A ship is caught in a sudden storm. The master calls for his boatswain and instantly the boatswain is at his side, ready for orders: "Here master. What cheer?" "Good" says the master, and tells him to "speak to th'mariners" and save the ship. Then the master exits, leaving his deputy in charge. Almost immediately King Alonso, the other master, appears on deck. Alonso outranks the master of the ship, but with a land-based authority of no practical use in the storm. He gives an order, "Play the men", identical to the order the master just gave, but now redundant. The king and his aristocratic companions are not helping save the ship, they're only interfering, and putting everyone in more danger: "What cares these roarers for the name of king?" Angrily, the boatswain orders them to get below. Gonzalo takes this impertinence as a sign the boatswain is destined for hanging. He upholds the authority of his king, even though the king is clearly misusing his authority.
This clash between a deputy caught up in the pressing work of steering a ship through a storm, and a ruler in name only who is clumsily interfering with that work, shows two hierarchies, the official and the practical, in conflict. The absence of the master sets up a sharper contrast between the lowness of the boatswain and the highness of the king, giving more room for Gonzalo's desperate and tiresome, but endearing, joke in the face of death. When authority divides, into the ceremonial and the practical, the conflict between them can sink the ship. To survive, the ship needs one clear line of authority--an authority engaged in the practical, who knows what they're doing. This conflict on the ship echoes the conflict in Milan that led to Prospero's being marooned on a desert island. Prospero disengaged himself from the work of government, gave away his practical authority, and thereby lost it.
The tempest scene shows a legal authority, the king and his court, who in this situation are unfit to rule. If the danger were not so grave, the satire might be funnier. As it is, Gonzalo's joke, which he seems to appreciate more than anybody else, helps to signal that this is a comedy, and that everything is going to turn out all right. Throwing his characters immediately into a tempest gives Shakespeare a little leeway to make fun of kingly authority. It's a momentary undermining; yet as the story develops Alonso, and Antonio, give more evidence that those at the top of the social hierarchy don't always deserve their high positions. Whether a ruler will be worthy to rule appears to involve a certain amount of luck. The boatswain expresses the anger we can all feel when a proud and overconfident ruler messes up, and puts the ship of state in danger. Prospero can feel that anger too, even though he is a ruler guilty of neglect.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare's muse sings the rage of Prospero. From his first enraged recounting of Antonio's betrayal, Shakespeare shows Prospero as an angry old man. Not as old as Lear--still with power to rule the island--but on the whole, old--old enough to return to Milan giving "Every third thought" to his grave. The play might be seen, though it takes place over only a few hours, as a coming-of-old-age story. Prospero's anger, like his age, is a major quality of his character. He has other qualities too, that balance his anger. He can comfort Miranda, telling her that despite the tempest she saw, the sailors are undrowned and unharmed. He's pleased that the sight has "touch'd/The very virtue of compassion in thee". Yet Shakespeare quickly confirms our feeling, perhaps not quite conscious, that the tempest, which opens the play, somehow expresses the tempest of Prospero's rage.
Prospero reveals an inner reservoir of anger even in the way he talks to Miranda, whom he clearly loves. He doesn't trust her to pay attention to his story, though she shows no sign of deserving his distrust. "Thou attendst not", he accuses her--an accusation so obviously untrue that it reveals, at least, a worrisome irritability, and maybe a touch of paranoia.
The story Prospero tells Miranda gives plenty of good reasons for Prospero to be angry. Hearing what he has suffered makes it easier to understand, and forgive, his light touches of unjustified anger at Miranda. His justified anger at Antonio overflows, and if a little of it spills onto Miranda, it's still clear how much he loves her. We do have to worry, though, when someone powerful enough to raise a tempest, and allay it, shows that his anger is not fully under the control of his reason. Anger can serve the cause of justice when it's directed in a controlled way, toward punishing those who deserve punishing. Uncontrolled anger threatens to cross from justice to vengeance. Even more dangerously, it may go beyond vengeance, to injustice and oppression. Prospero's age makes his anger still more suspect. As you age, raw anger is supposed to be displaced by wisdom. The Tempest shows Prospero's passage through this sea-change.
