The Tempest

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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Analysis

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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon

The Tempest is full of Prospero's magic and illusions. The play begins with Prospero's magic (the tempest), and ends with Prospero's magic (his command that Ariel send the ship safely back to Italy). In between, the audience watches as Prospero uses visual and aural illusions to manipulate his enemies and expose their true selves. At nearly every point in the play, Prospero's magic gives him total control—he always seems to know what will happen next, or even to control what will happen next. At one point, Prospero even goes so far as to suggest that all of life is actually an illusion that vanishes with death: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep" (4.1.156-158).

Many critics see Prospero's magical powers as a metaphor for a playwright's literary techniques. Just as Prospero uses magic to create illusions, control situations, and resolve conflicts, the playwright does the same using words. Throughout the play, Prospero often lurks in the shadows behind a scene, like a director monitoring the action as it unfolds. Prospero refers to his magic as "art." In Act 4 scene 1, Prospero literally steps into the role of playwright when he puts on a masque for Miranda and Ferdinand. In fact, many critics take an additional step, and argue that Prospero should actually be seen as a stand-in for Shakespeare himself. The Tempest was one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote before he retired from the theatre, and many critics interpret the play's epilogue, in which Prospero asks the audience for applause that will set him free, as Shakespeare's farewell to theatre.

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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright appears in each scene of The Tempest. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Quotes in The Tempest

Below you will find the important quotes in The Tempest related to the theme of Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had no doubt some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces.
Related Characters: Miranda (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tempest
Page Number: 1.2.5-8
Explanation and Analysis:

The storm has caused the ship carrying Alonso, Antonio, Gonzalo and others to disintegrate. Meanwhile, on the island, Miranda watches the ship be battered alongside her father, Prospero, who she suspects is causing the storm with his magical powers. Miranda exclaims that she feels sympathy for those on the ship, imagining that there must be "some noble creature" aboard. Her observation reflects Gonzalo's statement in the previous scene that the Boatswain should remember who is onboard the ship (meaning in particular he should remember that there is a noble person, Alonso, the King of Naples). Miranda thus appears to possess a kind of prescience about the characters who will soon arrive on the island.

Miranda also feels a connection to the passengers on the ship because, like them, she was the victim of a shipwreck, which is how she ended up on the island. As this passage shows, Miranda is a kind, compassionate person, who feels sympathy when she encounters the suffering of others ("I have suffered / with those that I saw suffer"). This puts her in contrast to other characters who are embittered by their experiences (like Caliban) or who are selfish and power-hungry (like Antonio). 


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Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark, now I hear them, ding dong bell.
Related Characters: Ariel (speaker), Alonso, Ferdinand
Related Symbols: The Tempest
Page Number: 1.2.476-482
Explanation and Analysis:

Ariel has explained to Prospero that he deliberately ensured that certain people aboard the ship washed up onto shore, and that Alonso's son Ferdinand is separated from his father. In this passage Ariel, who is invisible, sings to Ferdinand as he awakens from a deep sleep, convincing him through his subconscious that his father has drowned in the shipwreck.

This is an example of Prospero acting as a playwright by giving Ariel detailed instructions in order to control the events to come. The words of Ariel's song emphasize the fantastical quality of the play. Not only does Ariel magically persuade Ferdinand to believe his father is dead, the lyrical language describing Alonso's bones turning to coral and eyes turning to pearl heightens the impression that the play is like a folktale or myth. 

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.148-156
Explanation and Analysis:

Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo have been drunkenly singing together. Ariel, who is invisible, has interrupted their singing by making mysterious noises, and Stephano and Trinculo are momentarily disturbed over where the noise is coming from. In response, Caliban reassures them that there is nothing to fear, and delivers a moving, eloquent speech about the sounds and sights of the island.

This is a pivotal moment in terms of the representation of Caliban's character. Whereas up until this point he has been portrayed as brutish, bitter, and foolish, here we witness him speak fondly and poetically about the natural world around him. This shift can be interpreted as a critique of the cruel treatment of colonized populations, although it also seems influenced by the stereotype that indigenous people are more naturally animalistic and closer to nature than Europeans. 

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
...Be cheerful, sir,
Our revels now are ended; these our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Ferdinand
Page Number: 4.1.164-175
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has given permission for Ferdinand and Miranda to marry, and ordered Ariel to gather the spirits for a masque – a play, of sorts – to celebrate the couple. However, Prospero interrupts the celebration when he remembers the plot hatched by Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban to murder him. Ferdinand has expressed concern at Prospero's strange behavior, and Prospero attempts to reassure him by saying that their "revels" have simply come to an end and reminding him "We are such stuff / as dreams are made on; and our little life / is rounded with a sleep." Pointing out life's transience seems like a strange way of reassuring someone, and thus we can interpret Prospero's speech as a more general, introspective stream of thought rather than a direct address to Ferdinand. 

