Argumentative Essay On Power In The Tempest

Type of paper: Argumentative Essay

Topic: Island, Power, Shakespeare, Education, People, Literature, Ruler, Drive

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/12/20

Within The Tempest, the relationships between master and servant are the primary expression of power. Prospero, for example, is the master of both Ariel and Caliban. However, Prospero treats the two servants differently, which in part motivates Caliban to adopt Stefano as a new master. Ariel agrees to be “correspondent to command and do [his] spiriting gently” (I.ii.435-437). However, Caliban has not materially changed his situation, as he is merely swapping one master out for another when he tells Stefano that he can govern the island if he kills Prospero. He drunkenly sings, “Cacaliban has a new master: get a new man. Freedom, hey-day!” (II.ii.1267) to celebrate the potential change. Indeed, Caliban is one of the more problematic characters in the story. He is the indigenous character from the island in the play, and it is easy to compare him to the native peoples whom the British (and other European powers) disturbed and displaced as they started establishing colonies throughout the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Caliban is strident in insisting that Prospero has taken the island away from him. In a way, this makes Caliban’s situation analogous to that of Prospero, whose sway over Milan was taken from him by Antonio. This makes Caliban’s plot with Trinculo and Stephano to slay Prospero not all that dissimilar from Antonio and Sebastian’s conspiracy to drive out Prospero and later to undermine Alonso. Caliban is just as defiant to Prospero as Prospero was apparently nonresponsive to Antonio’s stratagem. Caliban stands up to Prospero; one wonders what the interactions between Prospero and Antonio were like before Prospero left Milan. Ultimately, though, he becomes a mockery of himself. At the start of the play, he reminds Prospero of the ways in which he familiarized Prospero with the island upon his arrival. It only takes Caliban a few scenes to hit rock bottom, though, as he gets really drunk with Stephano, even offering to lick Stephano’s shoe. When Caliban makes his final stand, he ends up having to clean Prospero’s cell. This decline masks Caliban’s more sensitive side, which appears when he talks about the beauty of his island. In situations involving the exercise of power, native and indigenous beauty often goes by the wayside, and that is exactly what happens here.
As the play unfolds, multiple characters reveal what they would do if they were only in charge of the island. Gonzalo imagines a society in which people mutually respect one another. Caliban’s dream is to “people the isle with Caliban’s” (I.ii.501) while Stefano wants to pull a Richard III and simply kill anyone in his way. This scheming dates all the way back to the first inhabitation of the island. When Sycorax arrived from Algiers to colonize the island, she and Caliban (her son) performed some evil deeds. Prospero, who was exiled by his brother Antonio, who “made such a sinner of his memory” (I.ii.189) usurped Prospero’s rightful role as the Duke of Milan, made it to the island and promptly made everyone his slaves, spurring a colonial struggle that mirrors the issues that Great Britain faced as it developed a colonial empire of its own. While Prospero resigned himself to his fate, telling himself that his “library was dukedom large enough” (I.ii.109) to satisfy himself, he also enjoyed enslaving the people on the island. The pursuit of knowledge, of course, is what causes many of Prospero’s woes. When he was still the duke, the time he spent in the library gave Antonio the opportunity he needed to start a rebellion against him. While this does not make Antonio a sympathetic character, it does show that Prospero demonstrated a definite weakness in the practice of exercising power,
Prospero is indeed one of the most complex protagonists in all of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is true that Antonio took his rightful place in Milan, but now that Prospero has found a way to exercise total power over the others in the play, he has lost a great deal of the sympathy that he otherwise might have earned (Morrison 81). When he first appears in the play, he comes across as nothing but pompous, and as the play proceeds, he comes across as someone that the people of Milan were likely to have been glad to see run out of town on a rail (Lee 204). The fact that he keeps telling Miranda to pay attention to him makes him even less interesting. The fact that he has learned the skills of magic makes him a powerful character, but it also makes the reader wonder why he did not turn those powers against Antonio. Perhaps the ability to have an entire island to himself, without any potential usurpers in his world, are what drew him away from Milan. Now that he has magic, though, he does not relax in his power, as a confident omnipotent man might. Instead, he is a vengeful and petty ruler. When Caliban curses, Prospero has ordered his spirits to pinch him. When Ariel reminds Prospero that Prospero promised to let him out of his work early if he performed them with a good attitude, Prospero throws a fit and threatens to send him back to confinement and torture. When he encounters Ferdinand, instead of being pleasant, he takes Ferdinand to his daughter and then makes him a slave, confining him (Messer and Patton 23).
For better or worse, though, Prospero is the center of the play’s narrative. It is his spells, stratagems and machinations that drive the story toward its eventual happy ending. Seeing Prospero at work is much like watching a person standing high above a stage, dandling marionettes above the stage below. The marionettes, of course, are the other characters, and the puppeteer is sending them through their motions, already knowing the coming events and having their future in his mind. Prospero has his own concepts of justice and goodness that are more idealistic than one might expect from his pompous, almost cynical presentation early in the play. Prospero is the closest one gets to seeing a creator at work in Shakespeare’s plays. While Hamlet sets matters in motion with the play-within-the-play in order to confirm the guilt of Claudius, he does not write that play, and he does not drive the action. If anything, the poisoned sword that Laertes holds proves that point. Prospero remains above the entire action, driving it toward the end that he wants. That is the ultimate power at play in the story. In fact, Prospero compares himself to a playwright in the last speech, even asking for applause from the audience. The closing of the narrative does make Prospero more sympathetic, because the audience can see what his ends are. He has forgiven Antonio, he truly loves his daughter, and he wants the best for everyone, despite the iffy means that he uses to bring things about.
Gonzalo, over the course of the play, shows some of the characteristics that an ideal king would possess, such as fealty, honesty and compassion. In his speech during Act V, his words about the miracle of reconciliation show the joy of the idealist whose beliefs have been justified. He is the first to notice how beautiful the island is when the group lands on the island. His ability to talk about such matters with rhetorical beauty and power shows that he feels deeply about significant matters. He stands in stark contrast to the ways of Caliban and Prospero throughout the play, and one wonders why he has not had the chance to exercise power; perhaps it is a curse of excess reticence. Indeed, by showing the viewer three different prototypes for a king (Prospero, the omnipotent, cruel ruler; Caliban, the hereditary native; and Gonzalo, the idealist), Shakespeare places before the audience the question as to which type of ruler is best. While Ferdinand and Miranda end up in charge, a valid question is whether they will be able to manage things as well as any of the other three would have.

Works Cited

Lee, Charlotte. "'Durch Wunderkraft Erschienen': Affinities between Goethe's Faust and
Shakespeare's The Tempest." Modern Language Review 107.1 (2012): 198-210.
Messer, Tasha, and Cynthia Patton. "Feminist Analysis: A History of Patriarchy and Covert
Rebellion in The Tempest." The Best of ESU (2013): 23.
Morrison, James. Shipwrecked: Disaster and Transformation in Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, and
the Modern World. University of Michigan Press, 2014.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.

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