Prospero shows an excessive anger, that overflows the limits of reason, in his clearly unjustified touches of anger at Miranda, and then in his sharper, and more frightening, anger at Ariel. When Ariel gently reminds Prospero of his promise of freedom, we sympathize with his desire to be free, though from his enthusiastic account of his exploits in Prospero's service we can see he is not merely oppressed. He enjoyed flaming amazement--who wouldn't? When Ariel recalls the promise of freedom, we cower with him before Prospero's sudden rage: "Thou liest, malignant thing!" Though it's not quite clear, it's possible that Ariel ought to be more grateful for his rescue, that he is a little guilty of forgetting. Yet even if Ariel deserves to be reminded of his great debt, Prospero's anger does seem extreme, and too easily triggered. Then when Ariel apologizes, Prospero softens, and renewing his promise, prompts Ariel's, "That's my noble master!" It's a relief to see Prospero suddenly turn kind again, his anger displaced by affection, his nobility affirmed by Ariel. This conversion, and the changed mood in which he turns to Miranda with "Awake, dear heart, awake!" helps reassure us, because the swiftness of Prospero's turnaround suggests that something in his anger was put on: more warning bark than intended bite.
Then comes Caliban. From the first hint of excessive anger, with Miranda, to the next stage with Ariel, and now to Caliban, Prospero descends, step by step, into a hotter, deeper, fiery pit of rage. His anger at the absent Antonio, with which he began, gets counterpointed by his anger at each of these three characters as they appear onstage. Each is accused, each more seriously, of ingratitude, of betraying a trust and shirking a duty. As Prospero turns his attention from Miranda to Ariel to Caliban, they go from undeserving of his anger to, perhaps, partly deserving, to almost fully deserving. Once the whole story of the past comes out, it might seem that Prospero's rage at Caliban is fully justified, because Caliban has shown no gratitude for Prospero's "human care", tried to rape Miranda, and now shows no remorse. He shows only an obstinate and, from Prospero's point of view, unjustified anger, an extremity of rage that mirrors Prospero's: "All the charms/Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!" They're locked in an intimate struggle. The venomous duet of Prospero and Caliban seems to shut out, for a moment, all outsiders. Miranda's interjection of the "Abhorred slave" speech seems to me entirely implausible. The Folio's assigning that speech to her, I think, must be a mistake. This is clearly Prospero's angry, imperious voice, not the humble, modest Miranda's.
We can feel some sympathy with Caliban in this scene, despite his guilt, because we have already been led to sympathize, in a parallel way, with Ariel, and because, with both Miranda and Ariel, we've been led to feel a tempestuous rage in Prospero that overflows its ostensible object. We've learned not quite to trust the justice of his anger. We feel even more sympathy with Caliban because we can see that his sins are deeply innocent. He has no inhibitions, no more conscience than a child. Far from denying his attempted rape, he says, "O ho, O ho! Would't had been done;/Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else/This isle with Calibans." Though Prospero is understandably angry, to tell Caliban that he's a slave, and can never change, still sounds, to modern, civilized ears, terribly absolute. At the end Caliban even gives a hint that he might be able to change. Besides, if his nature is simply bad, why blame him for it, and why get so upset? Something in Prospero's rage eludes understanding, which helps keep us from fully identifying with Prospero.
Something in Caliban's anger is also understandable. Prospero does not contradict his claim that "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,/Which thou tak'st from me." Caliban may be a "slave" by nature, as Prospero says, but he's also literally a slave because Prospero has enslaved him. Yet when Prospero first arrived, Caliban did not see him as a usurper. Prospero treated him well, until he tried to rape Miranda. We can understand something of Caliban's anger at Prospero without believing that Caliban is the rightful ruler of the island. If we don't identify completely with Prospero, at this point, we identify even less completely with Caliban.
