Prospero: a Renaissance Magus

Malcolm Hebron explains how the Renaissance figure of the Magus, as a force of both good and evil, helps us understand the character of Prospero in The Tempest.

The Tempest has many familiar characters: the scheming usurper, the clown, the virtuous young nobleman, the faithful old courtier. We can recognise these types in other Shakespeare plays, and indeed in dramas today. But what of the figure at the centre of the play, Prospero himself? We can place him as a kind of wizard, a Gandalf or Dumbledore perhaps, but to a contemporary audience he would have been identifiable at once as something slightly different – a Magus, or Mage, an ancestor of the gentle headmaster of Hogwarts, but not sharing all of his traits. Understanding what a Magus was can help us to answer one of the most intriguing questions raised by this play: is Prospero's magic a force for good, or something more sinister?

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Prospero creates a magical masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1 by Joseph Wright.

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The Renaissance Mage

In Renaissance culture a Magus is someone who understands the cosmos and man's place within it. This knowledge is gained principally through study. Prospero prizes his books above his dukedom, and we can easily guess what kind of books they are. They would include Astrology, the study of planetary influences on the earth (Prospero notes his magical career is at its height or zenith while a particular star is in the ascendant). Prospero might have had to hand the mystical texts ascribed to the ancient Egyptian sage 'Hermes Trismegistus', which discuss how, through self-knowledge, a person can ascend to the divine. Perhaps, like the Italian scholar Pico della Mirandola, he also studied the Cabbala, the secret Hebrew Law given to Moses, where deeper meanings are encrypted within the letters of the text. A self-respecting Renaissance Mage would also have been familiar with the writings of the philosophical school known as Neoplatonism, based on the idea that the soul naturally yearns to leave the body and be with God. Then there was Alchemy, concerned with the transmutation of matter (interestingly, in Alchemy, a 'tempest' is the term for sifting out impurities from a mixture). Such studies were 'hermetic', closed off to all but the initiated.

Next to these, Prospero would also have pursued studies we would deem more scientific, since a Magus must also understand earthly phenomena through careful observation. The goal of all this study is to transcend human limitations and achieve a complete understanding of the universe: the Magus is familiar with celestial, inanimate forces and sees how, through a complex system of 'sympathies' and 'correspondences', these are reflected on earth and in the soul of man. At the highest level, the Magus has the wisdom to perceive the mind of God. To attain this wisdom, he must not only study but also pursue a pure life, untainted by sin.

A force for good?

A Magus is, then, someone who devotes himself to the pursuit of wisdom. There were Renaissance scholars who pursued just such a course of study, anxious to unite the various strands of learning – classical, Jewish, Christian – in a quest to pursue a transcendent understanding of the universe. They included scholars like Pico, Marsilio Ficino, Cornelius Agrippa and the Englishman John Dee (a likely source for both Prospero and Ben Jonson's The Alchemist). But a Magus is not merely a contemplative figure. His wisdom gives him the power to act, and it is this power that makes him controversial. The virtuous Magus acts only in accordance with divine Providence: he assists in God's work, and is thus a force for good. For example, he might apply his knowledge of the natural powers of plants to heal (several Magi were medical doctors); or he might use astrological knowledge to calculate the ideal times for a harvest. John Dee was consulted on the most auspicious date for Elizabeth I's coronation. 'Good' magic of this kind is magia, or theurgy. It does not interfere with God's actions, but works with them, to the greater good of humankind.

John Dee's genealogy and self-portrait

John Dee's genealogy and self-portrait

A probable self-portrait of John Dee appears on this six-foot long family tree, which tries to prove his connection with the Tudor monarchs.

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John Dee's General and Rare Memorials bound with a signed manuscript

John Dee's General and Rare Memorials bound with a signed manuscript

In John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577), he advises Elizabeth I on how to expand the British Empire.

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A force of evil?

The powers of a Magus might equally lead him into bad magic, or goetia. The Church was particularly suspicious of those parts of hermetic study that seemed to suggest humans could alter nature as God has ordered it. Hermes Trismegistus, for example, gives instructions for calling down spirits to animate statues, a dangerous interference with the cosmos. Then there were the more usual kinds of manipulation, involving using this specialist knowledge for personal gain, for example by getting money from people by scaring them or providing a suitably flattering prophecy. There was also the possibility of dabbling in the Occult, or black arts. The Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 on charges of dealing with the Occult. Reformed Protestant England was generally suspicious of magic for its associations with Catholic practices and teachings (such as the idea that relics held miraculous powers), and King James I was highly suspicious of magical activities. Dee was forced to defend himself and prove that his practices were in harmony with the divine, and though he succeeded, he died poor and disgraced in 1608, just two years before The Tempest was (probably) written.

King James VI and I’s Demonology, 1597

King James IV and I’s Demonology, 1597

King James’ book, Daemonologie (1597), demands punishment by death for anyone practising magic or witchcraft.

