Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Magic and the Supernatural

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 philosophical, best studied in the writings of the Italian neoplatonists—led to an ambivalence that made the magician a potentially fascinating stage character. Brief exploration of these traditions of magic leads to an understanding of how the magician functions in individual plays and provides some background for examining his association with magical competitions, sensual delights of all sorts, and a master-of-ceremonies image.

Interest in magic ran high during the Tudor and early Stuart period. It is important to understand both the pre-conceptions the audience was likely to have had about magicians and what the playwrights themselves might have known and felt about magic and the men who practiced it. The subject was seriously discussed in the court circles of Elizabeth and James, in the English law courts, in church, and in philosophical works imported from the Continent. Thanks largely to pioneering studies of neo-platonic and hermetic magic emanating from the Warburg Institute, since the 1950s literary scholars have become increasingly aware of the influence of magic on Renaissance thought. A somewhat different line of inquiry, not yet as well explored, concerns how—if at all—that influence was translated into literary, fictive creations.

In this spirit of inquiry, then, I examine both the historical and literary climate of Renaissance magic in preparation for close analysis of several important stage magicians. It is impossible to claim direct influence, except in a few unusual cases, of the literary and historical materials on specific plays or specific dramatists. However, the conflux of magical traditions in the early Renaissance helps explain how, for a few playwrights, the magician figure focuses issues of human potential and limitation and raises the question of how much man is permitted to know.


Religious and philosophical attitudes toward magic were varied and complex. Until the thirteenth century—and, officially, much later than that—the medieval church's position was simple and straightforward: magic was to be avoided by God-fearing men. God permitted magic partly to demonstrate, by its overthrow, his own miraculous powers, and partly as one of the pitfalls that appeared in the world as a result of original sin.

But difficulties arose from such a sweeping condemnation of magic, and uneasy perceptions of problems produced by the complete rejection of magic appear in the writings of men such as Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. Of primary concern was the impossibility of drawing any clear line between magic and science. To experiment, to inquire into the secrets of the universe, was to come very close to involvement with magic. Medicine and astronomy, for example, were frequently associated with magic. Was the doctor practicing magic when he prescribed herbs to be taken at the full moon? Was the man who predicted the stars' influence on one's life or one's harvest a magician? Already uncomfortable questions in the thirteenth century, they grew increasingly vexing in ensuing centuries as the demand for scientific experiment increased.

Physician, alchemist, professor all then wore the same long robe, which might mark either the scholar or the magician. And when so much of what was new in science was concerned with the very frontiers of knowledge, and dealt with almost unimaginable problems of the organisation, complexity and harmony of Nature, scientists themselves were puzzled to know certainly where natural philosophy stopped and mystic science began.

Some philosophers attempted to clarify the issues by distinguishing demonic magic from what became increasingly well known as natural magic (magia naturalis). Writers as early as Roger Bacon distinguished between demonic ("not human") magic and natural wonders, though most did not yet call the natural wonders "magic":

Nam licet naturae potens sit et mirabilis, tamen ars utens natura pro instrumento potentior est virtute naturali, sicut videmus in multis. Quicquid autem est praeter operationem naturae vel artis, aut non est humanum, aut est fictum et fraudibus occupatum.

Granted that nature is powerful and wondrous, nevertheless, by using nature as its instrument, art is stronger than natural power, as we see in many things. Moreover, whatever is beyond the operation of nature or of art is either not human, or is invented and usurped by fraud.

Gradually the linguistic distinction between natural and demonic magic became familiar (though the church never officially accepted it), and when, in the mid-sixteenth century, Giambattista della Porta used the phrase magia naturalis to title his collection of remedies and superstitions, it was a well-known phrase.

But the verbal distinction between natural and demonic magic created new difficulties: how was the natural magician to be regarded? A familiar example of the problem arises from the biblical account of the three magi visiting the Christ child. The magi foretell the birth and then confirm its occurrence by reading the heavens; yet they are clearly positive figures. Writers against magic were always rather embarrassed about this passage and developed numerous ingenious ways of getting around the problem. Albertus Magnus turned to etymology to solve the difficulty and at the same time worked in his distinction between good and evil magicians:

Magi enim grammatice magni sunt.… Nec sunt Magi malefici sicut quidam male opinantur. Magus enim et Mathematicus et Incantator et Maleficus sive Necromanticus et Ariolus et Aruspex et Divinator differunt. Quia Magus proprie nisi magnus est, qui scientiam habens de omnibus necessariis et effectibus naturarum coniecturans aliquando mirabilia naturae praeostendit et educit.

For Magi are, grammatically speaking, great men.… Nor are Magi evildoers, although they are often thought ill of in this way. For a Magus and a Mathematician and a Charmer and an Evil-doer, or a Necromancer and Seer and Haruspex and Diviner all differ. Since a Magus is surely nothing unless a great man, knowledgeable and making guesses about nature from all its requirements and effects, he often demonstrates and teaches nature's wonders.

But such distinctions had to be repeated by each writer who dealt with magic. Interestingly, no one seems to have doubted that there was demonic magic. Rather, all efforts were directed at proving that "good" or natural magic did, or did not, exist.

As late as the mid-seventeenth century some writers were still trying to define magic and magus and distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable types. But many Renaissance commentators seemed confident in the treatment of natural magic:

Magick is taken amongst all men for Wisdom, and the perfect knowledge of natural things: and those are called Magicians, whom the Latines call Wise-men, the Greeks call Philosophers.… There are two sorts of Magick: the one is infamous, and unhappie, because it hath to do with foul spirits, and consists of Inchantments and wicked Curiosity; and this is called Sorcery … [which] stands meerly upon fancies and imaginations, such as vanish presently away, and leave nothing behinde them.… The other Magick is natural; which all excellent wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there any thing more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning.

