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Reprinted from MpDBRN PhiloI-OGY, Vol. I, No. i, Jupe, 1903 


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Cornell University 

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In the following paper it is my purpose to set forth three 
series of Elizabethan plays, the content of which involves a more 
or less frank acceptance and presentation on the stage of the 
supernatural agencies known as devils, fairies, and witches. In 
this place I am less concerned with the sources of this folk-lore, 
whether popular or literary, than with the nature of its manifes- 
tation in these' plays, and their relations, one to the others. The 
angels and devils of the old sacred drama are anterior, the ghosts 
and furies of Senecan tragedy for the most part extraneous, to the 
action. The part which the disembodied spirit, returning to the 
haunts of men, was destined to play in later tragedy deserves 
a careful and serious consideration for its frequent manifestation 
of art as well as for its interesting psychology. This theme in its 
growth and change of treatment marks the distance traversed 
from the ghost of Andrea, attended by Revenge, in a supereroga- 
tory prologue, to "the majesty of buried Denmark" stalking 
across the platform at Elsinore, the miraculous and blood-curdling 
echo in The Duchess of Malfi, or the dagger proffered to Macbeth, 
that shadowy figment of a wicked and over-wrought imagination.' 
With none of these interesting matters shall I at present deal. 
The sorcerers and wizards, too, such as Sacrapant the conjurer, son 
of the witch Meroe, who summons furies amid thunder and light- 
ning to do his bidding; or Bryan Sansfoy, the guardian of a flying 
serpent in the Forest of Marvels, a coward and enchanter, holding 
knights and damsels in thrall, like Spenser's Archimago — of such 
as these I shall not treat.^ For these magicians of old romance are 
little more than stock figures, and while they certainly affected 
later conceptions of the kind, really belong to mediaeval times and 

1 See The Spanish Tragedy, Prologue ; Hamlet, I, i ; The Duchess of Malfi, V, i ; Mac- 
beth, II, i. 

2 The Old Wivei Tale, BniiLEN's Feele, Vol. I, p. 321 ; Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, 
ibid., Vol. II, p. 126; The Fairy Queen, Book I, 

31] 1 

2 Felix E. Sohelling 

to Europe at large, and are negligible in a consideration of English 
creatures of the supernatural as conceived in the reigns of Eliza- 
beth and James. It may be remarked that the greatest of the 
magicians of this old mediaeval type is of course Merlin, who 
figures so extensively in that curious mixture of legendary story, 
romantic drama, and gross diablerie, The Birth of Merlin.^ In 
it, besides much else, are depicted the miraculous birth and the 
strange prophecies of that remarkable wizard ; his raising and lay- 
ing of spirits and demons, among them his father, the devil; the 
appearance of the worthies Hector and Achilles, conjured hence 
by magic, as are Goddess Lucina, the Pates, and even the abstrac- 
tion Death. 

The Elizabethan attitude towards the world that lies beyond, 
push forward the barriers of human knowledge as we may, was 
very different from our own. Before what Arthur Hugh Olough 
wittily called "the Supreme Bifurcation," the Elizabethan never 
paused in modern puzzled, agnostic doubt, but confidently chose 
his horn of the dilemma and cheerfully suffered his tossing or 
goring as the case might be. Astrologers, alchemists, and wise- 
women flourished and grew rich on the ignorance and credulity of 
their dupes; tellers of fortunes, mixers of philters, finders of 
hidden treasure and lost articles by divination prospered alike. 
Many, like Owen Glendower, could "call spirits from the vasty 
deep," and "command the devil;" and few there were, like Hot- 
spur, to question, "Will they come when you do call for them ?"^ 
Nor were these, superstitions confined to the ignorant and the 
vulgar. The Earl of Leicester consulted the celebrated astrologer 
Doctor Dee as to the auspicious day on which to hold the corona- 
tion of Queen Elizabeth.^ Excellent Reginald Scot, although he 
humanely wrote a very long book to display the shallowness of 
the evidence on which witches were convicted, did not venture to 
deny the existence of witchcraft.* Even Lord Bacon, who 
incredulously doubted the Copernican system of astronomy, 
shared with his royal master King James a belief in many of 

1 First printed in 1662 as " written by William Shakespeare and William Eowley," and 
not impossibly the Uther Pendragon of 1597. 
^1 Henry IV, III, i. 

