Disenchantment By Way of Magic

October 8th, 2010

Desmond Zantua
English 399W
Professor Buell

Disenchantment By Way of Magic

Technology is often used to describe advancements made in institutions, art forms, machinery, and anything else that is involved with human discourse. While these advancements are considered progression in how to accelerate the speed or alleviate the difficulty of carrying out certain tasks, they also further implement man into the gridlock of societal constructs and institutions. The inventions of the automobile and the airplane have brought mankind the ability to travel at faster speeds than anything before, but their use is largely focused on the ability to conduct business and occupational duties at faster speeds rather than exploring and observing the world. Conversely, Magic has been imagined and held with transcendental regards. Two of the most popular film series of the past decade, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, have gained much of their acclaim and fandom from their use of magical characters, powers, and settings. As such, magic is held as existing outside of the restrictive world of man-made constructs and institutions. However, The Tempest conveys a movement of mankind being incapable of escaping the institutionalized society setting in how Prospero’s use of magic is not of transcendental or revolutionary qualities, but of desires for power and control in the “civilized” society from which he was exiled by Antonio. In the exposition of the use of magic in the The Tempest, the message is apparent: man has become obsessed and settled in the established notion of society and uses technology for power rather than a deconstructionist life outside of power relations.

A prime example of the static leaning of man to institution is in Prospero’s focus of his magical powers being exerted on seeking retribution on Antonio and those he deemed to have usurped him of his dukedom, rather than starting anew on the island. Prospero explains his motives for causing the shipwreck to Miranda:

I have done nothing but in care of thee Of thee my dear one, thee my daughter–who Art ignorant of what thou art, naught knowing Of whence I am, nor that I am more better Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell And thy no greater father. (1.2.15-21)

Prospero claims that Miranda cannot even know who she really is as she doesn’t have proper understanding of her father’s identity without knowing his royal rank, and characterizing his current state as lowly and worthless with regards to knowing his valued character. Prospero sees himself, despite his magical powers, as a lesser person without his prior societal rank as Duke of Milan; due to his current living situation as a shack-dweller on an uncolonized island. Furthermore, a factor that left him vulnerable to being usurped was his fixed attention to magic study, as he put it “neglecting worldly ends” (1.2.89). Taking blame for his vulnerability due to his interest in magic both reveals the extent to which he put in learning magic, yet also his perspective of it as a technology for rational purposes, for “the bettering of [his] mind” as Prospero put it (1.2.90), rather than for transcendental appreciation.

Prospero’s institution-focused application of magic is also conveyed in his subjugation of Ariel. Ariel, described in the character list as an “airy spirit”, has the ability to alter the weather, distract/disorient senses through song, and become invisible. These superhuman powers, much like Prospero’s magic skills, are representative of a transcendental/sublime existence unconcerned with limitations of the empirical world. With such fantastical creative powers at his disposal and a new canvas for living in the island, Prospero has an opportunity to live outside of the power-relations-based, commodification-focused nature of institutionalized society; the one from which he came and was rudely exiled from. However, Ariel is treated as a servant instead of a peer, as Prospero uses him as a tool for his revenge plot. In his subjugation of Ariel, Prospero uses his magic to summon/control another being, further conveying magic as a form of technology used for societally-influenced ambitions. Not only does this further indicate magic being used as mechanistic vehicle for societal gain, but the attitude held by Prospero toward Ariel indicates either an obliviousness or conscious disregard for Ariel’s agency/autonomy. Prospero uses his rescue of Ariel from Sycocrax as a justification for Ariel’s servitude being due compensation to Prospero, and uses this to guilt and threaten Ariel upon Ariel’s first request for liberty (1.2.243-293), and eventually twists into a threat of imprisonment for “twelve winters” (1.2.296) should Ariel ever ask again. Prospero’s magical powers were used not to liberate, but rather to make a commodity out of Ariel, gaining an instrument to make his plot for returning to his former dukedom. Furthermore, the use of magic to subjugate another being, and then consequently turn the concept of his agency into incentive for compliance marks a fashion of magic not just being used for societally-created ambitions, but also being used to create power relations itself.

Another application of magic to adhere to the societally-constructed, power relation world is exemplified in Prospero’s treatment of the island’s sole native, Caliban. Unlike Ariel’s servitude to Prospero, in which there was no violence exerted (despite disciplinary threat) and there was an understanding of temporal servitude, Caliban is referred to as a “slave”; no sense of rapport and no indication of emancipation. Prospero’s magic is exerted in punishing Caliban with “apes that… bite [him]; then like hedgehogs… mount / their pricks at [his] footfall; … [wounded] with adders… hiss [him] into madness” (2.2.9-14) at Caliban’s slightest mistake or misgiving. With all of his magical powers on a mostly uninhabited island, Prospero chooses to enslave Caliban, making a technology out of his existence, turning his own environment against him, and disturbingly creates a hierarchy on his island where there was just organic, non-institutionalized living before Prospero’s arrival. Due to the constant threat and recurrence of punishments via Prospero’s technological advancement in magic, Caliban is seemingly hopelessly under Prospero’s dominion, as he comes back into his role as slave at the end of the play, after being pardoned for plotting with Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero. Although Prospero’s pardoning is one of many he gives following expositions of all the play’s characters, it is to be noted he is still condescending, saying “He is as disproportioned in his manners / As in his shape” (5.1.290-291) and demanding Caliban to clean Prospero’s cell if he expects forgiveness (5.1.292-293). Both in his power-by-magic-obsessive nature throughout most of the play and after his supposed spiritual awakening at the end in which he forgives even his broth Alonso for usurping his dukedom, Prospero always views Caliban as someone he inherently holds dominion over due to his technological advantage.

Prospero’s use of Magic is shown here to indicate the loss of ambition to modify human discourse of living (as in, alteration of how man lives within time and space; society) and a consequential reflection of complacency to seek power relations and commodify natural things. However it should be noted that such a theme occurs throughout the play by other characters. The slave Caliban uses Trinculo and Stephano for both their alcohol and the hopes that his worship and subservience will translate to Prospero’s death. Gonzalo, the romantic of the play, still seeks to create a Utopian society on the island. Although he is the only character to admire the beauty of the island as a place containing “everything advantageous to life”, with “lush and lusty” green grass (2.1.49,52), Gonzalo’s view of this new place as a platform to try and form a romanticized notion of a “perfect” society still is tinged with this imperative desire to create order and systemize life instead of existing within it as is. With even the slave and the romantic as partaking in the man-made technologies of societal institutions and power relations, Prospero’s use of magic for power gain is in accordance with societal norms– that very correlation between the use of magic, a symbol of the supernatural/fantastical, being used to serve common, man-made constructs/concepts exemplifies the extent to how The Tempest conveys a perspective of technology as focusing on ascension in current societal setting instead of changing human lifestyles; technology’s changed focus from what can be invented to change life to how can man make things easier for himself.

Works Cited

The Tempest. Norton Critical Edition. New York, NY.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. 3-78. Print.

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