It is reasonable to suggest that Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is all about manipulation. To its original audience, and particularly to King James I, who it is considered the play was written for, this theme would have been something quite enjoyed. However, by adopting a post-colonial view on the presence of manipulation in the play, it appears instead to be an abominable and omni-present force. Regardless of how the audience perceives it, manipulation is central to the play as a whole.
Examples of manipulation in The Tempest are vast. Prospero’s Dukedom is usurped by the manipulative and insidious actions of his brother Antonio; an injustice that certainly riles the exiled Duke enormously, ‘that a brother should be so perfidious!’ Twelve years has passed and now Prospero is set upon revenge. This past wrong is made right when Prospero manipulates the elements to bring to him that villainous brother and his companions including the King of Naples Alonso.
With his magical servant Ariel, Prospero disrupts their safe sailing home from Tunis, engaging a mighty Tempest to destroy their ship. The company are torn apart and cast upon the same shore that Prospero and his daughter Miranda landed upon twelve years previous. Manipulation is used to scare the men, to punish them and finally to lead them to his cell where he was able to show his humble and forgiving nature. ‘For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth, I do forgive thy rankest fault – all of them.” At the conclusion he is reinstated to his Dukedom and order is gained from chaos. Without manipulation this would not have been achieved.
Interestingly, the place of manipulation in the play does not end there. Prospero manipulates the fortunes of his daughter by placing her before the Prince of Naples Ferdinand. He punishes Ferdinand cruelly and treats him as a slave to illustrate to his daughter Ferdinand’s noble character. When Miranda suggests she help him, he says, ‘No, precious creature. I had rather crack my sinews, break my back, than you should such dishonour undergo.’ We feel certain that it’s not just love at first sight that drives them on, rather the challenge that Prospero has set before their love that makes them win the other’s affection. Again, manipulation is ever-present. This idea is echoed at the conclusion of the play where we see Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. The game is used as a metaphor for the control and order Prospero has gained from manipulating the other characters like mere pawns.
Prospero even manipulates his favourite servant Ariel. When Ariel asks of his own freedom from service, Prospero cruelly reminds him of the pain from which Prospero freed him as a means to manipulate Ariel into sustained and silent servitude: “If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak, and peg thee in his knotty entrails, till thou hast howled away twelve winters.’ Likewise, the savage and earthy character Caliban is manipulated by Prospero. When first Prospero and Miranda came to the island, Caliban moans that ‘Thou strok’st me, and made much of me, wouldst give me water with berries in’t’ but then, once he had foolishly showed them the qualities of the island Prospero then kept Caliban as a slave; ‘here you sty me in this hard rock, whiles you keep me from the rest o’th’island.’ And indeed Prospero continued to manipulate Caliban by cruel and calculating tactics. ‘I’ll rack thee with old cramps, fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar.’
To a seventeenth century audience the presence of manipulation would have been very well received. Prospero is a learned man, whose study of books and magic is what led to his being exiled. It is only through his mastery of magic gained from his learning that he was able to manipulate the other characters on the island with such skill. It was thought that Prospero was a representation of King James I. King James himself was a learned man and had an interest in magic also. To see on stage how that magic and learning can control others and restore balance in power is something James would have liked.
However, to a modern, post-colonial audience, it is difficult to get past the ruthless and brutal ways Prospero manipulates others. He has both the tender spirit Ariel and Caliban as his unwilling slaves. Countries the world around; Africa and the Carribbean, Australia and even New Zealand, are still reeling from the oppressive colonial control of their past and now those ‘natives’ represented by Caliban and Ariel are often dislocated from their roots, disenfranchised, removed from their land, and still made to worship and adhere to a foreign power. Our sympathies are evoked by the savage Caliban whose name is anagrammatic to cannibal, when he speaks of the island in the most poetic and tender way, illustrating that it is, by birth, his own; “the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” To take advantage of these lesser beings through manipulative measures is to many an abominable action. A modern audience may feel regret that Prospero’s plans are indeed so successful.
Despite this, however, manipulation is the driving force in this narrative. It is through Prospero’s convoluted and well-orchestrated manipulation that order is gained from chaos and rights are made of wrongs.