The Tempest

September 8

November 8, 2015

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted & directed by Aaron Posner and Teller
songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
choreography by Matt Kent, Pilobolus

A Scholar's Perspective

The Great Globe Itself

by Mary Ellen Lamb

…the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Yea and all which it inherit. (Act 4, scene 1)

Prospero’s poignant evocation of the transitory nature of all things unexpectedly transports our frame of reference from an isolated island to the Globe that was Shakespeare’s own theater, superimposing an uncanny awareness of the one upon the other. For a flickering instant Prospero the magician merges with Shakespeare the playwright. How far might the analogy between magician and playwright be followed? A long-held understanding of The Tempest—interpreting Prospero’s epilogue as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage—has been generally discredited. Yet clearly there is some correspondence between the two professions. The staging of Prospero’s use of magic to present a series of theatrical shows would seem to create The Tempest as Shakespeare’s most explicit meditation on his own art. In true Shakespeare-fashion, however, the play’s revelations evade simple interpretation, to remain tantalizingly open-ended.

Some of this ambiguity is due to the varying perceptions, now as well as then, of the nature of Prospero’s magic. Taking advantage of a “most auspicious star,”  Prospero draws his brother with his confederate, the King of Naples, along with their court party to his island, where the show his spirit Ariel performs for them—the bestowing and then withdrawing of a banquet—is designed to move the guilty characters to “heart’s sorrow/ And a clear life ensuing.” Until fairly recently, criticism generally described Prospero as a benevolent father-figure overseeing the appropriate marriage of his daughter and the restoration of his dukedom in Milan from his usurping brother Antonio. Much was made of Prospero’s refusal to take the just revenge that lay so fully in his power. 

With the rise of colonialist studies in the 1970s, the interpretation of Prospero’s magic devolves into a sinister technology inflicting cramps and pinches to force menial tasks on Caliban, whose claim that “this island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,/ which thou tak’st from me” makes of him a stand-in for the oppressed first peoples of the New World. Once seen as a subhuman who attempts to rape Miranda, Caliban is reconceived by scholars and theater practictioners alike as a noble native, whose appreciation of the island’s “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” attests to his full humanity.

During Shakespeare’s time, attitudes towards magic were just as divided, although for different reasons. Some early moderns would have perceived Prospero as a magus, whose learning in a specific kind of occult allied with Neoplatonism equipped him to harness the powers of spiritual beings to achieve tasks conforming to the will of the divine. A real-life near-equivalent could be found in Shakespeare’s contemporary John Dee. Dee’s claim to be such a magus was endorsed by Queen Elizabeth’s regular consultations with him in his extensive library—a collection that also housed the crystal balls and mirrors enabling him to consult angels about, for example, the location of the Northwest passage. The white magic of the magus was considered the direct opposite of the black magic of the witch, represented in the play by Caliban’s deceased mother Sycorax who had confined Ariel in a tree for seven years for his refusal to obey her commands.

Not all early moderns, however, accepted this distinction between white and black magic.  For some, especially the more devout, all power not conferred directly by God derived from the devil. To them, a magus was only another form of male witch or wizard. This distinction also becomes blurred in The Tempest, most disturbingly in Prospero’s speech renouncing his art. Not only does he claim the power of a sinister necromancer to raise the dead, but in this speech, translated from the Latin poet Ovid, Prospero ventriloquizes an incantation by the classical witch Medea.

Finally, a growing number of early moderns, such as Erasmus and Montaigne, had become skeptical about the existence of magic at all. To Erasmus and Montaigne, among others, a magus and a witch were both types of charlatans or jugglers, whose skill in creating illusions by sleight of hand was able to delight all the more because their magical power was no longer credible. Prospero from this perspective was understood as neither magus nor witch but as a role played by a human actor, whose project was finally as he confesses in his epilogue only “to please.”

This skeptical perspective is of course closest to our own, as a modern audience. But an awareness of the magical beliefs that Shakespeare evokes through his magus-playwright Prospero contributes to the sense of The Tempest as unique, a play simultaneously marvelous and strange. The nature of the pleasure imparted by Shakespeare’s art is profound, with its own haunting form of magic that follows us out of the theater to infuse its sweet power into our everyday lives.

Mary Ellen Lamb is a Professor Emeritus at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She has written extensively on Shakespeare, early modern women, and popular culture. 

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