The Tempest and Magic


Written in an age of exploration, The Tempest was heavily influenced by contemporary politics and contained some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated verse. It’s been seen by some as a commentary on colonialism, and by others as a meditation on the nature of theatre itself.

Written about 1611, The Tempest is perceived as Shakespeare’s last solo play. It was performed 8 years after the death of Elizabeth 1 and well into the reign of James 1. Political change mattered greatly for Shakespeare, because even though his plays were for public consumption, he knew that at any moment his dramas could be requested to be performed in front of the monarch in court. He therefore needed to think carefully about not offending the monarch and putting on plays about things that the monarch was interested in. What’s striking about the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603, after the death of Elizabeth, is that the later plays are always interested in questions of family, in a way that some of the earlier plays weren’t. This is unsurprising as Queen Elizabeth was infamous for being unmarried, yet King James was conscious of the fact that he had a son, a daughter, and the question of who they married was of great political importance. James was also very interested in magic, the idea that there might be such a thing as good magic. Of course, he was also interested in bad magic, evident in the 1604 Witchcraft Act across England as it was one of the first things he accomplished as a ruling monarch.

During this period, theatre is also becoming increasingly similar to court masque, through the increasing use of indoor theatres that use more technological special effects and artificial light to create the illusion of the storm at the beginning of the play. This also reflects the monarch’s extravagant and flamboyant nature- he encouraged theatrical performances and spent severe amounts of parliamentary money on his own pleasure and enjoyment of the court, instead of nationwide matters such as foreign policy and religious uniformity. Plays are increasingly being written by Shakespeare with a view of possible performance before a very grand, courtly audience. This leads to a more spectacular theatre, more dependent on visual spectacle. It also begins the age of new exploration- in 1600 John Dee presented Elizabeth 1 with the phrase, ‘The British Empire’, starting an age of expression and surge of national identity. While lots of Shakespeare’s plays have non-English settings, this setting isn’t in any recognisable European country, a long way from what’s credited as being part of European civilisation. This is a new perspective of the time, with a sense of looking into the unknown, discovering new forms of life that a Jacobean audience will view as something not even quite human, evidenced from Caliban’s description as a ‘salvage and deformed slave’. Prospero’s values are authoritarian and inherently European, that don’t have much value in a non-European being. The island is a setting where there’s both the possibility of non-human nature, such as plants and animals being unfamiliar to Europeans, and included in that is human-like creatures that are unaccounted and unknown.

The Tempest has nine carefully crafted scenes and after Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, it’s his shortest play. The entirety of the play, except the first scene, is set on a foreign island, and there are no elements of familiarity given to the European audience. Likewise, it’s suggested that the play’s events are going to cover approximately four hours of an afternoon, a specificity and pressured concentration not usually present in Shakespeare’s plays. Thematically The Tempest is very much a play about theatre and art, and the structure itself brings attention to that- the scenes pair with each other and point inwards to the central scene (Act 3 Scene i) which is the courtship of Miranda and Ferdinand. The idea of creation (whether it be magic or art) is essential to the play: Prospero creates the storm and therefore the play’s conflict, and makes his own ending through the epilogue. The very stage is reflective of the empty, barren island, and Shakespeare fills it with people, much like Prospero brings people to the stage through creating the storm. Prospero is in a sense scripting and directing the performance of the play the audience witnesses, much like Shakespeare himself, perhaps as a goodbye in his final solo play.

The plot of The Tempest is unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays in that it depends almost entirely on the use of supernatural powers. In Macbeth, for example, the witches may have an influence on the hero’s behaviour but he has free will and is thud capable of determining his own actions. This is not true of The Tempest, however, where the destiny of everyone from Prospero to Ariel, from Alonso to Caliban, is decided by supernatural intervention rather than by their characters or their actions. Part of the belief for witchcraft in society was the result of living in a harsh society where education was limited to the few and where there often seemed no natural explanation for events. An additional point worthy of some consideration is that certain places were associated with magic: wells, cross-roads, hawthorn groves. In The Tempest, the entire island has strong associations with the supernatural. Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, a renowned witch, was banished there; Ariel and the other spirits belong on the island; Prospero’s magic powers seem to have developed only after he reached it and they are given up before he leaves. It is as if the island is enchanted.