Words like worship as Porta's anonymous translator used it in the statement above (Porta himself used the phrase excipit, colit, & veneratur) had the potential to get their author into a good deal of trouble with the church, but such effusions demonstrate to what heights admiration for natural magic rose in some circles.

In theory, demonic and natural magic were distinguished by a single incontrovertible difference—demonic magic was performed with the aid of spirits; natural magic was not. But in time, natural magic became a more general term, covering more territory than had originally been permitted it. The people most responsible for the alterations in the meaning of natural magic were a group of Italian philosophers who revived neoplatonism during the latter half of the fifteenth century. The magical theories of this group had some influence on the way magic is portrayed in English Renaissance literature.

The revival of neoplatonism provided its adherents with a belief in a general animating spirit (spiritus or anima mundi) operative in the universe. This spirit in turn in-fused souls or spirits into other parts of the creation, usually the planets and other heavenly bodies. This belief probably originated from Plato's Timaeus:

[And when he framed the universe he distributed] souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all.

As this doctrine of world soul emerged, having been filtered through Plotinus and influenced by hermetic writings, it was seen as a source of tremendous cosmic energy and wisdom that man, under very special conditions, might be permitted to tap. Neoplatonists had individual theories about how one might tap into this suprarational wisdom and power, but most subscribed to the general idea that, by purifying himself of earthly ties and steadily pursuing wisdom and knowledge, man could lift himself above the concerns of the sublunar world and participate in knowledge of cosmic affairs. One of the most famous expressions of belief in man's ability to ascend to a semidivine state is Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man: "It will be within your power to rise, through your own choice, to the superior orders of divine life." An d Giordano Bruno, often far less restrained than Pico, sang in the poem that introduces On the Infinite Universe and Worlds:

Henceforth I spread confident wings to space;
I feel no barrier of crystal or of glass;
I cleave the heavens and soar to the infinite
And while I rise from my own globe to others
And penetrate ever further through the eternal
That which others saw from afar I leave far
  behind me.

Not only is this an expression of Bruno's cosmography; it also suggests the potential that Bruno believed man had to transcend his own globe and mentally explore "far other worlds and other seas."

But, of course, it was not granted to every man to gain such wisdom. Like other writers on magic, the neoplatonists jealously guarded their magical secrets, carefully limiting those who could be expected to attain communication with the heavens to a select group of initiates. Certainly not all neoplatonists subscribed to Pico's ideas about magic or even to Marsilio Ficino's milder views. But those who did concern themselves with magic usually believed that only the magus, the rare wise man, could accomplish contact with the infinite: "As the farmer weds his elms to the vines, so the magus weds earth to heaven—the lower orders, that is, to the endowments and powers of the higher," stated Pico in the Oration.

Neoplatonists called magic that performs the synthesis of the earthly with the heavenly natural magic but gave the term a significance at odds with its original meaning. If man's ascent to divine wisdom was purely the result of his goodness and intense study, then the meaning of the term remained essentially unchanged. But most neoplatonists, not content to have man do all the work, felt the need for means to attract (or even to compel) the planetary spirits to visit the magician. Ficino, for example, developed theories of how to attract planetary daemons (to be carefully distinguished from "demons," evil spirits) by the use of music, particular words similar to incantations, special colors, and perfumes. These sensual lures were designed to draw spirits that a recent commentator on Ficino's magic, D. P. Walker, described [in Spiritual and Demonic Magic, 1958] as "like men without earthly bodies who live in the heavenly spheres; they perform the function of transmitting celestial influences; they can, being both soul and spirit, act both on man's spirit and his soul." The major difference between such "spiritual magic" and truly demonic or devilish magic seems to be that Ficino intended to attract benign angelic spirits to influence his own disposition rather than evil spirits who would perform malevolent feats or interfere with the lives of other people.

Of the writers who shared Ficino's belief in planetary daemons or held more extreme beliefs, a few admitted to something more in their art than natural magic. Agrippa distinguished between natural and "ceremonial" magic, the latter involving rituals and special ceremonies for getting in touch with spirits. All ceremonial magic is dangerous, he warned, but he went on to distinguish two kinds—"goetic" and "theurgic." Goetic magic, the calling up of evil spirits, is, he admitted, truly commerce with the devil and is as reprehensible as the opponents of magic claim. Theurgy, on the other hand, is the calling of angelic or planetary spirits and, though dangerous, is very attractive. Tommaso Campanella, writing in the seventeenth century and thus possessed of a latecomer's perspective on the changes in theories about magic, distinguished [in "On the Sense and Feeling in All Things and on Magic"] three kinds: diabolic, natural, and "divine," the last a kind of heavenly gift to those who have practiced natural magic in a spirit of reverence and piety.

Now I affirm that there is divine magic: magic that man can neither understand nor employ without the grace of God.… There is natural magic, as that of the stars, and that of medicine and physics, with religion added to give faith to those who hope for favors from these sciences; and there is diabolical magic for those who, by the art of the devil, seem, to those who do not understand, to do marvelous things.… Natural magic, then, stands between: and those who exercise it with piety and reverence for the Creator, frequently come to be elevated to the supernatural kind of magic, thus participating in magic of a higher form.

As must be evident, the study of Renaissance magical theory is enormously complicated by the imprecision of terminology and by variations in kinds of magic, many of which seem to overlap or duplicate one another. Discussions of magic are further obfuscated by a deliberate vagueness on the part of philosophers about their specific beliefs. Contemporary examples of the church's power over heretics warned writers against being too outspoken about their magical ideas. So magicians denied or apologized for their magical theories, shrouding their ideas in seemingly innocuous contexts. D. P. Walker has commented on the difficulty of deciphering what Ficino actually believed about magic from the extremely cautious and often ambiguous way in which he wrote of it; Agrippa apologized for and virtually retracted his most outspoken book on magic, De occulta philosophia, even before he published it. The book was completed in 1510, the year Agrippa visited England, but circulated in manuscript until published in 1533. In 1526, evidently as a precaution against charges that might be made against the positive comments about magic in De occulta, Agrippa published De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio inuectiua, which repudiated many of the views on magic contained in the yet-to-be-published De occulta. Bruno's allegorical obscurity is undoubtedly also due in part to his fear of being too outspoken. To some degree, of course, magical theorists used deliberate obscurity as a tactic to keep from the uninitiated wisdom that they neither deserved nor could handle. These philosophers were not disposed to cast their magical pearls before swine.

