Since he was born a year after the Witchcraft and Conjuration Act of 1563 brought about the era of the witch trials in England, it is hardly a surprise that witches and witchcraft would come to feature in Shakespeare’s work. His writing career began as the witch trials reached their peak in the 1580s and 1590s, though by his death in 1616 the number of trials had plummeted and seemed to be in terminal decline, though that would not have been apparent to him or his contemporaries. The influence of the Civil War would later, briefly reignite the flames of persecution.
What personal experience or knowledge of the trials Shakespeare might have had we do not know. There are very few remaining records of the assize courts for Warwickshire, which dealt with capital crimes such as witchcraft in Shakespeare’s day. The heartland of the prosecutions was far away in Essex. Still, pamphlets and tracts relating the terrible tales of witchery told at the trials disseminated far and wide, and across the social spectrum. It is quite likely he was aware, for instance, of the Witches of Warboys, who were tried at Huntingdon in 1593. The Most Strange and Admirable Discoverie of the Three Witches of Warboys, related how one of the accused had a host of familiar spirits named Smackes, Pluck, Blew, Catch, White, Callico, and Hardname. While living in London in 1602 he might have heard or read about the trial of the London charwoman Elizabeth Jackson for cursing and bewitching Mary Glover of All-Hallows-the-Less.
Trial pamphlets were not the only source of inspiration or insight available. A raft of intellectual demonological texts and discourses on witchcraft were printed at the time. Most were deeply influenced by continental books that related the torture-fuelled confessions of orgiastic witches’ Sabbats and satanic conspiracies. Others reflected more sober concerns with the supposed plague of day-to-day acts of malicious witchcraft. One book that explored both the diabolic conspiracy theology and the solitary village witch, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, has been of particular interest to Shakespeare scholars. Its author Reginald Scot was sceptical about much, though not all, of the evidence that was being put forward by the witch-mongering demonologists. Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, most likely written in the final years of Shakespeare’s life, clearly borrows from accounts of continental evidence provided by Reginald Scot. Many scholars now see traces of Middleton in Macbeth. It has also been argued that Shakespeare drew upon The Discoverie of Witchcraft in his depiction of the weird sisters in Macbeth, and the expressions of emotion and imagination through witchcraft in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The witch was also a prominent figure in the ancient Greco-Roman drama and myth that so informed Shakespeare’s writing and imagination. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated into English by Arthur Golding, was a clear influence on Shakespeare, with its story of Medea, and how that other goddess-witch of antiquity, Circe, ‘‘fell a mumbling spelles, and praying like a witch.’’ The Greek witch-goddess Hecate appears before the three weird sisters in Macbeth.
Mentions of witches and witchcraft can be found in nearly all Shakespeare’s plays. The historian Diane Purkiss sums them up well. They are used as ‘‘a topic, a metaphor, a joke, a story, a half-formulated reference point, a piece of the plot.’’ So in Anthony and Cleopatra, an embittered Anthony calls Cleopatra a ‘witch.’ Othello is no witch but he is accused of using ‘witchcraft’ to seduce Desdemona. In The Tempest Prospero comments that Caliban’s ‘‘mother was a witch, and one so strong that could control the moon.’’ But it is Macbeth that most people today associate with Shakespeare’s witches.
‘‘Double, double, royle and trouble; Fire burne, and Cauldron bubble.’’ So repeated the three witches in Macbeth, as they stirred their cauldron to conjure up ‘‘a Charme of powrefull trouble.’’ In fact, in the first printed version of 1623, from which I have just quoted, the three weird sisters are not constantly referred to as ‘witches’, as they are in subsequent editions that contain speech prefixes and stage directions. He also refers to them as ‘instruments of darkness’, ‘midnight hags’ and ‘night’s black agents.’ They are characters that transcend the mundane world of humans and are more than just neighbourhood witches.
Shakespeare’s witches are largely fantasies drawn from classical literature and influenced to a degree by demonological texts. There are no witches in Shakespeare that reflect the everyday fears and belief in witchcraft held by his Stratford and London neighbours. They would have recognised the stereotype of the elderly hag-witch he depicted, and the credibility he sometimes gave to witchcraft as an evil; but there is little in his plays that represent the local witch who, out of jealousy and envy, was thought to bewitch pigs, horses, humans, butter, and beer. But as scholars have argued, Shakespeare’s plays are still valuable for understanding how the image of the witch, or to be more precise, the female witch, was constructed in early-modern art and literature. And while there are other contemporary artistic depictions of witches stirring a cauldron, it is Macbeth’s instruments of darkness that have most inspired twentieth-century media representations of a trio of witches concocting their spells.
Featured image credit: Macbeth meets the three witches by Wellcome collection. CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.