While the magic of Prospero, the deposed duke of Milan at the center of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is frequently associated with art or creativity, this reading of the text seems incompatible with a substantial amount of textual evidence. Most notably, if the play is a celebration of Prospero’s artistry, why does the wizard renounce his magic upon obtaining his goals: the happy marriage of his daughter and the reclamation of his dukedom? The answer to this question is hinted at throughout the text (though Prospero himself never directly states it): Prospero’s magic seems to contain a certain addictive, dehumanizing element which Prospero realizes is at least partially responsible for his exile.
The first evidence that Prospero is addicted to magic occurs in Act I, Scene II of the play, when Prospero explains to his daughter Miranda how he lost his dukedom to his brother Antonio. According to Prospero:
And Prospero, the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies…. (I. ii, 72-77)
In short, while Prospero blames his brother for the loss of his dukedom, he essentially admits that he was more concerned with his “secret studies”, presumably magic, than he was in effectively leading Milan. This belies the all-consuming nature of magic: Prospero claims that “my library was dukedom large enough,” (I. I, 109-110) while blaming his brother for the loss of a kingdom which he clearly cared little about. This refusal to accept responsibility for his exile seems like a sort of denial: Prospero admits to being fully consumed by his studies, yet he refuses to admit that they caused him to lose touch with the outside world, his dukedom.
Further evidence for the addictive nature of Prospero’s “art” lies in the characterization of Sycorax, the witch who inhabited the island before Prospero. Prosper describes Sycorax as:
…This damned witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and Sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Algiers,
Thou know’st, was banished. (I. ii 265-268)
To Prospero, Sycorax’s magic is somehow “evil” while his is somehow “good” in nature. However, a comparison of both mages’ actions reveals fundamental similarities between the two characters. Both Prospero and Sycorax have been exiled from their homeland because of their magic. Both proclaim themselves “ruler” of the island by enslaving Ariel, a native spirit and forcing him to do his bidding. While Prospero claims that Sycorax used Ariel to “act her earthy and abhorred commands,” (I ii, 275) Prospero neglects to mention that, in Caliban, he has another less-talented servant whom he basically subjects to slave labor. Additionally, Just as Prospero and Ariel characterize Sycorax’s magic as evil, Caliban characterizes Prospero’s magic as wicked and sinister. Caliban tells Stephano and Trinculo that:
…I am subject to a tyrant,
a sorcerer that, by his cunning hath
Cheated me of the island. (3.2 41-43)
In characterizing Prospero’s magic as inherently “good” in nature the reader mistakes Prospero’s arguably noble intentions for his magic itself. Upon discovering Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano attempting to steal his belongings Prospero curses them, stating:
Go, charge my goblins that they grind their joints
With dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard or cat o’ mountain. (4.1 260-263)
With this spell, Prospero demonstrates the ability to use magic to inflict unbearable pain on others, this is certainly not a hallmark of some sort of “good magic” which is fundamentally benevolent in nature.
Furthermore, Prospero’s conduct throughout the play: a constant reliance on magic as an instrument for resolving conflicts demonstrates how completely reliant on it he has become. Prospero’s magic forces the characters into the ends he envisions for each of them: Miranda and Ferdinand marry, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo’s plans are thwarted, and Alonso restores Prospero’s dukedom. However, as discussed in class, the resolution of these storylines seems somehow unsatisfying: Prospero and Antonio never truly reconcile, and Ferdinand and Miranda never truly endure the trials or setbacks emblematic of true love. In short, Prospero’s reliance on magic as a means to achieve his goals demonstrates an inability to truly understand humanity: he accomplishes his material goals without considering the human elements required to make them lasting (or satisfying to the audience). Thus, the notion of Prospero’s magic as a kind of art seems rather silly: his work seems far more mechanical and goal-oriented than it does poetic or creative.
While Prospero himself never truly reveals his motives for his ultimate renunciation of magic, its addictive nature certainly provides a convincing for his decision to abandon it at the end of the play. In stating his desire to abandon magic, Prospero deliberately makes his motives vague, he states:
…But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music-Which even now I do-
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth…. (V i, 50-55)
Prospero’s description of his magic as “rough” (the footnote suggests that this connotes violence) again contradicts the notion that his magic is some sort of art. Prospero’s use of the word “abjure” in relation to magic is indicative of the formality and magnitude of his decision: this is more evidence of the substantial hold magic has on him. If magic was something he could renounce without a second thought, why would Prospero need to bury his staff “fathoms beneath the earth” and “drown [his] book”? (V i, 57) The finality with which Prospero disposes of his magical artifacts demonstrates both the addictive quality of their magic and the danger they pose if they fall into the wrong hands. This acknowledgement of the power and addictive nature of his art provides reason enough for its renunciation. Why would Prospero abandon his “art” upon returning to the civilized world unless he realized that it was his reliance upon it in the first place that caused his exile from civilization?
Prospero’s renunciation of magic serves as the only satisfying conclusion of any of The Tempest’s plotlines. By abandoning magic and implicitly admitting that it was he who was partially responsibly for his own exile from Milan, Prospero demonstrates that he has finally overcome his obsession with magic: the character flaw so clearly demonstrated in his speech to Miranda in the play’s first act. Furthermore, the satisfying nature of this conclusion lies precisely in the fact that it is catalyzed by a fundamental change in Prospero’s character, not by the use of magic as a deus ex machina.
In short, Prospero’s magic is not an art, Prospero’s actions throughout the play clearly intimate an addictive, dangerous element inherent in magic which, by the play’s conclusion, Prospero himself finally is able to overcome. While whether or not magic’s addictive quality is a property of magic itself or a result of the feelings of power which it instills in its practitioner is unclear, the same can be said of any addictive substance. What is clear, however, is that Prospero’s voluntary renunciation of magic, the only voluntary change which any of the play’s characters undergo is the only satisfying end for any character clearly suffering an addiction.