Prince Prospero is a terrible ruler. Does leaving your peasants to die of the plague while you go and lock yourself up safely in a pleasure palace count as being a good prince in your book? Fortunately, Prince Prospero's got more to his character than that, quite a lot more, actually. He may be a party-animal and maybe even a madman, but he's also a twisted artistic genius. And possibly one huge allusion to Shakespeare.
On the surface, Prospero looks like shallow guy. All he seems to care about is pleasure, which is what it means to be a "hedonist." He doesn't want to spend his time doing anything but drinking, dancing, and laughing, and generally having fun. That makes him an awful ruler, because when the going gets tough, Prospero gets going. It makes him seem selfish too: he just doesn't care about the suffering of his people. He doesn't even want to think about it, because that would be too much of a downer. His basic philosophy is summed-up here:
The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The Prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. (2)
Prospero does not want to face death. He deliberately flees it with his followers and tries not to think about it at all, so he can revel in the good times. But his attempt to escape death is doomed to failure: everybody has to die eventually. Prospero's impossible attempt to ignore death and focus only on life's pleasures makes him a classic "fool" figure. Sadly, he learns his lesson the hard way at the end.
On the other hand, you might think that there's something heroic about Prospero's foolishness. His refusal to let anything get him down can also seem like a sign of the strength of his spirit. When he's first introduced, he is described by bold and heroic language: "But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious" (2). It's not easy to be happy and "dauntless" (not scared) in the face of a lethal plague. Maybe Prospero even knows he's trying the impossible, but does it anyway. Couldn't there something kind of admirable in that foolishness?
It may also be the case that there's nothing Prospero could do to fight the Red Death if he stayed with his people. After all, the story gives us no indication that there's any way of resisting the disease. Maybe Prospero thinks creating one last outpost of "life" is the best way to fight death. We're not saying that Prospero's right to abandon his peasants. But his motivations might not be so bad as it seems.
We get various hints in the story that Prospero's the artist type. We also get hints that he may be more than a little odd. The two seem to go together, as in this passage:
The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.(6)
We don't feel too sure about Prospero's sanity at the end there, do we? He's the classic twisted genius. It's Prospero's madness that gives him a wild imagination, and that wild imagination is what enables him to create art. The strangeness, even the "grotesqueness," of his artistic visions is what makes them so inventive and compelling.
We see that spectacular imagination at work in his castellated abbey, the product of his "own eccentric yet august taste" (2). The abbey is a palace of pleasure, but it's also a palace for art, which is why along with buffoons and wine we also hear the palace is full of "ballet-dancers," "musicians," and "Beauty" (2) (with a capital B – something of an obsession of Poe's).
Nowhere is Prospero's artistry on better display than in his suite of seven colored rooms, which is entirely the product of his own imagination. Weird as it is, there's something attractive and even beautiful about it. And if the colors do indeed symbolize the stages of human life, as many people think (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory"), it's safe to assume that symbolism is intended by Prospero.
In fact, we get the sense that everything at the masquerade ball is designed by Prospero, down to the costumes the people are wearing: "it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders" (7). The masquerade is the product of his own ingenious imagination; it's his wild artistic masterpiece. It's a world entirely of his creation and under his control. Maybe that's why there's all the dream language, and why the masqueraders themselves are called a "multitude of dreams" (7).
It just so happens that there's another famous Prospero who makes his dreams become reality: Shakespeare's Prospero, from The Tempest. Shakespeare's Prospero (who's a little bit older, and a little less hedonistic) is actually a sorcerer, whose magic enables him to literally make the products of his imagination real. He's the ideal artistic creator figure: he speaks of his magic as his "art" at various moments. At one point, he even uses it to create a magical revel, essentially a ball replete with goddesses. And he ends it (when he realizes he has to attend to a plot against his life) with a famous monologue about dreams:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 148-158)
Poe's Prince Prospero isn't a sorcerer, but he is a figure whose creative power as an artist borders on magic. Like Shakespeare's Prospero, he also uses his magic to create a dreamlike and beautiful revel. And like that other Prospero, Prince Prospero's revel is forced to come to an end. But unlike Shakespeare's Prospero, Poe's is not the one who ends it…and he himself doesn't end so happily.
The sorcerer image suggests something else. You might say Prince Prospero's real flaw isn't hedonism or simple foolishness, but hubris (excessive pride), and specifically artistic hubris. Prospero tries to create a perfect artificial world of art born of his own imagination. The seven rooms are that idealized world. They symbolize the whole of human life, re-envisioned by Prospero. And Prospero wants those rooms to contain not only life, but also death – which is why there's a black room. It's almost like Prospero wants to conquer death with his art.
That may be way Prospero is so outraged when the Red Death shows up. It's a kind of death that doesn't fit into his artwork, and that indeed offends his taste. The Red Death's arrival means that Prospero has lost control of the situation: it is real death, not just imagined death. And that death conquers Prospero, in the very spot where he had hoped to conquer it (the black room). Prospero's masquerade disappears shortly afterwards, in "Darkness and Decay."
(If the Prospero-Prospero and Prospero-artist connection interests you, definitely check out the classic article on the subject: "Art and Nature in 'The Masque of the Red Death,'" by Kermit Vanderbilt.
Speaking of twisted artist figures, isn't there an interesting overlap between Prince Prospero and Poe himself? When we read the story, it's Poe's remarkable imagination that strikes us; he's the one who created the world of the masquerade, and painted it in such vivid colors. It's Poe who came up with all that nifty symbolism of death and life, and all the dramatic imagery. But within the world of the story, it's Prospero who creates the masquerade, and all the things that we admire Poe's story for. Poe's creative imagination and Prospero's, in other words, overlap to a remarkable degree. Poe himself is something of a Prospero figure. Might Poe be trying to tell us something about himself through Prospero too?
There's one respect in which Prospero's imagination and Poe's don't overlap though. Prospero is defeated by the Red Death; it's an external force that destroys Prospero's artwork. Poe, on the other hand, creates the Red Death through his own imagination. It's a part of his story. But who does that remind you of? Is Poe guilty of the same hubris as Prospero: trying to contain death in a work of art?