Believed to have been written between 1610 and 1611, The Tempest is one of the last plays that Shakespeare composed. The play follows a set of characters stranded in a remote island after the ship they were traveling in falls victim to a storm. The protagonist, Prospero, is a rightful Duke who is in a leadership struggle with his brother, Antonio. In the island, he faces resistance from Caliban who claims ownership to the remote island. Having been born in the island, Caliban believes that he is its rightful ruler while Prospero is of the idea that he should continue to rule as the Duke and Caliban his servant as was the case back in Naples. Both these characters are complex and intriguing as their powerful and tender sides are demonstrated over the course of the play.
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Prospero assumes a tough demeanor in an effort to protect his rightful position from his brother. The Duke and other royalties find themselves in the island as a consequence of his brother’s attempted usurper. Antonio views Prospero as an unworthy Duke as he spent a significant amount of his time pursuing knowledge as opposed to leading his people (1.2.66-70). For this reason, he believes that he would make a better Duke and plans to usurper the position from him. With the help of Alonso, the King of Naples, Antonio sabotages their trip back from Tunis where they went to marry off the latter’s daughter. After learning of his brother’s scheme, Prospero uses every resource available to him to defend his and his daughter’s life, as well as his rightful position as the Duke (1.2.17-20). Being away from the Dukedom, the only resources at his disposal were the book left to him by Gonzalo and his knowledge of magic. Therefore, he leverages these tools to help him and his daughter survive in the island.
In the process, some characters become pawns in his grand scheme, namely Ariel and Ferdinand. Using his knowledge of magic, Prospero frees Ariel from a spell cast on him by Caliban’s mother who had since passed away. As a result, Ariel becomes indebted to Prospero. With Ariel at his command, Prospero gains access to supernatural powers that he ultimately uses to defeat his rivals and advance his agenda. Apart from securing his Dukedom from Antonio, he uses Ariel’s power his power on Caliban and Ferdinand. In the island, Caliban resists the forced servitude imposed to him by Prospero. In response, Prospero orders Ariel to taunt him from time to time. For the case of Ferdinand, Prospero again resorts to supernatural powers to help him prevent Ferdinand from untying the virgin knot of Miranda, despite agreeing to their union. To achieve this, Prospero accuses Ferdinand of falsifying his title as the Prince of Naples. In turn, this provokes a sword fight between the two, and Prospero successfully leads Ferdinand to a prison using charms where he locks him up away from Miranda (1.2.478-483). Ariel too experiences unfair treatment from Prospero in various occasions. To begin with, Prospero exercised autocracy over Ariel as he was his captive and servant. Therefore, he expected Ariel to complete various tasks for him before he could grant him his freedom. However, Prospero became mad whenever Ariel would remind him about his promise and commence to reprimand him. Additionally, he would often remind him of the situation where he saved him from, thus the obligation to serve him without complains for the agreed upon duration (1.2.243-245).
On the other hand, his warm side is visible through his relationship with his daughter Miranda, and his apology for his actions during the final monologue of the play. Towards the end of the play, he asks for forgiveness, forgives his enemies and demonstrates his love for Miranda by doing what is good for her. His intentions with Ferdinand and Miranda provide an early insight into what type of a person Prospero is. Prospero is happy that his daughter has met and fallen in love with Ferdinand. However, he wants to preserve his daughter’s purity until they are officially married. Being stuck in an island where Miranda is the only female makes is task a challenging one. Therefore, his only option was to imprison Ferdinand for a while to keep the two love birds from illegally consummating their relationship. With time, he gets the two to promise that they will not untie the virgin knot until they go through with the wedding. Once they agree, he allows them to spend time with each other with his blessings (5.1.175). Additionally, despite the fact that he knew about the plans against him by Antonio and Alonso, he forgives them even after defeating them. In addition, he allows Alonso’s son to marry his beloved daughter. Alonso thought that he had lost his son Ferdinand in the tempest. In response, Prospero tells him that he has also lost his daughter, a statement that alluded to their engagement and future wedding. With regard to Caliban, Prospero bids Ariel to release him and the other people he was with, namely Trinculo and Stephano, after they steal his clothes while on a drunken spree (5.1.316-325). In doing this, his previously cruel actions become justified, enabling him to win over the audience.
Caliban, the other important character in the play, also helps shape the plot through his actions. He is portrayed as a drunk and violent monster for the most part of the play. Also, he conspires to murder the Duke and take over the leadership of the island, hence the rivalry between the two. Back in Naples, Caliban had always been a servant of the Duke. For this reason, both Prospero and Miranda view his decision to rebel against the Duke’s directives as lack of gratitude (1.2.360-365). As a result, Caliban takes his rebellion further, to the point of conspiring with Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero. Here, his actions show a lust for power similar to that demonstrated by Prospero’s brother, Antonio. Caliban transforms from an obedient and grateful servant to someone who believes to be an equal to the Duke once they get on the island (Hulme 237). His lust and desire for power makes him contemplate killing a man who once provided him with shelter and food. As the play continues to develop, Caliban further shows his dark side. Physically, Caliban has the form of a monster. Therefore, he plays into his outward appearance whenever he plans and execute an evil plan. For instance, he attempts to rape and impregnate Miranda. Such actions make it hard for the viewer to empathize with him. This coupled with his initial efforts to dethrone Prospero make Caliban an actual monster in the eyes of the audience.