3 Dictionary of National Biography, article " Dee," Vol, XIV, p. 271. 
* The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), ed. 1886, pp. 407 ff. 


The Supernatural as Kepresented in Plays 3 

the popular superstitions of his day.' In an environment such as 
this the supernatural as a dramatic motive may be assumed to 
have had a sanction and a potency well nigh inconceivable today. 
The supernatural first entered the English drama as an artistic 
motive with the advent of Faustus. Of the origins of this world- 
story, of Marlowe's immediate source and the probable date of the 
earliest performance of his well known play there is no need here 
to speak. "Of all that [Marlowe] hath written for the stage," 
wrote Edward Philips, "his Doctor Faustus hath made the great- 
est noise."' And its many editions and alterations for revival 
point to its having been one of the most popular dramas of its 
day. As we have it The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is 
little more than a succession of scenes void of continuity or 
cohesion except for the unity of the main figure and the unrelent- 
ing progress of the whole towards the overwhelming catastrophe. 
Moreover this fragment — for the play is little more — is disfigured 
and disgraced by the interpolation of scenes of clownage and 
ribaldry which, in view of the strictures enunciated in the famous 
prologue of Tamburlaine as to " such conceits as clownage keeps 
in pay," and the apology of the printer in the Preface of that 
play, it is impossible to believe that Marlowe wrote. And yet, 
broken torso that it is, there is a grandeur beyond mere descrip- 
tion in this conception of the lonely, grace-abandoned scholar, in 
whom the promptings of remorse alone betray the touch of human 
weakness, whose inordinate desire for power and knowledge, 
rather than mere gratification of appetite, have impelled to the 
signing of his terrible compact with the Evil One, and whose 
mortal agonies have in them a dignity which not even the 
medisBval conception of hoofed and homed deviltry could destroy. 
Perilous is the practice of the art of comparison, and yet, when 
all has been said, there remains an impassioned reserve, a sense 
of mastery and a poignancy of feeling about this battered frag- 
ment of the old Elizabethan age that I find not in the grotesque 
Teutonic diablerie, the symbolical aesthetics, even in the con- 
summate art, wisdom, and philosophy of Goethe's Faust. 

1 See Sylva Sylvarum, passim. 

2 Theatrum Poetarum (1675), ed. 1800, p. 113. Fwustus was almost certainly on the stage 
in 1588. 


4 Felix E. Schelling 

The story of Faustus, with its conjuring of demons, its infer- 
nal compact, the alternate promptings of the good and bad angel, 
and its appalling catastrophe, is a mediseval story of black art. 
There seems little reason to doubt that the "white magic" of the 
English Friar Bacon was worked into his romantic drama, Friar 
Bacon and Friar Bungay, by Robert Greene in direct emulation 
of the foreign black magic of Marlowe's Faustus} The romantic 
part of Greene's engaging play tells of the love of Prince Edward 
for the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, a keeper's daughter, with the 
fair maid's anticipation of the rSle of Priscilla in The Courtship 
of Miles Siandish in favor of her lover Lacey, Earl of Lincoln. 
But with this is united a tale of the magical doings of Friar 
Bacon — how he created by his art a brazen head that spoke 
and would have walled all England with brass but for the 
stupidity of a servant, how he could show the acts of people afar 
off in his "prospective stone" of crystal, and obliterate both 
time and space — for such was the myth which had grown out 
of the life and reputed studies of that remarkable man, Roger 

