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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare and Magic

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 43

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician Prospero conjures up a storm, charms his daughter to sleep, and uses his power to control Ariel and other spirits. Is this magic for real, or is Prospero pulling off elaborate illusions?

Fascinated by this question and by Prospero’s relinquishing of magic at the play’s end, Teller (of the magic/comedy team Penn & Teller) co-directed a production of The Tempest with Aaron Posner at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2015.

In this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, Teller joins Barbara Mowat, director of research emerita at the Folger and co-editor of the Folger Editions, to talk about magic in The Tempest and other Shakespeare plays, as well attitudes about magic in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England.

Teller and Mowat are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, and NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © March 8, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode is called “Enter Prospero in His Magic Robes, and Ariel.” It was produced by Richard Paul.  Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington, Rick Andrews and Casey Morell at Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas, and Steven Martin at KPCC in Los Angeles.

Interested in seeing images from the books mentioned in this podcast episode? Visit the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

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WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. There is a particular production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that’s causing a sensation around America as this podcast is recorded. The Tempest is a play about many things, not the least of which is magic. And what’s excited so many theater goers is the level and quality of magic this production brings to the stage. That’s not a surprise when you learn that the play is co-directed by one of the nation’s preeminent magicians: Teller of the magical comedy team of Penn & Teller. Teller has teamed up with long-time Folger denizen Aaron Posner to concoct a version of The Tempest that puts the magic front-and-center.

Here at the Folger, we take a little bit of pride and ownership when it comes to this production. Teller co-directed Macbeth along with Aaron for Folger Theater in 2008. While he was here, Teller got a tour of our rare book vault and saw a number of items that ended up helping him think about this production of The Tempest. On that trip he also met our then Director of Research, Barbara Mowat. A discovery that Barbara made in the Folger collection had a profound impact on Teller’s thinking about Prospero, his relationship to magic, and its role in Jacobean society. We thought it would be fun and enlightening to bring Teller and Barbara together to talk about all of this. We call this podcast, “Enter Prospero in His Magic Robes, and Ariel.” Barbara and Teller are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Teller, I’d like to start with you because when I first heard you were co-directing The Tempest, it just made sense. You’d already done a Shakespeare play, Macbeth, so you must like Shakespeare I thought and this one is famously about a magician, so perfect. But then I remembered that this play ends with Prospero giving up magic, which I imagine is an interesting conundrum for a magician director. Could you let us into your thinking on that and how much that element in the plot gave you pause or direction in your staging?

TELLER: The idea that Prospero is giving up magic is what moves me about the play most of all. Because I’m 67 right now, and I think, you know, eventually, someday, maybe I’ll have to give this life up. And I thought, what would make me do that voluntarily? The answer in the play is very complex and very interesting. I also was a little resentful of the fact that the play tends to be interpreted entirely abstractly as if, you know, this is Shakespeare’s adieu to the world of the theater and I thought, well, yes, but he’s chosen to make the concrete of this about magic.

BOGAEV: And let’s get a little bit more concrete so people can visualize this as they’re listening. Give us a sense of the set; your Tempest is set on a kind of island as is traditional for the play, but it’s not just an island, so describe it for us please.

TELLER: The conversations between Aaron and me began with a question that came to mind because I was reading a biography of Willard the Wizard, who was a traveling tent show magician during the Depression, and I was fascinated by the aesthetic of Willard’s show. He did very amazing magic but you sitting in a tent on a dirt floor. And yet, he transported people to fairyland and I thought this was a really interesting aesthetic to start with on this because when you’re traveling in a tent show like that, you really are on an island and that appealed to me about it.

It also appealed to me that Willard the Wizard had one daughter, and she was a feature in his act. And I thought about the question of, suppose Willard the Wizard had a longing to do legitimate theater, and the one play that had captured his imagination was The Tempest. How would he approach that? He would probably use pieces of his own repertoire as parts of the staging of the show.

Beautiful set by Dan Conway, and the two phrases that I used with Aaron when we were talking about what the set should be was I said, “I think this is a shipwrecked magic show,” and the other thing I said was “It seems to me this is a play about something that goes on during the daytime, that’s being performed at night, at the end of a wharf on a Coney Island pier.” And that’s kind of the affect that you get when you look at the set. It’s like the end of a pier slightly decayed, so it’s—

BOGAEV: Period, and slightly sleazy, in that way you’d want a sideshow to feel.

TELLER: Yes, raggedy, raggedy. We’ve—in some of our earlier productions of this, we actually cast a little person as Trinculo.

