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Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
The Varying Depictions of Magic in Shakespeare
Harrison Lavin
Professor Thompson
The supernatural is a topic that seems to crop up often in Shakespeare. Two of
the most powerful examples, it can be argued, occur in the plays A Midsummer Night’s
Dream and The Tempest. Fairy creatures interact with, beguile, and befuddle many of the
main characters, while a princely conjuror guides the plot towards its inevitable
conclusion. Why then, do their endings differ so greatly? Magic and the supernatural are
embraced at the end of Midsummer, while they are summarily rejected in the finale of
Tempest. I hope, in this paper, to explore the varying depictions of the magical in
Shakespeare’s plays; through the presentations of the princely conjurors, the loyal
sidekicks, love, sleep, and the benefits of magic in both plays.
Perhaps the most striking parallels between Midsummer and Tempest may be
found in the characters of Oberon and Prospero. Both incite the plot through magical
means: Oberon by way of the love-inducing flower in Midsummer 2.1.257-267, and
Prospero by the eponymous storm in Tempest 1.2.25-33. Both, in fact, seek revenge for
slights they have suffered in the past. Oberon wishes to humiliate Titania, his Queen, for
denying one of his requests, while Prospero craves vengeance against those who usurped
his dukedom in Milan. The motivation for Oberon’s revenge is founded on purely fey
reasons, namely, that he “[does] but beg a little changeling boy/To be [his] henchman.”
(2.1.120-121) When Titania refuses (as she intends to keep her word to the boy’s mother
“and for her sake… rear up her boy” (2.1.136)) Oberon plans to disgrace her by making
her fall in love with some base creature. To achieve such ends, he sends his loyal
servant, Puck, to fetch a certain flower that “will make or man or woman madly dote/
Upon the next live creature it sees.” (2.1.171-172). Once Titania is under the influence of
this spell, Oberon will demand the changeling child of her, and ostensibly will receive it.
In stark contrast, Prospero has far more concrete reasons for seeking revenge. He
was once “Duke of Milan and/ A prince of power” (Tempest, 1.2.53-54), but had his title
usurped by his brother, Antonio, and Alonso, the King of Naples. And, while wildly
different from Oberon’s, Prospero’s plan for vengeance involves creating romance as
well (similar to the love Oberon eventually fostered between Helena and Demetrius after
some tribulations). As part of the plot to revenge himself on his usurpers, Prospero
ensures his daughter, Miranda, falls in love with Ferdinand, Alonso’s son. Unlike
Oberon, however, Prospero does not seek to influence such a romance overtly, only that
“…this swift business/ I must uneasy make, lest too light winning/ make the prize light.”
(1.2.454-456). As a means to that end, Prospero forces Ferdinand to perform chores and
tasks for him (as well as ensuring that Miranda does not interfere) as something of a test
of their affections. Once he has gathered evidence of such a romance, Prospero moves on
to tormenting his usurpers (an action that has its parallels in Oberon’s shaming of
Titania). He separates each out, and taunts them with visions and hallucinations that harp
on their guilt. But, once Prospero decides that his enemies have suffered enough, he
ensures that Ferdinand and Miranda wed, solidifying a mutually beneficial alliance
between Milan and Naples. Midsummer ends with Oberon similarly blessing Theseus
and Hippolyta’s wedding, undoeing the magic charm placed upon Titania, and dispelling
the errant charm that wrecked havoc with Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander.
But where would such princely characters be without their loyal servants? Both
Puck and Ariel had large roles to play in Midsummer and Tempest, respectively. Both are
spritely fairies, tasked with the errands that, wittingly or not, drive the main plot of both
plays. It is Puck’s administering of the fated love-juice to Lysander instead of Demetrius
(at Oberon’s altruistic behest) that sets off one of the major plots in Midsummer. Puck, in
fact, claims that this mistake is through no fault of his own:
Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook.
Did not you tell me I should know the man
By the Athenian garments he had on?