Adding to the confusion surrounding magic is the adoption by leading neoplatonists of much theory that was not neoplatonic in origin. Ficino, one of the earliest and perhaps the most influential of the philosophers who espoused neoplatonism, was deeply influenced by hermetic material that he translated and published at the behest of Cosimo de Medici. Thought to be ancient Egyptian writings antedating Moses, the assorted occult treatises ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus influenced theories abut magic, medicine, and astronomy for nearly two centuries until Casaubon revealed their spurious nature in the mid-seventeenth century. Thus, even in Ficino's best-known work, De triplici vita (1489), his neoplatonism was adulterated by occult material from other sources. Similarly, Pico della Mirandola added to the neoplatonic elements of his magical theory a good deal of cabalistic belief in the importance of words and language for contacting spirits. This cabalistic element was passed to later writers mixed with Pico's neoplatonic beliefs. Clearly, to talk of neoplatonic magic is to talk of a general magical theory—philosophically based, seeking wisdom and knowledge, recognizing the existence of extraterrestrial spirits whose influences may be felt and, to an extent, controlled by man—not of a rigid set of beliefs conforming strictly to the tenets of neoplatonism.

With his discussions of how to attract planetary spirits, Ficino was at first the most important theorist of neoplatonic magic. But he did not go far enough with his magic to qualify even as a theurgic magician. Ficino's theory involved no compulsion. He merely wanted, through various ceremonies, to prepare the operator to be receptive to planetary spirits and perhaps to attract—never to compel—the spirits to visit the anxiously waiting operator. It was the revision of Ficino's ideas by such men as Agrippa and Paracelsus, who added cabalistic and expanded already present hermetic elements, that gave the magician not only attraction for but also power over both good and evil spirits and produced the strong and notorious kinds of magic. Ficino's reputation in his own time does not seem to have been that of a magician, and he was not persecuted by the church for heretical practices. Agrippa and Paracelsus, on the other hand, were known primarily as magicians and only secondarily as philosophers. What is so attractive and so dangerous about the strong magic of someone like Agrippa is the power it grants to man, who is able, if he is a properly initiated magus, to compel spirits to obey him. Agrippa would have quickly emended the preceding sentence to read: "the good, angelic spirits to obey him," but clearly the emendation was often forgotten by Agrippa's contemporaries. The line between goetic and theurgic magic was often blurred or omitted. Campanella, commenting on Agrippa, said that he reject ed magic that subjects man to the devil but kept the magic by which man subjects the devil and constrains him to do his will. And Pico, making the distinction between magicians who are controlled (having made a pact with or a promise to evil spirits) and those who control, made a similar claim for the magician's power over evil spirits: "For just as that first form of magic makes man a slave and a pawn of evil powers, so the second form makes him their ruler and lord." This promise of rule over spirits, whether angelic or demonic, tantalized philosophers and dramatists alike, and much of the magic discussed in the Renaissance involved the compulsion of spirits, a far cry from Ficino's original, mild theories of daemonic attraction.

What is important in all this is to recognize the very real philosophical concern with magic in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Philosophers who were, at least to some degree, known and respected were writing seriously about magic and, under the label natural magic, were talking positively about a magic that involved communication with spirits. The magus, in some circles, was regarded as a man of great wisdom, to be respected as a superior man among men. Indeed, the magus became in some writers' minds a symbol for the infinite possibilities that then seemed open to man. Through magic, some felt, man could climb to God (granted divine grace, of course) rather than simply mark time waiting out a weary life on earth. Eugenio Garin [Science and Civic Life in the Italian Renaissance, 1969] summarized this view of the magician as possessor of tremendous potential:

True magic was defended because it was work which made use of the given forms in order to construct an ascending chain of Being. Ceremonial magic, on the other hand, was attacked because it was work which led into the abyss of sin and chaos. In both cases, however, the ambiguous reality of man consisted in the fact that he was a possibility, an opening through which one could rejoice in the inexhaustible richness of Being. He was not a being, defined once and for all, immobile and secure, but was always precariously balanced upon the margin of an absolute risk.

The magician could damn himself, as Faustus does, but there was also a possibility that he could lift himself into the sphere of immortal spirits or at least call some of those spirits down to him. A character with such potential might well prove attractive to a dramatist.

Nonetheless, little evidence has been offered that this philosophical view of magic, based primarily in Italy, had any effect on the writers of sixteenth-century England. Though England was not in the mainstream of the neoplatonic revival, the movement clearly had some influence on English letters. Many of the seminal magical texts had been translated into English by the end of the sixteenth century, and others were available to English readers in their original languages. In addition to the written word England had other contacts with philosophic magicians. As evidence of this, I would like to look briefly at three men—Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee—all three magicians or magical theorists, all deeply influenced by neoplatonism, and all well known or active for a while in England.

The earliest of the three is Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), a German physician, a correspondent of Erasmus, and contemporary with the Englishmen Thomas More and John Colet (who was for a short time Agrippa's teacher). The question of Agrippa's contribution to the history of magic and science is much debated—Thorndike, for example, labeled him a "wayward genius" and "intellectual vagabond," whereas Charles Nauert [in Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, 1965] maintained that he was a vital and influential figure in the history of magic. What seems agreed upon, however, is the breadth of his reputation and the popularity of his works, attested to in part by numerous editions of his De occulta philosophia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

While Agrippa was not wholly a neoplatonist and, indeed, leaned rather more toward Aristotelianism in his later years, he did base much of his magical theory upon the neoplatonic magic set forth by Ficino (passages from De Triplici Vita are sometimes quoted verbatim by Agrippa, though with no acknowledgment given to Ficino) and also borrowed much, including some cabalistic elements, from Pico. He believed that the magus was able to gain contact with angelic spirits through the construction of images, but he added that such images were useless "unless they be so brought to life that either a natural, or celestial, or heroic, or animistic, or demonic, or angelic power is present in them or with them." Nauert explained, "The soul of the magician who employs these images draws its ability to use them not from reason but from a mystical ascent aided by ceremonial preparation and dependent for its consummation on divine illumination."