BOGAEV: Well, it’s so interesting that you set the play very much in the aura of the street magician and of course, there are elements of actual magic tricks. The play starts with a lovely comedy bit by Ariel, the sprite, involving card tricks and audience participation, and Ariel performs card tricks throughout the show. There’s also a levitation bit with Miranda in which Prospero passes her through a hoop. I think I want to pick up on something you just mentioned, that there were some specific stage directions originally for this play, and I think you found them in the Folios, that you could take your lead from?

TELLER: I mean, it’s only a small thing but it says that the feast vanishes with a straight—with a quaint device. Is that right Barbara?

BARBARA MOWAT: Yes, yes—“a quaint device”.

BOGAEV: A quaint device.

TELLER: “A quaint device.” And to me, “quaint device” is period lingo for some kind of mechanical trick. But “quaint device” suggests a little more than just that, so yes, we—that’s one way we justified the extensive use of magic.

BOGAEV: And Barbara, is that how one should read that stage direction, “a quaint device?”

MOWAT: Oh yes, he’s absolutely right about that. In fact, I think that someone has actually traced, in some of the magic books of the period, a theatrical trick, that kind of explains how you have a table that can open up and let the food disappear. That definitely meant something on the stage that would give the illusion of banquet disappearing, so yes, he’s right about that.

BOGAEV: Well, Barbara, give us a sense of the broader context of magic in Shakespeare’s work. Obviously, The Tempest is the only one of the plays that deals directly in magic and features a magician protagonist, but there are ghosts and there are sprites, and there are fairies sprinkled throughout the works. So, just how common, or perhaps how consistent, a theme is magic in the plays? And is it separate from or another subset of the supernatural?

MOWAT: There are many, many of Shakespeare’s plays that use supernatural creatures and supernatural events. I mean, everything from Julius Caesar, with the lions and all of the rest of it, to plays like Macbeth with the witches. I consider magic to… I would not call it magic unless there’s a human being who is either using spirits or using what at the time was called “transitive magic.” In other words, the kind of thing that Prospero does when he stops Ferdinand from being able to use his sword, puts a spell on him, or when he puts a spell on Miranda and has her go to sleep. Those things to me are magic.

We get a couple of other magician figures in Shakespeare’s plays. There’s Glendower in 1 Henry IV who claims he can do all of the kinds of things that Prospero, later on, we actually see Prospero doing. But Oberon, for example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he does a lot of things that, if it were a human being doing them, we would call magic. I think that at that time and now, that would not fall under magic. That would be Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural.

BOGAEV: And just to get a clear sense of this…

MOWAT: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Obviously, audiences in Shakespeare’s time were very fluent with these ideas of the supernatural and…


BOGAEV: But what did it mean to them? What was the attitude towards magic in the early 17th Century? I know from your writing Barbara, that the king at the time of The Tempest, which was first performed in 1611, was King James, and he wrote a whole book on witches called the…

MOWAT: He did indeed.

BOGAEV: What, Daemonologie?

MOWAT: Daemonologie. He certainly did. Trying to demonstrate that Reginald Scot had been wrong in saying that… Scot was saying that human beings simply could not summon up and control spirits. And King James said, On the contrary, they can, and they do. But they do it because the Devil makes it possible for them to do it, and he lures them, he uses this…Their control of spirits. He pretends to be the servant to these men and women and then when the time comes, he has their immortal soul, so it’s a trap.

But, I think to understand the attitude towards magic at the time, you need to start with the general theological ambience that these people were living in. They lived in a world where people believed firmly that there were hierarchies of angels and hierarchies of fallen angels, and to deny that was to be accused of being an atheist. Where the question arose was could human beings use these spirits to attack someone else or to use them to find buried treasure? And if so, was it because God was making this possible, or was it the Devil making this possible in order to trap human beings? Then you had Reginald Scot come along and speak for, I suppose, a fair number of people when he said, there is no such thing as witches. These are deluded women who suffer from melancholy.

There was a wide spread of beliefs about what human beings could do in terms of the spirit world. And so, you get to a character like Prospero, where Shakespeare makes him kind of simultaneously, many different kinds of magicians. He makes him into the learned magician, who is interested in the theories of magic, and interested in the ancient kinds of magic that was a higher form of life. He talks about his secret studies. But he also makes him an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or somebody who can force Miranda to fall asleep or can use spirits to torture Caliban. All of these things that Scot said, No one can do, and that King James said, If they do it it’s because the Devil allows it. But what Shakespeare does, that’s so fascinating to me, is he removes this whole religious context from the play except when he has Prospero give up his magic. That is the kind of thing that Christian magicians did. But there’s no sense that he has to summon these spirits by begging God to help him, or begging Satan to help him, or whatever the other kind of magicians did. He’s a fictional character, and we know he’s fictional because of the way he treats the spirits. So it’s easy, I guess, even for King James to enjoy watching this man control spirits in a way that people, real life magicians, they could never do this. They spent their lives begging and begging for angels to do things for them and only occasionally were they successful.

