At the beginning of The Tempest, Miranda beseeches her father, Prospero the magician, to calm the stormy seas around their enchanted island: “If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (Act I, Scene 2). Miranda’s plea for the lives of those on a tempest-tossed ship (listen below) establishes the gentleness of her character; but even more than this, her words evoke greater questions about the ability of art itself to create, to unsettle, to inspire. If by art such an event has taken place, its force must be great indeed.
Scholars consider The Tempest to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays, with Prospero sharing with his creator kindred gifts of sorcery and conjuring. For it is through Shakespeare’s art that so many phenomena have been given life – words and images so central to our culture that they need no introduction. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be,” the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth, and a mystical forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream… All of these worlds, and many more besides, emerging from one artist.
Today, we live in a time of instant gratification and immediate accessibility, a virtual age in which many of the things we desire can be attained uncannily easily. With so many objects and networks at our fingertips, it can sometimes feel that we ourselves are conjurers! Yet what has endured over hundreds of years, with infinitely more to come, is a far greater magic than that offered by technology: the power of art.