The Magic in The Tempest

                                                   prospero in the tempest

Prospero, Shakespeare’s great magician, was perhaps the last and best representation of the Renaissance magi. And he did all of his magic for wisdom and love.
    In briefest outline, the magical repatternings converge on combined turning points in love and wisdom. At the turning point Prospero restores his dukedom, ends his island exile, liberates his familiar spirit Ariel, sees his daughter Miranda betrothed to the shipwrecked Ferdinand.
    When Prospero accomplishes these tasks, he breaks his staff and buries his magic book in the sea.
    Prospero’s magic requires his full participation in the workings of nature. Mind and body, memory, intentions, historical knowledge and his gorgeous words all play parts, words particularly, because they live on the mind/body interface.
    Stephen Orgel in the Oxford Shakespeare edition of The Tempest describes Prospero’s magic. “From one aspect, Prospero’s art is Baconian science and Neoplatonic philosophy, the empirical study of nature leading to the understanding and control of all its forces.”28
    Harold Bloom emphasizes the non-theurgic nature of the magic. “Evidently, Prospero is a true scholar, pursuing wisdom for its own sake…His quest is intellectual, we might even say scientific, though his science is as personal and idiosyncratic as Dr. Freud’s.”29  Commenting on his speech “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep,” Bloom tells us: “Prospero’s great declaration confirms the audience’s sense that this is a magus without transcendental beliefs, whether Christian or Hermetic-Neo-Platonic.”30
    Here wisdom reaches toward magic by treating reality as a dream-like field of endeavor in which the mage can seek and find the points of contact to induce turning point dramas.
  cave art  The binding force in the aesthetic continuum is time itself, time expressed in the periodicities and opportunities rising and falling in nature, in language rhythms, in the breath of the body, in heartbeat, and nerve traffic. “Prospero’s awareness of the drama of time, his ability to seize the instant,” Orgel argues, “in large measure constitutes the source of his power.”31
      He never loses track of time.
    This immersion in time rests on the steadiness and power of his personal presence, on his rhythmical entwinement in the moments that spiral out from his sensory awareness, intention and imagination. As Bloom asserts, “Prospero’s mastery depends on a strictly trained consciousness, which must be unrelenting.”32
    Prospero’s tuned consciousness apparently can perceive the flow of time directly. He streams along in time independently of the outer material changes we now take as the only markers of its passage.

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time
Goes upright with his carriage. How’s the day?


                                          flammarion cosmos

    The world conjured by Prospero has mass and matter, but it is vibratory matter, shimmering, made of finer stuff, an abode for sprites and spirits too, something like the Buddhist universe that flips in and out of existence millions of times a second, a luminous matter of the photonic sort we posit in quantum electrodynamics. It is time-centered, floating on temporality. That which passes is time. Thus, Prospero tells Miranda and Ferdinand

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
the cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
(IV.i. 148)

    He does not say the world is unreal, but that the “baseless fabric” is the space-time continuum. The fine matter/energy of reality, which flows as a process, is mutable; it is a perishing that, with timing, presence and insight, you can change in low-mediated ways. The spirit helpers Prospero directs are real too, real in the same way the clouds are real, real as cloud castles, real as the photonic cosmos. Ariel travels on the mind/body interface where words themselves manifest as deeds, and then perish in the instant. Like Shakespeare’s language, Ariel operates as an engine of change. When Prospero releases him/her/it, Ariel vanishes into larger nature.
    The language of magic tries to seize the potentialities in the moment impeccably well, without waste or excess. The spells move in the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. However, they have no magic to them. The spiritual-mechanical advantage comes from the wonderful expression of perfectly timed approach-separation and withdrawal-return patterns. Every spell makes a change in love or wisdom that favors their convergence. To the outsider they look like Jungian synchronicities.

Magic and Freedom

    In Irrational Man, William Barrett wrote, “the figure of the magician is as it were, the primitive image of human freedom.” He explained that “to free oneself, to break the chains of a situation, whether inner or outer, that imprisons one is to experience something like the magical power that commands things to do its bidding. The figure of the magician is as it were, the primitive image of human freedom.”33
But how primitive is it? Jacob Needleman, in Money and the Meaning of Life, connects sorcery with the philosophic traditions concerning the “Way in Life.”

“Throughout history,” Needleman writes, “the idea of the way in life has been spoken of as the ‘path of the warrior’ or as the ‘teaching for kings.’ Both the warrior and the king represented, in literal fact and symbolically, the individual engaged in all the forces of life, as opposed to the priestly class or the ascetic removed or protected from many of the influences that permeate the greater world. Often, this idea of the way in life was transmitted as the ‘way of the magician,’ that is, in the language of sorcery. Again, it is a matter of the individual who confronts and masters all the forces, high and low, that constitute reality…”34

    The language of sorcery and the Way in Life both seek empowerment by low-mediated means and subtle timing. But the borderlands where imagination and intention fuse to empower deeds are hard to describe. The magical aura, while real enough in the experience, later seems hardly communicable to others. The numinous moments pass by too quickly for us to put them into words. Their tracery fades. We doubt ourselves. Maybe we were dreaming, maybe not.
    If there’s a better language for describing the rare and recondite, we haven’t found it yet. What about the promises of religion? How much like magic to turn the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ! C. S. Lewis describes religious miracles as “revelations of that total harmony of all that exists. Nothing arbitrary, nothing simply ‘stuck on’ and left unreconciled with the texture of total reality can be admitted. They will not be like unmetrical lumps of prose breaking the unity of the poem; they will be like that crowning metrical audacity which, though it may be paralleled nowhere else in the poem, yet, coming just where it does, and effecting just what it effects, is (to those who understand) the supreme of the unity of the poem’s conception.”35

Between belief in miracles, the pursuit of magic, and the methodical accumulation of scientific knowledge of the laws of nature, where does the truth lie?

descartes vision