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Prospero's Book

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 2001
pp. 1-33 | 10.1353/shq.2001.0016

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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 1-33


I begin with an assumption about the tempest that opens onto a set of related questions. The assumption is that among the highly valued books that Prospero brought with him into exile is one book essential to his magic, the one that he goes offstage to consult before the series of spirit spectacles begins in Act 3, the same one that near the end of the play he promises to drown as he abjures his magic. Though Peter Greenaway, in his film Prospero's Books, did not include such a book among the twenty-four he decided were necessary for Prospero's survival, the text indicates that Prospero not only has a magic robe and a magic staff (both of which are explicitly called for ), but, like Friar Bacon and Doctor Faustus and other stage magicians before him, he also has a magic book. Further, the play presents Prospero's always-offstage book as crucial to his rule over the island, the magical instrument that enables him to control the spirits who come from their confines when Prospero calls, who torment Caliban and keep him obedient, and who assume as needed the shapes of Greek mythological figures or vicious hunting dogs.

Granted, the play emphasizes Prospero's use of spirits much more than it does his dependence on a particular book for the power to so use them. By the time he says "I'll to my book, / For yet ere suppertime must I perform / Much business" (3.1.113-15), we know without a doubt that Prospero employs materialized spirits to carry out his commands. Not only have we witnessed his early dealings with Ariel; we have also observed Miranda's response to seeing Ferdinand: "What is 't? A spirit? . . . It carries a brave form. But 'tis a spirit" (1.2.488-90). Her comment makes clear that to Miranda materialized spirits are a familiar sight. Prospero's reply, "No, wench, it eats and sleeps and hath such senses / As we have, such" (ll. 491-92), is premised on Miranda's knowing basic distinctions between the faculties of spirits and those of mortals. And in 2.2 we have heard Caliban in soliloquy describe the spirits Prospero employs:

            His spirits hear me,
And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i' th' mire,
Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid 'em. But
For every trifle are they set upon me. . . .
Here comes a spirit of his, and to torment me
For bringing wood in slowly.

(ll. 3-8, 15-16)

Prospero's spirit magic is thus established early and unequivocally, long before we see groups of spirits actually appear. In contrast, not until Prospero's exit line, "I'll to my book," at the end of 3.1 does the text point to a specific book connected with Prospero's magic "business." Further, in only one speech is Prospero's control of spirits explicitly linked to his book, and that speech refers to his books in the plural:

First to possess his books, for without them
He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command. They all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.


The use here of the plural seems to argue against the significance of any particular book -- though surely it is relevant that the speech gives us Caliban's interpretation of Prospero's use of his library, and that Prospero himself, in later referring to the instruments that have made possible his magic, uses the singular form: "I'll break my staff, / . . . And deeper than did ever plummet sound, / I'll drown my book" (5.1.63, 65-66)--a promise he seems, by play's end, to have kept, since he describes himself in the Epilogue as being in much the state that Caliban had earlier predicted, without one spirit to command.

Because the evidence in the play is tantalizing rather than solid, I would not want to argue on the basis of...

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