Throughout Shakespeare’s works the use and abuse of power is a leitmotif as the characters make excessive use of their power to the detriment of others in order to further their own ambitions. Shakespeare’s characters abuse many aspects of power in order to illustrate the comedic theme of ‘showing up human folly.’ Shakespeare presents these powers similarly in Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest in order to highlight that abusing power ultimately leads to the downfall of the abuser.
In both Much Ado About and The Tempest, Shakespeare’s characters abuse the power in appearance and deception. In The Tempest, Prospero maintains an appearance of grandeur in order to hold power over Ariel and Caliban, as ‘he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against’. He does so through exploiting his magical power to ‘pinch’ Caliban and by reminding Ariel ‘from what…torment’ Prospero rescued him. Shakespeare is drawing a parallel between Prospero and Sycorax, who also ‘confined’ Ariel and used magi, in order to depict Prospero’s villainy. Members of authority in Much Ado use similar methods to maintain power. Don John’ reputation as a ‘reconciled’ man allows him to manipulate others into believing his virtue. Shakespeare’s audience would have recognised that power, particularly in the higher orders of society, was gained and kept through the opinions of others. Borachio depends on his notoriety to ensure that their plan to foil Claudio and Hero’s marriage succeeds. The villains in Much Ado and Prospero in The Tempest both abuse the power of reputation, and ultimately fail. While Borachio initially succeeds, Friar reasserts the order of opinion through Hero’s false death. Similarly, Prospero’s return to his dukedom is a false victory; his ‘ending is despair’ and his strength, while now solely his own, ‘is most faint.’ The lack of true reconciliation between Prospero and his erstwhile opponents suggests that he will once again be usurped. Shakespeare demonstrates that abusing the power of deception will eventually lead to failure, as neither Borachio, Don John or Prospero succeed in their ambitions.
A related theme is the manipulation of others as an abuse of power is a theme throughout Shakespeare’s work. Prospero manipulates Miranda and Ferdinand for his own ends, as Ferdinand will ‘make [Miranda] / The Queen of Naples.’ Prospero, Alonso and Leonato view their daughters as political pawns whose marriages will secure a political goal, so they manipulate their daughters into marriage. The second royal performance of The Tempest was ‘celebrating Princess Elizabeth’s betrothal to the Elector Palatine’ which suggests that Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have viewed Prospero’s actions as the prudent actions of a good ruler and loving father, however manipulative they may be. Similarly to Prospero, Hero abuses the power of deception to manipulate Beatrice into falling in love with Benedick. Both plays question whether love is created by others as a tool for power, whether political or personal. While Miranda and Ferdinand are ‘both in either’s power’, which suggests that love holds power over both of them, Prospero also remarks that he ‘must uneasy make’ ‘this swift business’, which suggests that love has been manipulated by Prospero. Love is portrayed as an illusion to be manipulated for one’s own ends. While the use of power to manipulate others through love is upon first consideration a counterexample to the stated hypothesis, it undermines the characters’ public personas. Alonso is cast in poor light by Sebastian for the miscegenation relationship he puts his daughter in to. Leonato is heavily undermined by his own machinations which cause his son-in-law and the powerful Don John to mock and abuse his authority, despite the apparently successful conclusion to his scheme.
Similarly, the power held by words and the outcome of using this power is one that Shakespeare’s characters never fail to exploit. In Much Ado Benedick and Beatrice have a ‘merry war’ of words that is indicative of their love for each other. Penny Gay is correct in describing their polemical relationship as one in which they ‘talk, and bicker, endlessly, thus displaying for each other their intellects, their energy and their compatibility.’ It is the antithesis of the dance of courtly love that Claudio and Hero engage in and is thus arguably why it triumphs. Courtly love is a facade used by the higher orders of society to mask the battle for power, thus when it is juxtaposed to a love such as Beatrice and Benedick’s this distinction is heightened. It is also juxtaposed to the suffocatingly conventional language of Ferdinand and Miranda’s first meeting, in which Miranda likens Ferdinand to a ‘temple’ and he asks if she ‘be a maid or no?’. This display of courtly love is akin to Claudio and Hero, but by the end of the play they have begun to reflect Beatrice and Benedick by engaging in playfully antagonistic wordplay; ‘you play me false..I would call if fair play.’ The power of a love based on words and wit is ‘past the infinite of thought’ and a force to be reckoned with, as demonstrated by Benedick and Beatrice. This use of the power held in words is far from abuse, which demonstrates that despite the cynicism that surrounds power in Shakespeare’s plays, it is possible to wield it without abusing it.