The idea of inheritance, used to justify Caliban's claim to the island, will not inspire many in the audience with legitimist fervor. Our resistance to the superficial legitimacy of his claim shows again, like the symbolic chaos of the opening tempest, the instability of the ground on which civilization stands--or the ocean on which it floats. The law of inheritance depends on the support of a developed society, on a long-established history. Caliban's claim to this lump of sand and rock reminds us that if we go back to the beginning of that history, the law of inheritance has no absolute legal foundation. Its lawfulness depends on a legal system, which cannot itself be justified legally because in the beginning the laws did not yet exist. Shakespeare shows a contrast between Prospero and Caliban, which justifies Prospero's rule over Caliban, while at the same time he calls attention to the fact that no absolute reason, no justification, reaches all the way down.
We justify Prospero's rule in Milan, and believe Antonio's usurpation was wrong, in part because we accept the law of inheritance. But when Caliban uses that same argument, we resist it, even though no clear reason can be given to refute him, on legal grounds. Calling the law of inheritance into question could be dangerous territory for a playwright. Yet it seems at least faintly funny too, a joke floating up through the angry sparring: funny to think that one person, or one witch, marooned on a desert island, would confer sovereignty over it on her only, pathetic, offspring. It seems to suggest, very lightly, a parody of civilization, a parody of the idea of inheritance. When Caliban claims sovereignty through Sycorax, he makes the law of inheritance, in its abstract origin, seem arbitrary, even absurd. In this case, we're led to feel, it can and should be overridden. We don't want Caliban to rule over Miranda and Prospero. You could say that if the laws are justified because they give society a relatively stable, relatively just, order--at least better than chaos--Prospero's rule is justified for the same reason: it provides the best available order, under the circumstances, for the island.
Our underlying emotional model here, it seems to me, comes from our sense that parents are fitter to rule than children. The laws that have somehow arisen to legitimize the authority of parents seem to us, on the whole, good--though sometimes, to prevent child abuse, they need to be overridden. Prospero rules both Caliban and Miranda, only Miranda does not seriously revolt. Like a good child, she gratefully accepts, almost always, the wise guidance, and the reassuring patriarchal authority, of Prospero. Caliban shows he understands only the language of force, so some harshness is required to keep Miranda, and Prospero, safe. If Prospero at first seems overly harsh, by the end his harshness will seem more justified, even as it subsides. By the time Ferdinand says that Prospero is "compos'd of harshness", we know that with this "wooden slavery" Prospero is doing Ferdinand "but loving wrong." Despite some qualms, I think we accept Prospero as the ruler of this island. Our overall impulse is not to revolt.
At the other end of the spectrum from Caliban's claim to sovereignty, what happens when a legitimate king, of Naples, for example, shows that despite being a legitimate ruler he is not, morally, fit to rule? If we serve that king should we then revolt? Gonzalo gives Shakespeare's implicit answer, in this case. Or I should say, Prospero's attitude to Gonzalo gives the answer. Prospero loves Gonzalo, because he was merciful, while committing, on behalf of Alonso, an unjust act, of usurpation, and, potentially, murder. Though the act was committed against Prospero, and Miranda, Prospero admires Gonzalo for his loyalty in committing it, while he loves him for the mercy he showed to them--a mercy prompted, we assume, partly by his sense of the injustice of the act. There's a thin line here. If Alonso had ordered him simply to kill Prospero, Gonzalo might have betrayed his master in a good cause, like Camillo in The Winter's Tale. As it was, he probably did not advertise the fact that he had let Prospero keep his favorite books.
Gonzalo participates in the usurpation and exile of Prospero, yet his loyalty excuses him. He retains his innocence, somehow, even while he recognizes the "great guilt" of Alonso and Antonio, and rejoices when Prospero gets his dukedom back. There's something beautiful about Gonzalo's innocent goodness, as there is about Miranda's. There's also something foolish, and naive, about it. Gonzalo's vision of a utopia where nature provides food without work, to feed the "idle" and "innocent" people under his sovereignty, in a country where there is "no sovereignty", contradicts itself, as the cynical Antonio points out. Such a vision, of a garden without snakes, won't work in reality. If we're tempted to hope it might, the course of events on this island should give us some food for thought. In responding to Gonzalo's vision of utopia, we're caught between two extremes, Antonio's cynicism and Gonzalo's naivety. We can't wholeheartedly identify with either one.
