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.
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright ThemeTracker
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Quotes in The Tempest
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had no doubt some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.