The following essay is reprinted from Shakespeare Studies: Papers Read Before The Literary Clinic. F. Hyatt Smith. Buffalo: The Literary Clinic, 1916.
Of all Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest is the most original and striking. Written late in life, it is pervaded by the supernatural and traverses the borderland of the unseen. Both human and imaginary characters, both the dramatic and the grotesque, are perfectly blended with the greatest art without any semblance of consciousness. Here he gives to "airy nothing a local habitation and a name." We are in a world of spirits, airy shapes flit about us--the enchanted isle, the beautiful girl, the mysterious sprite, the gross composite of brute and demon, the stately king, the rude sailors, are all the creations of that imperial mind whose empire knew no visible bounds, and whose daring penetrated earth and sea and sky. But perhaps the greatest creation in The Tempest is the wonderful necromancer, Prospero.
Once a ruling prince, thirsting for knowledge, devoted to the liberal arts, Prospero forgot that the world is hostile, and thus his brother deposed him from his dukedom. He saved himself and his lovely daughter and some of his books of magic upon a desert island. Here his knowledge expands. Nature listens to him and obeys him, zephyr-like spirits full of humor are compelled to serve him, songs issue from nowhere and ravish the ear, Ariel does his bidding, Caliban struggles and repines, a thing of earth earthy, Miranda is virgin simplicity and confidence and truth. Prospero is Shakespeare himself in his calm temper, in his self-mastery and gravity, in his sensitiveness to wrong and his unfaltering justice, and in his remoteness from the joys and sorrows of the world.
His occasional intellectual impatience, his flashes of irritability, his memory of his injury, throw into greater relief that attitude of thought from which he surveys the whole field of human life, and ponders on its smallness and its greatness. Paracelsus attains. He shares the joy of his children to whom he is half-god and half-father. In a dream existence he will still face each duty with a smile. He is very wise and conducts his intercourse equally well with friend and foe.
He is Shakespeare's nearest approach to deity. He and his daughter came ashore by Providence divine. When he breaks his staff and buries his book at the end, we feel that we are again returned to earth and the great vision fades. He can throw over whom he will a magic sleep, and then he can awaken his subjects like a hypnotist. He introduces us to the kingdom of mind. He hints thought transference and mental suggestion and realms unreached by wires and messages from unseen heights. Prospero is man, liberated from the bondage of the present, roused to a conviction of his supernal powers, disdaining all that can be bought or sold, responsive to far-off forces, and akin to distant beings. He tells us that there are supersensible spheres, spiritual energies, planets beyond and outranking our little ball.
By the discipline of trial and the loss of rightful possessions, Prospero attains a kingdom which shall endure. Deprived of gold and land he inherits himself. He dies unto the present, and reigns over the future. He is the symbol of the intellectual man who makes his own surroundings. His library is a dukedom large enough. He echoes Richter's great observation that whatever the mind of man may conceive, the will of man may achieve. He emphasizes the old truth that sacrifice is the pathway to success.
Prospero is the great prophet of Shakespeare, clad in his robe of magic, a sort of Elisha with his staff, and when he lays this upon the dead they come to life. His simple island fare is far sweeter than all the rich dishes that he once enjoyed. No music is so rare as the winds that play about the isle, and the mysterious sounds that issue unexpectedly from caverns and sea. Thoreau in his hut was a Prospero who found enchantment in the pines and heard oratorios among the birds. Power is proved by Prospero to be in exact ratio to solitude. Bunyan was the Prospero of the 17th century, immured in a narrow dungeon, yet seeing the Wicked Gate and the House Beautiful and the towers of jasper and beryl. "Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage, minds innocent and quiet take that for a hermitage". Out of the lion comes the honey.
Prospero is above all vengeance, he forgives his brother, he is harmonious and fully developed will. Forgiveness and freedom are the keynotes of the play. When, at the last, he leaves the island and returns to the dukedom he had lost, he goes a purified man--the bard himself, to his loved Stratford, matured and taught and dignified, to await the end. In the Epilogue, Prospero implores pardon. Was he Shakespeare feeling the nearness of the other world, sensible of his errors, and eager to be forgiven them? Who can say?
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