The Tempest is one of those plays that can be very tough sledding for the modern audience. I just watched the BBC 1980’s TV version, and it is borderline. Even Michael Horndern, by whom I’ve never seen Lear played better than, has a hard time selling Prospero. But that’s what must be done in this play. If folks don’t like Prospero, if the audience doesn’t trust his intentions, and if they don’t become sympathetic with his project, then uneasiness builds apace.
So if you want to know what I think, I think Prospero must be played with barely contained joy in every moment. He’s been shipwrecked, his dukedom stolen, his home lost, and he has landed on an island. But he has acquired magical power, has a powerful spirit-servant, and can command the elements and control anyone who comes to the island. His reach is even long enough to command a storm and bring a passing ship to wreck on his island, because the ship contains the two men who most wronged him in the beginning. And once he brings them to shore, he uses his powers with absolute sway: they go and do only as he allows and directs.
Why would he do that? To get revenge? Wonderfully, no. The whole play and everything he directs is designed to bring his offenders finally before him where their sins are exposed and … he forgives them. Everything leads to forgiveness. He is not paying them back or making them suffer or abandoning them to the island while he returns to Milan to take back his dukedom. No. He works all his wonders to forgive his enemies. This is a happy project, and he should be seen to delight in it.
Then after the last scene of forgiveness and reconciliation, in the last speech of the play, Prospero addresses the audience directly. He asks forgiveness of them, reminding them not very indirectly, that those who hope to be forgiven by heaven must forgive all offenses against themselves.
And since this is basically Shakepeare’s “last” play, it is common to see Prospero’s exit as Shakespeare’s own goodbye. Prospero lays aside his magic staff, and releases the powerful spirit who served him, and prepares to leave the magical island where everything the characters can do is directly under his sway. Even so, Shakespeare puts down his pen, releases his muse, and leaves behind him the magical storyland of the theater and the characters he commanded.
That kind of stunt “works” for an audience if it is done with a deep joy and an ever-present twinkle in the eye, a fundamental playfulness, and a commitment to reconciliation and final forgiveness.
For best results, that’s how Prospero has gotta be played.