In contrast to this, Much Ado and Julius Caesar demonstrate that abusing the power of words has dire consequences. Prospero and Mark Antony both abuse the power they hold in their words. Prospero teaches language to Caliban, which grants Caliban the ability to abuse language and humanity in that he is now able to communicate on a level with others such as Stephano and Trinculo which raises him from being a ‘beast’ or ‘fish’ and transforms him into a man. Caliban even uses a higher register than those he is trying to spur into mutiny, as he speaks in verse, while Stephano and Trinculo use prose. Prospero and Don Pedro utilise their rhetoric to persuade the audience of their goodness, highlighted by the fact that Prospero dominates the play through number of spoken lines and an ‘active presence’ of ‘roughly 52 per cent’ of the play, he also ends the play with continued assertion of power over his own narrative; ‘the story of my life…I’ll deliver all’.. whereas the courtly language of Claudio and Ferdinand should be awarded ‘scarce trust.’ Claudio describes Hero as a ‘jewel’ and declares his ‘love’ for her, despite having glanced upon her once. This is an instance of courtly language being implemented, as that which Claudio says is designed to convince other characters of his ‘love’ for Hero, not for the sake of love but for personal gain. In the iconic ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ address Antony abuses his superior rhetoric to manipulate a mob of Plebians into murdering the innocent Cinna. With the dichotomy between the use of oratorical power for love and the perversion of rhetoric for personal gain Shakespeare substantiates the view that abusing power will consistently result in failure
At the time Shakespeare was writing, lying ‘was a diabolical trick’ yet lies invariably feature in Shakespeare’s plays as an abuse of the power an individual holds. His original audience would have been shocked and appalled at Borachio and Don John’s lying to Claudio, as society was heavily influenced by the church and morality. A contemporary audience would have held the opinion that lying was a sin, and those who lied were condemned by god. Colin Butler is only partly right when he states that ‘Shakespeare needs three villains, not one’ as Shakespeare utilises three villains successfully where one would suffice in order to highlight aspects of their villainy. Borachio uses trickery and untruth to ensnare Claudio, while Don John is presented as the devil. This would have had significant effect on Shakespeare’s audience, who would have feared the devil due to a deeply religious society. As the name suggests, Conrade is implemented by Shakespeare as a companion villain to Borachio and Don John in order to reflect them and make their villainy explicit. This is done by Borachio and Don John stating their plans to Conrade as a device to inform the audience. The power afforded to the three villains is that as antagonists they are not bound by morality. They have no need for social laws as the intent is for them to be broken. Don John, the devil incarnate, has the unique ability in Much Ado to act as he pleases, unconstrained by morals. In contrast, The Tempest features no one clear villain, and as such different interpretations over time have placed various characters in the role of antagonist. This is partly possible due to colonialism, and partly due to the fact that all the characters abuse power after a fashion. Caliban is an attempted murderer, Prospero is a cruel master and Antonio usurps Prospero and uses his daughter as a political pawn. Each of these abuses of power ultimately lead to the downfall of the abuser.
