William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

(The entire section is 72,923 words.)