The story of Faustus revolves about the daring compact with 
the father of evil and its terrible fruit; the characters, save for 
the writhing and tortured protagonist and the supernatural minis- 
ters to his ambition and his fate, seem thin and unreal, as the day- 
light seems unreal after a night of fever and anguish. Friar 
Bacon, on the contrary, is a goodnatured and patriotic wizard, 
solicitous for the happiness and the good of others, alive in fresh 
and merry England; and although the shadow of his intercourse 
with hell hangs over him, a misadventure, for which his art is only 
indirectly responsible, brings him to repentance and the renounce- 
ment of his traffic with evil. A novel feature of the story (in the 
original tale as in the play) is the necromantic contest in which 
Friar Bacon worsts Vandermast, a rival magician, and has him 
transported to his native Germany on the back of a simulacrum 
of Hercules.'' It was this feature of the contest that Anthony 
Munday imitated in his John a Kent and John a Cumber, 

1 On this topic see A. W. Waed, Introduction to his edition of these two plays (1892), p. i 
Friar Bacon was first acted in 1589, and mnst have followed hard upon Faustus. 

2 Friar Bacon, Scene ix. 


The Supebnatubal as Kbpeesented in Plays 5 

1594,' a diverting comedy of situation in which the two wizards 
who give title to the play are pitted against each other in an 
elaborate exhibition of their supernatural powers, in process of 
which disguises, exchanges of person, "errors," and "antiques" 
figure in bewildering confusion. Munday's play is doubtless 
original, although his heroine, Sedanen, was known to the popular 
ballads of the day, and John a Kent appears to have been an 
actual person living near Hereford at some remote and indeter- 
minable period, and enjoying the reputation of having sold him- 
self to the devil, like Faustus. 

The infernal compact appears once more in the pleasing anony- 
mous comedy of The Merry Devil of Edmonton, 1606 ; but Peter 
Fabel, the English Fanstus, after exercising his art on the devil 
to cheat him into a seven years' prolongation of his time on earth, ^ 
like Bacon and John a Kent, employs his powers to unite faithful 
lovers, and the supernatural ceases to be an element in the story. 
A remarkable application of the infernal compact to an historical 
subject is The DeviVs Charter, or a Tragedy Containing the Life 
and Death of Pope Alexander VI, acted by the king's company 
in 1606, and the work of Barnaby Barnes, the lyrist, who is not 
otherwise known to the history of the drama.^ Alexander's wicked 
and abandoned life and the marvelous success of his worldly 
career, crowned with the papacy, gave rise almost immediately upon 
his death to stories in which he was transmuted in the popular 
imagination into a species of pontifical Faustus. Nor did the 
Protestant zeal of succeeding times neglect an example at once so 
flagrant and so apt. Barnes's tragedy is full of horror and novel 
situation, and owes not a little to the study of Marlowe's Faustus. 
A fine and original climax is produced when the wicked Pope, 
about to die, drags himself from his couch that he may sit once 
more in the seat of St. Peter and feel the triple tiara on his brow. 
With faltering steps and eager, trembling hands, he approaches 
the curtain which veils the papal chair. He draws it and starts 
back, for there, arrayed in all the regalia of priestly pomp, crowned 

i Publications of the Shakeapeare Society (1851). It is not impossible that a lost play 
called Scogan cmd Skelton, by Hathway and Eankins, 1601, represented a similar necro- 
mantic contest.— Hemlowe's Diary, p. 175, 

2 See the opening scene. ^ This interesting play has not been reprinted ' 


6 Felix E. Sohelling 

and occupying St. Peter's throne, sits Satan himself. Had the 
younger author known when to stay his hand, and had he been 
somewhat more of a practical playwright, this tragedy might not 
have been an altogether unworthy successor of its illustrious 

