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Man’s desires

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Although the use of magic in works of literature are normally added to form a layer of mystery and wonder, William Shakespeare’s use of magic in his play, “The Tempest”, holds a deeper social meaning. Shown through the gaze of Prospero’s magic, and the use of other characters, Shakespeare is able to show how its use manipulates the natural order of things, creating an argument for weather or not Man’s desire to hold power over the natural world was a good or bad thing.

Magic as a way to illuminate the true nature of humanity is a powerful theme in the play. The magic that Prospero uses often reveals the true identity of the character of those whom his spells take over. Perhaps Shakespeare is attempting to argue that upsetting the natural order of things has consequences. For example, in the midst of Prospero’s fabricated tempest, with loud thunder and dangerously heavy waves, Antonio reveals his murderous tendencies by threatening the boatswain with hanging if they do not come to the rescue, before the play even really begins. Conversely, later on, Ferdinand shows his love for Miranda to be true when Prospero binds him with a charm. The idea here is that the true intentions of one can be either good or bad, and while disturbing the natural order of life for one’s wants may seem enticing at some points, it might not always be what they need. Perhaps a sudden dig in Shakespeare’s part at the current “advancements” in society that were being made.

The power struggle throughout the first scene between the upper class and lower class people of the boat attempt to place people like Antonio back in their rightful position as fellow human. Although because of societal standards, Antonio and Gonzalo feel they are more important than the boatswain and therefore should be saved first, the boatswain’s response, “None that I love more than myself. You are a councillor…use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour” (1:1:21), places them back in their position. The presence of magic heavily influences how Antonio treated the Boatswain, ultimately revealing his true self.

In a seventeenth century societal context, both tempest and charm have meaning. The magical tempest provides negative statement on the cutthroat nature of politics and how those without power can be blamed for crimes with no good clause. Prospero’s charm and the extremes Ferdinand is willing to go to, to be with Miranda in his bound state is a satire of courtly love, presented as a silly game between the pursuer and the one being pursued. Magic also extends to the scientific world because, at the time, scientific discoveries were considered radical, something that was beyond the realm of understanding. It is not a stretch to suggest that Shakespeare intentionally created a character like Prospero at such a controversial time as a way of quietly stating his position on science at that time. Shakespeare refers to Prospero’s magic as “the liberal arts” that Prospero learned through what we assume is literature. This scholarly approach to magic elevates it beyond the typical notion that magical ability is innate and is proof that Prospero’s magic is scientifically grounded. Prospero’s exile can be read as a reference to the poor treatment of scientific figures like Galileo who were persecuted for their ideas. Supporting this, in Carolyn Merchant’s article, “The Death of Nature, women, ecology, and the scientific revolution”, she states, “Yet during the same age in which the much celebrated Copernican revolution was transforming people’s image of the heavens above, a more subtle yet equally pervasive revolution was altering their concept of the earth underfoot…”(xviii). Here Merchant supports the theory that although Scientific discoveries were creating great milestones in some ways, they were also causing a great disturbance to the everyday person.

In the eyes of the Church, science was as taboo as magic. Prospero sacrifices worldly possessions to study these radical ideas. His magic or “fortune” is drawn from a star, alluding to the scientific study of the universe, but reasoning is not what Prospero uses his magic for. Ironically, Prospero’s use of magic does lead to deiscoveries about other characters and himself. Prospero asserts his position as the most powerful man on Earth despite being trapped on an island, and he exercises that power to serve his desires. Only because of Prospero’s interference in the play through magic does the reader become aware of the irony. Shakespeare’s use of Prospero in this way raises the same question Merchant asks when she states, “Between 1500 and 1700, the western world began to take on features that, in the dominant opinion of today, would make it modern and progressive. Now, ecology and the women’s movement have begun to challenge the values on which that opinion is based.” (xix) The question that Shakespeare and Merchant are both asking is weather or not what humans think is “progress” is actually progress and weather or not fate should be left up to nature, or left up to man. To Prospero, magic means absolute dominance over nature.

Prospero further amplifies his dominance when he charms his daughter in a sleep, in order to have Ariel interfere with her love life. When Ariel expresses lack of interest in this task, Prospero solidifies his powerful position when he says says, “I will rend an oak and peg thee in his knotty entrails till thou hast howled away twelve winters”(1:2:349-351 ). The threat of dark magic acts like a whip to keep his slaves in place. He uses similar threats on Caliban in order to earn Caliban’s obedience. Magic is also an expression of Prospero’s internal and external state. He is a prisoner on an island and a prisoner of his desire. Hunger for revenge drives Prospero to create the tempest that traps those who have betrayed him and blinds him from love. The character of Caliban is so important to the story Shakespeare tells because it highlights a major issue of mistreatment at this time of indigenous people. Merchant also relates this mistreatment to the current mistreatment of women, “…to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe”, (172). Again, Shakespeare’s play is highlighting a deeper social issue that comes along with the production of new inventions and desire to control change.

Magic apart from that of Prospero comes in other forms. Sycorax’s magic confined Ariel. This magic references the psychology of slave owners where, from the perspective of the slave owner, the person enslaved is no longer seen as human but as an object whose sole purpose is to perform tasks, (Caliban).Transformative magic manifests itself in the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero’s control over Caliban forces Caliban to act like an animal, we see this when Miranda is hardly able to recognize him as a fellow human being when she says,“Abhorred slave, which any print of goodness will not take, being capable of all ill!”(1:2:422-424).

Caliban’s character, though not evidently magical, reveals magic as an instrument of rebellion. For Caliban, the notion that he can inflict curses on his masters by inheriting the powers of his mother, and his lineage, not only serves as a coping mechanism for all the mental abuse he suffers under Prospero, but it also serves as a warning that fortunes are reversible. By reminding Prospero of his lineage, Caliban’s curses foreshadow Prospero’s downfall. His curse also illuminates the power of knowledge. Shakespeare’s warning to society here to humble themselves is strong here.

“The Tempest”, beginning with the storm, provides a display of magic and its power to delineate class difference, to highlight the nature of man, and to boldly remark on how the desire for power corrupts those surrounded by it. Shakespeare uses magic to bring into discussion a bigger social issue, that being weather or not mans desire to control nature, by finding ways to use natural recourses to what they felt was an advantage, could bring about both benefits and downfalls. Shakespeare’s play serves as a warning to those who read it about the possible reality of life if man continues to try and control nature.

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