The magician Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest". A true Renaissance "magus"?

Term Paper, 2012

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


1. Introduction

In Renaissance the magus, the adept of natural magic, was considered a powerful man. He was of not only aware of natural, mystical and magical phenomena but also of the “innate ideas within the mens”, which is the “intuitive, suprarational faculty within the soul” (Mebane 181). He was seen as the good and white magician. Many scholars and intellectuals were either engaged in magic or at least knew about it. In the 16th and 17th century many writers, like for example Shakespeare and Marlowe, adopted the figure of the white or black magician in their works. In William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” the main character is Prospero, who is a powerful magician, too. He uses his magical powers to govern all events on the island and wants to leave nothing to chance. In doing so he uses different tools for magical support. He is a master of a learned art which enables him to use magical equipment like books, a staff or a magic garment. Moreover he commands natural spirits to play out a mimesis, which makes nothing on the island what it seems to be. Nevertheless, all of these actions follow a higher moral function. Prospero’s morality is shattered after the usurpation and betrayal of his brother. With the help of the power that he has on the island, he wants to “purge the evil from the inhabitants of his world and restore them to goodness” (Egan 175). In this process he is often very short-sighted and so he mistakes his powers with godliness and humanity with goodness.

This paper wants to examine Prospero, the magus and thus asks the question, whether this figure depicts the natural magus of Renaissance times. Elementary to this examination is the assumption that Renaissance magic is real magic. People then considered their magic, miracles, spirits etc. real and not a trick. Thus when I speak about Renaissance magic, it just as real as the people in Renaissance times considered it.

2. Magic in the European Renaissance

The Renaissance was a period of time which brought great changes to society and to science in Europe. It was the time of great scientist who changed the world-view completely and the dawn of enlightenment. Natural sciences developed. But furthermore, the time was coined by magic. When one looks at science in the renaissance, one has to consider magic and when one deals with magic, science must not be forgotten. In the following chapter, I want to give a short overview of the types of magic that can be found in the Renaissance and how people reacted to it.

The major type of magic in Renaissance Europe is natural magic. Before defining this category, it is necessary to define natural sciences. Kurt Goldhammer simply says that in the Renaissance the term natural sciences described not a science about nature but out of nature (Goldhammer 13). That means that the scientia naturalis is the knowledge about the power of natural phenomena. Unlike today, intuition and feeling played an important and respected role in the scientific cognition. The Renaissance scholar Philippus Theophrastus Aurelius Bombastus of Hohenheim, also called Paracelsus, said that love is a premise for understanding and knowing that there is an interplay between faith, love, knowing and understanding (Goldhammer 9). This shows that there was no separation of religious faith and science in Renaissance scholarship as we have it today. What we call nature, was seen as creation. There existed no alternative to God in sciences (Goldhammer 11). Thus it isn’t strange that scientist also dealt with magic. Natural sciences were often tightly connected with natural magic. Moreover there was no distinction between the humanities and natural science, which made them not only religious but philosophical, too. It was a matter of course that scientists also dealt with the humanities in their scientific studies. It was especially Neoplatonism and Hermetism1 which were seen as a philosophical background for natural magic by many scholars. The basic idea behind it was the belief that “knowledge could give humankind a degree of control over its own destiny” (Mebane 75).

Natural magic was tolerated in monotheistic Europe by the people and the church. The term is known since the Middle Ages, where it probably firstly appeared in the works of William of Auvergne (about 1190-1249. Goldhammer 17). Even at that time, natural magic existed as a counterpart to black, demonic witchcraft but wasn’t as known as in Renaissance times (Goldhammer 17). As early authorities of natural magic count Albertus Magnus (about 1193- 1280) and Peter de Abano (1250-1316). In the beginning of the Renaissance natural magic was used to make dubious practices socially acceptable and legitimate (Zambelli 27). In the Middle Ages methods like astronomy, astrology, alchemy etc. were known and performed. Nevertheless, they had a dubious reputation and were mostly exercised in private. In the Renaissance period, when science more and more developed, these methods were important parts of it and thus needed a new, fresh and non-hazardous reputation (Goldhammer 15). Three of the most important scholars in this respect were the Italian scholars Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Giambattista Della Porta (1553-1615). In 1486 Jacob Sprenger’s and Heinrich Institoris’ Malleus Maleficarum was published. The so called Hammer of the Witches is a manual which describes how to identify witches and how to deal with them. It turns on another type of magic which will be described later. Paola Zambelli notices that it cannot be coincidental that only one year earlier Ficino and Pico published works in which they describe natural magic and defend it against possible attacks (Zambelli 44). Although the topic is called magic, these works portray a new understanding of science (Goldhammer 29), which is different from today’s definitions. The agent of natural magic is called magus. Ficino compares him with a farmer because “he certainly dedicates his cult to the earth” (Zambelli 25). That doesn’t mean that he worships nature. He should rather be understood as a “humble and honest interpreter and husbandman of nature” (Zambelli 25). Like a farmer he cultivates earth and he is authorized by God to do so because the lower things should be moved and ruled by the higher (Zambelli 25). Pico adds to that understanding that the magus is like a supreme artist who is in love with all the reflections of god. He sees them in all earthly creatures and it is this love which makes him redeem them by freeing them through his power and magic from all impurity (McAdam 335). Both scholars realise that the world is full of spirits, which can either be good or evil. This wasn’t an idea which was foreign to people at that time. Yet, it was common theology that spirits and demons existed (see Mowat). Natural magic follows cabbalistic traditions which became popular among Christians in the Renaissance. One scholar who openly confessed to it was Pico. Necromantic practices as for example invocations and sacrifices, however, aren’t part of natural magic (Zambelli 49). Ficino, Pico and Della Porta reject all kinds of ceremonial magic and consider it a purely philosophical world-view (Zambelli 49).