Perhaps the worst danger for a monarch in Shakespeare is naivety. Good rulers get deposed and killed when they're too trusting: when they fail to beware of usurpers and betrayers. Hamlet's father is shocked that his brother would unnaturally murder him. Lear believes his inherent kingship will inspire reverence even when he strips himself of real power. Edgar, who with tragic naivety trusts his brother Edmund, has to learn to deceive and dissemble before he's qualified to become king. Duncan can't find "the mind's construction in the face", so he's killed by a traitor with a false face. That's why Malcolm, before he becomes king, has to demonstrate his ability to lie to Macduff, to test whether he's telling the truth.
Prospero naively believed his brother loved him, and that all was right with the political world, so he felt free to pursue the liberal arts, for which he and his dukedom are renowned "Without a parallel". The beautiful irony turns out to be that though his love of knowledge led him into trouble it also gets him out of it in the end. He might never have reached the peak of magical power he achieves if he had not been left for twelve years on a bare island, with nothing to do but teach Miranda and Caliban, and perfect his art. Part of his art involves deception. One lesson Prospero has to learn is that for an effective ruler it's impossible to be simply sincere.
Prospero loves the beautiful innocence of Miranda, and Gonzalo, though he cannot share it. It helped him to survive: adrift in the "rotten carcass of a butt", Prospero would have despaired, but Miranda's smile "rais'd in me/An undergoing stomach, to bear up/Against what should ensue." At the end, Miranda shows that same beautiful innocence, when she sees the representatives of human society and says,
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ít!
V. i. 181-4
V. i. 181-4 We need to hear this. We have to love it. So does Prospero. Yet like him we can't be this innocent. We have to stand apart from Miranda's innocence, however beautiful it is, and add, with Prospero, the realistic note of "'Tis new to thee." In saying "'Tis new to thee", Prospero does not sound quite cynical. He still sees the beauty in Miranda's innocence, and the beauty in human beings--he doesn't quite contradict her--while his cautionary comment shows at the same time a realism, tinged with anger, about the deceptive truth of human nature.
In a way, Miranda shares her innocence not only with Gonzalo but with Caliban. His innocent viciousness contrasts with the more disgusting and corrupt viciousness of Stephano and Trinculo, and Antonio and Sebastian. His "bad nature" seems like the seed of a mysterious force of evil in human beings, which can grow more profusely evil in civilized soil. This general, symbolic, almost allegorical quality of Caliban appears first of all in his not being quite fully human. Stephano and Trinculo take him for a monster, possibly part fish. He's neither a black human being nor a red human being, but a "freckled whelp, hag-born", the offspring of a witch and a devil. Another sign of his archetypal nature is his isolation. When Prospero encounters him he is not a member of a society, however primitive, but entirely isolated, without language, on a desert island, almost as if he'd just been born. Prospero sets out to educate him, along with Miranda, as a parent sets out to educate a child. Unfortunately, it seems Caliban's nature is bad. Prospero tries to enlighten him, but the enlightenment does not take. "You taught me language", Caliban says, "and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse."
Though a lot has been written about this play as an allegory of European colonialism, Caliban's quasi-humanness, and his isolation, mark him as something different from an American, a native of the new world. The island is also different from the new world because it's located somewhere between Tunis and Naples--at the center of the old world--and because, aside from Caliban and the imprisoned Ariel, it's uninhabited. Prospero, often taken as a colonizer, arrives on the island not as a colonizer but as a castaway. He shows no intention of establishing a colony, or exploiting the riches of this island. He just wants to raise his daughter, perfect his art, and get home as soon as he can. He tries to educate Caliban not to dominate him but, compassionately, to civilize him. Caliban's quasi-humanness, and his isolation, help to indicate that as far as he is a symbol, he is not a symbol of any particular group of human beings, but of something more general, something deeper: a part of human nature. It might be called the bestial part of human nature, or, to use Ferdinand's term, "Our worser genius".
