In The Tempest, magic is a dazzling art form that infuses the play with a sense of wonder and a whole lot of spectacle. (Think "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in Disney's Fantasia, but better.) This lends itself to a concept developed throughout The Tempest—magic is a craft not unlike that of the playwright. Although Prospero uses magic to control the natural and the supernatural worlds, the play also suggests his art is distinct from the kind of black magic practiced by the witch Sycorax.
Although Prospero uses magic to regain his place in Italy, magic is also the thing that got him into trouble in the first place—if Prospero hadn't isolated himself with his books, he never would have lost his dukedom.
Although the play goes out of its way to differentiate Prospero's studied art from Sycorax's black magic, at times, the play makes us wonder if Prospero and Sycorax don't share more in common.
"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own" (Epilogue). So says the newly retired magician as he bids adieu to the audience. Since The Tempest is likely the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself, the epilogue has long been cited as Shakespeare's own fond farewell to the stage—sniffle.
Regardless of whether or not we read Prospero the magician as a stand-in for Shakespeare the playwright, the similarities between Prospero's "art" and the "magic" of the theater are undeniable. Like Hamlet, The Tempest not only features a "play within the play" (Prospero's dazzling wedding masque) and blatant shout-outs to the theater, but it also features a protagonist who manipulates the play's action like a skillful director.
When Prospero uses his magic to produce a masque, or "some vanity of [his] art," the play makes it clear that the old magician is a lot like a master playwright.
It doesn't make any sense to associate a grumpy, revenge-thirsty magician like Prospero with a playwright like Will Shakespeare.
Although the play takes place entirely on an island, The Tempest dramatizes the divide between the courtly worlds and the wilderness. As the play opens, Prospero, a former Italian duke now living in exile, has already journeyed from the court to the remote island and is now trying to return. When Prospero causes his royal enemies to be shipwrecked on his isle, we learn that loyalty to the King is no longer sacred, and court members must abandon their traditions and expectations. The Tempest's foray into a kind of "pastoral" world also aligns this play with As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
While hierarchy still matters in the pastoral setting, the rules of the court lose authority once court members find themselves in the wilderness.
The rules of the court are abandoned by the shipwreck survivors because courtly rules have no place anywhere outside the court.
The Tempest is obsessed with the concept of imprisonment—both literal and figurative. Prospero and Miranda are forced to live in exile on a remote island, where Prospero enslaves the island's only native inhabitant (Caliban) and forces Ariel to do all of his bidding. The theme continues into the epilogue where Shakespeare suggests that, during the performance of a play, actors and playwrights are held captive by powerful audiences who may or may not approve of the artists' work.
Because Prospero forces Ariel to serve him, he is no better than the witch Sycorax, who imprisoned Ariel in a pine tree before Prospero came along and "rescued" the sprite.
Prospero is not free because he is subject to his own desire for justice; he is a slave to the past wrongs done to him.
Is man more "noble" in a natural state than in a state of civilization? The Tempest returns to this question over and over again—in its portrayal of the ambiguous "monster" Caliban and in Gonzalo's utopian speech about the ideal state of the island. Throughout the play (which paraphrases a key passage from Montaigne's famous essay "Of Cannibals"), Shakespeare also asks whether man can be at one with nature, or whether (perhaps by virtue of the biblical Fall in Eden) he is destined to make whatever he touches unnatural.
Gonzalo's utopian speech in Act 1, Scene 1 suggests that man is more noble living in a natural state.
Despite Gonzalo's utopian speech in Act 1, Scene 1, the play suggests that man is not more noble living in a natural state—Caliban, after all, is in no way a "noble savage."
Loyalty and betrayal are linked to The Tempest's larger themes of servitude and freedom; either feeling is motivated by how each individual perceives his position relative to others. Antonio's betrayal of his brother and theft of the dukedom of Milan are the source of conflict in the play, but the action contemporary to the play follows a series of attempted betrayals.
Alonso and Prospero would both be murdered by traitors, but this is thwarted by the actions of loyal characters like Ariel and Gonzalo. Loyalty and treachery also serve as the two main personality traits of the players. You can separate the loyal out, and divide the bad into those who were misguided and now repentant... and those who are just plain evil.
Loyalty is a farce in the play; everyone follows the courtly rule of swearing loyalty, but gives up on the notion as soon as it is no longer convenient.
Antonio's betrayal of Prospero reminds us that even family members cannot be counted on to be loyal.
"The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (5.1.27-28). This is Prospero's startling revelation after years of living in exile and plotting his return to Italy. The Tempest's emphasis on mercy and forgiveness are hallmarks of Shakespeare's "romances," four plays (The Tempest, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline) written late in the playwright's career.
Prospero's capacity to forgive those who have betrayed him, Miranda's empathy, Ariel's mercy, and Gonzalo's thoughtfulness dramatize the triumph of the human spirit. Awww. Talk about the warm fuzzies.
Mercy does come naturally to man in the state of nature. Miranda, full of empathy and sympathy, is evidence of this.
Prospero and the others in the play do not come to mercy so easily because they have been ruined by civilization.
The divine is a parallel to Prospero's magic in The Tempest. Like nature, the divine is often given credit for Prospero's work, yet it has a special meaning for Prospero in particular. He is the only one that grasps the limitation of his power, and he knows that it stops shy of making him a god. Womp womp.
To celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand's union, Prospero brings spirits in the shape of gods before them, hoping to impress the young lovers. Prospero admits, perhaps with some sadness, that these are not the real deal. Prospero, as everyone else, is subject to the divine. His magic is only a tinkering tool in the face of the larger project designed for him by powers higher than his own.
Prospero's art is not at odds with the gods because he still answers to and appeals to them, not to himself.
Prospero has no god, otherwise he would not dare meddle in works of both nature and the divine.
Perspective plays a large role in The Tempest. The island is dominated by magic, and it clouds the ability of all the new arrivals to tell the difference between reality and the magical illusions they see. Reality is also tempered by the outlook of the individuals—Gonzalo is relentlessly positive, and so sees the island as beautiful.
Ariel revels in the island's naturalness, while Sebastian and Antonio see it as an inhospitable place because of their negative outlooks. Reality is clouded by magic, and this duality is only furthered by the influence of personal perspective over each individual's perceptions.
People construct their own versions of reality depending on their perspective. The influence of magic in this play is irrelevant, because the characters' divergent interpretations of reality are due to their different experiences and perspectives.
Antonio and Sebastian are unrealistic characters because they have absolutely no remorse or fear of accountability.