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"But this swift business I must uneasy make": Intra-Familial Killing and Feudal Reclamation in The Tempest

by Nate Jarvis


"By him I'll be great Emperor of the world"
--Marlowe, Faustus

Prospero's intent throughout the course of The Tempest is neither to revenge himself upon his enemies, nor to reconcile himself with his estranged brother. It is, rather, to orchestrate the reclamation of his lost duchy, Milan, through both his magic and a shrewd manipulation of both the shipwrecked party and the islanders (Caliban and Miranda).

Prospero promotes both the mutual affections of Ferdinand and Miranda and the two regicidal conspiracies (Antonio's and Caliban's). Through the establishment of the graver conspiracy, and through the overwhelmingly magical nature of the island, he drives Alonso into a state of confusion from which any escape would be welcome. He turns Alonso's men against him and separates his son, inciting the paranoia and fear that come with an insecure station, while reminding him of his own fate twelve years prior—proof that such paranoia is not without foundation.

Prospero's magic is a display of power, a power which he only foretells renouncing. While in some stage productions Prospero will break a staff or burn a book, the text itself switches from a future tense first person description of the renunciation, in the play, to a past tense description, in the epilogue; the event itself is never enacted. The precise moment at which Prospero destroys his books, however, is irrelevant, as his power lies not so much in them as in Ariel. Ariel is not given freedom until the King's ship "shall catch/ [the] royal fleet far off . . . Ariel . . . that is thy charge" (V.1 315-17). By retaining Ariel after the reconciliation Prospero remains empowered, a necessity in the event that Alonso suffers a change of heart.

Of all the spirits in his power, Ariel is the one Prospero calls upon most and first, even to the point of invoking him to invoke the lesser spirits who perform the masque. It is Ariel who calls the storm and wrecks the ship, it is Ariel who brings its passengers to shore. Prospero uses Ariel to position the wrecked nobles; in so doing he arranges the two conspiracies, as well as the meeting between Miranda and Ferdinand.

But Prospero (through Ariel) has done more than simply arrange for Miranda and Ferdinand to meet. He has cast a glamour on Ferdinand ("our garments . . . drenched in the sea, hold . . . their freshness" (II.1 60-61)), which leads Miranda to "call him a thing divine" (I.2 418). Miranda herself has been groomed by Prospero to be what men desire (pure, virtuous, beautiful), even men as unmanlike as Caliban. The question of whether or not Gonzalo, in his benevolence, thought to pack along with the books and food and the clothes that fit yet more clothes, for Miranda when grown, raises the question of whether or not a glamour might have been cast on her as well. (It is safe to say that Ferdinand's mistaking a child who has been raised immersed in magic a goddess is not as far off base as it may at first seem.) Ferdinand and Miranda experience a "love at first sight"; their affections are based solely off physical attraction. If a glamour has been cast upon Miranda, then the girl Ferdinand is falling for does not exist outside of Prospero's allowing her to exist (i.e., outside of the spell which has been cast upon her). If one has not been cast on her, the island (which is a magical Node) on which she has been raised is at least in part responsible for her beauty, as she has grown to womanhood under its influence.

Ferdinand is led by Ariel's song to meeting Miranda; it is, explicitly, Prospero's intent to bring the two together. "It goes on, I see, as my soul prompts it" (I.2 420-21) he remarks in soliloquy. He tries Ferdinand "lest too light winning [Miranda] make the prize light" (I.2 452-53). As he will later tell him, "All thy vexations were but trials of thy love" (IV.1 5-6). The union not only marries Miranda into royalty, it places the state of Milan in a position at which Prospero's being Duke (over Antonio) is advantageous to Naples, its new liege. The Neapolitan interest, coupled with Prospero's just claim to the title (as well as the love he claims the Milanese people bear him) serve to place Prospero in a position of opportunity, which must be seized "else [Prospero's] fortunes will ever after droop" (I.2 183-84).

