Word of the Day: Magic

Somewhat surprisingly, there are only thirteen uses of the word “magic”, across eight of Shakespeare’s plays. Further, each appearance of the word is as often the cue for a reflection on dramaturgy as it is for a use of thaumaturgy. Prospero, for example, although a practitioner of “rough magic”, nevertheless needs his “magic robes” to do so, and thus on-stage magic becomes as much about the costume as the effects. Perhaps more striking than this, there is the ending of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes is brought to see a statue of his wife, whom he believes dead but who is in fact – in a set-piece of virtuoso acting – pretending to be the very statue that he admires. When Leontes touches her, and remarks “O she’s warm”, he praises theatrical artistry as much as fantastical events:

If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

The lawfulness of magic is evoked elsewhere in Shakespeare. Othello picks up the negative connotations of the word when he, ironically, tells the Venetian senate of the “magic” that, according to them, he must have used in order to woo Desdemona. Such ironic reference to magic comes back later in the play, when the moor imagines the magical creation of the handkerchief he gave to Desdemona, whose presence in Camillo’s chamber forces Othello over the edge.

OTHELLO Tis ture: there’s magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number’d in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew’d the work;
The worms were hallow’d that did breed the silk;
And it was dy’d in mummy which the skillful
Conserv’d of maiden’s hearts.

The magic of the handkerchief is ultimately manifested in the way in which it inflames Othello’s jealousy. Something similar occurs in Hamlet, where the “magic” poison of the play-within-a-play (again overlapping theatre and sorcery) provokes the very real anger of Claudius whom it directly accuses.

In that accusation, Claudius is himself made out as the user of the “magic” poison that kills Old Hamlet, and this is but one of several examples of evil or so-called ‘black’ magic in Shakespeare’s work. Exeter, at the funeral of Henry V with which Henry VI part I opens, imagines the black magic of the French which could have “contriv’d” the end of the king; whilst in Macbeth, the evil coven of witches represents perhaps the most prominent black magic users of Shakespeare’s canon. It is after all, Hecate, the queen of the witches, who in an oft-cut speech promises:

HECATE […] There hangs a vaporous drop profound;
I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:
And that, distill’d by magic sleights,
Shall raise such artificial sprites,
As, by strength of their illusion,
Shall draw [Macbeth] to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.

Its surprising how Shakespeare only uses the word magic 13 times in all of his works! Still, there’s enough magic in his work already

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