About a year before William Shakespeare’s birth, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law titled “An Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts.” The law stipulated that using witchcraft to “kill or destroy” an individual was punishable by death. This law was a less severe version of one enacted by Elizabeth’s father: the Witchcraft Act, which essentially made witchcraft for any purpose a death sentence for the practitioner. No matter the intensity, the law’s mere existence implies a “regime of truth” about witchcraft in Elizabethan England. Witches were not tools used to scare young children or urban legends believed by a select few. For the Elizabethans, witchcraft was a real and dangerous threat, to the extent that multiple English monarchs felt the need to enact legislation targeting witchcraft.
It can be hard in the modern era to wrap our heads around this. We exist in an environment where lots of information, especially information we take for granted, is verifiable with a staggering level of redundancy. Everything from genes to political systems is codified and generally understood, and while we don’t go through the work ourselves, there is an established trust in the truths of our lives. Witchcraft, at least in the way that Elizabethans pictured it, would not take hold as a popular belief today. After all, when we have video evidence, photos, articles, and accounts delivered in milliseconds over vast distances, it becomes more difficult for “the unknown” to dominate our imagination and fears.
But if you take a step back and imagine life in Elizabethan England, witchcraft’s solidification into the zeitgeist becomes far clearer. There are two main reasons why witchcraft (and indeed many other fictional concepts like sea monsters and men with faces on their chests) came to be considered fact. The first is the complete lack of information available to the average person in Elizabethan England. One generally had to take what they were given in terms of information about the unknown. Stories and concepts turned into a grotesque game of telephone as people relayed their experiences to others. Circumstances and fine detail became lost. This is how a description of a cotton plant by an Elizabethan explorer was later illustrated as a plant that sprouted live sheep, which was then taken as fact. The second reason is far simpler: life in the Renaissance was hard. While it was a scientific and humanistic revolution, the benefits were mostly conferred on wealthy men. For most of the population, uncertainty, hunger, disease, and death still dominated. With so much strife, it may have been easier to believe in the existence of the supernatural, especially if you could blame your failed crops on demonic intervention.
Whatever the combinations of reasons, witches were real for Elizabethans; no if’s, and’s or but’s. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Western Society at the time as one that “believed in the reality of witches as much as modern society believes in the reality of molecules.” Not only did they believe in witches, but they were also terrified of them. Witches came to be personifications of all things evil, unnatural, and unknown, and when your “unknown” encompasses most of the world, that can be frightening; frightening enough that practicing witchcraft was outlawed by England’s rulers. It was even seen to be worse than other “natural” crimes, like murder or theft. James I, Elizabeth’s successor, argued for the allowance of a child witness in the trial of the Pendle Witches, something that was not normally allowed. He also wrote, “children, women, and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God.” There is a whole article’s worth of sexism to unpack here, but I’ll have to move on for now. The quote at its core shows that witchcraft was at a different echelon than other crimes, and Elizabethans seemed willing to do anything to punish it.
Around 1606 (only a few years after James I enacted his new, harsher anti-witch law), Macbeth is first performed at the Globe Theatre in London. Macbeth features three witches prominently. The show opens with their conversation. They serve as the main instigators of the story’s conflict and are also seen performing rituals and communing with Hecate (the Greek goddess of magic). While Macbeth is often portrayed as a flawed protagonist – a war hero who descends into madness and ravages his morals for the sake of power, the witches are more of a force than distinct characters. They represent chaos, unrest, and destruction.
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Wesley is a Student Ambassador at Stagepunch and a current History Major at Skidmore College with a background in the performing arts. Wesley is also an alumni of the New York Teen Shakespeare Intensive, a summer program run by the team behind Stagepunch.
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