Despite numerous denials that he advocated theurgic magic, Agrippa could not hide his interest in it. In the middle of a stern warning about the dangers of ceremonial magic, Agrippa gives himself away by breaking into the first person as he speaks of the power of theurgy:

Many thinke that Theurgie is not prohibited, as who saithe it were gouerned by good Angels, and by the diuine power, whereas yet oftentimes vnder the name of God, & the Angels it is bounde with wicked deceites of the Diuels, for not onely with naturali forces, but with certaine solemnities & ceremonies also, we winne and drawe vnto vs heauenly thinges, and thorowe them the diuine verrues.

Perhaps it is not surprising that, despite his attempts to disapprove of all ceremonial magic, Agrippa's reputation as a black magician grew.

Agrippa's influence was perhaps felt more in the worlds of art and literature than in the work of his fellow philosophers (which may in part account for Thorndike's scorn). For example, Erwin Panofsky [in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer] has suggested that Agrippa's brand of neoplatonism in De occulta is the primary literary source for Albrecht Durer's famous Melancholia I. In England, Agrippa's name was well known to men of letters. In 1510, the year in which he completed the manuscript of De occulta, Agrippa visited England, and this trip may have helped to spread his reputation in that country. By 1569 his De vanitate had found an English translator who attests to Agrippa's magical reputation in his preface: "For it is saide, and his workes testifie the same, that he exercised the Arte Magicke, and therein farre excelled all other of his time." John Dee, whose seven-thousand-volume library was perhaps England's best, owned two editions of the De occulta: the 1533 first edition and the 1550 edition, which had appended a spurious fourth book that made Agrippa seem a much more radical and goetic magician than the original three books suggest. Dee was evidently not only an owner but also a reader of Agrippa's book, since he cited it on at least one occasion. Among many English literary references to Agrippa is Thomas Nashe's portrayal of him as a trickster [in "The Unfortunate Traveller"]: bringing back Tully for Erasmus to see, showing the Earl of Surrey his love in a magic glass, and displaying perfect memorization of a two-thousand-book library. The most famous reference to Agrippa occurs, of course, in Marlowe's picture of the goetic magician:

'Tis magic, magic, that hath ravish'd me.
Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt,
And I, that have with concise syllogisms
Gravell'd the pastors of the German church,
And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg
Swarm to my problems as the infernal spirits
On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell,
Will be as cunning as Agrippa was,
Whose shadows made all Europe honour him.

Agrippa's reputation seems to have been twofold: he was known as a goetic magician and a learned philosopher. Sidney, who used Agrippa's De vanitate in his Defense of Poesie, seems to regard him as a philosopher and makes no mention of him as a magician. The duality of Agrippa's reputation appears in Sanford's preface, in which he first remarks how much Agrippa knew and how wise he was and then goes on to recount the story of Agrippa's black dog, a demon disguised, which Agrippa on his deathbed accused of having damned him and which then promptly ran and drowned itself in the river. A similar ambivalence between philosophical and practicing magician marks many of the magicians who appeared on the Elizabethan stage.

Thus, while there is little evidence that English writers were familiar with the magical theories of Ficino and Pico, a goodly number of them had probably heard of Agrippa. If neoplatonic magic had not already found students in England, Agrippa's works and the later visit of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) may have aroused interest in philosophical magic.

Bruno's visit to England in 1583 seems to have been more of an event than Agrippa's earlier sojourn. While there, he published two books, one dedicated to the French ambassador and the other to Philip Sidney, and participated in a philosophical debate at Oxford, where—one spectator scornfully noted—he quoted great chunks from Ficino without giving him any credit. The debate left Bruno contemptuous of the Oxford "pedants" and apparently did not give the faculty there a much higher opinion of him. More positive, however, was his acquaintance with Sidney (who seems involved in one way or another with several magicians, for he was a friend of John Dee and a participant in his study circle, the subject of which was probably neoplatonism). There is no evidence that Dee and Bruno ever met, but Sidney must have provided a mutual contact, so that they were at least aware of one another's interests. Though Sidney undoubtedly knew some of Bruno's works, there is no certainty that he knew much or anything about his magic, since Bruno's treatises specifically on magic, De magia and De vinculis in genere, were probably not composed until after Sidney's death and were not published until the nineteenth century.

Perhaps partly for this reason, Bruno did not have the same magical reputation as Agrippa, and only in fairly recent scholarship have his magical interests received emphasis. Much of Bruno's magic derived from Agrippa's De occulta, though he omitted the angels that Agrippa insisted can be summoned by theurgic magic. Instead Bruno envisioned an ascending scale for the magician to mount: "From sense to elements, demons, stars, gods, thence to the soul of the world or the spirit of the universe, and from thence to the contemplation of the one simple Optimus Maximus, incorporeal, absolute, sufficient in itself." Since reaching the demons is one of the early steps in the ascent, Bruno seems to believe unabashedly in demonic magic.

How much of Bruno's magical belief was in evidence to his English friends cannot be determined. Some scholars believe that Bruno's English contacts were limited to a small circle and that his works were little known in En gland until years after his visit. Others seem almost over-anxious to find evidence of his influence in literary works of the period. Yates has speculated that the character Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost is modeled on Bruno, and A. W. Ward in his 1887 edition of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay suggested that the magical contest in that play may reflect Bruno's Oxford debate. Such conjectures are interesting but speculative. What can be ascertained is that Bruno, an outspoken believer in neoplatonic magic, was present and publishing in England and evidently acquainted with English literary figures. He provides another means by which knowledge of neoplatonic magic may have entered England.

