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Throughout his thirty-six works which frequent stages around the world, Shakespeare was able to explore not only the human psyche and characteristics of humanity, but he also investigated the natural and unnatural world. In one of his more original plot lines, The Tempest, Shakespeare experimented with many themes, such as power, love, revenge, and pride. Shakespeare also explored the relationship between reality and illusion. Throughout the piece, Shakespeare portrays that illusion may be used to veil reality, but in the end, reality always makes itself apparent through the characters’ actions.
The veil of illusion and unnaturalness can be centered around the character, Prospero. Prospero’s whole life has been dedicated to the achievement of magical abilities. In the first act, Prospero tells his daughter, Miranda:
I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of my mind with that which, but by being so retired, O’erprized all popular rate, in my false brother awaked an evil nature. And my trust, like a good parent, did beget of him a falsehood in its contrary as great as my trust was, which had indeed no limit, a confidence sans bound. He being thus lorded, not only with what my revenue yielded but what my power might else exact, like one who having into truth, by telling of it, made such a sinner of his memory to credit his own lie’he did believe he was indeed the duke, out o’ th’ substitution and executing th’ outward face of royalty, with all prerogative. Hence his ambition growing. (1.2.89-105)
Prospero reveals to his daughter that while he was caught up with perfecting his mind and his ability to control the unnatural world, he gave his brother, Antonio, the power to run the state in his absence. Antonio then betrayed him and took Prospero’s title, and had him and Miranda marooned on an island. This is just one of the many clues given to the audience in the second scene that there is something unnatural about Prospero and his island. Later in the scene, Prospero reminds the spirit, Ariel, that, ‘It was mine art, when I arrived and heard thee, that made gape the pine and let thee out,’ (1.2.345-347).
As the story progresses, Prospero has the spirit, Ariel, conjure a large illusion of a storm, and wreck the crew of a nearby ship, which included his treacherous brother, on the island. Prospero has much control of the island, and through his various spirits, he controls much of the action in the play. In this way, Shakespeare creates a world of illusion. The characters go into most situations with an altered sense of reality. One example of this is when Prospero has his daughter meet the young prince, Ferdinand. Prospero leads the prince to believe that he is the only survivor of the wreck, and that his meeting Miranda is completely by chance, and he takes her to be a goddess and unnatural being. In reality, Prospero wishes Ferdinand to marry his daughter, so he leads them to each other. Another example is when the slave, Caliban meets Alonso, Sephano, and Trinculo. Although in reality, they are there, he believes them to be spirits of Prospero come to torture him:
His spirits hear me and yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch, fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire, nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark out of my way, unless he bid ’em. But for every trifle are they set upon me, sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me, and after bite me, then like hedgehogs which lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness. Lo, now, lo! Here comes a spirit of his, and to torment me for bringing wood in slowly. I’ll fall flat. Perchance he will not mind me. (2.2.1-17)
After Caliban is given wine by Stephano, he believes them to be gods more powerful than Prospero, and he convinces them to overthrow and kill Prospero, and to rule the island in his stead. But Prospero uses illusion to cloak himself, and travels around the island invisibly. He unavoidably discovers the treacherous plan, and puts an end to it.
The story ends with Prospero unveiling the reality of the island. His illusions are ready to be exposed. In the last act, Prospero claims, ‘Now does my project gather to a head. My charms crack not, my spirits obey, and time goes upright with his carriage,’ (5.1.1-3). He confronts his brother, Antonio, saying, ‘Flesh and blood, you brother mine, that entertained ambition, expelled remorse and nature, whom, with Sebastian, whose inward pinches therefore are most strong, would here have killed your king’I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art,’ (5.1.78-83). Prospero later admits that the island was enchanted, ‘You do yet taste some subtleties o’ th’ isle, that will not let you believe things certain,’ (5.1.124-126). Prospero then reveals that Ferdinand is not dead, and a veil rises, revealing him and Miranda, yet the King is slow to believe, ‘if this prove a vision of the Island, one dear son shall I twice loss,’ (5.1.179-181). The last thing Prospero reveals is that the ship is not, in fact, wrecked on the shore, but merely harbored on the other side of the island:
The best news is that we have safely found our king and company. The next, our ship’ which, but three glasses since, we gave out split’ is tight and yare and bravely rigged as when we first put out to sea! (5.1.229-233)
The group then prepare to leave the island, and Prospero vows to leave his magic on the island, promising clear reality for the future.
While Shakespeare portrays that illusion may be used to veil reality, in the end, reality always makes itself apparent through the characters’ actions. The relationship between reality and illusion is explored throughout this work, as well as a few of his other works. Shakespeare’s search to understand the world and the human being has led to a chapter of literature educational for all audiences. The world is lucky to still be frequented by his works, especially The Tempest.
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