Towards the climax of The Tempest, why does Prospero forgive all?

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Initially, Prospero employs Ariel to help him get revenge on his corrupt brother Antonio and the King of Naples for conspiring against him twelve years ago. With the help of Alonso, Antonio successfully usurped Prospero's position as Duke of Milan and cast him out to sea with his young daughter,...

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Initially, Prospero employs Ariel to help him get revenge on his corrupt brother Antonio and the King of Naples for conspiring against him twelve years ago. With the help of Alonso, Antonio successfully usurped Prospero's position as Duke of Milan and cast him out to sea with his young daughter, Miranda. In return, Prospero conjures a terrifying tempest, shipwrecks the royal court on his strange island, separates Alonso from his son, and plays frightening tricks on the men to get revenge. In act 5, scene 1, Prospero speaks with his loyal servant Ariel, who explains to him that Gonzalo is suffering and that the condition of the men would soften his heart. Prospero responds by saying,

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. (Lines 21–30)

Prospero's comments reveal that he has decided to forgive Antonio and Alonso for their treachery because he pities them and sympathizes with their terrifying experience. Prospero also believes that it is better to act nobly than vengefully and recognizes that the men are sorry for their actions. By exercising forgiveness, Prospero also attempts to influence Antonio and Alonso's sense of guilt and shame, which will motivate them to reinstate his dukedom. Prospero's forgiveness is also attached to his daughter's relationship with Ferdinand. In order to proceed amicably with his daughter's marriage and strengthen his political relationships, Prospero and Alonso must make amends, which can only happen if Prospero forgives him. Overall, Prospero is motivated to forgive the entire royal court because he sympathizes with them, recognizes that they are sorry for their actions, and wishes to restore his relationship with Alonso for his daughter's sake.

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Towards the end of the play, Prospero forgives his brother, Antonio, who "entertain'd ambition" and who is—as Prospero says—"Unnatural." Prospero also forgives Sebastian ("whom to call brother / Would even infect (his) mouth") and Alonso, who asks Prospero to "pardon" him.

Arguably, Prospero decides to forgive everyone because he pities them. He has enacted his revenge, and as Ariel says (in act five, scene one), his "charm so strongly works" his prisoners that to see them would make his "affections . . . become tender." Prospero's decision to forgive those who have wronged him is perhaps simply a result of his conscience and his pity being pricked by this utterance from Ariel.

In the play's epilogue, we might find an alternative, more complex reason for Prospero's forgiveness. In the epilogue, Prospero asks the audience to "release me from your hands" and "set me free." Many critics think that Prospero here could be speaking on behalf of Shakespeare. From this perspective, Shakespeare is asking the audience to let him now be free from the obligation of entertaining them with his plays; he wants to put down his pen, as Prospero wants to put down his wand.

This then, in a sense, is Shakespeare's retirement speech. Indeed, The Tempest was one of the last plays that Shakespeare would ever write by himself. If we consider that Prospero may be speaking this epilogue on behalf of Shakespeare, who is longing for freedom in retirement, this can perhaps help us make sense of why Prospero forgives everyone by the end of the play. By forgiving them, he is releasing them from their guilt and from their sin. He is giving them freedom because he, who is about to ask the audience for his, knows how precious freedom is.

He also grants them freedom in the final act of the play so that his request for freedom in the epilogue will seem more deserved and more sincere. Indeed, he says to the audience in the epilogue, "Since I have . . . pardon'd the deceiver . . . release me from your hands." In other words, Prospero is saying (on behalf of Shakespeare) that he has done his part and what is right, and now it is the audience's turn to do their part and what is right: it is now the audience's turn to set him free.

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Great question. My initial response was that he shouldn't have. That it was hard to believe he could forgive his brothers for shipping him and his daughter off to an island so they could usurp his power. But upon reaching the island he soon reigns as master over all who are there. So, in this sense, he never really gives up his identity as a ruler. Further, he is successful in achieving the best kind of revenge. Instead of just inflicting pain and misery on those who have wronged them, he makes them (Ferdinand's father) come to really realize that what they've done is wrong. And Prospero does inflict some pay-back on his brothers, for sure. But he never lets on that he has really deep-seated anger or resentment. Before his brothers arrive on the island, it seems like Prospero and Miranda are already living in a kind of dream world utopia where his magical powers enable him to rule. I think Prospero also has an epiphany that relates to the boundaries or limitations of power as they relate to the master/servant relationship. He has the ability to totally abuse his dominion over Caliban, Ariel, and all of his brothers who accidentally end up on the island. In a sense, he's like God and everyone is in the palm of his hand. But he has the sense to know that he must not abuse his power. What it seems like he really wants is for his daughter to be happy and to be at peace with others and to be a good ruler back home in Milan.

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Prospero begins to realize that he has brought much of his grief on himself. Upon arriving on the island, he makes slaves of Ariel and Caliban, has Ariel create a storm in order to shipwreck his old enemies, and even captures Ferdinand, the man his daughter Miranda loves. Prospero initially does these things in retaliation for losing his title as the Duke of Milan and having to flee his homeland for the remote island. But Prospero soon learns that denying others their freedom does not return him his own. The freedom he really longs for is emotional freedom, and the only way to achieve true peace of mind is to set free those he has enslaved and forgive them for any wrongs they have committed against him. Only through genuine forgiveness can the duke regain both his peace of mind and his throne. 

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