Signet Essay Contest 2016


The resiliency and determination of human nature cause people to strive for the highest ground—even a position that was once lost. However, the process of reclamation may result in a change in personality, sometimes for the worse. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero sees himself as an honest, caring man who is trying to find his way back to his former life. However, while executing his elaborate plan, Prospero belittles the spirits he controls, often by ridiculing their intelligence and insulting their appearances. Ultimately he becomes a dictator who does not understand how his actions affect others, which is more dangerous than a dictator who is aware of his or her consequences. His decision to surrender his powers at the end of the play was wise, because he was already conceited, as well as on the path to corruption, and could not have found a middle ground to retain his powers yet still be moral.

Prospero is initially presented as a well-rounded man who is thoroughly educated and had everything he could have desired. He describes himself in his former life to his daughter Miranda as, “The prime duke, being so reputed / in dignity, and for the liberal arts / without a parallel”. Prospero was at his height when he was driven from Milan. Yet all this is from Prospero’s perspective, so he is portrayed as the wronged man. Prospero decided that his books were more important than the dukedom and handed over his position of power to his brother Antonio. Prospero’s anger at Antonio and his anguish at the loss of his dukedom are not fully justified because he himself had provided the opportunity for wrongdoing. In addition, Prospero’s increasingly condescending nature is already apparent when he describes his supporters as “the creatures that were mine”. Even at the beginning, he saw those who stood by him as objects under his power. Prospero may portray himself as a wronged man, but his seed of corruption existed early on.

Magical powers only succeeded in increasing Prospero’s haughtiness, although he still views himself as a righteous person. Prospero commands the spirits of the island, including Ariel, and Caliban, the son of a witch. Although they carry out his orders, Prospero denigrates them at the slightest protest. When Prospero encounters Caliban later in the play, he addresses Caliban with a series of insults, not limited to “thou poisonous slave, got by the devil / himself” and “hagseed”. When Ariel asks Prospero about his promised freedom, Prospero is instantly angered and says, “thou liest, malignant thing!”. Ariel requests that Prospero remember his “promise / to bate [Ariel] a full year”. However, Prospero insists that Ariel is ungrateful for being freed from the witch, Sycorax, and makes Ariel continue to do his bidding. Prospero does not treat those he commands with kindness, even those who efficiently aid him in his plan.

A softer, kinder side of Prospero is also seen in the play as well, but not as often as his harsh actions. Miranda does mention that her “father’s of a better nature… than he appears by speech” . This “better nature” is observed most prominently when Prospero tries to bring Miranda and Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples, together. Prospero is the kindest when attending to his daughter and her future, but he can be rough with her as well. While he tells Miranda about his past, he repeatedly interrupts his story to ask her, “Dost thou attend me?”. Ironically, while portraying himself as an honest, wronged man, his behavior indicates his more overbearing nature. Prospero furthers his claim to be a wronged man in his encounters with Caliban. He initially treated Caliban “with humane care, and lodged [him]”, but now sends spirits to “mow and chatter at [him], / and … with cloven tongues/ do hiss [him] into madness”. While his kind actions are generous and sweet, they are outweighed by numerous insults.

Prospero is a rather pompous person when in a position of power, but is reduced to nothing without any magical abilities. He puts on a grand display of “some vanity of [his] art” for Miranda and Ferdinand. In the performance, the spirits are named after Ancient Roman goddesses, almost as a suggestion at the extent of Prospero’s power. Yet, at the end of the play, Prospero reveals that his powers come through domination when he says, “now my charms are all o’erthrown, / and what strength I have’s mine own, / which is most faint”. Prospero himself is nearly insignificant without subjects to command.

Overall, Prospero is an arrogant and almost tyrannical man who strongly believes he is kind and was unjustly wronged. All those he mistreats, including Ariel and Caliban, remind him of his forgotten promises and harsh actions, which Prospero immediately dismisses as untrue. Prospero fails to see his own misdeeds and does not realize his authority comes from forced domination over others. Such a failure suggests that he cannot be a moral man as long as he has magical powers. Therefore, Prospero was wise to give up his powers before any lasting damage was done.

The majority of male characters in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion appear to be fundamentally flawed in some important way. Freddy Eynsford-Hill is raised as a gentleman and, thus, is a “fool” who has trouble hailing a cab, let alone finding any suitable occupation for himself. Henry Higgins is well-educated but ill-mannered, alienating him from society due to his inconsideration for others. Alfred Doolittle appears to lack any sort of morals and “seems equally free from fear and conscience.” The only male figure who stands out is Colonel Pickering, who seems talented, respectful, and compassionate compared to his competition. Even so, Pickering is only superficially a gentleman; his concern, respect, and treatment for others are overshadowed by his lack of growth and the play’s criticism of gentlemanly behavior as a whole.