Closely allied to these dramas in which supernatural powers 
are derived by a magician from the pledging of his soul are the 
several plays which represent the devil in human guise and famil- 
iar intercourse with mortals, to their undoing, or satirically to the 
worsting of the devil. Henslowe records a production, the work of 
Day and Haughton, entitled Friar Rush and the Proud Woman 
of Amsterdam.^ Friar Rush is well known in continental folk- 
lore as the devil disguised as a cook who corrupts a whole monas- 
tery with delicious fare. As a prose tale Friar Rush had already 
appeared in England as early as 1568. And although no known 
version contains allusion to the woman of Amsterdam, several of 
the friar's well known exploits may well have been transferred to 
the Flemish capital.'' It was not until 1610 that Dekker produced 
his extraordinary dramatic development of the story of Friar Rush, 
If This Be Not a Good Play the Devil is in It. This play repre- 
sents the mission of three devils sent by the infernal council to 
earth, one of whom, Ruffman, practices on the virtuous court of 
Naples, a second, Lurchall, on a hitherto upright merchant, the 
third. Friar Rush, on a monastery renowned for the austerity of 
its rule. The demons succeed in bringing all save a steadfast 
sub-prior to the verge of ruin; and the play ends with a realistic 
representation of the tortures of the villainous merchant Barter- 
vile, in company with such sensational contemporary malefactors 
as Ravaillac and Guy Fawkes. Dekker's play was hastily written 
and is confused in places in its design, and grotesque alike for the 
vulgar excess of its diablerie and for its transference to modern 
times of a story incongruous when deprived of its fitting mediaeval 
setting. And yet If This Be Not a Good Play can not but be 
regarded as a very remarkable effort for the boldness of its plan, 
the comprehensiveness of its scope, and the surprising anticipation 

1 Henxlowe's Diary, p. 193. 

3 Hebfobd, Literary Belatumt of England and Germany (1886), p. 308. 


The Supeenatural as Kepbbsented in Plays 7 

which it offers of Goethe's Faust in its "recasting of an old devil 
story in terms of modern society."' 

Dekker's play has no relation whatever to Macchiavelli's jeu 
d^ esprit on the marriage of Belphegor, although a superficial 
resemblance was noted by Langbaine, and this suggestion has 
misled some later writers.^ Macchiavelli's novella is, however, 
the direct source of the main plot of Grim the Collier of Croydon, 
the printed title of which is derived from the underplot in which 
an inferior demon disguised as Robin Goodfellow figures in a 
farcical r6le. The major plot details how a suicide, Spenser's 
Malbecco,^ pleading before the infernal judges that he was driven 
in desperation to his crime by the outrageous wickedness of his 
wife, is reprieved for a year and a day, while the devil, Belphegor, 
is dispatched to earth to observe if womankind is really so des- 
perately depraved as reported.* Belphegor plans to marry one 
woman, and is duped into marriage with another. Both men and 
women prove to be more than a match in ingenuity and wicked- 
ness for the unhappy devil; and in the end, buffeted and out- 
witted, poisoned by his wife, and waylaid by her paramour, he is 
only saved from the gallows on a false accusation of murder by 
the timely expiration of his term on earth. St. Dunstan appears 
in this play, as in one or two others, as from his wisdom and 
sanctity a controller of evil ; but he never rises to the dignity of a 

In the year of Shakespeare's death, 1616, and after the appear- 
ance of the first folio of Jonson's works, the latter poet produced 
a comedy of devil-lore, confessedly to rival Dekker's If It Be Not 
a Good Play and The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Moreover, 
while The Devil Is an Ass is conceived with a measure of 
that bold originality and mingling of minute realism with fanci- 
ful invention which is, in stronger degree elsewhere, Jonson's, 
The Marriage of Belphegor must certainly have suggested to the 

iHebfobd, Literary Relations of England and Germany (1886), p. 317. 

2 An Account of English Dramatic Poets (1691), p. 122; Halliwell-Phillips, A Dic- 
tionary of Old Plays (1870), p. 124. 

3 The Fairy Queen, Book III, cantos 9 and 10. 
4DOD8LET, Old Plays, ed. 1874, Vol. VIII, pp. 393 ff. 

s See especially A Knach to Know a Knave, ibid,. Vol. VI, p. 503. 


8 Felix E. Schbtlling 

English dramatist his general design. Pug, the lesser devil, out 
of a childlike curiosity and ambition to extend the dominion of 
hell, seeks the world for one day in the face of dissuasive advice 
of the more experienced great devil, Satan. In the body of a 
lately hanged cutpurse and in clothes stolen from a servant Pug 
seeks employment of a rich old fool and makes a few abortive 
advances to intimacy with mankind. But he is repulsed, beaten, 
and cheated at every turn, and in the end escapes being whipped 
to Tyburn at the tail of a cart for the theft of the suit of clothes 
he wears only by reason of the expiration of his day on earth. 
It is a far cry from the dignity and overpowering terror of the 
conception of Faustus to pitiful Pug on his knees to his master, 
who will not believe him to be a real devil, although honestly 
assured of the fact; or sighing in Newgate for midnight to set 
him free from his chains and restore to him "his holidays 
in hell.'" 

