How does Shakespeare portray Prospero in Act 5?
The final scene of the final play sees Prospero complete his masterplan of punishing then forgiving the royal court of Naples, marrying Miranda off to Ferdinand and securing his return home. At the very end of the play, he delivers an epilogue declaring that his magical powers have been relinquished and asking the audience to release him.
Much of this relates to Shakepeare’s own life at the time of writing: This was his last full play and he was announcing his retirement. The Duke’s penultimate speech says “Retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.” – which could be a reference to the bard’s advancing age and impending demise (indeed he only had around six years to live after finishing The Tempest), and the final page features him essentially asking the audience to let him end it all.
For the in-universe aspects of Prospero’s character we see a mixture of anger, relief and exhaustion. When he has gathered the hypnotised crowd inside the magical circle, he vents his thoughts on them to their blank faces. He calls the lot of them “useless” and says their brains are “boil’d within [their] skulls”. At first it appears that he will smite them, but instead he says “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.”. When talking to Sebastian he says “For you, most wicked sir… I do forgive thy rankest fault – all of them.”. The general undertone of this entire sequence is that he desires to make his prisoners aware of the suffering they have caused, but now lacks the stamina to effect a drawn out penalty.
It could be that he is trying to force himself to hurry through and not linger on revenge – to concentrate on his true aim of getting back to Naples. It seems at other points in the play that he may have been putting off his disempowerment for quite some time. Certainly he seemed rather reluctant to give up Ariel, stating “Why that’s my dainty Ariel. I shall miss thee, but yet thou shalt have freedom.” – indicating that he has grown rather attached to the harpy, yet knows he must eventually dismiss him. Likewise, he continues to make use of his magic even as he promises to lose it. Only at the very end of the play does he finally let go.
What we see throughout this act is an old and weary yet fulfilled Prospero, who has released his charms but also his chains, and is the better for it.