In terms of female characters within the play, Miranda is the only women on stage and she is both assaulted and honoured for her virginity. Despite the main theme of magic, no female character is a witch, subverting typical narratives relating femininity and magic. Despite this, her life still revolves around the traditional female narrative of love and marriage. Sycorax is an unseen character in the play. She is a vicious and powerful witch and the mother of Caliban, one of the few native inhabitants of the island. She has produced what other characters deem to be a ‘salvage and deformed slave’, differing from the magician Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, who is described as ‘a goddess’ by Ferdinand. Sycorax directly introduces the idea of magic into the play, and at its most basic interpretation, the female witch commands black magic, whereas the male magician has the possibility for good magic, magic that is all too often correlated with art and beauty. Shakespeare was inspired by magic through his reading of Ovid and Medea, which accompanied all his plays. The fine line between Sycorax’s black magic and Prospero’s white blurs even further during his renunciation of magic in Act V, a speech which has strong parallels to one given by the dark witch Medea in the Metamorphoses. In comparing himself to Medea, Prospero is implicitly comparing himself to Sycorax. Emphasizing the relationship between Prospero and Sycorax demonstrates the ambiguity of Prospero’s supposedly benevolent character. The idea of magic is powerful, and there’s another topical reference that Jacobeans would’ve been aware of at the time of the play’s performance: the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, known as the wizard emperor, had his reign usurped by his younger brother. He buried himself in magic books and appeared to be content with giving up his position, unlike Prospero’s reaction to his brother’s reign. Antonio usurps the throne of Milan and Prospero sees this as the wicked overturning of a lawful authority, even though Prospero had neglected his duties (as he himself admits).

Prospero and Sycorax are extreme ends in the spectrums of power and gender. The patriarchy that Prospero enforces is not an independent or coherent system; rather, it reacts to its opposite, which Sycorax symbolizes. Although some dismiss Sycorax as “long dead by the time the play’s events take place” (Ann Thompson 339), she still shapes the characters’ perceptions of power and gender. While one can analyse male characters directly by their actions on stage, one can analyse Sycorax only by her influence on these characters. With Sycorax absent, Prospero envisions her as his female opposite. Through Prospero, Sycorax symbolizes everything that may question patriarchy. Sycorax exists only in male characters’ accounts; however, Sycorax influences the men’s perception of power because she is absent. Scholars generally agree that Sycorax, a foil for Prospero, is closely related to the Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Contextually, there was the idea of black magic involving witches being in league with the devil, but there was also the idea of white magic (as supported by the monarch himself), that involved the magician harnessing the forces of nature to good effect and purpose. Prospero sees himself as a white magician, whereas Sycorax is presented as the black magician, perhaps as a reference to the racial ignorance of Jacobean and Eurocentric society. Similarly, while Prospero has numerous speeches and soliloquies to defend his magic, Sycorax is already dead by the time the narrative begins- she is given no voice, a reference to the crimes convicted of innocent women during 17th century witch trials. Despite this, many post colonialist writers and critics see Sycorax as giving voice to people, particularly women, recovering from the effects of colonisation. Sycorax’s silent role plays an important part in postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest. Because she is native to Algiers and her story is only heard through others (Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban), she is celebrated by some scholars as a representation of the silenced black woman. Interpretations of Sycorax as silenced focus not only on her race but her gender as well. Most of what is said about her in the play is said by Prospero. However, Prospero has never met Sycorax—all he learned about her he learned from Ariel—and his suspicion of women makes him an unreliable source of information. Sceptical of female virtue in general, he refuses to accept Caliban’s prior claim to the island, accusing him of being a bastard “got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam.” Prospero’s comments around Sycorax describe her as an ancient and foul witch native to Algiers, and banished to the island for practicing sorcery “so strong / That [she] could control the Moon”. Prospero further relates to how, many years prior, sailors had brought her to the island, while she was pregnant with her bestial son, Caliban, and abandoned her there, as by some ambiguous reason, she was spared being put to death. The reference to her ‘bestial son’ implies that she is closer to animals and nature than humanity, a criticism that is in current society as a reconnection with pagan roots. One of the questions the play asks is whether Prospero’s white magic is so very different to Sycorax’s black. In some sense, they’re the same kind of magic, linking not only to progressive ethnic ideas in Jacobean Britain, but also to the questioning of binary oppositions and the duplicity of something unknown and unidentifiable as magic. While Sycorax tortured the island’s spirits, Prospero tortures and bullies Caliban.

