Many scholars argue that, along with Shakespeare’s other late romances, The Tempest is a play about reconciliation, forgiveness, and faith in future generations to seal such reconciliation. However, while it is clear that the theme of forgiveness is at the heart of the drama, what is up for debate is to what extent the author realizes this forgiveness. An examination of the attitudes and actions of the major characters in the play, specifically Prospero, illustrates that there is little, if any, true forgiveness and reconciliation in The Tempest.
We must first set a standard by which to judge the effectiveness of forgiveness in the play. Undoubtedly, the most important Christian lesson on the true nature of forgiveness can be found in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:
But I say to unto you which hear, love yourenemies, do good to them which hateyouBless them that curse you, and pray for themwhich despiseth you… For if ye love themwhich love you, what thank have ye? Forsinners also do even the same. But loveyour enemies, and do good, and lend,hoping for nothing again… (Luke 6:27-35)
Prospero’s conduct from the moment the play begins seems to contradict the basic tenets of Christian forgiveness. Fortune has brought his enemies within his grasp and Prospero seizes the opportunity for revenge. “Desire for vengeance has apparently lain dormant in Prospero through the years of banishment, and now, with the sudden advent of his foes, the great wrong of twelve years before is stirringly present again, arousing the passions and stimulating the will to action” (Davidson 225). While it is true that Prospero does not intend to harm anyone on the ship, and asks his servant sprite with all sincerity, "But are they, Ariel, safe?" (1.1.218), he does not hesitate to put the men through the agony of what they believe is a horrible disaster resulting in the death of Prince Ferdinand. Prospero insists that those who wronged him suffer for their crimes, before he offers them his forgiveness, even if it means innocent and noble men, like Gonzalo, suffer as well. Later in the drama Ariel tells Prospero that "The good old lord, Gonzalo/His tears run down his beard" (5.1.15-6), and it is Ariel’s plea that convinces Prospero to end their misery: "if you now beheld them / Your affections would become tender" (5.1.19-20).
Some critics believe that, through Ariel’s expression of genuine concern for the shipwrecked men, Prospero undergoes a transformation – that he comes to a "Christ-like" realization (Solomon 232). A close reading of the magician’s response reveals that his newfound regard for the command "love thine enemies" comes after he has achieved his revenge:
…the rarer action isIn virtue than invengeance: they being penitent,The sole drift of my purpose doth extendNot a frown further.
Prospero feels free to forgive those who sinned against him only after he has emerged triumphant and has seen the men, now mournful and "penitent", pay for their transgressions. Further evidence to support the claim that Prospero’s quality of mercy is strained, and that a truly sincere reconciliation fails to develop, comes when Prospero finally confronts King Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio and announces that he is the right Duke of Milan.
Prospero hopes that his plan to shipwreck the King and his courtiers will result in both their ultimate acceptance of him as Duke and their deep apologies for wronging him. But King Alonso’s initial reaction is not profound regret for setting Prospero out to sea in a rickety boat and stealing his title, but profound relief that someone on the island, be he real or no, has bid him a "hearty welcome" (5.1.89). Alonso does ask Prospero to pardon his wrongs, but the regret seems perfunctory and matter-of-fact, rather than genuine. It seems that Alonso’s only true regret is that his betrayal of Prospero has resulted in the loss of his son, Ferdinand. Nevertheless, Alonso’s brief and conciliatory "pardon me" is enough to please Prospero: "First, noble friend/Let me embrace thine age, whose honor cannot be measured or confined" (5.1.124-6). This exchange of pleasantries confirms Prospero’s penchant for forgiveness and the reconciliation of the two men, but only in the most superficial sense. And does Prospero truly forgive those who "hate" him? His reaction to Antonio speaks volumes:
For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brotherWould even infect my mouth, I do forgiveThy rankest fault, -- all of them; and requireMy dukedom of thee, which perforce, I know,Thou must restore. (5.1.130-4)
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, focussed on slaying the island fiends, will not even acknowledge Prospero.
A thorough discussion of the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in the play must consider Prospero’s treatment of Caliban. When Prospero came to the island he taught Caliban his language and mannerisms. At the beginning Caliban welcomed Prospero, delighting in the attention he would receive: "Thou strok’st me, and made much of me" (1.2.334). In return, Caliban showed Prospero "all the qualities o’ th’ isle" (1.2.339), as there was little else he could give his new master. But Caliban, in an expression of his natural instincts, tried to ravage Miranda. It is an atrocious deed, but, to Caliban, it is a basic biological urge, springing from no premeditation but his simple desire to procreate, and can be equated to the crimes of a child, which is itself an ironic juxtaposition. Caliban is "unlike the incontinent man, whose appetites subdue his will, and the malicious man, whose will is perverted to evil ends" (Kermode xlii). Caliban is, in fact, "the bestial man [with] no sense of right and wrong, and therefore sees no difference between good and evil. His state is less guilty” (Kermode xlii). While he should have taken measures to prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again, Prospero goes further to ensure that Caliban pay dearly for his actions. He threatens continually to "rack [him] with old cramps" (1.2.371), and confines him "in this hard rock" (1.2.345) away from the rest of the island. For Caliban Prospero has no mercy or forgiveness. Prospero brands him "a born devil, on whose name/Nurture can never stick" (4.1.188-9), and vows, "I will plague them all" (4.1.192). It is also true that Caliban is guilty of planning the murder of Prospero after he finds a new master, Stephano, whom, he believes, will treat him better than Prospero. But, again, Caliban, in his primitive (and drunken) state cannot be held accountable. Even though Prospero understands that Caliban’s bad behaviour is like that of a child, he does not offer mercy and forgiveness as freely and earnestly as one should. The best Prospero can do is couch a rather lackluster pardon inside a command:
Go, sirrah, to my cell;Take with you your companions; as you lookTo have my pardon, trim it handsomely. (5.1.292)
Shakespeare no doubt understood that ending the play with this sour meeting would leave the reader wanting, so he crafts the union of Miranda and Ferdinand as a vehicle by which the two fathers can further their reconciliation. It is fitting that the most innocent and virtuous of all the characters in the play, Gonzalo, should express the most hope for the future:
Was Milan thrust from Milan, that hisIssue Should become kings of Naples? O rejoiceBeyond a common joy, and set it downWith gold on lasting pillars: in one voyageDid Claribel her husband find at Tunis,And Ferdinand her brother found a wifeWhere he himself was lost: Prospero his dukedomIn a poor isle; and all of us ourselves,Where no man was his own. (5.1.204-12)
With these words of hope invested in the new royal couple, Alonso and Prospero rejoice together as the play comes to a close. But, despite the traditional happy ending befitting a Shakespeare comedy, ultimately, we are left with the feeling that true forgiveness and reconciliation have not been realized.
Davidson, Frank. The Tempest: An Interpretation. In The Tempest: A Casebook. Ed. D.J. Palmer. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1968.Kermode, Frank.
Introduction. The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.
Solomon, Andrew. A Reading of the Tempest. In Shakespeare’s Late Plays. Ed. Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod. Athens: Ohio UP, 1974.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Frank Kermode. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.