Although The Tempest has been assessed as the full expression of Shakespeare’s mood in his final period and although the play has been praised for its observance of the classic unities, it requires no elaboration to establish that the play is lacking in essential dramatic elements. This is due to the preponderance of only one character, Prospero, besides whom other characters seem pale and even anaemic. “Indeed, Prospero occupies a more important place in The Tempest than does the Prince of Denmark in Hamlet.” Dr S. C. Sengupta’s remarks foregoing more than convey the feeling and response about the play as a whole.
Prospero is Providence personified, the omnipotent and omniscient destiny itself, manipulating and wire-pulling everything human, non-human or super-human in the enchanted island. Nothing happens in the play without Prospero wishing it to happen. The consequence is that the plot lacks an inner law of growth and the dramatic presentation is somewhat bloodless. Prospero is a strong man, a sweet man, à gracious man given to forgiveness. He is also a garrulous old map, pedantic and severe and with a high sense of his opinions. His powers of white magic know no limits. And that exactly makes limitation for the dramatic difficulties of the play. This limitation is nowhere more apparent than in Prospero’s narration of his past life to Miranda. Despite its telescoping, it is a long narration on the stage and clearly undramatic but Shakespeare has no other way of conveying this essential background of the play in the absence of a real antagonist. Where the protagonist is all, the play as the play inevitably suffers.
Prospero is the central figure of the play and there is no limit to either his knowledge or his ability. By virtue of his white magic, he has
The noon-tide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds
And ‘twixt the green sea and azur’d vault
Set roaring war.”
His powers and prescience, however, are used in a godly way for the good of all beings and grace and forgiveness are the most important words in his magic book. Virtue, not vengeance, is his ultimate search despite the tumult and confusion in which he immerses his wrong-doers and apparent victims. That, however, is just appearance and not the Prosperian reality, for he pronounces that “the rare action is in virtue than in vengeance,”.
From the point of view of the comedy or more correctly dramatic romance that Shakespeare was composing in his last phase of creative life, there is a good justification for the creation of a character like Prospero. It is ideally suited for an appreciation of the comic situation in the play. The young first love in an enchanted isle, the conspiracies and the conspirators against the ex-Duke of Milan, the savage ambitions of a Caliban and the agonies and apprehensions of a crew suffering a ship-wreck under a tempestuous sky are all otherwise very real things but looked through the magic glasses of Prospero, they appear to be an insubstantial pageant faded that will leave not a rack behind. For “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Prospero is a royal personage lording over his own creation but failing to evoke any human interest. He is the star guiding the human drama and he comes to flesh and blood in Shakespeare’s portraiture of him. He has also his deficiencies. He fails to appreciate Caliban‘s point of view. He seems to others rather old and sometimes exuding a bad temper as old men do. Even Ariel is not exempt from his wrath as when he is reminded of his debt to the commander. Despite his final faith in forgiveness and virtue, he appears to relish the sufferings of the ship-wrecked men who are his enemies now within his power. In spite of his omnipotence and omniscience, he is presented as a tender and anxious father ultimately securing both husband and dukedom for his only child and heir. All the characters in the play represent some symbols of some emotion or idea and Prospero, as has been observed by Middleton Murry represents the quintessence of a quintessence. Other characters and other symbols take their sustenance from this quintessence that is Prospero of The Tempest.