Purposes of Magic in Early Modern Literature & Drama

By Evan P.

Magic in Early Modern literature in drama typically served two main purposes: as allegorical, and as a way to separate humans from other beings in nature, including animals and plants.  Edmund Spenser’s 1596  The Faerie Queene, an epic in praise of the English monarch, participated in popularizing the use of mythological beings as allegories.  For example, scholar Joel Davis makes the case that Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene isn’t a tale of magic at all, but that it is meant to be read as a praise of Elizabeth I (734).
Yet his poem blended the purposes of magical creatures, as he additionally used them to calm anxieties concerning animals’ place below humans in the world.  In this sense, allegory and separation also made magic and mythical beasts a means to elevate humans above animals and nature.
During the time period there was constant anxiety concerning animals.  Did these beings have souls, logic, rationality, and a conscience?  Magic was considered something that an animal could never control in the same ways that the humans portrayed in literature and drama could.  The use of magic was a major way to set humans apart and place them on a pedestal of power that animals could never reach: “magic is first of all, and most basically, a response to the estrangement between the inner life of the self and its ‘external’, material embodiment and relations; or, to put it another way, to the fact that human beings, unlike animals and natural objects, do not coincide with themselves” (Mutter 60).  Humans, unlike animals and natural objects, were in control over the elements.  While animals were strikingly similar to humans especially in allegorical situations, thus sparking the anxiety amongst humans, magic provided a false sense of hope to Early Modern audiences that they had higher intellect and more control.Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 5.04.45 PM
Likewise, we see a surge of other forms of magic to help humans control their environments.  Alchemy and astrology, for example, were both means by which humans in literature and drama of the Renaissance were seen using their control to manipulate forces lower than them.  Alchemy was the Elizabethan search for the elixir of life, a way to cheat death, and also a way to turn metal into gold, a way to gain riches.  Astrology was using the solar system to predict the future, another way for humans to gain a sense of control.  We also see humans manipulating their natural environments.  For example, the higher the landscape, such as cliffs and mountains, the more references we see to the heavens and higher beings.  As Lisa Hopkins writes, the natural settings of these works were often seen as “a collapsing of this world and the world beyond” (424).
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to magic in Early Modern literature and drama.  Magic was used allegorically and as a way to elevate humans above animals and the environment, helping calm the fears of humans in Elizabethan England.
Evan is a student at Ball State University.
Image Permission:
“Alchyma” from Konrad Gesner, The Practice of Old and New Phisicke, 1599. Courtesy of National Library of Medicine​.
Davis, Joel. “Fairy in The Faerie Queene: Renaissance Elf-Fashioning and Elizabethan Myth-Making.” Renaissance Quarterly. 58.2 (2005): 734-35. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.
Hopkins, Lisa. “The Places of the Gods On The English Renaissance Stage.” Philological Quarterly 89.4 (2010): 415-433. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Mutter, Matthew. ““The Power to Enchant That Comes from Disillusion”: W.H. Auden’s Criticism of Magical Poetics.” Journal of Modern Literature. 34.1 (2010): 58-85. Print.​

About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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