I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare’s plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.
The character of Prospero in The Tempest is full of magic, superstition, and the question for the audience about whether Prospero is a good man or a selfish and greedy villian. Then of course, we have to ask, was he even a real man at all, or something supernatural?
When The Tempest was first staged, it was done so before King James I at a celebration for All Hallow’s Day in 1611. As King James was highly suspicious of all things magic and supernatural, it’s impressive that Shakespeare managed to get away with portraying such a highly complicated wizard of magic like Prospero, particularly when you consider that King James had, only two years before The Tempest, put Elizabeth I’s popular Magus (and one potential source for Shakespeare), John Dee, on trial for suspicion of witchcraft.
In this week’s episode, Malcolm Hebron is our guest today to help us unravel the strands of history from fiction as we explore the real life Renaissance figure often seen at English royal courts, the Magus, and how this contemporary wizard-like figure from the real life of William Shakespeare may have influenced the character of Prospero, and that character’s reception on stage, when Shakespeare was writing, and performing his play The Tempest.
Malcolm Hebron is Head of Drama at Winchester College, where he also teaches English Literature and Art History. His publications include Mastering the Language of Literature and Key Concepts in Renaissance Literature. He is currently working on Renaissance philosophy for an online resource. He joins us today to discuss the subject of his recent article for The British Library, titled “Prospero: a Renaissance Magus”
Malcolm graciously provided us with a copy of the talk he did on Dee and Prospero for the John Dee of Mortlake Society. (Scroll down to get your copy)
In this episode, I’ll be asking Malcolm about :
- What is about the character Prospero that makes you think he was a Magus?
- When Prospero declares “ ‘Graves at my command / Have wak’d their sleepers’ (5.1.48–49)” Is he not committing blasphemy, and claiming to raise the dead like God? Was blasphemous material allowed on stage in Elizabethan England?
- Shakespeare staged The Tempest right after Ben Jonson staged The Alchemist the year before. Do you think they were copying each other, or Shakespeare copying Jonson? Especially when you consider a Magus, the central figure of The Tempest was himself an alchemist, it seems incredibly ironic that someone as close to Shakespeare as Jonson was would stage a play so similar to The Tempest in subject matter just one year prior. Is there a relationship between the two plays?
According to Charlotte Fell Smith, this portrait was painted when Dee was 67. It belonged to his grandson Rowland Dee and later to Elias Ashmole, who left it to Oxford University. Public Domain Image.
Considered by many historians to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero, “the Elizabethan scholar and astrologer, John Dee (1527–1608/9), was plagued throughout his adult life by accusations of sorcery. [The] text, the Compendious Rehearsal of John Dee, reveals how those charges first arose following his creation of ‘magical’ illusions for the theatre. At Trinity College, Cambridge, around 1547, Dee staged a version of Pax, Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy. The magnificent stage spectacle of the Scarabaeus – a monstrously large dung beetle – ‘flying up to the Jupiter’s palace’ caused ‘great wondring’ and suspicion that it had been achieved by supernatural means.” (Source) John Dee was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher. He was a trusted advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, before his eventual disgrace. He devoted much of his life to the study of alchemy, divination, and Hermetic philosophy. Interestingly, he is credited with coining the term “British Empire”, being an advocate himself of England’s imperial expansion.
Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.
Prospero, The Tempest Act I Scene 2
John Dee is an example of a Renaissance polymath. He was someone interested in, and studied to expert level of, a wide variety of subjects. He was very well educated in mathematics, astrology, astronomy, alchemy, history, theology, philosophy, cryptography, and magic. In real life, Dee was also an avid book collector. His personal library contained over 3000 books and at least 1000 manuscripts which he kept at his home, located on the river Thames in London. He was so fond of his book that he suggested to Mary I that his collection could be used to form a national library. Since Dee used his vast book collection to become such a learned person, when we read in The Tempest Act 3 Scene 2 that Prospero’s library is the source of his power, that’s one of the many reasons historians have (as Malcolm notes) to think Shakespeare based his character, at least in part, on the real life person of John Dee.
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-capp’d 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 a sleep.
— The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1
Painting is from Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare The Tempest. Print by Henry Courtney Selous, ca.1860-1890.
Image credit: Victoria & Albert Museum.
Hermes, The Original Alchemist
Hermes, the Greek god of interpretive communication, was combined with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, to become the patron of astrology and alchemy. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Hermetica enjoyed great prestige and were popular among alchemists. As a result, the “hermetic tradition” refers to alchemy, magic, astrology, and related subjects. The texts are usually divided into two categories: the philosophical and the technical hermetica. The former deals mainly with philosophy, and the latter with practical magic, potions, and alchemy. Magic spells to protect objects is where we developed the expression “hermetically sealed.”
“What a long night is this! I will not change my
horse with any that treads but on four pasterns.
Ca, ha! he bounds from the earth, as if his
entrails were hairs; le cheval volant, the Pegasus,
chez les narines de feu! When I bestride him, I
soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth
sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his
hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.”
Lewis the Dauphin, Henry V, Act III Scene 7
Hermes was the inventor of the lyre and Shepherd’s pipe. This figure features in several of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
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