Question: Write a note on Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural elements in The Tempest. Or, Bring out the supernatural elements in The Tempest, indicating the dramatic purpose, which they serve.
Belief in magic and supernatural appearances was almost universal in the age of Shakespeare (1564-1616). The use of the supernatural is perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the play “The Tempest”. Shakespeare has made use of the supernatural in some of his other plays also but there are two plays in which supernaturalism serves as the governing principle, one is The Tempest and the other is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Prospero, the demigod
The protagonist in The Tempest is a man who possesses supernatural powers and can therefore work miracles. In fact, Prospero has all the powers, which we associate with God or providence. He is all-powerful and omnipotent. He can do whatever he likes. He has been able even to tame the spirits who live in water, on land, in the fire, and in the air Fairies, hobgoblins, and other supernatural and invisible beings are at his command. One particular spirit, whose name is Ariel and who is a spirit of the air, is particularly at his service for all times. Ariel himself possesses a vast supernatural power, and he is always ready to carry out Prospero’s commands though on one occasion he does express his discontent and wishes to be freed from Prospero’s control. The whole action of the play is determined by Prospero. Thus, Prospero possesses magical power like Dr. Faustus but his purpose is pure and rectified.
Shakespeare’s conception of the spirit world follows the popular medieval tradition. The order of the spirits and elves represented in The Tempest exactly follows this hierarchy. Ariel is the spirit of the air, and after his task is done in the play Prospero bids him to the elements be free’. He is a spirit too delicate and good to act abhorred commands, but who answered his best pleasure. Through this agency of Ariel, Prospero uses his power upon the inferior spirits of the fire, water, and earth. Ariel too partakes of the spirits of fire, for he makes the vessel of Alonso “all afire” with him. The spirits of water comprise the sea nymphs and elves of brooks and standing lakes, the meaner spirits who perform the masque of Juno, a vanity of mine art, as Prospero says. The spirits of the earth are employed by Prospero as instruments of punishing and torturing Caliban.
Creating and destructing power of magic
Prospero’s art of supernatural virtue, which belongs to the redeemed world of civility and learning, is the thesis of the black magic of Sycorax. Caliban’s deformity is the result of evil natural magic, and it stands as a natural criterion by which we measure the world of Art. But on the other hand, Prospero’s divine magic, which results in the supernaturally sanctioned beauty of Miranda and Ferdinand, is the paradigm of procreation. So, the world of art has the power of creation and destruction.
Reality and naturality
With perfect art, Shakespeare blends the natural and the supernatural. The transition from one to the other is effected in a subtle process, by means of music through which we pass into the world of enchantment. Besides, some of the main situations of the drama, though apparently brought about by the magic of Prospero, are in their very essence quite natural. The love between Ferdinand and Miranda is an example in this respect. They fall in love at first sight and are ready to sacrifice their all for the sake of love. Though Prospero says that his charm works on them, their falling in love is spontaneous. Caliban retains his savage nature to the fast and all of Prospero’s powers to regenerate him fail. Antonio, the hardened villain is seized with no contrition till the end, while Alonso, the novice in crime, is driven to repentance try his loss and suffering. All this remains strictly within the continues of nature, though a supernatural influence is brought to hear upon them by Prospero’s magic. Hence we may rightly say that the supernatural in the play blends and harmonizes with what is real. To put it differently, the use of the supernatural in this play does not convert the human characters into mere puppets.
As we go through this play, we feel that we are on an enchanted island. Indeed, we find ourselves in a fairyland. All kinds of wonders and marvels take place on this island before our eyes. Such is Shakespeare’s handling of the supernatural in The Tempest. He has purified and refined the supernatural and made it credible and convincing.