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The Tempest Essay, Research Paper

The Tempest

The Tempest was written in the early Stuart period in England when masques were becoming exceedingly popular, and were often performed at weddings to honor marriages. The Tempest is heavily influenced by elements of the masque, and can be performed with the same purposes as one, although it is far too rich to be classified simply into that genre of plays. In masques the use of spectacle was extensive. The Tempest reflects this in many ways. The very first scene, Act I scene i, is that of a ship in action, and requires elaborate special effects to convey a sense of realism. The banquet scene in Act III scene iii requires a “quaint device” to make it vanish, and also makes extensive use of costume, dance and music, as the spirits enter in the form of shapeless creatures and Ariel is the form of a harpy. The masque within the play in Act IV requires elaborate costumes for the goddesses and, ideally, machinery for Juno to descend as deus ex machina with. It also involves great amounts of song and dance. The entire play makes extensive use of music, with Ariel’s songs and Prospero’s charms as well as the “sweet airs” of the island itself. Being non-human, Caliban, Ariel and the spirits require elaborate costume to make them appear so, and the court party members are decked in their finest court apparel, having just been at Claribel’s wedding, so that Miranda is taken aback by the “brave new world / That hath such creatures in’t” on seeing them. The elements of pastoral comedy in The Tempest are also linked to those of the masque. A natural man, Caliban, exists. So do a pair of noble young lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, who are brought together in the pastoral setting of an island, unaffected by the corruptive influences of civilisation, making Miranda an innocent and undeceitful young woman. She has had no time for “vainer hours”, as other princesses would have, leading to vanity, but has been educated by Prospero, showing she is innocent rather than ignorant. She is uncoquettish and direct in her advances to Ferdinand in Act III scene ii, and yet is filial, worrying about disobeying her father in what she feels is right. It is her virtue and innate nobility that make Ferdinand mistake her, on their first encounter, as “most sure the goddess of this island”. Ferdinand is also virtuous, having the chivalry to bear logs for Prospero as punishment simply because he has been defeated and having the ability to let “the pure white virgin snow upon my heart / Abate the ardour of my liver.” The chastity of the two lovers points toward the need for reason to rule passion for a harmonious relationship. This is reinforced again by the masque, in which the unruly Vesus and Cupid are omitted, and instead include Ceres, Juno and Iris, goddesses of the harvest, reflecting man’s harmony with nature; marriage, reflecting the importance of marriage vows; and the rainbow, reflecting the harmony of nature. The presence of the goddesses themselves in the masque reflects the element of divine intervention in the masque. In masques, it was common for characters from Gr?co-Roman mythology to be featured, blessing the couple. Divine intervention is also manifested in Ariel, who can only do good, as seen by the fact that he could not work for Sycorax. He is subordinated to Prospero, as well as all the other spirits, weaving in the concept of the supernatural. Ariel also alludes to mythology in his attirements as a seanymph and harpy. However, it would be wrong to classify The Tempest as a masque, as although it contains many elements of the masque, it features a structured plot with an exploration of controversial ideas and themes, such as that of nature versus nurture in Caliban and Antonio, and that of disruption of social hierarchy. Masques tended to rely more on spectacle and moral than on plot; the plot was often weak or non-existent. Through this, we can see that Shakespeare incorporated elements of the masque into that of his conventional plays, producing a play that can be well-regarded in both respects. The Tempest contains certain antimasque elements, such as the conspiracies for murder. Antonio and Sebastian prove that even with all the benefits of noble birth and civilised education, evil men can be produced. This is against traditional masque ideas of nobility. Antonio’s act of usurping Prospero, and their intention to murder Alonso and usurp his throne, give the play tragic elements as well, as they value their personal benefits over those of society. The mock court party also has antimasque qualities, as the rough humour of their folly in attempting to be rulers tickles us in a base way. However, their intent to murder Prospero also presents a dark side of the play, and Caliban is a base, dull, uncivilised brute rather than the innocent and noble natural [nice] man of Spenser. The fact that he can appreciate the music while many of the people from civilisation cannot points to the fact that he does have a degree of the purity which is destroyed by civilisation, but otherwise, we are little inclined to admire him. The struggle of Prospero to assert his reason over his passion, planning for the future rather than succumbing to his temptations for revenge, are also against the idea of the masque. Prospero, as the central character, has little to do with the elements of the masque at all, as the main concern of the plot is his education of the people on the island and his own education as a result of this. Thus, it would be impossible to claim that The Tempest is a masque, but possible to claim it has much to owe the masque. It is a masque to the limited extent that it contains most of the elements of the masque, but this is transcended by the fact that it contains much more that is not, making it a better and more profound play.


