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Character Analysis in The Tempest

Character Analysis Examples in The Tempest:

Act I - Scene II

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"You taught me language, and my profit on't Is I know how to curse...."   (Act I - Scene II)

While Caliban is depicted as contemptible, his relationship with Prospero features into a colonial dynamic within Shakespeare’s play. Prospero considers it a gift to have taught Caliban language; Caliban only sees this education as another form of imprisonment that Prospero has over him. Since Caliban states that the only value of language for him is to curse, we can understand his view that he is not treated equally by those with whom he can communicate. He can only speak to curse his oppressors. The tension between these two symbolically represents the "education" that European colonizers imposed on colonized groups across the world.

"You taught me language, and my profit on't Is I know how to curse...."   (Act I - Scene II)

The exchange between Prospero and Caliban reveals much about their relationship. Prospero initially treated Caliban with care until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Caliban’s claim that he wishes he had further depicts him as a despicable creature. Here, Caliban further reveals his vile character by saying that the only valuable thing he has learned from Prospero is how to curse.

"O, I have suffered(5) With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her, Dashed all to pieces!..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Miranda expresses concern for the ship as she watched the storm tear it to pieces. Suspecting her father had something to do with the storm, Miranda expresses her sympathy for the ship and claims that some “noble creature” must have been on it. Since Gonzalo earlier told the Boatswain to remember who is onboard the ship (the King of Naples), Miranda appears to possess some kind of insight about the characters arriving on the island. This passage reveals Miranda to be a kind, compassionate person capably of sympathizing with the suffering of others, which puts her in stark contrast with other characters like Caliban and Antonio.

"From mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom...."   (Act I - Scene II)

Most importantly, Gonzalo knew how much Prospero valued his books, which is why Gonzalo helped put them on the ship that took Prospero and his daughter away from Milan. These books contain much of Prospero’s magical power, and without them, he wouldn’t have been able to summon the tempest.

"A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo..."   (Act I - Scene II)

We learn here that Gonzalo, the same from the first scene, took pity on Prospero and Miranda and supplied them with goods before they were sent out to see. That Prospero calls him noble, that he made such efforts with the exiles, and that he showed respect for the Boatswain’s authority on the ship portrays Gonzalo as an amiable and respectable nobleman.

"Dost thou forget From what a torment I did free thee?..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Prospero praises the work that Ariel has done for him in creating a violent storm; however despite Ariel’s faithful service, Prospero refuses to give Ariel his freedom. When confronted with this injustice, Prospero reminds Ariel that he would not be free if it were not for Prospero’s actions. This is ironic though, as Ariel goes from being enslaved, to free, and back to being enslaved again. Prospero may treat Ariel considerably well in comparison to his previous master, Sycorax, but Prospero still uses his power to maintain his position as master.

"The ivy which had hid my princely trunk, And sucked my verdure out on't. Thou attend'st not!..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Prospero explains that initially, he and his brother Antonio were very close. Prospero emphasizes that he trusted his brother completely, and this makes Antonio’s betrayal all the more painful and shocking. This quote establishes Antonio as the villain of the play, emphasizing how he has used Prospero’s trust against him in his quest for power.

"No wonder, sir, But certainly a maid...."   (Act I - Scene II)

Miranda and Ferdinand both initially mistake each other for spirits—Miranda hasn't ever seen a human male besides her old father, and Ferdinand thinks Miranda is so beautiful that she can't possibly be a human woman. Shakespeare alludes to Aeneas's first glimpse of Venus disguised as a girl when he was shipwrecked at Carthage.

"He was indeed the duke..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Prospero reveals the story of how he and his daughter, Miranda, came to be stranded on the island. As the Duke of Milan, Prospero was far more interested in reading than politics. He spent his time studying while his brother, Antonio, oversaw daily operations and otherwise managed the dukedom—so effectively, it seems, that he managed to usurp Prospero's power and set he and Miranda (then three-years-old) out to sea.

"Abhorrèd slave, Which any print of goodness wilt not take, Being capable of all ill! ..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Miranda and Prospero express anger that their "education" of Caliban has done very little to civilize him. However, their indignation fails to take into account both Caliban's history and the irony in their form of "civilization." Caliban was a free spirit who has now been forced into slavery. What they are calling his freedom from savagery ironically becomes his imprisonment in servitude. Caliban's character becomes more sympathetic through this lens of injustice.

"Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come In yours and my discharge..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Antonio's claim that "what's past is prologue" is one of Shakespeare's more memorable quotes. In addition to saying that what has happened in the past provides a foreground for the future, this line is also an example of metadrama, meaning that characters in a play discuss their situation as if they were in a theatre. In this way, Antonio views himself as a playwright, manipulating events and people to gain power. This is very similar to his brother’s orchestrations with the storm and commands to Ariel; however, as we will see, Prospero has the real power of storyteller in The Tempest.