Turning back to the latter days of Queen Elizabeth, in Dek- 
ker's loosely constructed but poetical comedy of Old Fortunatus, 
printed in 1600, we find a tale of folk-lore very different in its 
original intent from Faustus, and yet strongly affected by that 
tragedy. There is reason to believe that Dekker's play as we 
have it is the result of the revision of a comedy dealing with 
Fortunatus and his inexhaustible purse, well known to the stage 
as early as February, 1596. Whether this "first part" was 
Dekker's or another's, that dramatist revised the whole work, 
probably adding the adventures of the sons of Fortunatus in 
November, 1599; and, the play being unexpectedly ordered for 
court, further added the poetical masque-like scenes which depict 
the strife of Vice and Virtue, later in the same year.^ In Dek- 
ker's hands the old fairy tale of the gift of Fortune and the wish- 
ing-cap, which carries its wearer whither he will, is transmuted 
from its original frank worldliness into a theme of moral gravity 
by the allegorical contention of Virtue and Vice and by the 
emphasis which is laid on the folly of Fortunatus in his choice of 
wealth, with the discord and doom which its inheritance entails 

1 Jonson, ed. Cunningham (1875), Vol. V, pp. 132, 135. 

2 Henslowe'a Diary, pp. 64, 159, 161. 


The Supeknatueal as Represented in Plays 9 

on his sons. Could Dekker have written always as he wrote in 
the best scenes of this beautiful play, he could well challenge a 
place beside the greatest poets of his age. 

"There were no real fairies before Shakespeare's," says Dr. 
Furness. "What were called 'fairies' have existed ever since 
stories were told to wide-eyed listeners round a winter's fire. But 
these are not the fairies of Shakespeare, nor the fairies of to-day. 
They are the fairies of Grimm's Mythology. Our fairies are 
spirits of another sort, but unless they wear Shakespeare's livery 
they are counterfeit."^ The absolute truth of this statement 
must appear to anyone who will be at the pains to turn to the 
innumerable "sources" of Shakespeare's fairy -lore which the 
indefatigable industry of commentators has unearthed and sug- 
gested. Oberon, the deus ex machina of the old romance of 
Huon of Bordeaux, although he possesses some of the features of 
Shakespeare's fairy king, is a dwarf and a mortal;^ his namesake 
in Greene's drama on King James IV is little more than the 
presenter of a series of dumb shows and the coryphaeus of a 
"round" of fairies, who dance jigs and hornpipes wholly extrane- 
ous to the action of the play.' And a perusal of The Fairy 
Queen which had stopped well short of the third book could 
alone have misled anyone into the supposition that the Elfe and 
Pay, "of whom all faeryes spring and fetch their lignage," have 
anything in common with Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed.* 
Shakespeare refined the elves and goblins of folk-lore to a 
diminutiveness and daintiness beyond the reach of the gross 
imaginations of the countryside, as he transmuted the fays of the 
bookish lands of "faerie" into a charming and fanciful reality. 
Robin Goodfellow and Queen Mab meet without incongruity, 
and Puck and the gossamer-winged attendants on Bottom shade 
imperceptibly into the airy tenants of the exuberant fancy of 
Mercutio and the haunting music and invisible spells of the 

1 Variorum Shakespeare, Vol. X, p. xxiv. 

2 See Hvon of Bordeaux, ed. Early English Text Society (1882), pp. 60, 267. 

3 The Scottish History of King James IV, Geosabt's Qreene, Vol. XIII, pp. 205 £E. 
* Fairy Queen, Book II, canto 10, 11, 631 B. 