However, as the play goes on, we learn the rationale for Caliban’s actions, which mitigate the monster image he is initially associated with. To begin with, he is truly the first inhabitant of the island, making his claim defensible. The playwright explains that Caliban is the son of a dead witch who lived in the island. Therefore, among the people with whom he was stuck in the island with, Caliban was the only native. Moreover, the island was completely uninhabited when the boat crushed there, making Caliban the only living native. This explains his disregard for Prospero’s rule and the subsequent need to establish his sovereignty over the island. Caliban believed that the island was beyond Prospero’s jurisdiction as Duke. Instead, he had the most right to rule over the island than any individual there at that particular time, or alive for that matter. Therefore, he was not obliged to continue serving Prospero as he would have been back at Naples (Hulme 243). For this reason, he believed that the right thing to do was to make his rightful claim on the island. To achieve, Caliban saw it necessary to kill Prospero who was the authority figure in charge of the island at that time. In other words, Prospero was the only thing between him and his ambition to rule over his native home. With this in mind, one can begin to understand that Caliban’s actions did not come from a bad place. Instead, he saw it as a duty to take over the leadership of the island since he was the sole survivor. His sense of duty extended beyond leadership as he wanted to re-populate the island. It is this thought that inspired him to almost rape Miranda. Caliban wanted to have intercourse with Miranda to impregnate her so that their offspring would become a new generation of natives to the island. In his heart, he did not have any intentions of harming Miranda (Slights 357). Caliban’s decent side could, thus be seen after understanding his duty to the island. In some cases, his words and actions contradicted his monstrous exterior. His eloquent speech about the island is one such example as it shows that he is an articulate individual and not entirely a monster. Therefore, Caliban is not an ungrateful and violent monster as were made to understand by Prospero and Miranda. His actions are motivated by an innate sense of duty to the island as he has a legitimate claim to its leadership.
The same issues that Shakespeare addressed in the play are interestingly seen during the production carried out by prisoners which was effectively dubbed “Shakespeare Behind Bars”. The inmates cast to play the specific parts from the play relate with the characters and overall theme of the play to an astounding extent. For instance, Hal, the inmate playing Prospero has various striking similarities with the actual Prospero from the book. To begin with, Hal has a daughter whom he loves very much, just like Prospero loved his daughter Miranda. The mother of his daughter while she was still very young, thus she has essentially grown without knowing her. In the play, Miranda’s mother is not even mentioned, alluding that she also did not get to know her for one reason or another. Therefore, both Hal and the character he plays in the production are the key parental figures in the lives of their children. This provides Hal with a unique insight into an important aspect of his character, which ultimately helps him portray him to the best of his ability.
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Another interesting aspect in the two characters is the fact that Hal and Prospero both deal with remorse in their lives. Hal is in prison because he killed his wife. During the documentary, he admits that he deeply regrets killing his wife for a number of reasons, among them being that he took away a mother from a child. Also, Hal is repentant due to the immorality of his actions, as society does not condone murder. This is reminiscent of Prospero who does various things which he later sincerely apologizes for. As discussed, he regrets having to conjure Ariel’s supernatural powers to aid him with the defense of his position Dukedom against his brother and his conspirators. Similarly, he asks for the forgiveness of his daughter and her fiancé after wrongfully imprisoning Ferdinand in the hopes of protecting Miranda’s honor.
Played by Big G, Caliban’s character also demonstrates a similar pattern. Although the two are not highly similar in terms of appearance and personality traits, Big G takes it upon himself to understand his character in order to identify with his actions and motivations. While being interviewed for the documentary, he provides an accurate description of his understanding of Caliban, a factor which serves as an important foreshadow to his execution of the role. Despite both individuals being huge, Big G admits that Caliban’s savagery was extreme. Caliban is uneducated and has a monstrous appearance. Therefore, people expect him to act in rage and violence. Big G equates Caliban’s character to that of the average inmate present at the yard. He goes further to liken some aspects of his situation to that of Caliban as he also succumbed to what he thought to be his nature, ultimately landing him in prison. For example, he started selling drugs at a young age and engaged the police in a gun battle, shooting and killing one of them. Now that he has grown and mature, he laments at his mistakes and is willing to undergo the necessary rehabilitation needed to atone for his error.
In conclusion, Shakespeare uses characters who are equally complex and with different motivations to explore human nature. The same is evident today as seen in the documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars” where inmates learn to give and receive empathy by evaluating their actions and how they impact their victims, friends and family. Although every inmate that landed a role in the production gains a positive outlook on their situation and life in general, Hal and Big G who play Prospero and Caliban respectively, are individually affected and consequently impact the entire production team by their understanding and representation of the main characters. This is because they are the main characters through which the themes of the play are advanced, especially the theme that is most relatable to their plight, repentance. As people who have committed various types of crimes, the play helps them to process and deal with their actions and resulting consequences in unique and personal ways such as asking for forgiveness, forgiving those they believe have wronged them, and forgiving themselves.
- Hulme, Peter. "Prospero and Caliban." The Tempest: Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings and Appropriations, 2004, pp. 233-249.
- Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. The Tempest. Cambridge :Harvard University Press, 1958.
- Slights, Jessica. “Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare's Miranda.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 41, no. 2, 2001, pp. 357–379. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1556193.
- Shakespeare Behind Bars. Directed by Hank Rogerson, performance by A Theatre Troupe in Prison, Philomath Films, 2005. Independent Television Site, Kanopy. https://sanmateo.kanopy.com/video/shakespeare-behind-bars-0
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