In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit up front that I am a high school English teacher, which means that my approach to literature in general — and Shakespeare’s The Tempest in particular — is likely much different from that of the typical reader. I could, at length, expound upon the accepted reading of this play, with Prospero as a stand in for the playwright himself, and the entire project as an extended letter of resignation. If my students’ reactions are any indication, however, this is the least exciting way to look at Shakespeare’s final play. Instead, I’d like to talk about what I believe is being said in this play about the nature of power, specifically, the power of story.
Near the end of the play, Prospero breaks his staff, the symbol of his power as a magician, and destroys his books, the source of his esoteric knowledge. Now, I know, given the name and nature of this site, his decision to “deeper than ever plummet sound . . . drown my book” likely earns Prospero no love here. When we reached this part of the play, my students were an endearing mixture of confused and frustrated. We had just learned that Prospero was capable of godlike feats, creating storms, summoning lightning, even raising the dead back to life, and then he renounces the use of magic entirely. Why, they wanted to know, didn’t he just use these magics to go back to Milan and seize his position as Duke back from his usurping brother? The English teacher answer, that this act is symbolic of Shakespeare surrendering his powers over the worlds and characters of his plays, is also an unsatisfying one. What does it mean for Prospero to renounce magic if we see him not as Shakespeare, but as just an old ex-Duke with phenomenal cosmic powers and an itty bitty living space?
I believe that it’s about art. This is, after all, the word Prospero uses to describe his magic. Prospero is able to call forth spirits to trick and beguile the others on the island, but always with some purpose in mind. He is educating and exacting justice and imposing his own vision on the world, just as a painter or a musician or a writer might. Once he reaches the height of these powers, though, he turns away from them, towards his family and his neglected temporal duties. The abilities of the artist then, are more than just impressive and potentially dangerous. They demand a sacrifice. They require a kind of isolation, a drawing away from the world. While it’s certainly fun to imagine Prospero riding to Milan on the back of a tempest like some kind of magical superhero, out for vengeance against the brother that betrayed him, it’s too simple for Shakespeare.
Prospero must choose. He can be a powerful Artist, or he can fulfill his worldly duties as a father and a Duke. He can’t do both.
What does this mean for those of us who are facing this same choice, who are in the pursuit of some creative goal while trying to live from day to day in the temporal world? I can see two answers. The first is cyclical. Each project follows Prospero’s life journey. You begin with the inspiration, the slight drawing away that mirrors Prospero’s retreat into the study of his books. When the project begins, like Prospero, the artist is set adrift on a raft in the ocean, with no way to guide it to land. At at its close, the artist must free him or herself from the island of this endeavor and return to the world left behind. The second answer is an overall “life of the artist” kind of conclusion. Like Prospero, we all have a choice. We can talk all we want about the call or the need to write or paint or compose, but truly, we have a choice. We can always walk away if it proves too much.
Given this choice, though, given these magics we can do . . . why would we ever want to let them go?