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Genevieve Juliette Guenther, Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance
by Maik Goth

Guenther, Genevieve Juliette. Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2012. xii + 168pp. ISBN: 978-1442642416. $65 hardback.


Guenther’s densely-packed, short monograph investigates the precarious relation between the poet and the magician in early modern England.  Drawing on seminal studies by Keith Thomas and Kenneth Burke and elaborating on performative categories established by Stanley Tambiah,[1] Guenther persuasively claims that the realms of early modern literature and magic are linked, because both consider language as a metaphysical instrument that can influence the recipients’ ideological orientation by giving them pleasure (5).  Prompted by Sidney’s phrase that poetry is an “instrumental cause” of virtue, “the ending end of earthly learning” (qtd. in Guenther 4), Guenther coins the term instrumental aesthetics to describe the notion that literature produces social effects by delighting its readers.[2]

Each chapter of Guenther’s monograph focuses on one seminal Renaissance text which investigates the ways in which language might use “imagined metaphysical forces to social ends” (5): Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  By thus covering prose, poetry, and drama, she offers a comprehensive and impressive history of magic at the intersection of poetics, poetry, and performance from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean age.  In order to assess the import of magic on poetry and the English cultural landscape, Guenther expertly draws on a vast variety of better and lesser known writers, among them Giordano Bruno, Cornelius Agrippa, Henry Holland, and Niels Hemmingsen.  In the epilogue, she moves beyond the Renaissance and deals with Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason).  Throughout her monograph, Guenther includes trenchant metacriticism, and has a bone to pick with New Criticism and New Historicism, which both stress “the inutility of beauty and the disinterestedness of aesthetic analysis” (108).  She instead argues that the instrumental aesthetics employed by literature needs to be taken into account in critical analysis.       

Her first chapter focuses on Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, and is essentially a historico-cultural exploration of Sidney’s mock-conjuration at the end of the Defence, which to Guenther encapsulates the problematic relation between poetry and magic in Sidney’s poetics: “I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of Poesy” (qtd. in Guenther 18).  Sidney here evokes the poet’s magical power, while distancing himself and the ideal poet from magic.  Guenther argues that Sidney’s aesthetics is doubly connected to magic: first, because Sidney’s literary use of coercive manipulation to social ends is linked to notions of magic persuasion formulated by Agrippa, Bruno, and English magicians; and second, because his notion that poetry proves efficacious due to its transmission of metaphysical ideas of perfection opens a link to Neoplatonism, which Protestants deemed heretical and demonic.  Sidney, although striking an ostentatiously ironic pose at the end of his treatise, does believe that poetry is invested with a kind of magical power: to Sidney, “the Elizabethan magician was the doppelgänger of the efficacious poet” (20).        

Guenther demonstrates Sidney’s familiarity with the magic discourse of his age by citing pertinent sources and by situating the Defence in Sidney’s relation to the English court.  She is a very astute reader, and offers a series of perceptive interpretations that cast light on Sidney’s profound engagement with the discourse on magic.  So involved is Guenther’s argument that it is not quite clear whether it is Sidney who ties the double knot between poetry and magic or whether it is indeed Guenther herself.  She first establishes Sidney’s coercive rhetoric and its positive social intentions, but then turns this argument against him by linking its coercive power to magic theory.  She then seemingly exculpates Sidney from dabbling with magic by explaining the Defence’s link to Neoplatonist metaphysics, only to underline Neoplatonism’s alleged connection to magic.  It hence seems that Guenther draws a magic circle around her main argument.         

