If Shakespeare held his mirror up to Elizabethan and Jacobean society to produce his art, it was inevitable that he would catch his own image along with that of his society. The author’s image is, I think, most interestingly reflected in the passages of his plays that concern magic. I would not argue that Shakespeare presents the reader with any faithful self-portraits in a superficial sense. It is not necessary to take the monomaniacal Prospero in The Tempest, for example–Shakespeare’s most famous magic “artist”–as an autobiographical figure representing a one-to-one correspondence between the play’s author and its central figure. However, on a deeper level the magic of Prospero and the other magicians in Shakespeare’s plays reflects the artistry behind the scenes in a number of important ways.
Where magic is used by Shakespeare it inevitably serves as the engine by which the action is propelled forward, thus miming–in fact, dramatizing–the author’s structuring of the action. This self-reflective, mimetic function of Shakespeare’s magic is clearest in The Tempest, where Prospero’s magical “project” is the plot of the play. Yet even in Macbeth, in which magic is practiced by non-humans, the supernatural elements serve on one level to reveal in coded form the outcome of the dramatic action. Shakespeare’s magic also mimes the relationship between the author and the audience. The audience of Macbeth, for example, stands in relation to Shakespeare as Macbeth stands in relation to the Weird Sisters; in each case, the former is forced by the relationship to interpret the “imperfect”–that is, latent or not wholly manifest–signs of the latter.
Yet mirrors reflect oppositely as well as identically. Though Shakespeare’s plays argue consistently against Machiavellian politics, his magicians, good and bad, are Machiavellians of the supernatural order.
The supernatural order in Shakespeare’s plays is a sort of political order, a remarkably stabile one in comparison to the political order of human beings, the instability of which causes the central conflicts of virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare seems to be at once envious of and cautious about the type of stability he presents in his glimpses into the supernatural order. It is the absolute authority behind the order, and the lack of freedom for its subjects that this authority implies, that seems to give him the most pause. Magic is the means by which this invisible order can be manipulated, and though its power is limited, magic provides Shakespeare’s characters who are adept in it some degree of freedom within the tyranny of the supernatural. Witchcraft is, thus, comparable to statecraft, and its uses in the plays comment upon the politics of the human order both within the texts and in the world outside them.
An important component of Shakespeare’s construction of magic–and by implication, of politics–is that it requires a high degree of literacy to be used well. Knowledge of the workings of the supernatural is dangerous in Shakespeare’s plays, but ignorance of it is no less so. The text of magic is the supernatural order, thus, it requires a special kind of literacy to read it, a literacy in which Prospero is adept and Macbeth is not.
Macbeth’s ignorance leads him to be overly literal in his interpretation of the witches’ prophecies. It is only late in the action when he begins “to doubt th’equivocation of the fiend,/ That lies like truth.” (V.v.43-4) Banquo takes a more properly suspicious and reserved approach to the word of the witches from the beginning:
“And oftentimes, to win us to our harm
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.” (I.ii.123-6)
Macbeth’s late revelation and Banquo’s early caution read like warnings to the wise against Machiavellian manipulators.
The witches and Hecate do, in fact, exploit Macbeth’s vanity in Machiavellian fashion in order to obtain their own end, which is to turn Macbeth into an “instrument of darkness” himself. To the degree that Macbeth follows his wife’s advice to “look like th’innocent flower,/ but be the serpent under’t” (I.v.63-4) they are successful. He, too, learns the power of equivocation. Yet the witches are not fully empowered to control fate. They can only control certain elements of nature that have bearing on fate. The first witch is unable to sink the bark of the sailor whose wife offended her, “Yet,” she says, “it shall be tempest-tossed.” (I.iii.25) Not even Hecate has power to manipulate Macbeth–or even the witches–to carry out her wishes to the letter. This is made clear in her speech reprimanding the sisters:
“… How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never called to bear my part
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.” (III.v.3-13)
Even in the supernatural order, Machiavellian magic is limited in its effectiveness for the same reason it is limited in ordinary politics: the means are rarely justified by predicted or desired ends. Macbeth’s own ends are thwarted by his inability to eradicate the line of Banquo from the face of the earth. For Banquo’s heirs, Macbeth laments, he has “mine eternal jewel/ Given to the common enemy of man.” (III.i.9) The absolute power behind the dark side of the supernatural order, Satan is the only benefactor of Macbeth’s or the witches’ manipulations.
