home contact

Magic, Books, and the Supernatural in Shakespeare's Tempest

From Shakespeare's Comedy of The Tempest. Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company, 1904.

In reading The Tempest we must bear in mind that the belief in magic and witchcraft was in Shakespeare's day an established article in the popular creed, and accepted by the great majority of the cultivated and learned. To attack it was a bold thing to do, and few writers had ventured it. In 1583 Howard, Earl of Northampton, published his Defensative against the Poyson of Supposed Prophecies and in 1584 Reginald Scot brought out his Discoverie of Witchcraft in which, with great learning and ability, he exposed the pretensions of the magicians and their craft. He made many enemies by it; and James I ordered all the copies of it that could be found to be burned by the public hangman. In 1603 the king published his own book on Daemonologie, in the preface to which he asserts that he wrote the book "chiefly against the damnable opinions of Wierus 1 and Scot." Richard Bernard, an eminent Puritan divine, also took Scot to task in his Guide to Grand Jurymen with respect to Witches (1627); as also did Joseph Glanvil (in his Blow at Modern Sadducism, etc.) and sundry other authors of the time. Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), records that magic, in which he appears to have been a believer himself, is "practised by some now;" and he says that the Roman emperors "were never so much addicted to magic of old as some of our modern princes and popes are nowadays."

We have no reason to suppose that Shakespeare believed in magic. From his 14th Sonnet we may infer that he did not believe even in astrology, as most people did long after his day; and yet Prospero is the grandest conception of the magician to be found in all our literature. The delineation is in strict accordance with the prevalent theory of the magic art, and yet it is so ennobled and idealized that in our day, when that theory is reckoned among the dead superstitions of a bygone age, we see nothing mean or unworthy in it.

Prospero belongs to the higher order of magicians those who commanded the services of superior intelligences in distinction from those who, by a league made with Satan, submitted to be his instruments, paying for the enjoyment of the supernatural power thus gained the price of their souls' salvation. The former class of magicians, as Scot remarks, "professed an art which some fond [foolish] divines affirm to be more honest and lawful than necromancy, wherein they work by good angels." Thus we find Prospero exercising his power over elves and goblins through the medium of Ariel, a spirit "too delicate to act the abhorr'd commands" of the foul witch Sycorax, but who answered his best pleasure and obeyed his "strong bidding."

The poet has, moreover, given to Prospero some of the ordinary adjuncts of the professional magician of the time. Peculiar virtue was inherent in his robe, according to Scot and other writers; and we find Prospero saying to Miranda:

"Lend thy hand
And pluck my magic garment from me;"
and as it is laid aside he adds, "Lie there, my art."

His wand also, as in the case of ordinary conjurors, was a potent instrument. With it he renders Ferdinand helpless:

"I can here disarm thee with this stick.
And make thy weapon drop."
And when he abjures his art be is to break his staff and "bury it certain fathoms in the earth," lest it should fall into hands that might not use it as wisely and beneficently as he has done.

His books were of yet greater importance to his art; and these the old magicians were supposed to guard with the utmost care. Scot says: "These conjurors carry about at this day books intituled under the names of Adam, Abel, Toby, and Enoch; which Enoch they repute the most divine fellow in such matters. They have also among them books that they say Abraham, Aaron, and Solomon made;... also of the angels, Riziel, Razael, and Raphael." Hence, we find Prospero saying:

"I'll to my book,
For yet ere supper-time must I perform
Much matter appertaining;"
and he is to drown his book "deeper than did ever plummet sound," when he breaks his staff, and for the same reason. 2 Caliban, too, says:
First to possess his books; for without them
He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command."
But while Shakespeare has thus given actuality to his noble magician by these externals of his art, he has avoided introducing the vulgar machinery connected with it. We are not shown how his spells are wrought. The silence requisite for their success a condition associated with the most ancient accounts of the magic art is insisted upon:
"Hush, and be mute,
Or else our spell is marr'd."
Had not the poet observed a like reticence as to the details of the enchantments, his spell over us had been marred. If he had introduced the forms and ceremonies of conjuration and adjuration described by Scot, the effect would have been either ludicrous or disgusting. In Macbeth where the Witches were meant to appear the black and midnight hags they really were, we have all the details of their infernal cuisine. The hell-broth is concocted before our eyes, and aU the foul and poisonous ingredients are enumerated in the song the beldams croak as they dance about the cauldron. But here in The Tempest the spells and incantations are only hinted at: "my charms crack not," "my spirits obey," "untie the spell," etc. In the one case the art of the poet is as conspicuous in what it hides as in the other in what it reveals.

The spirits were of various orders, according to their abode or sphere of operation, "whether," to quote Hamlet "in sea or fire, in earth or air," the four ancient "elements." In the storm Ariel plays the part of a fire-spirit, "dividing and burning in many places" till the ship was all ablaze with him. Water-spirits or sea-nymphs sing the knell of Ferdinand's father in the ditty that deceives the weeping prince; and later Prospero invokes the elves of brooks and standing lakes, and those that "on the sands with printless feet do chase the ebbing Neptune." The earth-spirits, or goblins, are the ones set upon Caliban to torment him; and air-spirits are the musicians of the supernatural realm over which the magician holds dominion, filling the air at his bidding with sweet strains beyond the touch of mortal art.

Over all this spirit world Prospero bears sovereign rule by the power of a commanding intellect. His subjects are "weak masters," he says; that is, weak individually, weak in the capacity for combining to make the most of their ability to do certain things that men cannot do. Prospero knows how to make them work in carrying out his far-reaching plans. "By your aid" he says, "weak masters, though ye be," I have wrought the marvels of my art.

