Study Guide

The Tempest Compassion and Forgiveness

By William Shakespeare

Compassion and Forgiveness

Act 1, Scene 2

If thou more murmur'st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howled away twelve winters. (1.2.349-351)

Prospero may not be forgiving or compassionate by nature, as he's accustomed to being unquestioned and a little tyrannical. It's interesting that Ariel is actually the one who inspires Prospero to be merciful to his enemies in the end.

Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness, I have used
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child. (1.2.412-418)

For Prospero, some things are beyond forgiveness.  This is one of them.


As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed
With raven's feather from unwholesome fen
Drop on you both. A southwest blow on you
And blister you all o'er.
For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps, 
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins
Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made 'em. (1.2.385-394)

Anger only begets more anger—both Caliban and Prospero expect the other to be awful, and they only get what they expect. Neither Caliban nor Prospero forgives the other's past wrongs, and this keeps their relationship at a complete standstill.


O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, 
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash'd all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (1.2.5-13)

Miranda has a naturally merciful temperament. She wishes her father to be merciful, regardless of his aim.

Act 2, Scene 1

PROSPERO [aside to Sebastian]
[To Antonio.] For you, most wicked sir, whom to
call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive 
Thy rankest fault, all of them, and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know
Thou must restore. (5.1.148-154)

It's shocking, but important to note that Antonio doesn't speak to Prospero. We doubt he's cowed into silence by shame, especially because he's back to jesting and taunting once Stefano and Trinculo enter.  Is Antonio beyond hope? Is it even meaningful to forgive him?  

On the other hand, it's the King who has the power to return Antonio's dukedom to Prospero.  Is this really Prospero being gracious and forgiving of his terrible brother, or is it Prospero rubbing it in his brother's face that he triumphed after all?

Sebastian and Antonio

Sir, you may thank yourself for this great loss, 
That would not bless our Europe with your daughter,
But rather lose her to an African,
Where she at least is banished from your eye,
Who hath cause to wet the grief on 't. (2.1.131-135)

Sebastian has no pity, really. It's no wonder he could move so easily from mercilessness to treachery.

Act 3, Scene 2

Beat him enough. After a little time
I'll beat him too. (3.2.92-93)

Caliban, having been shown very little mercy, has no capacity to show mercy to others, and in fact takes delight in others' suffering. Is this a defect of his character, or the result of a vicious circle of mercilessness?

Act 3, Scene 3

For that's my business to you—that you three
From Milan did supplant good Prospero,
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,
Him and his innocent child, for which foul deed,  
The powers—delaying, not forgetting—have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,
Against your peace. Thee of thy son, Alonso,
They have bereft; and do pronounce by me
Ling'ring perdition, worse than any death 
Can be at once, shall step by step attend
You and your ways; whose wraths to guard you
Which here, in this most desolate isle, else falls
Upon your heads—is nothing but heart's sorrow
And a clear life ensuing. (3.3.87-101)

What is the purpose of Prospero furthering Alonso's belief that Ferdinand is dead? This seems particularly merciless, and it makes Prospero seem as though he wants his enemies to suffer before he forgives them.  Does this undermine the very point of being merciful and forgiving? Does this also indicate that his decision to choose virtue over vengeance later is entirely because of Ariel's persuasion?

Act 4, Scene 1

At this hour
Lie at my mercy all mine enemies.
Shortly shall all my labours end, and thou
Shalt have the air at freedom. For a little
Follow, and do me service. (4.1.291-295)

Prospero definitely delights at having his enemies at his mercy, but again, is it okay to enjoy their suffering in the meantime? Would it be too much to ask, or too unrealistic, for Prospero simply be wholeheartedly forgiving? Is this kind of total forgiveness within the realm of human possibility?

Act 5, Scene 1

The King,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted,
And the remainder mourning over them, 
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you termed, sir, the good old Lord
His tears run down his beard like winter's drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works
That if you now beheld them, your affections 
Would become tender.
                                    Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
                                                 And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling 
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.14-31)

Ariel shows that mercy should be in the nature of human beings—he imagines he would feel tenderness if he were human.  By saying this, he calls Prospero's humanity to task. Is it more human to seek vengeance, or forgive? Is forgiveness not the best way to stick it to your enemies?


[Aside to Sebastian and Antonio.] But you, my brace
of lords, were I so minded,
I here could pluck his highness' frown upon you
And justify you traitors. At this time 
I will tell no tales.
[aside] The devil speaks in him. (5.1.142-147)

Sebastian must be deluded. He speaks in an aside, we're not sure to whom, but he's definitely not denying his attempted betrayal of the King. Can Sebastian really think that Prospero is the one in the wrong? Does he recognize the mercy that Prospero is showing him?