And so far blameless proves my enterprise
That I have ‘nointed an Athenian’s eyes…
With one simple slip-up, Puck catapults the action of Midsummer into motion. Ariel, in a
similar vein, follows the instructions of his master to the letter, but with significantly
better results. Prospero several times mentions that Ariel is a “fine spirit” (Tempest,
1.2.423), and that he shall be rewarded for his diligence. However, this leads to one of
the most stunning contrasts between Puck and Ariel. Puck appears to serve Oberon of his
own free will, whereas Ariel is indebted to Prospero for freeing him from the torment
placed upon him by his old master, Sycorax. He entreats Prospero on at least one
occasion to grant him his liberty, on the merits that he has “…done [Prospero] worthy
service,/ Told [him] no lies, made [him] no mistakings, served/ Whithout or grudge or
grumblings…” (1.2.246-248) Such a sentiment would imply that he is kept in servitude
against his will, as clear a sign of enslavement as any. However, Ariel does not seem to
resent Prospero for being his master. When Prospero promises to free him, Ariel
becomes eager to do his bidding, emphatically crying “That’s my noble master!/ What
shall I do? Say what? What shall I do?” (1.2.301). There is even evidence that Ariel
cares about Prospero and his opinion, even going so far as to ask whether he loves him
(4.1.49). But, for all this amicability between Prospero and Ariel, one cannot disregard
the subtext created by his enslavement. Puck, on other hand needs no such promises of
freedom to do Oberon’s bidding. He is employed to “jest to Oberon and make him
smile…” (2.1.44) through capricious pranks that he seems to need no encouragement to
commit. If Puck and Ariel are taken as the purest manifestation of magic in each play,
such differences create a rather interesting pattern. According to Midsummer, magic is
slightly untamed, and is like as not to make matters worse as to follow your instructions.
In Tempest, however, magic must be enslaved in order for it to benefit mankind; but,
once such enslavement has occurred, the magic and its agents will obey its master fully,
if sometime begrudgingly. It would seem that magic is just barely contained in each
play, with either slight incompetence or slavery being the costs needed to control it.
Sleep forms a natural, if not overly awe-inspiring, parallel between the two plays.
Its depiction and effect on the plot are presented in a rather similar manner in Tempest
and Midsummer. For instance, sleep serves to remove a character so that others may
work their magic on the situation. Titania’s sleep in Midsummer 3.2.257 is what allows
Oberon to enchant her with the love-juice, while Demetrius and Lysander’s frequent
bouts of sleep allow Puck and Oberon to anoint them with the same fated love-potion.
Ariel and Prospero, in a similar fashion, use sleep to further their plans. Prospero first
puts to Miranda to sleep in 1.2.185 in order to speak with Ariel, while, subsequently, it is
revealed that Ariel “[has] left asleep” (Tempest, 1.2.232) all the crewmen of the King’s
ship, so that their nautical expertise could not allow any of Prospero’s enemies to escape.
Later, the King of Naples and all his entourage are put to sleep for two reasons (2.1.184,
stage directions). The first is to show Prospero’s loyalty to the one Neapolitan who
helped him (Gonzalo, who, as luck would have it, is travelling with Alonso et al, and is
protected from Antonio by the timely intervention of Ariel in 2.1.293-295). The second
reason is to further show the depravity of Antonio, Prospero’s brother. Antonio, on
seeing Alonso and Gonzalo falling asleep, convinces Alonso’s brother, Sebastian, to
commit regicide and claim the throne of Naples for himself.
Love, on the other hand, is presented rather differently in these two plays. In
Midsummer, it is only through the intervention of the magical that Demetrius and Helena
can find happy and fulfilling love. In Tempest, however, there is little to no evidence of
magic influencing Miranda and Ferdinand’s romance. Prospero is unsure enough of the
romance that he feels the need to confirm their affections, and upon seeing Miranda
devoutly dote on Ferdinand, states that “…[she is] infected!/ This visitation shows it.”
(3.1.31-32). Moreover, in a sharp contrast, the Princely characters in each play appear to
employ the exact opposite actions of each other in regards to the burgeoning romance.
