In the epilogue of A Midsummer's Night Dream, Puck speaks to the audience directly not as an actor or a character in a play, while in The Tempest, Prospero is still in character but begs the audience to set him free so he can return to Naples. For Puck, King Oberon and all the other actors are mere shadows, exactly as Theseus described the actors in the play-within-a-play, and his statement seems to dissolve the distance between the actors and the audience. Everyone in the play has been dreaming or is part of a dream, and so is the audience in the theater, so no one can even know for certain if there is any distinction between reality and illusion. Prospero has also used magic and illusion to deceive and confuse his enemies, and in fact the entire island is magical. While in control of sprites like Ariel, he is in fact all-knowing and all-powerful on the island and can make other mortals see or imagine anything he desires, but once he has voluntarily given up his powers he is now simply an ordinary man, at the mercy of the audience. He has set Ariel and the other spirits free, and now prays that the viewers will have the same mercy for him, just as Puck has been ordered by King Oberon to correct the illusions he has created. Ultimately, neither Puck nor Prosepero are malevolent beings or practitioners of the 'dark arts' and black magic, which were still greatly feared when Shakespeare was writing his plays. Audiences in the present day, of course, would not take events like these as literally as their counterparts 400 years ago, when the magical world was almost universally believed to be absolutely real.
Prospero would have seemed less worthy of forgiveness if he had murdered Antonio, Alonso and his other enemies instead of simply casting a spell on them. After all, he caused the storm with the intention of wrecking their ship on the island, and he forces Ferdinand to roll logs while creating an illusion of a great banquet for the others. In the end, though, Prospero agrees to the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand, as a sign that he has forgiven his enemies. He has been in control of all the other characters from the start and can literally create their reality for them, but he also finds the son of his enemy worthy of Miranda, and predicts that they will eventually rule the kingdom of Naples. Caliban's rebellion was also hopeless, even comical, but Prospero's punishment was temporary and involved the illusion of the rebels being chased by wild dogs. In real slave revolts in the New World, the dogs would have been real and the punishments extreme, but Prospero is content to leave the demonic man-beast alone on the island. In addition to recognizing the free will of Miranda and Ferdinand, he also frees Ariel and the other sprites, as they had always wished, while Ariel ensures good weather for the voyage back to Italy. After all, Ariel has been a good and faithful servant, even warning Prospero's of Caliban's plans for rebellion and assassination, while Prospero has been a benevolent and paternalistic master.
Romantic love and free choice also triumph in A Midsummer Night's Dream, since Hermia is determined to marry Lysander rather than the young man her father has chosen for her, and will not change her mind even on the threat of death. Puck simply confuses matters with his inept magic by causing Lysander to fall in love with Helina, who is really in love with Demetrius. In the parallel story, King Oberon is jealous of Titiana's love for Bottom and has him turned into a donkey. All of this results in a comedy or errors until Oberon orders Puck to correct his mistake and ensure that Lysander falls in love with Hermia. In the end, though, Duke Theseus permits their marriage while Demetrius also marries his true love Helina, so all's well that ends well. Puck is not a malicious or evil spirit, only a clumsy one, and the illusions he caused did not do permanent harm to anyone.
In both plays, the audience could observe unseen forces at work that changed the lives of all the main characters, through magic, witchcraft or sorcery of some kind. At the time these works were first performed on stage in the 17th Century, most of the audience would have taken the existence of witches, spirits and fairies as a given, along with the ability of such hidden forces to influence the lives or mortals for good or evil. King James I of Scotland and England, for example, was well-known to have an obsession with witchcraft and had written a book about it called Demonology. He also believed that witches in Scotland had attempted to cause his death and that of his young bride. For that audience, then, the powers of witches and spirits to change physical and mental reality, predict the future, cause death and injury or make people fall in love was all too real. Most members of contemporary audiences would regard all this as metaphorical rather than the deadly serious business it was in the16th and 17th Centuries. After all, the witches accused of plotting to kill King James were tortured and burned at the stake after a trial in which he presided over personally. An accused witch who confessed and recanted his powers, as Prospero did, might have received more mercy from the court, although not always.
Essay Topic 2
One major difference between the way female and male witches are portrayed in these plays is that the males seem far less evil and destructive. Prosepero uses Ariel to punish and confuse his enemies but not to murder them, and in the end all is forgiven. Puck is shown to be more on an incompetent and inefficient spirit than a malevolent one, and in the end his mistakes are corrected so the people who are truly in love can marry each other. This is most definitely not the case with the three Weird Sisters in Macbeth, who are purely evil and influence him to commit murder and also predict his own death at the hands of Macduff. In The Tempest, Sycorax in already dead before the play begins, but she is described as purely evil, and quite literally the 'black' bride of Satan with demonic offspring.
Sycorax was an evil witch who oppressed Ariel and the other spirits, and according to Prospero she mated with the Devil to produce Caliban. Since she was from Algiers in North Africa the English audience would have imagined her as black or at least tawny in color, as well as thoroughly foreign and exotic. Even though she was already dead when Prospero arrived on the island he had developed a very strong image of her as evil, sexually promiscuous, and worshipping a pagan god called Setebos. He vanquishes her 'black' magic with his own 'white' magic, enslaves Caliban and takes control of Ariel and the other sprites. Even though Sycorax is never seen onstage in the play, and the audience only learns about her from the man who has conquered and colonized the island, she is portrayed as the exact opposite of the 'white' and 'pure' Miranda, whose virginity Prospero is determined to protect. Sycorax on the other hand is made to seem threatening and menacing on every level: racial, religious, sexual and ethnic, like an early version of Count Dracula.
Perhaps the danger of a 'foreign' and 'alien' woman like Sycorax was increased by the fact that she had real political power as ruler of a kingdom, while the witches in Macbeth are more like the stereotypical outcasts that witches were commonly assumed to be in…