Prospero is the ousted Duke of Milan who has been living in exile on a remote island for the past twelve years (yikes). He's also a powerful magician, father of Miranda, master of Ariel and Caliban, and a guy who really likes his books.
Throughout the play Prospero uses his magic to whip up a dramatic storm, to put on a dazzling wedding entertainment, to bully his servants, to manipulate his enemies, and to orchestrate his daughter's marriage to the Prince of Naples.
In other words, our favorite magician is a pretty powerful guy and quite the control freak. (We might have some control issues too if our own brother stabbed us in the back and stole our dukedom before we were set adrift at sea.)
Still, before Prospero landed on the island, his devotion to the study of magic got him into big trouble. While Prospero's nose was buried in his extensive library, his snaky brother managed to steal his title ("Duke of Milan") and get him thrown out of Italy. So, before Prospero was physically isolated on the isle, he did a pretty good job of isolating himself socially by making his "art" (magic) his number one priority. Hmm. Is Shakespeare trying to tell us something about the dangers of letting one's devotion to mastering his craft consume him?
If you think Shakespeare is suggesting that being an artist makes for a lonely life, then you'll probably want to think about whether or not Prospero is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself.
How does this work, exactly? Well, Prospero uses magic to manipulate and dazzle, just like Shakespeare. A lot of literary critics think Prospero manipulates the action of The Tempest like a skillful director. (We talk a lot more about this in "Quotes: Art and Culture.")
Plus, when Prospero renounces his magic, Shakespeare knows The Tempest is the last play he will write alone. As the sorcerer Prospero breaks his staff, Shakespeare puts down his pen and it's as though he's speaking about his own retirement from the theater when Prospero says, "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own" (Epilogue). He asks only that we appreciate what he's done, and humbly takes his leave of us to disappear quietly, letting his words work magic long after he has gone.
But not everyone thinks of Prospero as a stand-in for Will Shakespeare. In fact, some audiences see Prospero as nothing but a bitter tyrant. He's taken Caliban's island in return for his own lost title, he manipulates his daughter, is cruel to Ferdinand and Caliban, and kind to Ariel only when the spirit is totally subservient. He also puts his enemies through all kinds of hell to gather them up so he can judge them.
Okay, fine. We're not arguing that Prospero has some serious issues. Still, we do want to point out a couple of things. Although Prospero does everything in his power to confront his enemies, he's no Titus Andronicus. (Instead of baking his enemies into a pie, for example, he just terrifies them a little bit while trying to teach them a lesson.) More importantly, instead of seeking the kind of blood-and-guts vengeance that could have turned The Tempest into a "tragedy," Prospero ultimately discovers that the capacity for mercy and forgiveness is what makes us human.
After learning about the shipwreck survivors' pitiful state, Prospero declares "the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (5.1.35-36). This is a pretty big deal, Shmoopsters. By this point in his career, Shakespeare made a name for himself writing bummer plays like Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, where violence and suffering are the names of the game.
Yet, in Prospero, Shakespeare creates a figure who decides to forgive his enemies even though they have betrayed in the worst possible way. Does this mean Shakespeare has gone soft on us by the time he pens what is most likely the last play he wrote entirely by himself? We'll leave that for you to decide.
P.S. If you want to know about Prospero's relationship with the "hag-born" whelp he stole the island from, check out "Characters: Caliban."