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Magic Across Time: The Tempest versus “Poisoned Story”

Updated on March 17, 2015

The idea of supernatural events is not a new one. It extends back to some of the earliest civilizations, and this idea of magic has not left humanity since. It shows up in both Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, through the character Prospero, and in Rosario Ferre’s short story, “The Poisoned Story,” through the character Rosaura. Certainly, these texts are different in many ways. Shakespeare’s is a play whereas Ferre’s is a short story; Shakespeare’s was written seventeenth century whereas Ferre’s was written in the Postmodern era; Shakespeare lived in England whereas Ferre lived in Puerto Rico—and the differences go on. However, despite all these differences, the stories have striking similarities to one another, especially in regards to magic. In both these stories, characters face problems after getting lost in their books, use their books to assert power, achieve the things they want through their books, and both characters give up their books at some point. Ultimately, it is through these similarities that both authors make their assertion that books have inherent power in the world.

In both The Tempest and “The Poisoned Story,” Prospero and Rosaura, respectively, get “lost.” Both characters are figuratively “lost” in their texts, and Prospero also becomes literally lost at sea. Early on, Prospero tells Miranda about how he lost his Dukedom, saying, “[A]nd to him (my brother) put/ The manage of my state, as at that time/ Through all the seigniories it was the first,/ And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed/ In dignity, and for the liberal arts/ Without a parallel; those being all my study,/ The government I cast upon my brother/ And to my state grew stranger” (1.2.69-76). Prospero says he began taking up so much time with his “study” that he slowly conceded control of the government to his brother. Once effectively out of power, Prospero’s brother “A treacherous army levied” (1.2.128) to drive out Prospero. From there, Prospero fled on a ship, “[N]ot rigged,/ Nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats/ Instinctively have quit it” (1.2.146-148), hence how Prospero becomes literally lost, as he and his daughter Miranda become marooned on an island inhabited only by a character named Caliban.

As far as the figurative angle of being lost goes, Rosaura goes through a similar experience. Ferre writes, “[A]s soon as he (Rosaura’s father) left to supervise the workers in the canefields, [Rosaura] would hide once more behind the crimson vines and before long she’d be deep in her storybook world” (Ferre, 7). This leads to conflict between Rosaura and her stepmother, Rosa, as later Rosa says that Rosaura “[L]ives with her head in the clouds” (Ferre, 13). In Prospero’s case, it is clear that he spends too much time with his books and the negative consequences are clear. For Rosaura, it is clear that at least from Rosa’s perspective, Rosaura spends too much time with her books, and the negative consequences on their relationship to one another is clear. In both cases, at least some of the characters problems arise from becoming lost in their books.

The Tempest

Both Prospero and Rosaura derive their power from their magic books. Both characters seem to lack agency without their magic, as Prospero is usurped, and Rosaura idly stands by while Rosa makes all the decisions regarding the family, the house, and the finances. However, both gain tremendous power with the aid of their magic. Prospero describes his power quite vividly, saying, “I have bedimmed/ The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,/ And twixt the green sea and the azured vault/ Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder/ Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak/ With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory/ Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up/ The pine and cedar; graves at my command/ Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth/ By my so potent art” (5.1.41-50) This is Prospero giving a general summary of how much power he has through his magic. Later, Prospero shows his power through specific threats, such as one to Caliban where he states, “For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,/ Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins/ Shall forth at vast of night that they may work/ All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched/ As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging/ Than bees that made ’em” (1.2.328-332). Here, Prospero reveals the power of his magic, and how he uses that power to exert control.

For Rosaura, she does not consciously realize her power the way Prospero does, but Ferre reveals her power nonetheless, saying, “[Rosaura] dreamt that one of the tales in her book had been cursed with a mysterious power that would instantly destroy its first reader” (Ferre, 17). Here, the reader sees that Rosaura has the power to kill, and if there was any question of whether this dream came to fruition, the story ends with the line, “[A]nd how the story ended, Rosa never knew” (18), the implication clearly being that Rosa died. Rosaura’s power may not be as grand as Prospero’s, but that point is irrelevant, because she, like Prospero, has enough power to achieve what she wants. Both have different goals, and therefore, both have different power proportional to those goals. The point is, Rosaura, like Prospero, uses the power obtained through the magic books to exert control.

