The Tempest is highly relevant and relatable to our culture today. Especially after coming out of a pandemic, a kind of banishment, we can relate to Prospero’s situation. He had to make do with some very trying circumstances. It’s not just Prospero’s plight that connects this play to our culture, today. In an almost kaleidoscopic way, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a hall of mirrors for our times.
Prospero washes up on an island with an inhabitant who wants to kill him and to rape his daughter. This would be nightmarish, horrific, were it not for Prospero’s ability to control Caliban with his spells. There is a military imperative. Prospero’s interest in the literary arts led to him ignoring politics and opened the opportunity for his brother to betray him. Alone with his daughter on the island, he has no choice but to control its violent inhabitants. It is either control or be victimized for Prospero.
Still, there is something entirely creepy about Prospero’s controlling ways, necessary or not. Especially when it comes to his daughter. He orchestrates an encounter where she will fall in love. He manipulates the situation to arrange a marriage. In doing so, he is very deliberate about controlling their sexuality. He wants them to fall in love and to get married, but he is manipulating their sexual urges to do so.
The metaphor of the island has a lot of significance to us, today. Islands have become symbolic of secrets, of illicit and illegal behavior. Prospero establishes a kind of law and order on the island. He is a benevolent master an anti-Epstein. He manipulates the players and works them up to do what he wants, but he is not doing so for personal gain but for what he thinks will be best for the greater good. It is only through Prospero’s ability to renounce his powers, to give up his competitive advantage that we come to trust him. Yes, he is controlling, but with good reason and as soon as he can give up his power, he does.
The only way to trust someone is to see them in a situation where they have power and do not use it. Otherwise, we can only attribute good behavior to a lack of power. It is through restraint that we gain respect. For this past year and a half, we have all been banished to our own islands. The great hope is that this time of forced introspection, of limited mobility will have helped some of us, enough of us, to overcome our fears and hungers enough to see what a positive solution could be. We need people who are willing to give up their power for the greater good.
This summer will be a “brave new world” and we will do well to listen to the wisdom of Prospero.