“The Tempest” was the last play that Shakespeare wrote, and many people believe that the ideas for this production were taken from all his previous works. One of the main themes in the play is that of magic, it’s use for ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and how this affects the society around it. At the time that the play was being written, the people of Europe took magic very seriously, for example witches were still being burnt at the stake. Magic plays a vital role in the play, determining the end of every scene, and indeed the fate of every character.
The first 3 acts reveal the usage of this magic, on both ends of the spectrum.
Act One Scene One sees the event that gives the play its name – the tempest itself. In hindsight we are aware of the magic that was used to create the storm, but at the time of it’s happening we are led to believe that this is merely a natural occurrence.
Admittedly nobody is killed, and we later find out that even the rest of fleet have been safely sent back to Naples with the illusion that the King’s ship perished in the storm. However despite this, it is questionable whether this magic was benign, as everyone suffered during its implementation. This recurs throughout the whole of the play; as to whether it is necessary to mess with people’s emotions, sleep patterns and the natural elements, and indeed whether any good does come of this all in the end.
Prospero seems to have no hesitation in performing his magic, mainly for the good of himself, as we see in Act One Scene Two.
In the following the audience learn of the magic that has been carried out, in the very first two lines spoken by Miranda. “If by your art, my dearest father, you have Put the will waters in this roar, allay them”.
She describes the magic as an “art” although the word has several darker connotations. Miranda seems reluctant to understand her fathers need to practise magic, as she has seen the ship itself “Dashed all to pieces”. It is with her worrying that Prospero reveals the story that has happened before the storm. He mentions several characters that we have seen in Scene One of this Act. “I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated To closeness and the bettering of my mind With that which, but by being so retired, O’er-prized all popular rate”.
Prospero explains to Miranda that he was once Duke of Milan, but he left control of the city to his brother Antonio, whilst he concentrated on the “bettering on my mind” – the study of magic. He claims that people believed magic-was over-rated, because the supernatural powers were much more valuable than people first thought. The tale that is told makes the audience feel sorry for Prospero, and maybe even forgive him for creating the storm, but this impression is immediately changed when he sends his own daughter to sleep. Again this use of magic is questionable, as he discusses with the spirit Ariel the plan that will unfold very soon.
It becomes apparent that he did not want Miranda to hear this plan as it would involve her, and her knowledge of it would ruin it completely. We begin to have reservations about Prospero as a man, whether magic has corrupted him so much that he has no qualms about toying with his daughter’s emotion. However it is this possible corruption that will stem the entire play, and thus magic becomes a necessary tool. Many could find it hard to believe that Prospero would want to give up his Dukedom for the practise of magic, and it is this strand of Prospero’s character that leads the story on.
Later on in the scene, a spirit called Ariel appears and it is revealed that Prospero had sent her to make the tempest occur. Prospero cannot even carry out his own magic, but must send creatures to do it for him – possibly another result of the corruption magic has had upon him. Ariel complains bitterly about having to do Prospero’s dirty work and asks to be set free. “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, Which is not yet performed me. My liberty”.
Prospero reminds Ariel of the magic that he freed her from. Sycorax, an evil witch, had been banished to the island from Algeria, and had attempted to make Ariel a slave. But Ariel had refused and as a result had been entrapped in a pine tree for 12 long years. When Prospero had been left on the island, he had released Ariel in a gesture of goodwill, but the roles had reversed and now Prospero is Ariel’s master. Again the use of magic is for domination or good for oneself. We see this again with Caliban, Sycorax’s son. Prospero has made Caliban his slave to carry wood and other items around the island, as he is too old to do it himself. Prospero promises terrible things to Caliban if he does not complete his tasks, and so magic is again being used for threats and unnecessary suffering.
Music and magic have always been very closely linked, and it is this that lures Ferdinand in the latter part of the scene. Let us not forget that Ariel had especially placed Ferdinand on this part of the island after the storm. Ariel is invisible as a product of her magic, playing a lute and sings to draw Ferdinand closer to Miranda. There is much debate about whether the following passage has been set up by Prospero and indeed manufactured it entirely to fit with his plan, or whether Shakespeare meant a romance to occur to lighten the mood of the play.
Either way, it seems a little far-fetched that Ferdinand and Miranda appear to fall in love instantly, love at first sight, which would indicate that Prospero has had some intervention. The romance is also a key part of Prospero’s plan, and we would assume that he would have had some involvement to make sure this all went smoothly. If this is the case, Prospero is again using his magic for his own personal gain – seeking revenge upon those who deposed him.
