Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture. By Ryan Curtis Friesen.
Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-1845193294, $74.95. 249 pages.
Review by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University
Friesen offers an incredibly well-written introduction to the supernatural in the early modern era (1510-1625). His presentation begins with purportedly non-fiction works, starting with a discussion of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, moving onto Bruno’s work, then presenting the sixteenth-century pamphlets on witch trials, and offering commentary on Dee’s angelic interpretations. The second half of the book looks at magic within Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Middleton’s The Witch, multiple of Jonson’s dramas, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Overall the work is detailed, offering insight into the works discussed as well as presenting that insight in its scholarly context. References for each chapter range from twenty-three to one hundred forty.
A quirk of the book is the author’s insistence that readers must not believe in magic. It is a bit eccentric to think that scholars reading in this field would believe in magic, though perhaps the title of the work would attract dabblers in the occult arts. In addition, even if one were a believer in magic, Friesen offers no reasons why this would corrupt one’s understanding of either his book or the texts which he examines within it. However, his discussion of how to refer to those who were thought to be magic users in his introduction is an interesting lexical discussion.
The text offers an introduction to the discussion of magic that is accessible to all levels of knowledge. While there are references to antecedent authors and texts (Nicholas Cusanos inspired Bruno, for instance), most of the discussion is developed in the book so that no prior knowledge is necessary for understanding. Despite its accessibility, the book offers an expert in the field an interesting development angle, in terms of the fictionality of the texts examined.
The fact that an examination of historical and philosophical treatises comprises the first two chapters of a book entitled Supernatural Fiction is surprising, but Friesen makes them work. He argues that Agrippa was simply presenting what others had argued and that Bruno used his philosophical description of magic to create a fairly modern worldview. Therefore, neither of these authors wrote a truthful argument for magic.
The texts the book covers are introduced in historical and cultural context. Friesen details their creation and their cultural and literary impact. He presents the works which they grew out of and the stream of literature in which they were read. Each chapter can be read alone without significantly reducing its efficacy.
The explication of all the precedents is sometimes developed in a way that a careless reader might misunderstand. In his discussion of Agrippa, Friesen mentions Simon Magus and his appearance in the biblical book of Acts as well as in pseudo-Clementine. He also discusses Simon’s argument with Peter and his ability to fly as “biblical legend.” This story, however, is not in the Bible. While referencing the story as biblical legend may be factually accurate—it does refer to a biblical person and it is a legend—it could easily mislead readers to assume that the story is in the Bible; therefore, careful reading is required.
The book presents a fascinating discussion of the witch trials and the actuality of witches, mentioning that most of those tried as witches in the sixteenth century were married women, while about fifteen percent were men. Friesen compares this to the modern stereotype of witches as old crones. He also discusses the number of admitted witches, presenting various scholarly arguments focusing on the idea that these confessions were a means of creating agency for the accused.
Friesen’s presentation, generally objective and even-handed, suffers slightly in his chapter on Dee. While Dee was clearly a scholar in his time, owning almost ten times as many books as the library at Cambridge, his occult practices, including the writing and translations of mediums’ purported messages from angels is presented by Friesen as a clear example of cunning ambition. However, facts which Friesen includes mitigate this view. Why would someone who was blatantly manipulating people follow his own false prophecies and move his entire family away from their home in England and establish them in Poland? Why would someone who was inventing futures not be careful to create prophecies that would not be fulfilled in his lifetime? And, finally, why would someone whose investigation into angelic discussions was the result of a desire for prestige hide away from the court that could have promoted his ambition? Despite the questions that his own presentation raises, Friesen argues for Dee’s duplicity in the creation of the angelic conversations.
As Friesen moves into the unarguably fictional texts, the discussion of magic adds a measure of literary analysis. The themes, archetypes, and characterizations of both magic and magic users are described, analyzed, and contextualized. For example, in the final chapter Friesen presents scholarly arguments about Prospero’s magic. He gives the main lines of argument and then evaluates the play according to his reading of Prospero’s use and renunciation of magic, presenting Ariel as dramatized magic and Caliban as the inheritor of a wholly negative rough magic who eventually becomes responsible for himself.
The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the early modern view of magic, through historical and philosophical treatises, pamphlets, diaries and transcriptions of séances, and contemporary dramas. The variety of texts examined makes this work particularly intriguing.