Shakespeare emphasises the importance of clothes and physical appearance in both plays and how the manipulation of the power held by appearance will lead to a literal or moral downfall. Attention is drawn to Prospero’s cloak – that which gives him magical prowess – as a means of power. Prospero is only ‘ready’ to perform magic once he has donned it. His cloak is not only a source of his power but an outward expression of it. In Much Ado Benedick shaves his beard as a statement that he is ready to marry Beatrice. This is an outward symbol of his relinquishing power, as Beatrice would never marry a man who had a beard, thus when Benedick shaves his he is giving up control of his appearance to her. This is an exact juxtaposition to Prospero taking up his cloak to show that he has power. Shakespeare also focusses on the power of appearance through Claudio and how Hero is ‘the sweetest lady’ he has ever ‘looked on’. This shows that Hero has power over Claudio through her appearance as ‘a modest young lady’ without having to speak. This is a particularly poignant abuse of power because it is an abuse of feminine power, thus challenging the societal stereotype that women do not abuse power. Hero’s femininity and the importance of her appearance, reputation and honour allow her to be denounced by Borachio’s trick. In contrast, Prospero’s abandonment of his cloak, rod and magic physicalize his relinquishment of power and his downfall from a position
of power on the island to one of relative insignificance.
In The Tempest there is significant ambiguity over the sources of power, and thus ambiguity surrounding how they are used and abused. Prospero appears to gain magical power from his ‘study’ of the ‘liberal arts’ and his ‘books’, yet he requires his road and cloak to perform magic, and needed Ariel to create the tempest in I.i. It is also noted that the witch Sycorax used none of these methods to acquire her magical prowess. This is in direct contrast with Much Ado where the power held by each individual has a clear source. Claudio’s power originates from Don Pedro ‘bestow[ing] much honour’ upon him, Leonato and Don Pedro gain their power through wealth and social status and Don John’s power is from reputation.The reason Shakespeare is equivocal with regard to power sources in The Tempest and wholly unambiguous about them in Much Ado is to because in a court setting traditional ideas of power apply whereas when courtly figures such as Prospero are removed from society traditional hierarchy breaks down.
Postcolonial readings of The Tempest ‘place Caliban at the centre of the play’ and view Prospero as having an inferiority complex that causes him to ‘overcompensate and establish himself as the aggressor.’ A postcolonial reading would emphasise the abuse perpetrated by Prospero on Caliban, whereas Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have read Caliban as the abuser of power in his attempting to usurp Prospero. All audiences vilify Caliban because of his failed attempt to rape Miranda and murder Prospero, however it is only a modern audience who would pity Caliban and instead place the title of villain on Prospero. In comparison to The Tempest, there has been little change in opinions of good and evil in Much Ado. Most audiences are in agreement that he who is ‘not of many words’, Don John, is the villain who will ultimately be defeated, as is the format of a comedy. Arguably, Shakespeare’s plays each follow a trajectory of questioning and then restoring the status quo – with particular regard to the roles of “good” and “evil”. The Tempest does so by questioning Prospero’s right to be duke of Milan and whether it was wrong to exile him and then restoring his position. Similarly, Much Ado challenges the unwritten social rules which govern society and the opinions of women through characters such as Hero and Beatrice, before restoring order through marriage and Benedick’s triumph.
The abuse of the power held by propaganda, ritual and ceremony is explored by Shakespeare extensively in these two plays. At the time of composition, ‘hosting a lavish dance was…a way of displaying social status and wealth’. This type of public display of power is juxtaposed with private power which serves to highlight their differences. Leonato as a father has power over Hero to marry her to whom he sees fit, however he also is the father of the state and must maintain power in that regard. This is done through methods such as dancing and as such the power of the masked dance is abused by Leonato. Leonato uses the dance to assert his wealth and status of power over others. This abuse of public ceremony is mirrored in Julius Caesar when Caesar has Antony offer him a crown for the purpose of being seen to ‘put it by thrice’ in the public eye. Both Caesar and Leonato employ planned public procedure to ensure their status is widely known. The power of reputation is clearly demonstrated here, as it is by reputation that characters such as Leonato and Don John maintain influence. The utilisation of pomp and ceremony is a commentary by Shakespeare on Queen Elizabeth, as she relied on court ceremony to maintain an appearance of power over the state, which was arguably the cause of her excommunication and is a moral downfall as when an authority figure abuses power, particularly one who has a divine right to rule, it is morally reprehensible.
