By far the most surprising and controversial use of witchcraft as a
dramatic symbol came towards the end of the Restoration in Thomas
Shadwell’s play TheLancashireWitches (1681). This play was staged
at a time of political crisis, with Charles II’s regime struggling to
contain the so-called Popish plot and the increasingly rancorous
debate about the succession to the throne which grew out of the
plot. TheLancashireWitches is above all a political play – perhaps
inevitably so, given its immediate context – and one whose use of
This book situates witchcraft drama within its cultural and intellectual context,
highlighting the centrality of scepticism and belief in witchcraft to the genre.
It is argued that these categories are most fruitfully understood not as static
and mutually exclusive positions within the debate around witchcraft, but as
rhetorical tools used within it. In drama, too, scepticism and belief are vital
issues. The psychology of the witch character is characterised by a combination
of impious scepticism towards God and credulous belief in the tricks of the
witch’s master, the devil. Plays which present plausible depictions of witches
typically use scepticism as a support: the witch’s power is subject to important
limitations which make it easier to believe. Plays that take witchcraft less
seriously present witches with unrestrained power, an excess of belief which
ultimately induces scepticism. But scepticism towards witchcraft can become a
veneer of rationality concealing other beliefs that pass without sceptical
examination. The theatrical representation of witchcraft powerfully demonstrates
its uncertain status as a historical and intellectual phenomenon; belief and
scepticism in witchcraft drama are always found together, in creative tension
with one another.
phenomena, are particularly well represented in
the theatre of the second half of the seventeenth century. The final
chapter focuses on Thomas Shadwell’s play TheLancashireWitches
in detail. While this play is not based on a recent case of witchcraft,
as were The Witch of Edmonton and The Late Lancashire Witches,
it is certainly a play with great topical relevance. It is also a play
which engages with witch-hunting in the broader sense, as well as
Previous book-length studies of witchcraft in English drama have
often touched on the question of
witches, poisoners were said to have been taught ‘cunning’
by the devil during the Overbury trials.90 In the trial of Frances
86 Quoted in Bellany, p. 181.
87 Bellany, p. 63.
88 Bellany, p. 192.
89 Bellany, pp. 185–91. The real and perceived threat of various ‘Popish plots’
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries connects with the history of
witchcraft drama both at this time and in the case of Thomas Shadwell’s
TheLancashireWitches (1681) – see Chapter 7.
90 State Trials, p. 912.
Witchcraft in Jacobean drama
Howard’s accomplice Anne Turner, magical
other extant play from
the period in that it portrays a character matching the stereotype
of the village witch, a character who can reasonably be regarded
as plausible in terms of her psychology. Prior to The Witch of
Edmonton, there are sceptical plays depicting tricksters in a more
or less realistic fashion (The Wise Woman of Hogsdon), and there
are plays showing witches as lurid, supernatural agents of the devil
(Sophonisba, The Witch). After it, there are two-dimensional comic
witches (The Late Lancashire Witches, TheLancashireWitches).
But Elizabeth Sawyer is
inspired the plot of the play.
Given the evidence of scepticism towards the specific accusations
against theLancashirewitches and the play’s acknowledgement of
scepticism about witchcraft in general, it is striking that The Late
Lancashire Witches seems in some respects to be so credulous,
especially when compared to the relatively sober account of witchcraft
given in The Witch of Edmonton.70 The change in the representation
65 Thomas, p. 579.
66 Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, The Witches of Lancashire, edited
by Gabriel Egan (London: Nick Hern, 2002), p
Present 133 (1991)
31–66; Michael MacDonald (ed.), Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London (London, 1991); J. Swain, ‘TheLancashireWitch Trials of 1612 and 1634 and the Economics of Witchcraft’, Northern History 30 (1994) 64–85; Malcolm Gaskill, ‘Witchcraft
and Power in Early Modern England: The Case of Margaret Moore’, in Jenny
Kermode and Garthine Walker (eds), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern
England (London, 1994), pp. 125–45; Anne de Windt, ‘Witchcraft and Conflicting
Visions of the Ideal Village Community’, Journal of British Studies 34 (1995
, The Discoverie
56 London, British Library, Harley MS 2302, fol. 77r. The author also criticises
Scot’s readings of other theologians, such as Chrysostom (fol. 80r), but
returns most frequently to Calvin (e.g. fols 84r–84v).
57 Bodin, p. 216.
58 Thomas Shadwell, TheLancashireWitches, edited by Judith Bailey Slagle
(New York: Garland, 1991), ii.415–17.
Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama
of Witchcraft did not end that debate.59 Clearly, it was possible for
some early modern people to dismiss stories like Bodin’s as absurd,
just as it is for