Realist Magic

By Francesco D’IsaAugust 22, 2021

Realist Magic

Theatre, Magic and Philosophy: William Shakespeare, John Dee and the Italian Legacy by Gabriela Dragnea Horvath

IT IS NOT a narrative expedient for me to claim that I can remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. I was living with my parents then. There was some time to fill before dinner — empty moments where I had neither the will nor the need to get started on any kind of action. I would kill that time with useless little gestures, such as drumming my fingers against the spines of the books marshaled together on my father’s shelves. That’s how I brushed against the identical spines of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. I pulled one volume out, opened it at random, and started reading. I would lie if I said I can remember what it was, but I do recall the feeling of the pages, silky and very fine, typical of thickly printed books such as the Bible or, indeed, Shakespeare.

Long story short, and dinner aside, I got reading one volume after another: tragedies, comedies, history plays. Perhaps I skipped a couple of the Henrys. Among the countless reasons the poet occupied my mind, I chiefly remember a sense of familiarity with his writing, in which I felt at home despite it being an Italian translation of 16th-century English works.

Many years later, the reading of Theatre, Magic and Philosophy: William Shakespeare, John Dee, and the Italian Legacy, by Gabriela Dragnea Horvath, has cleared up what I had believed to be an elective affinity. The many themes which come together in this valuable work meet on the background of the influence of Italian Renaissance philosophy on 16th-century English culture in general, and on Shakespeare in particular — the same author I met in my father’s house in Florence, the birthplace of Italian Neoplatonism and of Marsilio Ficino. There goes the familiarity I had felt in reading: I didn’t just feel at home — I was.

Before I dive into Horvath’s complex work, however, it’s better to introduce her methodology, given its resonance with the book’s contents. In a way, as she writes of magic, the author casts her own, thanks to her adoption of the comparative method typical of the Italian Renaissance. As Horvath puts it, her “inquiry does not unfold along a linear thesis that can be abstracted in a single declarative sentence, but spreads out into a network of interrelated topics.” She aims to

restore the dynamic of cultural models, the interplay of the existential and epistemological patterns of an epoch, the orchestration of its creative energies in their diversity, tension and complementarity. It is consistent with the early modern mental disposition, whose epistemology grounded in mirroring, and where resemblance gave coherence to the system of knowledge and the world.

Nicholas of Cusa had established in De docta ignorantia that every inquiry is comparative and uses the means of comparative relation. Horvath follows his path, comparing magic, theater, and philosophy, discussing both de Cusa’s works and the writing of Shakespeare and John Dee.

Horvath argues that perennial philosophy, theater, and magic affected the early modern turn of mind not only as separate domains, but also in their interrelatedness. She examines the structural commonalities of theater and magic and finds correspondences with the main contentions of perennial philosophy; then she follows the rise of magic into high culture as applied knowledge. In so doing, Horvath seeks to — so to speak — solve et coagula John Dee and William Shakespeare, whose alchemic encounter generates the book’s spell, which highlights four common points between magic, theater, and perennial philosophy:

(1) the relations between man, God, Nature and the arts, (2) the foundation in the sense of wonder and the confidence in man’s capacity to transform the world by producing artificial wonders, (3) the reliance on invisible beings and the potential of imagination and (4) the awareness of the power of the words.

Before Huxley fans get confused, we should clarify that by “perennial philosophy” the author means a philosophy concerned not so much with the search for truth, but with its revelation. This is the philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, which was inspired by Duns Scotus, Iamblichus, Al-Ghazali, Plotinus, among others, and which was passed on to Agrippa, Jakob Böhme, and Giordano Bruno. This school of thought presents itself as a “universal science,” a perfect synthesis of theology, philosophy, and poetry. It’s worth recalling, with Horvath, that

an interesting feature of this trend is also the unity of theory and practice. The knowledge accessed by the philosopher was meant to be applied for the transformation of nature, hence the centrality of magic as an umbrella term for theories, rituals, experiments and arts aimed at curing the world from its decay status, and the interest of philosophers in medicine, astrology, alchemy, applied mathematics, botany, physiognomy, optics and other disciplines that pertain today to the domain of science.

The interest in praxis and ritual is what brings perennial philosophy close to nature, as shown by the figure of John Dee, the English thinker who, together with his colleague Edward Kelley, developed the Enochian language: a fictitious miraculous tongue dictated by angels. It’s the performances by Kelley, the cheating medium, in whom Dee seemed to truly believe, which bring us to the third link: theater.

