Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session XIII: Magic in the Early Modern Stage

Merlyn Q. Sell here, blogging Colloquy Session XIII: Magic in the Early Modern Stage from the fourth floor of Staunton’s Masonic Building.  This session runs from 9:00am to 10:15am.   The session is chaired by Annalisa Castaldo and the presenters are Jim Casey, Michelle Danner, Brittany Proudfoot-Ginder, Patrick Harris, and Stephanie Howieson.

The session starts with a recap of the presenters work.  Castaldo is interested in the intersection of magic and gender, specifically in Macbeth.  Castaldo has identified some links between the presenters works, focusing on how magic may destabilize or disrupt gender, how magic might be staged, both in early modern playhouses and today, the importance of the magic book on stage, and finally how magic and the magical differ onstage.  Proudfoot-Ginder is joining us via Skype.  Her work is also concerned with magic and gender, specifically how magic performed by women is viewed as black magic as opposed to the beneficent magic of men.  Harris’ work is focused on the role of literacy and education is perceived as a stepping stone to magic in early modern works.  Howieson is interested in the impact of religion on an early modern audience’s perception and fear of stage magic and how modern productions can stage magic in ways that inspire a similar fear in their audience.  Danner’s paper is focused on Cassius in Julius Caesar and the possibility of Cassius as a Sybil character.  Casey is looking at the doubling of fairies and mechanicals in Midsummer Night’s Dream and how playing the supernatural and transformative nature of the fairies can set off the mechanicals inability to transform as actors.

The conversation begins with Danner and Proudfoot-Ginder discussing the disruption of gender through magic.  Proudfoot-Ginder points out that the typical staging of the witches in Macbeth and Prospero in The Tempest provide a visual example of the gender divide.  While the witches are usually embodied with a hunched posture seeming to pull their power from primal, natural forces, Prospero is frequently seen standing quite erect with his power coming from his education and magic books.  Danner has been looking at the possibilities of Cassius in Julius Caesar as having shifting gender throughout the play.  Danner notes how this staging choice can complement the two extremes of femininity that exist in Portia and Calpurnia.  Castaldo troubles the idea of Prospero as a masculine beneficent magician and points out that the text does frequently feminize Prospero via his relationship to Miranda and the background of his power being not only his magic book but also his female precursor.

Castaldo invites Howieson to speak to the idea of how gender might influence her investigation of how modern productions can stage the terror of magic.  Howieson points out that at the time Macbeth was written views towards magic were shifting from one of good and bad magic as opposing forces to one where all magic was black magic.  Harris adds that Dr. Faustus and The Tempest can function as a late morality play with the moral being “don’t practice magic”.  Casey wonders if early modern audiences would have shared that view as Prospero gains from his magic.  Harris points out that Prospero has to abjure his magic in order to resume his place in the world outside of the island and that it is through his obsession with magic that Prospero is initially banished.  Harris believes that perceived magicians had a very precarious position within early modern society as it was a slippery slope to damnation.

Castaldo points out that the conversation began with gender and magic and that the conversation becomes complicated by the introduction of a third concept, morality.  How might morality intersect with gender and magic?  Proudfoot-Ginder believes morality is an important element in the relationship between gender and magic as early modern women were considered closer to sin.  However, Proudfoot-Ginder admits this connection is disrupted, or at least complicated, by characters such as Puck and Ariel that are gender-fluid.  Casey points out that in the text and in early modern performance these characters were not gender-fluid, they were specifically masculine.  Castaldo wonders if the casting of a boy actor in these roles wouldn’t have made these characters gender-fluid for the original audience.  Harris troubles the idea of assigning gender at all to some characters, specifically Ariel and the Weird Sisters.  Harris adds that in the case of the Weird Sisters the text links the characters to the Fates, who are female, but at the same time the text assigns them beards and Macbeth himself has difficulty parsing gender.  Howieson also points out that some of these elements may have been coincidental when the texts were written.  Shakespeare wrote to a specific company of actors and had to deal with the actor bodies they presented on stage.

Moving towards a discussion of the magical versus actual magic, Danner points out that in plays such as Julius Caesar, magic exists in the world of the play and it influences that world and characters even if nothing we identify as magical occurs on stage.  Casey asks if the supernatural and magic are the same.  Harris says no, but that they are a part of the same occult world.  An audience member further troubles the boundary between the supernatural and the unnatural.  Definition of these terms seem to be key to understanding these concepts.  Howieson points out that for the early modern population there was no supernatural.  The magical and the occult were considered a part of the natural world.

Castaldo brings up Hermione’s waking in the end of The Winter’s Tale.  The moment is always magical but staging choices can make it a product of actual magic or not.  Howieson also points out the stage direction requiring music at that moment and that there is a precedent in Shakespeare’s work for music to invoke magic.  Harris and Castillo discuss the possible intersections but also disagreements between Hermione’s supposed death and the potion that puts Juliet in a state that appears as death.  From the audience, Terry Southerington points out that this differentiation between magic and the magical was unlikely to be perceived by an early modern audience that accepted magic as science.  Howieson ties this idea back to the gender question earlier, by pointing out that male magicians are typically seen as in control of their magic while it would have been believed that female magicians can’t hold magical power themselves but must be under the sway of Satan.

The panel turns their attention to Prospero specifically and how murky his power really is.  How much power does he wield and how much is due solely to Ariel and the other magical inhabitants of the island?  Castaldo points out that the text is not clear about the nature of the island and its inhabitants in the first place.  Are the island’s inhabitants naturally magical?  Or is it Prospero’s (and previously, one assumes, Sycorax’s) power that imbues the inhabitants with magic?  As the panel continues to unpack all the possible sources of Prospero’s magic, Harris points out that while Prospero’s magic books are discussed the text does not require they be seen onstage.  This, plus our understanding of early modern views on magic, make it seem to Harris that magic can be learned and once learned practiced at will.  The magic books provide the knowledge but are not in and of themselves magical.  This view ties magic indelibly to literacy.  This view is troubled further by Rafe and Robin who are able to summon Mephistopheles without being able to accurately read and interpret Faustus’ magic book.  Harris points out a distinction between magicians who obtain their power via learning whereas witches receive their power through a pact with Satan.  Faustus is a problem then in how he crosses those boundaries.

Closing with a discussion of examples of effective magic onstage, there’s a great deal of debate as to what constitutes magic for each person as an audience member.  The panel does seem to agree that the one required element is the actors’ investment in the belief of the magic.  Audience member Renee Thornton Jr. hints that audiences may see the fruits of this panel onstage this coming actor’s renaissance season at the American Shakespeare Center.

About merlynq

Scholar, artist, and all around good egg.

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