Magic in The Tempest

Magic is not a frequently discussed topic, outside of eccentric video gamers and the handful of trading card enthusiasts. It is certainly not a topic one would expect any sort of scholarly article to take on seriously. However, that is exactly what Barbara Mowat, the director of research at the Folger Shakespeare library does. In her 33-page essay called Prospero’s Book, she acknowledges precisely what there has been “so little curiosity about” (4) in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The essay opens with the assumption that Prospero does indeed have a magic book, which is essential to his magic. She does an adamant job in her essay providing evidence for the existence of the book, but as with most things Shakespeare, it is not indisputable. The quote “I’ll to my book, / For yet ere suppertime must I perform / Much business” (3.1.113-115) is the foundation which validates her argument and interests her audience. It acknowledges that spirit magic has an obvious existence in the book, being his ‘business’ and connects it to his book. She states that further examples exist in The Tempest and are crucial to Prospero’s control of the island, but she will not make an argument solely based on textual evidence from Shakespeare.

Her argument is augmented by the fact that audiences assumed that Prospero had a magical book until the twentieth century, and because substantial research has been done on the grimoires of early modern conjurors and why the population of the time believed in them. She then transitions to the next part of her paper, which addresses why there is so little criticism on the topic of Prospero’s wizardly items (his robes, his staff and his book). Her belief is that, as civilization started approaching what it is today, people had more and more difficulty taking magic seriously. Magic is not real, and so it was ignored. She then quotes Kieth Thomas, who wrote a book on the decline of magic, and credits him, and scholars like him, with the renewed interest in Prospero’s book. His studies on historic grimoires raise a multitude of questions, like if Prospero’s book exists, what is in it. To answer that question, Mowat proposes the exploration of “real… books of magic” (3).

These books, or grimoires, as she refers to them, are fluid in content and anonymously authored, but have many similarities. It is certainly curious that they all have religious inflections, and nearly all of them are dedicated to the materials, instructions and language involved with calling spirits, leaving no room at all for the purpose the spirits are called for. She then focuses on two specific books, Book 15 of Reginald Scot’s The discourie of witchcraft, and Folger MS Vb26. After describing the content of these two books she discusses the populations attitude towards them.

She then sets up the relation of the grimoires she’s studied to Shakespeare’s play. She claims Prospero’s book “both is and is not a grimoire” (25). I falls in line with the accepted categories of magic that critics associate with Prospero, making it seem like one of the magical books she discusses earlier, but is not because all of the books she has studied describe spirits with the utmost reverence and fear, while Prospero addresses Ariel blithely, creating a disconnect with the other magic books of the time.

Mowat concludes with reiterations of the points she’s made throughout her essay, but not asserting much, outside of the existence of the book. She leaves the reader with and open ended statement acknowledging that many of the questions she’s raised in her essay will remain unanswered until more is learned about ancient grimoires.