The Tempest posits a Machiavellian use of magic through which the means more convincingly justify the ends, namely, as an instrument of revenge against political Machiavellianism. Prospero is by far a better reader of supernatural texts than Macbeth, and a more potent manipulator of the elements; but even in his case, he has paid a severe price for his knowledge. It was because he “all dedicated/ to closeness [secret knowledge]” at the expense of cares of the state that he in effect “awaked an evil nature” in his brother Antonio that led to his overthrow as Duke of Milan and subsequent banishment to the uninhabited isle. (I.ii.89ff)
Antonio is a prime example of a worldly Machiavellian. His lust for power and personal gain is so strong that he continues his plotting even after being shipwrecked on Prospero’s island with no clear evidence that he or his company will be rescued. He plots the murder of Alonso with Alonso’s brother, Sebastian, mimicking Antonio’s own treachery against his brother. Significantly, he speaks of his plot in the theatrical register:
“[…] We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again,
And by that destiny, to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come,
In your [Sebastian’s] and my discharge.” (II.i.245-8)
Yet The Tempest is not Antonio’s show at all. It is all Prospero’s. Even this plot seems to have come partly out of Prospero’s manipulation of the rest of Antonio and Sebastian’s party into sleep, leaving the two conspirators to play the roles Prospero expected them to play. Just at the moment when Antonio is ready to strike the sleeping monarch and his consul, Gonzalo, Ariel appears (invisibly) to prevent the massacre:
“My master through his art foresees the danger
That you [Gonzalo], his friend, are in, and sends me forth
(For else his project dies) to keep them [Alonso, et al.] living.” (II.i.291-3)
The theatrical aspects of magic in Macbeth are certainly present, particularly in the parade of apparitions in Act IV, but The Tempest makes particularly strong use of the metaphor.
What makes The Tempest’s presentation of magic as theatre most effective is the sense that Prospero’s project and his magical powers, like the play itself, must come to an end. Prospero gives himself a deadline in the beginning of the play when he tells Ariel “after two days/ I will discharge thee.”
(I.ii.298-9) It is not clear from the audience’s view point at this moment that by discharging Ariel, Prospero is giving up magic. Yet it is noticeable how often Prospero repeats his promise, as for example later in the same scene when he says, “I’ll free thee/ Within two days for this.” (421-2) Prospero’s puzzling devotion to his promise to liberate an agent of his power is finally explained, after the masque of Ceres, which Prospero describes to Ariel as “Some vanity of mine art.” (IV.i.41) Again, Shakespeare uses the theatrical register:
“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. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep.” (IV.i.148-58)
It is finally clear that Prospero will abjure his magic because all corporeal things–including Prospero himself–must come to an end. It is a vanity to pretend they do not. Yet he does not yield his powers until he has used them to restore an order that, through Antonio’s Machiavellian theatrics, has been upset.
Shakespeare’s paradoxical use of magic seems to reflect his ambivalence about the uses of political power. Those plays that feature magic and the supernatural seem to me to be experiments in and arguments about what might be called, if the anachronism will be forgiven, “holistic politics”–that is, politics that take into account the whole order of the universe beyond the mortal human sphere. By highlighting the timeless supernatural order in his microcosms, Shakespeare reflects a view that the power of any ruler is necessarily limited by the fact of his or her mortality. Shakespeare argues that Machiavellianism is, in light of mortality, sheer vanity.