“The Tempest” and “Measure for Measure” – The Qualities of a Good Renaissance Ruler – Essay

“The Tempest” and “Measure for Measure” – The Qualities of a Good Renaissance Ruler – Essay

Machiavelli once argued that “… a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.”  However, this is no easy task for a ruler to accomplish.  After all, it is hard to earn the love and devotion of the people, amidst the popular notion that virtue and power are incompatible – not simply because power stereotypically corrupts, but because figures of authority are given possession of enormous means to use their power.  In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Prospero struggles to balance his immense magical power with his good intentions.  Likewise, the Duke of Venice in Measure for Measure deceives his subjects by disguising himself in order to conceal his true goals.  Yet the two leaders delicately manage to illustrate what it means to be a successful figure of authority.  Although both Prospero and Vincentio come across as manipulative and intrusive rulers, their deceptive scheming ultimately leads to the well-being of their subjects.

The Tempest begins right in the midst of Prospero’s magically created storm which already puts all of Prospero’s enemies at his mercy.  Using the storm, Prospero gets every character exactly where he wants them and sets up the scene for the rest of his manipulation.  Not only does he create an advantage for himself, Prospero demonstrates that his main concern is the ultimate well-being of others, and the shipwrecked arrive on the island with “not a hair perished. / On their sustaining garments not a blemish, / But fresher than before” (1.2.258-260).  The fact that Prospero does not harm those under his control while he is manipulating them confirms and foreshadows that he is directing his “subjects” toward a decent finale.  Indeed, Prospero stows the Italians’ ship and its crew safely in the harbor so that they will be able to journey back to Italy unharmed when his schemes are successfully concluded.

In addition to such magical meddling, Prospero also acts intrusively towards his daughter and her future.  For instance, as the young Ferdinand approaches Miranda, Prospero says to her, “The fringed curtains of thine eyes advance / And say what thou seest yond” (1.2.486-487).  By encouraging Miranda to appreciate the sight of Ferdinand, Prospero hopes to fuel the natural feelings of romantic love inside his daughter’s heart.  As his plan proves successful, and Miranda is charmed by Ferdinand’s good looks, Prospero seeks to control the rest of the young lovers’ relationship.  After Ferdinand confirms that he is serious about Miranda and intends to marry her, Prospero muses to himself:

“They are both in either’s powers.  But this swift business

I must uneasy make, lest too light winning Make the prize light…”          (1.2.542-545)

Evidently, although Prospero is delighted at the match he has created, he still wants to assume the role of a controlling father and to ensure that the relationship progresses only at his pace and on his terms.  Nonetheless, Prospero’s invasive attitude can be looked upon with grace, especially because his plans end with the assurance of an advantageous marriage for Miranda.  Through his scheming, Prospero singlehandedly secures both his peaceful return to power as well as his daughter’s promising future as the Queen of Naples. Indeed, when Alonso sees Ferdinand with Miranda in the final scene, he begs Prospero to forgive the treacheries of years past and the characters are happily reconciled; thus, Prospero’s meddling results in the well-being of others.

Similarly, Duke Vincentio manipulates his subjects in Measure for Measure.  Taking on the disguise of a friar, Vincentio operates behind the scenes to bring his subjects the best possible future.  As the Duke himself says, the initial purpose of his manipulation is to restore “the rod / More mocked than feared” (1.3.27-28), that is to reestablish the just laws that seem dead to his people.  In fact, Vincentio’s deception seems to be a device of political surveillance, and as he observes Angelo’s hypocritical failures, passes off a pirate’s head as Claudio’s, and spies on Isabella’s private conversations with her brother, he truly becomes what Lucio calls “a duke of dark corners” (4.3.170).  Because he has the advantage of knowing the individuals involved in his carefully controlled experiment better than they know each other, he is able to anticipate – in general but nonetheless effective ways – what they will do in response to his bidding.  In addition, unlike rulers with treacherous designs, he is eager to use his knowledge of what is best in his subjects to “weed” out the worst (3.2.270).  Vincentio himself declares, “craft against vice I must apply” (3.2.277); indeed, his deceptive scheming ultimately brings about the best solutions to the ongoing problems that surround him.  Not only is Angelo publicly denounced and reprimanded for his treatment toward Mariana, the Duke makes sure that Claudio is safely returned to his sister and his beloved.  Clearly, through his intrusive behavior, Vincentio provides for the welfare of his subordinates.

Clearly, both Vincentio and Prospero use comparable strategies of manipulation, intrusiveness, and deceit in order to resolve problematic issues and to create a wonderful, solid future for their subjects.  Perhaps it does not matter if they are hated or loved in a Machiavellian sense, as long as they know how to wield their overwhelming power with the purpose of maintaining the welfare of the public.  If this is true, Prospero and Vincentio have both discovered the secret to being successful Renaissance rulers.