Shakespeare's reversals of fortune tend to be tragic. Lear is brought low
by pride; Macbeth and Richard III by ambition; Hamlet, Romeo, and Othello
by their unbridled passion. One of the few plays in which a protagonist
endures misfortune without going mad or killing himself is The Tempest,
wherein the exiled magician Prospero redeems himself by judiciously and
humorously wielding his arts.
When Prospero senses that his nemeses, Antonio and Alonso, are passing
near his prison island, he summons the titular storm and scatters
the voyagers throughout his domain in the ensuing shipwreck. With the
assistance of his servant spirit Ariel, he is then able to exact a perfect
measure of vengeance, not too great and not too small, for the loss of his
station. Though Prospero has made the island his own, he is no native. He
was the Duke of Milan until his brother Antonio conspired with Alonso,
the King of Naples, to take his title and banish the magician from Italy.
Prospero's vindication is set in motion by Fortune herself when she
directs the ship bearing Alonso and his court toward the island. Then
Ariel, acting under Prospero's command, engirdles the ship with frothing
waves and sets fire to the mast. The ship meets a sudden doom on the
shoals of the island but the passengers do not, for Prospero's revenge
is characterized by his precise and judicious actions. This is perhaps
why Prospero is one success story among the many failures who people
Rather than yielding to the sway of passion and bringing grave calamities
down on his enemies, such as loss of life and limb, Prospero is content
to exercise more lighthearted trickery. Mostly through the agency of
Ariel, he visits upon them lethargy, slavering hounds, and an illusory
banquet. "There's no harm done," he reassures his daughter.
I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am: nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father.
[Act I, scene ii]
The modesty of Prospero's vengeance is of a piece with the humility of his
comportment on the island during twelve years of exile. In practically
any other Shakespeare play, a protagonist in this position would surely
have spent his time devising elaborate plots against his enemies while
indoctrinating his daughter in the history and philosophy of his feud. But
in the hazy, hallucinatory atmosphere of this island, Prospero was content
to appear before his daughter as nothing more than an esoteric scholar.
The closest Prospero comes to violence is in his speech, as when
he sets spirit hounds upon the drunken trio of Caliban, Stephano,
and Trinculo. Like some wrathful Santa Claus, he urges on the dogs,
hilariously named Mountain, Silver, Fury, and Tyrant, with words that must
vigorously work the jaws of anyone who reads them out loud. Yet these
words are harmless in the context of the play, for Prospero is content
that he has achieved mastery over the unwilling visitors to his island.
Go, charge my goblins that they grind their joints
With dry convulsions; shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard, or cat o' mountain.
Let them be hunted soundly. At this hour
Lie at my mercy all mine enemies
[Act IV, scene i]
It seems that Prospero earns his reversal of fortune by the circumspection
with which he treats his captives. It is this "spriting gently", as Ariel
puts it [Act I, scene ii], that lets him escape the painful endings that
befall the more impetuous Shakespeare protagonists. Whereas the other
plays feature tragic characters of precipitate action and high temper,
the most tempestuous thing about The Tempest is its title. Indeed, so
incidental are the elements to this gentle plot that the Boatswain falls
asleep in the course of the storm and sleeps through the play until its
It has been a pleasure to address this question on your behalf.