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Prospero: The Narcissist’s Fantasy?

Prospero and Shakespeare share an intriguing connection, one that many critics of The Tempest have noted.  Yet, most writers fail to analyze the psychological importance of this analogy as a uniquely self-reflexive image created by Shakespeare.  If we evaluate the character Prospero as both the embodiment of Shakespeare and his perceived reflection (i.e., what Shakespeare thinks of himself), we discover that Shakespeare shows many signs of being a narcissist.  The Tempest is simply the pool in which Shakespeare is gazing at his Prospero.

The idea that Shakespeare and Prospero are narcissistic does not at first appear obvious.  Critics primarily focus on the connection between Shakespeare and Prospero and make few further conclusions, even fewer that are negative.  While Lipman notes that the dramatic nature of Prospero makes a connection with the author probable, and while he notes that Prospero manipulates characters to the point of wielding “god-like powers” (Lipman 242) as a playwright might to his actors, he stops short of saying that Prospero’s omnipotent machinations are a negative reflection on the author.  He, like many other authors, turns to Prospero’s abdication of magic and to the epilogue, in which Prospero reveals doubts and weaknesses. 

Prospero demands a deeper analysis than Lipman typifies.  It is a mistake to assert that Prospero’s renunciation of mage status is his relinquishment of control and power and therefore his redeeming moment.  Prospero’s omnipotence throughout the play allows him to arrive at a convenient moment to give up his magic, as he has all men cowering at his feet and has guaranteed himself absolute power in Milan.  How, then, are we to understand Prospero’s character?

It is important to maintain a singular focus when evaluating the Shakespeare-Prospero connection.  Many critics get sidetracked in their attempts because the passion of Shakespeare’s followers raises such issues as Leinwand noted: those who want Prospero to represent Shakespeare often do so because “they want to speak with the dead author” (Leinwand 493).  The key to resolving such conundrums is in not interpreting Prospero as a strict embodiment of Shakespeare, keeping in mind that this is also Shakespeare’s opinion of himself. 

Before we turn our attention fully to Prospero, recall that Shakespeare featured King Lear as the quintessential narcissist some years before he wrote The Tempest.  That the narratives of King Lear and The Tempest differ drastically suggests that Shakespeare thought King Lear a narcissist but Prospero a wise man.  However, the very nature of narcissism is to blind its sufferer; psychologists categorize it as an egosyntonic personality disorder in which men “buy into whatever their mind is telling them” (Kluger 14).  In other words, they do not believe there is anything wrong with them amidst their delusions of grandeur.  Perhaps Shakespeare constructs King Lear as a disturbed and foolish individual because he did not identify with him, while he portrays Prospero as wise and equitable because he does identify with him.  Shakespeare would think the two completely different purely based on personal identification.  But how different are they?

Many critics have compared King Lear and Prospero and come to the conclusion that, while Lear is a study in narcissism, Prospero is a study in enlightenment and graceful abdication.  In their mind The Tempest is a sequel to King Lear with a more altruistic elder who “meets the challenge to personal rather than narcissistic love, relinquishing possession” (Bishop 512).  However, this does not sufficiently address the brevity that some dissatisfied authors have noted about Prospero’s transformation, nor does it address Prospero’s shift from one form of omnipotence to the next after having exacted his pound of flesh.  In Bishop’s own words: “To become prejectively enmeshed in the omnipotent fantasies symbolized by the magicianship is even more beguiling than is the omnipotent fantasy of kingship” (Bishop 511).  They are both fantasies of power, regardless of which is more tempting. Rather than Prospero being a sequel, it is in some way a prequel: The Tempest ends where King Lear begins. 

We begin to see similarities between Lear and Prospero when we read critics of King Lear.  His wandering astray is said to be rooted in his “excess of vanity and increasing anxiety about aging and death” (Shafer 1505) and his attempts to find a suitable manner in which to take care of his kingdom; critics often say the same about Prospero (unaware that their criticism is similar), especially concerning his epilogue, in which he expresses anxieties of power and aging.  Thus, we begin to see narcissistic tendencies in The Tempest

In order to fully understand these narcissistic tendencies, we will first look at how Prospero himself embodies narcissism and then we will see how Prospero’s portrayal betrays the narcissism of the author.

The narcissist enjoys surrounding himself with people that contribute to his sense of importance (King Lear favors the flatterers of his court). His desire often manifests itself in the exercise of control, namely, “The only way to support a relentless need to tower above other human beings is to bend them to our will” (Malkin 89).  Prospero controls nearly every character in The Tempest.  He coerces and manipulates Ariel, Caliban, and the visitors, and when his control is threatened by a resistance of any sort, the reaction is swift.  Not only does he threaten and abuse Ariel and Caliban, but Caliban’s response when he meets strangers is to repeatedly cry out “Do not torment me” (II.ii.60, 69), adding “Do not torment me, prithee; I’ll bring my wood home faster” (II.ii.76-77).  Not only is he terrified of physical violence, he further assumes that everyone is being controlled by Prospero (II.ii.85).  This exertion of “stealth control” (Malkin 106) that Prospero holds over him and everyone else, even Miranda and Ferdinand, is typical of the self-satisfying narcissist who does not want to ask because to ask would be to admit weakness.  Prospero never asks anyone for anything but still manages to get everything he wants by the end of the play.  How is this possible?