Even more familiar to English writers might have been their countryman John Dee (1527-1608). Philosopher, scientist, book collector, consultant to the royal navy, adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and acquaintance of Philip Sidney, Dee was also a practicing magician and alchemist. In fact, he left written transcriptions of conversations with angelic spirits whom he had summoned with the help of the medium Edward Kelley.

Dee was a neoplatonist, though his theories contained elements from other philosophical schools as well. Certainly his ideas on the intellectual quest for wisdom sound familiar.

Thus, can the Mathematicall minde, deale Speculatiuely in his own Arte: and by good meanes, Mount aboue the cloudes and sterres; And thirdly, he can, by order, Descend, to frame Naturali thinges to wonderfull vses: and when he list, retire home into his owne Centre: and there; prepare more Meanes, to Ascend or Descend by: and all, to the glory of God, and our honest delectation in earth.

Dee's library contained works by both Pico and Ficino, and his writings show evidence of their influence, yet his magic most resembles that of Agrippa. Like Agrippa, Dee believed that to practice the highest form of magic, "Thaumaturge or divine magic," one must seek "communion with goode angels by purifyinge of the soul." What is unusual about Dee is his interest in doing what he theorized about. Notice in the excerpt quoted above that there is a descent mentioned as well as an ascent, and all is for our "delectation in earth." Dee evidently intended that the wisdom gathered from the mystical ascent would be put to use in the natural world. Eugene Rice in The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom speaks of a debate over two conflicting views of wisdom: sapientia or contemplative wisdom and scientia or practical, utilitarian wisdom. Dee seems to combine these two views of wisdom in ways the Italian theorists did not. (Ficino is something of an exception, perhaps, for he hoped to use the wisdom he gained from spiritual communications in his medical practice.) Dee's journals and diary indicate that he tried and believed he had succeeded in communicating with the spirits, something other magicians had theorized about but left no record of actually trying. In addition, Dee committed himself and his family to several years in Europe, primarily at the court of Rudolph II , by whom he was hired for the express purpose of producing the philosopher's stone. Though the visit was ultimately a fiasco, Dee's initial commitment to it suggests his confidence in his ability to produce material good from his magical activities.

Until recently, Dee's reputation rested largely on tales of his communication with angels, and often the other sides of his varied career were ignored. He was first suspected of being a conjuror after he staged Aristophanes's Peace, in which an elaborate mechanical beetle appeared to fly. The stagecraft was so ingenious that his audience was convinced he had used magic, and from then on his reputation spread. His relationship with Elizabeth dates from the time she was a princess and out of favor during her sister Mary's reign. Dee apparently cast favorable horoscopes for her, predicting that she would one day rule. However, Dee's prognostications caught up with him. He was suspected of conspiring with Elizabeth to do away with the queen by sorcery and formally accused of sorcery against Mary, though acquitted by the Star Chamber in 1555. During Elizabeth's reign, Dee seems to have been called in for occasional consultations by the queen, and his diary records visits by her to him at his house at Mortlake. Other entries in the diary suggest that he was kept busy casting horoscopes, teaching and advising friends, and at various times performing jobs for the queen or traveling at her request. In addition, Dee wrote treatises on a number of different subjects, though none specifically on magic. Dee conducted a number of scientific experiments, invented useful navigational devices, and was reputed to be an excellent mathematician. He was, all told, one of England's best examples of the "Renaissance Man " and deserves F. A. Yates's succinct observation [in Theatre of the World, 1969] that "no more complete mirror of the Elizabethan age could be found than John Dee." True to Pico's symbol, this Renaissance man was, in addition to all his other attributes, a magician.

Yet many of his fellow Englishmen feared Dee as a conjuror, a spirit-summoner, and this reputation greatly distressed Dee, partly because it was dangerous to be suspected of conjury in England at that time, and partly because Dee was apparently horrified to be suspected of commerce with the devil. Several of his later writings contain long complaints about the pillage of his library (which seems to have been a deliberate act of destruction against the "conjuror" carried out while Dee was abroad) and about the rumors that he was a "Caller of Deuils" and "Arche Coniurer, of this whole kingdom." Dee wanted to make the distinction between a philosopher who experimented (which he considered himself to be) and a conjuror (which he was reputed to be). In the following warning, however, Dee, like many writers on magic, struck a note of condescension toward the vulgar and unlearned who presume to judge his activities:

Let all such, therefore, who, in Iudgement and Skill of Philosophie, are farre inferior to Plinie (who called Moses a magician) take good heede, leaste they ourshoote them selues rashly, in Iudging of Philosophers straunge Actes, and the Meanes, how they are done. But, much more, ought they to beware of forging, deuising, and imagining monstrous feates, and wonderfull workes, when and where no such were done: no, not any sparke or likelihoode, of such, as they without all shame, do report.

But Dee's protestations had little effect, and as an old man in 1604 he was still petitioning King James to clear his name of the label of conjuror. Despite all Dee's un-happiness with his image, he is remembered primarily as a magician, thanks in good part to Casaubon's publication in 1659 of parts of Dee's journals. His magical paraphernalia—his table, crystal globes, and the black obsidian mirror cherished by Horace Walpole as the "Black Stone into which Dr. Dee, used to call his Spirits"—are housed in the British Museum for all to see, evidence that Dee was an operator as well as a theorizer about magic. To his contemporaries he must have been an obvious example of a magician, perhaps more useful as a model than Ficino or Pico because he actually practiced what he wrote about.

