No Fright, No Might: Alonso’s Lack of Machiavellian Power in The Tempest
For all the levels of royal hierarchy explored between the lines of The Tempest, it is a natural assumption that Alonso, King of Naples, should be the most capable of exercising authority in the narrative. In fact, it only makes sense that the king should be in charge—he is the king, after all, theoretically at the apex of political control. And yet, oddly enough, despite his title and presumed power, Alonso possesses little to no control over any of the events that transpire as the plot progresses, nor any of the men he travels with, who are all of a lower hierarchical rank—his authority is missing. To ignore Alonso’s hinted-at lack of authority is to subsequently ignore venturing into the play’s political waters, namely the suggestions of Niccolò Machiavelli in his early sixteenth-century treatise, The Prince. When Machiavelli’s political notion that “it is far safer to be feared than loved” (Machiavelli 65) is taken into account in terms of the behaviors of leaders in The Tempest, Alonso’s deficiency in control might be justified by his inability to instill fear of consequence into his subjects, regardless of his title. Because Alonso does not, and perhaps cannot, intimidate those below him, he becomes the antithesis of the Machiavellian leader, and is juxtaposed against successful, more fearful power-holders in the play, such as Prospero. Alonso’s failure to step up as a Machiavellian “fearful” leader explains his jarring lack of authoritative ability and suggests some truth to Machiavelli’s often-controversial claims—perhaps not in their morality, but in their effectiveness.
Right from the play’s introduction, Alonso establishes himself as a leader with no real presence, no effective control, and no clear method of instilling threats for those who do not obey him. In The Tempest‘s first scene, where the storm itself is taking place, it is nearly impossible to discern that Alonso is the king on the ship at all. His only line in the first scene, where he attempts to order the boatswain to “play the men” (The Tempest 1.1. 8-9), is dismissed, as the boatswain has already given much more detailed and effective orders to “take in the topsail. Tend to the Master’s/ whistle. —Blow till thou burst thy wind” (6-7) just moments before, and even suggests Alonso and his men only “mar [their] labor” (12). For the rest of the scene, Alonso is silent, leaving his counselor Gonzalo to suggest the boatswain “remember whom [he] hast aboard” (17), to which the boatswain quips back, “none that I love more than myself” (18), and proclaims the situation cares not “for the name of the king” (16). The “lowly” boatswain’s rejection of the king’s authority seems to suggest he has no fear of Alonso, neither of dismissing his importance nor giving orders over his head. There is no threat of consequence for doing so, and Alonso’s silence for the rest of the scene while his subjects attempt to command the ship in his stead hints Alonso is merely “one of the gang” alongside Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo, though he outranks them. He has nothing distinguishingly “kingly” about him; he gives no real orders in this scene, and does nothing to command his people in this time of duress. This impression sets up Alonso as an ineffective king less fearsome than the tempest at hand.
Interestingly, taking Machiavelli’s advocacy for a fearful leadership into account, the play suggests Alonso’s lack of dialogue and consequential lack of control comes from his inability to be feared as Machiavelli insisted—allowing the play to give The Prince a certain level of validity. Machiavelli in chapter seventeen of The Prince bases his principles of leadership on the notion that a prince—or, presumably, any political leader—”must make himself feared” (65) by those around and beneath him, or else he runs the risk of losing authoritative grasp. This section of Machiavelli’s chapter seems particularly arguable: if subjects fear a leader, the leader will be able to hold power over them. And while Shakespeare, writing half a century later, may not have been directly influenced by The Prince, he would have at least known of Machiavelli through the reputation proceeding from him, namely his appearance in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, where his persona articulates that the protagonist’s audience should only “grace him as he deserves” (The Jew of Malta Prologue 33), and that he personally “weigh[s] not men, and therefore not men’s words” (8) as a strategy for gaining power. If the Machiavellian leader “must not scruple about gaining a reputation for cruelty—because without it he can never keep his army united or willing to follow him” (Machiavelli 66), and if “men have less compunction about harming someone who has made himself loved than harming someone who has made himself feared” (65) due to the fact that “men are evil” and “hungry for profit” (65), then the manner in which Alonso lacks power and coercion while and Prospero has it in spades can begin to be seen as a consequence of not following Machiavelli’s standards.
Thus, Prospero emerges as a contrast to Alonso, as he is able to act in a manner fitting of a Machiavellian leader and gain the resulting power from it. In Act I, Scene II, Prospero is introduced as a man with no current political authority or title, and yet through his actions toward his servants and the manner in which they obey him, he reveals he possesses more power than Alonso. He fervently echo’s Machiavelli’s notion that if a leader is willing to exercise cruelty for the sake of keeping order, he will be rewarded with not only order, but submission. Unlike Alonso’s refusal to dish out orders and threats to the ship’s crew, Prospero responds to his slave Caliban’s defiance and “malice” (The Tempest 1.2. 370) with a warning:
If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly
What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps,
Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar
That beast shall tremble at thy din (371-374)
Leaving aside the later complications of their master-slave relationship, it is clear that at a basic level, Caliban fears Prospero and “his art…of such power” (375) that can make Caliban “ache” and “roar” if he does not obey. Prospero as Caliban’s leader is able to successfully threaten him and put him in his place, demonstrating the effectiveness of a leadership based upon fear and intimidation instead of what Alonso, in contrast, demonstrates.
This contrast is easily seen in Alonso’s immediately-following actions, as the king displays no evidence of similar fearsomeness and only gives benevolent orders to his subjects, such as “prithee, peace” (2.1. 124) and “lead off this ground” (317), declining to take the lead in the island ventures himself or give mandatory orders to his crew—even when his missing son is at stake. Alonso seems to be of higher moral character than Prospero in his refusal to threaten and manipulate, but for Machiavelli and as the play seems to demonstrate, morality does not dictate how power is controlled. Alonso’s rejection of fear tactics may make him seem a more likeable king than Prospero by comparison, but as it results in his shortcomings in leadership, it suggests that the more Machiavellian characters, such as Prospero, are truly the more successful commanders.
