In what ways are the four natural elements used in The Tempest?

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janihash24 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the very first scene of The Tempest, we see the storm Prospero has raised by his art, which is magic, and in it, air (wind), water (the sea), and fire (lightning) are all controlled by him, in this case through his spirit servant, Ariel:

I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak / Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, / I flamed amazement: sometime I'ld divide / And burn in many places; on the topmast / The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly / Then meet and join. Jove's lightnings, the precursors/O' the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary / And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks / Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune / Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble / Yea, his dread trident shake.

The island on which Prospero and his daughter dwell, representing earth, forms the fourth element. He speaks to Miranda of the elements as he describes their perilous ocean journey to their safe haven:

To cry to the sea that roar'd to us, to sigh / To the winds whose pity, sighing back again / Did us but loving wrong.

The sprite Ariel, whose very name evokes air, command the elements throughout the play, for example, as s/he chases Trinculo, Stefano, and Caliban, dunking them in pools of "horse piss."

Caliban, as a previous educator has pointed out, represents the "baseness" of the earth in both its meanings: it is the "base" of the natural world, but he is also "base" in the sense of being controlled by lower passions.

At the end of the play, as Prospero renounces his magic powers (thought, by the way to be Shakespeare's own farewell to his writing), he continues to use images of the elements, saying: 

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 thatThis 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. 

It's not only Prospero who has been able to command the elements, but his creator, Shakespeare, who now renounces that power of words and theatrical magic.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Graeco-Roman antiquity and western Europe through the Renaissance many people believed that the world was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. A fifth element, ether, was held to exist in the superlunary areas by some thinkers. Alchemy, magic, and even medicine were grounded in controlling or manipulating these elements.

Air and fire have the qualities of being more spiritual and intellectual elements, while water and earth are more material and primal in nature. Thus, Ariel is a spirit of air and fire who controls those elements and Caliban one of earth and water. Although Ariel is the far more attractive of the two characters, one should note that the magician Prospero must control all four. 

The play can be read as concerned with bringing the elements into harmony. Ariel and Caliban are both magical beings, but both are unbalanced or incomplete. Prospero himself, like Ariel, has in the past been so absorbed in magic and intellectual studies that his kingdom was usurped. Miranda, a young virgin, is also a sort of incomplete or unfinished character. At the end of the play, with Miranda's impending marriage (and thus initiation into sexuality that she can accept in contrast to her uneasy relationship with Caliban) and Prospero's renunciation of magic, the characters become complete with their four elements, intellects, and material beings in balance. 

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The four elements of earth, fire, water and air are used in this play with reference to the powers that Prospero commands through his control of spirits such as Ariel. From the very first meeting between Prospero and Ariel in the play in Act I scene 2, Ariel makes clear that his magic allows him to control each of the elements, and that Prospero's control of Ariel therefore gives him that same control:

I come

To answer thy best pleasure. Be't to fly,

To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride

On the curled clouds, to thy strong biddding task

Ariel and all his quality.

Note the only element that Ariel doesn't directly refer to is earth, but surely it is implied in the extent of his powers. Air, fire and water are clearly mentioned, and Ariel shows that he is able to manipulate those elements at his command. The four elements in this play therefore are used by Prospero to work his enchantments as his control of the various elves and spirits on the island gives him that ability. It is the manipulation of these four elements that allows Prospero to stage manage the action of this play and bring about the reconciliation that he desires amongst the different characters.