"I'th’ commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Gonzalo imagines a kind of utopian society in which everyone is equal, no one has to work, and there is no conflict. On the one hand, Gonzalo’s ideal world highlights his fair and honorable nature: Gonzalo is not hungry for power and does not wish to enslave people, unlike many other characters in the play. However, Gonzalo’s vision is reminiscent of the larger colonial narrative of the time: to discover a rich, abundant island and govern it as one sees best. European colonizers had a similar way of thinking, which ultimately meant that the native populations were oppressed and enslaved, as the colonizers attempted to create their ideal nations. Gonzalo’s dream society may seem wonderful, but the reality of it is problematic.

"she that from whom We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again, And by that destiny, to perform an act..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Having told Sebastian that with Ferdinand’s death Sebastian is now the heir to the throne of Naples, Antonio claims in this passage that the tempest has provided them with an opportunity to gain more power. His speech reveals his cunning and persuasiveness that he used to betray Prospero before because he avoids telling Sebastian to murder Alonso directly, preferring to plan the idea in Sebastian’s mind to convey the notion that everything is a part of his fate.

"[to Sebastian] Fie, what a spendthrift is he of his tongue!..."   (Act II - Scene I)

A “spendthrift” is a person who spends money profusely or wastefully. To say that Gonzalo is a spendthrift “of his tongue” is to say that he talks too much. Antonio and Sebastian mock Gonzalo for his optimistic attempts to comfort Alonso, which further characterizes Gonzalo as friendly and compassionate in comparison to Antonio and Sebastian.

"Twenty consciences That stand ’twixt me and Milan, candied be they(320) And melt ere they molest!..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Ariel has put most of the men to sleep, and during this time Antonio has revealed his plan to murder Alonso and make Sebastian King of Naples. Antonio encourages Sebastian to carry out the plan by referring to his own power grab when he got rid of Prospero and took the title of Duke of Milan for himself. When Sebastian asks if Antonio has any qualms about having done this, Antonio states that "twenty consciences" would “melt ere they molest,” meaning that he has absolutely no remorse. Such a claim reveals Antonio to be a villain with few complications to his character beyond a shameless and simply desire to acquire as much power as possible for himself. The acquisition and perpetuation of power is a theme throughout the play, and Antonio’s ambition provides an example of power taken by force and violence.

"And look how well my garments sit upon me, Much feater than before...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Antonio reminds Sebastian that he has performed a similar power grab before when he took his brother Prospero's title of Duke of Milan. When asked if his conscience is troubled by ousting Prospero, Antonio asks Sebastian to look at how well his clothing fits him. Since clothing is often used as a symbol to reflect station, Antonio’s boast reveals that he has no problems with having taken power by force from his brother.

"A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!..."   (Act II - Scene II)

To free himself from Prospero’s slavery, Caliban chooses to become a slave to Stephano, calling him a god because of the power of his liquor. Trinculo’s and Stephano’s treatment of Caliban provides a metaphor for the abusive and ignorant way that European colonizers took advantage of colonized populations. Furthermore, Trinculo’s calling Caliban “ridiculous” and “strange” is similar to the dehumanizing language Prospero uses with Caliban.

"All the infections that the sun sucks up From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him By inch-meal disease! ..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Having been enslaved by Prospero on the island that is supposedly his inheritance, Caliban is portrayed as an angry character. Here Caliban boldly expresses his hatred towards Prospero by cursing him, hoping that all possible infections from “bogs, fens, flats,” or, in other words, wet muddy grounds and swampy areas will cause Prospero to rot away “inch-meal” or little by little.

"[aside] Poor worm, thou art infected! This visitation shows it...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Prospero has played matchmaker, meticulously manipulating the entire exchange between Ferdinand and Miranda so that they will fall in love with one another and get married. As Prospero secretly watches his plan unfold, his portrayal as a playwright with the play is emphasized.

"Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Caliban offers this well-spoken speech about the nature of the island to reassure Stephano and Trinculo that there is nothing to worry about. Such a speech provides a markedly new presentation of Caliban as a character: until now, he has been bitter, crude, and vile, but here we see him talk about the natural world in beautiful language. From a colonial lens, this could be criticism against the colonizers view of native lands but it could also be a European depiction of the Noble Savage, a stereotype of non-European cultures as having a natural simplicity and virtue that hasn’t been corrupted by European civilization.