Turning theory into practice, however, changed philosophical magic. What had been for Pico a symbol of man's potential, and for Ficino a theory of how to obtain infinite wisdom, became for Agrippa and Dee an increasingly concrete and practical way of operating in the world. The uninitiated and uninformed misperceived this magic and, through rumor, transformed it into cheap tricks. Writing of the medieval church, J. Huizinga commented [in The Waning of the Middle Ages]:

But was she able to stand against this strong need of giving a concrete form to all the emotions accompanying religious thought? It was an irresistible tendency to reduce the infinite to the finite, to disintegrate all mystery.… Even the profound faith in the eucharist expands into childish beliefs—for instance, that one cannot go blind or have a stroke of apoplexy on a day on which one has heard mass.… While herself offering so much food to the popular imagination, the Church could not claim to keep that imagination within the limits of a healthy and vigorous piety.

Such making tangible of the intangible Christian mysteries is similar to what happened to spiritual magic as it filtered down to broader public awareness. The vulgarization of spiritual magic merely added to the continuum of varieties of magic from which the writer of Elizabethan and Jacobean England could draw.

What contemporary philosophical magic made available to the dramatist was a climate of interest in the magician. Despite the strictures of the church, the dramatist had the possibility of presenting "white" or "natural" or "spiritual" magic as a positive force. In addition, he could develop the magician as a fully fleshed character: wise, intellectually oriented, using verbal rituals, music, perfumes, and special clothing to accomplish his ends. The magician could be as human as, though a good deal more exotic than, the village shoemaker; that is, he could be treated realistically within the drama.


What contemporary magic could not have provided, however, was much for the magician to do. Philosophic magicians did not, after all, perform tricks, heal the sick, or assist those in trouble. They read, they meditated, often they advocated severing all ties to the world around them. Even John Dee's angelic conversations—perhaps the most sensational action reported by a philosophical magician—are hardly the sort of material a dramatist could use for plot.

But there were other traditions of magic, literary ones, to which dramatists could have turned for help in motivating their magicians and involving them in plot action. The most fruitful of these traditions to examine for examples of "literary" magic seems to me to be the medieval narrative romances (their possible link with the drama is clear when we remember that English stage magicians appeared first in dramatic romances, which were often clumsy adaptations of longer narrative romance materials). Filled with magic and with stereotyped, unrealistic characters, romance had no need to correspond closely to the real world. Thus, the medieval romances took a relaxed, un-concerned attitude toward magic. It exists everywhere in the romance world and is good or bad according to the motives of the magician or the effect it has on plot.

The magician as a character in romance is quite different from the character suggested by the writings of the neo-platonic philosophers. The romance magician, who can be either male or female, is usually set apart from the other characters by some physical or spiritual peculiarity: Merlin is unnaturally hairy and has a devil rather than a human for his father; Clinschor (in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival) has been castrated; Morgan le Fay (Gawain and the Green Knight) and Cundrie (Parzival) are incredibly ugly. Rarely does a magician have a family, close friends, or a lover. Merlin, in his several romances, is something of an exception, but even so—since his relationship with his mother receives little emphasis after he grows up, and his mistress shuts him up forever in a rock—he can hardly be seen as part of a warm familial group. In a genre much interested in reconciliations between long-lost families or lovers, the magician generally remains apart and aloof.

In the narrative romances, magicians generate their own magic; they have no need to employ spirits or to perform elaborate ceremonies. Occasionally a magician—such as Malory's Morgan le Fay, Cundrie in Parzival, or the Clerk in Chaucer's "The Franklin's Tale"—is learned or uses books, but such references are always casual. There is none of the association between magic and learning mandatory in theories of philosophic magic. Most magicians seem born to their trade, whether—like Merlin—because of a nonhuman or magical relative, or because of a prediction that they will have magical skill. The romances spend little or no time explaining the motivation for or methods of magic; what is important is the effect the magician has on the plot. On the stage, such undeveloped, unexplained magic occasionally occurs in plays, like The Birth of Merlin, that seem directly derived from narrative romance.

Much of the magic in the romances has no particular source. Magical rings, enchanted springs, deadly beds, and magical potions abound, and often the writer makes no effort to explain how they came to be enchanted. Examples of romances containing such magical effects include Floris and Blancheflour (with its magic ring and a stream to detect adulterous maidens); Chretien de Troves's Yvain (protective rings and an enchanted spring); Sir Launfal (magic purse, horse, and dwarf); and Sir Tristrem (magic potion). Whole faerie or magical worlds may exist (as in Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal) without explanation of their origin. No magician need be involved in creating them. But sometimes a specific magician is responsible for providing characters with invulnerable magical props (as Clinschor creates the enchanted bed in Parzival). In such cases, however, emphasis is invariably on what magic accomplishes rather than how it is performed.

The magical equipment associated with romance magicians is varied. Sorceresses seem to favor magic potions, rings, and swords, while male sorcerers often prefer larger projects—enchanted castles, magical beds, or invulnerable battle dress. The variety itself is informative, however, because it suggests there is no required or mandatory equipment for performing magic. The magician is usually self-sufficient and needs little help from spirits or objects to produce his effects.

What magicians in narrative romance do is facilitate plot action and provide spectacular effects. A miraculous transformation is their most usual way of producing results. Merlin, for example, is fond of changing the weather, raising fogs or mists to bewilder the enemy. The Green Knight is a shape changer, changing from the host to the Green Knight with apparent ease. Merlin, too, has vast shape-changing powers. His most famous change, of course, is the transformation of Uther Pendragon into the likeness of the Duke of Tintagel so that Uther may sleep with Tintagel's wife and beget King Arthur. Not all Merlin's shape changes are so utilitarian. He frequently appears to his acquaintances in disguise for no reason other than his apparent joy in bewildering others and in variety. This delight is frequently carried beyond all reasonable bounds, as when, to attract Julius Caesar's attention, he transforms himself into a stag and goes running through the palace of the emperor. Although Merlin is by far the most ubiquitous romance magician, his powers are fairly typical of those possessed by less well known magi.

