Magic has always appealed to me. Just the idea of it, the stories of spells and potions with the ability to do a range of things beyond what our mere human abilities allowed.
This play is filled with magic. There’s Prospero, who controls Ariel. From the start of the play I found myself taking an interest in Ariel, because as an extension to my interest with Magic I also have an interest in Magical beings. Ariel, the sprite, is a particularly intriguing one, who takes the form of a Sea Nymph to carry out Prospero’s plans. In addition to taking the form of a Sea Nymph, in Act 3 Scene 3 Ariel enters as a Harpy (a mythological hybrid creature with a bird’s body and a woman’s face). With their wings, Ariel makes the banquet that was set by spirits disappear into thin air.
There are many elements of Magic involved on the island, which is easy to imagine but a bit harder to carry out on stage.
After some research I found that I wasn’t insane, but that The Tempest indeed has some of the most stage directions out of Shakespeare’s plays. These directions give us insight as to how certain tricks were performed on stage, or just simply let us know what the scene looked like so that we can infer further as to what was done.
The simplest of illusions was not an illusion at all, but was when Ariel became invisible to all but Prospero. That just required acting and blocking, blocking presumably so that Ariel could move through and around the characters in a way that normally would be seen as abnormal if the characters could see it. Choreography also would play a role, as I imagine that sprites would have a light, flitting way of movement, almost like a constant dance.
The heavier, more intense illusions come in the form of technology, with Shakespeare having to pull off things like the food disappearing when Ariel closed their wings, or Ariel appearing and disappearing with the thunder later on in that act.
Shakespeare gives us a clue as to how the wings trick was performed in his stage direction, “Enter Ariel, like a harpy, clasps his wings upon the table, and with a quaint device the banquet vanishes” (3.3, 166). After some more research I found that said quaint device could have been a table with a false top, that could turn over with the flick of a switch, either activated by Ariel or a stagehand. Ariel’s wings would disguise the act, so that the table could rotate and then when Ariel moved away, the fake table was now cleared of food.
Later on, Ariel disappears with the sound of thunder, and then the shapes enter again. From a basket disguised as a cloud that Ariel both descended and ascended in to wires attached to Ariel’s wings to Ariel just simply leaving the stage, there are many ways that this could have been staged. The stage direction doesn’t really tell us about the how, just that it happened. “He vanishes in thunder” (3.3, 168). I actually find the second part of the direction more riveting, as “Then, to soft music, enter the shapes again, and dance with mocks and mows, and carrying out the table [they depart]” (3.3, 168). I imagine darkly dressed dancers moving around the actors and the table, making good use of the space until they finally get to their places at said table. The soft music creates a magical, mesmerizing atmosphere that the dancers play with so that it isn’t just the audience watching stagehands remove a prop, but it is something more.
I think I could honestly go on and on about how I imagine each scene to play out, and I’m not even a director. In the end, magic was created on stage by us “mere humans”, and it all happened live in front of an audience. That’s why I love theatre, because it always (to me) feels like a close second to actual magic.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Edited by Stephen Orgel, Oxford University Press Inc., 1987.