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Alchemy, Witchcraft, and the Magus Figure in The Tempest

Detail from An Alchemist at Work (mid 16th cent) by Pieter Breughel the Elder (1525-1569).

John Dee (Alchemist who appealed unsuccessfully to James I in 1604 to be cleared of charges of conjuring Devils)

James I (Author-as James VI of Scotland-of Daemonology, in forme of a Dialogue)

The figure of the Magus, a combination of Alchemist and Magician, is quite current at the time of the first performance of The Tempest. In fact, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist is being played at the same time, and by the same theater company as is The Tempest. Prospero can be seen as following in the tradition of such real-life figures as Paracelsus, John Dee, Jacob Boehme, as well as the legendary Faust. Paracelsus (1493-1541), the great reformer of alchemy, also wrote on religious and spiritual matters, and his influence on late 16th and early 17th century alchemy was profound. Alchemy was often associated with wizardry and witchcraft. The alchemist John Dee (1527-1608) was accused of conjuring Devils, and unsuccessfully appealed to the demon- and witchcraft-obsessed James I to be cleared of these charges. During the early 17th century Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) wrote a number of mystical works, some of which drew on Paracelsist alchemical ideas - the Signaturum Rerum, the Threefold life of Man, and the Four Complexions. These were published throughout the 17th century and developed a new thread of mysticism, with alchemical resonances.

What is alchemy?

"Alchemy is of a twofold nature, an outward or exoteric and a hidden or esoteric. Exoteric alchemy is concerned with attempts to prepare a substance, the philosopher's stone, or simply the Stone, endowed with the power of transmuting the base metals lead, tin, copper, iron, and mercury into the precious metals gold and silver. The Stone was also sometimes known as the Elixer or Tincture, and was credited not only with the power of transmutation but with that of prolonging human life indefinitely. The belief that it could be obtained only by divine grace and favor led to the development of esoteric or mystical alchemy, and this gradually developed into a devotional system where the mundane transmutation of metals became merely symbolic of the transformation of sinful man into a perfect being through prayer and submission to the will of God. The two kinds of alchemy were often inextricably mixed; however, in some of the mystical treatises it is clear that the authors are not concerned with material substances but are employing the language of exoteric alchemy for the sole purpose of expressing theological, philosopical, or mystical beliefs and aspirations" (E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy, London: Penguin, 1957, 15,16).

What about Magicians and Witches?

The existence of magicians and witches is taken very seriously in the period stretching from the 15th through the 17th centuries. The following selection from a Papal Bull of 1484 serves as an example:

Innocent VIII: BULL Summis desiderantes, Dec. 5th, 1484

Bullarium Romanum (Taurinensis editio), sub, anno 1484.

Innocent, bishop, servant of the servants of God, Ad futuram rei memoriam

It has recently come to our ears, not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany, as well as in the provinces, cities, territories, regions, and dioceses of Mainz, Ko1n, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that, moreover, they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith they . received in holy baptism; and that, at the instigation of the enemy of mankind, they do not fear to commit and perpetrate many other abominable offences and crimes, at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes (emphasis added).

A popular Witch-hunting manual of the late 15th century also serves as background for beliefs still-current in the time of James I:

Extract from THE HAMMER OF WITCHES [Malleus maleficarum], 1486

The method of beginning an examination by torture is as follows: First, the jailers prepare the implements of torture, then they strip the prisoner (if it be a woman, she has already been stripped by other women, upright and of good report). This stripping is lest some means of witchcraft may have been sewed into the clothing-such as often, taught by the Devil, they prepare from the bodies of unbaptized infants, [murdered] that they may forfeit salvation. And when the implements of torture have been prepared, the judge, both in person and through other good men zealous in the faith, tries to persuade the prisoner to confess the truth freely; but, if he will not confess, he bid attendants make the prisoner fast to the strappado or some other implement of torture. The attendants obey forthwith, yet with feigned agitation. Then, at the prayer of some of those present, the prisoner is loosed again and is taken aside and once more persuaded to confess, being led to believe that he will in that case not be put to death.

