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Character Analysis in The Masque of the Red Death

Prospero: The only named character in “The Masque of the Red Death,” Prospero provides the lodgings and entertainment for the 1,000 courtiers who attempt to escape the plague. He shares his name with a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both characters are arrogant and attempt to bend the world around them to their will, whether with magic in The Tempest or wealth in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Prince Prospero leads the group of nobles and designs of the “reverie” they live in. However, regardless of how strong his will is, Prospero is eventually forced to submit to death.

Character Analysis Examples in The Masque of the Red Death:

The Masque of the Red Death

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"“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him—“who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him—that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!”..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adjective “blasphemous” refers to something that is profane and violates religious doctrine, specifically Christian. For Prospero to call the costume a “blasphemous mockery” is hypocritical, considering the biblical verse in Hebrews 9:27: “and as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” In Christian theology, all mortal things must die in order to obtain salvation in the afterlife. By defying death, Prospero proves himself the true blasphemer. Notice the additional hypocrisy in that the punishment for dressing up as the Red Death is a death sentence. Prospero is willing to condemn someone else to the fate he seeks to defy for daring to confront him with the reality of the Red Death.

"reddened with rage...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Up to this point, the color red has been associated with death and disease. If readers maintain this association, Prospero’s face “redden[ing] with rage” can be interpreted in multiple ways. Recall that one of the symptoms of the red death is “profuse bleeding at the pores.” Though possible that Prospero’s anger has caused his face to flush, there is still an echo of the description of facial bleeding from the introduction of the disease. By another reading, Prospero’s own murderous thoughts have led his face to take on the color of death. He calls for the hanging of the figure and later rushes him with a dagger, indicating Prospero’s own deadly nature.

"the mad revellers..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Earlier in the story, the narrator refused to condemn Prospero as a madman. However, after the appearance of the masked figure, all of the revelers become “mad.” Now that they have been confronted by what they sought to escape from, their foolishness has become apparent. Rather than confronting mortality, they secluded themselves away and surrounded themselves with distractions, becoming mad in their denial.

"His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Prospero refuses to give a definitive answer regarding whether or not he is mad. That his followers do not believe he is mad means little considering they are also caught in the collective escapist daydream. This marks the transition from discussing the masquerade as an event grounded in some semblance of reality to an event grounded in dreams. By indicating that Prospero’s madness can only be judged through direct sensory perception, the corporeal body is given a nebulous quality and divorced from the physical realm. For Prospero’s followers, caught between the reality of the Red Death and their fabricated safehaven, Prospero cannot mad because if he were, they would be too.

"barbaric lustre...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The phrase “barbaric lustre” contains a contradiction. The noun “lustre” refers to a soft glow and suggests a sense of sophistication. By contrast, the adjective “barbaric” refers to something harsh and unrefined. For Prospero’s designs to glow with “barbaric lustre” means that they have an aggressive and uncultured appeal. This description is consistent with Prospero’s colorful rooms, which produce a variety of “gaudy and fantastic” images. It also further situates him as someone who has artistic vision and also as someone who is at least somewhat mad.

"a novel effect...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adjective “novel” refers to something that is new or interesting. In such an insulated community, novelty would likely be hard to come by. Prospero designs the party in such a way that there are new, distracting novelties at every turn, keeping his companions lighthearted and happy. This display of creativity speaks to Prospero’s artistic sensibility and “august taste” as he creates an interactive art installation designed to capture the imaginations of his guests.

"There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

“Improvisatori” were improvisational poets popular in 14th-century Italy, providing a possible setting for the story. The buffoons, dancers, musicians, and improvisatori represent the luxury that Prospero and his friends enjoy as well as their need to be distracted from mortality with earthly pleasures. Wine and other forms of alcohol are frequently depicted as instruments of distraction in literature, capable of silencing lingering worries or fears. The decadence of Prospero’s castle is made possible by wealth and privilege, but the need for such extravagance appears to be born from fear and the need to forget, even if only momentarily, that the Red Death rages on outside.

"happy and dauntless and sagacious...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adjective “dauntless” means fearless, and the adjective “sagacious” means to be wise or have good judgement. The introduction of Prince Prospero shifts the tone of the story away from the hopelessness and fear of the introduction. Rather than give up, Prince Prospero takes action: he secludes himself and his wealthy friends inside a castle, leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself. This action suggests that Prospero seeks to protect only those whom he prefers and that he uses his wealth and status to avoid the same fate as the less privileged.

"Prince Prospero..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The name “Prospero” is derived from the adjective “prosperous,” meaning successful and wealthy. Prince Prospero is introduced as “happy,” somehow remaining optimistic in the face of the plague. Prospero is also the name of a character in Shakespeare’s 1610 play, The Tempest. Both are figured as artists with the ability to reshape reality, with Shakespeare’s Prospero wielding magic to shape his surroundings, and Poe’s Prospero using his wealth to create a privileged refuge from the horrors of the plague. Additionally, they are both portrayed as arrogant, viewing themselves as invulnerable and using their power and wealth to shield themselves from consequences or undesirable realities.

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