In ‘The Tempest’, Shakespeare subverts the social buttresses of 17th century Europe to explore the true nature of the “human” when exposed to the natural, rather than civil, world. Catalysed by the titular “tempest”, the fundamental “affections” and nature of each character manifest in slavery and inhuman malignance on the island. However, Prospero finally electing the “rarer action…in virtue” rather than “vengeance” reflects a final optimistic view of human nature. Prospero relinquishing his “so potent art” also mirrors Shakespeare’s move to “restore” the nobility of the human and the movement of the narrative from “tempest” to “calm seas”.
Shakespeare reveals humanity’s capacity for both “virtue” and “fury” through notions of servitude and by questioning what it means to be “human”. Prospero takes pains throughout the play to ensure that his “spirits obey”, being “in charge” over the “spirit” Ariel and the beastly Caliban. Prospero’s use of imperatives such as “Go, release them” and possessives as in “My spirit”, along with Ariel’s deferential use of “my lord” evince Prospero’s position of superiority. Prospero’s “project” gathering “to a head” equates to the imprisonment of his enemies, who he seeks to make suffer through his “vengeance” and “potent art”. Prospero initially measures the success of his machinations by the “King and’s followers” being “penitent” and “distracted”, rather than by achieving restorative justice, evincing a sense of misguided antipathy. Yet it is emblematic of Shakespeare’s humanism that Ariel, “which art but air”, spurs the shift in the “drift of (Prospero’s) purpose” towards reconciliation. Shakespeare alters the course of the play towards relinquishment and forgiveness to enact Prospero’s justice and “restore” the nobility of the “human”.
As Gonzalo articulates at the end of his play, each character gains a newfound sense of understanding “when no man was his own” on the island; Prospero’s realisation of what it is to be “human”, becoming “tender” and “kindlier moved”, reflects Shakespeare’s shift towards natural and social restoration. Visibly moved by Ariel’s affections, who would release and forgive Prospero’s enemies “were I human”, Prospero’s plans now “extend/Not a frown further”. A sense of humility develops in Prospero, hitherto unseen in his character, illustrated in his self-recognition as “one of their kind”. Despite the “high wrongs” done against him, Prospero hence begins to seek the “rarer action/In virtue than in vengeance”. Shakespeare evokes a sense of impending reconciliation through Prospero’s assertion of “my nobler reason” that now quells his “fury” and his promise that “they shall be themselves”, presaging Gonzalo’s speech in which “all of us (found ourselves). Shakespeare signals a far more positive perspective of human nature in the narrative shift to “restore” both the natural world and the goodness of humanity.
Whilst Prospero has manipulated his “potent art” for “vengeance” throughout the play, the relinquishment of his “charms” here captures his progression towards a more “human” and “tender” nature. Prospero’s “magic”, akin to Shakespeare’s creative power, has been an ambivalent force in the play, much like the noble aim yet “malignant” means of enacting his “project”. Whilst Prospero used his “art” for the harmonious union of Ferdinand and Miranda, he recognises his use of “rough magic” for crude and violent ends. Prospero articulates the extent of his power, having “bedimmed/The noontide sun” and “oped…graves”, before resolving to “abjure” his power and “drown my book”; whilst he “distracted” his enemies through illusion, he now seeks to “restore…their senses”. Prospero’s relinquishing of his “art” is made more significant as it was his focus on “magic”, rather than his duties, that led to his exile. By sacrificing his power, Prospero restores his attention to “worldly ends” and a recognition of his own humanity. This is also mirrored in the water imagery underpinning the play, moving from “tempest” to “calm seas”. Shakespeare concludes the play on a note of reconciliation, having demonstrated “virtue” in humanity through Prospero’s shift in “purpose”, and “restore(s)” each character to their social order disrupted by the “tempest”.