A Heros Role in Literary Works: Examining Prospero in The Tempest
On the seventh anniversary of 9/11/2001 most are reminded of the tragic events surrounding that day. My memory is different than most people. My daughter was born on that very day. She is one blessing that can help heal the many scars and so are the men and women who bravely came to the aid of the injured. They are regarded by most as modern day heroes.
Another type of hero that exists is one in literature. In the discussion of heroes, one controversial issue has been whether Prospero in William Shakespeares The Tempest could be called a hero. Some believe that a hero should be inherently good. My view has always been that a hero has to earn the name with a little more effort. Through the course of the story the character should able to see his own faults, admit and change them. He or she could be a hero by just being there when help is needed but most stories arent that simple. To truly be a hero a good author wants the story to reveal the heros shortcomings and let his faults be unfolded to enrich the story. This adds an element of humanity that a lot of readers are looking for to enjoy the story. The more the reader can relate to the character the more the theme is taken to heart by its reader or audience. Giving a character the very human ability to make mistakes helps the story. The reader is more interested in the characters struggle when they can relate to imperfections. If the character makes a change for the better through the course of the story it will bring the ending full circle. Heros are sometimes not seen as that from their introduction. Part of the definition of a hero is someone who comes to greatness through a particular struggle. The character they have, especially in literature is achieved by changing for the better and taking something good away from the experience.
Saving lives is not the only definition of a hero. When reading a classic like The Tempest by William Shakespeare the reader must take the journey of several elements the hero of the story must go through in order to be called the hero or protagonist. There is some argument that Prospero does not fit this role. However, I disagree. My view is in The Tempest Shakespeare intended him to be this character. It is true that Prospero is difficult to like, but he does exhibit enough characteristics that define a hero that liking him is not necessary. In fact this actually contributes, in the end to him being a hero because his prior actions are admitted by him to be wrong and he ultimately asks for forgiveness. This is something that most people, hope is possible in life. The theme of admitting guilt and being shown forgiveness is universal. The result of Prospero being able to change by the end of the play earns him the hero title.
The play starts out with men on a ship, in the middle of a storm. We become aware of the initial struggle of hierarchy though the interaction of the low ranked boatswain and the eager to take charge upperclassmen. However taking charge of nature is not possible and we learn how rank will not help their fate. We are then shown the magic Prospero possess and see that he is using it to compromise the people aboard. This leads to Prosperos explanation to his daughter Miranda of why he is endangering to ships occupants and although he allows their safe landing to the island he does have his reasons for putting them in danger. He is seeking revenge and tells the story of his former life as ruler of Milan and how he has been wronged and now he and his daughter are forced to live on an isolated island. Prospero also reveals his own weakness for books and admits that this contributed to his brothers ability to replace him. By admitting this Prospero is acknowledging his part. However the magic he is now using is a result of these books and he is using it get revenge of these men who he feels wronged him. At this point Prosperos motives are mostly self serving and he seeks to satisfy his own need for revenge. He uses the magic he has practiced for the last 12 years to capture his enemys ship and endanger their lives. Previously he has helped the spirit Ariel by rescuing him, only to require tasks for his now negative purpose. It is not usually a good characteristic for someone to help another as Prospero did by freeing Ariel, only to indenture the poor soul seemingly eternally when freedom has been promised. The promise of complete freedom is now used against Ariel to serve Prosperos own evil purposes. Ariel repeatedly asks for freedom only to find another task for Prospero to be completed first. In the end Prospero does keep his word, but not before the audience is unsure he will.
According to Deborah Willis in her essay Prosperos claim to the island by trying to be Calibans ruler is invalid. She claims that Prospero has given up ruling before he got to the island and so his assertion as Calibans ruler is invalid.(259) I disagree with this position, however. It was Calibans own mistakes that forced Prospero into ruling over the island. There was a time where before Calibans attempted rape of Miranda the islands hierarchy could have gone differently. Calibans lack of regret shows that he doesnt wish to admit that his slavery could have been prevented in the beginning.
Prospero begins to recognize he needs to change his intention of revenge when he realizes he is better off with happiness than the empty satisfaction revenge may carry. This is evident when he sees his daughter and realizes she has fallen in love. Through her he can carry on his legacy and cautions Ferdinand, her future husband to stay away from her until their wedding. It is a good thing that it is important to Prospero for her to remain pure. Even though he is gruff with Ferdinand, he is starting to give up some of his selfishness by caring more about his daughters happiness. By the time his enemies are together and Prospero could carry out his former revenge plot, he has changed his mind. He has learned of a plot against his own life and now scolds the participants. His uses his change of heart to spread his new found wisdom.
Prosperos shortcomings are illustrated in order to make his decision to forgive his enemies and ask for forgiveness himself a more profound ending. This is Shakespeares way of dramatizing the ending. The worse he makes Prospero look throughout the story, the better the resolution in the end. Through his shortcomings the audience finds humanity in his words. The notion of forgiveness resembling art, to be appreciated, no matter what stage in life you discover its existence seems to be expressed in Prosperos word here:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i. 148-158)
In conclusion, these words also illustrate to me Shakespeares intention was a greater lesson for his audience to learn, even if life is like a dream. The heros mission is to not leave this rack behind, instead make it right. This seems especially likely given the fact that this was Shakespeares final play, his final work of art.