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The young lovers in Shakespeare’s The Tempest fall in love instantly as if by magic. Is such a thing possible in real life? SOPHIA HOWES looks at the play, the history of love magic, the biology of romance…and speed-dating.
Ferdinand and Miranda’s love in The Tempest would seem to be the Shakespearean equivalent of those advertisements for a beach holiday: pure magic, love and joy in a beautiful island setting. Is their romance just a fantasy? Let’s look at the reality.
Why do Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love so fast and hard?
In a real sense, their love begins in magic. It was Prospero’s magic that caused the wreck that precipitated Ferdinand’s arrival. When Ferdinand meets Miranda, he is following the “sweet air” of Ariel’s song. At first, he believes Miranda is magical herself, a goddess of the island. Miranda, who has lived with magic all her life, believes Ferdinand is magic too, a divine being, more than mortal.
Prospero feels the need to castigate Ferdinand, to create some conflict between the lovers to enhance their interest. The two do not realize that they are being manipulated, so the beauty of their love remains pure. Prospero calls Ferdinand a traitor. Ferdinand draws his sword. They are on the brink of a fight, while Miranda hangs on her father’s garments begging him to stop. Ferdinand responds with one of the most beautiful speeches in the play:
My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up
My father’s loss, the weakness which I fled,
The wrack of all my friends, nor this man’s threats,
To whom I am subdued, are but light to me,
Might I through my prison once a day
Behold this maid: all corners else o’ th’ earth
Let liberty make use of; space enough
Have I in such a prison.
Prospero then says to Ariel, perhaps with some cynicism, “It works.”
Can their love really be pure if Prospero is always pulling the strings? Yes.
The next time we see Ferdinand, he has become a “patient log-man,” piling up logs at Prospero’s behest. Miranda offers to do it for him, but he refuses. He asks her name, “chiefly that I may set it in my prayers.” They exchange words of love, but it is Miranda who proposes to Ferdinand, while he joyfully accepts. Their love cannot be tainted, even as Prospero spies on them and schemes to bring about their marriage.
Prospero interferes again when he warns Ferdinand not to seduce Miranda. Ferdinand, answers diplomatically and the subject is dropped. The next time we see the two lovers, they are playing at chess. Miranda playfully accuses Ferdinand of cheating, and he pronounces his devotion once again.
In a way, Ferdinand and Miranda never escape the magic and mystery that surrounds them. Prospero does not drown his book until the very end of the play. But the unselfishness and devotion of the lovers makes it easy to understand that even if their love began in magic, it is now real.
Is love magic really a thing?
The association of magic with love has a long and storied history. Love spells can be found in the literature of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In ancient Greece the gods could make you fall in love with whomever they chose; it often proved to be an unlikely person. Women tended to use philia spells to keep their husbands faithful, because women in this period had little or no power. Men preferred eros spells to inspire desire in the opposite sex.
In the year 160 CE, a Roman writer named Apuleius was accused of using love spells to attract a wealthy widow. He ended up in court, and his defense was that love was completely controlled by the gods. He won the case.
In the Middle Ages, a grimoire (a textbook on magic) called The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, by Abraham of Worms, contained spells that could be used by a woman “to make a man fall in love with you.”
During World War II, respected German folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert (1895–1969) escaped from the Nazis and withdrew into exile. In 1945 he fled advancing Russian troops, leaving behind his library of over 30,000 books. He is principally remembered, however, for an aside during one of his lectures in Bremen in 1959. He was discussing witches’ ointment that might contain hallucinogenic substances and remarked that he had once tried the ointment himself. This caused a scandal about the Professor who practiced witchcraft, flew through the air, and experienced many erotic adventures. The truth was slightly less exotic. He and a friend had tried the ointment in the 1920’s and he never used it again.
Can love magic happen in real life (like in speed-dating)?
