Magic in 'The Tempest'

How does Shakespeare use magic in The Tempest?

Miranda by John William Waterhouse
Miranda by John William Waterhouse. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Shakespeare draws heavily on magic in The Tempest—indeed, it is often described as Shakespeare’s most magical play. Certainly, the language in this play is particularly magical and quotable.

Magic in The Tempest takes many different forms and is represented variously throughout the play.

Prospero’s Books and Magic

Prospero's books symbolize his power—and in this play, knowledge is power. However, the books also represent his vulnerability as he was studying when Antonio took his power.

Caliban explains that without his books, Prospero is nothing, and encourages Stefano to burn them. Prospero has taught his own daughter from these books, but in many ways she is ignorant, having never seen more than two men and no women since she was three. Books are all very well but they are no substitute for experience. Gonzalo ensures that Prospero is furnished with his books on his journey, for which Prospero will always be grateful.

Prospero appears to be all powerful with his magical staff at the beginning of the play, but in order to become powerful in Milan—where it really matters—he must relinquish his magic. His learning and his books led to his downfall in Milan, allowing his brother to take over.

Knowledge is useful and good if you use it in the right ways. At the end of the play, Prospero renounces his magic and, as a result, can return to a world where his knowledge is valued but where magic has no place.

Mystical Noises and Magical Music

The play opens with the deafening noise of thunder and lightning, creating tension and anticipation for what is to come. The splitting ship inspires a “confused noise within.” The island is “full of noises,” as Caliban observes, and many of the characters are seduced by music, following the sounds as if they were being led.

Ariel speaks to the characters unseen and this is alarming and disconcerting to them. Trinculo gets blamed for Ariel’s comments.

The music and strange noises contribute to the mysterious and magical elements of the island. Juno, Ceres, and Iris bring beautiful music to celebrate the nuptials of Miranda and Ferdinand, and the magical banquet is also accompanied by music. Prospero’s power is manifested in the noise and music he creates; The Tempest and terrifying sound of dogs are his creation.

The Tempest

The magical tempest that starts the play represents Prospero’s power but also his suffering at the hands of his brother. The storm symbolizes the political and social unrest in Milan. It also represents Prospero’s darker side, his vengeance, and his willingness to go to any lengths to get what he wants. The tempest reminds the characters and the audience of their vulnerability.

Appearance and Substance

Things are not what they materially seem in The Tempest. Caliban is not considered by Prospero or Miranda to be human: “…A freckled whelp, hag-born – not honored with/A human shape” (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 287-8).  However, they felt they gave him good care: “I have used thee,/Filth as thou art, with human care” (Act 1 Scene 2).

Even though they didn’t believe him to deserve the human care, they gave it to him.​

It is difficult to fully reconcile Caliban’s true nature. His appearance is described in many different ways and he is often referred to as a ‘monster’ but there are moments in the play where Caliban is quite poetic and describes the isle with love and beauty. There are other moments when he is presented as a brutish monster; for example, when he tries to rape Miranda.

However, Miranda and Prospero can’t have it both ways—either Caliban is a monster and an animal who will do brutish things—at which they shouldn’t be surprised (and, one could argue, could therefore justifiably be treated like a slave) or he is human and brutish due to his oppression which is their doing.