Sycorax has been described as the matriarchal figure of The Tempest. Modernist authors such as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes have alluded to Sycorax in their writing in order to illustrate destructive feminine power. As Hughes writes, “…the difficult task of any poet in English is to locate the force which Shakespeare called Venus in his first poems and Sycorax in his last.” By emphasising the female power found in characters such as Sycorax, Plath and Hughes hoped to counteract what they saw as the patriarchal nature of canonical Western literature. Feminist critics, however, have maintained that matriarchal readings of Sycorax are shallow, as they often find importance only in Sycorax’s motherhood rather than her thoughts, feelings, and past life.

Witchcraft isn’t just seen in the characters of Prospero and Sycorax, but also in the gender-fluent character of Ariel. As his name implies, Ariel is a spirit of the air, swift and delicate, ethereal and occasionally mischievous. He has never lied or cheated: ‘Remember I have done thee worthy service:/ Told thee no lies, made no mistakings, serv’d/ Without grudge or grumblings’ (I.2.247-9). It is interesting to contrast the terms of endearment applied to Ariel, ‘my dainty Ariel’, ‘my bird’, ‘my Ariel, chick’ (interestingly all terms related to femininity) with the terms of opprobrium hurled at Caliban. He maintains magic within himself, one of his key roles to provide music, His melodies are heard throughout the island and they can control the actions of the characters. Caliban is frequently lulled by airs: ‘that give delight’ (III.2.134) and Ferdinand is lured to his meeting with Miranda by Ariel’s music.

Ultimately, according to Orgel, The Tempest provides enough evidence about the women in the play for us to speculate about them, but not enough for us to make any justified conclusions or arguments. The Tempest does not provide us with enough evidence to analyse Sycorax like one analyses the male characters physically present on stage; however, the male characters, especially Prospero, continually recount and emphasize Sycorax’s absence. The Tempest‘s dramatis personae names only one woman, yet the possibility of women in power is present. Prospero is a white, male patriarch, and Sycorax is a woman, possibly of colour. Yet, their genders push them into opposing extremes, and this opposition creates tension in the patriarchy and space for potential female power. Sycorax, however, is not like the woman in early modern England; she is not even physically present. Her absence is an extreme example of women lacking agency and representation. In demonizing Sycorax and projecting his fears onto her, Prospero only creates her into something powerful enough to incite fear. Although constructed and absent, Sycorax is a serious threat, because Prospero names her a witch. Attempting to make her out to be as evil as possible, Prospero endows Sycorax with his greatest fear: losing his patriarchal power. In calling her a witch, Prospero reveals his anxiety about women, especially their potential power to challenge patriarchy. ‘Witch’ was a common insult in early modern England and was usually directed towards women because women were believed to be “desirous of power” (Mendelson and Crawford 71). Gendered insults “built on specific fears.” Most of all witch meant the “mirror reversal of all that the patriarchy deemed good in a woman”. It was a name for women who threatened to upset the patriarchy. In calling Sycorax a witch, Prospero is identifying her as a threat to patriarchy, and his anger shows that the threat is serious enough to enrage him. In trying to condemn Sycorax, Prospero shows that her power remains in a new form despite her absence.