In The Tempest, it would seem that no two characters could be further apart than Prospero, the “right duke of Milan”, and Caliban, the “salvage and deformed slave.” They represent two different extremes on the social spectrum: that of the natural ruler, and the naturally ruled. Their positions on the social hierarchy are largely due to the fact that Caliban responds almost wholly to passions, feelings of pleasure — his senses, while Prospero is ruled more by his intellect and self-discipline — his mind. However, the fight that Prospero has against his own natural tendency to ignore the discipline of his intellect, and give in to pleasures such as vanity and self-indulgence, cannot be ignored. Caliban was born of a witch; Prospero is a magician. However, the types of magic practised by Sycorax and Prospero differ greatly: Sycorax, in many respects a traditional witch, worked within Nature and as a part of it. She worked with devils and the lowest orders of spirits. Prospero, on the other hand, exercises his magic by means of strict discipline and study, rising above the natural order by means of his greater knowledge, and actually coercing spirits of a fairly high rank, such as Ariel, to do his bidding and control other spirits for him. In the Arts which both represent, Prospero certainly reflects the world of the mind. [And Sycorax does not?] However, in the use of his Art, Prospero reveals himself as not wholly disciplined. [okay] Prospero enjoys using the power of his Art, as he tells us in his monologue just before his forgiveness of the court party — “graves at my command … op’d … By my so potent Art.” He has also shown that he enjoys using it to show off, as he did during the masque he provided for Ferdinand and Miranda, which he indulged in even when Caliban’s plot and the court party both urgently required his attention. Although we are not given details of Caliban’s birth, it seems likely that a creature as subhuman in appearance as Caliban was not born of a human union. It has been postulated that, to quote Prospero, he was “got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam”, from a union between Sycorax and an incubus (an extremely attractive male apparition with intention to tempt). Caliban was therefore a creature born from passion, the offspring of an unholy pleasure. Prospero was not only of noble birth; he was also born to be the ruler of the city-state of Milan. Nobility, in Elizabethan times, carried with it heavy implications: it was expected that Prospero would be intellectually superior, and that he would exercise as great discipline over himself as he was expected to exercise over others, in his role of leadership. From their ancestry, Prospero is likely to be more ruled by his intellect, and Caliban by his love of pleasure. In the history of each character before the opening of The Tempest, there is a further contrast. Caliban’s original love for Prospero and Miranda, and his later misdemeanour and subsequent hatred for them, illustrate his fundamental reliance on his senses. Caliban loved Prospero and Miranda because they “made much of me”; and his response to this was purely sensual in his recollections: “Thou strok’st me, … wouldst give me / Water with berries in’t”. What Caliban responded to, more than anything else, was the sensation of pleasure that being loved and petted gave him. The action that caused Caliban to be removed from this position and punished was his attempt to rape Miranda, another example of how Caliban seeks pleasure. (Prospero’s position on sexual relations is quite opposite — he tells Ferdinand repeatedly not to take advantage of his daughter, and hammers the message home with the masque.) [True but why? Make the full contrast clear.] Prospero, on the other hand, enjoyed his original position as duke of Milan largely because he was able to study to his heart’s content. This seems to indicate a particular reliance on the powers of the mind — quite opposite to Caliban’s fault — but in actual fact, Prospero’s neglect of his duties and self-indulgence in pushing the matters