TELLER: I have a question for you Barbara. This is a question that haunted Aaron and me through the whole production. Does Prospero actually do anything or does he just make people hallucinate? It seems as though everything that Prospero does seems like a magic show to me. It seems like he’s doing… he creates—is that a real storm or is he creating the illusion of storm, and everyone’s experiencing this illusion, including the audience… but it has no consequences? The fact that, you know, their garments come out completely dry. Where do you stand on that question of what—how real is what he’s doing?

MOWAT: Oh, that’s a lovely question. I think this is a “both, and” kind of question. I think with that with the storm, for instance, it is in many ways an illusion, but everyone is frightened. The ship seems to fall apart. Miranda watches it and is grief-stricken. In other words, there are real consequences, in many ways. There are actions that follow. And yet, at the same time, he lets us know: he, in his conversation with Ariel, we know that this is something that he and Ariel together have performed. One of the things that I think he’s doing here is playing with the power of fiction. Because what’s the difference between really doing something and making everybody experience it as if you had really done it? You know?

BOGAEV: That seems to go straight to the heart of magic; doesn’t it Teller?

TELLER: Mm-hmm. It does. It’s part of the reason we thought magic was so suitable for ways of expressing ideas in the production is to essentially do to the audience what Prospero is doing to the visitors to his island.

BOGAEV: And to make that concreter for us Teller, how did your thinking about this question and the role that Prospero and Ariel play as magicians, as illusionists, how did it influence your staging? Could you give us some examples?

TELLER: Oh, yeah, zillions of examples. The most daring and tasteless choice that we made was to illustrate the confinement of Ariel in a tree with an old trick called the Twister Box. Prospero commands his spirits—who in our production are people in full evening dress with the heads of crows—commands the spirits to bring out this piece of classic, magic apparatus in which someone stands before you with his torso in a box and then his head is in a separate little box that’s twisted round and round and round and round and then the two doors of the center of the box are opened and the body is all twisted like a wrung out dishrag. And simultaneously, all of the strength of the story and poetry I think were there, and they were layered with this crazy, somewhat silly, magic trick. We ripped that idea off a little bit from Peter Brook, with his famous Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he had pieces of juggling and trapeze artistry thrown in, in a sort of arbitrary way. Not arbitrary, but a way that it was perfectly poetic but not sort of a realistically justified. You know, we didn’t put Ariel into a tree. We put him into a piece of magic apparatus that evoked the tree. Let me see, where else have we got things?

My favorite moment for magic in the show is after the visitors have been tormented with the phantom feast and Ariel appears in a huge bird-like, sweeping cape, halfway through his chastisement of these evil guys when he says, “You three did supplant good…”  And at that moment, he raises his cape in front of him, drops his cape, and now is Prospero. So when that word “Prospero” comes, suddenly those unpleasant people have this vision of the guy that they messed up many, many years ago, there in their presence, and it’s an absolutely stunning magic trick. I mean, it’s an instantaneous transformation right in the middle of the stage, far away from any scenery. I think the audience itself jumps because they feel how strongly that must be hitting the bad guys in the face.

BOGAEV: Ah, beautiful. And Barbara, you’ve seen a video of Teller’s Chicago…


BOGAEV: Production…

MOWAT: Yes, I have.

BOGAEV: Of The Tempest

MOWAT: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And I should mention that you’ve edited the script for the Folger edition of The Tempest, so I’m curious what do you think of Teller and Posner’s balancing act between the magic and Shakespeare, and also their interpretation of Ariel and Prospero, these two magicians, and that interplay of all of the different kinds of meanings and cultural baggage of the magician in play?

MOWAT: Well, it seems to me that by making both Ariel and Prospero into kind of entertainer magicians, stage magicians, that they make the play very, very interesting for a modern audience that would probably have a good bit of trouble understanding the kind of spirit world that Ariel is normally seen as coming from and going back into. I was very charmed with Ariel as a slight-of-hand magician. I should tell you, Teller, it reminded me so much of that wonderful trick that you do called the Physicist Deck of Cards. He just reminded me a lot of you in that. I was… there are a couple of things about it that interested me that haven’t come up yet. One is I was curious about your choice to get rid of the Greek goddess masque that the spirits was supposed to put on, and use the levitation trick with the hoop and all of that?

