Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Magic (art) is a part of daily life. Whenever parents raise children, teachers educate students, or rulers govern societies, they require the knowledge of the arts that teach these skills. They become magicians or artists by the masterpieces of their craft that evoke wonder and admiration for the beauty, goodness, or perfection their handiwork achieves. Man as magician who sees how to bring out the image of God in human beings, how to lead the mind to the discovery of truth, and how to bring civilization out of chaos imitates God’s creative activity in the world that brings light out of darkness and good out of evil.

Prospero, the magician in The Tempest, plays many parts in the drama that demonstrate these arts. He refines and educates Miranda, the beautiful daughter that Ferdinand beholds as love’s contemplative.  Prospero, overthrown as the duke of Milan by his usurping brother, survives on a barbaric island that he transforms into a lush paradise that astonishes upon first sight.  Prospero, a master or teacher who studies the liberal arts, improves his two apprentices or servants, the invisible spirit Ariel and the primitive savage Caliban, son of a witch. As a magician whose art derives from his knowledge of the liberal arts and the books he cherishes, Prospero produces glorious miracles, beautiful works of art–not the sorcery of black magic to do evil used by the witch Sycorax in the play.

While black magic—whether in the form of alchemy, astrology, or temptation—deceives with half-truths and riddles that lure a person with false promises, white magic is the art of bringing out the potential that inheres in nature, seeing the form in matter, and creating masterpieces from the “givenness” of things. The art of Prospero’s magic resembles God’s work in the world as he “plays” God in The Tempest, that is, imitates God in the way an actor plays a part and assumes a role. With his vestments and wand Prospero performs his magic like an actor on the stage and then retires after the performance: “Our revels now are ended.”

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Prospero’s first work of art on the island where he narrowly escapes from drowning on the sea is the release of Ariel from the tree where he has been impaled by the witch. Prospero sees the form of Ariel in the matter of the tree just as Michelangelo announced that he saw a David in the hunk of rock. Prospero’s knowledge sees the spirit camouflaged in the tree, and his art frees Ariel’s potential, his great creative energy. Another of Prospero’s masterpieces is his daughter Miranda whose name means miraculous (“she who ought to be wondered at”) and derives from the Latin miror (I am amazed).  The epitome of purity, goodness, and beauty, Miranda implores her father to stop the tempest and spare the lives of the shipwrecked crew. Sensitive to human suffering and grateful for kindness, she wishes she might personally thank Gonzalo for saving their lives–for providing Prospero with books and rations in his desperate escape from Milan in a boat when besieged by enemies (“Would I  might/ But ever see that man”). A beautiful soul and a lovely woman, Miranda moves Ferdinand to rapt contemplation: “Admired Miranda! / Indeed the top of admiration!”). Educated and civilized with manners and morals by her father, Miranda radiates the divine image of man that Prospero’s art has fashioned.

As the ruler of an island Prospero uses the same magic, finding a primitive island ruled by diabolical forces and transforming it into a civilized society governed by the light of reason and justice. The island “prospers” under Prospero’s government that brings the rule of law out of the barbarism of witchcraft and creates abundance out of scarcity. Like a philosopher-king who contemplates the ideal of justice and then governs according to this vision, Prospero renders decisions that temper justice with mercy and never resorts to revenge: “The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance.” The conspirators who usurped his kingdom and put him adrift in a boat to perish are subjected to the fury of the tempest and his righteous anger but never harmed or killed. When first discovering the island after the tragedy of shipwreck, Gonzalo marvels at being alive: “But for the miracle–/ I mean our preservation—few in millions/ Can speak like us.” He is amazed at the lushness of the grass, the sweetness of the air, and the transfigured whiteness of their garments. Prospero’s magic this time brings good out evil just as he released Ariel from the tree and educed the divine image from Miranda’s human nature.

Prospero uses magic in his role as master or teacher of his two servants, Ariel and Caliban, whose natures vary as greatly as air and earth. Freed from the tree, Ariel travels all over the island utilizing earth, air, fire, and water to follow Prospero’s orders to cause a storm and lead all the members of the ship safely to land. Prospero does not grant Ariel freedom from his service until the spirit perfectly follows Prospero’s exact instructions and tends to every detail of the magician’s work of art—rewarding or punishing everyone according to his just deserts and perfectly balancing justice and mercy. The master curbs the apprentice’s undisciplined energy and demands obedience and excellence in finishing the work of art he is perfecting on the island. Likewise, Prospero punishes and disciplines the willful Caliban whose uncontrollable urges reduce him to savage or animal until Prospero refines him by teaching him speech and taming his wildness. As the magician-teacher, Prospero uses the art of checking the impulsive, whimsical Ariel and rousing the slothful, plodding Caliban. He brings out Ariel’s excellence and improves Caliban by respecting their God-given natures and seeing the possibilities they possess.

Prospero’s white magic, then, is art, the art of parenting, ruling, teaching, and creating—the art of releasing potential, eliciting the best and highest in human nature, awakening the latent powers that inhere in nature, and fashioning works of art and masterpieces that evoke wonder and contemplation. In this way Prospero imitates or “plays” God who brings light out of darkness, good out of evil, and comedy out of tragedy. Prospero’s love of justice, mercy, beauty, and human wisdom all reflect the attributes of God who is all-good, all-merciful, all-beautiful, and all-knowing.

Editor’s note: The image above is an engraving by James Heath, Engraver to his Majesty and his RH the Prince of Wales, after a painting by Thomas Stothard. This print of a scene from the Tempest was published in August 1803.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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