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“Alchemists grow old and die in the embraces of their illusion…the achievements of the magicians are unsure and fruitless.  Those practices are openly convicted of vanity, and the secret and remotest loft tower’ of the magician’s pride must be abandoned if he is to come ‘close to things.’ The real truth is that the obstacle to the course I propose lies…in human pride…it is this pride that has brought men to such a pitch of madness that they prefer to commune with their own spirits rather than with the spirit of nature.”

– Frances Bacon, a major opponent of occultism during the reign of King James I

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A real character: Is Prospero Shakespeare?

From the Guardian

My guess is that most modern readers do see something of the ageing playwright in the wizard. How not to find metaphors in the way he moves characters around the island, conjures visions, makes pointed comments about “the great globe itself” and eventually throws aside his staff and foreswears his art? What greater last words could there be for the genius from Stratford than that famous speech about how “our revels now are ended”, or his final lines in the play asking for the audience to give him their applause and so “set him free”? Following on from that, who wouldn’t find it poignant that The Tempest is widely thought to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays (and many say his very last)? That he probably lived no more than five years after its composition? And that he did indeed quit the stage just as Prospero quit his enchanted island?

Once you start seeing autobiography in these final speeches, it follows that Shakespeare might have written more of himself into Prospero. Bardolators have loved this idea from the late 19th century onwards. Writing in 1875, for instance, Edward Dowden said: “We identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself … because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will … and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays.”

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea that we know Prospero is Shakespeare because he shares characteristics with all the other characters we’ve also identified with the playwright. Yet it’s also easy to see why this line of thought is so tempting. Shakespeare is a uniquely tantalising historical figure. He gives us a feeling of remarkable kinship and understanding. He stretches out to us, through the ages, and shows that he thought and felt much as we do; he saw his world as we see ours. What’s more, he still speaks our minds. We can still identify with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth. And as a result, few historical figures feel closer than the man who created them. Except, of course, we know next to nothing about him.

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Shakespeare’s names

According to the Arden edition of The Tempest, Shakespeare made some very diliberate naming choices with this play. These include:

  • Prospero means “prosperous,” “fortunate”
  • Miranda is a play on the word “wonder”
  • Caliban is an anagram of “cannibal”
  • Trinculo derives from a word for excessive drinking
  • Stephano derives from an Italian word for stomach
  • Ferdinant means “brave journey”
  • Ariel means”God’s lion”
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“…In the late 16th century, harnessing invisible spirit power was essentially the same kind of challenge as harnessing the invisible power of the wind. It was complicated, you needed to be highly educated, but if you could do it -rather like improving the technology of your ship’s sails, the world and its wealth were at your feet. Reaching the spirit realm however, was a touch more complicated than improving your ship.”

— New Science, Old Magic: Dr Dee’s Magical Mirror, A BBC radio program