10 Felix E. Sohelling 

A Midsummer Night's Dream produced a profound impression 
on the poetic imagination of its day, and thenceforth (to say 
nothing of non-dramatic productions such as Drayton's Nymphidia 
and the fairy-lore of the pastoralists) scenes introducing elves 
and fairies enter not infrequently into the popular plays as well 
as into the performances at court. Thus in the confused romantic 
comedy of intrigue, The Wisdom of Doctor Dodipol, which must 
have been written very soon after Shakespeare's play, fairies usher 
in a banquet and an enchanter exercises spells on wood- wandering 
lovers not dissimilar to those of Puck. In TheMaid^s Metamor- 
phosis, printed in 1600, the fairy element also obtrudes in several 
very pretty songs," although the play is of a pastoral and mytho- 
logical cast in the manner of Lyly and was formerly inaccurately 
ascribed to him. Even into the midst of so melodramatic a per- 
formance as the quasi-historical tragedy Lust's Dominion Oberon 
and his fairy rout are lugged to warn a character of her impend- 
ing death. ^ Shakespeare employed mock fairies in the delightful 
masquerade which brings about at once the punishment of Pal- 
staif and the denouement of The Merry Wives of Windsor/ 
while later far, in 1610, the dainty fairy-lore of A Midsummer 
Night's Dream expands into the imaginative world of the super- 
natural which girdles the enchanted island of Prospero, a world 
wherein the romantic and the grotesque, ethereal spirit and mor- 
tality in its nobility and in its sensual grossness unite in a perfect 
harmony with which only Shakespeare could have infused such 
discordant materials.* 

But Shakespeare's poetic and fanciful transfiguration of popular 
fairy-lore was not the only literary and dramatic treatment of the 
fairies of his age. The diligent researches into primitive and 
bookish mythology so confidently applied to Shakespeare's free 
creations of the supernatural world are far more significant and 
fruitful when applied to the fairies of Ben Jonson ; and here, as 
elsewhere, that learned man and poet of a wholly admirable talent 
stands in striking contrast to the brilliant, imaginative, and all- 

1 BuLLEN, Old English Plays (1884), Vol. Ill, p. 135; and ibid.. Vol. I, p. 127. 

2 This play may have been written as early as 1600; the passage alluded to is Act III, 
scene 2. 

3 V, T, 41 S. * See Tempest. 


The Supernatural as Represented in Plays 11 

conquering genius of him who alone of all Jonson's contemporaries 
could equal and surpass him. Jonson's contributions to fairy-lore 
in dramatic form are included in The Satyr, "a particular enter- 
tainment of the Queen and Prince at Althorpe .... 1603, as 
they came first into the Kingdom;" Oberon, the Fairy Prince, a 
Masque of Prince Henry's, 1610; and the character of Puck in 
The Sad Shepherd.^ Jonson's fairies, like the Irish "other 
people," do not seem to have been conspicuously distinguishable 
for their small size f and, as might be expected from their employ- 
ment in masques, like those of Greene, are notable for their 
dancing, and to this they add a very pretty quality in song.* 
Jonson's Puck is no "merry wanderer of the night," but is sur- 
named "Hairy" and debased to attendance on the Witch of Pap- 
lewick; whilst to Queen Mab, in vast discrepancy to the delicate 
and pampered royalty of Titania, are ascribed the tricksy pranks 
of will-o'-the-wisp, moon-calf, and household elf. It was reserved 
in much later times to Jonson's witty, reckless, and godless "son," 
Thomas Randolph, to laugh the fairies off the stage. In his fine 
pastoral drama Amyntas, published in 1638, Randolph employs 
a mock fairy motif to enhance the lighter comedy scenes of his 
play. In the course of it Jocastus, a fantastic shepherd and "fairy 
knight," and Mopsus, a foolish augur, carry on much satirical 
discourse concerning fairies and fairy-lore; and in the end con- 
trive to rob an orchard by means of a "bevy of fairies" who for 
some reason best known to their author sing, though prettily, only 
in Latin. Told to "go love some fairy lady," Mopsus replies: 

