Magic in 'The Tempest'

How does Shakespeare use magic in 'The Tempest?'

Miranda by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Shakespeare draws heavily on magic in "The Tempest"—indeed, it is often described as the writer’s most magical play. Beyond plot points and themes, even the language in this play is particularly magical.

As a major theme, magic in "The Tempest" takes many different forms and is used to achieve a number of goals throughout the play.

Prospero’s Magic

It’s clear from the start that Prospero is the powerful character in “The Tempest,” and that is because of his magic. The play opens with a theatrical demonstration of his abilities, and as we are introduced to other characters on the island, we learn that Prospero has used his magic as a way of establishing himself as a kind of ruler. Throughout the play, it is his spells and schemes that drive the overall plot.

However, Prospero’s magic in “The Tempest” is not so simple as an indication of power. It was exactly Prospero’s eager pursuit of magical knowledge that gave his brother the opportunity to usurp him, taking away his power by taking his title. And as Prospero returns to Milan at the end of the play, he renounces the magic that has both given and taken away his power.

Thus, magic is what complicates the character of Prospero. While it gives him some control, that power is false and misleading in the way that it leaves him weakest in the places that matter most.

Mystical Noises and Magical Music

Shakespeare often uses noises and music to create a magical tone for scenes for both characters and readers. The play opens with the deafening noise of thunder and lightning, creating anticipation for what is to come and displaying Prospero's powers. Meanwhile, the splitting ship inspires a “confused noise within." The island itself, Caliban observes, "is full of noises," and the combination of mysterious music and sounds there paints it as a mystical place.

Music is also the most frequent demonstration of magic in "The Tempest," with Ariel constantly using it as a tool for manipulating the group of lords. By practically seducing them with sound, he is able to split them up and lead them to different places on the island, helping Prospero achieve his goals.

The Tempest

We know that the magical tempest that starts the play represents Prospero’s power. However, it also gives insight into his character. Through the storm, we see both vengeance and violence in Prospero. He sees an opportunity to both escape the island and exact some revenge on his brother, and he takes it, even if that means conjuring a dangerous storm.

In an empathetic reading of Prospero, the tempest can also be a symbol of his internal pain, brought on by his brother Antonio. The feelings of betrayal and abandonment that make up Prospero's own emotional turmoil are reflected in the tumultuous thunder and lightning that ultimately take down the ship. In this way, Prospero's magic is used as a means of depicting his humanity.