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.

date, and these witches are strikingly unlike the previous depictions of classically inspired hags. The witches in the Henry VI plays are not presented as fictional, since they represent historical people who were widely believed, or at least reputed, to have been witches with genuine magical power. At around the same time, Dr Faustus presents the first – and arguably also the last – depiction in English drama of a witch as a tragic protagonist (also, not coincidentally, the first and last male witch). Dr Faustus explores the psychology of its witch in detail and

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681
Open Access (free)
Invisibility and erasure in The Two Merry Milkmaids

characters. In Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus , meanwhile, spectators are encouraged to accept that Faustus has passed out of visibility when Mephistopheles ‘charms’ him so that he ‘may be invisible’. 3 Similarly, in The Two Merry Milkmaids , the anonymous comedy that is my central example in this chapter, a succession of characters are shown passing in and out of

in Making and unmaking in early modern English drama
Open Access (free)
Patristic erudition and the attack on Scripture

privileging of particular sources and texts was condemned as a self-interested and subjective procedure.39 Many had condemned books in the canon. Celsus and the Manicheans advanced serious and lengthy criticisms against ‘the Genuiness of the whole New Testament’. In a lengthy extract from Faustus drawn from the reputable patristic source of Augustine, Toland reproduced as ‘testimony’ the (to orthodox contemporaries) heretical invective against the canonical gospels. The evidence of the Ebionites and Nazarenes, ‘the oldest Christians’ suggested that some early believers had

in Republican learning
Open Access (free)

4 The Witch of Edmonton Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton (1621) departs from the conventions established in previous witchcraft drama in relation to the depiction of scepticism. Macbeth and Dr Faustus depicted the scepticism and credulity of witches, using the discourse of demonology to illustrate the psychology of witch and devil’s servant – a psychology which is characterised by both inappropriate and excessive credulity (towards the devil) and inappropriate and excessive scepticism (towards God). While the delusions of the

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

’s affection for Marlowe that he allows his melancholy libertine finally to express a desire to seek the keys to salvation. As Marlowe himself wrote in Dr Faustus , ‘Never too late, if Faustus can repent’ (2.2.84). And Shakespeare’s fondness is made palpable by Duke Senior entreating, ‘Stay, Iaques, stay’ (192). Jaques leaves the stage headed for an ‘abandon’d cave’, an image

in Reading Shakespeare’s mind
Open Access (free)
A male strategy

. This was a developing notion that made its own contribution to the rise of the witch persecutions.6 From the late sixteenth century onwards the most well-known and influential template for making a pact with the Devil was the legend of Dr Faust.7 Georg Faust was an astrologer, alchemist and magician who also lectured on the classics at various educational establishments in Germany during the 1520s and 1530s. He achieved considerable notoriety in his own lifetime, and apparently once admitted to a Franciscan friar that he had signed a pact with Satan in his own blood

in Beyond the witch trials

sundrie shapes, and vses diuerse formes of out-ward actiones, as if some were of nature better than other.41 James goes on to give short shrift to the concept of good and evil genii, an idea which is dramatically represented in Dr Faustus and taken seriously later in the seventeenth century by Joseph Glanvill. James’s own position is reductive: all such spiritual phenomena are manifestations of the devil, and any appearance of diversity is merely a trick to deceive the unwary. He goes on to make a similar point 40 Purkiss, The Witch in History, p. 214. 41 James I, p

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681
Open Access (free)

Popish Impostures, p. 136). 16 Scot, iv.8, p. 82. 290 Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama those of the witches, his own ‘magic’ – Catholic ritual – is shown to be powerless against the supernatural. As in Dr Faustus, where the Pope and his friars’ attempts to exorcise Faustus and Mephastophilis meet with ignominious failure, Tegue’s attempts to exorcise evil spirits with holy water and relics in The Lancashire Witches are comically ineffective. The play goes still further than this when the witches, in the form of cats, scratch Tegue’s face. Scratching

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

present on stage, but they are rather negligible presences without any spoken lines, entirely obedient to the witches and far removed from the complex character of the dog in The Witch of Edmonton. No diabolic pact is represented on stage, in contrast to both The Witch of Edmonton and Dr Faustus. As Tomkyns suggests, witchcraft is lifted from farce to tragedy in this part of the play, but it is an entirely different kind of witchcraft, and it remains offstage not only before this exchange but afterwards as well. The only other references to demonic pacts come in the

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681