This is the second of a series of blogs on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, blogs will be posted both here and at Finding Shakespeare on Fridays.
For me as a reader The Tempest is most fascinating for the relationship portrayed between its 3 key protagonists; Prospero – The deposed Duke of Milan, now stranded on this island, whose study of magic has given him certain powers, Caliban – Prospero’s unwilling slave who claims that the island is really his, and, Ariel – a spirit who Prospero commands to help with his magic but who is also forcibly kept by Prospero.
At first glance the relationship between these three might seem simple, Prospero is the master who has two servants, one who is good (Ariel) and one who is bad (Caliban). However we also face a number of questions. How good a master is Prospero? How willing a helper is Ariel? How do they have power over eachother?
Traditionally, up until about 50 years ago Prospero was considered a benign ruler who had done what he could to reform the naturally evil Caliban and who had a nice avuncular relationship with Ariel. However, more recently Prospero has been portrayed as the cruel power hungry master who enslaved Caliban simply because he did not understand him and whose relationship with Ariel is exploitative or even abusive. But this is to polarize what is really, it seems to me, a much more complex relationship.
Prospero enslaves Caliban and keeps him subjugated by the use of magic to frighten or subdue him. However his need to do this may stem from his fear of Caliban, a virile young male whose sexuality is focused on his daughter. A figure of physical strength who Prospero knows would overthrow or kill him if he could. Prospero may be ‘brains’ but Caliban is ‘brawn’ and brawn at that who knows how to survive in the harsh island environment.
Ariel is also in thrall to Prospero who keeps the spirit doing his bidding by threatening to return him to the suffering from which he came. However for a slave Ariel also has power over Prospero. Firstly it is unclear how powerful Prospero’s magic is without Ariel to execute it, secondly Ariel is the more humane of the two. It is Ariel who reminds Prospero that forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance and, as he does in fact turn Prospero from his course of revenge it is the slave here who directs his master.
One can analyse and complicate the relationship between them all in a myriad of different ways for instance, how about Prospero as a the troubled soul whose divided nature is represented by Caliban and Ariel played not as individual characters but as integrated parts of Prospero’s psyche. Or is relagating an individual to an expression of another man’s psychology the ultimate in enslavement?
If you enjoyed this go to Finding Shakespeare to find out more and enjoy the slide show below which shows some of the ways these characters have been represented on stage.