Oberon, on the one hand, takes an active part in fostering it: he sends Puck to anoint the
eyes of Demetrius with a love-potion to make him fall in love with Helena. On the other,
Prospero actively seeks to hinder the love affair, imposing harsh labors on Ferdinand, in
an effort to make the result all the sweeter.
But even with the happy endings that Oberon and Prospero engineer, both
Midsummer and Tempest dip into a metafictional commentary on their nature as a work
of fiction. In the epilogue of both pieces, Puck and Prospero seem to acknowledge the
fact that they are merely characters in a play. Prospero’s famous “We are such stuff as
dreams are made on…” speech (4.1.146-157) seems to hint that Prospero knows the
world unfolding around him is simply a fiction, and that, once completed, will dissolve
and, “like this insubstantial pageant faded,/ Leave not a rack behind.” (4.1.155-156).
Moreover, in the epilogue, he states that he cannot be released from his story until the
audience expresses their approval (“I must be here confined by you/ Or sent to Naples...
release me from my bands/ With help of your good hands.” Tempest Epilogue 4-5, 9-10).
On a similar note, Puck states that “if we shadows have offended,/ think but this and all is
mended,/ that you have but slumbered here/ While these visions did appear.”
(Midsummer 5.1.399-402) A little later, in another parallel with Tempest, Puck
acknowledges the play as a work of fiction and entreats the audience to “Give me your
hands, if we be friends/ And Robin shall restore amends.” (5.1.413-414). But, for all
such concordance on the role of the audience and the fictional nature of these two plays,
they present startlingly different views on how magic should be treated. In Midsummer,
Oberon and Titania’s blessings at the very end of the play are presented as beneficial, and
seem to be viewed as something to be treasured. And, while Prospero summons a cadre
of spirits to bless his daughter’s wedding in Act 4 Scene 1, from lines 60-138, he seems,
all the while, to resent the magic that he has commanded for so long. Prospero,
throughout the last part of The Tempest, seems to anticipate ridding himself of this same
magic. Even before the action is all settled, “…this rough magic/ [he] here abjures,”
(5.1.50-51), and vows, once his revenge is completed, to “…break [his] staff,/ Bury it
certain fathoms in the earth,/ And deeper than did ever plummet sound/ [He’ll] drown
[his] book.” (5.1.54-56) In the ensuing epilogue, in whose equivalent section Puck
reveled in the magic of the play, Prospero states that “now my charms are all o’erthrown,/
And what strength I have ‘s mine own,/ Which is most faint.” (Tempest, Epilogue, 1-3)
Even though he knows that he is much weakened by relinquishing his magical power,
Prospero nonetheless seeks to renounce it. Perhaps he has realized, during his exile, that
it was his devotion to esoteric studies that allowed his usurpation. It could be that
Prospero regrets enslaving the residents of the island for so long, and hopes to restore
amends by freeing them. But, then again, Prospero’s relinquishing of his magical power
is not without its melancholic side. He had earlier stated that he dearly loves Ariel
(4.1.49) and, throughout the play, praises him for his clever roles and actions (such as in
2.1.499: “Thou hast done well, fine Ariel!”). He even goes so far as to tell Ariel that he
“shall miss [him],/ But yet [Ariel] shalt have freedom.” (5.1.95-96). With such
melancholy embroiled into it, magic seems to be far more of a mixed blessing in Tempest
than it is presented as in the ending of Midsummer.
Despite fourteen years separating their creation, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and
The Tempest present some rather strong similarities. Their main plots are both
shepherded along by a noble sorcerer, whose loyal sidekick drives the story forward.
Sleep, in both plays, renders characters unable to affect the story, paving the way for the
princes’ plans. Love becomes the center point of these plans, and the denouement
includes a magical blessing of the weddings to come. And although magic is accepted in
one piece and rejected in the other, both plays seem to present the same metafictional
themes, and both entrust supreme power to the audience. The results of such careful
craftsmanship and such beautiful similarities, in the end, are quite simply nothing short of
Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Eds. Gail Kern Paster and Skiles
Howard. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1999.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Eds. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2009.