Friday, September 6, 2013

Shakespearean Magic in D&D.


Move over Jack Vance….

So The Tempest, a play by Shakespeare written in 1610, features a wizard named Prospero living in a seclusium on an island in the sea.  That’s pretty cool; cool enough that I’ve been intrigued by it for some time.  So I checked around and discovered this excerpt of a book by William J. Rolfe from 1904

Prospero has all the trappings of a D&D Magic-user:
His robe is a magic garment
He carries a magic wand that can move objects, including removing weapons from the hands of enemies.
He possesses a magical staff of great, but unspecified power.

Prospero practices a kind of  Elemental magic, effecting his spells through the command of “spirits” of the four elements.  These four elements are "in sea or fire, in earth or air," as Rolfe points out by quoting Hamlet from a different play.  Specifically these spirits are “sea nymphs” (water), Ariel (fire), goblins (earth) and elves? (air).  It doesn’t require much imagination to equate these “spirits” to Jack Vance’s idea of “plasmids”, the magical creatures who cause “Vancian” magic in his novels.

To cast spells, Prospero masters and commands these elemental spirits; "..my spirits obey,.. untie the spell," as one line puts it.  Rolfe notes that Prospero is able to command, cajole, and compel these spirits to create the magical effect he desires because of his commanding intellect.  As with D&D, intelligence significantly improves Prospero’s ability to perform magic.    

Nevertheless, spells can be spoiled, especially by noise or commotion. “Hush, and be mute, or else our spell is marr'd.”  D&D may be a bit more lenient in this regard, but it is a familiar theme.

It isn’t a simple matter of intelligence, will and a few undisturbed moments however.  Prospero acquires his ability to create specific magic through the study of spell books. His spell books  were of key importance to his art; for without them “He's but a sot”, and does not have even “One spirit to command.”  Prospero must first resort to his books to prepare his spells.  Without them, he cannot prepare a new spell.  Take away a D&D Magic-users spell books under the original rules and eventually they will exhaust their spell and, like Prospero, have no ability to cast magic.

The last point to mention about Prospero and his magic in relation to D&D is its’ abstract nature.  Shakespeare, unlike his contemporaries does not surround Prospero with grotesque details.  His magic is clean, intellectual and as Rolfe puts it “at once supernatural and natural… the highest exercise of the magic art”.  There’s no eye of newt and dissected goat livers involved, no midnight chicken sacrifices, or anything of the sort.  His magic is primarily verbal, a manifestation of power through will and ability, not devilish gimmickry.  Again, it’s an awful lot like original D&D.

I’m not suggesting that Gygax and Arneson modeled D&D magic on Shakespeare.  It could all be a coincidence, but Its an interesting parallel for sure.  Then again there may be a path of influence though Vance.   I wouldn’t be surprised if Jack Vance was at least somewhat inspired by The Tempest and there’s no doubt that Gygax modeled his idea of Magic-users on Vance’s excellent work.






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