Magic and the Supernatural
Magic and the Supernatural
Since the middle of the twentieth century, when scholars at the Warburg Institute in London first began exploring the influence of neoplatonic and hermetic ideas on Renaissance magic, the study of magical and supernatural elements in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries has become an increasingly important field. An interest in magic and the supernatural ran through all classes of Tudor and Stuart society. At the most sophisticated and specialized level, the occult formed a substantial part of the intellectual background in which the leading scholars, doctors, and theologians operated. For them, the Renaissance goal of extending the boundaries of human knowledge by examinating Greek and Latin texts raised questions about the ultimate nature of the universe, man's ability to control natural phenomena, and the limits placed on human understanding. At the popular level, by contrast, ancient pagan beliefs and later medieval traditions survived throughout the British Isles to inform a rich local folklore that manifested itself in such creations as Queen Mab (Romeo and Juliet) and Robin Goodfellow (A Midsummer Night's Dream). This mentality, however, also helped to engender the brutal witchcraze throughout Europe, which resulted in the death of many thousands of women who were believed to have abandoned Christ for Satan. The literary arts, especially drama, have been seen by modern scholars as having mediated between the specialized, philosophical theories of magic and the supernatural beliefs of the popular tradition.
During the Renaissance, the question of magic was inseparably linked with the question of human knowledge. Whereas the Church in the Middle Ages had denounced all magic as evil, the neoplatonist philosophers of fifteenth-century Florence adopted the term "natural magic" to connote the activity by which man gains knowledge of the universe's secrets through the aid of celestial spirits. For the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, man's potential was unlimited: "It will be within your power to rise, through your own choice, to the superior of divine life" [Oration on the Dignity of Man]. Since this conception of the "divine life" rested ultimately on an understanding of the way in which the universe had been ordered, magical thought became closely allied with such pursuits as astronomy, astrology, medicine, alchemy, and mathematics, and the distinctions between what modern thought would describe as the "scientific" and "unscientific" elements of these disciplines became blurred. In Shakespeare's England the ambiguity of magical thinking can be seen in the figure of John Dee (1527-1608), who was a mathematician, magician, alchemist, philosopher, consultant to the navy, and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. It is significant to note that after Dee had constructed a mechanical flying beetle for a production of Aristophanes' Peace at Cambridge University, he was regarded by some as being in league with demons.
While modern scholars have maintained that the image of the magician, or magus, portrayed by the Marlowe in Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare in The Tempest owes much to such historical figures as Dee and the continental philosophers Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), critics have emphasized the extent to which the magical and supernatural motifs in the English drama were equally derived from folkloristic and literary sources. According to Barbara Howard Traister (1984), most significant among these is the tradition of the medieval romance narrative, exemplified in such works as Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Traister notes that the essential purpose of the romance magicians is to facilitate plot development and to provide entertaining and fantastic effects. It is here that the legacy of the medieval literary tradition asserts itself in the literature of the English Renaissance, beginning with Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene and culminating in The Tempest. Indeed, the character of Prospero has been viewed by critics as European drama's most successful fusion of the neoplatonic ideal of the magician who attains divine knowlege and the popular magician who is able to achieve his ends through the performance of miracles and spectacles.
Renaissance Occult Thought
Barbara Howard Traister (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Literary and Philosophical Background," in Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama, University of Missouri Press, 1984, pp. 1-31.
[In the following essay, Traister examines religious, philosophical, and popular attitudes toward magic in the Renaissance that resulted in the literary and dramatic representation of the magician in the works of Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare.]
Doctor Faustus, The Tempest, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay— these very different plays have in common a major character who is, or claims to be, a magician. Scores of less well known plays from the Tudor and early Stuart period also have in their casts of characters a magician. Indeed, for some thirty years, the magician was a familiar stage figure; then, quite suddenly, he vanished from the stage, reappearing only in a few court masques or as a parody of himself, as a pseudo-magus. Exploration of this abrupt rise and fall of the stage magician forms part of the subject of this study.
The magician filled a symbolic role in many plays. He functioned as a man whose horizons were both limitless and limited, a self-contained paradox. The convergence of two views of the magician—one, popular and literary, perhaps most clearly expressed in the medieval romances, the other, elitist and...
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Witches, Ghosts, And Fairies
Wayne Shumaker (essay date 1972)
SOURCE : "Witchcraft," in The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 60-107.
[In the following essay, Shumaker traces the course of the persecution of witches in Europe from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries.]
I. The human impact
Of all the varieties of occultism, witchcraft has the most depressing history. The expenditure of human energy and wealth in the alchemist's search for the Stone or the Elixir, although sobering, is trivial in comparison to the torture and execution of supposed witches. And this suffering reached its height not during the Dark Ages but in the High Renaissance.
The Renaissance persecutions of witches, conducted in Catholic Europe at first by the Inquisition and other ecclesiastical courts but later, as in England, by the secular authority, for the sake of convenience may be said to have been initiated by the promulgation on December 5, 1484, of Pope Innocent VIII's bull, Summis considerantes affectibus, which called upon both the Church and the secular power to aid the Inquisition in extirpating witch-craft. The same bull appointed Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (or Institoris), subsequently to become famous as authors of the Malleus maleficarum, or "Hammer Against Witches," as...
(The entire section is 26146 words.)
Staging The Supernatural
Robert Rentoul Reed, Jr. (essay date 1965)
SOURCE : "Supernatural Intervention: Two Dramatic Traditions," in The Occult on the Tudor and Stuart Stage, The Christopher Publishing House, 1965, pp. 15-53.
[In the following essay, Reed demonstrates that the Elizabethan-Jacobean drama of supernaturalism evolved from the fusion of classical sources, and especially the plays of Seneca, with the medieval Christian theater.]
The English playwrights of the Renaissance, including Shakespeare, have appropriately been described as "mundane"; this evaluation, probably more than any other factor, has tended to make obscure the unparalleled extent to which they were preoccupied with the occult world. To them, of course, the occult had a reality and a substance that are difficult for modern minds to comprehend. Their interest in supernatural phenomena—an interest that far surpasses that of the secular playwrights of any other period in England—was not, as a matter of fact, inconsistent with their mundane impulse, and does not stamp them as mystics or dreamers. Their repeated employment of sorcerers, demons, and witches as indispensable motivators of their plots was in full keeping with the Elizabethan belief that the supernatural world and the earth were not, at all points, mutually exclusive. Heaven had receded to a remote distance, but not Hell—at least not yet. Black magic was feared as...
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Anglo, Sidney, ed. The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, 258 p.
Useful essay collection on witchcraft and magic in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Beckwith, Sarah. "The power of devils and the hearts of men: notes towards a drama of witchcraft." In Shakespeare and the Changing Curriculum, edited by Lesley Aers and Nigel Wheale, pp. 143-61. London: Routledge, 1991.
Examination of the importance of sixteenth and seventeenth century beliefs in witchcraft for Macbeth.
Briggs, K. M. The Anatomy of Puck. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959, 284 p.
Important account of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Engilish beliefs in monsters, fairies, ghosts, and other spiritual beings.
Boas, Marie. The Scientific Renaissance: 1450-1630. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962, 380 p.
Valuable study of the shift from the Renaissance view of the natural world to the scientific empiricism of the seventeenth century.
Craig, Hardin. The Enchanted Glass: The Elizabethan Mind in Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, I960, 293 p.
First published in 1935, this is a classic examination of Elizabethan modes of thought, containing detailed analyses of cosmologica!, astrological, and occult beliefs....
(The entire section is 537 words.)