A narcissist is very often betrayed by how he responds when his power and prestige are threatened.  Authors point out that King Lear’s initial cursing of Cordelia is his most blatant expression of narcissism, a violent outburst after his ego is wounded (Shafer 91).  All narcissists have this reaction, anger that is “triggered by a sudden fear that their special status has been threatened in some way” (Malkin 90).  In The Tempest, we see this repeatedly when Caliban insults Prospero and when Ariel hesitates, though it is best seen when Prospero interrupts the dance in Act IV.  Even Ferdinand and Miranda observe his rage at this point with incredulity, Miranda commenting, “Never till this day/Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d” (IV.i.147-148).  That Prospero’s rage stems from Caliban’s rather buffoonish troupe seems excessive, though to the narcissist it is natural.  Even a trite insult is cause for an episode.

Some might note that Prospero’s redeeming qualities, his forgiveness, and abjuration of magic, do not support the idea that he is a narcissist.  There are two problems with this assertion.  First, Prospero’s supposed forgiveness is grudgingly given, and many accusations accompany it.  After reciting his brother’s list of crimes in harsh terms, Prospero says “I do forgive thee/Unnatural though thou art” (V.i.78-79).  Soon after this backhanded apology comes another, harsher apology: “For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother/Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive/Thy rankest fault” (V.i.135-137).  These are unsatisfactory apologies, to say the least.

Prospero’s relinquishing of his magic and Ariel is also seen as a redeeming quality.  Yet this relinquishing is in no way altruistic.  After boasting of the great deeds he accomplished through his mystic arts, he announces that he is abjuring his magic (V.i.51) only after he has secured absolute power in Milan (as noted before).  He no longer needs the magic to manipulate others, so abandoning it is a mere gesture which might in fact only be feeding his self-love. 

It is significant that Prospero remains unblemished in his decisions throughout the play, even ending the play with a promise that he would be the instrument of everyone’s salvation (V.i.15).  This more than anything else betrays the narcissism of the author.  If Shakespeare considers Prospero his reflection, and Prospero is virtually perfect, what does that say about the author’s opinion of himself?  Even when Prospero gives up his art, he does it with regret (Epilogue.14-15) and a call for approbation (Epilogue.10).  It is as if we can hear Shakespeare congratulating himself through his audience, who, like those on Caliban’s island, is bewitched by the legerdemain of the stage.

Prospero’s relinquishing of Miranda might also appear to be a sufficient counter to the argument of narcissism.  It is more instructive to note Miranda’s place in Prospero’s life throughout the play, however.  Her near-worship of Prospero and her constant words of affirmation and praise almost exactly correspond to King Lear’s sycophant daughters Goneril and Regan.  The fact that this is Shakespeare’s vision of his existence is more an indication of his distorted self-image than of his or Prospero’s equity.

The core of our argument lies in Prospero’s use of power and his sentiments about it.  Prospero’s magic parallels the playwright’s use of illusion to bamboozle the audience.  Like Shakespeare, Prospero’s knowledge is superior to all those that surround him as he manipulates the audience, creating a sort of “heroism of the mind” which makes “Prospero’s heroism…an image of Shakespeare’s” (Cantor 75).  This exclusively intellectual existence closely parallels the narcissist that does not allow himself to be influenced by his emotions, particularly empathy and guilt.  Perhaps this is the reason Prospero’s empathy and remorse leave something to be desired.  He is mirroring what he knows others do and say when expressing empathy and remorse (this sort of mirroring is another tactic of the narcissist).  The aversion to genuine guilt is also visible in Shakespeare’s construction of Prospero: he is a flawless man whose only weaknesses are caused by undeserved harm done to him.  The fact that Prospero makes only wise decisions worthy of admiration, that his enemies are all scoundrels or simpletons, is the narcissist’s fantasy.  That Shakespeare did not give Prospero his just deserts have led critics to put the cart before the horse: they assume that since Prospero triumphs in this apparent comedy he must be the hero. 

Contrary to Bishop and many others, Prospero both represents a narcissist and betrays the narcissistic mentality of the author.  King Lear and Prospero are not so different if we look at Prospero as Shakespeare’s perception of himself.  King Lear’s vision of himself before his disgrace was no doubt one of an infallible king who was wisely exercising absolute control.  Just like Shakespeare, King Lear likely also saw Prospero when he gazed at his reflection.  If we understand Prospero as the embodiment of Shakespeare’s ego, the apparent hero of The Tempest is, in fact, the villain, a villain who never gets his just deserts.


Works Cited

Bishop, Bernardine.  “Lear and Prospero: From the Projective to the Introjective

Mode.” British Journal of Psychotherapy 17.4 (2001): 505-517.  Online.

Leinwand, Theodore B..  “Introducing Shakespeare.”  College English 64.4

(2002): 485-502.  Online.

Schafer, Roy.  “Curse and Consequence: King Lear’s Destructive Narcissism.” 

International Journal of Psychoanalysis 91 (2010): 1503-1521.  Online.

Lipman, Stephen.  “Metatheater and the Criticism of the Comedia.”  MLN, 91.2

(March 1976): 231-246.  Online.

Cantor, Paul A..  “Shakespeare’s The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero.” 

Shakespeare Quarterly 31.1 (1980): 64-75.

Malkin, Craig.  Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprisingly Good—About

Feeling Special.  New York: HarperCollins, 2015.  Print.

Kluger, Jeffrey.  The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your

Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World.  New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.

Shakespeare, William.  Great Books of the Western World: Shakespeare: II. Ed.

Mortimer J. Adler.  Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1991.  Print.

This paper was presented by the author on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Undergraduate Conference. 

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