Treatment of Magic in The Tempest Dipanjan Ghosh
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the themes of justice and forgiveness are essential to the meaning of the play. The main character, Prospero, is the dealer of justice and forgiveness. Thus, his actions reflect Shakespeare’s message behind reconciliation. The play explores these themes through Prospero’s mercy in spite of being wronged, his treatment of his enemies, and his ultimate objective to restore harmony, in this case through forgiveness. With the character of Prospero, Shakespeare manages to create an illusion of magic with the purpose of ultimately revealing the true magic of compassion.
Prospero intends to bring his brother to justice for, through “foul play”, stealing his thrown and leaving him and baby Miranda to die by stranding them in the ocean. Prospero seeks to right the wrongs that have been dealt to him by reclaiming his thrown. The tempest at the beginning, which the play is named after, obviously holds very important significance. The treacherous storm represents the torment Prospero has lived through, and his desire to make them suffer just as they made him suffer. Yet he chooses not to kill them in the tempest, but leaves them unharmed at the end. Such acts of mercy from Prospero prove that though he uses his magic to intimidate, in the end that is all he does, for he is compassionate at his core.
Prospero’s treatment of those who have wronged him speaks volumes for his nature as well as the themes of justice and reconciliation. Although Prospero has his enemies shipwrecked and at the mercy of the sea, he chooses not to kill them or make them truly suffer. He seeks to create an illusion of justice from which they will learn. This illusion of Justice is seen when he makes Alonso believe that he has lost his “dear son Ferdinand”. Even though Ferdinand is not truly dead, the illusion which Alonso is under evokes very real suffering, as evident when he cries, “I’ll seek him deeper than e’er plummet sounded/And with him there lie mudded”.
However, the fact that Prospero did not truly kill his son makes redemption
possible, for once the illusion has been lifted, Alonso has learnt his lesson and harmony has been restored. When Ferdinand is found alive, Prospero creates an illusion of a miracle. Yet the true miracle is not his “rebirth,” but the forgiveness of all their sins. The theme of forgiveness is just as vital to Shakespeare’s play as that of justice. The tempest and the calm after it are the ultimate symbols of justice and reconciliation in the piece. Shakespeare seems to lead the audience into the illusion that Prospero’s power is his ability to use magic and control nature. However, when he renounces his magic at the end, it is evident that Prospero’s true power lies in his ability to control his vengeful impulses and reconcile his worst enemies.
Both the distance and the connections between the real and the illusory world generate an ambivalence that is strengthened by the ambiguous subjectivity of the island. The island is not wholly fantastical occupying an imaginary space; it is situated in the Mediterranean somewhere along the Naples-Tunis sea route yet reenacts a recent ship wreck off the Bermuda islands in the Atlantic, thus complicating its geographical co-ordinates. Nor does it conform to the topography of the region: it is an enchanted isle peopled with unearthly, sub-human beings belonging to the realm of fairy tales and folklore. More significant is the fact that it does not seem to have a stable natural surrounding. Its sweet air; which is subtle, tender, and delicate invigorates Ferdinand and Adrian; Gonzalo, enamoured by the ‘lush and lusty’ vegetation, longs to establish a ‘commonwealth’ there. For Caliban it is a treasure trove of fresh-water springs, berries, pignuts, crabs, marmoset, filberts and scamels. But for Antonio and Sebastian the same ground is ‘tawny’, ‘perfumed by a fen’. Stephano and Trinculo follow Ariel blindly through ‘(toothed briars, sharp furzes, pricking goss into a filthy mantled pool)’ reeking of horse- piss’.
The musical magic of the island too appeals differently to different sensibilities. It restores Ferdinand’s spirits, brings remorse to Alonso, and lulls some to sleep while others remain impervious to it. Ariel’s song that sounds like ‘humming’ to Gonzalo, is identified as ‘a hollow burst of bellowing’, ‘a din to fright a monster’s ear’ by Sebastian and Antonio. The island is constructed subjectively by various perceptions leading to numerous, conflicting manifestations, all of which intensify the aura of radical ambivalence. The constant shape-shifting of the native inhabitants adds to the island’s fantastic quality. Ariel metamorphoses in to fire, water, wind, harpy, a nameless voice with equal felicity: he is indeed ‘the picture of Nobody’ and every- body .This leads us to question the efficacy of supernatural actions will the gods’ blessings prove substantial for Ferdinand and Miranda or are they merely false promises made by an ‘insubstantial pageant’?
