Prospero – A Case for Magic

Who is Prospero?

Is he a villain of The Tempest for owning slaves and practicing magic, or is he rather a noble hero because he uses his magic to help others rather than himself?

First off, Prospero is a mysterious character;he rarely ever makes the reasons for his actions explicitly known. However, his great love for his daughter, Miranda, seems to be a key motivator for many of his actions. I see it as one of the main reasons that he took hold of the chance offered him by “Providence” and caused the shipwreck of the king and company. Some see this action as selfish, they believe that it evidences Prospero’s selfishness and they argue that he uses his magic to gain power over others. I do not see it this way though for several reasons.

First, Prospero did study books (magic in this play is closely linked with “book knowledge”) back while he was still Duke of Milan. However, he is not mentioned to have actually practiced any magic at this time.  This seems to indicate that he did have a knowledge of magic, but he deliberately chose not to use it until he was exiled.

Once he was exiled, his magic was virtually the only means available to him of providing any hope of escape for him or his daughter.  From the play, we learn that he gradually used his magic powers to kill Caliban’s mother, and eventially enslave Caliban as well as Ariel. This act of slave ownership has often been used to argue against Prospero. However, in Caliban’s case, Prospero first tried to teach Caliban language and he even took Caliban into his own house and treated him very well. Only after Caliban rebelled did Prospero enslave him, and perhaps he did this to ensure the safety of Miranda. With Ariel, Prospero did not have as much reason to enslave him as Caliban, yet Prospero does keep his word and set Ariel free at the play’s end. I think that maybe there was some benefit for Ariel in being Prospero’s slave.

Prospero seems to be much more concerned with reconcilation than revenge.  He does not kill or harm his enemies at all, he merely teaches them a lesson and restores his rightful property. I also believe he does this for Miranda’s sake. He wanted to give her a future, and if he did not have his dukedom, what would she have? He also seems to be very concerned with making sure that her husband was a man of good character and faithful affections. Prospero’s magic is used to effect good in people, not evil.

Yet his magic can only go so far. There is an interesting parallel between Prospero and God. Prospero is given a god-like power, but he is still under another’s authority. He could not cause the ship to come to his island, he could only make the most of the opportunity when “Providence” provided it. And he cannot change anyone’s soul like God could. Caliban is a perfect example of this. Despite Prospero’s efforts, his evil nature persisted.

One of the strongest reasons that I view Prospero as a hero rather than a villain is his action at the play’s end.  He chooses to get rid of his magic book, and so give up his magic. This indicates that once his purpose of reconciliation was accomplished, he gave up his magic to enjoy the rest of life. If he were power-hungry, why would he have abandoned his chance to have an advantage over other human beings in the earth?

His actions regarding magic seem to be a sort of “fairness doctrine.” While he is among other humans in Milan, he does not practice his magic. Only when he is alone on the island, and needs that advantage to restore his position in society, does he use his magic. Once he is restored back to society, he gets rid entirely of his magic. This self-control and seemingly purposeful use of magic indicates that Prospero has a good heart and that he uses his power for the benefit of others (especially his daughter) rather than himself.


2 Responses to “Prospero – A Case for Magic”

  1. Good analysis… well done… I love the play the Tempest.

  2. Thank you, Jeanette.
    I too enjoy this play.
    Is it your favorite Shakespeare play?

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