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Now that he has everyone in his power, we might expect him to use his magic spitefully and violently. Interestingly, this scene acts as a kind of volta in the plot: the conversation changing Prospero’s philosophy and actions forever.
GCSE Essay based on AQA specimen question paper, and marked as follows:
AO1 (12) response to question and whole text, in a suitable writing style; choice and use of references to the text to illustrate argument
AO2 (12) analysis of form, structure and language, using subject terminology; discussion of effect on reader/audience
AO3 (6) detailed understanding of the relationship between the text and contextual factors
AO4 (4) writing with clarity, purpose and accuracy
STARTING WITH THIS MOMENT IN THE PLAY, EXPLORE HOW SHAKESPEARE PRESENT’S PROSPERO’S USE OF HIS POWER (30 marks: 45 minutes).
ARIEL … Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
PROSPERO Dost thou think so, spirit?
ARIEL Mine would, sir, were I human.
PROSPERO And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.
– – –
Until this point in the final act of The Tempest, Prospero is portrayed as a dislikable, authoritarian leader. He is obsessed by thoughts of revenge against his brother Antonio; he is harsh even to his own daughter and the clear favourite amongst his ‘subjects’, Ariel; and he maintains power over his slave, Caliban, by force: painful ‘cramps’ and ‘side-stitches’. Now that he has everyone in his power, we might expect him to use his magic spitefully and violently. Interestingly, this scene acts as a kind of volta in the plot: the conversation changing Prospero’s philosophy and actions forever. Like so many of his plays, we might speculate that Shakespeare is exploring the idea of what it is to be a good leader, or a good king, which was a vital concern in the 17th century.
It’s almost inevitable that a king or ruler would have favourites. James I had George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, and this relationship seems replicated in the one between Prospero and Ariel. Although the two are close, it is very interesting that the iambic pentameter is disrupted and they are not sharing lines. This seems to suggest to the actors that they pause significantly before responding to each other, and the audience might interpret that Prospero is really thinking through what Ariel says. He seems taken aback by Ariel’s suggestion that he would become ‘tender’ with pity if he saw his enemies, pausing for 5 beats before asking: ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’ The familiar address of ‘thou’ seems to be counterbalanced by the respectful epithet, ‘spirit’. The Jacobean audience would certainly have understood and respected that spirits (evil or otherwise) might have access to knowledge beyond humans, and this seems to be the first time that Prospero is actually listening to or taking advice from Ariel. Until now, We have been used to Prospero giving Ariel orders, or telling him off and threatening to use his powers to imprison Ariel again in a tree if he is disobedient or insolent. Prospero’s sudden resolution to change is emphasised by the use of a three-word simple sentence: ‘And mine shall.’ Again there is a pause before he resumes speaking in iambic pentameter. This suddenness and the pause are really where the volta occurs, and the audience is given time for the implications to sink in.
Ironically, Ariel – a spirit – has given Prospero a lesson in what it means to be human, indeed perhaps what it is to be a true Christian. Prospero resolves to use his power and position to lead by example. When he declares ‘The rarer action is / in virtue than in vengeance’, there is an aphoristic tone which turns the simple sentence almost into an easily memorised slogan for the audience. Perhaps this is one of the real ‘messages’ in the play. This is reinforced by the alliterative effect of the two ‘v’ sounds in the abstract nouns ‘virtue’ and ‘vengeance’. The phrase is very interesting, contextually. Shakespeare’s audience would have associated ‘virtue’ with forgiving and noble Christianity, and ‘vengeance’ with the fierce and punishing Old Testament God, and so we see a move from the old to the new, as we are seeing a move from the old to the new Prospero. This implied message would not have been lost on King James, either – remembering that he foregrounded his own religious orthodoxy, and that the King James Bible was actually published in the same year as The Tempest.
Finally in the extract, Prospero seems to decide that his power should be used in ways that allow his subjects some autonomy in their lives. This is a marked change from the way he controlled Miranda earlier in the play. He rebuked her by snapping ‘my foot my tutor?’ when she tried to defend the man she loved, and it might be ironic that now his servant Ariel (his foot) might actually have been his tutor! In this passage however, he tells Ariel and the audience: ‘My charms I’ll break […] And they shall be themselves.’ By breaking his ‘charms’ he has resolved to give up the unnatural power he had over others, in favour of the Christian ideas of Virtue and Forgiveness. He certainly seems to follow through on his declaration that ‘they shall be themselves’ in not only freeing Ariel but in leaving Caliban on the island to fulfil his own destiny when the party returns to Italy. Perhaps in some way, this would strike a chord with the audience not just in terms of oppression they felt in England, but the eventual kindlier treatment of Caliban could be a significant commentary on how native peoples were considered in this age of exploration and empire building. Perhaps we see here echoes of Montaigne’s broadly sympathetic essay, ‘On Cannibals’.
Overall, the message of this scene appears to be that a good ruler is a fair and forgiving one, echoing the message of the Bible. We know that James I was distant from his ordinary subjects, a bit like Prospero’s first rule over Milan, that he also had favourites and was unpopular. This play, which we often think of as Shakespeare’s final solo effort, might provide James with one last piece of advice before Shakespeare leaves the stage …