In this post, I’ll be reviewing So Potent Art: the Magic of Shakespeare by Emily Carding, published in 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd.
TLDR; Lovers of Shakespeare will revel in this work. So Potent Art is a thoughtfully written expose of the very real magic that influenced many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Readers who enjoy reading academic analyses will connect well with Carding’s writing style.
I had a lot of preconceptions about this book before I received a copy to review. My initial thought was that it would be a how-to style manual on creating ritual and invocation using Shakespearean themes. While my initial thought wasn’t incorrect, per se, this book offers much more.
The book begins with a beautifully written foreward by Caitlin Matthews, a well known author in Celtic and Western mysteries traditions and research. In fact, I own several of her books and would recommend them to readers who enjoy Celtic myths and storytelling! Matthews’ foreward sets the tone for the rest of the book, I think. Carding’s writing, while academic in style and form, is very much that of a storyteller. This isn’t surprising, as they hold a BA in Theatre Arts and an MFA in Staging Shakespeare. Of particular interest to Traditional Wiccans, Carding is an Alexandrian initiate to boot!
The first few chapters set the stage, so to speak, for understanding the myriad occult beliefs and practices that influenced Shakespearean story, imagery, and prose. Chapters One and Two go into the origins of occult philosophy, including Neoplatonism, alchemy, mythic poetry (like Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene), hermetics, and Renaissance philosophers (Dee, Bacon, Camillo, et al). These chapters are essentially a crash course in some of the most influential occult authors and works of the time. I certainly enjoyed the refresher and learned a few new things myself.
Chapters Three and Four are dedicated to understanding how Jewish mysticism and alchemy played parts in Shakepeare’s world building skills and imagery. Carding uses numerous excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays as evidence of both hidden and overt displays of mystic and alchemical influence. It should be noted that Carding included summaries of the plays and characters they reference in this book. These summaries are peppered throughout the book and are helpful to those of us who are less knowledgeable.
Chapters Five through Seven, are each dedicated to magical and mythic beings: ghosts, fairies, and witches. Carding identifies Shakespearen examples of these beings, describes their natures, and then ends each chapter with exercises designed to connect with them. I particularly enjoyed the section on “The Rhythm of Magic: Catalectic Trochaic Tetrameter.” Carding talks about how Shakespeare breaks from his usual iambic pentameter verse rhythm to a rhythm better suited to making magic verses (catalectic trochaic tetrameter). In thinking about spells that I’ve written, I’ve definitely (and subconsciously) adopted that writing style to create invocations and incantations. Pretty rad to make that connection!
The Curtains Rise
Chapter Eight documents various examples of divination used in Shakespeare’s plays, including oracular prophecy, omens, and portents. There are sections that talk about what it means to get an ill portent and what the consequences would be if they were ignored. Caesar, bro, this is about you. You were straight up given a date to mind your step (March 15) and you numbskulled yourself into getting shanked.
Chapter Nine is probably my favorite of the entire book. Carding talks about how to write prayers and invocations using beautiful examples from Shakespeare’s work. The “Prayer to Diana” (p. 209) is gorgeous and is taken from Shakepeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Readers who are also members of initiatory traditions may find the section on “Witnessing” to be of interest. It discusses oathmaking, swears, and promises made with spirits and gods as witnesses. Blessings and Curses are also discussed, and many of us know that there are many curses thrown about in Shakespeare’s work! This chapter also discusses possession as a form of invocation (p. 234).
Chapter Ten goes into the uses of certain plants, herbs, and trees used in Shakepeare’s works. It’s not surprising that today’s plant magic looks a whole hell of a lot like what Shakespeare describes. Carding includes planetary correspondences to many of the plants that appear in Shakepeare’s works (p. 254-256), and an exercise at the end for creating your own charm bag for inspiration.
The Final Acts
Chapter Eleven explores modern figures whose research and insight have further contributed to the understanding of Shakespeare today. While it’s certainly important to see who influenced Shakespeare, it’s equally important to understand who Shakespeare has influenced. I only recognized a couple of the individuals Carding described, but theatre folks will likely have an easier time.
Chapter Twelve describes ritual theatre, its use, and how we can use Shakespeare’s ritual theatre today. I really enjoyed this chapter! Those who frequently lead group rituals may learn a few new tricks, for sure. For those who are new or less confident in leading ritual, there’s a section of this chapter called “A Step-by-Step Guide” (p. 284). Carding talks about the process of creating ritual theatre and uses their own creations and reflections as examples.
My overall impression of this book is that Carding put so much damn work into it. It read like a professional thesis, which has both good and challenging qualities. Readers with academic backgrounds and a decent exposure to Shakespeare will get the most out of this book. Those without that buy-in may find this work a bit challenging because there are quite a few areas where Carding assumes the reader has a certain level of familiarity with Shakespeare’s works.
The quality of this book is superb in the way that it’s written and researched. It couldn’t be more evident that Carding is a true Shakespeare scholar and a devotee of his work and impact.
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