The Tempest, biography play
The Tempest ends as it begins, with the story of Prospero's life. Alonso says to Prospero as they are leaving the island, 'I long / To hear the story of your life, which must / Take the ear strangely.' Prospero promises to 'deliver all.'
So when the audience sets Prospero free to go back to Milan, the more attentive ones will realise that the start of his Dukedom will be like Act I scene ii, where Prospero tells Miranda the story of their life. Critics often comment on how overbearing Prospero is in this scene. And we see that, even before he puts her to sleep, his story telling and memory, his control over the story of her life, is part of how Prospero controls the island.
This is not dissimilar to the way he could have controlled the way people addressed him in his court, if he had not 'neglected worldly things.' (And there is a hint of that when Miranda wakes up telling him, 'The strangeness of your story put / Heaviness in me.' He cannot tell her it was his magic, so he gives her the usual dukely response to that sort of complaint, anticipating Taylor Swift: 'Shake it off.')
The play is full of this kind of thing. Prospero warning Ariel about their former relationship. Caliban memorising his time on the island before he was Prospero's slave. Memory is part of Prospero's power: 'I must / Once in a month recount what thou hast been,' he admonishes Ariel. Magic is only half his power. Bullying with memory is the other.
Many of the characters are, like Hamlet, 'bounded in a nutshell' but through memory and magic Prospero can count himself a 'king of infinite space.' This power is contrasted to the other characters, especially the ones who arrive on the boat who at the start call their boat 'no stronger than a nutshell' and who are later on imprisoned by Ariel, under Prospero's orders.
But in many ways, Prospero is the prisoner. When he freed Ariel from the pine tree Sycorax had pinned her in, he begins his own twelve years (an interesting parallel) of being trapped by his past. He has waited all that time on the island to get his dukedom back, to get revenge, to right the wrongs of the past.
Shakespeare wrote about this at the start of his career, in Sonnet 30, all about what happens during 'remembrance of things past'.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan, Which I new pay as if not paid before.
Prospero is cashing in what Eliot called the 'gifts reserved for age', which include setting 'a crown upon your lifetime's effort', 'the conscious impotence of rage', and most relevant and most sad
the rending pain of reenactment Of all that you have done, and been; the shame Of motives late revealed, and the awareness Of things ill done and done to others' harm Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Prospero feels that shame in the great scene of Act V, when he is confronted by Ariel about his treatment of the prisoners.
ARIEL: The king, His brother and yours, abide all three distracted And the remainder mourning over them, Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’ His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em That if you now beheld them, your affections Would become tender.
PROSPERO: Dost thou think so, spirit?
ARIEL: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Memory creates empathy here. Gonzalo is the one who helped Prospero escape. Later on Prospero calls him: 'My true preserver, and a loyal sir.' This is the moment of change. Prospero is able to move beyond his authorised biography and start to live his life. Eliot says:
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
Shame is that refining fire. Because Prospero finally listens to Ariel and frees himself from the shackles of memory the play resolves in peace. Alonso's request to hear 'the story of your life, which must / Take the ear strangely' will not be a simple re-run. Prospero has learnt. He is not Lear. That is why, in Eliot's words again, he leaves us 'with a kind of valediction', where he asks for release.
His magic freed and imprisoned Ariel and Caliban and the others. But only public forgiveness can free someone from their 'rending pain of reenactment'. To move beyond memory requires shame, and that is public. The Tempest is a play about Prospero changing the end of his biography.