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The Tempest, Prospero and Shakespeare
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 Shakespeare. 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 identification, however, is moot.
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 age of fifty-two.
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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 creation. 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.
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 of the performances turned in by his actors and his own part in the play.
Shakespeare's plays were performed on an outdoor stage without lighting. Starting in the early afternoon, they had to be completed before sundown and many of theme require temporal precision in the entrances and exits of cast members and the use of special effects, e.g., the moaning of the ghost in Hamlet. That being so, both the amount of time elapsed and the occurrence of narrative events was crucial to the success of the performance. In his capacity as stage manager, Prospero is continuously concerned with time. At the very start of the play, Prospero says to Miranda that "The hour is now come/The very minute bids thee ope ear" (I, ii., ll.37-38) to the story of how they were shipwrecked together on the island a dozen years or more beforehand. The reason that it is time for Miranda to learn of her background (and it is remarkable that she has not asked about it sooner) lies in dramatic circumstance: it is time for Miranda to be told who she is because the miscreants who wronged her and her father are now in lace to repent of their misdeeds. Prospero repeatedly alludes to the need to keep his plans on schedule, uses the word "now" more than forty times a salient instances coming at the start of Act V, when he proclaims to Ariel and his audience, "Now does my project gather to a head," (V, i., l.1). Like an Elizabethan stage manager, Prospero controls the pace and flow of events, making sure that the proceedings occur within the allotted time period, in proper order, and at the exact moment in the story's progression. Nevertheless, the identification between Prospero and Shakespeare is not exact. For one thing, Prospero on the Island and in Milan, is an aristocrat, a noble bound by solemn obligation to rule over his subjects. Shakespeare, on the other hand, while honored by royalty never rose above the upper ranks of the Elizabethan middle-class. By the same token, Prospero has no commercial life, no concern with money or material gain. The same cannot be said of his creator, Shakespeare having extensive financial interests in real estate, commodity trading, and, above all, the theater itself.