Teller and The Tempest: Magic in Shakespeare’s time

CST The Tempest
Prospero (Larry Yando) suspends his daughter Miranda (Eva Louise Balistreiri) in midair as the ever-watchful Ariel (Nate Dendy) assists his master in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Tempest, directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, in the Courtyard Theater, 2015. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician Prospero conjures up a storm, charms his daughter to sleep, and uses his power to control Ariel and other spirits. Is this magic for real, or is Prospero pulling off elaborate illusions?

Fascinated by this question and by Prospero’s relinquishing of magic at the play’s end, Teller (of the magic/comedy team Penn & Teller) co-directed a production of The Tempest  with Aaron Posner at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2015. (Teller and Posner had previously worked together on the 2008 Folger Theatre production of Macbeth.)

In this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, Teller joins Barbara Mowat, co-editor of the Folger Editions, to talk about magic in The Tempest and other Shakespeare plays, as well as the attitudes about magic that Shakespeare would have encountered in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England.

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Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have taken the supernatural world for granted.

“They lived in a world where people believed firmly that there were hierarchies of angels and hierarchies of fallen angels, and to deny that was to be accused of being an atheist,” Mowat says.

The discovery of witchcraft, a 1584 book by Reginald Scot, argued that human beings could not summon or control spirits. But no less a figure than James I, who ascended the English throne in 1603, wrote his own book advocating the opposite position—that human beings did indeed exercise power over spirits—and attributing the source of that power to the devil.

Shakespeare was taking a risk with the use of magic in The Tempest, which was first performed in 1611; he could have landed himself in prison or worse. However, according to Mowat, Shakespeare protected himself by removing any religious context and by having Prospero give up magic at the end of the play.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

In an article Mowat wrote for Shakespeare Quarterly in 2001, she argues that Prospero’s book would have been what’s known as a grimoire, a book that a magician would use to summon spirits. These books were collections of prayers and invocations, with names and descriptions of the fallen angels that could be summoned, according to Mowat.

The images below are from the 1580 grimoire mentioned in the podcast episode:

Listen to the podcast episode to learn more about Shakespeare and magic.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a theater partner of the Folger Shakespeare Library.