Prospero’s Transformation in ‘The Tempest’

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Ariel plays a crucial role in The Tempest. He makes his master realize the importance of forgiveness and mercy, which gives the spiritual element to the play. What does he say to Prospero? Why does Prospero listen to him? Let us see how Prospero leaves the path of vengeance.

The painting shows Miranda and Ferdinand.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare tests Ferdinand’s love for Miranda. (Image: Angelica Kauffman/Public domain)

Ariel and Prospero in The Tempest

In some ways, Ariel in The Tempest is parallel to Caliban. Ariel is commanded by Prospero and is not given what he desires most—his freedom. Some scholars have said that Caliban is more of a rough field slave whereas Ariel is more of a refined house servant. In The Tempest, Ariel is instrumental in bringing about transformation in Prospero. How does he achieve it?

Ariel’s meanings extend far beyond that of servant, as his actions and powers on the island attest. Ariel is the principal figure in the elaborate testing that goes on throughout the play: the test of Ferdinand’s love for Miranda, the test of the court party and their requisite punishment and then forgiveness; and he is also, and this is very important, the ultimate test for Prospero himself.

At the very end of Act 4, Prospero makes a rather chilling comment. He says, “At this hour / Lies at my mercy all my enemies.” Richard III or Cassius or perhaps even the admirable Henry V would not hesitate to wipe out these enemies. But Prospero does not, because forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of the spirit of these romance plays. Yet who counsels him towards mercy? It is Ariel.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Ariel: The Counselor in The Tempest

Ariel reports to Prospero how distracted, sorrowful, and dismayed all the court party have become, and he says that “if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender.” Prospero responds, “Dost thou think so, spirit?”

It’s important that he calls Ariel “spirit,” emphasizing that Ariel is not human. For Ariel replies, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” At this moment, the difference between the two is the crucial thing: Prospero is human, Ariel is spirit, yet it is the spiritual Ariel who urges mercy, and the human Prospero who still desires vengeance.

Shakespeare is making a profound comment here on the human condition, suggesting that our natural instinct is toward violence and revenge, but our higher faculty, call it our spiritual element, raises us to the nobler action of mercy.

Prospero’s response carefully indicates the quickening of his higher nature, his spiritual side of forgiveness. He says that if Ariel, “which art but air,” can feel their afflictions, then he, “one of their kind,” will also be moved in that way, “with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury.”

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How is The Tempest Special?

As many critics have noted, The Tempest is not exactly a Christian play, but it is a highly religious play, with a spiritual element, even a spiritual argument, that is certainly consonant with a Christian structure.

Hence Northrop Frye comments that grace in all the romances functions in many ways, but the major one is this: to show “the power of God that makes the redemption of humanity possible”. This is a key element of Ariel’s character, and gives the island another array of meanings, as a testing ground of humanity’s very spiritual elements.

The photo shows a painting depicting a scene from 'The Tempest'.
Many critics have noted that The Tempest is not exactly a Christian play, but it is a highly religious play, with a spiritual element. (Image: George Romney/Public domain)

Notice how Prospero’s transformation from revenge to forgiveness almost seems like a description of Shakespeare’s own career trajectory, from the early, formulaic revenge tragedies to the awesome tragedies of vengeance such as Hamlet and King Lear, and then concluding in these visions of reconciliation and harmony at the end of his writings.

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The Tempest: Shakespeare’s Last Solo Play

Thus The Tempest is, we believe, Shakespeare’s final solo play, and so it is extremely tempting to read it as his expression of his final vision. This is all the more tempting because Prospero delivers three major speeches that really sound like Shakespeare himself speaking to the audience about his own art.

Prospero says that the masque is now over. But he then expands into a much larger, philosophical statement about what it means to act, and to live. “Our revels now are ended”—the play, and indeed all of Shakespeare’s plays, his career as a man of the theatre, is coming to a close.

Common Questions about Prospero’s Transformation in The Tempest

Q: Who is Ariel in The Tempest?

In The Tempest, Ariel is Prospero’s servant who counsels him to forgive his enemies.

Q: How can one interpret Prospero’s transformation in The Tempest?

In The Tempest, Prospero’s transformation from revenge to forgiveness almost seems like a description of Shakespeare’s own career trajectory. Shakespeare’s early plays were formulaic revenge tragedies, then he wrote tragedies of vengeance such as Hamlet and King Lear, and then concluded his writings with the theme of reconciliation and harmony.

Q: Who says these words in The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended”?

In The Tempest, Prospero says the words: “Our revels now are ended.”

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