Study of Power in Shakespeare's The Tempest

The pursuit of power and the exercise of power is one of the leading themes of William Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. The theme is all-pervasive in this well-knit play. Before the play starts, Antonio, Prospero's brother who was put in charge of administration by Prospero, usurped power and conspired to banish Prospero from Milan. Here, he incites Alonso's brother, Sebastian, to kill the sleeping king and become the ruler of Naples.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Alonso's daughter is married in far-off Tunis and his son is obviously drowned in the storm raised on the sea through Prospero's magic. He should, therefore, have no fears of conscience in putting the king to the sword, as also the old lord Gonzalo, if he is to fulfill his dormant ambition.

On another level, Caliban is so grateful to the drunken butler Stephano for the glorious gift of liquor that he acknowledges him as his master and pledges to be his loyal subject only if he were to murder Prospero. Caliban lures him further by marriage to the beautiful Miranda. Stephano and Trinculo fall for the bait and are humiliated. Their plan is foiled much in the same manner as the plan of Antonio and Sebastian to seize the kingdom of Naples by doing away with Alonso.

Prospero still rules the dukedom of Milan that he lost to the conspiracies of his treacherous brother, twelve years ago when he was banished along with his infant daughter Miranda. When he arrived on this uninhabited island, he seized power by dispossessing Caliban of his rightful inheritance - a fact that Caliban strongly resents. He curses Prospero and conspires against him with Stephano and Trinculo to murder Prospero so that he is saved the torment inflicted upon him by Prospero's spirits. He is willing to exchange his, slavery under Prospero to Stephano.

The other side of the power equation in The Tempest is the quest of spiritual or supernatural. In this sense, Prospero and Ariel are the two all-creatures in the play. In his quest of spiritual or supernatural power, Prospero had neglected his worldly duties in Milan and deputed his brother Antonio to look after the day-to-day affairs of his dukedom - only to be banished from Milan along with his infant daughter Miranda. But Prospero pursued his study of magic on the uninhabited island with the help of the books that Gonzalo had provided him with on the boat that brought him to the island. Here he freed Ariel from his torment as he was imprisoned in a cloven oak tree by the wicked witch Sycorax and turned Sycorax's son, the deformed Caliban into his slave. This is spiritual or supernatural power leading to temporal power.

 Ariel, along with his spirits of the air, helps Prospero in rising a fierce storm on the sea, thus bringing all his enemies at one place and at his mercy. It is through this spiritual or supernatural power that Prospero brings them to their knees, makes them repent for the grievous wrong done to him twelve years ago and arranges the meeting of Ferdinand and Miranda that leads to their marriage. He keeps both Ariel and Caliban on a tight leash, promising Ariel eternal liberty after his plan has been accomplished and punishing Caliban relentlessly for the curses heaped upon him while carrying out the tedious tasks assigned to him. He also puts Ferdinand through severe physical rigor and tests his love for Miranda before consenting to their union.

The difference between the supernatural power exercised by Sycorax and Prospero is that, while Sycorax was evil and devilish, Prospero is benign and forgiving. Sycorax's power was derived through her pact with the devil, of which the deformed Caliban is a living embodiment. While keeping Caliban in his place, Prospero seeks the assistance of Ariel and other heavenly spirits to carry out his designs. Prospero's power is not derived from the devil or black magic. It is the spiritual or supernatural power achieved through the development of his mind and art. Prospero has subdued all his evil instincts, unlike Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban in the pursuit of world power. The conspirators do no suffer from any pangs of conscience in plotting against Prospero - whether it was in Milan twelve years ago or on this island. Antonio and Sebastian are the living examples of this relentless pursuit of world power at all costs.

Having achieved the acme of world-power, Prospero is moved by Ariel to give it all up as forgiveness is nobler than revenge. Once his mission is accomplished, he pledges to drown his books and break his magic wand. He decides to forgive his enemies once they have repented and decides to spend the last days of his life in scholarly pursuits in Milan after the marriage of Miranda has been celebrated in Naples. He frees Ariel and all the heavenly spirits that he has controlled so far. He had subdued his enemies through the exercise of his supernatural powers and he has now no use of any worldly power which he renounces in his quest of further spiritual power - the ultimate triumph of the inner self over the outer self.

Prospero achieves this by controlling the forces of Nature with the help of Ariel and other spirits of the air. He is fond of them. The decision to forgive his enemies comes chiefly from within and that is his greatest achievement. The Tempest exemplifies not only the pursuit of worldly and spiritual power, but also regeneration, forgiveness and reconciliation through the exercise of spiritual power which triumphs in the end.