The Magic of Shakespeare's Sonnets
Malabika Sarkar, Jadavpur University
All readers of Renaissance poetry are unanimous in regarding the sonnets of Shakespeare as constituting the greatest love poetry in the language. Elegant, moving tributes to Shakespeare's handling of the themes of love and time, clever and often sensational investigations of the possible identities of the friend and the dark lady, scholarly and intelligent debates regarding the dates of composition and possible sequence of the sonnets fill many library shelves. This paper seeks not to offer any fresh insights on dating or identities but to draw attention to one dimension of the predominant themes of love and time in the sonnets that, to my knowledge, has never been examined. It is my submission that one of the most fascinating areas of Renaissance thought, occult philosophy or magic, provides a context within which the sonnets need to be read and that such a reading would simplify and organize our perception of the activity of meaning within the sonnet sequence by providing us with a graph to help us map the implications of thoughts and images in the sonnets. Simultaneously, it would add new dimensions of meaning to familiar passages and enhance our awareness of the richness and complexity of the sonnets.
Renaissance magic1 was made up of various strands, including cabalism and hermeticism. The great flowering of occult philosophy in the Italian Renaissance was the result of the work of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, later to be systematized and tabulated by Henry Cornelius Agrippa.2 Many bf these ideas were imported into Britain by Giordano Bruno in the 1580s and were assimilated and popularized by England's own magus John Dee, who may have been the model for Shakespeare's Prospero.3 There were two characteristics fundamental to the various kinds of magic: first, a belief in the correspondence between the different cosmic levels of the natural, the celestial, and the supercelestial, and secondly, a belief in the possibility of manipulating one of the higher worlds in order to bring down influences or enlightenment to the lower. Magic or occult philosophy, therefore, was a philosophy of power.
Although Shakespeare's interest in magic and occult philosophy is generally admitted, with the exception of Frances Yates too often has this been discussed simply with reference to the ghosts, fairies, and witches that people Shakespeare's plays. Yet Shakespeare's interest in magic went far deeper than this and in play after play he explored the question of the relation of power to magic. Nowhere is the power of magic so apparent as in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest: both are plays which, for many, end with uneasy questions about the effects of magic. In the graph of Shakespeare's changing perceptions of the power of magic, an early instance might be Love's Labour's Lost, with its possible sceptical reference to occult philosophy as 'the school of night'.4 But A Midsummer Night's Dream, possibly written around 1595-6, and thus probably immediately after the sonnets, marks a new belief in the efficacy of magic. The play's ending may seem unsatisfactory, with Demetrius in love with Helena only as a result of the external application of the juice of the magical flower in his eyes. Yet Shakespeare probably intended to indicate that magic has transformed the very essence of Demetrius's character. In sharp contrast, in The Tempest Shakespeare rejects magic, with Prospero renouncing magic at the end, precisely because he feels that magic can affect appearances but cannot substantially alter the essence of things.5 His magic is quite unable to bring about any change in the character of his brother Antonio. It is this debate about the power of magic in Shakespeare that provides a frame of reference for the sonnets, and the polarities and obsessions of the sonnets become clear once they are placed in the context of Shakespeare's overall interest in magic.
Any enquiry into the presence of magic in the sonnets...
(The entire section is 4,408 words.)