of the state all to Antonio must be censured, and laid at the door of his lack of self-discipline. Prospero did these things because he enjoyed them so much — and like Caliban, he was punished. [Which is to say he did not fulfill his responsibilities. Be more direct.] However, it must be noted that Prospero was able to learn from his mistake, disciplining himself into the study of magic only so far as it would restore himself, and Milan, to a state of rightful leadership. The decision to give up his magic at the end of the play can be attributed only to intellectual discipline; Prospero’s understanding that for the good of his people and himself, he must give up that which gives him pleasure. [It is not quite so one dimensional.] During The Tempest itself, Prospero and Caliban have two very different purposes. Prospero intends to resolve the injury that was done to Miranda and himself, bloodlessly, by the use of his Art. Caliban’s dearest wish is to depose Prospero by killing him and, rather than resuming rule of the island himself, submit to the rule of Stephano. Prospero’s purpose does indeed include passion — he wishes to take revenge on his “false” brother, and wants the dukedom returned to himself and Miranda. However, Prospero clearly manages to conquer his personal vendetta against Antonio, as evidenced by his forgiveness of him at the end, and his decision not to ruin Antonio by giving away his plot to kill Alonso. Besides, his personal desire to have his dukedom back is acceptable, because part of this desire is a wish to see the dukedom back in the hands of a ruler who cares for the people, not given to a ruler like Antonio, whose main interest is always himself. Prospero may be thinking in terms of self, but as long as he also keeps this lofty purpose in mind, we may say that the world of the mind has more power over him. [good] Caliban’s purpose in attaching himself to Stephano and plotting to kill Prospero is almost wholly passionate. The reason that Caliban believes Stephano to be a worthy ruler, indeed, a god, is that Stephano is the custodian of liquor, a substance that appeals to his senses. His favourable response to Stephano is like his previous response to Prospero — that someone who makes him feel good must be good. Likewise, his attempt at achieving revenge on Prospero is largely in retribution for the punishment Prospero has visited upon his senses. [well said] However, though Caliban’s desire for revenge is certainly not cerebral, his passions in it are not entirely sensual either. The crafty manner in which he persuades Stephano to aid him in his plan, by mentioning Prospero’s riches and Miranda’s beauty, shows the presence of some mental ability; as does his attempted tact in trying to keep Stephano’s mind upon “bloody thoughts”. Furthermore, one of his grievances against Prospero is that he stole the island that was, by birthright, Caliban’s, and imprisoned Caliban upon it. This is part of the little evidence we have that Caliban operates using more than his senses and passions. However, Caliban’s mind is subject to his senses, much as Prospero’s passions are subject to his mind. Caliban’s underlying motives are still passionate. His indignation at having his inheritance usurped loses its weight when we realise that, of his own free will, he will let Stephano rule — showing himself to be naturally ruled, not ruler. At the end of the play, when he recognises that his choice of Stephano as a ruler was foolish, it is not mental reasoning that has led him to this conclusion, but the evidence of his senses and experience. Caliban has mind enough to function as part of society, but training him to become part of that society cannot be abstract, like Prospero’s failed attempt at educating him with Miranda — Caliban’s education must be practical and hammered home with his own senses. Neither Prospero nor Caliban cannot be said to be wholly mind or sensual passion, but Caliban does rely largely on his senses, and by the end of the play, Prospero’s mind has achieved a great extent of control over his passions.