Shakespeare raises questions as to the source and use of political power in his plays and how the abuse of such power causes the shortcomings of courtly figures. During the time when Much Ado was written there was upheaval in England over the succession of the throne because Queen Elizabeth had no heir. As a reflection of this, the play questions the right of rule and whether this power is absolute. Leonato is presented as having status and power that is of questionable right to the audience, as he is an ‘old man’ with no heir during an age where primogeniture meant that traditionally the entire estate would pass to the first born. During the shaming of Hero, Leonato is presented as weak by not defending his daughter’s honour and a bad ruler for not listening to the advice of his underlings, Dogberry and Verges. In the eye of the audience, his age has brought him weakness and not wisdom. In the same way, Julius Caesar explores the theme of questionable political rule. Even ‘noble Brutus’, who ‘loves [Caesar] well,’ fears the people ‘choose him as their king.’ Similarly, The Tempest, while not having the backdrop of uncertain succession, questions the power of the state over others and the divine right of kings, and the actions that ought to be taken when this right is abused.
Prospero was usurped from his position of authority over his dukedom in the same way Caesar is ‘extirpated’ from his dukedom and from power, which presents the question of whether they deserved their position and whether it is true that ‘the king is established by the Lord God’ and thus have a divine right to rule. The usurpation of Prospero – a duke for whom his ‘library was dukedom enough’ – and that of Caesar who ‘doth bestride the narrow world / Like a colossus’ are reflective and suggest that the answer to the question of the divine right of kings is that tyranny should not run unchecked, and when it does it is the moral responsibility of citizens to stand against it. Shakespeare supports the sentiment that ‘no man can justly reprehend Brutus…who killed Caesar before his tyrannical a any firm rooting.’ Shakespeare is suggesting through Prospero and Caesar that when an abuse of political power has become tyranny it ought to be removed and that this is ultimately the fault of the tyrant themselves. In this way Shakespeare is once again reminding his audience that power is to be handled delicately.
There are some sources of power that cannot be tamed by even the most cautious. Prospero and Leonato are aged men whose’ ‘every third thought shall be [the] grave’ as the progression of time is inescapable. Shakespeare highlights this in order to remind his audience that natural forces hold the greatest and most irrepressible power over mere men. Yet the influence of time has debatable results. While Prospero laments his age and Don Pedro patronises Leonato by referring to him as a ‘good old man’, Leonato recognises that he has the ‘privilege of age to brag’. Shakespeare is once more reinstating the archetypal characters that were under scrutiny throughout the play; the wise old man and the hasty young man have been restored.
In Shakespeare’s plays, the wielding of power is a perilous road to tread, and the majority of those characters who attempt it fail to reach a desirable end. This traditional message is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work, as he is a ‘reproducer of the socio-political status quo’ Shakespeare has gone to great lengths to ensure that both Much Ado and The Tempest emphasise that those who seek to exploit power will eventually restore the status quo and meet their demise in the denouement of the play. Only those who do not abuse their power, such as Beatrice and Benedick, will be allowed by Shakespeare to succeed. In this way, these plays contain an important moral warning from their author.
Brinda Charry, The Tempest: A Critical Reader (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Mike Brett, Much Ado About Nothing (Philip Allan Updates, 2006)
Colin Butler, Much Ado About Nothing, A masterpiece by design (The English Review, 1998)
Penny Gay, The Cambridge Introduction To Shakespeare’s Comedies (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer, Shakespeare and Appropriation (Psychology Press, 1999)
Virginia and Alden Vaughan, The Tempest, (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Burton Raffel, introduction from The Tempest, (Yale University Press, 2006)