st essaysMagic in Shakespeares Tempest The Tempest, written in 1611, was one of William Shakespeare’s lastplays. It has a combination of superb characters, interesting settings, and agood plot lineall held together by the running theme of magic, and its ever-present importance. A closer examination of the magic in The Tempest, and thepublic’s view of magic at the time, will give insight as to Shakespeare’s choiceof 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 ithad been the persecution of those believed to perform “black magic,” (witches)that had been at the forefront of societal concerns since 1050. However, after500 years of witch-hunts, a turning point occurred in 1584, at the publicationof Reginald Scot’s The Discouerie of Witchcrafte (The Discovery of Witchcraft).Order now
This book was the first major book to denounce witch-hunts and their ringleaders,and unquestionable the first book in English to actually hypothesize about themethods of these so-called witches. It contained one chapter of approximatelytwenty pages describing what we might view as unsophisticated, old-time magictricks. One would assume that it was this text, and texts succeeding this (TheArt of Juggling, written by Samuel Ridd in 1610 also presented a few how-to’s ofmagic) were probably not only what suggested the idea of using magic as a themto Shakespeare, but in addition, provided methods as to how the magic in theplay might be accomplished. Despite the fact that in retrospective analysis it is fairly clear thatwitches were nothing more that magicians with a slightly different presentation,audiences were not always aware of and those that were, were rarely convincedbythe two aforementioned texts. Witches were still persecuted and witch-huntsdid not actually stop until the end of the seventeenth century.
Therefore,Shakespeare’s use of magic was controversial, compounded by the fact thatProspero was presented in a largely good lighta move probably made as apolitical statement, as it is known that Shakespeare’s plays were sometimeswritten to include political suggestions to King James. However, when Prosperorelinquished his powers at the end of the play, those that did believe in thewitch-hunts were satisfied. Everyone was happy. After considering the contention that the masque scene was added for thepurposes of compliment to Elizabeth and Frederick’s marriage, one could concludethat Shakespeare learned more about magic after he wrote The Tempest.
Thereasoning follows. One could only assume that Shakespeare would have tried tomake the magic in the play as fooling and magical as possible. Although therewere two magic effects in the play, one of them the spirit musicwould not havefooled even the most unsophisticated and naive audiences. Even before the era ofHarry Houdini, or even the wandering street magicians of the 1700’s, audienceswere not fooled by music being played offstage. It is the other effect, that ofthe banquet disappearance that, well executed, would have fooled Shakespeare’saudiences, and would even have a shot of passing muster today. However, this banquet sequence was in the masque scene, theoreticallyadded two years after the original writing of the play.
The question that begsto be answered therefore, is why didn’t Shakespeare fund some other way ofincluding a more sophisticated magic effect into the play? The most logicalanswer would be that he learned more about magic and witch techniques after hewrote the play. Maybe at first he was unable to grasp the explanations in theScot text, or maybe he didn’t even read it before the original writingpossiblyit was just called to his attention, and he was unable to lay his hands on acopy until after he wrote the play Whether or not Shakespeare ever read the Scot text in its entirety, orwhether or not the banquet disappearance was added before or after the originalwriting, neither is relevant to magic’s central importance 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 amagician on the Beni Hassan tomb in Egypt) and magic continues to grab audiencestoday.
It caught Shakespeare’s eye, and has made the play timeless, andtheatrically entertaining.