The Tempest

by: William Shakespeare

Who Was Prospero?

Prospero, who abandons the world of fantasy to rejoin civilization, is one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing characters, and critics are divided over whether Prospero is based on a real person. Some critics have speculated that Shakespeare modeled Prospero on John Dee, a famous Englishman who had devoted himself to alchemy and occult philosophy, and who served as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Like Prospero, Dee valued his library above almost everything else, and hoped to use it to form a new national library. In the 1580s many of Dee’s books were stolen, just as Caliban suggests stealing Prospero’s books, in order to reduce his power: “Remember / First to possess his books; for without them / He’s but a sot…” (III.ii.) Also like Prospero, Dee believed he could communicate with the spirit world. He recorded his “angelic conversations,” and believed he received mysteries of the universe from the spirit world.

Another possible model for Prospero is Rudolf II, a Holy Roman Emperor who had a reputation for neglecting his duties to pursue his studies of the occult. Also, similar to Prospero (and John Dee), Rudolf was devoted to his library, which his family felt added to his inability to effectively govern. In The Tempest, Prospero admits that he neglected his duties as duke in favor of his books: “I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind” (I.ii). At the of the 1610s, after a long and indecisive war with the Ottoman Empire, Rudolf’s brother Matthias conspired against him, and by 1611 Matthias had assumed all of Rudolf’s power. These events are echoed in Prospero’s backstory of betrayal by his brother, Antonio, who attempts to assassinate him and take over his rule of Milan. Like Prospero, Rudolf II was a ruler whose interest in the occult and matters of the mind made him vulnerable to betrayal by his family.

The third model for Prospero may be much closer to home than Rudolf II or John Dee: Shakespeare himself. The Tempest marks the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself, and as such, represents a sort of farewell to his audience. Just as Prospero puts aside magic in the final scenes of the play and prepares for a peaceful retirement, so Shakespeare may have used the play as a way to say goodbye to the theater. The play contains many allusions to theatricality, such as when Prospero says: “Our revels are now ended. These our actors / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air” (IV.i.) In this speech, Prospero is basically saying the show is over. He also references “the great globe itself,” possibly a nod to the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. In the play’s epilogue, Prospero references his decision to surrender his power, saying, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown…” He begs the audience to release him from captivity on the island by clapping, much as an audience’s applause signals the end of the play. In this sense, Shakespeare may be pleading with his own audience to let him retire peacefully, asking them to “let your indulgence set me free.”