Reality and Illusion in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Reality and Illusion in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

In William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the line between the realm of reality and illusion is blurred by Prospero, who through the use of his magic, is able to manipulate and control both the island and those who are stranded on it. The duality between illusion and reality, the contrast between the natural and unnatural are being represented and questioned by Prospero’s magic. Throughout the play, Shakespeare is stating that illusions can distort reality, but in the end reality will always makes itself apparent.

Prospero orchestrates the events of the play with ease, his magic giving him the power to manipulate the characters and environment around him. This almost omniscient power that is presented pushes the audience to question what is real and what is not. Because the audience is not directed involved with the play’s plot, they cannot be strung along by Prospero’s magic, allowing for objective viewings of what is actually occurring. These contrasting perceptions can be applied to the characters in the play as well; What are mere illusions to Prospero is reality for everyone else on the island.

The first demonstration of Prospero’s powerful illusions occurs during the very first scene of the play. The huge storm and the ensuing shipwreck is our first introduction to the world of the play and as we later find out the first part of Prospero’s elaborate plan. The tempest that begins the play engulfs the ship and leaves its occupants throughout the island, each believing that they were the only survivors. Prospero manipulated the reality of the situation, leaving the survivors unaware that they were never in danger the entire time.

The presence of Prospero’s magic establishes a dichotomy between this play’s world compared to Shakespeare’s other works, Neil H. Wright embellishes further stating “it is the world of illusion that is the established order, not the ordinary world of experience” (Wright 244). This lack of experience that a majority of the other characters are confronted with is what allows Prospero to operate freely among the island. In regard to the secondary characters, Wright explains “… confronted with circumstances and events that descend upon them from a higher world about which they know little or nothing” (244).

The key figures in Prospero’s plan are the group of nobles who were on the ship, Alonso’s entourage. Most of Prospero’s trickery is aimed towards them, with just intent. Prospero’s control of the scene is put on display with these characters, as Wright explains further, “From the moment they arrive on the island to the time of their release and pardon, they are almost continually guided, prompted, and motivated by visions that Ariel, acting for Prospero, weaves before them and by the spells he casts upon them” (251).

Prospero’s motivation behind all this manipulation is to provide the group of nobles, mainly Alonso and Antonio, to become of aware of their wrongdoings, repent for stripping away his dukedom and casting him out to isolation. The first illusion that Prospero casts is planting the idea that Ferdinand has drowned during the shipwreck firmly within the mind of his father Alonso. It doesn’t take much for Alonso to be thoroughly convinced that his son is head, batting away any words that offer any hope. “No, no, he’s gone” (Shakespeare II. ii 98).

The notion that his son could have survived is a non issue at as far Alonso is concerned. At this point in the play, Alonso has not associated the drowning and loss of his son with Prospero. He believes that this is the result of marrying off his daughter Claribel to an African prince. “O thou mine heir/Of Naples and of Milan, what strange fish/Hath made his meal on thee ” (II. ii 87-89). Losing both his children and heirs to the throne, he feels as though he cannot go on, being pushed to his emotional and mental end. Antonio and Sebastian fall victim to Prospero’s illusions as well.

Ariel enters the scene and uses his music to put the entire group of nobles to sleep, with the exception of Antonio and Sebastian. Wright establishes, “by having Ariel put the rest of the Court Party to sleep with his music, Prospero creates for Antonio and Sebastian the mistaken belief that they are acting in complete secrecy” (Wright 252). This leaves them at a moral dilemma of fulfilling their duty in protecting the king or murdering everyone in order to gain rule over Naples. Antonio and Sebastian are under the impression that what they are discussing to do is going unwatched.

This illusion of temptation coupled with the illusion on Ferdinand’s death validates the intent of Antonio and Sebastian in their minds. Antonio uses this argument himself and uses it to convince Sebastian to follow through with killing Alonso and their friends. Their plans are quickly halted by Ariel, by Prospero’s instruction, to prevent the murders:”My master through his art foresees the danger That you, his friend, are in; and sends me forth, For else his project dies, to keep them living” (Shakespeare II. i 265-267).

The third illusion presented to the group of nobles comes during the banquet in Act three. Prospero has Ariel create a grand banquet to temp King Alonso and his weary men. Upon seeing the banquet appear from thin air, Antonio states that he would believe anything. “I’ll believe both; And what does else want credit, come to me and I’ll be sworn ’tis true” (III. iii 27-29) However, Ariel quickly dashes any hope the nobles had of suppressing their hunger by appearing as a horrifying harpy and makes the banquet vanish. Ariel then reminds Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio of their wrongdoing toward Prospero.

This situation drives the entire group made, hysterically crying out for repentance. A sense of irony is found here, Ariel reveals the truth to Alonso and company while taking the form of a mythical creature, which cannot exist in itself. The shipwreck, death of Ferdinand, and the banquet were all presented to Alonso as events linked together by divine judgment and retribution; unbeknownst to him however, they were delusions. Prospero uses his art of illusions for a just and right conclusion, to make the nobles suffer for what they have done to him.

Nearing the end of the play, Prospero is faced with the notion of staying on the island with his magic and art to pursue his vengeance or to forgive those who wronged him long ago and return back to the real world. He ultimately chooses to forgive Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian and restore his dukedom. Leaving behind the island also means leaving behind his power of illusions, because his magic could not exist in Milan: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Or sent to Naples, let me not, Since I have my dukedom got… (V. Epilogue 1-6).

The reality of the real world and the art of illusions found on the island cannot be melded together; this separation of perspectives is represented physical separation, Milan represents the real world, a mainland area that places values on political aspirations and nobility, and the island represents illusions, disconnected from the mainland, isolated, free reign to be whoever or do whatever you please. What makes things real Is it the mere physical presence of a person or object Is it our perception of these things and ideas

The notion of reality and what it makes up is a vast question with various underlying ideas. If reality is what we as individuals perceive and determine to be real, how do we know that we accept as face is so We have a choice in what we believe to be sensible and factual and what is not. However, this subjectivity is very vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by those who want their own agendas and ideas pushed forward. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero does these exact things with almost omniscient precision.

Through his illusions, Prospero is able to manipulate people in order to have events play out in his favor. He does this without malicious intent,however, he only wants to prove a point and come back home. Once his illusions have served their purpose, he abolishes his use of them and vows to abstain from delving into that art once he returns to Naples. As Wright explains, Prospero acknowledges “the necessity of living on even terms with other human begins” (Wright 267). By leaving behind his deceptiveness, both in a moral and fantasy respect, his illusions give way to reality and allow his return to the natural world.