A Conversation with a Witch: Maggie

Over the October Half Term I contacted some local Pagans and Witches on social media, hoping to interview them about their beliefs. I was lucky enough to be contacted by Maggie, a local witch who, unbeknownst to me, only lived 2 minutes away from my house. I went to her home a few days before Halloween to interview her.

Verity: So a basic question to start off with: what religion or spirituality do you believe in/ identify with? And what terminology do you use for yourself?
Maggie : Right, well I’m a Pagan and witchcraft is a pagan religion, if you like. It’s the belief that everybody shared before the Christians took over. Before that, everyone celebrated festivals and concepts all based on farming and the agricultural year. I class myself as a Pagan, but I haven’t always been one- Since 2010 I’ve been part of this ideology and that’s when I truly understood what I believed in the world.
V: I travelled to Burley the other day, and went into the Coven of Witches shop where they explained to me that local vicars still don’t go in there to this day because they think it’s a social and religious taboo. It’s crazy to me!
M: There was a shop that sold witchy items in Hythe, Cheryl’s Closet, and the Christians from one of the local churches used to try and prevent customers from entering the shop. People do things like that just because they’re ignorant and an unwillingness to understand.
V: You mentioned you still partake in Pagan festivals- could you take me through them?
M: The witch calendar starts on the 31st October, which most people call Halloween but is traditionally the beginning of the New Year for Celtic and Pagan people. It’s when we remember our ancestors, relatives and friends who have died. I think the Christians call it All Hallows Eve and the Mexicans call it the Day of the Dead. It’s really for remembering people who have gone before us, as the veil between this world and the world where we go to after death is the thinnest. It’s not scary, it’s more that you reactive a connection with someone who’s passed- say you’re grandma’s died, you’ll be closer to them. I feel that with my parents. That’s what Halloween really is, but the Americans have the trick or treating tradition that’s come over the Britain. It only seems to be growing and growing. But traditionally, it’s called Samhain, and it’s an Irish or Gaelic word and tradition. I’m looking forward to celebrating that, and I’ll travel to somewhere near Burley to celebrate.
V: What other celebrations throughout the year do you celebrate?
M: Between the 19th and the 23rd December is Yule, which the Christians calls Christmas. When the Christians immigrated from Europe and Asia, they tried to make their festivals link in with the Pagan beliefs, so Jesus’s birth was celebrated around the time of Yule. Who knows when he was really born, but they thought if they celebrated it round about the time of Yule, then the Pagans would accept it. The Yule Log is a Pagan thing! So is the Christmas tree, which was banned but Queen Victoria brought it back in the 19th century. So we celebrate Yule and that is just a time when people enjoy themselves. It’s a time when the Holly King apparently battles the Oak King because the Holly King rules the winter and the Oak King rules the summer. It’s all for fun! But they have celebrations and rituals for all of these, which is a true stereotype about us witches. The witches have a Sabbat, which is the ritual they commit approximately every 8 weeks. The first one in the New Year is Samhain, then comes Yule (which is nice and festive). Then after that comes spring and the first event is round about February 2nd. It’s called Imbolc, and it’s the first sign of spring where all the snowdrops start to bloom. We celebrate that with a sabbat as well. After that comes Easter, which is called Ostara. It’s to do with rebirth and the beginning of the cycle of life for the land, the animals and the people. It’s all to do with agriculture- the seeds start to grow and trees start budding. After that comes May- Beltane. Everything is starting to bloom and blossom, and Beltane is then celebrated. The event uses Maypoles, which features young women dancing around the phallic symbol of the pole. They wanted to be fertile and produce new life into the world. That’s the celebration of fertility for the land, animals and people. After that comes the summer solstice, which they call Lammas around the 21st June. It’s the height of the summer and longest day in the year. The witches always do their ceremonies on night, except from Lammas when they watch the sun come up like all other Pagans and Druids in the country. Witches usually do all their rituals at night, however, perhaps in