Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, who (with his young daughter, Miranda) was put to sea on "a rotten carcass of a butt (boat)" to die by his usurping brother, Antonio, twelve years before the play begins. Prospero and Miranda survived, and found exile on a small island. He implies he has learned sorcery from books, and uses it while on the island to protect Miranda and control the other characters. In truth, he never performs any magical acts. The power is Ariel's and the other island spirits. Prospero's "magic" lies in his power to use language to convince others to believe in him and do his bidding. On the island, he becomes master of the monster Caliban (the son of Sycorax, a malevolent witch) and forces Caliban into submission by torturing him with magic if he does not obey him, and Ariel, an elemental who is beholden to Prospero after he is freed from his prison inside a tree.
However, at the end of the play, Prospero intends to drown his book and renounce magic. In the view of the audience, this may have been required to make the ending unambiguously happy, as magic smacked too much of diabolical works; he will drown his books for the same reason that Doctor Faust, in an earlier play by Christopher Marlowe, promised in vain to burn his books.
The final soliloquy and epilogue in The Tempest is considered to be one of the most memorable speeches in Shakespearean literature. In it, Prospero describes his loss (magic) and his imprisonment of Caliban and Ariel. He relates his imprisonment of them to that of his own bondage, which can only be undone by the applause of the audience. Many feel that since The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone, Prospero's feelings echo Shakespeare's own, or perhaps even his "retirement speech".[who?]
In Tad Williams' 1995 novel Caliban's Hour, the story of The Tempest is told through the point of view of Caliban with Prospero portrayed as the villain of the story, being shown as manipulative, prejudiced with colonialistic attitudes (especially towards Caliban) and capable of murderous violence.
Paul Mazursky's 1983 film, "Tempest" features a Prospero-esque character portrayed by John Cassavetes who is an exile of his own cynical discontent, ego and self-betrayal and who abandons America for a utopian 'kingdom' on a secluded Greek isle.
In the Swedish animated 1989 film The Journey to Melonia, which is loosely inspired by The Tempest, Prospero is the ruler of the island Melonia.
Based on the manga by the same name, the anime series Blast of Tempest includes a main character whose setup is similar to Prospero, a magician betrayed and abandoned on a deserted island by her followers
Melon Cauliflower by NZ playwright Tom McCrory. The play is about a man Prospero, in his late sixties who struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife, and has mistreated his daughter Miranda.