Prince Prospero is named after Shakespeare’s godlike creator of his own private world in the play, The Tempest (Vanderbilt 381). Shakespeare’s play centers upon a powerful man, Prospero, who transforms a primitive island into a paradise. Like Poe’s Prospero, Shakespeare’s character creates an environment that corresponds to his vision of how the world should look. But Prospero’s island is an unstable place; the beast-man Caliban represents the destructive energies of nature that continually threaten the kingdom of Prospero (Vanderbilt 383).
Joseph Roppolo suggests that not only does Poe take his character’s name from Shakespeare, but also the title for the story itself (60). In the first act of The Tempest, Caliban curses Prospero: “the red plague rid you” (Zapf 214). Similarly, Poe’s main character learns that human efforts to avoid the hostile forces of nature are doomed to failure. As Shakespeare’s Prospero admits his inability either to conquer or promote the wild Caliban, Poe’s Prospero understands that he can not win in the battle with the Red Death (Zapf 216).
Prospero is a man who has no sympathy or compassion to his people. While his kingdom is devastated by the plague, Prospero locks himself and his closest friends inside a fortress where they will stay secluded until the plague goes away. In addition to being protected from contamination, they feel free to indulge in all sorts of immoral behavior: “Security was within…. The external world could take care of itself” (485). The natural question that arises from these facts is why does Prospero behave in such a manner? Aside from obviously being a man who does not care about sufferings of others, the prince also appears to be a person who enjoys his pleasures not taking others’ feelings and lives into consideration. Hubert Zapf says that Prospero is the type of man who would gain great satisfaction—because it is a sign of his ultimate power—describing in detail the dinner he just had to a homeless person who has not eaten in weeks (212).
Poe reminds us that the devastating effects of the Red Death, with its horrible “bleeding at the pores,” isolates the victim “from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” (485). In the end, it is Prospero himself who is “shut out from the aid and sympathy” not only in his selfish indulgence, but in the manner in which he dies: alone in the black room, face-to-face with death (Zapf 216). He failed to save himself from death. The story shows that death is a universal matter that makes all people equal and there no escape from departing this world.
Joseph Ropollo points out that the beginning of the story is truly Gothic: “Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell? I will not. Besides I have other reasons for concealment” (Qtd in Dayan 45). Gothic fiction frequently tries to take the reader into strange, remote regions to emphasize the unreal horrors experienced by sensitive heroes and heroines; the reader is immediately put into doubt and uneasiness in this beginning (Ropollo 64).