The character we know as Faust-or Faustus-apparently has at least a root or two in an historical figure who lived from approximately 1480 to 1540. A letter written by Johannes Tritheim (a physicist and writer who lived 1462-1516) refers to a "Master George Sabellicus, the younger Faust, the chief of necromancers, astrologer, the second magus, palmist, diviner with earth and fire, second in the art of divination with water"(Eric Bockstael, Lives of Doctor Faust, Detroit, Wayne State UP, 1976, 37). Faust is mentioned twice in the Tischreden, the records of the conversations of Martin Luther with his friends, family, and acquaintances:

When one evening at the table a sorcerer named Faust was mentioned, Doctor Martin said in a serious tone: "The devil does not make use of the services of sorcerers against me . . . . Mention was made of magicians and the magic art, and how Satan blinded men. Much was said about Faust, who called the devil his brother-in-law, and the remark was made: "If I, Martin Luther, had given him even a hand, he would have destroyed me; but I would not have been afraid of him-with God as my protector, I would have given him my hand in the name of the Lord" (Bockstael 40,41).

In the English Faustbook of 1592, The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserued Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus, itself a translation of the German Spiess Faustbuch of 1587, Faust's story is presented as a warning to European Christians who might feel the temptation to transgress metaphysical boundaries of experience and knowledge "proper" to servants of Christ. The "Master George Sabellicus, the younger Faust" has become Doctor John Faustus, a legendary figure consumed by an hubristic desire to know more than he is permitted to know by his limited human perceptions, who "taking to him the wings of an Eagle, thought to fly over the whole world, and to know the secrets of heaven and earth" (Bockstael 65,66). Faustus sells his soul to the Devil, writing, and signing the contract in his own blood: "Now have I Doctor John Faustus, unto the hellish prince of Orient and his messenger Mephostophiles, given both body and soul" (Bockstael 74). After twenty-four years of having demonic power at his command-during which time he is given a tour of Hell, lives off the riches of kings, emperors, and the Pope, and raises the famous Helen to be his lover-he meets his end: "the Devil had beaten him from one wall against another, in one corner lay his eyes, in another his teeth . . . his body [was] lying on the horse dung, most monstrously torn, and fearful to behold, for his head and all his joints were dashed in pieces" (Bockstael 205).

King James I of England took the ideas of alchemy, wizardry, and magic seriously enough to write (in 1597, as James VI of Scotland) a book entitled Daemonology, in forme of a Dialogue. "For James the devil was very real, the incarnation of evil and witches, mostly old hags, were his instruments. James' hatred of the devil was fanatical . . . . James . . . [attacked] those who publicly denied witchcraft, such as an Englishman called Reginald Scott, a hop-grower from Kent, and a German physician called Vvierus" (Bryan Bevan, King James VI of Scotland & I of England, London, Rubicon, 1996, 47). James held it blasphemy not to believe in the ability of witches and magicians to bring "Wine out of a Wall," to raise storms, and to commune with spirits.

Well, that's all very interesting, but what the hell does any of that have to do with The Tempest?

Still shot of John Gielgud as Prospero

  • Prospero's fascination with his books, his being "rapt in secret studies" (I.ii.77), is what leads to his initial downfall. Prospero neglects "all worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of [his] mind" (I.ii.89,90), thus opening the door for his usurping brother Antonio.
  • It is Prospero's art ("Lie there, my art" [I.ii.25] he says as he removes his mantle in order to converse with Miranda) that enables him to "Put the wild waters in this roar" that Miranda begs him to allay (I.ii.1,2). The control of the elements was one of the primary goals of "exoteric" alchemy, and it was reputed to be among the abilities of magicians and witches.
  • It is his art that allows Prospero to release Ariel from the spell of Sycorax, the twelve-year confinement "Into a cloven pine" (I.ii.277).