How, Jocastus, 
Marry a puppet ? wed a mote i' th' sun ? 
Go look a wife in nutshells ? Woo a gnat. 
That's nothing but a voice ? No, no, Jocastus, 
I must have flesh and blood, .... 
A fig for fairies ! * 

The fairies dwell in pleasant regions of fancy and their drama 
is comedy. Witchcraft in its grotesqueness, its horror, and its 

1 Varioasly dated between 1618 and the thirties. 

2 The " lesser f aies " of Oberon, were represented by noble children ; the greater hence 
presumably, by adnlts. 

3 See especially the songs in Oberon. 

* "Amyntas, or the Impossible Dowry." Worla of Randolph (1875), Vol, I, p, 278; and 
o pp. 279-84, 816, 325-31, 361. 


12 Felix E. Schellinq 

pathos occupies, as has well been said, "a field debateable, in a 
way unparalleled between tragedy and comedy.'" In a sermon 
preached before the queen in 1572, John Jewell, wise and pious 
bishop that he was, declared: 

Witches and sorcerers, within these last few yeeres, are marvellously 
increased within this yom Grace's realme. These eies have seene most 

evident and manefest marks of their wickedness Wherefore, your 

poore subjects most humble petition unto your Highnesse, is that the 
laws touching such malefactors, may be put in due execution.^ 

This may be taken as a measure of the popular belief in witchcraft, 
which among the political and religious difficulties that beset the 
reigns of the later Tudors, from a harmless white magic, useful 
for the discovery of things lost, for the mixture of love philters, 
or for effecting simple cures, came to be regarded as a dreadful 
and alarming evil, spreading like the plague and blasting with 
death in this world and with damnation in the world to come the 
unhappy creatures who fell under suspicion of traffic in it. To 
the Elizabethan playgoer the apparition of Mephistophilis to 
Faustus or the conjurings of the wizard, Bolingbroke, and Mar- 
gery Jourdain,' dealers in the supernatural in 2 Henry VI, 
seemed the natural representation of things universally known to 
be true; and the extraordinary reversal of the military successes 
of Henry V and of Talbot by the French, a foe habitually 
despised and beaten, could be accounted for in no other wise 
than by the acceptance of the English tradition that Joan of 
Arc had been justly tried and burnt for a witch.* 

The plays of the age of Elizabeth are full of allusion to these 
popular superstitions, from the allegorical representation of the 
practices against Elizabeth's life in a work of Dekker,^ to the 
farcical situation of Falstaff, disguised as the Wise Woman of 
Brentford.* But it was not until King James ascended the throne 
and gave to the popular belief in witchcraft the sanction of the 
.royal opinion, that the witch, as such, enters as a motive into the 
fabric of English plays. Heywood, Shakespeare, Dekker, Middle- 
ton, and Ford, all deal with witchcraft ; imaginatively, realistically, 

1 A. W. Waed, History of Dramatic Literature (1899), Vol. II, p. 367. 

2 Quoted in Scot, Diseoverie of Witchcraft, Introduction, p. xxxii. 

811, iv. * 1 Henry VI, V,!!!. ^ The Whrne of Babylon (leOi). » Merry Wives, lY.ii. 


The Sdpernatubal as Represented in Plays 13 

jocularly, pathetically, in only one case— Heywood's Wise 
Woman of Hogsdon — in the least skeptically.' Jonson, who 
repudiated and satirized the followers of alchemy and astrology, 
hesitated to attack the more terrible superstitions of witchcraft, 
but represents his witches in The Masque of Queens, 1609, with 
a circumstantial attention to every coarse and unseemly detail 
and a display of erudition, classic and modern, which must have 
delighted the grossness and pedantry alike of the royal author of 
a treatise on demonology. 

