Defending Prospero in The Tempest
In William Shakespeare's The Tempest, the character of Prospero brings about a great deal of debate. Modern literary critics are quick to use him as a poster child for English colonial practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Many see him as person who desires complete control of everything around him from the fish-like monster Caliban to his spirit servant Ariel, even his own daughter Miranda. Others believe that Prospero's sole motive is revenge on his brother Antonio and those associated with the established power in Naples and Milan. Taken out of context, these are reasonable conclusions. However, in the development of the play, it is quite clear that these critics are incorrect. Shakespeare does not use Prospero as the symbol of European expansion westward and although Prospero is quite powerful, he is not a power hungry egomaniac. Instead, Prospero is the very figure of a noble father. He loves his daughter so much that he sacrifices everything to give her the best opportunities for a good life. He is the slave of duty, working for the good of his people. His desire for revenge is also clearly not a motivation as he finds the strength to forgive his brother at the play's conclusion. Therefore it seems that Shakespeare's character is not being used to show the dark side of humanity, but rather the nobility of humanity and the model of a seventeenth century father.
When it comes to Miranda, Prospero can never do enough for her. Prospero's second lines states, "I have done nothing but in care of thee, of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter" (Prospero, I, ii, 19-20). Although this line can be interpreted many ways, even as an outright lie, the assumption has to be made that Prospero is telling the truth. Miranda is the only person on the island who loves Prospero and the only one that fully trusts him. Prospero is wise and would not knowledgeably violate the trust of not only his daughter, but the only person on the island that cares for him. However, even if these words were empty, his actions are not. When Caliban threatened to attack and rape Miranda, Prospero was forced to use his magic to keep Caliban captive so that there would no longer be any immediate threat to her. Prospero's decision to indenture Caliban puts him on tentative moral footing, but it is difficult to believe that Prospero had any other choice. His only other options would have been to kill Caliban or to leave the island himself. To readjust Caliban's nature would have been impossible considering that Caliban himself implies that if he had another opportunity, he would try to rape Miranda again. Leaving the island altogether is the completely moral choice, but obviously if had been that simple, Prospero would already have escaped rather than causing a storm to set events in motion.
Furthermore, Prospero's decision to try to couple Miranda and Ferdinand was an act of love, not a play for power....