homes but they always try to go outside into their gardens or the woods. Sometimes they might even have a fire. After the Summer Solstice comes what they call Mabon, which is the Autumn Equinox. They celebrate the harvest and they celebrate its fruitfulness. They cut apples in half sideways to see the pips arranged in a five pointed star like the pentagram, which is commonly and annoyingly associated with Satanism. Witches, contrary to popular belief, don’t believe in Satan-he is a Christian concept and invention. The Pentagram itself represents the quarters of the earth (north, south, east and west) and the elements (air, earth, fire and water), and the top of the star is the Spirit. So we honour those quarters and they have guardians, what we call watchers of the quarters. We do believe that there is a spirit, but it’s not God, we just use archetypes and concepts to give these forces human aspects and features. After the Autumn Equinox we’re back to Samhain!
V: What first inspired your interest in witchcraft?
M: I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but I left the religion as I found it very strict.
V: I went to Catholic school.
M: Did you? In my day it was shocking, absolutely terrible. The nuns were very frightening for me as a child. That put me off, so I went to the Church of England, Judaism and tried lots of other denominations and religions, seeking for something that I believe in. I’ve always been interested in stories about witchcraft and I never thought it was bad. Hollywood has it down as something ridiculous, but Paganism isn’t anything like it’s represented as in the movies. In the beginning of 2010 I thought I’d look into it- I don’t know what came upon me- I might’ve seen or read something that inspired my interest. I started looking online and started joining things, and I’m now the Southampton representative of the Pagan federation. Yes, we’ve got our own federation- there’s even a Police Pagan federation! There are Pagans in all walks of the life: solicitors, bankers, armed forces. They’re all over the place and it’s growing quite a lot amongst young people too because there’s no dogma. So once I started delving into it, I got really, really interested. It opened up a whole new world to me that I hadn’t considered before. It became clear to me that that’s what I’d been looking for, because with witchcraft you can’t do harm to anybody, but you can do what you want. Harm no-one, do what you want. That’s their ideology. It’s like all the 10 commandments in one. If you harm somebody it’ll come back to you three times worse, it’s called the law of three fold return. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?
V: How do people react to your beliefs? What do you family and friends think of it. Do you openly tell people about it or are you quite private?
M: I tell people, even the ones at work. Some people take the mick, but I can handle that. They don’t really understand it. In a funny way they’ll still ask all about it, though, because it’s an unusual belief they haven’t really come across before. Our office manager calls it ‘woo-woo’. I haven’t got many Christian friends anymore, but I did tell one and she immediately cut me out of her life and didn’t give me a chance to explain- her loss. Most people in England these days accept it. Normal secular people are fine with it, people who are very religious can be quite judgemental, however. Most people just think you’re bonkers! A lot of what witches do and have always done is healing, using herbs to heal. The wise women in the village used potions to help people recover from sickness and we still do that now! It’s just that it’s now not inherently linked to femininity and wisdom, therefore connoting debauchery and evil. Men just didn’t like seeing women with power and that’s really sad.
V: When I think of witchcraft, I always think of it being a female-dominated ideology. Do you think that falls to stereotypes and tradition? Do you know many male witches?
M: Yes. There are a lot of male witches- they’re not called warlocks, they’re just called witches. There are covens that usually have a High Priestess and a High Priest, and in all Pagan religions, there should be equality between the sexes, but they do place great emphasis on the female presence. She is the mother. We have the God and the Goddess that are the archetypes, but we don’t like particular dominance. We like equality.
V: The main question I’m answering is, ‘Who is the modern witch?’ What do they stand for?
