Prospero, why not just kill people?


I’m pretty sure most of us have read at least one other Shakespeare text back in high school. In my case, I’ve studied Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet.

When reading through The Tempest, I was certain that I knew what was going to happen; “Prospero is going to use his magical powers as well as Ariel and Caliban to terrorize the shipwrecked crew and eventually kill them all,” I thought to myself in my mind. At this point, I was pretty much expecting some sort of bloodshed since all the plays I mentioned above have at least half the characters die, Hamlet in particular has practically everybody die off except for Horatio and Fortinbras. By the story’s end however, I was left a bit confused at what just happened. Other than Caliban being left behind at the island, nothing particularly bad happens to the characters, certainly not death. This wasn’t exactly a tragedy, nor was it a comedy, so it was a bit of a more different experience than what I was expecting.

That ends up leaving these questions in my mind: Since it’s been made clear that Prospero has some powerful magical abilities, is there a particular reason why Shakespeare decides to not have Prospero use his magic to kill off the shipwrecked crew for revenge? Does it have something to do with a possible political message Shakespeare was trying to convey at the time? Could it possibly have something to do with Shakespeare’s change in perspective since he was near the end of his life at the time and no longer wanting face death? Some other reason?

2 thoughts on “Prospero, why not just kill people?

  1. Good question! I think the point that was brought up in seminar makes sense: he seems to want to be acknowledged by others as powerful, for them to feel that though they vanquished him at first, ultimately he won out over them. Does that answer the question, in your mind? Because I suppose one could say that he could have shown them that and then just killed them!

    There might also be more to it, though. There does seem to be a sense in this play of attempting a resolution, of things working out, of disorder followed by order (remember that point I made in seminar about court masques showing disorder, vice, chaos being overcome by the majestic power of the monarch?). Maybe the idea here is that we’re supposed to think that to some degree order has been restored, things are as they should be. Except they’re not really so; as noted in the Introduction to our text, Antonio never actually repents. So perhaps there’s something here about there being a show of order by a monarch, without the order actually really happening? A kind of faking of order? I don’t know enough about the politics of the time to say for sure, but perhaps there’s a comment here about how an attempt to display how the monarch makes everything work out may hide disorder underneath?

    Oh, and one more thing: could you activate the plugin that lets people who are commenting check a box to get an email if anyone else replies or comments? When you’re logged into the dashboard of your blog, go to “plugins” on the left menu, then find “subscribe to comments” and click “activate” next to it. thanks!

  2. terence chiang

    Although I do agree that it’s strange how Prospero forgives them so easily, I wanted to point out that even though Shakespeare is pretty well known for his tragedies, like Macbeth and Hamlet, he does often delve into the opposite side of playwriting – comedy. Having read the Merchant of Venice during highschool, it seems that although Shakespeare’s comedies do contain many dark elements, they usually end happily (and almost certainly with a wedding). Tempest, however, has to be taken into further consideration I guess, since as you mentioned, this was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career and is considered one of his greatest works. Perhaps he saw Prospero as a representation of himself, and so didn’t want to mar his image by making another bloodthirsty protagonist? The implications of this in a political sense do seem quite interesting as well. Could Prospero be his ideal king: benevolent and forgiving?

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