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The themes of magic and the supernatural in william shakespeares comedies

Journal of Speculative Philosophy. The great and striking peculiarity of this play is that its action lies wholly in the ideal world. It differs, therefore, from every other work of Shakespeare in the character of its mediation.

Our poet, in most of his dramas, portrays the real world, and exhibits man as acting from clear conscious motives, and not from supernatural influences. But here he completely reverses his procedure; from beginning to end the chief instrumentalities of the poem are external; its conflicts and solutions are brought about by powers seemingly beyond human might and intelligence.

It should, however, be classified with "As You Like it" and "Midsummer Night's Dream," in both of which the ideal world is the grand mediating principle. But in these two plays the real world is also present, and there is in the coarse of the action a transition from one to the other. Hence, too, there follows a change of place and time, and the so-called unities must be violated. But the "Tempest" has not this double element: Hence it is more unique, more homogeneous, than the two dramas before mentioned; the unities of time and place can be observed, and the action lies wholly in the ideal world.

It is now the duty of the interpreter to translate these poetic forms and mediations into Thought. Thus he gives the same meaning, the same content, which is found in the play; but he addresses the Reason and Understanding instead of the Imagination. What Shakespeare expresses in poetry he must express in prose, and moreover must supply the logical nexus which the imaginative form cannot give. Hence, above all things, let him not fall into the error of merely substituting one poetical shape for another, whereby nothing is explained and only confusion is increased.

If Prospero is called Shakespeare, or by any other name, what is gained by the change? The same difficulties remain for Thought as before. The task is not easy, nor is it likely to give satisfaction at first to the reader; for these beautiful ideal shapes must perish before our eyes and be transformed into the dry, abstract forms of prose.

  1. He was the cause of the shipwreck we now learn, and he gives a vivid account of his feats in that work.
  2. Ariel is no longer the representative of Grecian Fate, but is a preacher of Christian Gospel, whose doctrine is repentance — "heart's sorrow and a clear life ensuing. On the other hand, passion alone without any ethical restraint is even more fatal to love.
  3. The Poet is not only going to make the drama, but is going to show himself making it. They are not portrayed as human in form, but as unnatural, or, if you please, supernatural; they exhibit one side, one element of man in its excess.

The contrast is striking, perhaps repulsive; but, if we wish to comprehend and not merely to enjoy Shakespeare, there is no alternative. Let us bring before our minds the leading elements of the play. First, Alonso and his company represent the real world; but they have arrived at a magic isle where they are under the sway of unknown external agencies.

Within certain limits they still can act through themselves, but their chief movements are determined from without by the ideal world, Ariel and his spirits, who constitute the second element. Thus the fact is indicated that the ideal, supernatural world is master of the real, natural world. Thirdly, there is Prospero, a being who commands both, yet partakes of both these principles, the real and the ideal, the natural and the supernatural: Here appears the two-fold nature of Prospero, which is the pivotal point of the drama, and hence its comprehension must be our first object.

He controls the elements, he is gifted with foresight, he possesses absolute power; yet he has been expelled from his throne and country. To be sure, there is the difference of time between his expulsion and his present greatness, but this cannot adequately account for the change. Let us try to explain these two elements of his character, as they have been elaborated fully by the poet in the course the themes of magic and the supernatural in william shakespeares comedies the drama.

In the first place, Prospero must manifest the finite side of his nature. As an individual, he comes in contact with other individuals and things; in general, with the realm of finitude in which he himself is finite. Limitation begets struggle; thus arise the collisions of life. Many men, it seems, have been his superiors in these struggles; his brother is a much more practical man — has dethroned him and driven him off.

Such is Prospero the individual, and as such he collides with various forms of finite existence. He has been hitherto defeated in these conflicts. This is the one element. But Prospero also possesses the side of universality; he is spirit, intelligence, which comprehends, solves, and portrays all the collisions of the finite world. It is only through long discipline and devoted study that he has attained this power. His pursuit of knowledge, moreover, cost him his dukedom, and hence was the source of his chief conflict — that with his brother.

He thus stands for spirit in its highest potence, the Universal, but he is at the same time individual, and hence is exposed to the realm of finite relation and struggle, which, however, his reason must bring into a harmonious unity. But his spiritual activity is mostly confined to a special form of intelligence, that form which embodies its content in pictures and symbols, namely, the creative Imagination.

Prospero does not employ pure thought, but poetic shapes and images. He must therefore be the Poet, who has within him the world in ideal forms, and hence possesses over it an absolute power.

The Comedy of Errors

He calls up from the vasty deep whatever shapes he wishes in order to execute his purposes and perform his mediations. Thus he solves all the contradictions in which he as an individual is involved, and subdues all the influences which come within his magic circle. For he is this universal power, and in the sphere of ideality, in the realm of spirit, nothing can resist him. The revenge of Prospero is therefore ideal, for certainly our poet would never have taken such instrumentalities to portray a real revenge.

Moreover, the play must end in reconciliation, the harmony of the Individual with the Universal; for spirit possesses just this power over the conflicts of finite existence: In this way we can account for the commanding position of Prospero in the drama. He is the grand central figure, the absolute power who controls ultimately the movements of every person and from whom all the action proceeds.

