Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu

 

Shakespeare, Magic and Witchcraft

Curated by Alison Harthill and Nicole Davall

School of English, Communication and Philosophy

 

Ghosts

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. IV, pt. 2. Histories: Richard III, 1838-1843

The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere was edited by Charles Knight and originally appeared between 1838 and 1843. As the title suggests the volumes are richly illustrated.

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. V, pt. 1. Tragedies: Hamlet, 1838-1843

Shakespeare’s ghosts highlight anxieties brought about by the Reformation concerning the fate of the soul after death. In the case of Hamlet, the ghost’s parting command to ‘Remember me!’ appears to have been forgotten by the time Hamlet famously calls death ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.’ By Shakespeare’s day the Reformation had done away with Purgatory, where souls could be purged of their sins, as well as prayers for the dead intended to ease a soul’s passage through Purgatory. With these forms of access to the dead cut off, questions arose about the nature of such apparitions. Were they a figment of the imagination? Some devilish trick? Or could the dead still walk the earth?

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. V, pt. 1. Tragedies: Hamlet, 1838-1843

 

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. VI, pt. 2. Tragedies: Julius Caesar, 1838-1843

BRUTUS:  How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.
GHOST: Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
BRUTUS:  Why comest thou?
GHOST:   To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

Daniel Defoe, A view of the invisible world: or, general history of apparitions, 1752

Daniel Defoe, History of the devil, 1726

Daniel Defoe’s Essay on the history and reality of apparitions (1727) followed Defoe’s other works on the supernatural, The political history of the devil (1726), and A system of magick (1726).

Daniel Defoe, A view of the invisible world: or, general history of apparitions, 1752

 

Witches

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. VI, pt. 1. Tragedies: Macbeth, 1838-1843

Macbeth sees the line of kings which allegedly prophesies the ascension of James I to the English throne.

Macbeth: Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo. Down!
Thy crown does sear mine eyeballs. And thy hair,
Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first.
A third is like the former. Filthy hags,
Why do you show me this? – A fourth? Start, eyes!
What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom?
Another yet? A seventh? I’ll see no more –
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see
That twofold balls and treble sceptres carry.
Horrible sight! Now I see ’tis true,
For the blood-battered Banquo smiles upon me,
And points at them for his.

Malleus maleficarum, 1486 [reprinted 1970]

The Malleus maleficarum (1486) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger is a treatise on witchcraft arguing in favour of its reality and providing information on how to recognise and prosecute witches. It argues for the prevalence of witchcraft amongst women rather than men.

Malleus maleficarum, 1486 [reprinted 1970]

 

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. IV, pt. 1. Histories: Henry VI Part 1, 1838-1843

Joan of Arc was discredited in France by accusations of witchcraft and burned at the stake as a heretic. In Henry VI (1591), Shakespeare portrays her conjuring demons on the battlefield.

JOAN: Now, ye familiar spirits, that are cull'd, Out of the powerful regions under earth, Help me this once, that France may get the field. Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice entreat you to your wonted furtherance? Then take my soul, my body, soul and all… (Henry VI, part 1)

Reginald Scot, The discoverie of witchcraft, 1584 [reprinted 1930]

Reginald Scot set out to disprove the existence of witchcraft by exposing the absurdity and impossibility of its practices. However, in this attempt, the information which Scot displayed in order to deride led to the book becoming a practical conjuring manual.

Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium maleficarum, 1608 [reprinted 1970]

The Compendium maleficarum (1608) is a witch hunting manual by Francesco Maria Guazzo edited by Montague Summers.

Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium maleficarum, 1608 [reprinted 1970]

 

King James I, Daemonologie, 1597 [reprinted 1966]

James I's Daemonologie (1597) was written to refute the claims of Reginald Scot’s Discovery of witchcraft (1584) and Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum (1563). James I states his belief in witchcraft and his support of witchcraft hunting. Following his ascension to the English throne in 1603 this work gained in stature and proved an important influence on dramatists such as Shakespeare.