While Prospero may hold temporal power on the island, Alonso holds it in Italy. Prospero's surest means of effecting his return to power is to acquire Alonso's aid; his surest failure is for Alonso to lay objection to his claim. To acquire Alonso's aid Prospero must both place his return to power in Alonso's interests, and make the continuation of Antonio's rule appear a threat to Alonso's power base and security. After establishing (or promising to establish) familial connections with Naples, Prospero begins to develop a source of personal identification between himself and Alonso, through the twin conspiracies of Antonio and Caliban, which he has made not only possible, but opportune.

Antonio convinces Sebastian to kill his brother and take his crown, Caliban likewise for Stephano with Prospero. By instructing Ariel to put everyone in the king's party except Antonio and Sebastian to sleep, Prospero sets the stage for their subversion. He lets them take their conspiracy as far as they can without realizing it (by killing Alonso). In this way they attain as much guilt as possible, without being able to benefit from their crimes—"else his project dies" (II.1 294). The moment at which Gonzalo is woken is the moment at which they would have struck the deathblows. By postponing intervention until the final moment Prospero removes all doubt of Antonio and Sebastian's intent; they did not simply debate killing, they attempted it.

Prospero orchestrates the other conspiracy within the play, that of Caliban, by arranging the meeting between him and Stephano and Trinculo. Ariel has placed the former two. Prospero has sent Caliban to gather wood, despite his already adequate supply. Caliban claims, "There's wood enough within" (I.2 314), and Prospero obviously has wood if there is wood for Ferdinand to haul.

Prospero may also be responsible for their intoxication. Stephano's wine, like the passengers themselves, went into and came out of the sea. If, like the passengers, it did so thanks to Ariel, and was likewise placed ashore by Ariel (in a specific location), then both its washing ashore and Stephano's finding it were as pre-orchestrated as his meeting Trinculo, or Ferdinand's meeting Miranda.

By placing the three together Prospero allows a conspiracy to develop against him, one that mirrors the conspiracy of Antonio and Sebastian against Alonso. These like conspiracies create grounds for fraternity between the two. But the threat to Alonso is severe and pressing, while that to Prospero is comical, threatening more to the perpetrator (Caliban) than to Prospero himself. Prospero ensures that the only true threat is to Alonso (by setting drunkards after himself); the only need for protection developed is Alonso's. Prospero is then able to step in and offer that protection, both on the island, through his magic, and upon returning to Italy, by reassuming the title of Milan.

Prospero makes himself the more favorable of the two "rightful" dukes in Alonso's eyes, both because he, despite past wrongs, is the more trustworthy, and because his lineage empowered empowers Ferdinand's lineage. Alonso calls Ferdinand "heir of Naples and Milan" (II.1 107-08) in Antonio's presence, expressing his desires to win the latter state for his son. Such a winning, as an act of conquest, is rendered unnecessary by Ferdinand's betrothal to Miranda, who is the rightful heir to Milan as Prospero is the rightful Duke. By recognizing Prospero's legitimate claim Antonio is enlarging his own empire and his son's inheritance. Moreover, by arranging for Ferdinand to inherit both Naples and Milan, he leaves him strong enough to resist any militant claim the King of Tunis could make to the Neapolitan throne, legitimized by his recent marriage to Claribel.


"To keep a secure hold, it suffices to have extinguished the line of the previous prince"
--Machiavelli, The Prince

During the first meeting between Ferdinand and Miranda the former relates the supposed death of Alonso, Antonio and Antonio's son: "the King my father wracked . . . the Duke of Milan and his brave son being twain" (I.2 436, 438-39). If Ferdinand is to be taken literally, then Antonio's son, the heir apparent to Milan, is the only passenger whom Ariel sends into the water but does not bring out.

Whether or not Prospero deliberately murdered Antonio's son is questionable; that it would be to his advantage to do so is not. With Antonio's son dead Milan is without an heir, without a male heir (who could rule Milan from Milan) in Ferdinand's generation. It leaves Antonio a duke with no successor, a position of little security. He and Prospero are then the only men with a genetic claim to Milan. Prospero having a daughter as sole heir, with whom Alonso's son and heir of Naples is infatuated, he becomes the clear-cut choice for Alonso to promote as duke. He offers legitimate means for Ferdinand's ascent to Milan's throne, as opposed to the illegitimate claim he could make after Antonio's death.

