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.