Prospero: magician and artist

In his portrayal of Prospero's 'art', Shakespeare seems to draw parallels between theatre and magic. Emma Smith explores these, but questions the idea that the magus is a self-portrait of the playwright.

In 1740 a life-size statue commemorating Shakespeare was erected in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. The dramatist leans his elbow on a pile of books, and points to a scroll on which are written a variant of Prospero’s valedictory lines in The Tempest:

The Cloud capt Tow’rs,
The Gorgeous Palaces,
The Solemn Temples,
The Great Globe itself,
Yea all which it Inherit,
Shall Dissolve; And like the baseless Fabrick of a Vision
Leave not a wreck. (Compare The Tempest, 4.1.151–55)

Why would Shakespeare be represented, even summarised, here by lines from The Tempest?

Print of the Shakespeare memorial in Westminster Abbey, 1741

Print of the Shakespeare memorial in Westminster Abbey, 1741

In this life-size statue of Shakespeare, the dramatist points to a scroll showing Prospero’s lines from The Tempest.

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The play itself tells the story of a magician, Prospero, banished to a remote island with his daughter Miranda when he was deposed from his dukedom by his brother Antonio. A storm brings Antonio with his allies to the island, where Prospero, aided by his spirit-servant Ariel, subjects them to various magical punishments. Prospero finally confronts and forgives his brother, Miranda is married to a prince, and the party prepare to return to Milan for his reinstatement as duke.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

The Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2 by Henry Fuseli.

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Throughout the play, Prospero refers to his magic as ‘art’, developing a sustained parallel between theatre and magic. The Tempest opens with one of Shakespeare’s most realistic location scenes: ‘A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard. Enter a Ship-Master, and a Boatswain’ (1.1). We are on the swaying deck of a stricken ship, amid the panicked sailors and their bewildered aristocratic passengers. We think we are in the middle of a ‘real’ storm, but the next scene reveals that this was a theatrical illusion, magicked up by Prospero from the island to bring his enemies into his power. The seafarers were never in danger: the events looked believable but were created out of a few props and a believable script. As in a play, events happen, controlled by an unseen dramatist, to further a yet-unknown plot. This is at once theatre and magic: a spectacle by actors with a believably salty script, and a demonstration of Prospero’s magic ‘art’ in which ‘there’s no harm done’ (1.2.14). We have been as much the victims of Prospero’s magic as the pinched and cramped Caliban or the bereft King Alonso, made to believe his son is drowned. The difference is that theatre patrons are willingly deceived, participating in their own delusions.

Set designs for Charles Kean's 1857 production of The Tempest

Set Designs for Charles Kean's 1857 production of The Tempest which required over 140 stage hands to move the elaborate scenery

Set design for the storm scene, Act 1, Scene 1. Charles Kean’s 1857 production of The Tempest had hugely elaborate stage effects, requiring 140 people to move the scenery.

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Photograph of Christian Camargo in The Tempest directed by Sam Mendes, 2010

Photograph of Christian Camargo in the Tempest directed by Sam Mendes, 2010

Christian Carmargo as Ariel in Sam Mendes’s production of The Tempest at The Old Vic, 2010.

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Visual tricks such as the row of ‘glistering apparel’ (stage direction at 4.1.193) prepared for Caliban and his associates – essentially a theatrical wardrobe – continue to ally magic with theatrical spectacle. The stage direction ‘Enter Ariel like a Harpy, claps his wings upon the table, and with a quaint device the banquet vanishes’ (after 3.3.52), is explicit in requiring some magical machinery – perhaps the revolving table top that was a popular fairground attraction – to bring about its effects. The magician, like the playwright, manipulates props and persons to dramatic effect; magic is a branch of special effects. Prospero controls the present and the characters’ pasts – he tells the story of his brother’s act of usurpation, for example, and the story of their exile, and of Ariel’s imprisonment in a tree, and of Sycorax, Caliban’s mother, and of many other details of previous events, without any independent corroboration. It’s as if Prospero is inventing all the other characters – and fleshing out their past lives to develop the force of his creation.

When Prospero acknowledges the problematic theatricality of his own magic he does so in terms famously redolent of theatre:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on: and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1.148–58)

We might say, then, that Prospero is a dramatist: he exerts his artistry to bring characters together to achieve a comic resolution to a potentially tragic plot. But he is also presented – as is the Westminster Abbey statue of Shakespeare – as a bookish figure, a scholar. He is a kind of magus – the Renaissance idea of the learned occult philosopher – perhaps a dramatic version of the contemporary polymath John Dee who combined mathematics, astronomy and navigation with astrology, alchemy, and conversing with spirits through a medium. The fields of magic and science that seem to modern eyes like irreconcilable opposites – the one irrational, unprovable, superstitious, the other rational, empirical and enlightened – were much more closely allied in Shakespeare’s time.

John Dee's spirit mirror

John Dee's spirit mirror

This black obsidian mirror was probably used by John Dee as part of his occult research into the world of spirits.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

John Dee is accused of sorcery after staging a Greek play

John Dee is accused of sorcery after staging a Greek play

The Compendious Rehearsal of John Dee (1592) tells how Dee was accused of sorcery after making a huge, flying dung beetle for the set of a Greek comedy.

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Learning is crucial to Prospero’s power, and this has its material form in his books. In the middle of The Tempest, Caliban discusses with his new-found comrades how they should assassinate ‘a tyrant, / A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath / Cheated me of the island’ (3.2.40–44). Caliban is clear: Prospero’s books must be destroyed, ‘for without them / He’s but a sot, as I am; nor hath not / One spirit to command’ (3.2.92–94). Prospero himself confirms the crucial role of his library. Recounting their exile to the island to Miranda, he describes the way he neglected ‘worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind’ (1.2.89–90). His are ‘secret studies’ which drew him from the business of government: ‘my library / Was dukedom large enough’ (1.2.77, 109–10). When Prospero ultimately decides that it is time for him to renounce his magic, two symbolic gestures are needed: the breaking of his staff, and ‘deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book’ (5.1.55–6). The echo is of Dr Faustus, whose terrified protagonist offers to ‘burn my books’ in his last desperate soliloquy in the face of eternal damnation: here, in one of his last plays, Shakespeare returns to the literary legacy of his most brilliant contemporary Christopher Marlowe whose untimely death in 1593 robbed the Elizabethan theatre of one of its most blistering talents.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

The title page of Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, shows a magician with his robes, book and staff, alongside a devilish figure.

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To say that Prospero is a bookish dramatist is not necessarily to say that he is a portrait of Shakespeare, although that is the assumption of the Poet’s Corner statue, and of much sentimental criticism. It is unlikely that Shakespeare would have thought that his own autobiography was a good subject for a drama: no writer of the period develops an extended self-portrait, and certainly not in the theatre, where the capacity to inhabit different perspectives and characters is the dramatist’s most important skill. And Prospero, as more recent productions attuned to the play’s depiction of colonial power relations have shown, is not necessarily a flattering portrait of the artist as an old man: less wise sage and more manipulative control-freak. Shakespeare’s artist figures – Iago in Othello and the Duke of Measure for Measure as well as Prospero – show great creative energy but are negative representations.

  • Emma Smith
  • Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College Oxford. She has published on many aspects of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in historical, bibliographic and performance contexts. Her books include The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book. Her podcast lectures, ‘Approaching Shakespeare’ can be downloaded from University of Oxford podcasts or iTunesU.

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

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