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John Dee's petition to James I asking to be cleared of accusations of conjuring, 1604

John Dee's petition to James I asking to be cleared of accusations of conjuring, 1604

In this letter to James I (1604), Dee pleads with the King to withdraw the claim that he is a ‘Conjurer’ who calls up ‘damned Spirites’.

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Weighing up Prospero's intent

The Magus, then, was a controversial figure, and it is not surprising that Prospero and his actions have stimulated much critical debate. Is he a virtuous Mage, practising magia for a beneficent end? Or does the magic of The Tempest have a darker side? Let us review briefly the case for each.

Several scholars have argued that Prospero is a Magus using his powers for the greater good, not for personal gain. His theurgy contrasts with the destructive goetia of Sycorax. If he simply wanted personal vengeance, he could have killed everybody in the storm. But he makes sure that no one is harmed. His aim is to bring his enemies to recognise their evil actions and repent, thus restoring them to divine grace. The illusions he creates are all for this purpose.

Prospero also wishes to marry his daughter to a worthy suitor. From the pure chastity of this couple a truly noble generation should emerge, ensuring the security of the dukedom. Ariel represents Prospero's art in its most spiritual form, free from the constraints of the body. Caliban symbolises his earthly side, and the fact that Prospero clearly has control over Caliban shows he has the proper discipline over his lower human tendencies.

When Prospero renounces his magic art, it is not a sign of guilt, but a necessary step to resuming his worldly duties as a duke. The final scene of pardon and compassion is a fitting climax for this beneficent magic. If the reconciliation is not complete, it is because Antonio is still unable to repent: not even a Magus can take away divinely bestowed free will, or rid the soul of evil.

Photograph of Aidan Gillen as Ariel in The Tempest, 2000

Photograph of Aidan Gillen as Ariel in The Tempest, 2000

Aidan Gillen performed the part of Ariel in the 2000 production of The Tempest.

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However, Prospero and his magic have also led to different readings. Some critics argue that his absorption in study is irresponsible, taking him away from his duties as duke and allowing his brother to take over. At many points in the play, Prospero becomes angry, and his treatment of Ferdinand is hard to understand. His irritable demeanour and violent imagery hardly suggest a serene Mage high above the world of human rivalry. Prospero himself seems to doubt his own 'rough magic' and its dubious effects: 'Graves at my command / Have wak'd their sleepers' (5.1.48–49). It is as if he has been playing God, and wants to step back from this interference with the natural order. (This speech has also been interpreted as Prospero moving from a crude stage of magic to a more refined one.) Even the contrast with Sycorax is not wholly clear, since we have no other real source about her besides Prospero himself. At one point, it is Ariel who apparently points Prospero away from anger to higher thoughts of compassion, based on a human sympathy he is in danger of losing. Immersed in the ideal world of his books, Prospero is possessed by a desire for impossible purity in the world, and incapable of seeing that evil is a normal part of human affairs: he was naive about his brother, and foolish to leave Caliban alone with Miranda. He still seems to find it hard to believe that Caliban and his associates would want to plot against him. According to this argument, Prospero undergoes a journey of self-knowledge in the play: his magic has distanced him from real human behaviour, and he has to renounce it to return from a world of illusion and manipulation – a world similar to the art of theatre – to the human community.

Photograph of Jonathan Kent's production of The Tempest, 2000

Photograph of Jonathan Kent's production of The Tempest, 2000

Miranda, Caliban and Prospero in Jonathan Kent's production of The Tempest, 2000

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A drama, not a thesis

Which of these arguments seems stronger? The magic in the play does seem to be directed towards the good end of repentance and reconciliation. Yet the play is a drama, not a thesis for or against magic, and it surely reflects some of the suspicious atmosphere of the time. Prospero is not a benign sage but a troubled soul, given to irascible outbursts and brooding soliloquies. He does indeed seem ill at ease with his art and its 'vanity'. Ariel, the disembodied spirit, has to be released; the world must be returned to. Perhaps the play is not attacking magic but suggesting that it tests our humanity to the utmost. As Prospero leaves the island, he leaves us with a host of difficult questions, about magic, about colonialism, and about how successful the outcome of the play really is. On page and stage, the magical action of The Tempest is an abiding riddle, one to which no answer seems altogether satisfactory. Perhaps this is fitting since magic is ultimately beyond rational understanding, a hermetic world, a mystery.

Photograph of Ian McDiarmid and Aidan Gillian in The Tempest, 2000

Photograph of Ian McDiarmid and Aidan Gillian in The Tempest, 2000

The Almeida Theatre’s 2001 production of The Tempest. A water tank built into the stage concealed a secret exit, allowing Aidan Gillen’s Ariel to dive into the pond and vanish from sight.

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  • Malcolm Hebron
  • Malcolm Hebron is Head of Drama at Winchester College, where he also teaches English Literature and Art History. His publications include Mastering the Language of Literature and Key Concepts in Renaissance Literature. He is currently working on Renaissance philosophy for an online resource. Other interests include the history and culture of Catalonia, and the insights to be gained from staging productions of classical dramatic texts.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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