Eli Finkel, a social psychologist from Northwestern University, says, “We’ve known since the 1970s that if you encounter people under pleasant circumstances, you have a much higher chance of liking them than if you encounter them under unpleasant circumstances.” In his research on speed-dating, he has found that if study participants say they “like” someone they are almost always “attracted” as well.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher from Rutgers University points out that there are three elements to romance:
- lust, the desire for sexual gratification;
- attraction, the exhilaration when around a person and need to develop an emotional union; and
- attachment, the calmer closeness that comes after five years of marriage, for example.
They are not necessarily stages that progress in order: Attachment can be first, then attraction and lust, or vice versa.
Is there such a thing as a modern love potion? Dr. Fisher says yes. To increase sex drive you would use a combination of androgens and estrogens. For affection, you’d administer dopamine and norepinephrine, at the same time as a drug to reduce the availability of serotonin. To increase attachment, you’d deliver a mix of oxytocin and vasopressin.
It is true, Dr. Fisher says, that increasing dopamine levels will cause temporary attraction. But the catch is that it won’t last. “In the morning you’re going to look at that person and wonder what the hell you were thinking.”
Where does that leave Ferdinand and Miranda and their “love at first sight”?
New research out of the Netherlands suggests that love at first sight is indeed possible (Zsok, Haucke, De Wot. & Berelds, 2017). The study asked nearly 400 participants to complete a survey after meeting a potential romantic partner.
These are the conclusions:
- Yes, people do experience love at first sight, a strong attraction that may or may not develop into a relationship.
- People seem more likely to experience love at first sight with very attractive people.
- Men seem to have more instances of love at first sight than women.
- Often, love at first sight isn’t mutual.
- When there is love at first sight, commitment and intimacy are more likely to follow.
This is clearly a victory for the romantics among us!
And where does this leave Ferdinand and Miranda? Young, idealistic, and very much in love! There is no evidence in The Tempest that suggests Ferdinand and Miranda’s love for each other was anything but genuine. Although magic surrounds it and in some sense envelops it, their “love magic” comes from within.
Sophia Howes, a playwright and director, is a senior reviewer and columnist DC Metro Theater Arts. More about her playwriting and her writing about DC theater can be found online.
A staged reading, part of a nationwide weekend of theater activism against gun violence
A WSC Avant Bard production at 1st Stage
Monday, April 23, 2018, 7:30 pm
A new play by Lauren Gunderson
Starring Sara Barker
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman
Stage Manager: Laura Schlachtmeyer
1524 Spring Hill Rd, McLean, VA 22102 (for driving and Metro directions, click here)
For more information, email email@example.com or call 703-418-4808.
About the event:
Lauren Gunderson has made her new play Natural Shocks available royalty-free for local readings in order to raise money to address gun violence the weekend of April 20, 2018—the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the day of the National School Walkout.
Contributions collected at Avant Bard’s April 23 reading of Lauren Gunderson’s Natural Shocks at 1st Stage will go to support Moms Demand Action.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a 501(c)4 and part of Everytown for Gun Safety, was formed to demand common sense gun laws from our legislators and businesses. This nonpartisan grassroots movement has grown to include a chapter in every state across the country. Moms Demand Action educates, motivates, and mobilizes supporters to take action that will result in stronger laws and policies to save lives.
If you can’t make Avant Bard’s reading April 23, check out Tonic Theater Company’s reading of Natural Shocks featuring Lise Bruneau and directed by Kelsey D. Phelps Friday, April 20, 2018, at 2:00 pm at The Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC 20024.
About the play
Natural Shocks is a 65-minute, one-woman play that bursts to life when we meet a woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement. She reveals a final secret that puts the reality of guns in America front and center. The play is part confessional, part standup, and part reckoning. The reading will feature Sara Barker, recently acclaimed for her performance in Avant Bard’s production of Gunderson’s play Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.
SHE: So yeah: door locked, window closed, stay away from the window, bunch of blankets down here somewhere, bottled water for sure, gun in the closet, I’m re-reading Sense and Sensibility so that’s in here in case I get bored, (bored in a tornado, Jesus), there’s a – what’s this? Oh of course: a really old copy of Field & Stream because he won’t throw anything away because we’re definitely going to need to reference an article about duck calls from 2001.
