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"The Tempest" and the Supernatural

Sylvia Morris highlights the supernatural in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and draws up comparisons between a passage in the play and one in Ovid's "Metamorphoses".

Sylvia Morris

For the main elements of the story of The Tempest, Shakespeare went back to tales that he would have heard or read as a child. Without TV or any other organised entertainment, stories of the supernatural were universally known and shared. Reginald Scot, in his Discovery of Witchcraft, complained that “in our childhood, our mothers maids have so … frayed us with spirits, witches, elves, hags, fairies, conjurers and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our shadows”.

Ye Elves Tempest
Ovid’s text, the inspiration for Prospero’s speech in The Tempest

When it came to stories of the supernatural based on classical mythology, Shakespeare went back to a book he would have studied at school: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He knew the book both in the original Latin, and in an English translation. The passage in which he refers most directly to Ovid is Prospero’s renunciation of magic in The Tempest.

Here is the English translation of the Ovid:

"…ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe. ...
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove. I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee O lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.
The flaming breath of firie Bulles ye quenched for my sake
And caused their unwieldie neckes the bended yoke to take.
Among the Earthbred brothers you a mortall war did set..."

(Book 7 Line 265 – 280)

And here is Shakespeare’s version:

"Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d 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 pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book."

Next week each of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s houses is hosting events based on Halloween from traditions about plague to the telling of spooky tales. Information is on our website at Please come along!

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