In Shakespeare's Caliban, Virginia and Alden Vaughan conclude that Caliban represents "a general unruliness in society and in nature (278)." They go on to say that he blends "rambunctious elements in English society" with other "savage" types elsewhere, including America. I think this description shows a somewhat excessive confinement of Caliban. The general unruliness in society is also represented, in The Tempest, by Antonio, as well as Sebastian. They are not the kind of outsiders the Vaughans call "rambunctious elements", like Irish, gypsies or Indians--or even "conspirators" like Guy Fawkes. Their unruliness comes closer to home--to the seat of order. Both Caliban and Antonio show some of the same rebelliousness, but I don't think they are simply separate examples of a rebellious spirit. Caliban, perfectly isolated and not quite human, seems more symbolic, more "generally unruly" than that. It makes more sense to say that there is a Caliban in Antonio than to say that there's an Antonio in Caliban. By the end of the play I think we can feel that there is something of Caliban--"This thing of darkness"--in Prospero himself, as Prospero acknowledges, and also in ourselves.
Caliban's "general unruliness" takes four distinguishable forms in The Tempest. The simplest is a combination of sloth and lust: the intemperate, undisciplined satisfaction of appetite. This vice shows itself most immediately, in Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, as a love of getting drunk. Drunkenness, in turn, intensifies the second form of unruliness, disrespect for order and authority, a disrespect expressed, and made worse, by the sin of ingratitude. Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo have no ideal of civilization, no serious sense of anything positive they might want to build, or achieve, beyond the satisfaction of their primal appetites. Like lesser Falstaffs, they're free to have fun: with their high-spirited, if fragile, camaraderie, their clownish drunken exuberance and love of singing, mixed with a threat of murder, they give the play its funniest comedy. Morally, they don't have much to recommend them, except maybe a tiny bit of self-knowledge. Hearing the island has other inhabitants, the drunken Trinculo says, "If th' other two be brained like us, the state totters."
The third form of unruliness is more dangerous, because it is more disciplined. In a good government, the enemy within is ambition. Antonio's ambition has led him to subject Milan to Naples in return for help in overthrowing Prospero. His rebellion is parodied by the conspiracy of Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo. Caliban wants to serve Stephano only to throw off Prospero's yoke. Stephano's ambitions go no farther than drink, sex and expensive clothes. Antonio, on the other hand, knows what real power is, and he wants more of it. At the top of the social pyramid, Alonso, eager to annex Milan, also marries his daughter Claribel to the king of Tunis, "ten leagues beyond man's life", because not content with his own kingdom he wants to extend his sway, in the direction of empire. Alonso, more than Prospero, shows the spirit of colonialism. Believing this expansionist project has cost him both his daughter and his son, he learns to regret, and repent, his ambition.
The fourth form of unruliness is the Caliban in Prospero: the unruly rage that Prospero needs all his virtue to discipline.
The common ground between sloth, lust, disrespect and ambition is the desire to have no one over you, giving you orders: to do what you want, when you want. To the ambitious, that extends into the desire to have no one in the world who is more powerful than you. Caliban, the lowest common denominator of unruliness, and a "slave" by nature, does not see himself, in any serious way, as a ruler. He'll gladly serve Stephano, just to get rid of Prospero. But if he did get rid of Prospero, it's hard to imagine he'd go on very long as Stephano's happy footlicker.
Caliban's general unruliness stands out in contrast, and conflict, with rule: it's a spirit of resistance to any imposed discipline: a spirit of orneriness. To move from unruliness to good government, you have to recognize that discipline is essential to civilization, and be willing to put yourself, and others, in harness for a higher purpose. Discipline involves some pain: all harnesses chafe. Prospero lost his dukedom by failing in the discipline of responsible government. He wanted to remain "rapt in secret studies." But state-work is imposed on Prospero, as log-work is imposed on Caliban. Prospero's resistance to this discipline may help make "slave" his favorite curse. We all chafe under discipline. We all have an inner child who sometimes wants to be free--that's one reason we can sympathize with Caliban. Yet as civilized people we accept some discipline as necessary, and good. To be worthy of Miranda, Ferdinand has to show he can do hard and dirty work without complaining. Only Ariel, an airy spirit, can live in perfect freedom. One weakness of postcolonialist criticism is that it fails to recognize this. It does not see the difference between discipline and oppression. In this respect it takes Caliban's point of view.
