Consider closely the role and presentation of Prospero in the first act of the play. How do you think an audience would respond to him- a despot or a benevolent old man? At the centre of The Tempest is the question of authority, embodied in the character of Prospero. The fact that the play may have originally been performed for the royal court perhaps gives it more dimension and context as a challenge or a mockery of royalty and the nature of power. The audience’s reaction to Prospero obviously depends very much on how he is portrayed by the actor, but in Act 1 Scene 2 the audience becomes aware that the storm of the previous scene, in which the characters seem to have drowned, was caused by Prospero, perhaps having the immediate effect of making him appear a heartless man who uses his “art” for his own cruel purposes.
Prospero’s language however is calm and gentle, “Of thee my dear one, thee my daughter” accentuated by the contrast with Miranda’s emotional outbursts, “O, woe the day”, perhaps creating an image of a wise old man who has good, rational reasons for his actions. As he is introduced, speaking in this mild language, the audience may begin to realise the complexity of his character, a man whose manner does not correspond to his seemingly destructive actions. The violent impact of the first scene perhaps undermines the calmness of Prospero’s first lines, and while the audience may already perceive him as a clever yet kind man who is following a master plan, it seems more realistic that he would come across as a power hungry, scheming character from the beginning of the play.
As Act 1 Scene 2 develops and Prospero begins to tell Miranda his story, his complex language seems to reveal the depth of his emotions, showing again that he is not a simple character who can be understood in one clear-cut way. Prospero’s speech at the beginning of his tale is centred on himself, “And Prospero the prime duke”, he seems full of his own self worth and importance. Prospero’s long speeches also highlight this, he is giving a narrative that is virtually unbroken- the pauses are generally instigated by him, indicating that this is his story and he feels the need to control it. After Miranda’s speech Prospero leaves pauses, line 140, “Well demanded, wench; My tale provokes that question”, his answer is long winded and indirect, perhaps he feels he is keeping her in suspense, giving the impression that the story is an example of his need for power.
Prospero’s bitter and resentful language as he describes his brother, “thy false uncle”, “in my false brother awaked an evil nature”, perhaps sets out his character for the audience. His passion and anger clearly show that he is still deeply involved with the past, perhaps giving him an image of a tyrant who cannot forgive his bother for emerging successfully in the power struggle years before. There are however moments in Prospero’s story where he appears melancholy and reflective, saying “I, thus neglecting worldly ends”, perhaps showing that he understands and accepts that his usurpation was at least partly his own fault. His speech is highly structured and almost rhythmical, perhaps giving the impression that he is speaking slowly and carefully, thinking about what he is saying, and making his character into a wistful and thoughtful old man.
Prospero’s actions and speech towards others throughout the first act of the play perhaps reveal his tyrannical nature as he seems generally forceful and controlling. Although at the beginning of his story on line 56 he is kind and gentle to Miranda, describing her as “dear”, “cherubin”, his commands become more aggressive as he perhaps senses that she is disinterested in his tale, “Dost thou attend me?”, “thou attend’st not!”. This exclamatory tone on line 87 indicates that it is of vital importance to Prospero that he has Miranda’s full attention, making him seem power hungry even when regarding his own daughter.
Miranda’s comments during Prospero’s story are melodramatic and exaggerated, “O my heart bleeds”, perhaps showing the real emotion she feels over what has happened to her father, creating sympathy for Prospero, or alternatively they appear ironic, and make Prospero a figure for mockery in his obsession with the past. Miranda’s almost careless comments provide a contrast with Prospero’s complete involvement in the story, and, as the audience is similarly removed from the emotion of Prospero’s tale, having had no opportunity to know or understand the characters yet, it seems that an audience would also regard Prospero as an old man who will not give up the power he once had, despite the devastation we know he is capable of he perhaps even seems a character to be laughed at.
Prospero’s interaction with Ariel in this scene also reveals more about his character, as do Ariel’s responses, those of a slave to a master. After Ariel’s entrance on line 190 Prospero seems almost affectionate and proud of Ariel, but only proud that “my brave spirit” has performed the tasks that he set perfectly, and his speech is full of possessive language, “my spirit”, again showing his need for control. As the exchange continues however, and Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom, Prospero’s language becomes more extreme and wild, perhaps to show that he can even control nature and the elements, talking of “ever-angry bears”, “rend an oak”, in an effort to re-exert power over his slave and crush all thoughts of freedom. Prospero also becomes far more dominant, speaking a lot and only allowing Ariel short, submissive replies, “I thank thee master”.
At the beginning of his speech Ariel is descriptive, passionate and eloquent, “in every cabin I flamed amazement”, “the fire and cracks of sulphurous roaring”, using wild, natural language, bursting with energy, that reflects the nature of his character, a wild and proud spirit, whereas after Prospero has finished speaking to him his language has become subdued and restricted to short, perhaps fearful sentences.
The change in Ariel’s tone and language shows the power that Prospero wields, and is perhaps symbolic of the freedom and creativity that Prospero has deprived Ariel of, showing the audience that he can be cruel, manipulating and controlling. Prospero is perceived by the other characters as someone to fear and obey at all costs, and although his actions at the end of the play perhaps go some way to redeem his character, in the first act of the play it seems obvious to an audience that although he is a complicated character he is more of a tyrannical ruler than a benevolent old man.