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 tricks.
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, 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 than magicians with a slightly different presentation, audiences were not always aware of and those that 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.
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 1700s, audiences were not fooled by the 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.