The drawbacks of separating yourself so completely from Prospero can be illustrated with a short thought-experiment. Imagine a postcolonialist critic who somehow comes to rule over a country that has the most perfect government she can imagine. Call her, perhaps, Prosperina. Loving books and study, believing that study of the liberal arts is life's highest pursuit, she delegates the duties of governing to her sister, Antonia. The ambitious Antonia then, shockingly, revolts against Prosperina, and casts her adrift in a leaky boat, with a few books and her 3-year-old daughter, Maroonda. Through good fortune, they come ashore on an island, uninhabited except for a strange, monster-like, but apparently harmless, creature named Caliban.
Naturally the well-intentioned Prosperina treats Caliban with human care. She fixes up as comfortable and civilized a cave as she can, and invites Caliban to live there. She tries to educate him, along with Maroonda, hoping to bring this "natural man" into the charmed circle of civilized life. Then one day Caliban, shockingly, tries to rape Maroonda. Maybe there were warning signs, in his quick absorption of curse words, but Prosperina did not notice the signs. Caught up in her happy, benevolent project of civilizing Caliban, she did not suspect his capacity for ingratitude, intemperance and vileness. His attempted rape enrages Prosperina, who exiles him to a cranny in the rock. Henceforth he alone will be forced to do the hard work of gathering wood, making dams for fish, scraping trenchering and washing dish.
Would Prosperina then go around bitterly railing at Caliban, calling him an "abhorred slave"? Let us assume she would not. She would get over her anger more quickly than Prospero. Would she then let Caliban back into the cave? Would she leave him alone, unsupervised, with Maroonda? Should we assume that with further education, or re-education, Prosperina would succeed in civilizing Caliban? Or would Caliban, under the pressure of Prosperina's civilizing, light out for the territory? But this island has no open frontier. Prosperina and Caliban are stuck with each other.
How would Prosperina avoid Prospero's grinding rage? Should we imagine her as more optimistic, or more utopian, than Prospero? Here I think is where critics who so strongly, even complacently, criticize Prospero end up. When they turn from the culpably harsh Prospero to face the problems that undermine a disciplined, civilized life--problems primally represented by Caliban--they become mushy. Sentimentally, they turn all discipline into injustice, all harshness into oppression. To rule, as in Gonzalo's vision, "by contraries", and yet to keep the idle men and women in utopia reasonably well-behaved, would require some kind of sovereignty, and to judge by this play the sovereign would sometimes have to act harshly. Offenders, even those who thought they were in the right, would have to be punished, and sometimes imprisoned. To assume that the rage of Prospero is simply unjustified, that the obstacles which enrage him, including the naivety of the ruler and the recalcitrance of the ruled, can be overcome simply by peaceful, loving good will, turns the critic, it seems to me, into Gonzalo.
I think Shakespeare is making the case, in this play, that Gonzalo's anarchistic utopia won't work with human beings. They have too much Caliban in them. Reenacting an old story, Prospero makes that discovery yet again, on a "bare isle". Shakespeare seems to put him here as a kind of experiment. The Tempest is Shakespeare's Lord of the Flies. It counters utopianism by insisting that we can't rid ourselves of "Our worser genius", while at the same time it warns against falling into cynicism with Antonio and Sebastian. In the middle ground, trying, failing, falling, getting up and trying again--both loving and forgiving, and, as necessary, a harsh disciplinarian, alternately full of glorious vision and enraged at those who mar that vision--in this middle ground we find Prospero, and, I think, Shakespeare, and, as I think Shakespeare leads us to feel, ourselves.
