The Power of Words

An essay analyzing Shakespeare’s The Tempest the correlation between magic and language

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous playwright of all time and not without reason.  His dramatic texts do more than just explore the way in which language is used to tell a story; they also expound upon the human condition in a three-dimensional way at a time where the common man was not often found as a complex being.  During a time when special effects were not used to cue the audience into the world of the play, language was necessary to guide the way, and Shakespeare’s command of language was innovative and titillating, taking on a life of its very own.  In his final work, The Tempest, the element of magic plays a role not just as a plot device but as a symbolic force of how powerful both the written and spoken word can be.

The Tempest has two primary types of magic found in the characters of Prospero and Ariel, and there is a third type of magic spoken of with the deceased Sycorax.  By the time this play begins, the witch Sycorax has been dead for many years, and her magic is only spoken of by Prospero as “mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible” (I, ii, 264) and by the apparent action she had taken against her slave, Ariel, by entrapping him within a tree.  After her passing, Prospero arrived and freed Ariel from the pine, indebting him into servitude once again.

Unlike Prospero, whose magic is learned, Ariel’s mystical abilities are innate, and he becomes useful because he is not confined to the use of books in order to cast spells.  Instead, Ariel’s magic manifests itself through music and singing.  When manipulating the other characters throughout the play, he often sings his spells.  For example, when commanded to bring Ferdinand to Prospero, Ariel enters “playing and singing:”

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Courtsied when you have and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark! (I, ii, 375-381)

Ferdinand follows Ariel, unable to see him as the mysterious being has disguised himself from the sight of all but Prospero, and questions aloud in a soliloquy from his perspective, “Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?” (I, ii, 387).  He speaks of how the music drew him in from the shore, causing him to follow it, and he recognizes right away that it was beyond his control, disclaiming that he had any choice in the matter.  The fact that Ariel’s abilities are accented by some sort of musical ability reinforces the inherent nature of his skills.  While anyone can learn to play music, or produce art, only someone with the natural-born ability for the art can be recognized for the skill at its fullest potential.

Prospero’s magic, on the other hand, is learned, and as Caliban puts it, “without [his books], he’s but a sot” (III, ii, 89).  Like Ariel, Prospero is able to command people to sleep with just a few words, but his more powerful spells require the books that he has pored over to learn his craft.  The proof that he has excelled comes before Prospero even speaks a word, as Miranda pleads:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her. (I, ii, 1-13)

She describes the tempest with powerful imagery and then proceeds to claim that if she had the power of a god, she would have at least put those on the ship during the storm out of their misery.  The imagery alone is evidence of the power Prospero has but that she would also claim the only thing to counter that power is that of a god’s speaks volumes.

After allaying her concerns, Prospero then proceeds to explain how he lost his dukedom and came to be on this island with her.  His long-winded speech talks of how he neglected his duties as a duke due to the dedication he put into studying his craft, and he now intends to use the years he has spent learning this magic to regain his position and inevitably exact revenge on his brother who wrongly usurped him.  Judging by the tempest alone, those years did not go to waste.

The power of language isn’t just emphasized with magic, however.  When Caliban is rebuked by Prospero for his crude remarks, Caliban points out that it was Prospero that taught him the curses in which he now indulges.  Inadvertently, Prospero broke the barrier between the lowly Caliban and his more supreme self by giving him the power of his own language.  Its power is invoked again upon the first meeting between Ferdinand and Miranda.  Upon discovering that Miranda is able to speak his language, Ferdinand rejoices in the knowledge that he can now pursue the maid with little guilt, and he rather abruptly states his intentions to her, “O, if a virgin, and your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you the queen of Naples” (I, ii, 447).

The role magic plays is symbolic to the power language has over people, whether it’s supernatural songs that captivate men, mystical spells that command the sea, simple curses that are understood by all, or even dramatic dialogue that illustrates action to an audience.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, illiam, and Rex Gibson. The Tempest. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2006.

(c) Morgan Lea Davis, 2011

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