In Shakespeare’s Tempest, written in 1611, we see a combination of superb characters, interesting settings, and a good plot line, all held together by the running theme of magic and its ever-present importance. A closer examination of the magic in The Tempest and the public’s view of magic at the time will give insight into Shakespeare’s choice of magic as a theme and why it has made the play so successful and timeless. Magic presented itself to Shakespeare as a controversial topic, as it had been the persecution of those believed to perform black magic” (witches) that had been at the forefront of societal concerns since 1050. However, after 500 years of witch-hunts, a turning point occurred in 1584 with the publication of Reginald Scot’s The Discouerie of Witchcrafte (The Discovery of Witchcraft).
This book was the first major work to denounce witch-hunts and their ringleaders. It was unquestionably the first book in English to hypothesize about the methods of these so-called witches. The book contained one chapter of approximately twenty pages describing what we might view as unsophisticated, old-time magic tricks. One might assume that this text, along with texts succeeding it (such as The Art of Juggling, written by Samuel Ridd in 1610, which also presented a few how-to’s of magic), suggested the idea of using magic as a theme in Shakespeare’s plays and provided methods for how the magic in the play might be accomplished. Despite the fact that, in retrospective analysis, it is clear that witches were nothing more than magicians with a slightly different presentation, audiences were not always aware of this, and those who were rarely convinced by the two aforementioned texts. Witches were still persecuted, and witch-hunts did not actually stop until the end of the seventeenth century.
Therefore, Shakespeare’s use of magic was controversial, compounded by the fact that Prospero was presented in a largely good light. This move was probably made as a political statement, as it is known that Shakespeare’s plays were sometimes written to include political suggestions to King James. However, when Prospero relinquished his powers at the end of the play, those who believed in the witch-hunts were satisfied. After considering the contention that the masque scene was added for the purposes of complimenting Elizabeth and Frederick’s marriage, one could conclude that Shakespeare learned more about magic after he wrote The Tempest.
The reasoning follows. One could only assume that Shakespeare would have tried to make the magic in the play as fooling and magical as possible. Although there were two magic effects in the play, one of them – the spirit music – would not have fooled even the most unsophisticated and naive audiences. Even before the era of Harry Houdini, or even the wandering street magicians of the 1700s, audiences were not fooled by music being played offstage. It is the other effect, that of the banquet disappearance that, well executed, would have fooled Shakespeare’s audiences, and would even have a shot of passing muster today. However, this banquet sequence was in the masque scene, theoretically added two years after the original writing of the play.
The question that begs to be answered is why didn’t Shakespeare find some other way to include a more sophisticated magic effect into the play. The most logical answer would be that he learned more about magic and witchcraft techniques after he wrote the play. Maybe at first, he was unable to grasp the explanations in the Scot text, or maybe he didn’t even read it before the original writing. Possibly it was just called to his attention, and he was unable to lay his hands on a copy until after he wrote the play. Whether or not Shakespeare ever read the Scot text in its entirety, or whether or not the banquet disappearance was added before or after the original writing, neither is relevant to the central importance of magic to the play. Obviously, magic could grab audiences of Shakespeare’s time. As it happens, magic had been grabbing audiences since 2500 BC (according to a depiction of a magician on the Beni Hassan tomb in Egypt), and magic continues to grab audiences today.
It caught Shakespeare’s eye and has made the play timeless and theatrically entertaining.