One source of Prospero's rage is his Calibanic resentment of imposed discipline. The enforced necessity of always having to keep watch for treachery and betrayal--the need for eternal vigilance--interferes with Prospero's studies. It keeps reopening the wound of disillusionment. It makes him angry at human nature. His studies are directed toward the highest ends of civilization, a knowledge of the universal order, symbolized by heavenly music. It infuriates him that the "worser genius" in human nature, the unruliness of sloth, lust, disrespect and ambition--a complex of evil tendencies epitomized by a sudden attempt to rape the innocent--keeps calling him back from the visionary pursuit of perfection to the muddy vesture of this imperfect world.
Another reflection of Caliban may appear in Prospero's pursuit of perfection itself. Where would this quest for perfection lead him, ultimately, if not to godhood? Harold Bloom says the name Prospero is the Italian translation of Faustus: "the favored one." He calls Prospero the anti-Faustus: a man who achieves Faustus's power without signing away his soul. But I think Shakespeare sees the Faustian danger of Prospero's ambition, its potential Titanic attempt to overthrow God. Even good magic has something suspect about it. That's why Prospero does not admit the innocent Miranda to his magic workshop, putting her to sleep before he gives his orders to Ariel. It's also why, at the end, he drowns his book. He'll return to Milan with no strength but his own. He'll take on the discipline he didn't want, and deeply resents, but which he can't avoid. He'll rejoin the human race.
Prospero's propensity to get caught up in utopian visions of perfection appears most vividly in the masque he puts on for the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand. The masque gives dramatic expression to Prospero's approval of this marriage, and to his demand for chastity. Chastity, from Prospero's point of view, makes a good example, even a good symbol, of the discipline required to support an orderly, civilized society. Prospero does not merely demand chastity as a blind, conventional rule; he gives a reason for it: breaking the virgin-knot before marriage will lead to "barren hate,/Sour-ey'd disdain and discord" between the lovers. Shakespeare may have been speaking from experience. In the masque, the anti-disciplinary forces of "Our worser genius" appear in the forms of Venus, Cupid and "dusky Dis". Though Venus was on her way to the island, to do her mischief, she apparently was repelled by the purity of Ferdinand and Miranda. She saw that with them she could not succeed. Their purity has infected even Cupid with a new innocence. Having been touched by their aura, he has "broke his arrows" and will "be a boy right out."
The whole world does not automatically favor love. Ceres presides over "bosky acres" but also over the "sea-marge, sterile and rocky-hard". In her precincts wander dismissed bachelors and "cold nymphs", weaving "chaste crowns". Meanwhile, the dangerous Venus circles the world, eager to tempt the best-intentioned lovers into premature knot-breaking. "The strongest oaths are straw/To th' fire i'th' blood"; to keep that fire under control requires a noble, an extremely noble, layer of "white cold virgin snow". Summoned by Iris and Juno, Ceres comes to this fertile, cultivated "short-grassed green", "A contract of true love to celebrate". The contract is more joyful because not everyone finds true love, and some of those who do lustfully screw it up.
Prospero, still susceptible to immersion in the ideal, gets so entranced by this image of perfection that the masque, reflecting his state of mind as the tempest did earlier, moves from the initial recognition of danger to the expulsion of evil: Venus flies away, Cupid reforms, and the nymphs and reapers join in a dance that symbolizes a utopian continuity between autumn and spring that denies winter: "Spring come to you at the farthest,/In the very end of harvest." At that moment, caught up again in his recurrent error, making the same mistake for the third time, Prospero suddenly, this time fortunately in time, recalls the plot of Caliban and his confederates. His rage at remembering their conspiracy breaks up the masque with "a strange hollow and confused noise"--the opposite of heavenly music. Though in this case he remembers the plot in time to foil it before it can do any damage, Prospero seems to Miranda angrier than ever before: "Never...Saw I him touched with anger so distemper'd." I think we can feel by now that Prospero's rage is directed not just at Caliban but at himself, because "I had forgot". In spirit, if not physically, he's been caught napping. At this moment we can see more clearly than ever that along with his anger at Caliban, and the pain of disillusionment, Prospero's sense of his own guilt, his own failure, underlies the excessiveness of his rage.