Related to this notion of power is that both Prospero and Rosaura do, in fact, get what they want through their magical power. Prospero is manipulative throughout the play, and uses his magic to control characters and events, ultimately resulting in the return of his Dukedom. Or, as Gonzalo summarizes, “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue/ Should become kings of Naples? O, rejoice/ Beyond a common joy, and set it down/ With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage/ Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,/ And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife/ Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom/ In a poor isle” (5.1.205-211). Prospero uses his power to control Caliban and Ariel, and, especially through Ariel, controls events, causing characters to hear voices or see things until, in the end, Ferdinand marries Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and Prospero is restored to power.

For Rosaura, she is less explicit in her desire to kill Rosa, but Ferre does at least reveal that she did not think fondly of her, as she writes, “Rosa was a practical woman, for whom the family’s modest luxuries were unforgivable self-indulgences. Rosaura disliked her because of this” (Ferre, 9). This, combined with her dream about the book killing someone, implies that she at least had a latent desire to poison Rosa. Plus, if Rosaura did write the book, as implied by the “[G]uava-colored ink” (Ferre, 17), then it would also imply intent to kill, since Rosaura had the dream which told her the book would be deadly. Of course, one could argue that Rosaura would not necessarily believe her dream had any validity, but that seems unlikely, since after her dream she woke up “[I]n a cold sweat” (Ferre, 17). The cold sweat implies she was concerned about it, and not that she was dismissive. Therefore, it seems Rosaura uses her magic to get what she wants, just as Prospero does.

Question

Do books have inherent power, or are authors inherently biased on this issue?

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Finally, both characters give up their books at some point in the story. Although at different points and for different reasons, this point of comparison still seems significant. For Prospero, he gives up his books at the end of the story, after he has achieved everything he wants. Prospero says, “I’ll break my staff,/ Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And deeper than did ever plummet sound/ I’ll drown my book” (5.1.54-57). It seems that Prospero has learned his lesson from the beginning, and realized that it was the books in the first place that caused him to lose his Dukedom. Therefore, now that he has his Dukedom restored, he gives up the books. It is a trade-off for him: he will give up his magical power for political power. The other reason Prospero may be giving up the book, and this reason is not necessarily mutually exclusive from the first, is that Prospero has had a change of heart, so to speak. Ariel reports to Prospero at one point, that “Your charm so strongly works [Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian and Gonzalo]/ That if you now beheld them your affections/ Would become tender,” to which Prospero eventually replies, “And mine shall” (5.1.17-20). This implies that Prospero realizes his magic hurts people, and this could perhaps explain why he gives up his books by the end.

Rosaura gives her books up under admittedly different circumstances. There is no indication that Rosaura even realizes the power her poisoned story will eventually have, but after Don Lorenzo sells his land, Rosaura changes, and, “For the first time in her life she lost interest in her storybooks, and when her father made her his usual birthday gift a few months later, she left it half read and forgotten on the parlor table” (Ferre, 12). So whereas Prospero gives up his books because he realizes their power, Rosaura gives hers up because she does not realize their power. However, it is this “half read and forgotten” birthday gift which will eventually become the poisoned story that will kill Rosa. In both stories, the author’s seem to be striking a balance between how much time should be devoted to books, and imply that those who become lost in their books must, at least, cut back on their consumption.

Magic is an idea which has been alluring to writers for centuries. In The Tempest and The Poisoned Story, Prospero and Rosaura both acquire great power from magic and use it to achieve what they want. Noteworthy as well, is that both characters derive their magical power from books—possible statements from Shakespeare and Ferre about the power of books, writing, and storytelling. And if these stories are authors arguing for the power of books, then it makes sense that both these characters are successful in their use of magic. In some stories, the supernatural harms those who try to harness it[1], but in these stories, by the end, the supernatural powers are nothing but beneficial to the characters using them. The other characters within the story may be harmed, but this appears only to result from the notion that stories having a winner require having at least one loser. In these cases, it seems the authors are saying that those who embrace the power of books will ultimately win.


[1] “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacobs, for example

Works Cited

Ferré, Rosario. "The Poisoned Story." Trans. Diana Velez. The Youngest Doll. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1991. 7-18. Print.

Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan. The Tempest. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

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