Guenther’s stimulating chapter on The Faerie Queene argues that Spenser purposely blurs the dividing line between allegory and demonology “to train the reader in the bi-fold habit of mind enacted by the effect of wonder” (61).  Spenser, claims Guenther, did not believe that a disciplinary effect could be induced simply through the conveyance of metaphysical beauty in poetry.  Contextualizing The Faerie Queene in Renaissance beliefs in the presence of demons, the role of the demonic in faculty psychology, and the workings of wonder, she explains that Spenser deliberately confronted his readership with beautiful images which could be either poetic or demonic, or both.  By thus harrowing his readers with the marvelous and the frightening, Spenser generated the experience of wonder.  Wonder was paramount for Spenser’s instrumental aesthetics, because it helped generate the “anxious self-regulation” of the perfect gentleman (14).  While desiring beautiful images, he was supposed to distrust their origin, a kind of intellectual training that would create virtuous, ideologically oriented behavior. Guenther particularly focuses on magicians such as Archimago, Busirane, and Merlin, as well as on passages in which Spenser attempts to trigger the readers’ experience of wonder, e.g. Arthur’s encounter with Maleger, his dream of Gloriana, as well as Amoret’s and Britomart’s ordeal in the House of Busirane.  Readers of The Faerie Queene are required to imitate and emulate Arthur, Britomart, and Amoret, who all channel the experience of wonder into the desire for beautiful images and, simultaneously, their rational evaluation.  In The Faerie Queene, poetry and magic hence share the same conceptual space because both are essentially instrumental, and because Spenser’s master-text is conceived as an instrument for social improvement.          

Guenther’s reading of The Faerie Queene is rich in contemporaneous and near-contemporary sources.  Among others, she consults Randall Hutchins’s On Specters, Calvin’s Institution, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Edward Reynolds’s A Treatise on the Passions and Faculties of the Soule of Man, Thomas Wright’s The Passion of the Minde in Generall, Nicholas Coffeteau’s A Table of Human Passions, and Bacon’s Advancement of Learning.   The chapter on Spenser is particularly strong because it avoids the kind of circular argumentation traceable in the chapter on Sidney and goes beyond established readings of magic in The Faerie Queene.  That Spenser’s epic romance relates to the early modern discourse on magic has been treated repeatedly in the critical literature, but that it engages with it so profoundly and complexly has not been shown with such critical acumen, yet, and will hopefully elicit further research and responses.        

In the next chapter, Guenther turns from Spenser’s epic romance to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.  According to Guenther, Marlowe’s approach to magic is informed by the economic pressure of the theater, and is hence overtly histrionic rather than educational.  However, as the public obsession with the satanic was informed by the vying forces of fascination and fear, the onstage presentation of the devilish was fraught with difficulty.  Guenther cites sources averring that performances of Doctor Faustus had to be discontinued lest the onstage conjuration caused actual devils to appear in the theater—a fear the playgoers shared with the actors.[3]  Theatrical magic hence made manifest the dysfunctioning barrier between conjuration as performance and the performance of conjuration.  The opposition between performance and reality was further undermined by the Renaissance belief that devils tricked hapless people into devilry by staging their invocation as a theatrical spectacle. Indeed, reformers believed that the words used in magic spells and rituals had no magical potency at all.  Devils appeared because they sensed in the conjurer his alienation from God, and only behaved “as if [they] had been conjured by the magician’s language” (67-68).  The experience of wonder during the conjuration of devils triggered delight and applause, as the reformer Henry Holland explained, and betrayed the playgoers’ faith in magical power. Guenther positions Doctor Faustus in these discourses and demonstrates how such ideological predispositions influenced the audience attending Marlowe’s play.  The sensationalist spectacle of conjuring devils was exceptionally problematic: the audience was caught between their desire for sensationalist entertainment and their anxiety to forfeit salvation, as they would be subject to God’s umbrage against their attending and enjoying such performances.  The appearance of devils in the Elizabethan theater hence could betray the audience’s satanic predisposition—with their souls ready to be collected by the devils and brought down to hell.           

This chapter contains some fine observations on Faustus’s inability to read allegorically, and his troubled relation to the human soul: fearing that divine salvation might entail his loss of the physical, he finds consolation in the prospect of continued bodily existence in hell.  Guenther might put too much trust in the authoritative value of rumors (some reiterated as late as the 1630s in Prynne’s Histrio-mastix) and the “collective hysteria” elicited by onstage magic (64), but she offers a compelling reading of the theater of magic by adeptly situating character and performance analyses of Doctor Faustus in the cultural-theological climate of the late sixteenth century.