While Ferdinand's recounting of the wreck is the only direct reference to either Antonio's son or his death, linguistic references are present, if latent, within the text. Prospero, and later Ariel, both make oblique, homonymic references to the drowned heir. Prospero tells Miranda, "not so much perdition as an hair betid to any creature in the vessel" (I.2 30-31); Ariel to Prospero says, "Not a hair perished" (I.2 217). The change in article, as well as affecting meter, charts a concealment of the boy's death. At first it would sound exactly as "an heir." Later, "a heir" is grammatically incorrect (the H in "heir" being silent, it requires the indefinite article "an"). The irony is still present, but without the sense of admission present in Prospero's assurance of Miranda. Ariel need not be as obvious with Prospero as Prospero can afford to be with Miranda; Prospero has knowledge of the boy and his death, Miranda of neither.

The matter is quickly glossed over, in the interests of preserving Prospero's image of selflessness and magnanimity. As Machiavelli writes: "a prince should take great care never to drop a word that does not seem imbued with . . . all compassion, all honor, all humanity, all integrity, all religion" but "must keep [his] mind so disposed that, in case of need, [he] can turn to the exact contrary" (50-1). Prospero must seem good that Alonso will bear him love and trust, but he must also eliminate potential pretenders to his throne. Antonio, being predisposed to treachery and self-advancement, can be easily discredited, thereby rendered politically benign. His son, however, presents a greater problem, and a threat not so much to Prospero at the time of the play, as to Miranda and Ferdinand in the years after. If Ferdinand received Milan he would rule as an outsider. Even if he moved his primary residence from Naples to Milan he is still an alien, and Antonio's son is a native with legitimate claim. A Milanese Duke would be more auspicious to the Milanese people than a Neapolitan. Having popular support against him would be detrimental to Ferdinand's Milanese ambitions, hence lessening the value of Miranda's dowry and Prospero's trump in the power play at hand. Prospero does what must be done to prevent his plans from being undermined: he neutralizes the threat to the degree it demands.


"Nothing but in care of thee"
--Shakespeare, The Tempest

To simply claim Prospero a manipulator who discards morality when he sees fit and adopts its semblance when it suits his purposes is a bit prejudicial, and not wholly accurate. While Prospero does manipulate the other characters towards a very fixed end, it is not his own end towards which he drives, but Miranda's. "I have done nothing but in care of thee," he tells her (I.1 16). His actions and manipulations are committed to secure her future. Prospero maneuvers himself into the position of feudal authority by reclaiming Milan in order to establish Miranda in a position of feudal stability. By marrying her into Naples he makes her a queen-to-be. By discrediting Antonio in the eyes of Alonso he establishes her as the undisputed heir apparent to Milan.

Prospero's redemption doesn't come with the renunciation of his magic, or with his forgiving Antonio and Alonso their transgressions against him. It comes from his love of his daughter, who is the epitome of innocence. Prospero's amorality was not present when he first ruled Milan. He was as trusting and naïve as Miranda, as his political advancement of Antonio indicates. He has adopted the amorality on the isle, that Miranda might be Queen and Duchess both, and both in her innocence. In so doing he adopts the role he'd once conferred upon Alonso, placing Miranda in the position he himself had filled. She is the innocent but fair nobleman, he the ruthless administrator who works to preserve her station. But unlike the previous Milan, in which the familial bond was brother-to-brother and open to sibling rivalry and betrayal, the bond of the new Milan is father-to-daughter. By advancing Miranda Prospero does advance himself, in that she is and will produce his legacy, but he also advances her of her own accord, as an act of love. The latter is the more virtuous, closer to the idyllic Milan Prospero would have shared with Antonio and the paradise that Gonzalo proposes to the shipwrecked party. Prospero summons the tempest to effect the calm that will follow, knowing the pieces will settle where he wants them.


Machiavelli, Niccolò.
The Prince. Robert M. Adams, trans., ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. vii.-75.
Marlowe, Christopher.
Dr. Faustus. William Allan Neilson, ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994.
Shakespeare, William.
The Tempest. Northrop Frye, ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.