English Witches in Theatre
17th Century Theatre
In 17th century England there was a noticeable cluster of plays about witches and plays in which witches featured as important characters. This was most likely because witches and witchcraft were big news at the time. In 1604 King James the first passed The Witchcraft Act, which made carrying out witchcraft punishable by death. In 1597, whilst only King of Scotland (he became the first king to reign over Scotland and England) James had written ‘Daemanology’ a book about magic and witchcraft. As playwrights of any era would 17th century writers wrote about subjects which were familiar to their audience and would both fascinate them and appeal because of their modernity.
Witches in Shakespeare
The most famous of these 17th century plays is 'Macbeth' written in 1605/06. It features brief appearances by Hecate, a spirit witch or chief witch and plenty of action from three witches who engineer a meeting with Macbeth the Thane of Glamis. It was already entrenched in popular belief that witches were unattractive old hags and Shakespeare was happy to perpetuate this. Banquo, upon seeing the three of them says “…you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are.” The witches offer a prophesy that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and King before vanishing into thin air.
In Act IV scene I the witches are seen in a dark cave, with a bubbling cauldron, casting a spell. The spell includes the infamous “….eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog…..” amongst other ingredients such as hemlock root. The three witches also chant “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
Proving that music has long been part of theatre, this scene with the witches even comes with a song: “Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey; mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may.”
A Witch's Familiar
In the 17th century witch's cats weren't necessarily black. Shakespeare's witches speak of a brindled cat (probably what we know as tabby) and Middleton's Malkin is grey.
‘The Witch’ by Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton wrote ‘The Witch’ sometime around 1612. The earliest known copy of the script dates from about 1619. The play features the chief witch Hecate and several others including Stadlin and Hellwain. It seems that parts of The Witch were incorporated into Macbeth after Shakespeare had finished it.
Whilst Shakespeare’s witches are dark characters who you feel are up to no good, plotting and meddling with life and death, Middleton’s witches are a bit lighter and they cast spells on the request of patrons concerned with affairs of the heart. Having said that their spells do include: juice of toad, oil of adder, blood of bat, lizard’s brain and the fat from boiled dead babies, so they’re not exactly endearing characters!
The Witch also features witch’s familiars such as a black dog, a toad and Malkin, a cat-like spirit. Malkin (a diminutive of Matilda) was a name often given to witch’s familiars at the time. Interestingly the name features in ‘Malkin Towers’ the name of the home of some of the convicted Pendle witches.
Whereas Shakespeare has his witches vanishing into thin air, Middleton’s witches can levitate and fly as indicated in Act III scene iii: Hecate and Malkin rise into the air and Hecate says “ Now I go, now I fly, Malkin my sweet spirit and I. Oh, what a dainty pleasure 'tis To ride in the air….”
Other 17th Century Plays about Witches
Many earlier plays had magic as a theme, so witches were already established characters in theatre, however in the 17th century a couple of plays were written purporting to be much more true to life as they were based (very loosely) on true events. Following the trial of a second batch of accused witches from Pendle, Lancashire in 1634, Thomas. Heywood and Richard Brame wrote a play called 'The Late Lancashire Witches'. This capitalised on the public's interest in the case, but bears little resemblance to the case and includes some unlikely dialogue between the witches. For example in response to a query as to what they rode on, one witch replies a badger, another a bear and another 'a porcupine that never pricked'. The witches are all women and are seen deviously causing trouble for the men and bewitching lovers.
A fascinating letter, written by Nathaniel Tomkyns, shortly after seeing the play who had seen the play performed in London in 1634 makes it clear that the play was a hit and was cleverly staged with special effects. A transcript of the letter can also be seen in the Richard Brome online link below.
In 1681 Shadwell wrote a play on the same theme called 'The Lancashire Witches' because the county had gained a reputation as being a stronghold of witchcraft.
- Richard Brome Online
A transcript of The Late Lancashire Witches by Heywood and Brome
Modern Plays about Witches
Whilst playwrights creating witch characters in the 17th century drew heavily on stereotypes and fantastical beliefs as to what witches were capable of, some modern playwrights have made an effort to set the record straight and give a more realistic view of the events which led to the 17th century witch trials.
Richard MacSween, a Lancashire author, has written ‘Devilish Practices’ which focuses on the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. He portrays the men and women who were accused of witchcraft and hanged for that crime, in a sensitive and realistic manner, cutting through the rather sensational reports of the time to show just how easily people came to believe that these ordinary people were capable of causing death by witchcraft and had consorted with the devil.
The actors are from Pendle Borderline Theatre Company with authentic Pendle Lancashire accents bringing extra veracity to the performance. The actors and supporting team are a multi-talented group; especial mention must go to; Marilyn Crowther and Maureen Roberts who play the eldest of the witches, Eli Jolley, who made the puppets which are very effective alongside the human actors and Adrian Hartley who wrote the music and not only plays the keyboard to accompany the songs but also stars as Thomas Potts – the court reporter for the 1612 witch trials, whose book “ called ‘The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster’ remains one of the most important sources of information on the Pendle Witches Trials.
An Accused Witch is Questioned - Rehearsing a Scene from 'Devilish Practices'
Other modern plays continue to portray witches as more sinister or supernatural beings capable of whatever the human imagination can conjure up, but they are at least offered on the basis that the audience should suspend belief, rather than claiming to be based on real events as Heywood and Brame did. These plays include ‘The Witches’ based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name and ‘The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe’, a dramatic adaption of C.s. Lewis’s book. And of course, if you want to see Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, it is still performed in theatres throughout the world.