Motivation, Forgiveness, and Renaissance Humanism with Prospero
Shakespeare was a renowned writer, without a comparable equal; his writings have been exalted to be timeless literary works. People will always perform his works again and again as his works are celebrated, because his plays show the very heart and nature of human behavior and experience. The Tempest is believed to be the last play he wrote. As a scholar should expect, the play can be interpreted in many different ways. More specifically, the play describes elements of motivation, forgiveness, and Renaissance humanism in the Prospero character. Prospero is a dynamic character in this play who exhibits the motions of motivation and forgiveness, while being an embodiment of Renaissance humanism.
The Tempest begins on a nearby island; Prospero, the former duke of Milan, has a plan to regain his dukedom, which was usurped by his brother Antonio, by bringing the Antonio to the island by magic to set things right. On a ship in the storm, noblemen from Italy, Alonso, Ferdinand, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, Stephano, and Trinculo, are worried that they are going to drown because of the storm. While on the island, Prospero summons Ariel, his spirit servant, to discuss how Ariel brought the noblemen to the island, and Prospero assigns Ariel to bring the noblemen to him. Ariel leaves for his assignment while Prospero and Miranda visit Caliban, a native to the island and slave to Prospero, to tell him to get firewood. After Caliban leaves, Ferdinand, son of Alonso, wonders into the scene. Ferdinand sees Miranda and they immediately fall in love as they begin to flirt. While Caliban is gathering wood for Prospero, Caliban meets and becomes a servant to Trinculo and a drunken Stephano, because he was attracted to the liquor. With the change of Caliban’s loyalty, the three of them plot to murder Prospero. Meanwhile, Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Antonio are brought close to where Prospero is hidden and they desire to rest from their journey. Prospero conjures up a feast for the resting noblemen. While the noblemen eat, Ariel appears to them and accuses the men of usurping Prospero’s dukedom. The noblemen get frightened and Prospero appears to them with Ferdinand and Miranda. All is forgiven and Prospero regains his dukedom as the group returns to Italy (Shakespeare, 496-564).
A feeling of love or hatred usually precedes motivation. That feeling of motivation will often dictate whether or not an event will be hostile. Sometimes when an event occurs, it is possible that the feeling may change, which will bring a different perspective and thus a different motivation to act. Prospero had his dukedom usurped by his brother and the King of Naples, and Prospero was later exiled (Shakespeare, 502-503). Prospero feels cheated and abandoned, and he probably started to hate Antonio and Alonso. Prospero’s feeling of hatred begins to drive him to plot vengeance to make justice balanced. When the moment arrives to initiate his plan, much of the actions Prospero took seem hostile. Conjuring a storm and causing contention and confusion among the noblemen certainly is not friendly. Prospero wants to recreate the scenes of his forced exile by the noblemen so that the noblemen can see the pain that Prospero went through. However, Prospero’s feeling changes throughout the play. Exposure to the noblemen, who are at his control, probably made Prospero begin to pity the men. Ariel convinces Prospero to release the noblemen in these lines, “Him that you termed, sir, the good old Lord Gonzalo./ His tears runs down his beard like winter’s drops/ From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ‘em,/ That if you now beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender (Shakespeare, 553). Prospero had the men in captivity, and did not know what to do with them at that point. Ariel appears and persuades Prospero to release the men by just looking at them, which would bring empathy because they are grieving for mischiefs that are similar to what Prospero went through. After Ariel’s comment, Prospero releases the noblemen and he forgives them and they in turn forgive him. Even though there was a friendly ending, there still is not total forgiveness. Amanda Mabillard describes the situation with Prospero and the noblemen, “Prospero goes through the motions of forgiveness, but his sincerity is lost to us. Moreover, there is clearly no reconciliation amongst Prospero, Sebastian, and Antonio. Prospero still considers Antonio a ‘most wicked sir’ (5.1.130) and Antonio, [focused] on slaying the island fiends, will not even acknowledge Prospero” (Mabillard). It is plainly shown in the text that Prospero does have a softened heart because of Ariel, so he forgives the noblemen. Likewise, the noblemen forgave Prospero for his manipulative deeds. Even though there was forgiveness, the men still despised each other and it seems that they will not reconcile their differences. No reconciliation means that the men will not trust each other, which also means they did not truly forgive the other.