Indeed, many critics choose to read this speech as a sort of message from Shakespeare himself. The Tempest is widely believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote, and thus in calling the masque to an end, Prospero mirrors Shakespeare's departure from the theatre before his own death. The "insubstantial pageant" that fades and leaves nothing behind can be compared to Shakespeare's work as a playwright, and Shakespeare/Prospero's phrase "our little life" can be interpreted as a gesture of humility, reminding the audience that everyone is mortal and, in the grander scheme of history, insignificant. This point is, of course, somewhat ironic, as Shakespeare's legacy has proven more enduring than almost any other writer in history. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Mine would, sir, were I human.
Related Characters: Ariel (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 5.1.26
Explanation and Analysis:

Thanks to Ariel, Prospero has gained control over all his "enemies"; as a result, he has promised Ariel his freedom. When Prospero asks how Alonso and his men are doing, Ariel replies that they are terrified and that if Prospero were to see them now his "affections would become tender," adding, "mine would, sir, were I human." This humble comment reveals the irony of the idea that Ariel is not human. Throughout the play, Ariel has acted with compassion, intelligence, and dignified self-restraint (indeed, these qualities set him apart from many of the human characters on the island!). His advice that Prospero will feel pity for Alonso and the others is accurate, and shows that he has a sophisticated understanding of the depth of human emotions. 

Despite this, Ariel still refuses to claim human status for himself, and obediently acquiesces when Prospero continues to delay his promise of freedom. In this sense, we can interpret Ariel as an ideal colonized subject, passively accepting Prospero's right to rule over him, silently putting up with bad treatment, and never claiming the right to be equal with those who have enslaved him. 

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Ariel
Page Number: 5.1.28-31
Explanation and Analysis:

Ariel has told Prospero that Alonso and his men are in a terrible state, and that if he were human, Ariel would feel sorry for them. Prospero is moved to sympathy by Ariel's words, and in this passage describes how Ariel has inspired him to be more compassionate. He says that if Ariel, who is only "air," can emphathize with the imprisoned men's plight, then surely Prospero himself should feel even more moved.

Once again, Ariel is presented in noble, anthropomorphized way, while still being treated as an "other," as decidedly non-human. Prospero's suggestion that the more similar you are to someone the more likely you are to feel sympathy with them contrasts with other evidence in the play. Antonio, for example, despite being Prospero's own flesh and blood, still acts with merciless cruelty against his brother. 

...But this rough magic
I here abjure...I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than ever did plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: 5.1.59-66
Explanation and Analysis:

Having decided to set free Alonso and his men, Prospero conjures the spirits onstage and gives a lyrical speech about the many acts of magic he has performed in the past. He then resolves that, after this final act, he will break and bury his staff and "drown" his magic books, giving up his supernatural powers for good. Although Prospero is not a villainous character and (arguably) used magic mostly for good, this speech suggests that it is necessary for him to stop practicing magic in order to restore the natural order and balance of power––both on the island and back in Italy. 

This speech takes on a further level of significance if we read Prospero as representing Shakespeare. As Shakespeare neared the end of his life, perhaps he used Prospero's speech as a symbolic farewell to the theatre after a lifetime of creating "magic" and illusion on the stage. This analogy suggests that, while the power to create drama is akin to a supernatural gift, it is not possible for this to last forever, as even playwrights are mortal beings whose "little life" will inevitably come to a close. 

Epilogue Quotes
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own—
Which is most faint. Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples, let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island, by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: Ep.1-20
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has scolded Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban for their plot against him, but has suggested that if Caliban follows a final set of orders, he may be freed. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters have made plans to spend one final night on the island before voyaging back to Italy the next day. Everyone exits except Prospero, who delivers a final speech addressed to the audience. Prospero reviews the fact that he has relinquished his magical powers, reclaimed his dukedom, and "pardoned the deceiver." In other words, the natural hierarchy of power has been restored, and there remain no outstanding plots or grudges. Prospero asks the audience to "release me from my bands / with the help of your good hands"––meaning that the audience's applause will set him free. 

Again, many critics interpret this final speech to be the voice of Shakespeare himself, proclaiming a final farewell to the theatre. The speech alludes to the importance of forgiveness, perhaps suggesting that the power of drama lies within its ability to evoke sympathy and to encourage people to treat one another with mercy and compassion. Prospero's request to be "released" and "set free" is curious, as he himself has imprisoned and enslaved various other characters throughout the play. Overall, whether within the world of the play or in the context of a farewell from Shakespeare, Prospero's speech emphasizes the continuation of life beyond the ephemeral presence of any one person.