Natural Supernaturalism in The Tempest and the Duality of Mankind
Of all Shakespeare's plays that deal with magic, The Tempest is the most forgiving. The magic and supernatural aspects of The Tempest are far different than the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the weird sisters of Macbeth. The magic of The Tempest is cleaner, less fanciful and not malicious. This magic is different; it's natural. Of the magic in The Tempest, every single bit follows the laws of nature. Prospero's white magic is confined by the nature of the island, as well as the nature of it's supernatural inhabitants. Through the use of his magic against the representations of the two sides of humanity, Prospero learns that magic is above humans, and that is where it should stay. He gives up his magic to restore order; the order of the duality that is mankind, working in tandem with two distinct parts. This duality is picked up by Philip Osment in his contemporary adaptation of The Tempest, This Island's Mine. The Tempest is not about dark magic, but about natural supernaturalism, explored through magic.
Most critics agree that Shakespeare was risking a lot with The Tempest: James I detested any and all forms of magic and witchcraft. Severe laws were put in place to punish anyone suspected of aligning themselves with the so called art. "Hatred of witchcraft became an obsession with James and those who mentioned magic in their writing treated it as unmitigated evil. The Tempest was the exception, for in it we see that there can be good as well as bad magic" (Evans, 115). John S. Mebane explains magic at the time a little differently than Evans. Mebane claims that magic was a symbol in Renaissance thought and literature of human nature. He goes on to say that humankind was discovering their own power over the social and natural environment in the period and magic was the most powerful manifestation of that practice. "Those who explored "natural magic" often asserted that the quest for truth should not be limited by traditional religious, political or intellectual authorities" (Mebane, 3). But this is not quite the case in The Tempest. While the magical practices are free from religious, political and intellectual authorities, they are not free from religious, political and intellectual motives and desires, but this idea will be discussed later.
While we will never be certain of Shakespeare's intention with magic in The Tempest, Mebane insists that magic had an allure of the unknown and the forbidden; its inclusion in theatre gave the opportunity for great spectacle (Mebane, 6). Shakespeare was certainly playing to the universal European belief in witchcraft, demons and spirits (etc) during the Renaissance (Johnson, 7). Shakespeare seems to be playing more into magic as a vehicle to explore the 17th century idea that the earth and elements contained spirits, whether good or bad, and who were, for reasons unknown, participating in the everyday lives of mankind...