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. Continue reading