The Magician, Prospero, and Doctor Faustus

I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd. I always have been. Well, not always, I suppose. I wasn’t born spouting lines from Macbeth. But ever since itty-bitty Jack first read a kids’ version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I have been in love with Shakespeare as an expression of all that is fundamentally human.

So today, kids, we’re going to go on a bit of a Shakespeare ramble. This might be the first of many; I’m really not sure. I have a lot to say on the subject, and am not entirely sure of how I want to organize my thoughts. So grab your passport and prepare to set off on a wild and tempestuous* journey with me.

Many a year ago, when I was working on my first Tarot journal, I went through each card of the Major Arcana and tried to think of a character (or, in a few notable cases, set of characters) from Shakespeare that I felt was representative of that card’s essence. I did it with non-Shakespeare characters and historical personages as well–the Empress is Molly Weasley, the Hierophant is Cephalus from Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, and so on–but every card got at least a Shakespeare character. And in this first Tarot journal of mine, scrawled on the page ascribed to the Magician in my horrendous chicken-scratch, is a single name to start our journey through Shakespeare and the Major Arcana: Prospero.

For those of you who don’t know him, Prospero is the protagonist of The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s late romances. An exiled duke with supernatural powers, he lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda. He also has two supernatural servants (ahem, slaves): Ariel, a sprite native to the island, and Caliban, the half-demon son of a sea witch. Ariel is a creature of fire and air; Caliban, of earth and water. Together, they represent Prospero’s mastery over the four elements.

You begin to see the parallels with Tarot.

Prospero’s character is, above all else, a triumph of human knowledge and willpower over both human politics (at the end of the play, he regains his dukedom) and nature itself (as he has the power to conjure the ship-wrecking storm that gives the play its name). He represents, among other things, a clarity of purpose that I feel exemplifies the Magician–for as he pulls other characters’ puppet strings and draws the play to its conclusion, we come to understand that the various disparate elements of life on his desert island are actually just facets of his overarching plan.

But there’s another layer of meaning to Prospero, and one that really hammers in the Magician connection for me. In his marvelous book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the scholar Harold Bloom suggests that the character of Prospero should be read as Shakespeare’s response to the flawed, corrupt magician of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which was penned shortly before.

Marlowe’s tale is a much more familiar one than The Tempest: Ambitious and power-hungry, Doctor Faustus sells his soul to the devil in return for supernatural powers. And, well, it ends badly for him.

In the Faust tale, we see a distrust of arcane knowledge. Marlowe’s magician is destroyed by his power, which he was only able to acquire through duplicity and (if you’ll forgive the burdensome term) sin. This rendition of the tale, in particular–as opposed to others, where Faust repents and is saved–paints the magician as a dark, shady, untrustworthy figure.

But with the Tempest, Bloom argues, Shakespeare rejects that image. Prospero is driven by a desire to do good, which never leaves him over the course of the play, but his ability to act upon that drive is a direct consequence of his higher knowledge. Scholarship and the pursuit of wisdom are his greatest tools in being able to exert the influence of his will upon the outside world. Here, we see that knowledge is power, yes, but it is not the same power that Marlowe portrayed. It is not dark, dangerous, corruptive. It does not come with a price. Rather, it is–above all else–the power to create and to mend. The play may open with Prospero summoning a devastating storm, but in the end, he uses the power of this storm to put the world to rights.

This is what I see in the Magician card.

That’s about all for now, I think. Let me know if you’d like to see more Shakespeare notes from my journal, or if this kind of thing really only interests me and is best left in a closed notebook.


*This was an intentional pun, because I’m planning to talk about The Tempest. I am truly a terrible person. I apologize.

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7 thoughts on “The Magician, Prospero, and Doctor Faustus

  1. Puns and Mr. Shakey, it doesn’t get better than that.

    I,ve got a couple of eidtions of the “complete” Shakespeare, my favourite being an edition with ilustrations by my all-time favourite illustrator, Rockwell Kent. I also recently got an audio version of 2 of The Great Course on Shakespeare which are interesting. Two different professors, and although they don’t do all the plays they do some of the same–interesting to compare the take from 2 different people. I also have Isaac Asimov’s book discussing Shakespeare which is interesting.

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  2. I really enjoy this observation of The Magician! I feel like most LWBs reference the Dr. Faustus end of the Magician, which I find very interesting. I’d like to hear from from your journal! This is a very meaningful connection

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    1. Thanks! I feel like the Faust story is always interesting when applied to Tarot imagery, because it betrays a certain preconception about human nature and the nature of power. Different versions of the story approach the issue differently–Goethe’s Faust shows us that evil is necessary in order for good to have value, whereas Marlowe’s seems to me like more of a strict morality play–but the theological reckoning is always there. Applying this question to the Magician in particular has staggering implications for the way we interact with the rest of the Major Arcana, which is why I prefer to see the Magician as a Prospero-type figure.

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  3. Well, I certainly enjoyed this post having followed your link on AT. Have you seen Helen Mirren’s ‘Prospera’ in the movie version of The Tempest? Fabuloso. Ariel, too, hits the mark and Caliban is straight up fully embodied.

    Of course the genres of the two plays these characters inhabit should be taken into account. Tempest is largely a romance and Faustus, a tragedy–felicity and sobriety respectively which will naturally shape motive, trajectory and outcome. There is a discreet moral calculus at work in both plays but the difference between the two could be defined in degrees of or identification with pride.

    Your whole post makes me think of all the characters in the Magic Flute and how seamlessly some of them could be viewed with a Tarot lens. Thanks for widening mine.

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