Nevertheless scholars existed who included it. One example here is Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim. For him ceremonial practices were indispensable (Zambelli 75). This shows how different the understanding of natural magic was. Nevertheless many magi were connected by the belief that a higher knowledge and wisdom is concealed in nature (see Goldhammer). Natural magic was considered white and therefore good magic. However, it has some characteristics in common with the so-called black magic. While we have many texts about natural magic written by scholars who actually practised it, it is much more difficult to get any information about black magic. In the Middle Ages “Hermetism and witchcraft … travel along paths that are almost parallel” (Zambelli 35). It was in the last decades of the 15th century that both undergo a decisive renewal in all parts of Europe (Zambelli 35). Natural magic became widely respected and wasn’t seen as dubious anymore; but rural witchcraft became evil in the eyes of the people and especially of the church. We find descriptions of forms of black magic mainly in the works of natural magicians and clerics, who were opposed to those forms of magic. This is probably due to the fact that adepts of that magic “had fewer speculative, dialectical and political means at their disposal to defend themselves against persecution” (Zambelli 44). Thus in the following, I can only refer to texts about witchcraft, necromancy etc. written by outsiders.

What becomes absolutely clear in the defence-texts of Ficino and Pico is that witchcraft became considered a relic of the dark Middle Ages in Renaissance. They thought that any kind of ceremonial magic wasn’t up to date and adequate anymore (Zambelli 47). Most scholars shared that opinion and thus it is no surprise that ceremonial witchcraft was displaced by natural, more philosophical magic. Although it is possible to differ between the practices, it is especially the purpose of the art of magic that makes a difference. While “benevolent magic fulfils and perfects natural processes …, evil magic endeavours to destroy or pervert them” (Mebane 196). A real magus strives only for the fulfilment of the providence and thus never works against God’s will (Mebane 181). The opposite applies to black witches, who directed their power selfishly against destiny. The 16th and 17th century was also the time of the witch-hunts by the Catholic Church in Europe. Yet these weren’t used to punish real witches. They were a means to supress all forms of heresy and social and intellectual deviation and should thus prevent any attempts of radical religious and social reform (Mebane 96). The reactions differed. There were some scholars like Ficino and Pico who made it very clear that they didn’t practise or support ceremonial, black magic. Others couldn’t give enough prove and were denounced as necromancer like Giordano Bruno. Even if there existed black magic as described in several works, no one would practise it openly in Renaissance Europe. The people who admitted that they used it where mostly forced to their confessions (see Mebane).

There were notably many prominent scholars from Italy who dealt with magic. Nevertheless many English intellectuals researched in the field of natural magic, too, and were well aware of its ambiguity. Some prominent examples were Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert Recorde, Christopher Marlowe and King James I. Most of them referred to Giordano Bruno, who spent some time in England, and to Ficino and Pico, whose texts were widespread in whole Europe. Through his plays it becomes obvious, that Shakespeare knew of Renaissance magic concepts. Hints can be found in for example King Lear and Othello (Mebane 175) but the Renaissance understanding of natural magic is in no other play as prominent as in The Tempest where the main figure is a magician.


1 Neoplatonism refers to Platon who also studied “ancient, godly knowledge” (Goldhammer 33). He believed that there is a close connection between philosophy, religion and ratio (Goldhammer 33). Platonists picked his understanding up and applied it to their field of studies (Zambelli 24). Hermetism follows the idea that there exist hidden revelations which can only be found when the secrets of nature and earth are decoded (see Ebeling). Often both philosophies were combined. Ficino was the main scholar who used and definded both philosophies in his studies (see Zambelli).

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The magician Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest". A true Renaissance "magus"?
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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prospero, shakespeare, tempest, renaissance
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Juliane Strätz (Author), 2012, The magician Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest". A true Renaissance "magus"?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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