text passage: Act I, Sc ii, lines 79-116. From “Being once perfected how to grant suits” to “To most ignoble stooping”]

Paying close attention to tone & imagery, comment on the presentation of Prospero and important ideas in the play raised here.

We are presented with the highly emotional and angst-filled account of past times in Milan narrated by the main protagonist of The Tempest, Prospero. The turbulence in his tale reminds us of the equally disturbing tempest in the previous scene with its general mood of disorder and destruction. Although there are no physical indication of violence as in the last scene, Prospero’s report is coloured with such images. It is here, in Act 1 Scene 2 that we learn that Prospero’s “art” had conjured up the “tempestuous” storm. Miranda’s “piteous heart” demands a salvation for the “poor souls” onboard the ship but her father, the great magician, Prospero promises that, “there’s no harm done”. He proclaims, “tis’ time” and sets out to explain his motive for raising The Tempest that is the driving force of the entire play. As he speaks of the past, Prospero is no doubt reliving every single detail “in the dark backward and absym of time”. He seems to have vengeance on his mind right now. Old wounds are cruelly re-opened and he re-experiences the bitterness of betrayal by is “false brother” and the pain of what had happened “twelve year since”. At the same time, he is also stirring up lost memories in Miranda’s “remembrance”. We see Shakespeare’s magic at work as well while he deftly weaves the plot into his audience’s mind. Every time Prospero calls Miranda to attention, Shakespeare speaks through the lips of his creation to his audience, “Thou attend’st not?” Taking on the voice of father, magician and “prince of power”, the bard leads us straight into the crux of The Tempest of Prospero’s voice. The usurped Duke of Milan speaks of the usurper, Antonio most vividly, using myriad images. We picture Antonio’s brilliance in politics as Prospero tells of how his brother “being once perfected how to grant suits, how to deny them, who t’ advance and which to trash for over-topping” supplanted him. He presents us with a hunting image as he acknowledges Antonio’s skill & compliments him. Prospero uses a number of images in his speech to let us see Antonio as a political animal. He shows us how “having both the key of the officer and office” Antonio gained supporters and got rid of opposers. This double image aptly portrayed how he not only secured the authority entrusted to him; he also had the ability to assert that power to his own means — “set all hearts i’th’ state to what tune pleas’d his ear”. At the same time, we notice that the play is one that rings of music, this is only one instance where music is mentioned. It is a recurring motif. He maneuvers his way into nature when he informs Miranda (and the audience) of “the ivy which hid my princely trunk and suck’d my vendure out on’t”. We see in our minds’ eye the devious Antonio who sucked the power out of his brother’s welcoming hands and so, his life, leaving only a dry shell. Through the use of such imagery, Shakespeare unfolds the passionate tale of usurpation before the “wondrous” Miranda and us, the audience. The wise Prospero speaks of how he had laid himself wide open to harm in “being transported and rapt in secret studies”. “Neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of his mind” he entrusted Milan into the hands of his treacherous brother and in doing so, “awak’d an evil nature” in his false brother. Not contented with his position, Antonio “new created the creatures that were mine, chang’d ‘em or else new form’d ‘em” and “confederates wi’th King of Naples” to bend Milan “to most ignoble stooping”. It is obvious that Prospero was not conscious of what Antonio was doing and so, we, the sympathetic listeners feel for him although we know that he is partly at fault for his downfall. Prospero’s anger and feelings of vengeance is understandable but we know that “there’s no harm done”. At the same time, as we listen to the usurped fling charge after charge at the amoral usurper like the sea waves beating relentlessly at the “yellow sands”, Shakespeare questions the Prospero’s usurpation of the “creatures” of the island — Caliban and Ariel. We find out later that the powerful mage subjects the “most delicate monster”, Caliban to “most ignoble stooping” and even the “fine apparition”, Ariel is not spared from the magic of Prospero who has him at his beck and call. They cry for liberty but do they receive it from the usurped “master”? This is another of the important ideas raised in the play. Miranda listens attentively to her father as he relives how he had placed his trust mistakenly on Antonio, “like a good parent” and how it “beget of him a falsehood in its contrary”. “He needs will be absolute Milan.” This convoluted image reminds us of how the unknowing Caliban had placed his trust and “loved thee and showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle.” The situation of Prospero “twelve year since” mirrors that of the “abhorred slave”, Caliban. Meanwhile, it also presents Antonio and Prospero as complex political creatures surviving in the “realism” of politics. The usurped did not refrain from usurping others in a different place and time. Here, we see the men as truly brothers because they are alike in their usurpation. The only difference lies in Prospero’s benevolence in his decision towards reconciliation. We are given enough to be sure that Antonio will never consider the very idea because he “made a sinner of his own memory”. The man created and shaped his own reality to suit his means and this is another recurring motif in the play. We have seen how the people are unable to see through the illusion of the “tempest” and sometimes, they just do not understand their own reality because they do not want to see it. Prospero has made use of that weakness to “recover” his dukedom as he brings the plotters, Antonio, Sebastian and Alonso to the island for a lesson. We will meet the king of Naples who despairs of ever finding his beloved son, Ferdinand after The Tempest and refuses to entertain the hope of seeing him again but we know he does in the end. Power, “all prerogative” had gone into the plotters’ heads and this veils the actual reality to become another reality in the mind. We encounter another motif in the play, that of fathers. We know that although the fathers (Prospero and Antonio) are enemies, they will forget their differences in the union of their child (Ferdinand and Miranda) eventually. This tale that “would cure deafness” is the stepping stone of the entire play and we are presented with a multi-faceted Prospero — the magician who usurps, the wronged who was usurped, the avenger, the father, the master, the duke. Can we really define him? Shakespeare leaves that intriguing thought in our minds as we take leave of this account full of “imagistic” qualities and themes.

