'The Tempest' Characters: Description and Analysis

Summary and Analysis of 'The Tempest's Power-Hungry Characters

The characters of The Tempest are each in their own way under the control of Prospero, the powerful wizard and former Duke of Milan who was deposed by his brother. Much of the play's social action is dictated by the powerful wizard, but each character has their own claim to power.

Prospero

Ruler of the island and Miranda’s father. The former Duke of Milan, Prospero was betrayed by his brother Antonio and sent off with his baby daughter in what he claims was a mere raft (though, notably, the raft was sturdy enough to carry his library of magic texts).

From the very beginning of the play when he accuses the diligent Miranda of not listening well enough to his story, he appears to be a control freak, demanding loyalty and respect. He is willing to be affectionate when power is entirely his; for example, he ensures his daughter’s marital happiness, so long as the suitor will give him a royal legacy, and he praises Ariel and promises to give him freedom, so long as the spirit obeys him.

In the same vein, the whole play can be seen as a spectacle of Prospero’s recapturing of power from the brother who stole his title. Prospero may for this reason forgive his perfidious brother Antonio and treat the king’s retainers—even those that attempt to kill him—mercifully, only when it is clear they are in his power. In contrast, the most violent parts of the play, the shipwreck and the hunting dogs’ chase, are brought about when Prospero feels his authority is under threat.

Caliban

Enslaved by Prospero, Caliban was the son of Sycorax, the witch who ruled the island after she banished from the city of Algiers in Algeria. Caliban is a complicated character. Savage and monstrous on one level, Caliban attempts to force himself on the chaste Miranda and offers her body to Stephano to convince him to kill Prospero. At the same time, the play’s emphasis on Prospero’s attempt to get back the dukedom that was rightfully his echoes Caliban’s insistence that the island is his by the exact same rules of inheritance.

Although Prospero protests that he treated Caliban well, teaching him English and allowing him to live in his house, there is no question that Caliban was denied his own culture, language, and lifestyle with Prospero’s arrival. Indeed, critics often read Caliban as representing the indigenous peoples of the Americas as encountered by Europeans in their exploration of the New World. His unlikeability is thus complicated, and is in fact never resolved by Shakespeare; we are left uncertain about Caliban’s fate by the end of the play, perhaps because no ending would feel justified or satisfying. Thus Caliban can be seen to represent the question of the legitimacy of European expansion, and an acknowledgement of moral ambiguity even from a contemporary English playwright.

Ariel

An “airy spirit” and the fairy-servant of Prospero. He was imprisoned by the witch Sycorax when she ruled the island, but Prospero freed him. Anxious to be free from Prospero’s service, Ariel nonetheless fulfills his commands willingly and with inspiration. Over the course of the play, we witness the growth of what seems like affection between the two.

Ariel, however, can be seen next to Caliban as a victim of Prospero’s colonialism; after all, he was imprisoned by the witch Sycorax, herself an intruder, and is seen by some scholars as the rightful owner of the island. However, Ariel opts for a relationship of cooperation and negotiation with the newly arrived Prospero, in contrast to the more bellicose Caliban. For his cooperation, Ariel gets his freedom—but only once Prospero leaves the island for his own dukedom and desires no more claim to it.

Ariel as a character also recalls the fairy-servant Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written a decade and a half before The Tempest; however, while the chaotic Puck accidentally causes much of the play’s action by using a love potion on the wrong person and thus represents disorder, Ariel manages to execute Prospero’s commands exactly, reinforcing the sense of Prospero’s absolute authority, control, and power.

Miranda

Daughter of Prospero and lover of Ferdinand. The only woman on the island, Miranda grew up having seen only two men, her father and the fearsome Caliban. She taught Caliban how to speak English, but despises him after he attempted to rape her. Meanwhile, she falls in love with Ferdinand immediately.

As the only female character, she is a rich source for feminist scholarship. Naïve and totally loyal to her control-obsessed father, Miranda has internalized the patriarchal structure of the island. Furthermore, both Prospero and Ferdinand align her value to an extent with her virginity, and thus define her by her relations to other men above her own feminine personality or power.

However, despite her obedient nature and the values of feminine bashfulness she has internalized, Miranda cannot help but be accidentally powerful. For example, she prompts Ferdinand to propose rather than demurely wait. Similarly, she notably offers to do the work that Prospero has ordered Ferdinand to do, undermining his masculine showiness and suggesting she needs no knight in shining armor to win her hand in marriage.

Ferdinand

Son of King Alonso of Naples and lover of Miranda. When Prospero accuses him of spying, Ferdinand shows he is brave (or at least dashing), drawing his sword to defend himself. Of course, he is no match for Miranda’s father, who magically freezes him in place. In any case, Ferdinand is a traditionally masculine love interest, engaging in an agreement with a woman’s father to prove his love through physical labor. He is not afraid to make a bit of a show of this semi-heroic toil if she’s watching.

However, while his staged fatigue is to convince Miranda of his devotion and his masculinity, it prompts her to undercut this masculinity by offering to do the work for him, in some sense taking matters into her own hands and suggesting he is too weak to do the work required. This subtle transgression is resolutely refused by Ferdinand, who embraces a much more traditional romantic dynamic.

Antonio

Duke of Milan and Prospero’s brother. Although Prospero was the rightful heir to the throne, Antonio schemed to usurp his brother and banish him to this island. On the island, Antonio convinces Sebastian to murder his brother Alonso the king, showing that his ruthless ambition and lack of brotherly love continues to this day.

Alonso

King of Naples. Alonso spends much of the play mourning his son Ferdinand, who he thinks has drowned. He also acknowledges his guilt in Prospero’s undoing years before, as he accepted Antonio as the rightful duke despite his betrayal.

Gonzalo

A loyal Neapolitan courtier and councilor to Alonso. Gonzalo attempts to comfort his king. His loyalty to Prospero in supplying him before his banishment is well-remembered and rewarded by Prospero at the play’s end.

Sebastian

Alonso’s brother. Although originally loyal to his older brother, Sebastian is convinced by Antonio to murder his brother and take his throne. His attempt is never quite caught.

Stephano

A butler on the Italian ship. He finds a casket of wine from the ship’s cargo and shares it with Trinculo and Caliban, who convinces him he will be king of the island if he can kill Prospero and take his throne.

Trinculo

A jester on the Italian ship. Ignorant and weak-willed, he finds himself washed up on shore in the company of Stephano and Caliban and is thrilled to find another living Italian. Caliban convinces them to attempt to overthrow Prospero, but they are no match for the powerful wizard.