Ferdinand starts to put up a fight with Prospero and “He draws and is charmed from moving”. The stage directions indicate that Ferdinand is frozen to the spot to stop any harm from happening, but this is debatable as to whether it was actually necessary. Prospero instructs Ferdinand that he will have to work for his love of Miranda, and leads him to a place where he will chop wood until Prospero deems him fit. He thanks Ariel for her work and again promises her freedom, but we later see this has not been fulfilled. Magic has been the theme of the entire scene and without it; many of the things would not have been possible.
Act Two takes the audience back to the stranded party of royals. Gonzalo is the only one to notice that his clothes are looking as good as new – “bring rather new-dyed than stained with salt water”. In Shakespearean times, the clothes would have been dyed and after the tempest all the dye would have run, leaving their clothes looking tatty and ragged. This of course, is Ariel’s doing, though it is not entirely apparent as to why? Perhaps it was because Prospero instructed that none of the party should be harmed, and so Ariel took this to mean that they should be exactly as they were before the storm.
Or perhaps this was Ariel wanting to cause some confusion and suspicion between the party. It also causes a small rift between Gonzalo and the others. Later on, the royals feel sleepy, again as a result of Ariel’s magic, upon instruction of Prospero. The reason for this isn’t clear either. It results in Antonio and Sebastian, the only 2 that stay awake, planning to kill Alonso to gain the Dukedom of Naples. Maybe Prospero intended them to do this, as it would again cause a rift between the company. Gonzalo is about to be killed too, but this is stopped by Ariel’s music, as Gonzalo is a large part of Prospero’s plan. Once again the end of the scene is determined by magic.
Scene Two starts with Caliban complaining about Prospero, and how he has been mistreated. Caliban himself is a magical creature, representing the pure natural man who is corrupted by the temperament of humans. The scene itself doesn’t actually contain much magic, except perhaps the magical power that alcohol holds over Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban.
Act Three Scene One is the scene in which Ferdinand and Miranda agree to marriage. The play so far has taken place over a very short space of time and again it is questionable as to whether this whole thing has been manufactured by Prospero, as the stage direction indicated he is “at a distance, unseen” watching over proceedings. Prospero enters the scene visibly this time and agrees to let the marriage take place. Again the whole timing of the episode, and Prospero’s joy at this news seems rather mad-made. Even at the end of the scene Prospero says, “I’ll to my book” as if he has more in store.
Scene Two goes back to Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban and they plan to kill Prospero so that they can have hold over the island. Caliban knows the extent of Prospero’s power so is a little more cautious. Just as between the royal party, a rift forms when Trinculo sulks about Caliban being the centre of attention. Ariel sees this and decides to take advantage in comic style. She uses Trinculo’s voice, expressing his real thoughts, to widen the rift between Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo. Again this isn’t really necessary to the play but is another example of the use of magic and its role in the play. Ariel then plays music to distract the 2 humans and they decide to follow that rather than go through with the plan to kill Prospero. Again this intervention of magic ends the scene.
The final scene of this act shows the largest use of magic and possible for the most ruthless reasons. Prospero’s plan overall is one of revenge and this is where he lures all the men together. Again there is the link between music and magic, but this time Prospero has instructed for a feast to appear in front of the men. This is similar to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, as the men do suspect that something is wrong here.
The men see the spirits that carry in the banquet and are suddenly aware of the magical forces around them, and over the entire isle. Prospero uses this to taunt the royals, and tempt them, using cruel methods. Ariel is sent in as a harpy and the feast then vanishes, dashing all the hopes of the men in one fell swoop. The men are very confused by this occurrence. Ariel’s long speech condemns the men and the spectacle of this mythical bird is done to scare the men. Prospero has set up everything for this moment, and carries it off in true style. Everything has been done to have the greatest effect, and whether this is truly humane is debateable.
In all, the whole of the play depends entirely of magic, and if it were not for Prospero’s interest in magic in the first place, none of this would have taken place. The supernatural powers that Prospero exerts and sometimes abuses are the very basis of the play, which is unusual for Shakespearean play. For example, in Macbeth the witches have some influence over Macbeth himself, but the power of free will can over-ride this, as it does on several occasions. The repeated use of magic can appear delightful if staged in the correct way, however if you read deeper into the play, it is apparent that Shakespeare wanted to represent the potential of supernatural powers if misused. The way he has done this works well to show the corruption of humans when they believe they are bigger than a magical, mysterious force.