The Tempest, written in 1611, was one of William Shakespeare’s last plays. It has a combination of superb characters, interesting settings, and a good plot line—all held together by the running theme of magic, and its ever-present importance. A closer examination of the magic in The Tempest, and the public’s view of magic at the time, will give insight as to Shakespeare’s choice of magic as a theme, and why it has made the play so successful and timeless.

Magic presented itself to Shakespeare as a controversial topic, as it had been the persecution of those believed to perform “black magic,” (witches) that had been at the forefront of societal concerns since 1050. However, after 500 years of witch-hunts, a turning point occurred in 1584, at the publication of Reginald Scot’s The Discouerie of Witchcrafte (The Discovery of Witchcraft). This book was the first major book to denounce witch-hunts and their ringleaders, and unquestionable the first book in English to actually hypothesize about the methods of these so-called witches. It contained one chapter of approximately twenty pages describing what we might view as unsophisticated, old-time magic tricks.

One would assume that it was this text, and texts succeeding this (The Art of Juggling, written by Samuel Ridd in 1610 also presented a few how-to’s of magic) were probably not only what suggested the idea of using magic as a them to Shakespeare, but in addition, provided methods as to how the magic in the play might be accomplished.

Despite the fact that in retrospective analysis it is fairly clear that witches were nothing more that magicians with a slightly different presentation, audiences were not always aware of –and those that were, were rarely convinced by—the two aforementioned texts. Witches were still persecuted and witch-hunts did not actually stop until the end of the seventeenth century. Therefore, Shakespeare’s use of magic was controversial, compounded by the fact that Prospero was presented in a largely good light—a move probably made as a political statement, as it is known that Shakespeare’s plays were sometimes written to include political suggestions to King James. However, when Prospero relinquished his powers at the end of the play, those that did believe in the witch-hunts were satisfied. Everyone was happy.

After considering the contention that the masque scene was added for the purposes of compliment to Elizabeth and Frederick’s marriage, one could conclude that Shakespeare learned more about magic after he wrote The Tempest. The reasoning follows. One could only assume that Shakespeare would have tried to make the magic in the play as fooling and magical as possible. Although there were two magic effects in the play, one of them –the spirit music—would not have fooled even the most unsophisticated and na?ve audiences. Even before the era of Harry Houdini, or even the wandering street magicians of the 1700’s, audiences were not fooled by music being played offstage. It is the other effect, that of the banquet disappearance that, well executed, would have fooled Shakespeare’s audiences, and would even have a shot of passing muster today.

However, this banquet sequence was in the masque scene, theoretically added two years after the original writing of the play. The question that begs to be answered therefore, is why didn’t Shakespeare fund some other way of including a more sophisticated magic effect into the play? The most logical answer would be that he learned more about magic and witch techniques after he wrote the play. Maybe at first he was unable to grasp the explanations in the Scot text, or maybe he didn’t even read it before the original writing—possibly it was just called to his attention, and he was unable to lay his hands on a copy until after he wrote the play

Whether or not Shakespeare ever read the Scot text in its entirety, or whether or not the banquet disappearance was added before or after the original writing, neither is relevant to magic’s central importance to the play. Obviously, magic could grab audiences of Shakespeare’s time. As it happens, magic had been grabbing audiences since 2500 BC (according to a depiction of a magician on the Beni Hassan tomb in Egypt) and magic continues to grab audiences today. It caught Shakespeare’s eye, and has made the play timeless, and theatrically entertaining.

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