The production of surprising effects and spectacle, as well as of disguises, has implications that are carried further in dramatic literature. The disguises, of course, are associated with role-playing; in many ways the magician is an actor. Even more, however, he is a director, a presenter of spectacular shows for the discomfort, edification, or entertainment of spectators. Although these qualities of the magician are only suggested, and never carefully developed, in the romances, they do exhibit the potential available to a writer to portray the magician as director or as creative artist. Merlin and his counterparts "create" illusion; their magic produces temporary changes that affect man's senses but eventually dissolve back to reality. In medieval romance, then, more than in contemporary magic, the Tudor-Stuart dramatist could have found the association between the magician and the artist, the magician and the director of spectacle.

A traditional function of magicians that receives emphasis and development in romance is prophecy. E. K. Chambers has gone so far as to suggest that Geoffrey of Mon-mouth invented Merlin solely as a mouthpiece for prophecy. Whether or not Chambers is right, romance authors repeatedly fall back on the device of the enigmatic prediction to hold the reader's attention. In the Merlin romances, for example, Merlin is apparently tricked into predicting three different deaths for the same man (who keeps disguising himself as part of an effort to discredit Merlin); all of the death predictions are, of course, fulfilled. Nearly all romance magicians, villains or heroes, have similar prophetic powers, though evil magicians are necessarily blind to their own downfall.

Evil magicians are fairly generously scattered through the medieval romances. Good magicians appear more rarely, and when they do they are usually paired with an evil magician. This scarcity of good magicians apparently results more from problems of plotting and suspense than from any feeling about the impossibility of good magic. A villainous magician provides a worthy opponent to a hero; victory over the magician's special powers enlarges the hero's triumph. Thus, Clinschor's magical traps in Parzival make Gawan's adventures exciting as he manages to defeat the evil magic. But the entrance into a romance of a powerful good magician requires some magical competition just to keep the plot alive. In the Merlin romances, Fortager's wise men compete with Merlin for the king's patronage. Once they are defeated, Merlin interests us because he is on the side of the underdog, working against overwhelming odds. After Arthur is crowned king, these romances lose much of their interest and become little more than a series of battles, ingeniously led and won by Merlin. Merlin's role throws Arthur into deep shadow; although he is a king, Arthur is apparently incapable of making an intelligent decision without Merlin. Probably Thomas Malory foresaw this difficulty when he constructed his tales, for he shut Merlin up in a rock very early in the narrative. An active Merlin would prevent Arthur's emergence as a hero. And for the short time that Merlin is active, Malory provided him with a rival: Morgan le Fay, constantly plotting against Arthur, gives magical assistance to his enemies. Merlin is finally defeated by the magic of Nyneve, the beautiful woman to whom he has taught his own art. Good magicians threaten to diminish plot interest unless they are provided with worthy challengers, and thus they appear more rarely than villainous magicians, both in the romances and, later, in drama. Like the romancers, dramatists who do create good magicians almost always give them magical competition (as in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, John a Kent and John a Cumber, and The Tempest, where Prospero's magic is stronger than that of Sycorax).

Finally, romance magicians are generally amoral. Though they are heroes (and therefore good) or villains (and therefore bad), ordinary moral or religious standards are usually not applied to them. Despite the malice of Clinschor, for example, nothing indicates that he is the agent of any diabolic power. Merlin, though fathered by the devil, is clearly on the side of good. Yet in all versions of his story he does some fairly immoral things. In arranging for the begetting of Arthur, for example, Merlin acts as the manager of an adultery; he frequently serves as a pander in the romances. Malory, as is frequently the case, followed his source and made Merlin seem even less attractive: Merlin orders Arthur to destroy all children born to lords and ladies on Ma y Day in an effort to kill Mordred, Arthur's bastard, who will one day be his murderer. This action is reminiscent, of course, of Herod's slaughter of the innocents, and just as futile—a good reminder that magical counsel is not always infallible. Although Merlin is generally on the right side, moral and religious issues run a poor second to interests of plot.

Missing from romance treatments of the magician is any sense that he has entered into an agreement with the devil in order to obtain his powers. Indeed, the only conjuring in the romances I have read is done not by a magician but by a "good man [who] toke a stole aboute hys neck and a booke, and than he conjoured on that booke. And with that they saw the fyende in an hydeous fygure, that there was no man so hardéherted in the worlde but he sholde a bene aferde." Here the "good man" merely wants to know if a priestly colleague who has been killed is damned or saved; the devils are being asked to provide information (as are the spirits who are summoned in Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois), not to perform any evil acts. Occasional references indicate that authors were well aware of the possible identification of magicians and devils: Malory has a sorceress who, when her temptations fail, disappears, only to be identified as the devil himself. Here and in similar references, however, the tone is casual. The romances are not anxious to explore the moral implications of magic or to characterize it as "white" or "black," natural or demonic.

What is important to notice is the possibility of good—or even merely "neutral"—magic in medieval literature. In this respect romance magic is similar to the magic of the later philosophers: good magic can exist and, indeed, be a desirable attribute. Of course, both traditions also acknowledge the existence and danger of bad magic, but neither sees magic as exclusively bad.

Where the two sorts of magic differ radically, however, is in their emphases. The medieval romances show little or no interest in theories of magic. Instead, they develop the magician for literary use. Competition between magicians, magical prophecy to provide suspense or foreshadowing, humor and practical jokes arising from magical powers, and plot interest heightened by miraculous occurrences were all useful in the romances. Many of these same techniques were also used by dramatists in the portrayal of stage magicians.


The combined influence of these two traditions of magic, the fictive and the philosophical, perhaps first appeared in a nondramatic form, the romance epic. Boiardo, Tasso, Ariosto, and Spenser all included magic and magicians in their epics. Their magicians generally resemble medieval romance magicians: they move the plot; they create and use magical equipment; they frequently compete with one another; they prophesy. But these characters also show certain differences from magicians found in medieval romance.