Because the play dismisses morality as the means to gain an effective leadership, Alonso’s character exemplifies the Machiavellian antithesis even further when his leadership of love instead of fear begins to not only reduce his abilities as a king, but threaten his life. In the later events of the second act’s first scene, when Alonso drifts off to sleep, he trusts Duke Antonio’s words that he and Sebastian, Alonso’s brother, will “guard [his] person while [he] take[s] [his] rest,/ And watch [his] safety” (The Tempest 2.1. 191-192). But instead, Antonio almost immediately suggests Sebastian kill Alonso in his slumber in order to succeed the throne of Naples, even declaring Alonso is nothing to worry about, “no better than the earth he lies upon” (276)—to which Sebastian agrees he’ll “come by Naples” (287) with Antonio’s lack of conscience as “[his] precedent” (286). Clearly, the two feel as though they can discard the king with no consequences for the sake of “advancement” (263); Antonio even suggests instead of punishing them for their crime, Alonso’s men will “take suggestion as a cat laps milk” (283), a lofty idea implying there is no trepidation under this leadership. Clearly, Alonso’s leadership strategies are ineffective as they stand, as his people do not fear punishment, and the fact that Alonso’s life is threatened by such ineffectiveness demonstrates its severity.
The reason for this ineptitude is suggested by further evidence that Alonso is the Machiavellian opposite of a feared leader: he relies on the love of his people, instead of intimidation, which is a strategy that ultimately fails him. A loved ruler will not be protected, and as this scene progresses, that can be seen: Gonzalo, the one proclaimed to be Alonso’s “friend” (293) and awoken by the spirit Ariel to “keep a care” (298) of Alonso’s life, might be able to thwart the attack with a shout and suggest the group “stand upon [their] guard” (316) in the future, but he does nothing to “preserve the King” (302) in the long run. It is obvious by the passion and alarm of his outbursts that he loves Alonso as a ruler, but yet he can make no real move to keep him safe. Loving and wishing to “preserve the king” accomplishes no more than a delay of an assassination, while without fear of reprimand or interrogation, Antonio and Sebastian are free to proceed with their plots of regicide. Thus, by exemplifying a benevolent king loved by some instead of one whose administration can deliver punishment for crimes and command fear to all, Alonso leaves vulnerable his power, his reputation, and his life.
Keeping Machiavelli’s treatise in mind, the final scene of the play shatters any last remaining illusions of Alonso’s authority, and makes clear Prospero is able to frighten him into submission because. Prospero continues his manipulation of the plot until the end, where he coerces the king and his subjects into seeking him out by use of a supernatural fright that leaves Alonso with a “strange stare” (3.3. 95) of dread. Using Machiavelli’s tactic of terror allows Prospero to easily put the men “in [his] power” (90) by the final scene, where Alonso, lacking the same intimidating prowess, is frightened now not only by Prospero’s supernatural manipulation, but the man himself: “Since I saw thee,/ Th’ affliction of my mind amends, with which. I fear a madness held me” (5.1.114-115). In an ironic turn of events, Prospero has more control over Alonso than Alonso does over his own subjects—Alonso literally “fears” him. While Antonio and Sebastian can dismiss the thought of any consequence from Alonso’s administration and even plot his murder, Alonso is clearly distressed that he has caused Prospero harm, and bows under threat of Prospero’s magical power. He is, simply, a leader wishing to be loved falling beneath a leader wishing to be feared. Bound by the “torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement” (104) of Prospero’s threats and accusations, Alonso professes, “Thy dukedom I resign, and do entreat/ Thou pardon me my wrongs” (118-119). He is the King of Naples, and yet here he is, embracing and apologizing to a former duke referring to himself as a “prince” (108). Alonso’s willingness to apologize and grant mercy may seem an admirable quality in a king, but for Alonso to beg for Prospero’s forgiveness only makes him seem weak and submissive, not venerable. Because Alonso in this final opportunity for control still refuses to use intimidation for authority, he forfeits his power to those who prefer to heed Machiavelli’s words—Prospero, in this case. And so, once and for all, Machiavelli answers the question of why Alonso as king has no power while characters like Prospero can put anyone in their place: without fear from his subjects, a king’s authority means no more than an exiled duke’s.
Considering the utter lack of Machiavellian values Alonso exhibits and his ensuing failure to maintain a hold on his people or the narrative in the way Prospero can, Machiavelli’s proclamation of fear triumphing over love receives justification and explains this power dynamic working within The Tempest. Although Alonso seems to be a benevolent and well-liked leader, he exemplifies he is in fact not the right kind of leader in terms of the play’s ideological time period, as his people fear nothing from him and are willing to go so far as to threaten his life without fear of consequence. The harsh reality of this political time is that fear does in fact travel farther than love in terms of an effective leadership, as Machiavelli outlines in his treatise, which is why Alonso is so easily overcome by his peers throughout the play’s duration. Considering the development of the play, Machiavelli’s words gain some truth, as there is no power in The Tempest where there is no fear. Unfortunately, monarchial politics are not about what is moral or just—but about what tactics can exercise the most effective control. Alonso, despite the fact that he is king, proves over the play’s duration that his lack of authority can be directly linked to his inability to be feared by his people—in other words, his failure to be a Machiavellian Prince.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Essential Writings of Machiavelli. Ed. Peter Constantine. New York: Modern Library, 2007.
Marlowe, Christopher. “The Jew of Malta.” English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Ed. David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.