Shakespeare not only believes that compassion is the key in humanity, but forgiveness as well. In The Tempest, Prospero holds a grudge throughout the play due to the fact that his brother Antonio, conspiring with Alonso, the King of Naples, usurped his position as the Duke of Milan:
[…] in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature; and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood in its contrary as great
As my trust was; which had indeed no limit (Shakespeare The Tempest 1.2.112-6).
Coursen believes that Prospero attempts to put Alonso and the other conspirators through a penitential experience, to evoke within each other a ‘heart’s sorrow’ leading towards redemption. Prospero assumes that inflicted punishment upon Alonso will lead to his satisfaction. As he later finds out, his assumption is wrong and Ariel is there to help point him in the right direction: “Mine would, sir, were I human,” then Prospero replies “the rarer action is / in virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent, / the sole drift of my purpose doth extend / not a frown further (5.1.26-38). Again, we see Ariel in the same situation telling Prospero that he needs to forgive these men. Coursen states that The Tempest exposes not only folly but sin and repentance; and it also exposes the extent and limits of man’s control over the inner lives of other men. Prospero recognizes his mistake and states that it is harder to forgive than to punish, and that understanding along with the importance of compassion ultimately defines Prospero as attaining the definition of humanity. Opposite Prospero is Macbeth in Macbeth who doesn’t understand the meaning of forgiveness at all: “O, yet I do repent me of my fury / that I did kill them.” (Shakespeare Macbeth 2.3.124-5). Prospero says this statement without real meaning because he does not really care for the chamberlains that he killed since they only got in the way. He says it because he has to, to get away with something greater. The lax use of this statement proves that Macbeth neither cares nor understands the meaning of forgiveness. Macduff, however, seems to realize the importance of forgiveness: “Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape, / Heaven forgive him too!” (4.3.274-5). Macbeth “succumbs to temptation and never comes to recognize the true error of his ways” (Evans 338). Unlike the ignorance on Macbeth’s part, Macduff understands the idea of forgiveness and even offers it to Macbeth. Later, the Doctor also asks for forgiveness for everyone and especially Lady Macbeth because she is delusional. Prospero found out the easy way to forgive with the help of Ariel in The Tempest whereas Macbeth did not know how to forgive in the beginning nor did he learn in the end.
The virtues of compassion and forgiveness are expressed through the political hints of colonialism and imperialism in The Tempest and the “moral idiot” that is Macbeth. In The Tempest, Prospero is a European who has taken charge of a remote island and he organizes a life for himself, gets the local inhabitants (Ariel and Caliban) to work for him, and maintains his control mainly by the and promises of freedom some day: “Here in this island we arrived; and here / have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / than other princesses” (Shakespeare The Tempest 1.2.205-7). In taking charge of a place which is not his and in exerting his European authority over the strange non-European creatures, compelling them to serve him and his values, Prospero, so the argument runs, is obviously a symbol for European colonial power, with which England was growing increasingly familiar during Shakespeare's lifetime. Because Prospero achieves a great power, he also forgets about compassion for human beings after feeling so superior to them. It is this loss that Ariel notices when he tells Prospero that he lacks compassion. After closer observation, it becomes apparent that Caliban is the one affected by this ‘colonialism’:
“For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' the island.” (5.1.23-6).
“Caliban, the cannibal represents Man’s basest primitive instincts and his physical sensations” (Beck 2). Because Caliban is just an instinctive being, he doesn’t yet understand any of the virtues of humanity, let along forgiveness. Prospero recognizes the compassion and forgiveness that he has rejected whereas the instinctive and slavery nature of Caliban has hindered these virtues from his life. Like Caliban, one challenges the reader to decide whether Macbeth really is a good man: “The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear” comments a young siward after Macbeth states his own name (Shakespeare Macbeth 5.7.10-1). “If we do manage to sympathize with Macbeth, it may be either because we have been misled about his true character or because we recognize him for what he is, a moral cripple, and pity him for his lack of the one attribute that could save him” (Evans 340). Based on that statement, Macbeth never had the opportunity to ‘find’ humanity ever during this play because he was immoral and did not care about anything but himself from the beginning. In the end he has learned no more than that the only consequences he knew to fear at the beginning are indeed to be feared. Evans plainly makes it clear that if Macbeth is regarded as a tragic hero, he would no doubt be sympathized with. But if one looks at Macbeth for what he really is, he is going to gain far less sympathy because he is simply a “moral idiot” who cares only about his personal gains and never about anyone else or humanity. Through colonialism and Macbeth as an ignorant “moral idiot,” one greater appreciates the virtues of compassion and forgiveness because they are lost in such events during the play.
One must come to the conclusion that humanity can be defined by two mere virtues: compassion and forgiveness. Shakespeare emphasizes these two qualities in The Tempest and Macbeth to prove their importance. One cannot have forgiveness without compassion, and without either, a person’s life means nothing. This understanding that Shakespeare gives us for humanity is so enlightening because one truly realizes the significance. To feel true compassion is to truly be human. To forgive someone rather than punish them is so much more uplifting and an even greater accomplishment. Prospero embodies the compassionate and forgiving at the end because he has succeeded in life by understand the two most important virtues in life. Macbeth does not achieve anything but grief throughout the play and he consistently thinks about himself too much to consider other human beings. With both characters, along with the many others in both plays, Shakespeare has beautifully illustrated humanity for us on what was once a plain canvas.
I do forgive thee,
Unnatural though thou art. Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy. (Shakespeare The Tempest 5.1.88-92)
Beck, Barry. Carl Gustav Jung. 1996. 02 June 2005 <http://www.wynja.com/personality/ tempest.html>.
Coursen, Herbert R. “Prospero and the Drama of the Soul”. Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, 4 (1968): 316-33. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism Ed. Laurie L. Harris. Michigan: Book Tower, 1998. 429-35.
Evans, Bertrand. “The Dramatist as Practiser: ‘Macbeth’”. Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, Oxford: Oxford Press, 1979. 181-222. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism Ed. Laurie L. Harris. Michigan: Book Tower, 1998. 338-40.
Giles, Rupert. Quoth. Ed. R. B. Boyer. 2000. 02 June 2005 <http://quoth.nexusvector.net/tag/ compassion>.
Heschel, Rabbi Abraham J. “Towards a Meaning of Compassion.” A Spirituality Named Compassion. Ed. Matthew Fox. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1999. 1-35.
Johnston, Ian. johnstonia. 17 Oct. 2004. Malaspina University-College. 02 June 2005. <http: //www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/eng366/lectures/tempest.htm>.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York: Washington Square P, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Washington Square P, 1994.