M: The modern witch is an ordinary person from any walk of life. They could be a lady like me, I was a professional PA and office manager, now I do reception work for a bit of fun after my retirement. They could be anybody. A lot of them won’t make their faith known, especially if they’re in a high position. We’ve got one gentlemen in our group who is a teacher, and he doesn’t tell anyone at work what he believes in. In a university it wouldn’t matter, but because he teaches young people, it bothers the adults: the parents, his colleagues and his employers. There are still a lot of people who connote sexual behaviour with witchcraft, which isn’t the case. I don’t know anybody who partakes in that and it’s not condoned by modern witches. I’ve heard of covens who perform in the nude but they don’t do anything sexual. They think they’re closer to the elements. I’ve never been involved in anything like that because I don’t think it’s necessary. You’re also not permitted to join any coven until you’re 18 years old, so there’s no interfering with children, no brainwashing, no cult-like behaviour. I think in this world it’s got a space because ecology is so relevant. We need to look after the Earth. On a social level though, they don’t like racism, any kind of homophobia or sexism. A lot of people involved in these Pagan religions are just like anybody else. There are homosexual and transgender pagans for example. We believe in harming none, any living creature. If you want to read more about it, I’ve got some books for you to look through. There’s so much to witchcraft, it’s so fascinating. You never stop learning. What was your experience with Catholic School like?
V: I think my experience was probably better than yours. The school I went to was really ethnically diverse. Probably about a quarter of the students were Muslim, so even though it was a Catholic School it had to be really inclusive towards all students. I’m an Atheist, and there were many Hindus, Sikhs, different dominations of Christianity. It wasn’t that pressured, and even though we had to go to mass and learn religious studies, it’s fascinating to learn about different religions, no matter what you believe.
M: I’m interested in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, it’s all fascinating! It’s interesting that you’re an atheist too as I was for quite a while. I still don’t believe in any God. I believe in something that’s making things happen, I don’t know what it is. I was so brainwashed by the way I was brought up that I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t believe it.
V: I understand the concept of religion, its just idea that followers of the religion are supposed to believe everything present in the holy books even if it was written thousands of years ago by prejudiced men. That seems ridiculous to me. It’s so extreme! People have hated gay people for years because of this one line in a massive book that has no author known to us. People have taken it and demonised it, focused on hate instead of love and that seems so sad. One thing I admire about witchcraft is that it doesn’t necessarily look towards a God, it involves looking into yourself and putting it out into the world. Whereas the Gods they paint in the Bible and Quran are cruel and inhumane.
M: Witches, druids and pagans do not try to draw people in. You have to come to us. We’re not missionaries or apostles, we try to be as respectful as possible. I wouldn’t dream of forcing my religion upon people. All I’d like to say to them is that it’s not what you seen in Hollywood. It’s not threatening.
V: When I went to Burley yesterday I brought my Mum and my Grandma with me, and my Grandma was quite confused when I said that I was doing a project on witchcraft. She’s very much a Christian. After we spoke to the helpful woman in the shop, however, she came out saying that she actually found it really interesting. She had no idea it was like that at all. It’s good to expose people to a truthful reality of an ideology, not expecting them to follow it, but just for them to gain enough knowledge to respect the religion instead of forcing it on them.
M: And realising that it’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing funny going on- we don’t eat children, drink blood, kill cockerels et cetera. Witches just celebrate the seasons because in the past, agriculture was all the working class had. If they didn’t have a harvest, they starved in the winter.
V: I think it’s so funny when people get suspicious of it, because it’s the one religion that has foundation in Britain. Christianity came over with the Romans and it was a scary religion from the Middle East, and that’s exactly how we’re viewing Islam now. History is just repeating itself.
M: What a pessimistic topic to end on!
V: Thank you so much for doing this with me, Maggie, it’s much appreciated.
M: Thank you! It’s great getting to share my passion for witchcraft with young people and I thoroughly enjoyed it.