A real character: Is Prospero Shakespeare?

Many people reckon The Tempest’s island sorcerer formerly known as the Duke of Milan was actually a self-portrait of the playwright. What do you reckon?

Ralph Fiennes as Prospero
Lookie-likies? Ralph Fiennes gives his Prospero/Shakespeare in The Tempest at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

In this article I’ll be considering the links between Shakespeare and his character, Prospero. But before we begin, would you be able to help me in a small literary investigation? Before you read any further could you skip down to the comments section and say whether or not you identify/identified Prospero with Shakespeare when you read the play?



My guess is that most modern readers do see something of the ageing playwright in the wizard. How not to find metaphors in the way he moves characters around the island, conjures visions, makes pointed comments about “the great globe itself” and eventually throws aside his staff and foreswears his art? What greater last words could there be for the genius from Stratford than that famous speech about how “our revels now are ended”, or his final lines in the play asking for the audience to give him their applause and so “set him free”? Following on from that, who wouldn’t find it poignant that The Tempest is widely thought to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays (and many say his very last)? That he probably lived no more than five years after its composition? And that he did indeed quit the stage just as Prospero quit his enchanted island?

Once you start seeing autobiography in these final speeches, it follows that Shakespeare might have written more of himself into Prospero. Bardolators have loved this idea from the late 19th century onwards. Writing in 1875, for instance, Edward Dowden said: “We identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself … because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will … and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays.”

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea that we know Prospero is Shakespeare because he shares characteristics with all the other characters we’ve also identified with the playwright. Yet it’s also easy to see why this line of thought is so tempting. Shakespeare is a uniquely tantalising historical figure. He gives us a feeling of remarkable kinship and understanding. He stretches out to us, through the ages, and shows that he thought and felt much as we do; he saw his world as we see ours. What’s more, he still speaks our minds. We can still identify with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth. And as a result, few historical figures feel closer than the man who created them. Except, of course, we know next to nothing about him.

It’s often said that we know SIX definite things about Shakespeare: he was baptised in Stratford-Upon-Avon in April 1564, his father was an illiterate glover and alderman, he worked in London from 1592 onwards (and wrote quite a few plays) and performed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company (later King’s Men), he was buried in 1616, he left his wife his second best bed in his will. Even some of those “facts” are open to dispute. Was his father indeed illiterate, or did he just put a cross for his signature on the records we have of him – as plenty of his contemporaries seem to have done – for speed and convenience? How soon after William was born was he baptised? And yes, some people even say he didn’t write the plays… Once you get involved in such disputes, you quickly come to see how little we know about the real man. Prospero conveniently fills that vacuum. He gives us a sense of someone we desperately want to know: the man behind all those wonderful words.  So I understand the temptation of seeing Shakespeare wielding that staff – even though there’s no more hard evidence that he felt close to Prospero than there is that he identified with Caliban, or Ferdinand or Miranda.

But here’s an interesting thing. In a fascinating University of Oxford podcast about the folly of linking Prospero and Shakespeare, the academic Emma Smith points out that for a few hundred years after it was published in the First Folio, most critics assumed that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s earliest play. It appeared first in the table of contents and so was generally accepted as the first to be written. As a result, hardly anyone mentioned the parallels between the playwright and Prospero. They thought it was the work of a young man and didn’t think Shakespeare was trying to say anything about himself through the old wizard.

You might say that it’s only because we have better evidence that we make  these connections. But these varying approaches to the play across the generations also show how partial the business of interpretation really is.

For what it’s worth, I don’t entirely follow this line. Pretty much the first thing I read after listening to Smith’s lecture was Coleridge’s famous essay on The Tempest. This was written before people began to theorise that it was a later play, but Coleridge also calls Prospero “the very Shakespeare himself, as it were, of The Tempest”. He too made the link if only in passing.

That’s not to detract from the broader point Smith makes: different generations interpret the play according to their own concerns and knowledge almost as much as anything in the text itself.

She also cites Frank Kermode’s 1952 introduction to the Arden edition of The Tempest in which the illustrious critic writes: “It is as well to be clear that there is nothing in The Tempest fundamental to its structure of ideas which could not have existed had America remained undiscovered … ” It’s hard to imagine anyone writing that now, after other critics have spent so much of the last 50 years banging on about the play as a response to colonialism.

It’s similarly difficult to imagine such questions even occurring to Coleridge. For him, “The Tempest is a specimen of the purely romantic drama, in which the interest is not historical, or dependent upon fidelity of portraiture, or the natural connexion of events – but is a birth of the imagination, and rests only on the coaptation and union of the elements granted to, or assumed by, the poet.”

You don’t need me to point out the happy coincidence that a leading romantic poet realised that the play reflected his own outlook.

The truth is that if we’re looking for anyone in The Tempest, it shouldn’t be Shakespeare, it should be ourselves. The wonder of the play is that it is flexible enough, and polished enough, to keep on reflecting back at us, through all the warpings of time and space. That it is (to quote Coleridge again) “therefore for all ages”.  We’ll never find the original poet, but we will find our own concerns, interests and sensibilities. Which brings me to the second part of my investigation, a question: what do you think The Tempest is about?

Tuesday 15 April 2014 07.15 EDT

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