Monday, January 14, 2013

Failures of Neoplatonic Memory Magic

I explore the failures of Prospero’s magic in the context of the public conflict over memory systems that pitted Giordano Bruno’s image-rich magical system (propagated by Alexander Dicson) against the iconoclastic methods favored by the Cambridge Ramists (spearheaded in print by Rev. William Perkins) in late Elizabethan England.  The strongly visual and theatrical strategies employed by Prospero (most notably in the play’s two masques), coupled with the dependence of his magic on memory and the forced rewriting or imposition of memory, suggest that his magic is both neo-Platonic in form and specifically linked to the magical memory system described by Bruno. As a magician, Prospero tries to assert his power by controlling memory, revising history to reflect his desired narrative. However, his attempts to superimpose his own narrative are repeatedly resisted, interrupted, and rejected. Given these failures to control either his own plans or his subjects, I’d like to suggest that Prospero’s magic, most particularly in its image-rich masques and focus on memory, stages a parodic interrogation of this debate over memory and memory systems. And while resistance does not itself invalidate his magical theories, Prospero’s attempts at memory manipulation notably succeed only in altering his own interpretation of events; his inability to recognize his failure thus points to the inherently self-deceiving nature of his art. This frame enables us to consider Prospero not simply a positive or negative figure, but as one who calls into question not simply his own skill, but the basic validity of the magical system he employs.


  1. You have a big, big hole in your analysis.

    We don't know much about Shakespeare's knowledge of magic or memory-magic, and you seem to assume a connection as opposed to establishing one based on evidence. But we do know a lot about Shakespeare's contact with, and use of, rhetoric, which has its own mnemonic tradition including the ad Herennium and the tradition of the topoi, from which we derive the term 'topic,' which simply means 'place.'

    What you ascribe to a critique of magic other critics ascribe to a commentary on the plasticity and creative possibilities of memory itself. It is OK to depart from traditional criticism's notion of Prospero as artist in his call upon what was traditionally considered to be the Queen of the Muses, Memnosyne, but this is not the sort of claim in you can ground in the text itself. You would need to establish on biographical or historical grounds--as Yates, whom you cite, does with Bruno--a basis for your claim that Shakespeare's Prospero somehow embodies a critique of memory magic.

    Anyway, whatever.

  2. Thanks for the comment, but this isn't my paper. Not sure if I understand how this can't be grounded in the text itself. But I'm also skeptical that Yates has grounded Bruno biographically in a reliable way...

  3. Gilbert, this *is* actually my paper, and I do work very specifically in details of the text as well as in a range of contemporaneous theoretical texts, both Bruno's and those of English adherents to his system, whose writings, published as they were in England, were easily accessible. I'd be happy to hear your critiques on the actual piece, which will be out in an Ashgate collection within the week (Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe), but perhaps you should read the chapter before you make assumptions about what it does or does not do.