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After years of writing plays of history, tragedy, grand comedy and dramatic romance, William Shakespeare emerged from his darker writing of the past into the lighter, more peaceful style of his play “The Tempest.” This was Shakespeare’s last complete play, and, just as he bid farewell to the art he had so mastered, his principal character Prospero departs from his artful magic on the island he omnisciently controls. While Prospero’s early actions against his foes echo the ideas of a vengeful god, he strives to educate more than to correct. He portions out the justice he carries out with mercy, even when his enemies are delivered directly into his divine power, and, by doing so, proves to be the master of himself, embodying the qualities expected of a good ruler.
Prospero’s omnipresence during the play is one the more obvious physical signs that he is in control of all his surroundings. The right Duke of Milan, he was exiled with his daughter, Miranda, to a remote island twelve years prior to the play’s beginning by his usurping brother Antonio, only surviving with the help of the good-hearted advisor Gonzalo. With the help of his spirit servant Ariel, Prospero stirs up a storm to beach a passing ship containing Alonso, king of Naples, who aided Antonio’s usurpation, his brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, and Antonio himself, so he may confront them. Ferdinand is separated from the rest, is thought to be drowned, and courts Miranda, is put to the test by Prospero, and ultimately marries her. Ironically, Antonio coaxes Sebastian to plot to depose Alonso while they are being punished on the island because of usurpation. Prospero’s deformed slave Caliban encounters two lower members of Alsonso’s court, Trinculo the jester and Stephano the drunken butler and the three foolishly plot to win control of the island, under the unblinking eye of Prospero, who punishes them through Ariel’s trickery. In the end, all are brought before Prospero who forgives all, but reclaims his Dukedom, and releases Ariel and Caliban from his control. He renounces his magical powers and returns to Italy having learned the virtues of self-mastery from his exile.
Prospero’s character is portrayed as entirely good throughout the play, using his magic only to achieve positive ends such as education. He is one with his environment as he has developed superior intellectual powers, now realizing that he marked himself to be ousted by his distance from everyday affairs.
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