PROSPERO AND LEAR
For my final essay of the term, I wish to focus on the similarities and differences of the plays The Tempest and King Lear in general, as well as looking at comparisons of Prospero and Lear in somewhat more detail.
Prospero and Lear are, without a doubt, the two most compelling mature figures in Shakespeare. In a way, one is the flip side, so to speak, of the other. Each represents an aging man's relationship to family, environment, and, most importantly, himself. One might even be so bold as to venture that had Lear lived, he might, through the enormity of his painful transformation, have become a character much like Prospero, a man who has learned bitter lessons from his intercourse with the world and has utilized them to create his own unique reality, becoming, finally, the true master of his destiny.
Similarities between The Tempest and King Lear are more numerous than one might at first assume. To begin with, the theme of nature plays a significant role, as it does in many of Shakespeare's works. This is due in part to the popularity of the pastoral theme in the Elizabethan era, as well as the English appreciation for the countryside. (This latter fact persists to this day, as is evinced by the fact that the cover of every Arden edition of Shakespeare is adorned by paintings by the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group of artists whose primary inspiration is the English countryside.)
The clearest parallel within the realm of nature between the two plays is the spectacle and grandeur of a tempest. In each case, the occurrence of a mighty storm is a pivotal plot-mover, as well as a symbol for transformation. In The Tempest, the storm provides for the arrival of the King of Naples, the usurping Duke of Milan, Gonzalo, and the rest of their party, including Stephano and Trinculo. While, admittedly, the latter two do not experience any profound transformation, the rest do, and it is through the facility of the tempest that this transformation occurs. Lear, likewise, is the victim of a tempest, also a turning point in the plot, as well as a powerful force in his own agonizing journey through growth and self-discovery. In a way, Lear's tempest is more significant in that it represents the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis; out of Lear's agonizing conflict with nature and his subsequent madness comes a new and better man, a man cleansed, literally and figuratively, by the raging water of the storm. It is interesting to note the main difference between the roles played by Lear and Prospero in their respective interactions with the storm: Lear is the victim of the maelstrom, Prospero the creator. Each character is defined to a certain extent by this relationship to nature's wrath, one experiencing it as a kind of chastisement, the other utilizing it to further his own ends. Lear rages against the storm, shouting, "You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,/ Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,/ Singe my white head! And thou all-shaking thunder,/ Strike flat the thick rotundity o'th'world!" (III.II.4-7). Compare this with Miranda's request that "If by your art, my dearest father, you have/ Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them." (I.I.1-2).
The bond between father and daughter in each play, while seemingly incidental, must nevertheless be considered. Of all the plays studied this semester, the father-daughter dynamic is nowhere more significant than in King Lear and The Tempest. Again, Lear must go through agonizing personal conflict before finally being able to have the kind of close, honest relationship with Cordelia that Prospero already seems to enjoy at the start of The Tempest. It could be argued that this lack of personal growth on the part of Prospero makes him a less compelling character; it must be born in mind, however, that Prospero's traumas have been endured and overcome prior to the opening of the play, and that, again, he is picking up where Lear leaves off.
The issue of familial betrayal is another experience with which Lear and Prospero are only too familiar. In Lear's case, it is the treachery and rejection of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan; with Prospero, it is the betrayal and usurpation of his brother Antonio. In each case, the central figure loses his former position and prestige. (In Lear's case, even though he willingly relinquished the throne, he never suspected that he would be stripped of his essential "kingliness," i.e. his knights and his title.) The way in which the two men deal with their respective dilemmas is, once again, defined by an essential dichotomy between power and powerlessness. This could be due to the fact that Lear, because he gives up his power, must subsequently move through powerlessness, a condition foreign and devastating to him, to the final achievement of self-mastery. Prospero, on the other hand, due to his books, his study of the humanities and magic, is already armed with the tools he needs to set about the task of righting the wrongs inflicted upon him by Antonio and Alonso. Again we see (or rather I see) a contiguity between the characters of Lear and Prospero.
The ideal of forgiveness is another similarity between the two plays, although in this instance, the characters of Prospero and Lear are reversed. At the end of King Lear, it is Lear who is forgiven by Cordelia; the end of The Tempest finds Prospero doing all the forgiving himself. Yet the fundamental Christian ethic of forgiveness is a powerful aspect of the climax of both plays and, again, is brought home more powerfully than in any of the other plays examined during the course of this term. The fact that the cruelty of Lear's rejection of Cordelia and that of Antonio's treatment of Prospero is forgiven so utterly and completely provides a joyous and life-affirming resolution to the events of the two plays.
Lastly, it is important to look at the theme of maturity in the context of The Tempest and King Lear. In Lear's case, while at the beginning of the play he is undoubtedly a mature character, it nevertheless cannot be denied that throughout the course of the drama he achieves a deeper maturity, a maturity which comes from self-knowledge. This same self-knowledge is central to the character of Prospero; he is the very embodiment of the quality of self-knowledge, and it is from this quality that he derives his absolute mastery over the events which unfold during the course of the play. This fact can be seen as further support for my own personal theory that Prospero is a continuation of Lear. Prospero could only arrive at the position of total mastery, both of himself and of the forces of nature, through just such a course of suffering and self-realization experienced by Lear. Any path of knowledge, particulary the path of self-knowledge, involves much suffering and endurance of hardships, and in Lear we see a kind of Christian sinner-to-saint dynamic, a purging, a sloughing-off of the former, imperfect self. The emergence of the new Lear is brilliantly rendered in the Bird Cage Scene with Cordelia, in which we witness Lear's joyous release from his former, deluded identity. In my opinion, it is Prospero who inherits this mantle, and who shows us the ultimate rewards of such a transformation.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
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