The character of Prospero is one that many notable actors over the centuries have taken on, ever since Richard Burbage – the lead actor in Shakespeare’s company, who had also been his first Hamlet and first Richard III – took to the stage in 1611 and (probably) played the role of Prospero in the play’s earliest productions. Some of the most noteworthy Prosperos have included Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Michael Hordern, and even (in a slightly different version of the character) Helen Mirren. What makes Prospero, one of Shakespeare’s last great theatrical characters, such a celebrated role?
It was The Smiths who told us that there’s more to life than books, you know (but not much more). And Prospero’s development is on one level about a man realising that his books – symbolising his magic powers and his learning – are not the only, or even the best, route to wisdom, and that he must look outside to his daughter and others to learn self-awareness and respect. Prospero regains his dukedom at the end of the play, but this happy ending comes with the realisation that he must renounce his ‘rough magic’ if he is to be a good ruler. If we follow those critics and commentators who see Prospero as a representative for Shakespeare, with Prospero’s magic symbolising Shakespeare’s theatrical art (and ‘art’ is used in the play to describe Prospero’s magic powers), then it’s tempting to see the play as a statement about the mutual incompatibility of the world of the theatre and the world outside the theatre. Prospero was only usurped from his dukedom in the first place because Antonio noticed Prospero was neglecting his public office in favour of spending his time studying and practising magic. Prospero comes to realise, in the course of The Tempest, that to be a good duke he needs to renounce his magic. We talk metaphorically about ‘the magic of theatre’, but there is a case for reading Prospero’s character biographically in light of Shakespeare’s own withdrawal from the theatre, in favour of more involvement in other aspects of his life (his family back home in Stratford, and his business ventures: it’s a myth that Shakespeare packed up his things and left London for good in 1611 following the staging of The Tempest, and in 1614 he actually bought a gatehouse in the former Blackfriars priory in London, proving that he didn’t entirely sever his ties with the capital in his last years).
However, to view Prospero solely in biographical terms, as Shakespeare’s stand-in, would be to read Prospero’s character, and the significance of his magic, too narrowly. For Prospero’s character also grows in wisdom and humanity over the course of the play: he seems to realise that human relationships are more important than his books of magic. What’s more, his magic, whilst powerful, cannot enable him to control everything: Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand without magical assistance, and even if Ariel’s enchanting music is what lures Ferdinand ashore, it is not what attracts him to Miranda when he meets her. Love is just as powerful as a magic spell in this case.
Prospero’s development as a man over the course of The Tempest is his growing sense of his own limitations, and the need to rein in his power (symbolised, again, by his magical abilities) at appropriate moments. He has everything on the island under his control thanks to his magic, but Miranda is becoming a grown woman (she is fifteen at the time of the play). At the same time, Shakespeare presents Prospero sympathetically: he is no irrational tyrant, and the revelation early on in the play that Caliban once tried to rape Miranda provides justification for his protectiveness towards his only daughter. Nevertheless, in I.2 his treatment of both Ariel and Caliban is heavy-handed, and Prospero displays little sympathy towards them.