 

Magic

Cornelius Agrippa, Three books of occult philosophy, 1651

The three books of occult philosophy (1531-33) by Cornelius Agrippa provide a scholarly account of many types of magic, extending far beyond what Renaissance scholar Frances Yates called the ‘old dirty magic’ and moving into the more intellectual realms of Kabbalah and Neoplatonic magic. Though lacking the practical instruction of many grimoires, Agrippa’s work was used as a manual for magical practices.

Cornelius Agrippa, Three books of occult philosophy, 1651

 

The history of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus, 1592 [reprinted c. 1925]

Bywyd hynod Dr. John Faustus, 1840

A translation into modern English of the Faust book (1592), which was possibly the earliest known version of the Faust legend in England and is thought to have inspired Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594), which in turn inspired The Tempest (1611).

The Welsh version indicates the prevalence of this myth throughout Europe.

Reginald Scot, Discoverie of witchcraft, 1651

Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft shows here a method for conjuring spirits.

Reginald Scot, Discoverie of witchcraft, 1651

 

Folklore and superstition

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. II, pt. 2. Comedies: The tempest, 1838-1843

Prospero’s Ariel can be described as a fairy, a demon or an elemental spirit.

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. I, pt. 1. Comedies: The merry wives of Windsor, 1838-1843

Herne the Hunter is a figure drawn from English folklore, the first literary mention of which is in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. This spirit who is said to haunt Great Windsor Park with ragged horns is associated with the Wild Hunt in which a group of ghostly huntsmen and hounds are led by Herne on a perpetual supernatural hunt.

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. I, pt. 1. Comedies: The merry wives of Windsor, 1838-1843

 

William Baldwin, Beware the cat, 1561 [reprinted 1988]

Beware the Cat (1561) by William Baldwin is claimed as the first English novel and presents a satirical view of the relationship between Catholicism and magic. It is also the possible source of the name Greymalkin in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The novel is narrated by cats, one of which reports “Grimalkin… was slain.”

Daniel Cawdrey, Diatribe triplex, 1654

The Diatribe Triplex (1654) by Dr. Henry Hammond is a work which devotes itself in part to the consideration of superstition.

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. I, pt. 2. Comedies: A midsummer night’s dream, 1838-1843

Shakespeare’s Puck drew on the figure from ancient English mythology named either Puck or Robin Goodfellow, a mischievous fairy or sprite. The fairy of Shakespeare’s time was no charming tiny creature living at the bottom of the garden, but a potentially very dangerous being believed to kidnap babies and assume their place.

Charles Knight, The pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere. Vol. I, pt. 2. Comedies: A midsummer night’s dream, 1838-1843

 

Montague Summers

Malleus maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers, 1486 [reprinted 1928]

Nicholas Remy, Demonolatry, ed. Montague Summers, 1595 [reprinted 1930]

Ludovico Maria Sinistrari, Demoniality, trans. Montague Summers, 1875 [reprinted 1927]

In several cases we are indebted to clergyman and occultist Montague Summers for the English translation of important texts on witchcraft. Malleus maleficarum was first translated into English in 1928 by Summers. His commentary on this work shows him to be a man rather out of his time and perhaps more witch-hunter than witchcraft historian. Nonetheless, he made a significant contribution to the scholarship in this field.

Nicholas Remy, Demonolatry, ed. Montague Summers, 1595 [reprinted 1930]

 

Montague Summers, History of witchcraft and demonology, 1926

“In the following pages I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail…: a member of powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan, and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.” Summers in History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926).

Montague Summers, The werewolf, 1933

Summers was a scholar not only of witchcraft, but also of other supernatural themes and produced several scholarly, if judgemental, works on vampires, werewolves and magic. Summers’ flamboyancy and theatrical style betrays his interest in drama: he had a particular interest in seventeenth century drama and edited the plays of several dramatists of the period. In addition he produced studies, and edited works, of Gothic fiction.

Montague Summers, The werewolf, 1933