Before the Renaissance started, the Catholic Church controlled and held much of the Greek and Latin texts from the classical period. Then the Renaissance humanism movement started when the Catholic Church started to make the classic Greek and Latin texts available for people to use. The humanist movement brought several consequences, “the rediscovery of many ancient Greek and Latin works; the establishment of new standards in Greek and Latin scholarship; the assumption […] that a thorough basis in at least Latin literature was indispensable to the civilized man; [and] the beginnings of what we nowadays regard as `scientific thinking’[…]” (“Humanism”). The release of Greek and Latin texts encouraged further literary work and “scientific thinking” among normal people which would usher in the Renaissance. The Greek and Latin texts encouraged and lead people to study humanities more. Humanities was studying what people wrote about their culture and what their culture became. That led to the Renaissance humanism movement that emphasized individualism and justice. The more people had access to the Greek and Latin works, the more interpretations for scholarly output could be released. Humans started to get more resources for personal success in the humanism movement, which brought up individualism and justice.
So is Prospero an embodiment of the Renaissance humanism movement? Yes, Prospero does embody the humanism movement. One example is given in this quote, “The Tempest as a humanist play implies - through Prospero’s abjuration of magic, his return to Milan, and the restoration of a civil order - that the ultimate end of these acts in which man governs his life depends upon a human being, not the upheaval of magic” (Stanivukovic). Prospero freeing the noblemen from his magical power shows he submitted to the idea that men can and should control their own life. Freeing the men from his magic power could be compared to the Catholic Church releasing Greek and Latin texts which would bring individual learning and understanding for men. Men could control their life better by having free access to resources. Another example of how Prospero embodies Renaissance humanism happens before and after his exile on the island. Before his exile, Prospero was lacking on his executive duty of Milan. After the exile, Prospero came out as an enlightened man promising to be a better ruler. Renaissance humanism placed an importance for the individual’s responsibility of citizenship and leadership in the community. By what Shakespeare expresses through Prospero, it seems that individualism took a bigger and stronger stance during the Renaissance humanism movement.
Regardless of the positive effort towards individualism, Shakespeare does show inconsistencies and problems with humanism. When Prospero became an intense scholar, he forsook his dukedom and he became a horrible leader (Stanivukovic). Ruling Milan justly should have been Prospero’s first priority over education. Shakespeare seemingly is telling that when putting education first, some important priorities are neglected. Also, Shakespeare illustrates that even in the middle of an individualism movement, not all humans are treated by its standards. For instance, Caliban is constantly mistreated and misunderstood (Shakespeare, 510-511; 528-531; 551). Shakespeare probably included the mistreatment of Caliban as a parody of humanism because it is believed that Shakespeare was well aware of New World voyages and tales of the Europeans abusing American Indians (Kinney). Humans in Europe were practicing individualism while at the same time they were not respecting the individualism of American Indians. So then it would seem that Shakespeare shows the intentions of Renaissance humanism, but he also parodies some inconsistencies of the movement. Renaissance humanism was just the birth of the individualism idea, and it just needed to develop and grow.
Shakespeare further shows the inconsistency of Renaissance humanism with the hierarchal relationships in the play. The main relationship has Prospero at the head of the hierarchy. Prospero controls and dictates much of the actions of the people he oversees, while much of the time he ignores what they need. His fanaticism with magic and education lead him to be irresponsible with his followers. One example is when Caliban showed Prospero the tricks of the island because Prospero befriended him. But then Prospero’s obsession got in the way of properly caring for Caliban (Shakespeare, 510). Prospero’s obsession in education and magic, which lead to an irresponsible rule, probably caused his brother to betray him. The same kind of relationship of Prospero with his followers is shown between the princes Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. They started to become obsessed with dreams of power by the influence of alcohol, which being under the influence did not help to their dreams. Caliban also became attracted to the alcohol the princes were using, and Caliban promised to show Trinculo and Stephano how to survive on the island. Caliban was later betrayed by Trinculo and Stephano, because their dreams and obsessions of alcohol stopped them from listening to Caliban warning them of Prospero’s tricks (Shakespeare, 551-552). A leader must properly lead people by not getting obsessed over things personal things that are not intended to help his leadership.
In the final analysis, Shakespeare examines Prospero’s motivation and the depth of his forgiveness. Shakespeare shows the establishment of Renaissance humanism and some inconsistencies. As a consequence of his exile, Prospero was motivated to execute revenge on the noblemen when they sailed next to the island. Once Prospero saw the noblemen’s grief, he forgave them and released them but he still held a grudge. Prospero is an embodiment and parody of the Renaissance humanism movement and the fresh idea of individualism. Shakespeare continues to live by the success of his work.
“Humanism.” The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1997. Credo Reference. Web. 22 November 2011.
Kinney, Arthur F. “Revisiting The Tempest.” Modern Philology 93.2 (1995): 161. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Nov. 2011.
Mabillard, Amanda. “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/essays/tempestessay1.html.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Early Modern World 1450 – 1650. Paul Davis, et al, Editors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2004. 496-564. Print.
Stanivukovic, Goran. “The Tempest and the Discontents of Humanism.” Philological Quarterly 85.1 (2006): 91-119. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 23 Nov. 2011.