Shakespeare's The TempestMITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
Prospero's white magic is art, the art of parenting, ruling, teaching, and creating — the art of releasing potential, eliciting the best and highest in human nature.
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."
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.
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.
Mitchell A. Kalpakgian. "Shakespeare's The Tempest." Crisis Magazine (June 7, 2013).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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.
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