"Give me thy hand. I am sorry I beat thee; but, while thou liv'st, keep a good tongue in thy head...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Since these three have been together, they have continued to drink and get progressively more drunk. Stephano has decided that he shall rule over the island with Caliban as his faithful servant while Trinculo has continued to mock Caliban, causing Stephano to threaten to hang him. However, Caliban informs them about Prospero and Miranda, saying that Stephano can gain great power if he kills Prospero. The promise of this power provides an opportunity for them to stop bickering. While this scene is largely meant to be humorous and serve as a reprieve from the more serious scenes, the foolishness of these characters and how easily they fight and reconcile with one another demonstrates the fickle and deceitful aspects of human nature, particularly when opportunities for power present themselves.

"A devil, a born devil, on whose nature..."   (Act IV)

Prospero’s statement that Caliban is “a born devil” who would be incapable of learning to behave any differently, reflects a common colonialist belief that native populations were inherently “savage” and “uncivilized.” Some Europeans believed that the native peoples could be taught the ways of the “civilized,” and colonizers would thus seek to “civilize” the local populations by forcing their own language, beliefs, and customs on them. Others claimed that non-European populations were naturally inferior and that it was impossible to “civilize” them, as Prospero does. These racist claims were essentially used as justification for enslaving the native populations, and Prospero’s comment echoes this violent ideology.

"This thing of darkness I(320) Acknowledge mine...."   (Act V)

By “thing of darkness,” Prospero is referring to Caliban. We again see Prospero denying Caliban’s humanity, referring to him as a nonhuman “thing” rather than a man, which Prospero has done numerous times throughout the play. The term “darkness” refers to Caliban’s skin tone, further emphasizing Prospero’s racism. Prospero believes Caliban is his property and treats him as if he were his pet or possession. Considering that the play was written only a few decades before the Atlantic slave trade began, during this time colonizers would have referred to indigenous people as “thing[s]” to justify their enslavement of them. Viewed through this lens, Prospero’s comments echo this imperial mindset.

"O rejoice Beyond a common joy! And set it down(240) With gold on lasting pillars: in one voyage Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis, And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom In a poor isle; and all of ourselves,(245) When no man was his own..."   (Act V)

Notice that all of the characters have been brought together here, even those that have been presumed dead. Gonzalo points out that although the storm wreaked havoc on the group, the natural order has actually been restored: Prospero has regained his dukedom, and Ferdinand and Miranda have fallen in love. Gonzalo again illustrates his caring and optimistic nature here, emphasizing that although the characters have faced much adversity, they have all found themselves even “when no man was his own.” However, while Gonzalo describes the ways in which Italian society has been improved upon by the storm, he ignores the ways in which the natives of the island have been affected. Gonzalo’s celebratory comments may be coming from a place of compassion, but they also indicate his ignorance of and indifference to the plight of the natives.

"and shall not myself, One of their kind, that relish all as sharply Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?..."   (Act V)

Prospero’s response to Ariel’s inspiring him to be more compassionate towards others once again portrays Ariel in a noble way despite being only “air.” Prospero uses this as a comparison for his humanity and Ariel’s non-humanity, saying that Prospero should sympathize even more for Alonso and the others because they are human, and if Ariel can have such compassion, then Prospero should have even more.

"Mine would, sir, were I human. ..."   (Act V)

While Prospero does have magical power of his own, Ariel has done nearly all of the work in carrying out Prospero’s plan. In addition to Ariel’s power, he has also acted with more compassion, intelligence, and restraint than most of the characters in the play. Keeping this in mind, it is somewhat ironic that this humble comment reminds the audience that Ariel is not human because of his actions and the advice he gives Prospero. Ariel’s role then, like Caliban’s, can be viewed as another example of a colonized subject, obediently doing Prospero’s work and passively accepting Prospero’s without claiming a right to equal status.

"Why, that's my dainty Ariel! I shall miss thee, But yet thou shalt have freedom..."   (Act V)

Prospero finally sets Ariel free with these words. Though certain earlier scenes in the play may suggest that the relationship between Prospero and Ariel could be interpreted as a form of slavery, Prospero’s word choice here clearly shows that the relationship is very different from the hate-filled one between Prospero and Caliban. Prosper calls Ariel a “dainty,” or excellent, spirit and admits that he will miss Ariel.

"This thing of darkness I(320) Acknowledge mine...."   (Act V)

Prospero’s statement further reinforces the master and slave relationship between him and Caliban. Also, calling Caliban a “thing of darkness” reveals Prospero’s disgust towards the slave; at the same time, the three words dehumanize and demonize Caliban.

"How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world That has such people in't!..."   (Act V)

Miranda’s first impression of humankind reflects her overwhelming innocence that has resulted from being stranded on the island for twelve years with only Prospero and Caliban. Miranda calls the men from the shipwreck “beauteous,” showing her shallow knowledge of humankind. At the same time, seeing other humans has created a “brave new world” in her mind. “Brave” in this context refers to “fine,” “noble,” and “splendid.”

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