This Halloween you will probably come across at least one person dressed as a witch. These mysterious figures continue to fascinate us but are no longer feared as they were in Shakespeare’s time.  In a spooky special, Lana from our Research Team delves into the dark world of witches in Shakespeare’s time. 

Witchcraft was a very common and popular topic in Shakespeare’s time, and most representations of witches in plays, and most of those actually accused of witchcraft, were of poor, old and ugly women: a diabolical inversion of ideal female beauty and virtue. Just like the witches in Macbeth, they were feared to deceive people and lure them to their downfall.

Familiars

Witches were commonly supposed to have creatures called familiars which often took the form of dogs, cats or other animals which followed them around and did their bidding. The familiars were demonic spirits or a devil.

In ‘The Witch of Edmonton’ Elizabeth Sawyer has Tom, a talking dog, as her familiar. He convinces her to sell her soul to the devil in exchange for him becoming her familiar and exacting vengeance on her tormentors. The pact is sealed by him sucking blood from her, and they have a very sexual relationship, rolling about together, kissing, and he sucking blood from various parts of her body.

When he comes to tell her of his mischief against her enemies she exults:

Kiss me, my Tommy,
And rub away some wrinkles on my brow
By making my old ribs to shrug for joy
of thy fine tricks. What hast thou done? Let’s tickle.

[They embrace]

4.1.165-9

Sexual transgressions with devils were a common part of the mythology that was built up about witches.

James VI and I

James I was fascinated by witchcraft and such a strong believer in it that he even wrote a book in 1597 called “Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogie, Diuided into three Bookes. By James Rx”. He was involved in examining and supervising the torture of witches in the North Berwick Witch trials, and considered himself to be an expert on witchcraft. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Shakespeare decided to write a Scottish play about witches in c.1606, just three years after James had ascended the English throne.

From a pamphlet 'Newes from Scotland' on the North Berwick Witch Trials

From a pamphlet 'Newes from Scotland' on the North Berwick Witch Trials

Plays on witchcraft by other writers

The Late Lancaster Witches’ by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome is based on a real witchcraft trial, and was performed in 1634 as the accused women still languished in gaol. The playwrights had somehow managed to get hold of transcripts of the witness’s and defendant’s statements, which were supposed to be only accessible by the privy council. The King’s Men, who performed the play, petitioned the lord chamberlain to prevent other companies performing witch plays, so that they could preserve their scoop. This play presents the women as guilty and shows people who don’t believe their guilt, or don’t believe in witchcraft altogether, to be naïve.

Title page of The Late Lancaster Witches

Title page of The Late Lancaster Witches

The Witch of Edmonton’ is a much more sympathetic take on witchcraft, and although the eponymous witch of the play Elizabeth Sawyer does conjure spirits, the play suggests her poverty and social ostracisation are the main factors driving her to it. In the real case the play was based on, Elizabeth Sawyer was married and had a family. The authors decision to make her single emphasises that she is isolated, and an outsider.  She fits the stereotypical image of a witch, old, ugly and physically deformed, and she is aware that this is what causes society to treat her cruelly and accuse her of witchcraft before she is even guilty of it:

Why should the envious world
Throw their scandalous malice upon me?
‘Cause I am poor, deformed and ignorant,
And like a bow buckled and bent together
By some more strong mischiefs than myself,
Must I for that be made a common sink
For all the filth of men’s tongues
To fall and run into? Some call me witch,
And, being ignorant of myself they go
About to teach me how to be one, urging
That my bad tongue, by their bad usage made so,
Forspeaks their cattle, doth bewitch their corn,
Themselves, their servants and their babes at nurse.
(2.1.)

Title page of The Witch of Edmonton

Title page of The Witch of Edmonton

References for images

Newes from Scotland. Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Flan a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last. London: William Wright, 1591. Print.

Heywood, Thomas and Richard Brome. The late Lancashire VVitches. London: Thomas Harper, 1634. Print.

Rowley, William, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. The Witch of Edmonton. London: J Correl, 1658. Print.

Further reading list

Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays Eds. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986. Print.

Adelman, Janet. ‘Born of Woman: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth’ Cannibals, Witches and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance. Ed. Marjorie B. Garber. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P, 1987. Print.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Rowley, Dekker and Ford. The Witch of Edmonton Eds. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge. New York: Palgrave, 1999.

Stallybrass, Peter. ‘Macbeth and Witchcraft’ Focus on Macbeth. Ed. John Russell Brown. London: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Tell us what you think about the witches and Shakespeare’s representation of them. Leave a comment below. 

Lana, Globe Research Team, Globe Education