Y’all got wigged out when I said there’s a gun in here didn’t you.
You’re not those kinda people are you? I get that. I respect that. I don’t really like guns myself, but I grew up around them and you gotta be able to protect yourself. This is a messed up world. I have a right to a gun, you have a right to think I’m nuts. That’s all we need it say about it.
It’s in the closet. There’s a safe under my boots. It’s not gonna bite you.
Though I should definitely make sure it’s not going to go off if a goddamned tornado hits this house. That’s all I need. A pistol in a tornado.
Hear Lauren talk about…
…her commitment to ending gun violence and how theater can be used as a means of social change.
A note from Lauren
I was a junior in high school when Columbine happened in 1999 and it spurred me into activism instantly. I wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shaming the NRA and their spokesman Charlton Heston, who were holding their annual conference only an hour away from that mourning community. I organized a student protest at the GA statehouse; I went to Washington to speak to my Senators. I was berated by our local conservative radio talk shows: called ignorant, naive, and unAmerican. I was 17, a teenager like all those amazing kids in Parkland who are taking up the cause of their lost classmates and making the biggest difference in this issue I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Nineteen years later here we are, another school shooting, but finally a freshly invigorated and seemingly unstoppable movement brewing. I happened to be working on a new one-woman play based a bit on Hamlet—called Natural Shocks—about a quirky, chatty woman with a dark truth she needs to share. I was just starting to send it out to trusted colleagues when the Parkland school shooting happened. And I saw how brave and tireless and convincing these kids were in saying “no more gun violence.” And then I read that the most vocal of them were theatre kids.
So instead of closing my eyes and thinking back to being a junior and watching the news in horror curing my AP US History class and thinking those poor mothers and please god someone do something about this… I posted a query on facebook asking for help with this play in the wake of this new violence. My friend and fellow theatre activist Christina Wallace reached out immediately, read the piece, and said “Let’s do this.”
So now the play is yours. Whoever you are. On April 20th, read it, experience it, use it to raise money for Everytown or Mom’s Demand Action. Use it to start conversations, to build networks of support, to gather people and give them some place to go to congregate and say enough.
Of course, to contradict Hamlet, the play is not the thing. You are. Your community, your company, yourself. Any play is just the metal that attracts the lightning. We are the lightning – actor, artistic team, audience, community. We are the undeniable force of nature that will light up this darkness and change it forever.
On April 20th, whether you can produce a reading, attend an event, march with the National Walk Out protest, or donate in any way…
Let’s do this.
About the performer
Sara Barker has worked with Avant Bard on Emilie: La Marquise duChâtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (Emilie), King Lear (Edgar), Othello (Desdemona), Orlando (Orlando), Mary Stuart (Elizabeth), Six Characters in Search of an Author (Stepdaughter), The House of Yes (Jackie-O), The Cherry Orchard (Varya), The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V (Hotspur), Lulu (Lulu), and The Miser (La Fleece). Credits also include Factory 449’s 448 Psychosis and Closet Land, Rorschach’s A Maze (Oksana), Scena’s The Importance of Being Earnest (Algernon). NYC credits include The Brick’s King Lear (King Lear), Hipgnosis Theatre’s The Winter’s Tale (Paulina), and various devised works with directors Lear DeBessonet and Josh Fox. Sara is a graduate of St. John’s College and a company member with Avant Bard, Factory 449, Rorschach Theatre, and The Klunch. www.sarabarker.com/acting
About the playwright
Lauren Gunderson is the most produced living playwright in America of 2016, the winner of the Lanford Wilson Award and the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and John Gassner Award for Playwriting, and a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s 3-Year Residency with Marin Theatre Company. She studied Southern Literature and Drama at Emory University, and Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School, where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced, and developed at companies across the U.S. including South Coast Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), The Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!), The O’Neill, The Denver Center, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Olney Theatre, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire, and more. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit Pursued By A Bear, The Taming, and Toil And Trouble), Dramatists (Silent Sky, Bauer, Miss Bennet), and Samuel French (Emilie).
A clickable map of the national weekend of theater activism against gun violence
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