Guenther’s study concludes with Shakespeare’s Tempest, which she dubs the apex of instrumental aesthetics in the English Renaissance.  She takes issue with postcolonial readings of the play, which identify Prospero as James I’s theatrical double. Surveying James I’s Daemonologie (1597) and Basilikon Doron (1603), she instead argues that James and Prospero are polar opposites: while James I as the rightful ruler of the realm was granted absolute and permanent power by God, Prospero as a magician exercising treacherous magic against the king was given transitory power by the devil.  Magic hence posed a political problem for James, one he solved by torturing and executing practitioners of witchcraft.

In the play, Shakespeare employs a double strategy to represent magic: on one level, he draws on particular details of James’s anti-magical treatises; on another, he claims autonomy for the cultural space of the theater.  According to Guenther, Shakespeare negotiates between both extremes by developing Prospero from a “violent, imperious, vengeful, and, at times, even diabolically inspired” magician (96) to a character “worthy of mercy” (100).  The play emphasizes Prospero’s reformation, and with it, presents an important change in the use of magic: whereas magic is first employed as a means of exerting power, it is later used to create an aesthetic experience that provides consolation for death.  Guenther’s reading of the play’s famous epilogue is especially salient: by asking to be pardoned, Prospero implicitly asks James I for mercy, and thus challenges the king’s anti-magic politics.  The moment the audience grants “the help of [their] good hands” to express their joy in the theatrical spectacle, the instrumental aesthetics of the play works, and brings about an ethical transformation even in James I, who by applauding acknowledges the humanity he shared with the repentant magician.  But such pardon was only effective as part of the theatrical performance, to wit Prospero’s magic version of the traditional plaudite-formula subsumes magic into disinterested theatrical play.  The theatrical performance hence elevated the playhouse to a space of cultural sovereignty, where “the laws of play” prevailed over “the laws of the realm” (87).       

Guenther competently situates Shakespeare’s romance in the magical discourse of Jacobean England in order to offer a welcome new direction for critical debate on The Tempest.  While her conscious departure from postcolonial readings is indeed welcome, she occasionally overstates her argument.  Among others, the notion that James I, subjected to the instrumental aesthetics of The Tempest, underwent an ethical change feels perhaps a little forced. However, such minor criticism should not draw attention away from Guenther’s perceptive reading of Shakespeare’s romance play, and her detailed account of the changing discourse on magic at the beginning of the seventeenth century.          

Magical Imaginations is written in a clear and lucid style, and extremely well structured.  In addition to her compelling argument, this reviewer admired Guenther’s eye for textual detail, as for instance the discussion of carmen and charm at the various stages of the book (e.g., 34), of Spenserian wordplay (57), and of Faustus’s first soliloquy (72-74).  Stylistic slips are few, and mainly consist in the author’s habit of beginning sentences with “And …”, and using colloquialisms such as “This is why” and “That is why.”  This reviewer was bewildered and amused by the “Oprah Winfrey-style reconciliation” (104) between Prospero and Antonio at the end of The Tempest.                

The book is well-edited and contains only occasional typographical errors.[4]  The index to names and subjects will facilitate orientation for readers, and the list of theological and medical treatises, magic lore, and legal documents in the bibliography will undoubtedly be of interest to scholars working in this particular field of research.  Guenther’s significant, thought-provoking monograph is highly recommended reading for Renaissance scholars, as well as faculty members interested in the History of Ideas.  As a treasure trove of sources and contexts, this short but rich monograph will likewise be of use to cultural historians.


Maik Goth

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

[1] See Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971; Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969; and Tambiah, Stanley J. “Form and Meaning of Magical Acts: A Point of View.” Modes of Thought: Essays on Thinking in Western and Non-Western Societies. Eds. Robin Horton and Ruth Finnegan. London: Faber, 1973. 3-32.

[2] Readers of The Spenser Review may be familiar with Guenther’s previously published article on the subject: “Spenser’s Magic, or Instrumental Aesthetics in the 1590 Faerie Queene.English Literary Renaissance 36 (2006): 194-226.

[3] Among others, she cites William Prynne’s Histrio-mastix (1633).

[4] At one point she erroneously places the Busirane episode at the end of Book II of The Faerie Queene (60), while at another she misses the line break in Horace’s hexameter (117, note 1).



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Cite as:

Maik Goth, "Genevieve Juliette Guenther, Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance," Spenser Review 43.1.3 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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