Pickering’s true concern and compassion for others, particularly Eliza, distinguish him from the other male characters. His first words to Eliza are, “won’t you sit down?” (Shaw II, 39). This courtesy, which Higgins does not extend, rightfully suggests that he “thought and felt” about her “as if [she] were something better than a scullerymaid,” much to Higgins’ chagrin (V, 122). At the same time, Pickering is not “infatuated” unlike Freddy (V, 130), who laughably spends most of his nights on Wimpole Street because “it’s the only place where [he’s] happy” (IV, 106). All Eliza wants is “a little kindness,” and Pickering, who is neither inconsiderate nor incompetent, is the only one who can provide it without simultaneously being entirely smitten (V, 130).

To be sure, Pickering’s actions and behavior highlight deficiencies in others. He is a foil: Freddy is inept, Pickering is accomplished; Higgins is rude; Pickering is graceful; Doolittle is immoral, and Pickering is virtuous. Like Higgins, Pickering shares a great love for phonetics, but isn’t stubbornly nor narrowly focused on it, either. He is willing to defend Eliza, despite having barely known her at all. In protest of Higgins’ treatment of Eliza, for example, Pickering scolds, “Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?” (Shaw II, 43). Pickering cares for Eliza, but at a respectful distance. Of course, Pickering is also aghast at Doolittle’s lack of morals, demanding, “Have you no morals, man?” Pickering is the perfect gentleman – considerate, polite, and charming. Yet, this consideration forgets one important thing – that the converse may also be true. Unlike Higgins, does Pickering simply lack a passion for his art? Unlike Freddy, is Pickering incapable of romance? Unlike Doolittle, has Pickering lost his sense of reality?

In fact, Pickering is far from a shimmering beacon of gentlemanly greatness. Despite his agreeable personality, Pickering has his own fair share of flaws. He remains a “confirmed old bachelor” and, with Higgins, makes “a pretty pair of babies, playing with [their] live doll” (Shaw III, 81). By themselves, these flaws are not enough to disqualify Pickering from gentleman status. What is troubling, however, is the apparent lack of growth and development in his character. It is important to remember that Pickering himself says nothing of considerable importance in the play. As much as Pygmalion is about Eliza’s transformation, it is also an observation of Higgins’ – and therefore by implication – Pickering’s growth. Although Higgins concedes that he “can’t change [his] nature,” he also admits that he has “grown accustomed” to Eliza’s presence. Pickering makes no such concession; to the contrary, Eliza understands that his manners are “the same to everybody” (Shaw V, 126). Pickering is a character who lacks growth; it almost seems that the road to being a gentleman entails becoming as unremarkable as Pickering.

Pickering’s nobility is confounded by the play itself, which is simultaneously a criticism of class. Among all things, Pygmalion is a social satire – by chastising Freddy’s utter incompetence and poking fun at Doolittle’s unfortunate rise to “middle class morality.” Most importantly, Eliza is herself a product of this criticism; altering her manner of speech and dress convinces high society to believe that a “squashed cabbage leaf” is, in fact, a princess. Pygmalion suggests that the distinction between class is meaningless and, thus, undermines Pickering’s function as a “true gentleman.” The question Higgins poses to Eliza is “not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you ever heard me treat anyone else better” (Shaw V, 126). Pickering, as he points out, is agreeable with everybody, and so while Pickering’s compassion for others may be nice, it does not necessarily suggest that he has feelings for anyone in particular. Pickering stands out only because he is different; in a vacuum he would not count for much. Pickering may be the only gentleman, but even that doesn’t give him a whole lot of credit.

Eliza’s judgment of Pickering as a gentleman is, therefore, not surprising, considering that his competition is rude, incompetent, and spineless. Pickering’s respect, ability, and virtue undoubtedly beat his competition, but at what cost? He says nothing particularly noteworthy but even worse, does not appear to undergo any sort of change. Instead of being a shining beacon, Pickering’s insignificance reduces his role to that of a support character. Despite his clear compassion and care for others, Pickering is only superficially a gentleman who does little more than obey the standards for basic mutual respect. Pickering is almost a symptom of everything wrong with the notion of a gentleman. He is absolutely unremarkable, he is overly polite, and does nothing of importance. It is true that a little kindness does go a long way, but it takes a lot more than kindness to be truly remarkable.


Work Cited

Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. London: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.[1]

[1]    Pagination refers to the 1st edition of Pygmalion published by the Penguin Group.

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