Ok, I can see Prospero as a magician, but how does he fit into the role of alchemist?

Both the exoteric and esoteric traditions within alchemy were concerned with transformation. Transformation, especially through "mystical" or "magical" experiences, is a constant theme in The Tempest.

  • Alonso, the King of Naples and the father of Ferdinand (the eventual husband of Miranda), suffers a "sea-change" in Ariel's famous song of I.ii.397-405. "Of his bones are coral made: / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange." This transformation, this sea-change, is brought about through Prospero's art. His magic thus serves the ends of esoteric alchemy, the mystical spiritual tradition concerned with the transformation and refinement of the individual into a more perfect being.
  • The theme of the sea-change runs throughout the play. Prospero himself suffers this sea-change as he journeys from being the newly-usurped Duke of Milan who "deck'd the sea with drops full salt" (I.ii.155) to being the wise and wizened magus who puts "the wild waters in [the] roar" that brings the ship to his island, then finally to being the man who forgives his wrongers in V.i.
  • Caliban suffers a variety of sea-change as he comes to the realization that Stephano and Trinculo are merely drunken sots, not gods as he asked Trinculo to be at II.ii149. As Caliban wades through the pool that smells "all horse-piss" (IV.i.199), he sees Trinculo and Stephano for the drunken fools they are: "The dropsy drown this fool! What do you mean / To dote thus on such luggage?" (V.i.230,231) asks Caliban of Trinculo and Stephano as they argue over the possession of a gown instead of following through on the previously-plotted murder of Prospero. Caliban's own last lines reveal a transformation into a character more aware than before of his tendency toward self-abasement: "What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god, And worship this dull fool!" (V.i.296-298).
  • Alchemical symbolism may be seen in the portrayals of Prospero's two primary servants, Ariel and Caliban. Ariel is fire in I.ii.195-205, reporting his activities to Prospero in this manner: "I boarded the King's ship; now on the beak, / Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, / I flam'd amazement." Caliban, on the other hand, is referred to as "Thou earth" (I.ii.314). These are two of the opposites alchemy was concerned to unite. Fire, is a symbol of the ethereal, the "soul" or spirit, while earth is a symbol of the physical, the fleshly, the material. These are the opposites that Prospero struggles with in his journey from the desire for revenge to the granting of forgiveness. At the end, Prospero grants Ariel (fire, spirit) his freedom, and acknowledges Caliban (earth, materiality, flesh) as his own: "this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine" (V.i.275,276).

Another interesting theme that operates in The Tempest is that of the wheel of Fortuna, symbolized in cycles of twelve: twelve years of imprisonment for Ariel in "a cloven pine" (I.ii.277); twelve years of imprisonment for Prospero on the island; the twelve phases of the zodiac. This all comes together in I.ii.178-184: "By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune / (Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies / Brought to this shore; and by my presience / I find my zenith doth depend upon / A most auspicious star, whose influence / If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes / Will ever after droop."

Fortuna's Wheel

The wheel of Fortune was a legacy to the Middle Ages from the second book of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. It took on many styles, from the delicately drawn miniatures of fine manuscripts to the huge rose windows of the cathedrals at Amiens and Basel. Fortuna herself is often drawn larger than the human figures, in accordance with medieval convention, to underscore her greater importance. The wheel is frequently absurd in its mechanics: Fortuna may propel it with a graceful touch of a spoke or with an awkward-looking crank; each revolution may be swift or require a full life-time.

The wheel usually bears on its rim four shelves of "stages" with four human figures.

  1. The figure rising on the left is usually labeled regnabo (I shall reign).
  2. The one at the top is marked regno (I reign) and is often crowned.
  3. The figure descending on the right is regnavi (I have reigned).
  4. The writhing figure at the lowest point is sum sine regno (I have no kingdom).

The victim is sometimes depicted as thrown from the wheel by gravity and centrifugal force, and sometimes as crushed under a wheel fit for a heavy cart.