Close Reading: A Controlling Past and Present

A Controlling Past and  Present

There are aspects of the past that people wish they could relive again but there are also parts of the past that take mental prisoner. Being taken mental prisoner by the past simply means to have the inability of letting go of what has happened.  In Shakespeare’s The Tempestthe past plays a large role in the present and future of all characters, especially Prospero. The past causes people to take control of the present and future, is  seen during Prospero’s harsh island rule, in hopes to avoid reliving the past and losing all control. Prospero seems to be slave of the past and tries to counteract that by taking slave of those around him. 

A past can imprison someone mentally and impact their future choices. Prospero had a past of power and rule in Milan that soon turned against him as he did not focus on power but on his own magic instead. As he tells Miranda their story of exile to the island, Shakespeare shows why he craves control and struggles letting it go.



Being once perfected how to grant suits,

How to deny them, who t’ advance and who

To trash for over-topping, new created

The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed ‘em,

Or else new formed ‘em, having both the key

Of officer and office, set all hearts i’ th’ state

To what tune pleased his ear, that now he was

The ivy which had hid my princely trunk

And sucked my verdure out on ‘t. (1.2.98-106)


As Prospero speaks of the past, readers can tell he valued the bond between him and his brother Antonio. Antonio took over the political ruling, Prospero expresses that Antonio used the political  knowledge against him, which destroyed his rule and trust. As Prospero was exiled by his own brother to an island that was mostly uninhabited it was difficult for Prospero to let go of the past, he was lonely and missed what had been. Prospero took the past and the embarrassment of being exiled and hoped one day to bring it to justice. Prospero brings the past to justice by being the ruler he never was. He was never a violent or effective ruler so by taking control of everyone each differently he is finally being who his brother was. This was the way that Prospero could guarantee that the past would not occur again.

Soon after making a life on this island Prospero takes control over the island’s only inhabitant (Caliban) and forces Ariel spirit under his control as well. With this Prospero makes it seem to Caliban and Ariel that without him they would be nothing and are better off under his rule and in a sense he saved them from themselves. Prospero soon became a manipulative, malicious ruler who went took extreme measures to have control over situations.   The specific expression of loyalty and effective ruling  is seen during an interaction between Prospero and Ariel;


Ariel:  I prithee,

Remember I have done thee worthy service,

Told thee no lies, made thee no mistaking, served

Without grudge or grumblings. Thou didst promise

To bate me a full year

PROSPERO: Dost thou forget

From what a torment I did free thee?

Act 1, Scene 2

Ariel reminding Prospero of his loyalty and to be free of the imprisonment; “Remember I had done thee worth service/ Told thee no lies, made thee no mistaking” To Prospero time is no longer relevant and his loyalty means nothing as Ariel expresses “Thou didst promise/ To bate me a full year”. Prospero is determined to always have control over those below him no matter their history or loyalty, he tries to remind Ariel of the favor he did by controlling him “Dost thou forget/ From what a torment I did free thee?” . But because of the loyalty that Ariel had shown during his time as a servant to Prospero, it proves that Prospero could be an effective ruler without violence. This expression of loyalty and servitude is something that proves Prospero  a positive ruler without dehumanizing those similar to the way he does Caliban.

One of the harshest expressions of rule and power that Prospero had   was over Caliban. Caliban seems to be the only character that earned his imprisonment. Because of Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda; it earned him a life of misery. When Prospero and Miranda had stumbled upon Caliban on the island; they made it a goal of  educating him but not seeing him as an equal.  After the attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero made it a goal to become the “effective” ruler through violence that he never was in Milan. He was now able to see someone crumble under his anger, in that way Prospero was able to take out the anger of his past on Caliban. Through the interaction of the two Caliban is never treated as equal or with any respect. Readers see in act 1 scene 2 the harsh interaction between the two and Prospero’s long awaited violent control take place;


Prospero “Thou most lying slave,

Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,

Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee

In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate

The honor of my child. ” (1.2.348-351)

In previous  lines Caliban lashes out expressing that Miranda and Prospero never treated him fairly but Prospero quickly follows, that he earned everything by betraying trust and attempting to rape Miranda. Prospero never seems to waver in his anger towards Caliban and has not earned his freedom nor will he ever. Prospero addresses him as “most lying slave” without the decency to address him by name. Prospero expresses that as filthy as Caliban was they had cared for him and “lodged thee”  but soon he had violated Miranda it ruined everything. This was the spark that ignited the fire of violent rule for Prospero. Prospero needed this time on the island to become the ruler he never was and regain control. Unlike the control of Ariel and Miranda that seem to have a deadline; the control of Caliban will never end because of his actions and in a sense Prospero will not relive the past by losing control.

Finally Prospero had taken control of his daughter Miranda’s future by sheltering and determining her future with Ferdinand. Prospero knows he must allow his daughter a life but by manipulating her fate  it still gives him a sense of control. Prospero had taken control over Miranda during their life on the island and forced her to live a sheltered life; protecting her from the world that changed their lives forever. As he prepares to give up Miranda to Ferdinand he must determine a solid foundation of a future to her suitor. As seen in the following dialogue Ferdinand is expected to take a powerful role as an “overseer” to Miranda life as Prospero was for the entirety of her childhood:


Prospero: If I have too austerely punished you,

     Your compensation makes amends, for I
     Have given you here a third of mine own life,
     Or that for which I live; who once again
     I tender to thy hand. All thy vexations
     Were but my trials of thy love, and thou
     Hast strangely stood the test. Here, afore heaven,
     I ratify this my rich gift. O Ferdinand,
     Do not smile at me that I boast her off,
     For thou shalt find she will outstrip all praise
     And make it halt behind her.
     Ferdinand: I do believe it.
     Against an oracle.
     Prospero: Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition
     Worthily purchased, take my daughter. (4.1.1-14)

Throughout this dialogue Prospero is determining future for Miranda  by taking all control of her while she is still his.  These terms are concerning as Miranda is not seen as a human in the eyes of her father and expected to be seen as an object to Ferdinand as well. By being declared as a object by her father it shows that Prospero will always see humans as an object under his rule on the island. Prospero’s is justifying the deeds he had done for Miranda and why she is and always will be an object.  Finally Prospero closes the deal of  Miranda’s future, Prospero had  referred to Miranda a “gift” and Ferdinands “acquisition” but ending with the concept of Miranda being “purchased” By Ferdinand agreeing to the terms that Prospero has addressed he is now worthy of taking his daughter. This dialogue is the final proof that Prospero struggled to let go of the past and needed to control his own daughters future to avoid losing power as he once had. Prospero had spent years on the island building the power that he never had in Milan and he could not begin to lose that by letting his daughter go.

It is obvious through analyzation of the variety of situations Prospero had manipulated that  he struggled his entire life to become the ruler on the island that he never was in Milan. Prospero struggled to let go of the past, that imprisoned him and impacted his ability to let go of those who crossed his path. Prospero actions reflected his control thirst and it is human nature to hold onto the past and do everything in power to avoid reliving it. In this case Prospero was hoping to gain control of every situation so he would not be blindsided and lose control once again. He was trapped by the past, objectified Miranda,  and harshly punished Caliban in hopes to  always be in power.





William Shakespeare, The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, ed. Graff and Phelan,  2nd ed., 2009.