The Magic of Shakespeare: The Role of the Supernatural in Shakespeare's The Tempest

Throughout human history, the mystery of the seemingly unexplainable phenomena that make up our natural world have been ascribed to magical or supernatural powers. Alongside scientific progress, the beautiful complexity of our planet and beyond leaves plenty of room for the imagination. Forces beyond the measure of man that seem to influence our daily lives have been both revered and condemned at different times, in different cultures. Regardless of religious convictions however, human fascination with illusion and superstition is universally a source of great entertainment. From the witches of Macbeth to Midsummer’s fairies, elements of magic are woven throughout Shakespeare’s canon. Shakespeare Dallas’ enchanting production of The Tempest directed by Rene Moreno, explores the motivations of the powerful sorcerer Prospero.

 

The illusory magic conjured by theater technicians and actors alike has evolved with the development of new technologies. The titular storm is key to the progression of the plot and when The Tempest was first performed in the fall of 1611, Shakespeare had at his disposal, “fireworks and thunder-sheets…if that was not enough, a cannon-ball could be rolled down a wooden trough to produce more thunder or a loose length of canvas be turned on a wheel to simulate the sound of high winds”.  Last year Chicago Shakespeare Theater performed a version of The Tempest co-directed by the magician Teller (of Penn & Teller), that included levitation, disappearances and classic illusions reminiscent of the entertainment era of vaudeville and carnivals.

I spoke with Associate Director Jessica Helton to get a better idea about the motivations and influences behind our fall show.

MP: As I have researched this topic I came across an interesting debate on whether Prospero’s magic is illusory or real. Which side do you take and how is this represented in the show?

JH: Prospero’s magic is very real in this production. It comes from his staff, his book, and his robe, and it’s a very ancient magic that was alive and well long before Prospero came to the island. He’s studied it very thoroughly and can use just his hands for simpler charms or spells, but you’ll notice that when he deals with Caliban, he grabs his staff as a cautionary measure to bring out the big guns if he needs to. He also uses the staff to conjure the storm that wrecks the ship in the first place.

MP: How do you see the magical elements of this production contributing to the overall story? To the audience’s experience?

JH:The magic is actually pretty simple in this production when you get right down to it. We don’t try to convince you that Trinculo and Stephano are chased offstage by real dogs. The harpy that Ariel turns into has wings that are manipulated by actors who are clearly visible. Spells are cast by a hand movement and a sound cue. There’s a lot of power in this kind of simplicity. There’s something very compelling and respectful in asking the audience to use their imaginations with us. I still get chills every time at the very end of the play when Prospero finishes his epilogue and walks offstage, and I’ve seen this play a lot. It’s a truly gorgeous production.

Like most magic shows, both contemporary and historical, music and dance play a key part in suspending the audience’s disbelief. The Tempest is no exception, with more songs than any other play by Shakespeare. This could be due to the influence of the new art form of Opera arising in Italy in 1607. But, the use of music and dance also brings to mind traditional ritualistic practices of tribal groups in the new world, which were new and unusual discoveries during Shakespeare’s life.

MP: Could you talk about the vision for these elements and your process of working with the composer and choreographers?

JH: It was really important to keep the music in this production – a lot of times the songs just get cut because they can be difficult to deal with. Ian Ferguson is a wonderful composer who wrote all of the music that you’ll hear the actors singing to in the show. Our movement designers and choreographer were heavily influenced by the era in which the play is set – several times, the actors studied Elizabethan paintings to get a sense of how these people would have held themselves.

MP: Apart from the text, what were some of the directorial influences and inspirations in this production of The Tempest?

JH: Rene Moreno really wanted to explore the location of where this island would be – somewhere between Italy and Northern Africa since the court was on their way back to Italy from the King’s daughter’s wedding in Tunis – so he wanted to tap into the culture of the Mediterranean for the design elements of the show. You’ll notice that the set suggests more of a desert island than a lush tropical island. The set also centers around a Globe Theatre-like structure, which is lovely. 

What could be more magical than experiencing this beautiful interpretation of words penned 405 years after it’s initial production? The Tempest is sure to bewitch your imagination and captivate your heart. We hope that you will join us for this enchanting production before it disappears!

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Baird Family Wealth Group is a multi-family office committed to providing customized and comprehensive wealth management services to business owners or executives with at least $25 million in investable assets. They have supported Shakespeare Dallas for many years and their contribution sponsors our twice-annual Opening Night Member Reception for the Shakespeare in the Park Summer and Fall Seasons.  Baird was ranked No. 1 overall for research quality and importance among small-/mid-cap research advisory firms  in a 2015 survey by Greenwich Associates, a leading investment industry consultant. For more information visit their website!

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