Prospero and the Technology of Education in “The Tempest”

October 6, 2010

Dinah Han

Wednesday afternoon class

          Technology is often thought of as a physical tool or instrument that provides assistance to people. The piece of technology itself is usually tangible and provides visible results. In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the most obvious technological “advance” that the protagonist Prospero uses is magic. His magic takes the form of a book and he uses its teachings to control and command spirits. Although Prospero’s magic itself gives him the means to exact his revenge on Antonio, a more powerful piece of technology is responsible for Prospero’s powers and influence: education. Although not palpable and conventionally thought of as technology, education is what brings about the changes in the characters and is arguably Prospero’s and The Tempest’s greatest piece of technology.

            The Tempest begins with Prospero revealing to his daughter, Miranda, how they came to be stranded on the island. Prospero explains that he used to be a beloved duke of Milan. During his rule, however, he was too absorbed in his studies and he never noticed his brother, Antonio, plotting with the King of Naples to overthrow him. Antonio slowly removed and replaced people in the government so that everyone eventually was under his command. As Prospero is describing this, he explains that Antonio not only changed who would be part of the government but “new-created/The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed ‘em” (I.ii.81-2). In other words, Antonio used force and manipulation to transform these people. Shakespeare makes it a point to distinguish the different modes in which people can be changed. One way is with the use of force and although initially effective, its results are superficial. Even if Antonio succeeded in overthrowing Prospero, the people of Milan were unhappy under their new leader and this is shown in Gonzalo’s joy when he realizes Prospero will return once again as the reigning Duke of Milan. Another mode of bringing about change is through enlightenment. Instead of using force, Prospero uses education to bring about change in many of the play’s morally corrupt characters.

            Ever since the shipwrecked crew lands on Prospero’s island, Antonio and Sebastian immediately begin to plot to kill Alonso and take his crown as the King of Naples. They do not waste a moment’s notice and go right into plans of killing Gonzalo and Antonio. When Sebastian asks Antonio if he feels guilty for what he did to Prospero, Antonio explains he felt no remorse for he “feel not this deity in my bosom” (II.i.273-4). Seeing the unscrupulous nature of these men, Prospero decides not to simply exact out his revenge but allow them to see for themselves the error of their ways. Initially, Prospero uses magic to torture Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian. He waves the mirage of a banquet in front of their face and when they are about to eat, he makes it vanish. He convinces Alonso that his son as died as a punishment for his assistance in the usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom. It is only after taking these men to what they thought was the brink of death that Prospero enlightens them with the truth. He reveals that this was all done as a punishment for their past indiscretions and that no one was really in harm’s way, including Alonso’s son Ferdinand. It is only after thinking he lost his only son that Alonso renounces his evil ways. By the end of the play, Sebastian and Antonio are too stricken with surprise that they do not say another word. Prospero could have used magic to bewitch these men into believing they were remorseful for their wrongdoings but he instead uses magic to educate them to see the error of their ways. Unlike Antonio’s forceful tactics, Prospero uses education to convince these men to be better people. It is this power of education that sets Prospero apart from the other magical entities of The Tempest.

           Prospero’s talents as an educator does not simply end with righting past wrongs. Prospero greatly believes in the power of education and uses the knowledge provided through a book to set himself apart from the other magical beings on the island. Prospero had clear reign over Ariel and Caliban for they were nothing more than slaves to him. In fact, a running theme throughout the play is Ariel either asking for her liberty or Prospero reminding her that freedom is only a few more tasks away. Caliban is also under Prospero’s control even if he consistently complains about it until the end of the play. There is no mention in the play as to whether Prospero has stronger magical powers that Ariel or Caliban. In fact, much of the magic is not done by Prospero but is all dictated by him and executed by the two spirits he commands. What does separate Prospero from Ariel and Caliban is, however, his literacy. When Prospero decides to forgo all magic, he decided to break and bury his staff and “deeper that did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book” (V.i.56-7). This staff but more importantly his book is what gave Prospero his magical strength. He did not simply read off the pages of this book but spends much of his educating himself of its contents. When it is time for Prospero to prepare himself for the main event, the mirage dinner, he looks “to my book,/For yet ere suppertime must I perform/Much business appertaining” (III.i.94-6). It is his ability to read this magic book and his steadfast motivation to educate himself on its writings that allows Prospero to be a stronger magical entity than the spirits of the island.

           Throughout William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, many characters are changed and turn out to be a better person from what they were at the beginning of the play. Prospero’s goal was to not destroy those that did wrong to him but to let them see for themselves the error of their ways. In order to do this, he did use magic as an aide but his main mode of power was education. Whether it was his education in the teachings of his magic book or the knowledge of goodness he instilled in characters like Alonso and Sebastian, Prospero used the technology of education as his means to reaching his goal.

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2 Responses to “Prospero and the Technology of Education in “The Tempest””

  1.   Onno Vocks Says:

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  2.   Jeremy spoken Says:

    Great post, also if you wanna make a huge collection of  shakespeare authorship books go to this link

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