Magic! It’s pretty cool, right? We think so, so we’re including lots of witch-y and superstition-y stuff in our production of Macbeth. As one of the dramaturgical assistants, I did a little basic research on witchcraft in the Jacobean & Elizabethan eras, so I thought that this month would be the perfect chance to share some of that information, since it’s so close to Halloween.
Witches were generally believed to be people who had made pacts with the Devil in exchange for supernatural powers. There were 270 Elizabethan witch trials, of which 247 were women and 23 were men. As the numbers prove, those most likely to be accused were women, especially women who were single, widowed, elderly, or disfigured in some way - the most disenfranchised groups anyway, then further blamed for witchcraft. What a bummer. Reginald Scot (author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft) believed that accused witches were simply con artists or women with mental illness, but that belief was the minority by far. The fear of a witch’s power was partially wrapped up in fear of a woman’s sexuality (of course). Because the very idea of witches (powerful women) invert the patriarchal power dynamic, they serve as dangers to society. Oooooooh, scary.
King James himself believed that women were the weaker sex and thus more easily “entrapped in those gross snares of the Devil,” as he states in Demonology, his text about witchcraft and magic. He was specifically worried about witch-y behavior because he believed a coven of powerful witches was conspiring to murder him through magic: there were supposedly witches attempting to wreck a ship carrying James and his bride, done by casting a spell with human body parts and a christened cat. Up to 100 people were tried in connection with this witchcraft, and James supervised some of their torture and examination himself. Like James and his insistence on a witch-y plot against his life, his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth was concerned about “image magic” being used against her. Three wax images, each about twelve inches high, were found in a dung heap in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, resembling (and labelled as) Elizabeth and two of her main advisors. The wax images were apparently meant to melt in the heat of the dung heap and cause the death of those the “poppets” represented, like the idea of a voodoo doll. Elizabeth had not been feeling well and John Dee (a known alchemist, magician, and astrologer that Elizabeth trusted) performed counter magic to neutralize the images. Of course, later it turned out that her pain had only been caused by untreated dental problems.
But that’s just a good example of how, in general, people often blamed witches for literally anything that could go wrong: plagues, sick cows, pathetic garden growth, et cetera. The ultimate scapegoat, really. Specifically in Macbeth, when the witches discuss harming a woman’s husband after the woman wouldn’t share her chestnuts, the situation would be familiar to the audience. This practice was known as “mischief following anger” and such actions were essentially alleged acts of revenge. For example, if a poor woman begged for food and was refused, and then a drought or something else unfortunate occured, that woman would have been blamed for those problems. Like she didn’t have enough issues of her own BEFORE being accused of witchcraft.
The Witchcraft Act passed in 1563, which outlined how to treat witches who used spirits to kill people; it was totally legal to kill witches due to this legislation. One common way of testing for witchcraft was by using the “ducking” method, where the “witch” was tied to a stool and thrown in a body of water - if they sunk, they weren’t a witch (but drowned), and if they rose to the surface, they were a witch (and were executed). Eventually this persecution was outlawed, with the last witchcraft hanging in 1685 and the last conviction in 1712.
On the positive side of magic, it was acceptable if it “derived from God,” whatever that means, or if it came from nature or prolonged study. So alchemy, and other “scientific” forms of magic, would have been acceptable. Prospero from The Tempest supposedly fits into this category, as does Paulina from The Winter’s Tale. But Faustus, for example, rejected science in favor of magic and turned his back on “godly” magic by using necromancy instead. And since the witches from Macbeth use spells and body parts, that magic would have been considered devilish as well.
So come see our production in November/December to check out how we incorporated some of this information (and some other spooky surprises) into our version of Macbeth. And for further investigation, check out some of these web sources:
Thanks for reading - and as always, contact us on twitter @shakesmachinefw if you have any questions or additional historical tidbits we might not know! We love learning new things.