Magic in a Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest
By examining the use of magic in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, one can see not only how magic functions within the context of the plays, but also how the use of magic and enchantment would have been received by their historical audiences. Though instigated with differing motives and applied with differing levels of expertise in either play, magic primarily functions to instigate a farcical confusion on the part of the characters, and even though magic is deployed by central, "good" characters, the use of magic is ultimately repudiated by the end of the play, in both cases with a direct appeal to the audience. The use of magic to confuse and control characters, as well as this direct repudiation present in an appeal to the audience reveals that although magic is a central theme of both plays, that centrality was nonetheless tempered in light of the audience of the time.
Before approaching what the use of magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest reveals about their historical and contemporary audiences, it will be useful to briefly examine the major instances of magic and enchantment in either play. In both plays, the specific magic and enchantments used are given some kind of mythical legitimacy due to a related history connecting them to an earlier mythology, whether that is a connection to Cupid in A Midsummer Night's Dream or an invented history for Ariel, Caliban, and Sycorax in The Tempest. In addition, the Tempest features Roman goddesses, but as will be seen, they are less related to the central magical devices than in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Furthermore, both plays feature a direct appeal to the audience containing a repudiation of the very magic which constitutes the cores of each play, and depending on the amount of historical legitimacy lent by these in-text appeals to earlier mythologies, the repudiations are more or less explicit and the appeals are more or less direct. As will be seen, A Midsummer Night's Dream's connection to classical Greek mythology allows it to be less total in its repudiation of magic and less direct in its appeal for the audience's praise, whereas The Tempest's more general use of sorcery and magic requires the eventual abandonment of that magic to be all the more explicit and complete. Furthermore, the final appeal to the audience is more direct, with the central character's fate resting on the audience's inclinations.
Though one of the three intertwining stories in A Midsummer Night's Dream is largely about fairies and other magical creatures, almost all of the instances of magic being actively used by a character revolve around the juice of "a little western flower," which the "maidens call […] love-in-idleness" because of its magical properties to make a sleeping person fall in love with whoever they first see upon waking (Shakespeare 2.1.166-168). Because the use of this magical juice constitutes both the central use of magic in the play and the reason for the characters' misadventures, a closer look at the details of how the magic juice is oriented within other mythical and religious beliefs is warranted. When the fairy king Oberon is first describing the magic juice to his mischievous jester and servant Puck, he relates the story behind the flower's magical properties. According to Oberon, the flower received the ability to "make man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees," after Cupid, "flying between the cold moon and the earth," missed his mark in attempt to hit "a fair vestal throned by the west" and his arrow ended up landing on the aforementioned flower (Shakespeare 2.1.156, 158, 171-172). Although the fantastic elements present in the play until that point were rooted in magical entities contemporary to the time of its writing, the magical juice is given a history and magical connection to a much earlier, "classical" mythology due to its relation to Cupid. In fact, the use of the magical juice in A Midsummer Night's Tale can be seen as a farcical, satirical take on Cupid's traditional role, because the mischievous Puck is essentially a bawdier, anarchistic Cupid, spreading magical juice which causes chaotic infatuations instead of shooting magical arrows that bloom into some kind of true love. Recognizing that the...
Before approaching magic's reception, however, the use of magic within The Tempest should be examined, because although it differs in form from its appearance in A Midsummer Night's Dream, its functions remains largely the same.
Although Prospero, the main character of The Tempest, is ostensibly a kind of sorcerer or magician, the majority of the magic and enchantment performed in the play is done by Ariel, the sprite in service to Prospero following his release from a tree. Although numerous references are made to Prospero's magical knowledge and power, the instances of him using this power directly are scarce, if not lacking altogether. In fact, in one of the few instances where Prospero claims to be practicing magic directly, he is directly contradicted by the text. When the Roman goddesses Ceres, Iris, and Juno appear in the fourth act of the play, Ferdinand asks Prospero if the goddesses are "spirits," to which Prospero replies that they are "Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call'd to enact / My present fancies" (Shakespeare 4.1.120-122). This would seem to be direct evidence suggesting that Prospero does in fact directly perform magic within the play, but in reality this claim is already challenged by the text even before Prospero makes it. A few lines earlier, Isis claims that the goddesses have appeared on their own accord because there is "A contract of true love to celebrate; / And some donation freely to estate / On the blest lovers," (Shakespeare 4.1.84-86). This detail would not be quite enough to establish the inaccuracy of Prospero's comment to Ferdinand except that Prospero makes contradictory or otherwise unaware declarations elsewhere in the play, revealing that he has far less agency than he thinks (and claims).
Earlier in The Tempest, when Prospero is relating his own exposition to his daughter Miranda, he claims that the reason he and Miranda were not murdered outright by Prospero's usurping brother and his allies is because "they durst not, / So dear the love my people bore me," (Shakespeare 1.2.140-141). However, this seems unlikely, because earlier Prospero admits to "being transported / And rapt in secret studies," so that "to [his] state grew stranger" (Shakespeare 1.2.76-77). Because the whole point of Prospero's expulsion was that he ignored his public duties in favor of private studies, his claim that his people's undying love for him is what kept them from death rings hollow. Thus, Prospero is shown to be an unreliable character, and so his claim that he controls any of the goddesses in act four must be taken skeptically. What is undisputable, however, is that Ariel actively performs a number of enchantments and magical feats throughout the play, and so should be examined as the primary location of magic use within the play.
Ariel's use of magic is more varied than Puck's, but in general it is of the same sort; he enchants the characters so that they enact the central puppet-master's plan without their knowledge. In the case of Ariel, however, his work is generally more graceful and planned out than the ministrations of Puck, which seem to ultimately succeed in enacting Oberon's plan only in spite of their haphazard application. Like Puck, Ariel is a magical servant, but Ariel is given a more detailed history than Puck, which has the effect of making Ariel a much more developed, novel kind of magical actor than those in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ariel's history is relayed by Prospero during their first interaction in the play, and he reveals that Ariel was the servant of Sycorax, an exiled witch, until she imprisoned him inside a tree (Shakespeare 1.2.269-281). Furthermore, Ariel's unique characterization gives the sprite far more magical ability than Puck, as Ariel is able to appear on "the king's ship; now on the beak, / Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin," at will, frightening the sailors as he "flamed amazement: sometime I'ld divide, / And burn in many places; on the topmast, / The yards and bowsprit" (Shakespeare 1.2.196-200). Aside from his ability to move about unseen and cause hallucinations, Ariel also uses music to enchant human characters, leading them to enact Prospero's plans (Shakespeare 2.1.185, 297-305). The difference in scope and focus of magic use by Ariel in The Tempest and the use of the magical juice by Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream is important to note because…
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