For example, epic magicians are clearly learned in a way romance magicians are not. All of Spenser's magicians are dependent on books for their magic: Busirane and Merlin work from texts and write "straunge characters" that seem to be some sort of magical hieroglyphics (3.3.14; 3.12.31). Archimago, in his deception of the Red Cross Knight, goes into his study to search his magic books; after his first attempt fails, he "searcht his balefull bookes againe" (1.2.2).

A similar association of magic with books appears in the Italian epics. Ariosto carried his portrait of the bookish magician almost to absurdity when he portrayed Atlantes astride the flying hippogryph, his magic shield on one arm and his open book in the other hand, reading aloud magical incantations. In fact, Bradamant defeats Atlantes partly because the magician has carelessly left his book behind:

That wretched man, the volume by whose aid
He all his battles fought, on earth had laid.

This growing reliance on books and stress on learning suggest that philosophic magic was influencing Renaissance writers' conception of the magician.

A second important change is the almost formulaic association of the magician with spirits or demons. The most famous Spenserian lines suggesting this connection are those on Archimago's flies:

And forth he cald out of deepe darknesse dred
Legions of Sprights, the which like little flyes
Fluttering about his euer damned hed,
A-waite whereto their seruice he applyes.

But Merlin, too, has legions of "sprights" working underground, and his strange writing serves a purpose: "With … [it] the stubborn feends he to his seruice bound" (3.3.10-14). These associations are not only Spenser's. At one point in Orlando Furioso, Melissa, a magical assistant to the dead but still vocal Merlin, calls up a parade of demons, but only after drawing a circle around Bradamant and tying a pentacle to her head to protect her from the spirits. In Jerusalem Delivered, Tasso tried to distinguish between evil and good magicians in terms of their demonic associations. The great magical feat in the poem is Ismen's creation of the enchanted forest, which he accomplishes by assigning a demon to every tree and bush. The conjuration scene, described in great detail, produces "legions of devils." To balance this overtly demonic magic, Tasso portrayed a hermit, a good magician, who practices only natural magic:

Nor yet by help of devil or aid from hell
 I do this uncouth work and wond'rous feat;
The Lord forbid I use or charm or spell
 To raise foul Dis from his infernal seat;
But of all herbs, of every spring and well,
 The hidden power I know and virtue great,
And all that kind hath hid from mortal sight,
And all the stars, their motions and their might.

Yet this hermit, conspicuous in his disclaimer of demonic magic, is the exception. Most epic magicians had passed beyond strictly natural magic and unabashedly employed demons, whether they themselves served God or the devil.

Increased dependence on books and demonic aid is important not only as an indication of the possible influence of philosophical magic on the literary conception of the magician but also for his development as a character. The need for books and for assistance from spirits moves the magician closer to the ordinary man. If—like most romance magicians—he is granted special powers from birth and is thus able to work magic with no help, then he is a creature set apart from the rest of mankind. But if his magical ability comes from study and if his magical acts are actually performed by spirits, then the magician can be human.

Peopled as it is by stereotypes and allegorical characters, the romance epic is hardly the place for realistic character development. But the beginnings of a more human magician can be seen in a character like Spenser's Archimago. Far from infallible, Archimago constantly reveals human weaknesses, despite his considerable magical ability. Having created the false Una, for example, "The maker selfe [Archimago] for all his wondrous witt, / Was nigh beguiled with so goodly sight" (1.1.45). Archimago is no more able to detect deceptive appearances than the good characters and is fooled by Braggadochio's fine armor into choosing him as a worthy foe to Guyon and Red Cross Knight. Archimago is sensually tempted and easily fooled because, like all of Spenser's heroes (with the exception of Arthur), he is subject to human failings. Far from being the devil personified, Archimago is a man, as dedicated to evil as Gloriana's knights are to good, but as prone as they to fall short of his goal. Similar fallibility coupled with magical ability is seen repeatedly in stage magicians; indeed, it becomes part of a stock formula for both good and evil magicians.

Another element of this stock formula that found early development in the romance epic is the portrait of the magician as artist, as creator and director of spectacle, pageant, and masque. Commenting on Archimago, Donald Cheney remarked, [in Spenser's Image of Nature] "Spenser directs his emphasis in particular toward the suggestion of a demonic figure of the artist. He is repeatedly the victim of his own art."

Magicians specialize, as do artists, in the creation of illusion, and it is not surprising that the one becomes a symbol for the other. Though the Italian epics also have creative magicians, the best example of the magician as artist is Spenser's Busirane. Creator of the enigmatic Mask of Cupid and apparently chief curator of his house filled with lovely works of art, Busirane exercises a power that resides not in his "vile" self but in his artistic creations. Despite his frequent identification with Lust, Busirane has not built another Bower of Bliss that tempts by direct physical sensuality. Rather his house is a temptation through carefully selected art, a temptation to believe the didactic message that tapestry, statuary, and masque all convey: Love is cruel and painful as well as erotic. But Spenser, supremely aware of the dangers of illusion, foils Busirane with a heroine who pushes beyond the art to its source: "Bold Britomart… / Neither of idle shewes, nor of false charmes aghast," pushes through to the plain third room, not meant to be seen, from which the magician operates.

Busirane is, in many ways, typical of the Renaissance magician as he will develop onstage. The magical creation of pageant and masque will recur repeatedly (Prospero's wedding masque and Faustus's necromantic pageants are simply the two most obvious examples). As a creator, the magician can be compared to other creators, and new realms of possible significance attach to him. From a religious perspective, for example, creation is an imitation of God, and to create sensual lures is to rival God and to work against his purposes. So in the Faerie Queene all the "bad" magical figures (Archimago, Busirane, Acrasia, and the witch) create...

(The entire section is 25695 words.)

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...

(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...

(The entire section is 19885 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)