TELLER: Mm-hmm.

MOWAT: How did you come to that decision? It was fascinating.

TELLER: [LAUGH] Very tactfully asked, Barbara. I’ve seen many, many, many productions of The Tempest and the part that most rarely succeeds for a contemporary audience is the recitations of the Roman goddesses.

MOWAT: I agree completely.

TELLER: The fundamental content of all of their poetry is a blessing for generation, prosperity, and love for Ferdinand and Miranda. And I thought again, thinking back to Willard the Wizard, I thought what would he consider to be absolutely perfect choice for “some vanity of mine art,” and then I thought… we also thought back to Willard the Wizard using his own daughter in his show, and his own daughter was used in the levitation. And then we began to think about well, what have he and Miranda been doing on this island for all these years? And we thought about what it would be like for someone who had raised his daughter and used her in his show to part with her? What ritual would be the perfect ritual to part with her? We didn’t want Miranda to be too passive. We wanted this to be an act of love between Prospero and Miranda and also, be an act of giving her away. So, what we did that just transformed it was we allowed… instead of Prospero putting Miranda to sleep as you traditionally put levitation victims to sleep, she lovingly and cooperatively lies down and he places his hand on her hand and begins to sort of lift her that way. And she looks him full in the eye with absolute love the whole time, so it became to us kind of a perfect image for a father who has been so close and working so closely with his daughter to say farewell. And at the very end of it, as she lies down, Prospero places her hand into Ferdinand’s hand and they embrace and kiss. It becomes a really simple magic trick that has… it’s just fraught with, I think, with exactly the meaning that the, you know, that the goddesses recitations are.

BOGAEV: Barbara, I’m so glad you asked that question because it gets to all of the tension that this production plays with between a modern audience and modern audiences expectations and also, a Shakespearean audience and the difference between the two and it makes me curious… what you’re thinking is about the—given this degree of ambivalence and contradiction and how people viewed magic back in Shakespeare’s time and also the church’s vehement suppression of it—whether in writing a play that deals as explicitly as it does with magic, was Shakespeare playing against people’s beliefs and attitudes and prejudices or was he taking risks by portraying these things on stage?

MOWAT: Oh, I think he was definitely taking a risk because he was presenting before King James, who had said very harsh things about men who did precisely the kind of things that Prospero was doing… Sometimes the play has a sense to me of being almost an illustration of what James was talking about. James says that, you know, It’s one thing to study the stars like an astronomer, but somebody who thinks that stars can have an effect on us, or that we can depend on them to do things for us, that is astrology and that is the devil. And of course, Prospero says, This star is the… is what’s making this happen, and fortune is now my mistress. So, yeah, I think it was a very, very risky, wonderful thing for him to do, and I think that’s why he never lets us think that this is the kind of magician that the church would have been so upset about. He removes all of the religious language that would normally go along with magicians like Prospero and he… when he has Prospero, near the end of the play, recite off the kinds of magic that he’s done, he uses a speech that everybody would have known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s a fictional speech, it’s a speech given by a fictional character, and it becomes a kind of an artistic soliloquy, rather than something that we’re supposed to take very seriously. Then, he follows that with having Prospero abjure his magic, and get rid of his book and get rid of his magic staff. But despite that, yes, I think it was a very brave and risky thing for him to do.

TELLER: I have a question I’ve got to ask Barbara, because I know the time is short, but I really have to ask you this Barbara. You’re… you, you know, you wrote a stupendous article on Prospero’s Book, and what that book is and what Prospero’s books were. An incredibly thought-provoking article, that includes the observation that we never see this book. And Aaron and I felt like, for this production, it was very helpful not only to see that book, but to see, at the end, Prospero cast that book off into oblivion and throughout that, I just worried that we were taking… you know, I think at some point you said to us, “When Shakespeare keeps something offstage, he keeps it offstage for a reason.” And I always felt a little guilty about us bringing that book on and making it a real thing just so that we could make it vanish at the end. Did that offend, trouble or haunt you?

MOWAT: Actually… actually, I loved it.


MOWAT: I… and I think I was quite startled when the book appeared at the beginning because normally, when Prospero says, “Lie there, my art,” he’s talking about his magic cloak, and instead here there was this manuscript book. So, no, I was not at all offended. I was quite charmed with that, because people today would not have known what one of those books looked like and if they thought it was a book, they would never have imagined something like you managed to find, so I loved it.