In thinking of this controversial alchemist, I am reminded of an untranslatable Italian expression, messa in scena (in French, as in English: mise-en-scène). The Italian version means both “to put a play on stage” and “to make a fiction believable through deceit.” The ambiguity is effectively embodied by Kelley — the link between Dee and Shakespeare, magic and theater. Horvath explains that the affinities of theater, perennial philosophy, and magic with religion are “structural”:

All of them have a ritualistic dimension, which accounts for their dynamic and performative quality: magic consists mainly in rituals, the philosophers assimilated magical rituals to connect to the spiritual realm, and their experimentations with substances, images or numbers as well as their search for a method can be looked upon as a passage from the rituals of religion to the procedures of science and technology. Theatre has been construed as a ritual of justice with sacrificial victims, replicating religious ritual in a secular framework.

Elsewhere, Horvath observes that “in working with simulacra of reality which enlarged the domain of conceivability theatre conflated with magic.” That explains the disguised presence of Dee in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of his works with the greatest presence of magic. Horvath however confutes the established idea that Prospero is Dee’s literary portrait, providing textual evidence that he was most likely the inspiration for the noble Neapolitan Gonzalo, an honest old counselor. More than the wizard, then, for Shakespeare Dee is the man in good faith who is deceived.

It’s in the contact between wizard and playwright that the alchemy of Theatre, Magic and Philosophy: William Shakespeare, John Dee and the Italian Legacy does its work. Like every playwright, Shakespeare understood his art as intersubjective magic, and magicians like Dee worked on the same assumptions, making use of imagination to reproduce and control natural phenomena. However, as Horvath writes:

Marsilio Ficino’s and Giovanni Pico’s enthusiasm for man’s capacity to elevate himself to a divine status contaminated Dee to the point of making him believe he was a vessel of God’s revelation. Contrastingly, Shakespeare’s view on man can be classified as skeptical realism. Rather than exalting man’s capacities, the continuous exercise of critical thinking voiced by his characters reveals the human limitations: ignorance, a weak or perverted reason, ambition, surrender to passions, mortality.

Dr. Dee continued to believe in the veracity of Kelley’s revelations and in his being a chosen vessel of revelation. His trust in the domain of magic contrasts with Shakespeare’s skeptical realism. Although familiar with the glorification of man in perennial philosophy, Shakespeare was not completely persuaded by it, as we can see in in Hamlet, Act II:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?

Even if the playwright has, in comparison with the wizard, a less enthusiastic view of human ability, they share the awareness that words do not only signify reality, but also transform it. “Every word is a magic word,” Aleister Crowley said. Theater, philosophy, and magic are different manifestations of the miraculous conflagrations of the spoken word.

If I may add another link to the chain wrought by the author, I would suggest that faith in the power of language is shared by science as well, which thanks to a network of symbols — both mathematical and verbal — develops and plans out the construction of its own “magical artefacts” — that is, technology. Pico della Mirandola drew a distinction between magia naturalis (white magic) and magia demoniaca (black magic). While the latter relies on the power of demons, the former is made possible by the knowledge of the laws of nature and the ability to bend it to one’s will — not unlike science and technology.

On the other hand, whether we talk about rituals, the concordance between the motion of the stars and human fate, or the agreement between mathematical models and the behavior of objects, there is the same principle at work: an affinity between human conceptual models and the working of nature. The extraordinary power of the scientific method is also its best argument: thanks to it, we have learned how to fly and eradicate illnesses, for example. (To which we should add more damaging things, from pollution to weapons of mass destruction.) This is magic which works pretty well, but the reason why it does remains a mystery.

In 1960, more than 300 years after The Tempest, the physicist and mathematician Eugene P. Wigner wrote a brief essay whose title is its thesis, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I’d like to think that both Shakespeare and Dee would have agreed with the essay’s thesis.


Francesco D'Isa is a philosopher and artist from Florence, Italy. He writes and draws for various magazines and is the editorial director of the Italian magazine L’Indiscreto.

LARB Contributor

Francesco D’Isa is a philosopher and artist from Florence, Italy. He writes and draws for various magazines and is the editorial director of the Italian magazine L’Indiscreto.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!