shakespeare clearly wanted us to see this as good. Some critics have been confused by Prospero’s decision to give up magic and argue that it is inconsistent to the rest of the play and its plot. At the beginning of the play Prospero describes his books as “volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” however, he then goes onto forgive his enemies that he wanted to make suffer and give up his “rough magic”. “Not only does this apparent inconsistency require resolving, but the exact relation between Prospero’s abjuring and his forgiving needs to be settled” [11]. Despite this argument with a further insight to the text Prospero giving up his magic can be witnessed as the final part of the development of his character. One who started out with perhaps bad intentions and flaws is seen as developing and could therefore act in benefiting an ideal ruler through his found control over himself.

Through the use of historical context, close analysis of the text and changes in critical interpretation we can make a judgement on what the theme of power actually represents for Prospero in ‘The Tempest’. Prospero’s many different types of power in the play can be seen as good and bad. The power of love between Prospero and his daughter is in some ways controlling yet underlined by his paternal instinct to protect her. Moreover Prospero appears largely flawed in his power of his slave Caliban, this is because he fails to teach him, however we later realise his intentions are good and that he did want Caliban to be taught. Finally his physical powers in being magic are perhaps his biggest downfall, having such powers makes him lack control over the self. Having said all this each part of Prospero’s powers appears to be a learning path in which his character develops. The power of his love over his daughter helps him to develop as a father and allow his daughter the freedom in marriage she deserves. The power over his slave teaches him to be less self indulgent and the fact that he does still want to help Caliban after his actions says that he is not completely vain. Moreover the ending of Prospero retiring from his magical powers represents Prospero’s development in becoming this ideal ruler, in order for him to do this, he must give up his “rough magic” and allow his power to come from the loyalty of his people.

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