BOGAEV: And Barbara explain for us, because Teller’s doing my work for me…


BOGAEV: He referenced the article. [LAUGH]  The article that you wrote which was called “Prospero’s Book.”

MOWAT: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And it’s about cultural attitudes towards magic in Shakespeare’s day. I understand that your article is based on this remarkable finding in the Folger collection, of a manuscript known as Folger MS v.b.26.

MOWAT: What to me is remarkable is the coincidence of my finding this document and the fact that there is now a whole school of scholars who are extremely interested in these magic manuscripts, which up until the 1970s, people thought did not exist. They knew they may have once existed, but even in the 1970s, great historians were saying, books like that were no longer here.

BOGAEV: So, it’s what we’d call a book of spells, or I think the French call it a grimoire.

MOWAT: That’s exactly what they call it. It’s a book that a magician who summoned spirits and used them to answer his questions or to do things for him. It… this kind of book, it had to be in manuscript because, number one, if they had it printed they would go to prison and perhaps be killed, because doing this kind of thing was so illegal, and the second thing is that it needed to be in manuscript for it to have the potency that was needed to summon up the spirits.

These books really are collections of prayers, invocations, names and descriptions of all of the fallen angels who one could summon. They are filled with pictures. They are quite wonderful. And we now know that there are lots of them.

And just to bring my essay up-to-date a little bit, a couple of years after this essay was printed, the Folger found the remaining thirty pages of this manuscript, so that now, we have v.b.26 (1) and v.b.26 (2). I think it’s one of the Folger’s treasures.

TELLER: It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking article, you know, I… a slight… a personal thanks to the Folger is when I was at the Folger, they showed me a copy of Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, and of course went to pieces because that’s the first book in English that ever had diagrams of magic tricks. And ,you know, I sort of backed away from it with my hands trembling, as if one, you know, were in the presence of the Holy Grail. And, oh, some five years after I had visited there, someone from the Folger called me and said, “We’ve located another copy of Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft in perfect condition. I think it was in London and I got in touch with the people and bought it and it is now in my house, so.

MOWAT: Oh, that makes me so happy. That’s wonderful.

TELLER: It’s, you know, I have three or four amazing treasures and that’s one of them.

BOGAEV: Well, we’re almost out of time but I have to ask you Barbara, since you’re the expert. Do you think Shakespeare would have liked Teller’s production?

MOWAT: Oh, certainly, certainly. [LAUGHTER] He loved—

BOGAEV:  What other answer could you give? [LAUGH]

MOWAT: Yeah. It’s clear… it’s clear that Shakespeare, his primary thought always was the effect of something on the audience. He was a master controller of audience response. It’s so clear that the audience was so gripped by this production, and it’s keyed for today’s audience, and yet, it’s still magic that Shakespeare would have recognized, so yeah, I think they did a tremendous job.

TELLER: We just took stage directions from somebody who’s a really good playwright. I think he’s gonna go places. [LAUGHTER]

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Well, and Teller, to hark back to the beginning of our conversation, Prospero gives up magic at the end of the play or you can read that as Shakespeare giving up writing or there’s so many different interpretations, but you did say that you thought so much about, “What would it take for me to give up magic?”  And that you wanted the production to reflect that question. So what would it take for you to give up magic?

TELLER: Oh, I intend to die in office. [LAUGHTER]

MOWAT: Good.

BOGAEV: On stage or practicing?

TELLER: Ideally, you know, one of the great things about magic is that unlike say, dance, where, you know, after a certain age you need to become a choreographer and step off the stage, there are roles for magicians as very, very, very, very old people and I wouldn’t mind having my final moments be on stage in the middle of some silly trick.

BOGAEV: Well, I hope that day never comes. I wish it wouldn’t and I want to thank you so much.


BOGAEV: It’s such a pleasure to talk with both of you.

MOWAT: Thank you, Barbara.

TELLER: I’m so honored to be… I’m honored to talk with Barbara. She’s just an inspiration to everybody in the Shakespeare community.

MOWAT: Oh, Teller, you’re so kind. Thank you.

WITMORE: Barbara Mowat is Director of Research Emerita here at the Folger. Teller, of the magic comedy team Penn & Teller, has co-directed a version of The Tempest with Aaron Posner that is played to standing-room-only theaters in Las Vegas, Boston and Chicago. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. “Enter Prospero in His Magic Robes, and Ariel” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Farrington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington, Rick Andrews and Casey Morell at Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas and Steven Martin at KPCC in Los Angeles.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can learn more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.