Prospero’s magic adds the final touch of the miraculous to this elusive, unreal fantasia. He orders natural disorder in more ways than one: he initiates the storm and then allays it to bring his enemies safely ashore, resurrects Ferdinand, Alonso and himself, and engineers a match between the future rulers to affect the miraculous reunion of Milan and Naples. In a play obsessed with issues of order and disorder, nature and nurture, Prospero is the prime mover encompassing all binaries to facilitate the realization of dreams collective and personal. But his very omnipotence calls attention to the limits of romance as a vehicle of wish-fulfillment. The simple faith in men’s (or the aristocrats’) ability to re-generate themselves witnessed in the early pastoral plays like As You Like It now requires the magical aid of the supernatural and even then its effect is far from complete. In As You Like It, the community restructuring is total, everybody returns to the court refashioned and divested of previous ills. Jaques, who chooses to stay back in Arden, is no threat to the new social order. In The Tempest, Prospero’s magic fails to mould all; unregenerate Antonio and Sebastian accompany reformed Alonso and Prospero back to Milan and Naples, and Miranda’s inability to detect their potential disruptiveness signals dangerous times ahead. Also, where even magic fails to re-model all, what will happen to the brave new world when ‘charms are all o’erthrown’ (Epilogue 1) and Prospero no longer has access to magic?
However, within the play’s action-time Prospero is the enlightened magus whose power is derived as much from his magic as from the righteousness of his cause. Mowat’s article provides useful information on the kind of studies engaged in by a Renaissance magician thus giving us an insight into the magical practices of the period. But Prospero’s supremacy as a magician on the island is closely related to the legitimacy of his project the rewriting/righting of the wrongful usurpation of Milan by his evil brother Antonio. This prime project is endorsed to such a degree by the text that it seems to justify Prospero’s manipulative handling of – characters not directly linked with the event, namely Ariel, Ferdinand and Miranda. His personal stake in the recovery of Milanese dukedom is obscured by the pervading rhetoric of justice, peace and order. Prospero’s magic apparently works on behalf of a grand design dictated by the stars and it is extremely convenient that his individual gains coincide with it. The potency of Prospero’s magic is further highlighted by its contrast with that of Sycorax– it is good as opposed to evil, inclusive instead of Selfish, educative and benevolent rather than cruel and coercive. Sycorax’s magic is weaker than Prospero’s because of its negative extra-magical associations. Shakespeare insidiously extends this contrast to implicate magic in the racial and gendered discourse of the play by suggesting a natural dominance of the male European magus over the female non- European witch.
The above strategy of privileging the set over the other, works to prioritize masculine rule over feminine authority in the British context as well. Both Macbeth and The Tempest the two Shakespearean plays dealing largely with supernatural rowers, designate female occult activities as diabolic. Macbeth written within two years of James’s accession in 1603 explores in great detail the potency of witchcraft and the defenselessness of the men subjected to it. Female authority is viewed as essentially disruptive and malevolent and empowered by non-sanctioned sources. But it undoubtedly has the power to direct the destiny of men. Patriarchal anxieties of being subject to a female sovereign, Elizabeth, seem to reverberate through the play. By the time The Tempest is staged (1611), James has cast off the shadow of inheritance through the female line and re-established male dominance in the political arena. Prospero has similarly taken over from Sycorax; her threatening authority is a distant memory, vanquished conclusively by Prospero’s god-oriented magic. As Caliban admits, ‘His art is of such power,/ It would control my dam’s god Setebos,/ And make a vassal of him’ Magic, in The Tempest is therefore multifaceted: it provides the Spectacular effects of the storm and the masques, accentuates the fascination with the exotic if evil other, but it is integral to the operations of various kinds of power in the play-personal, political, domestic, patriarchal and colonial.