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Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, whose usurping brother, Antonio, had put him (with his then three-year old daughter, Miranda) to sea on "a rotten carcass of a butt [boat]" to die, 12 years before the play begins. Prospero and Miranda survived and found exile on a small island. He has learned sorcery from books, and uses it while on the island to protect Miranda and control the other characters. Before the play has begun, Prospero frees Ariel from entrapment within "a cloven pine", about which Prospero states:
It was mine Art,
When I arrived and heard thee, that made gapeThe pine and let thee out.— The Tempest, Act 1, scene 2.
Prospero's sorcery is sufficiently powerful to control Ariel and other spirits, as well as to alter weather and even raise the dead: "Graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth, by my so potent Art."- Act V, scene 1.
On the island, Prospero becomes master of the monster Caliban (the son of Sycorax, a malevolent witch) and forces Caliban into submission by punishing him with magic if he does not obey. Ariel is beholden to Prospero after he is freed from his imprisonment inside the pine tree.
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 was associated with 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.
Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own, Which is most faint: now, 'tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon'd be, Let your indulgence set me free.
In it, Prospero states his loss (magic) and his continuing imprisonment if the audience is not pleased. Many feel that since The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone, Prospero's feelings echo Shakespeare's own, or perhaps may even have been his "retirement speech".[who?]
- Sir Michael Redgrave played Prospero in a BBC Play of the Month production in 1968.
- Heathcote Williams played Prospero in Derek Jarman's 1979 film version of The Tempest.
- Sir Michael Hordern played Prospero in a 1980 production for BBC television.
- A Stratford Shakespeare Festival production was videotaped and broadcast on television in 1983, starring Len Cariou as Prospero.
- Paul Mazursky's film, Tempest (1983), 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 Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books (1991), Prospero is played by John Gielgud.
- In Julie Taymor's 2010 film adaptation of the play, Prospero is played by Helen Mirren and is now named Prospera.
- BBC Radio 3 broadcast a production of The Tempest (7 October 2001) adapted for radio and directed by David Hunter, starring Philip Madoc as Prospero, Nina Wadia as Ariel, Josh Richards as Caliban, Catrin Rhys as Miranda, Andrew Cryer as Ferdinand, Rudolph Walker as Gonzalo, James Laurenson as Alonso, Christian Rodska as Sebastian, and Ioan Meredith as Antonio.
- David Warner played Prospero in the BBC Radio 3 Drama on 3 production of The Tempest, broadcast (on 6 May 2012) as part of the Shakespeare Unlocked series on the BBC. The production included Carl Prekopp as Ariel, Rose Leslie as Miranda, James Garnon as Caliban, James Lailey as Antonio and Peter Hamilton Dyer as Sebastian, and was adapted for radio and directed by Jeremy Mortimer.
- In 2015, Richard Cox plays a rendition of Prospero for the TNT series The Librarians.
In popular culture
- In the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, Prospero appears as a founding member of the first such grouping in 1610, alongside his familiars Caliban and Ariel.
- Paul Prospero, the protagonist of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014), is named after Prospero.
- In John Bellairs's novel The Face in the Frost (1969), Prospero is one of the protagonists.
- T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" references Prospero.
- In the The Horus Heresy series, several books take place on a planet called Prospero. The citizens of the planet are versed in sorcery and psychic powers, earning them the suspicion and ire of the rest of the Imperium of Man.
- Melon Cauliflower, by NZ playwright Tom McCrory, 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.
- The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allen Poe is set at the manor of a Prince Prospero
- "On The Vanishing of Ethan Carter's Ending (EXTREME SPOILERS)". Retrieved 2015-10-07.
- "Prospero Burns publisher summary". Retrieved 2015-10-17.
- McCrory, Tom. Melon Cauliflower (PDF). RadioNZ.
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