Shakespeare, while, as I have said, he has managed the supernatural part of the play in strict accordance with the theories of that day concerning magic, has at the same time avoided everything that was ridiculous or revolting in the popular belief. He thus exercises, as it were, a magic power over the vulgar magic, lifting it from prose into poetry; and while doing this he has contrived to make it all so entirely consistent with what we may conceive of as possible to human science and skill that it seems as real as it is marvellous. It is at once supernatural and natural. It is the highest exercise of the magic art, and yet it all goes on with as little jar to our credulity as the ordinary sequence of events in our everyday life.

Sundry attempts have been made to prove The Tempest an allegory, but Shakespeare had no such intention. The human characters are men and women distinctly individualized, not abstractions personified. Prospero, great as he is both as man and as magician, is not perfect, not the ideal type of human genius and character, and not absolute master of himself. This is the explanation of something in the second scene which has puzzled and misled some of the commentators, and of which no one of them, so far as I am aware, has given the correct interpretation. When Prospero is telling Miranda the story of her early life, why does he again and again charge her with being inattentive to a narration in which it is impossible that she should not be intensely interested? If we could have any doubt on this point, it ought to be removed by her evident surprise that he could suppose her a careless or indifferent listener to so thrilling a tale. It is amazing that two critics at least should have taken the ground that Miranda is not listening attentively.

Her thoughts, they agree in telling us, are wandering off to the foundered ship and the unfortunate folk in it, for whom her tender heart was so deeply moved when she witnessed the shipwreck. A keener critic gets somewhat nearer the truth when he says, "He thinks she is not listening attentively to his speech, partly because he is not attending to it himself, his thoughts being busy with the approaching crisis of his fortune, and drawn away to the other matters which he has in hand, and partly because in her trance of wonder at what he is relating she seems abstracted and self-withdrawn from the matter of his discourse." But it is not mere mental abstraction on his part, if, indeed, this were possible in telling the tale of his "high wrongs," nor is Prospero the man to mistake entranced wonder for lack of interest and attention. His error is simply due to nervous excitement, which, as in meaner mortals, makes him irritable, impatient, and unreasonable. Shakespeare has given us varied and abundant evidence that this crisis in his fortunes is a tremendous strain upon his powers, and he almost breaks down under it. It does overcome his ordinary steadiness of nerve and tranquillity of spirit. It is this that makes him so unjust to Miranda, and, in the latter part of the same scene, so impatient with Ariel when the tricksy spirit ventures to remind him of the promise to set him free ere long. Prospero himself is not unconscious of the weakness later, when he says to Ferdinand (and Miranda):

"Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity.
If you be pleas'd, retire into my cell,
And there repose; a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind."
When Prospero, usually so self-poised and self-possessed, speaks thus, we get some notion of the mental strain, the terrible suspense and anxiety, of these three hours, on which his whole future life and that of his beloved daughter are dependent.

It is also to be noted that Prospero, mighty magician though he be, has no power to bring two young hearts to beat as one. He cannot make Ferdinand and Miranda love each other. He can bid Ariel bring them together; but, that done, he can only watch with paternal fondness and hope to see whether all goes on as his soul prompts it. But, it may be said, the notion that love could be excited by magic arts is old and familiar; and we find it more than once in Shakespeare. Why, then, did not Prospero exercise his art upon Ferdinand and Miranda, and thus settle in advance one at least of the uncertainties of that anxious day? One critic, who is rarely astray in a case like this, believes that he did play the magician here. "In the planting of love," he says, "Ariel beats old god Cupid all to nothing; for it is through some witchcraft of his that Ferdinand and Miranda are surprised into a mutual rapture." The misconception is a gross one, gross in a double sense. Love could indeed be awakened by magic, according to the ancient theory of the art; but it was only love in the lower animal sense that was thus excited. The purer, nobler passion was beyond the control of wizard or necromancer; and Prospero. It is quite unnecessary to say, could never descend to the base devices of those who, having gained a measure of superhuman power by a compact with the great adversary of souls, became the ministers of his dark purposes. Almost any other dramatist of that day might have been willing to admit this as a prelude to a more honorable love (we find things not unlike it in the plays of the time), but Shakespeare never so degrades his mighty magic.

In this, as in other respects, Prospero is like his creator, though not, as some have supposed, intended to be the portrait of that creator.


FOOTNOTE 1: This Wierus was John van Wier (or Weier), a distinguished Dutch physician (1515-1558), who is said to have been the first writer to oppose the belief in witchcraft, by his work entitled De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venefciis (1563).

FOOTNOTE 2: So, in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the old monk tells Deloraine how Michael Scott on his dying bed gave orders that his magic book should be buried:

"I swore to bury his Mighty Book,
That never mortal might therein look,
And never to tell where it was hid,
Save at his Chief of Branksome's need."

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Comedy of The Tempest. Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company, 1904. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


Related Articles

 Forgiveness and Reconciliation in The Tempest
 Magic, Books, and the Supernatural in The Tempest
 The Contrast Between Ariel and Caliban in Shakespeare's Tempest
 The Relationship Between Miranda and Ferdinand
 The Tempest: Stages of Plot Development
 Blank Verse, Prose, and Diction in Shakespeare's Tempest
 The Tempest: Plot Summary
 Famous Quotations from The Tempest
 Shakespeare Quotations (by Theme)
 Quotations About William Shakespeare
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Boss: The Master of Revels