Prospero eases the shock of this rediscovery of forgotten evil, and comforts Ferdinand and Miranda, as well as himself, by telling them it's all right, that things are going according to plan: "As I foretold you" "Our revels now are ended." The masque was only an illusion, as is all the world. "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." This may feel like uncomfortably cold comfort. It's an argument for not being upset when illusions dissolve: that's what illusions are bound to do. Yet if all our visions of perfection, and our lives, are nothing but illusion, what's the point of trying to make anything better? What's the difference between Prospero's vision and the cynicism of Antonio and Sebastian?
To follow Prospero I think we have to be able both to see through the illusion and to realize at the same time that within the illusion we still have to live. To live, we have to distinguish between illusion and reality, sincerity and betrayal, on a less exalted plane. Our hopes may have an absolute limit, but within the limits of our lives they remain our hopes. Within those limits things can change. Where once, without language, we lived like Caliban, now we have the capacity, or the hope, of living like Prospero. It's a high development of civilized wisdom to be able to make Prospero's speech. There is some detached comfort in such an awesomely inclusive vision: the mind that will dissolve has, before it dissolves, the power and reach to encompass "the great globe itself", and dismiss it, in this mood, as illusion.
If there is a deep truth in this vision, it also has its limits. We naturally revert to hope, to work, to care about the future. Prospero's wisdom sounds like the wisdom of an old man. For all its truth, it would not sound so natural coming from Ferdinand. It may be momentarily comforting to feel that we can become reconciled to the limits of our lives. Then we, like Ferdinand and Miranda, and even Prospero, have to get back to the business of living, where hope and disappointment displace each other in a never-ending dance. This window on illusion, which we sometimes need to open, helps keep the pressure of rage at life's imperfectability from crushing us.
We call four of Shakespeare's late plays romances. He would probably have called them tragicomedies. Shakespeare's tragicomedies end happily, but with an aftertaste of serious danger and pain. The Tempest, with the overconfidence of Gonzalo, the silence of Antonio, and Prospero's plea for prayer, includes a uniquely urgent note of warning. Like the other romances, it brings the tragic and comic waves together at a temporarily even point, with Prospero stepping off the roller coaster of rage and magic, back into human life. The romances can arrive at this moment of synthesis because they tell stories that stretch out over long periods of time, the kind of time it takes for a child to grow up, and for a mature man or woman to grow old. The Death Valley of tragedy opens up in the experience of a particular, terrible moment. In the romances, the mountains and valleys of comedy and tragedy fade into the curve of the earth.
Again and again this play repeats an up-and-down pattern, in the way people pursue visions, of their own ideals of perfection, only to see their visions dissolve. A chance to kill the king is presented by mysterious sleep, and foiled by a mysterious awakening; a banquet offered to starving men disappears by a quaint device; a masque of perfect love disintegrates in a hollow and confused noise; people follow sweet music and find themselves falling into a "filthy-mantled pool"--and losing their bottle: "an infinite loss." Even Caliban recapitulates Prospero's experience, when he dreams, sees riches ready to drop upon him, and then awakes, and cries to dream again. After the failure of their dreams they stumble around in pain for a while, and then fall back into the next dream.
Despite all these warnings, a optimistic, even utopian thread still runs through the play, in Prospero's victory, in the perfection of Ferdinand and Miranda, and in the peace their marriage promises through the voluntary union of Naples and Milan. Yet at the end the silent Antonio, and the temporarily obedient Caliban, as well as the perennially innocent Gonzalo, remind us that Prospero's problem, of how to be constantly on the lookout for evil, without becoming cynical, or embittered, is still with him, and with us. From every shock of loss we may go back into life, like him, to keep on working for a better future, though at times it strikes us that all will dissolve. With experience we may become more reconciled to human nature, yet still remain capable of being shocked by its betrayals. We hope for the best, and work for it, while reminding ourselves of the painful neccessity always to be suspicious, to be wary, to stay on watch.