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The Wizard in the Tempest

By Ace G. Pilkington


As I write this, wizards are everywhere—in movies, television, books, and even theme parks. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf has just been featured in the first film of a three-part adaptation of The Hobbit. The six books of the Harry Potter series are inescapable, and their eight film incarnations (completed in 2011) have racked up $7.7 billion, making it the highest grossing film series ever, if inflation isn’t taken into account (“Movie Franchises,” The Numbers—Box Office Data, Movie Stars, Idle Speculation [February 9, 2013, http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/franchises]). The BBC television’s The Adventures of Merlin is running on the Syfy channel, and has been broadcast in 182 other countries (Steve Clarke, “BBC Conjures Up More Merlin,” Variety Europe [October 25, 2010, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118026310]). Disney recently purchased the Star Wars franchise, and there will soon be additional films, complete with more versions of George Lucas’s wizards in space. And this is without mentioning writers such as Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher, whose very successful careers have been driven by men with magical wands.

Wizards were popular in Shakespeare’s time as well. In fact, David Woodman maintains that “most audiences possessed such a truly commonplace knowledge of magic, both black and white, that a popular response to Prospero as a white magician was assured” (White Magic and English Renaissance Drama [Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973], 73). While such a subject might seem unlikely or even dangerous in a time when witches were still burned, Anthony Harris argues that, “Such an attitude is in accord with the spirit of the romantic comedies of the early sixteenth century, where wizards and enchanters were honoured and the legality of their magical practices was unquestioned” (Night’s Black Agents: Witchcraft and Magic in Seventeenth-Century English Drama [Rowman and Littlefield: Manchester Univeristy Press, 1980], 117). Or as Leontes puts it in The Winter’s Tale, “If this be magic, let it be an art/ Lawful as eating” (5.3.10–11; all references to line numbers are from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, Ed. Alfred Harbage [Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1971]).

It is, after all, very different from the black magician who dealt with demons to do good or ill, and still further removed from witchcraft that required the witch to trade his or her soul for power. White magic even had an elaborate philosophical justification. Those writers who believed with Cornelius Agrippa that “good daemons can be attracted and bad ones repelled” (Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972], 151–2) were willing to accept the white magician on his own terms, as a Neoplatonist philosopher who “sought to refine his soul and gain a direct knowledge of God” (Woodman 30). In this view a creature like Ariel is not an evil demon but, as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Discarded Image, a member of “a third rational species distinct from angels and men” ([Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964], 134), which served as a bridge between them. So in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Emergence,” Data, who is playing Prospero on the holodeck, responds to Captain Picard’s criticism by saying, “I am supposed to be attempting a Neoplatonic magical rite.”

It is, indeed, in this elaborate context that Shakespeare’s original audience would have viewed Prospero and from this perspective that they would have seen that the wizard has both multiple motives and magical means for revenge. He has struggled to control his passions as he has worked to master his spells, bending both to his benevolent ends. He has all the marks of the white magician, from his emphasis on chastity to his challenge to the dark power of the witch Sycorax. He has planned from the first to forgive Alonso and marry Miranda to Ferdinand. When the last moment of decision comes, Prospero’s resolve holds firm, “The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,/ The sole drift of my purpose doth extend/ Not a frown further” (5.1.27–30).

Ariel, his daemon, who possesses what Katharine Briggs describes as “a certain ethereal benevolence” (The Anatomy of Puck [New York: Arno Press, 1977], 53), stands beside him. As Caliban sinks below humanness with the heavy load of his unnatural appetites, Ariel rises above it into the fire and air which are his natural elements. Prosper stands on the edge of a heavenly transcendence, ready to rise past his humanness to something greater. This too is characteristic of the white magician.

