tempmagic Magic in Shakespeare's The Tempest

tempmagic Magic in Shakespeare's The Tempest

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Magic in Shakespeare’s Tempest


        The Tempest, written in 1611, was one of William Shakespeare's last

plays. It has 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 as to 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, at the publication

of Reginald Scot's The Discouerie of Witchcrafte (The Discovery of Witchcraft).

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 the

methods of these so-called witches. It contained one chapter of approximately

twenty pages describing what we might view as unsophisticated, old-time magic



        One would assume that it was this text, and texts succeeding this (The

Art of Juggling, written by Samuel Ridd in 1610 also presented a few how-to's of

magic) were probably not only what suggested the idea of using magic as a them

to Shakespeare, but in addition, provided methods as to how the magic in the

play might be accomplished.


        Despite the fact that in retrospective analysis it is fairly clear that

witches were nothing more that magicians with a slightly different presentation,

audiences were not always aware of –and those that were, 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—a move 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 that did believe in the

witch-hunts were satisfied. Everyone was happy.


        After considering the contention that the masque scene was added for the

purposes of compliment to 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.

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Although there

were two magic effects in the play, one of them –the spirit music—would not have

fooled even the most unsophisticated and naïve audiences. Even before the era of

Harry Houdini, or even the wandering street magicians of the 1700's, 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 therefore, is why didn't Shakespeare fund some other way of

including a more sophisticated magic effect into the play? The most logical

answer would be that he learned more about magic and witch 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 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 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.

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