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Shakespeare’s the Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth

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The Role of Magic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth

Like many other themes, magic and supernatural elements play a large role in many of Shakespeare’s works. The use of magic interests the audience, plays to the imagination, and adds dramatic intrigue to the story, even when the rest of the plot is comprised of believable events. These themes are most prominent in The Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth. In each of these plays, magic and supernatural occurrences not only play a large role in the plot, but also help to communicate various messages and literary value. Shakespeare utilizes magic and supernatural happenings in both positive and negative lights, depending on the purpose it serves in each of the mentioned plays. It is seen as a decision maker, nature, a prophet, a symbol of fate, and an equalizer. Regardless of its specific role in each play and its positive or negative depiction, it serves to move the plot forward through a force which acts beyond the capabilities and power of man, even man himself did conjure it.

In The Tempest, we see an example of supernatural power conjured or exercised by man. Prospero, the wielder of this magic, uses magic as a means to set right that which was, in his opinion, wrong in his life and in the universe. In this play, we see magic used as an equalizer. Prospero uses his learned sorcery to reverse all of the supposedly false or unlawful happenings in his life, apparently feeling that these things were not meant to be. Whether his intention was to get revenge or to simply right what was wrong, magic is the great force which determines events in the play.

For the most part, in The Tempest, magic is portrayed neither as good or as evil, but as neutral – a force which can be manipulated by its user for good or for evil, however is decided. The audience is left to decide as to the benevolent or evil nature of Prospero’s manipulations in the end of the play. He muses,

“Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples…” (Act 5 Epilogue, 1-5).

In this passage, Prospero admits his helplessness after breaking his wand. Without the power of magic, he is no more persuasive than any other human being. Prospero makes no comment on his use of magic, or on its morality, which is surprising, as that is typically a popular question when magic is involved. Prospero comments on the neutrality and the subjectivity of supernatural powers by refraining from making a statement about the nature of magic. He also comments on the great power of magic, asserting that this is all magic has been in the play – power, and the exercise of power. Prospero, having learned and practiced magical arts, is a powerful man in the play, nearly god-like. After breaking his wand (perhaps an acknowledgment that no one should have that sort of power), Prospero is powerless and “weak,” like any other man. He asks the audience for forgiveness for his practice and manipulation of supernatural forces to serve his own purposes, whether good or evil. With the equalized state of affairs after Prospero’s reckonings, the audience is left to determine the nature of magic for themselves. Regardless of their opinion and interpretation, the audience cannot deny the equalizing and plot-moving power of magic and supernatural abilities in The Tempest.

In the play Macbeth, magic and supernatural ability takes on a much more sinister approach. The play even opens with the three witches discussing evil deeds. Quickly, after hearing their thoughts and prophecies, Macbeth quickly and instantaneously becomes drunk on the knowledge and power that supernatural ability affords him. A man who seems to have previously had an unblemished record quickly becomes obsessed with the dark arts. In fact, Macbeth becomes so completely power hungry that it seems as if he would do anything or say anything for even the smallest amount of control above that of other men. However, the themes of fate in Macbeth play with the main character’s conception of fate, which is embodied by the supernatural powers and existence of the three witches. These three witches determine not necessarily what is true, but what Macbeth considers to be fate. He takes their magic and their manipulative abilities to be destiny, but feels that he must act proactively in order for the prophecies to come true. He asks many questions of the witches – not simply accepting their statements, but demanding as many details as possible so that he can secure his “fate.”

"I conjure you, by that which you profess, / Howe'er you come to know it, answer me"
(4.1.66-67).

In this statement, we see Macbeth’s eagerness over supernatural abilities. He demands that the witches reveal their secrets to him, so that he can see for himself how is future will supposedly unfold. The witches and their magic in this passage and in this play function as a great temptation and jealousy of Macbeth. He regards the mystery of magic and the witches’ unnatural knowledge to be unchangeable, irreversible, and infinitely and forever true. He trusts them completely, but his hunger for power and the temptation of his future wealth and stature leads him to act out of greed. Ultimately, Macbeth displays the power of magic as interpreted into fate, and portrayed in an unsavory light.

A third Shakespearean play, Hamlet, shows supernatural powers and ability in a very different light. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him in a terrifying apparition. Of the three plays, Hamlet is the only one in which supernatural images and magic are a subject of discomfort amongst the characters. All of them are terrified by apparitions in the story, and Hamlet is driven to insanity by the appearance of his deceased father, and his father’s request of him. Supernatural appearances do not seem to be given any emotion or orientation in this play, other than that of fear. During the play, we see how havoc is wreaked by the appearance of ghosts. Had his father not appeared to him, Hamlet would not have spent his life in torture, and no further characters would have had to die.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father is a bringer not only of revenge, but of emotional tirades from several characters. In this play, we see that magic and the supernatural represent revenge and darkness. The power of Hamlet’s father’s ghost creates darkness and even insanity and chaos in all characters which it touches. There is no peace or normality for those who have been affected by this ghost, or those who have been affected by Hamlet, who is the only one to have communicated with said ghost. Hamlet makes clear the detrimental effect that the ghost has upon his own sanity and peace. He says,

“Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!” (1.5.98-104)

In this passage, we see Hamlet’s immediate resolve to abandon all happiness, all pastimes, and all previous joy of life in order to fulfill the revenge contracted by his father’s ghost. Though Prince Hamlet is practical in nature, he assumes truth of statements made against his uncle because they are coming from a ghost. The existence of the ghost, and the fact that only Hamlet can see it and hear it, determines the events of the tragedy. As events unfold throughout the play, we see that the ghost of Hamlet’s father, his musings, and Prince Hamlet’s interpretations of those statements are behind every act, producing darkness, mental torture, and dismay.

Magic and supernatural powers, whenever present in Shakespeare’s works, are of great importance. They consistently determine the events of the drama, making those events to appear to be fate, rather than coincidence. In some cases, such as The Tempest, man is the wielder of these powers. In this case, the nature of magic exists in the play as a symbol of equality. Prospero wields his magic, while resisting comment on morality of this usage, in order to set right things in his life that were wrong. In Macbeth, magic is a symbol of power and fate, which is irresistible to Macbeth and his wife. The power of information cannot be ignored by Macbeth, and he refuses to allow events to happen naturally. The wickedly depicted supernatural powers of the witches lead to and aggravate Macbeth’s cutthroat attitude. The ghost of Hamlet’s father shows the darkness and most negative depiction of supernatural occurrences. The magic works as an instigator of darkness and instability and chaos, and infects everyone who comes into contact with Hamlet. Ultimately, all instances of magic and supernatural powers in these plays represent some sort of reckoning with forces of nature – death, inheritance, power, love, etc. Shakespeare utilizes magic to represent control over these aspects of life, and to therefore determine the occurrences in the play in an audience-pleasing manner which cannot be confused with coincidence or accident. He uses magic and the supernatural to examine moral juxtapositions, ask difficult questions, and reveal important truths about human nature and humanity.

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