Magic in Shakespeare's The Tempest

Magic was a matter of importance in the sixteenth century involving life and death to practitioners and victims. The burning of witches and the publication of many books on the subject, including one even by James I, bears witness to its place in public thought. Consequently the very full use of it in The Tempest would have a much greater effect on the audience than can be felt today.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

There were two different types of it, a maleficent one represented by witches and wizards, who sold their souls to the devil in popular belief and who were governed by him to work evil on victims. The other was beneficent, derived from studies in the occult and used generally for discovery of new forces and investigation the occult and used generally for discovery of new forces and investigation into the laws of physics and other scientific research. Examples of both types are in the play, where they form a contrast, that of the witch Sycorax, very sketchily developed, and that of Prospero, very fully developed. Sycorax was allied with the devil, who gave her power over the air with its invisibility and swiftness of motion, but her evil work resulted in her banishment and death. Prospero invoked only his own mental intelligence to win greater powers. Before he was sufficiently learned his lack of wisdom indirectly led to banishment, but afterwards he had full control over the air and greater prowess. He used them only for good, his own restoration to the throne, the welfare of his daughter, the repentance of Alonso, and punishment for the disobedient.

The attributes of magic used by Prospero are the robe, the wand, and his books on the subject. He never appears invisible himself, but he repeatedly puts on or off his magic robe, according to whether he has work to do as a magician or an ordinary man. Little mention is made of his wand; he disarms Ferdinand in Act I, Sc. II, and will bury it "fathoms deep" when he adjures magic at the close of the play. His books are his chief power, and these he buries deeper "than did over plummet sound". His robe represents his dominion over mortals, his wand the instrument of power, and the books of his supernatural knowledge.

The spirits summoned by Ariel may be classified as those of fire, air, earth, and water. Fire is evoked in lightning and the forms taken by Ariel in flames on the poles and rigging of the ship, and the will-o-the-wisps used to torment Caliban. Water spirits appear in the Naiads and elves of the brooks and streams who are in attendance in the masque of Act IV to "bestow upon the eyes of this young couple some vanity of mine art", said by Prospero to Ariel, Act IV, Sc. I, 23. The spirits of the air are of the highest type and include Ariel and the divinities he summons, Ceres, Iris, Juno, and the nymphs. They thunder, Music, Noises, sounds, and sweet airs with which the island abounds, says Caliban. The spirits of earth are the goblins, the dogs and hounds used to plague Caliban and his associates.

Another type of the magic used by Prospero, either by himself or with the aid of Ariel, is in materialistic performances, more spectacular than most of the others, such as the production and disappearance of the banquet, the line of glittering garments, the arrival and dance of the Reapers, and the magic circle in which the courtiers were held charmed.