Music and magic in The Tempest
Ariel’s alchemical songs
in Shakespeare and the supernatural
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This chapter explores the connection between music and alchemy in The Tempest by developing an alchemical interpretation of Ariel’s songs. Ariel–Mercurius is the alchemist Prospero’s attendant spirit, without whom the great work cannot take place. His role as chemical spirit recalls Ficino’s spiritus, whose nature is similar to that of musical sound: it is thanks to his Orphic music that most of the characters on the island are led on the path to spiritual purification. Four of Ariel’s five songs contain alchemical allusions: ‘Come unto these yellow sands’, ‘Full fathom five’, ‘Earth’s increase and foison plenty’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’. The settings of ‘Full fathom five’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’, attributed to Robert Johnson, are shown to enhance the chemical meaning of the lyrics. Even though musical magic is occasionally ironised, Ariel’s songs all partake of the idealising current of the play: they adumbrate the chemical wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda, Alonso’s regeneration and Ariel’s well-deserved freedom. They therefore strengthen the case for The Tempest as an alchemical palimpsest.

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