The form of mediation is therefore external; but, truly considered, Prospero is no deus ex machina, no merely external divinity brought in to cut the knot that cannot be untied. The interpretation must always exhibit him inside of the action; the clew is his double nature. As an individual, he is engaged in conflict; but then he steps back, beholds and portrays that conflict, and solves it through spirit in the form of Imagination.

He is therefore the mediator of his own collisions; thus externality falls away.

The solution is hence not external, which would be the case if the absolute power simply stood outside of the action, and commanded everything to take place.

It is the special duty of the critic to explain these external mediations, of which the play is full, into a clear, spiritual signification. Prospero is, therefore, the mighty spirit standing behind and portraying the collisions of his own individual life and of finite existence generally. But this is not enough to account for his activity.

He could easily put his experiences and struggles in a drama without invoking the aid of the supernatural' world. The necessity of this element must be seen. If he would give a complete picture of his own activity, he mast not only portray the above-mentioned conflicts, but also portray himself as portraying them.

In other words, he must depict himself as Poet, as Universal; he must give an account of his own process, and that account must also be in the themes of magic and the supernatural in william shakespeares comedies poetic form.

This will push the Imagination to the very verge of its powers, for thus it must do what abstract thought alone can usually do: Hence comes the external form representing it as the absolute master over its materials. The Drama thus attempts to account for itself in a drama, in its own form. Having swept over the whole field of life, and portrayed every species of collision, it now comes to grasp itself, its own process.

Thus it becomes truly universal, a complete totality; for it takes in the world and itself too. This play is often considered Shakespeare's last, and it may be regarded as a final summing up of his activity, or, indeed, that of any great poet. In his other works he has portrayed the manifold variety of collisions, but now he portrays them being portrayed.

Here he reaches, if he does not transgress, the limit of dramatic representation; he can only use strange symbolical shapes to indicate his meaning. It is now time to see the poem springing from the two-fold nature of Prospero. As individual, we must expect to behold him involved in some of the ordinary dramatic collisions. An analysis will reveal three of them all in regular gradation of importance. First, there arises the collision in the Family — Prospero the father, on the one hand, against the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, on the other.

The old conflict is depicted: Secondly, there is portrayed the collision in the State: Prospero, the rightful ruler of Milan, against the usurper Antonio, supported by the king of Naples, both of whom with followers are on board the newly-arrived ship. Thirdly, there is the more general collision which may be stated to be between rationality and sensuality, the former represented by Prospero and Ariel, the latter by Caliban with Trinculo and Stephano.

The Sensual rises up against the Rational in all its forms, in institutions and even in Art, as well as in Intelligence.

  1. To be sure, there is the difference of time between his expulsion and his present greatness, but this cannot adequately account for the change. She is excited by sympathy for the sufferers, when the father assures her that no one has perished — in fact, no one can perish — in the vessel.
  2. Hence the play must result in reconciliation and not in the death of the wrong-doers. Where, now, is he?
  3. Such beings must have some conflict among themselves, which Ariel, our poetical mediator, does not fail to bring about. The interpretation must always exhibit him inside of the action; the clew is his double nature.
  4. The peculiarity of their names, too, has been noticed by critics.

Such is the material for Imagination to work upon. But the other side must not be forgotten. The Imagination, at the same time, portrays itself elaborating this content. The Poet is not only going to make the drama, but is going to show himself making it. This gives the ideal element, representing Prospero as having the absolute power of mediating all the collisions of his individual existence. Such are the threads which must be carefully kept before the mind in order to comprehend the organization of the play.

Next, the entire movement of the action must be considered. In the first place, there is the expulsion of Prospero by the rulers in the ship, who have now come into his power; this is the wrong done to Prospero, and constitutes the pre-supposition of the drama. Next follows the punishment of this wrong in the island, the realm of Prospero, through his spirit-powers.

Lastly, the reconciliation of the two sides by the repentance of the guilty and forgiveness of the injured, when we have the final harmony resulting from the conflict. It, therefore, is connected with that class of Shakespeare's plays in which wrong is atoned for by repentance, and the criminal escapes by "heart's sorrow" the punishment of death, the legitimate consequence of his deed.

Let us now take the poem in hand and see whether these things, with a reasonable interpretation, can be found in it, or whether they are the absurd subtleties of the critic's fancy. First comes the tempest, from which the drama takes its name, the effect of which is to divide the ship's company into three parts, corresponding to the three threads above mentioned, and to scatter them into different portions of the island.

But the peculiarity of this tempest is, as we learn in the next scene, that Prospero has brought it about through Ariel; it is, therefore, not a tempest which has taken place through natural causes, but through spiritual causes: For certainly Shakespeare would not have us believe that storms are produced by spirits ordinarily; but this one certainly is. What, then, does the author mean? I, think he tells us, in saying that Ariel, by the themes of magic and the supernatural in william shakespeares comedies of Prospero, caused the tempest and dispersed the company, that tempests are called up by the Poet — that they are a poetical instrument employed to bring about a separation of parties, and to scatter them into different places as here.

We are, therefore, led to inquire whether Shakespeare himself has ever employed this means in any of his dramas. Accordingly, we find the same instrumentality in "Twelfth Night" and "Comedy of Errors" used for the same purpose. It is an artifice of the Poet for scattering, or possibly uniting, his characters in an external manner. Here then, in the very first scene, the Poet is portraying his own process. The second scene of the First Act, which now follows, is the most important one in the play, for it gives the key to the action.