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Free Study Guide-The Tempest by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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The Supernatural in "The Tempest"

The Tempest deals with four distinct but mutually interacting worlds of existence -- the Heaven, the world of the supernatural, the human world, and the sub-human world. God with his angels occupy their place in heaven. The elves, fairies and spirits of Prospero, including Ariel, belong to the supernatural world. Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, Alonso and his men belong to the human world. And Caliban belongs to the sub-human world, which is half-way-housed between the human and the bestial worlds in "the chain of being".

Prospero is an occult personality having mastery over the denizens of the supernatural realm through the power of his magic. He creates the storm that brings his enemies to the island. He uses Ariel to bring Ferdinand to Miranda through music and magic. He calls forth the goddesses to celebrate the marriage of the young couple. He creates a tantalizing banquet, which he sets before the royal party and then makes it disappear in thunder and lightning. He has Ariel appear in the form of a harpy to lecture the betrayers on their sins of the past. Ariel wears a cloak of invisibility to learn of the conspiracies against Alonso and Prospero.

Ariel leads the comic conspirators towards Prospero's cave and leaves them vainly dancing in a stinking pond of muck and mire. Prospero then sends spirits in the shape of hounds to frighten them. In the final scene of reconciliation, Prospero draws a magic circle and effecting the reconciliation bids farewell to his magic and the world of the supernatural. All of these things are accomplished on an enchanted island, which makes the audience suspend belief and accept the fantastic as possible.

Music in "The Tempest"

Music is a tool through which the plot is advanced in The Tempest. Ariel sings songs that send waves of enchantment all over the island. The first song of Ariel, "Come into these yellow sands," is an invitation to all, both physical and spiritual, to visit the land of enchantment. The song actually leads Ferdinand, on stage, to Prospero's side of the island where he can meet Miranda. The second song, "Full fathom five any father lies," makes Ferdinand think his father is dead so that he can devote himself to the pursuit of Prospero's daughter. Ariel's third song, "While you here do snoring lie," is a warning to Gonzalo and Alonso to guard themselves against the villainy of Antonio and Sebastian. The last song of Ariel, "Where the bee sucks," expresses the hovering and non-committed movement of Ariel. He is presented in this song as one who is in pursuit of eternal summer and who is finally granted his freedom.

Ariel is not the only singer in the play. There are two songs from Stephano, the drunken butler. The first song, "I shall no more to sea," is a sailor's song, which expresses the tedium that has come over Stephano. The second song, "Flout 'em and Scout 'em," expresses the joy of Stephano at the prospect of his becoming the king of the enchanted island. Caliban too sings a song beginning with "No more dams I' make for fish". The song expresses his craving for freedom and the effect the liquor has upon his sensibility. It is obvious that the songs in the play are used to move the plot forward and to evoke the mood appropriate for certain scenes.

The Masque in "The Tempest"

The masque is a pageant-like performance of dance, music, dialogue, and spectacle. A masque frequently uses scenes and characters from mythology. The typical masque has dainty and graceful music and dance, followed by an antimasque of grotesque characters who serve as foils and contrasts. In the fourth act of The Tempest, Prospero provides a masque for the young lovers to celebrate "a true contract of love". It provides precisely the kind of spectacle that was fashionable and that the court expected. Spirits in the forms of Iris, Ceres and Juno promise Miranda and Ferdinand the blessings of a happy marriage -- long life, children, wealth, humor and hourly joys.

The Comic Element in the Play

Shakespeare indulges in broad comedy in The Tempest. In the opening scene, there is the humor expressed in the scene between Gonzalo and the boatswain. Even in the midst of the terrible accident, Gonzalo remarks that he is sure they will not drown in the sea, because the boatswain looks like someone meant to hang in the gallows. Apart from minor incidents such as this, there are two scenes of romping, merry-making, drinking, and comic conspiracy, which form the low comedy of the play. Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are the comic characters who bring the humorous to these scenes. Trinculo feels that Caliban is a freak to be exhibited in a holiday exhibition in England. Caliban is prepared to be a vassal of Stephano and looks upon him as a god to be worshipped, all for a few sips of liquor. Their comic conspiracy to murder Prospero is also full of merriment.

The Enchanted Island

Prospero's enchanted island is a desert island set in a lonely sea. By accident and at rare intervals, ships are drifted to this place by ocean currents or unruly winds. The island is mostly uninhabited, with the only dwelling being a cave protected from the weather by trees. The food is the simplest that nature yields, and time is spent in contemplation and relaxation. The atmosphere that pervades the island is of enchantment. Mystic melodies float through the air and lull those who hear them into a dreamy repose. The sole, original denizens of the island are supernatural forms, such as Ariel, or bestial forms, such as Caliban. The setting is dramatic, unpredictable, and startling -- the place where Prospero acquires and uses his magical powers. Above all, it is the perfect setting for reconciliation between the injured and the injurers. It is probably only on an enchanted island where such past crimes could be resolved without bloodshed.

Symbolism in the play

The central symbol of the play is the tempest or storm, implicit in the title. The play opens with a fierce storm at sea, which clearly symbolizes the tempest of life that is central to the plot. Throughout the play, the royal party is torn by conspiracy, deceit, and treachery; in their hunger for power, they have no peace, but stir like a storm. The tempest image lingers throughout the play until reconciliation is effected by the new generation, represented by Miranda and Ferdinand. Their perfect union promises to "calm seas (and) auspicious gales". In fact, at the end of the play, Prospero has forgiven his enemies and brought about reconciliation. He and the royal party plan to sail to Italy. Fortunately, the storm has been quieted and the seas are calm. Still, Prospero asks Ariel to do one last magical task - to make certain that the ocean is peaceful throughout the entire homeward voyage.

Use of Language

The language of the play is characterized by density and compression with each character or speaker having his unique manner of language and individual linguistics. Caliban's talk, often in poetry, is very different from Stephano's coarse prose. Prospero's speech, characterized by a fast-moving style, is often lofty. Ariel's speech is compressed and characterized by short sentences, such as "I flamed amazement." The dialogue of the entire play is also rich in figurative language with vivid images of storms, nature, music, animals, and spirits. As always, Shakespeare fills this play with wonderful language, both in prose and poetic forms.

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