But Prospero, and this is at the center of Shakespeare’s play, makes a different choice. He has the power to abandon all his troubles by going beyond them. And if he stays where he is, he has the means to create the utopia that Gonzalo only talks of. Ferdinand foresees a perfect society with Prospero in control, “Let me live here ever!/ So rare a wondred father and a wise/ Makes this place Paradise” (4.1.122–124). The wizard’s society would require no effort; magical servants would do everything. As in Stephano’s fantasy, everyone on the island would have his music (and all else) for free. However, Prospero is wise enough to see in the midst of his wonders that this society without struggle, this community of concord, would either be something like Gonzalo’s vision of nonhuman innocence or Sebastian’s picture of inhuman evil. John Wilders says, “The effortlessly happy existence imagined by Gonzalo would be possible only if the consequences of the Fall could be annulled” (The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays [London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1978], 130). Only if, in fact, Prospero and his subjects could cease to be human.

Ultimately, the white wizard, the overreacher who has his impossible gift almost within his grasp, chooses humanness. The expression of this decision comes just after the most poignant of all his encounters with Ariel, that guardian of a strange and alien threshold who has made a kind of reverse crossing. Ariel reports the sufferings of the three men of sin and the “good old lord Gonzalo”; then he says, “if you now beheld them,/ Your affections would become tender.” Prospero responds, “Dost thou think so, spirit?” The line that follows is hedged round with wonder, “Mine would, sir, were I human” (5.1.18¬20). In the words of Katharine Briggs, “It seems to contain in it the meaning behind all those stories of the Neck and the mermaid and the Scottish fairy who long for human souls, a sudden sharp reminder of the humanity we lose and insult by silly grudges” (53).

Whatever Prospero’s state of mind may be at this point (perhaps it is that last hesitation which comes before a great decision, long ago made, carefully reached for and at last grasped), his next speech is definitely an affirmation of human values, “Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling/ Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,/ One of their kind, that relish all as sharply/ Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?” (5.1.21-24). Like Marlowe’s Mephistophilis with his comment on heaven, “’tis not half so fair/ As thou, or any man that breathes on earth” (Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: Text and Major Criticsm, Ed. Irving Ribner [New York: The Odyssey Press, Inc., 1966], 2.2.6–7), Ariel speaks from beyond the boundaries of earth about the value of humanness. It cannot be an accident, a chance textual juxtaposition, that places Prospero’s final renunciation of his powers only a few pulse beats later.

The wizard has crossed the boundary, enlarged his mind, subdued his passions, and come back to everyday reality with a new appreciation for the complex, confusing, contrary but glorious nature of humanness. As John Wilders puts it, “Gonzalo’s dream is an ideal by which we can measure the painful temporary, half-successful attempts at government made by Shakespeare’s historical rulers generally” (130). But Gonzalo’s dream (and Prospero’s experience) is also a means by which we can measure the limits of the human condition, the dangers beyond it, and the values which it shelters.

The power and passion of humanness transcend the perfection that is above humanity and the destruction that is below it; they are more immediately vital and ultimately meaningful than the airy spheres of daemons or the earthy circles of demons. Perhaps it is this complexity in the play, this multiplicity of vision, this complicated humanness that has generated so much argument. Barbara A. Mowat, in “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus,” points out the conflicting traditions from magus to conjuror, from dramatist to illusionist, that make up the play. But this “blending of seriousness with jest, of revelation with bewilderment,” (English Literary Renaissance issue 2, 1981, 303) is not only “the wonder of Prospero himself” (303), it is also the wonder of being human and the central subject of this magical play.

The white wizard, the powerful mage, is also a duke, a father, and though it may “infect” his mouth to say it, a brother. At the last, he acknowledges not only Antonio but also Caliban, he breaks his staff, frees Ariel, and goes back to Milan—with the help of the audience’s applause. Shakespeare has made it clear that no Neoplatonic rite will save us from our lives by making us more than human, though it may show us the way to a better, sharper humanness, guided as Prospero is by his love for Miranda and for that fiery helper of his who lighted him on his true way.

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The Taming of the Shrew

June 19 - September 7, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Henry VIII

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Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing

June 21 - October 5, 2024

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The Mountaintop

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The 39 Steps

June 22 - October 5, 2024

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The Winter's Tale

June 18 - September 6, 2024

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Silent Sky

July 12 - October 5, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

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