Published on April 9th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Prospero’s a Piece of Shit
Shakespeare is believed to have written The Tempest around 1610, and though we know there was a lot of colonization during this period, I wanted to find a specific example that could have motivated our author to write the play. On August 9, 1610, the English attacked the Paspahegh village, killed their native queen, her children, and burned the village to the ground. Something tells me this had a lasting effect on our author, and even though Prospero killed no one, he forced his views unto Caliban, just as most colonists had done. Marjorie Garber seconds this notion in Shakespeare and Modern Culture. “All the ‘civilizing’ boasts made by Prospero and Miranda – we taught you (our) language, we taught you (our) cosmology, we taught you (our) manners, we taught you about (our) God – could be regarded as impositions rather than noble gifts” (22-23). I can understand why Caliban would like to bury Prospero, but back in the day people felt Prospero was only helping Caliban.
In reading The Tempest, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for both Caliban and Ariel. Sure they were slaves, but I felt Prospero was a bit of an asshole, and having no previous knowledge of this play, was expecting a tragedy after Act I. “In its dramatic form The Tempest is a comedy that recuperates what could have been a tragedy” (Garber, 4). I still find Caliban’s life to be quite tragic. Unlike Ariel, whose life was saved, Caliban’s life was stolen from him when Prospero arrived on the island. He was force-fed the customs of Prospero and Miranda, and though he attempted to rape Miranda, I don’t think that’s reason to be unsympathetic. Miranda and Prospero probably shouldn’t have been there, but Prospero’s prized possessions were his books and not his people, which is why he was usurped in the first place.
Prospero needed Caliban and Ariel not just to carry out his revenge, but to realize how silly he had been to choose his books and his magic over humanity. He was mistaken, just as his usurpers were mistaken, but he forgives them because he also is seeking forgiveness. He even asks the audience to forgive him at the end of the play.
“And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.” (Epilogue)
We might infer that Shakespeare was Catholic given all the forgiving, but that’s a question still unanswered because practicing Catholicism was illegal at the time, though some scholars claim a few of Shakespeare’s family members were indeed Catholic.
The important thing is Prospero abandons magic to acquire his old life as Duke, governing the people of his land. His books are no longer his prized possession – his people are. It seems he’s given up science for humanity. Is Shakespeare hinting that life’s meaning isn’t found through science but through the humanities? I’m not sure, but it does seem like Shakespeare was driving home the notion that we should accept the fact that humans are fallible and we should forgive them for their faults.
Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” and though he wrote it after Shakespeare died, I think it’s an appropriate launching pad for my project. I’m investigating whether Shakespeare wanted us to embrace our errors, mistakes, failures, and flaws rather than avoid or ignore them, and I’m starting to feel he really did. Even his tragic characters (Hamlet, Lear, Romeo, Othello) are generally better remembered and more popular and I think it’s because they lived their lives in the red. Everyone should strive to die tragically, and I kind of wish Prospero would have. It would have made for a better story.