The witches of Macbeth preceded as they surpassed all other 
representation of their kind on the stage: for the little that went 
before Lyly's Mother Bombie^ and the examples already cited, 
were neither vital nor closely interwoven in the tissues of the 
play. But despite the fidelity with which Shakespeare followed 
his source, as was his wont, and notwithstanding a certain incon- 
gruity which the supererogatory queen of witches Hecate brings 
into the imaginative conception of the three Weird Sisters, the 
witches of Macbeth rise so far above the wretched hags and 
obscene succubae of popular demonology, so ally themselves on 
the one hand with the cosmic forces of nature and so vividly 
represent the visible symbolical form of subjective human deprav- 
ity on the other, that they, no more than Shakespeare's fairies, 
can be accepted as really illustrative of the popular belief of the 

For the popular dramatic exposition of witchcraft we must 
then turn to other authors. Jonson 's Witch of Paplewick is pos- 
sessed of most of the malignant and repulsive features of her 
kind. She assumes the shape of a raven and again of innocent 
Maid Marian, to foment mischief. She is hunted at full cry by a 
band of huntsmen who mistake her for a hare, and is about to be 
represented "with her spells, threds and images," when Jonson's 
fragment abruptly comes to an end.' Even more repulsively 
realistic are the hags who enact the antimasque of The Masque of 

1 The Wise Woman of Hogsdon is little more than a female quack doctor. See an inter- 
esting passage on the " wise women " of the time, II, i. Heywood's Dramatic Works (1874) , 
Vol. V, p. 292. 

2 First printed in 1594; Macbeth is usually dated about 1606. 

3 The Sad Shepherd, III, ii ; Cunninoham, Jomon, Vol. VI, p. 283. 


14 Felix E. Sohelling 

Queens already mentioned above. These witches are described as 
issuing "with a kind of hollow and infernal music" from "an 
ugly hell," "all differently attired, some with rats on their head, 
some on their shoulders; others with ointment-pots at their gir- 
dles; all with spindles, timbrels, rattles, or other venefical instru- 
ments, making a confused noise, with strange gestures." Amid 
charms and incantations admirable for their grotesque and grew- 
some horror and suggestiveness, the "Dame" or queen of witches 
enters, "naked-armed, bare-footed, her frock tucked, her hair 
kaotted and folded with vipers; in her hands a torch made of a 
dead man's arm, lighted, girded with a snake;" and the roll is 
called, the witches responding to such names as Credulity, Impu- 
dence, Slander, Bitterness, Rage, and other abstractions.' 

In The Witch, by Thomas Middleton (of uncertain date, but 
assuredly written after Macbeth), that ready playright grafted on 
a romantic tale of Belleforest a story of witchcraft derived through 
Scot's Discoverie from Nider's Formicarius,' a work written in 
Latin by a German. The original version of this latter story con- 
cerns the unholy doings of three wizards and their successive prac- 
tices in their craft. Middleton, with a dramatist's instinct, changed 
their sex, united their adventures, and linked them with the witch- 
crone of antiquity by naming one of their number Hecate, besides 
giving to their incantations an influential part in determining the 
course of the play. The witch name Hecate thus occurs in both 
Shakespeare's and Middleton 's play ; and likenesses of phrase have 
been discovered in the witch scenes of the two dramas, radically 
different as the governing conceptions of these ministers of evil 
appear in the two productions. Moreover it has been thought 
that the extraneousness and contradictory nature of Shakespeare's 
Hecate as compared with her sister witches is to be explained by 
assuming an interpolation by Middleton or another hand in a play 
originally free from this and other like blemishes.' Be all this 
as it may, the last word has been said on this comparison by 
Charles Lamb, in a passage which quotation can never stale: 

1 See ibid.. Vol. VII, pp. 108, 112. 

2 See Hjtbfobd, Literary Belatione of England and Germany, p. 233. Book V of the 
Formicarius treats "De Maleflois," etc. 

3 On this whole subject, see Fdbkess, Variorum ed. of M<icbeth, p. 388. 


The Supernatubal as Eepeesented in Plats 15 

[Shakespeare's] witches [he tells us] are distinguished from the 
witches of Middleton by essential differences. These are creatures to 
whom man or woman plotting some dire mischief might resort for occa- 
sional consultation. Those originate deeds of blood, and begin bad 
impulses to men. From the moment that their eyes first met with Mac- 
beth's, he is spellbound. That meeting sways his destiny. He can never 
break the fascination. These witches can hurt the body: those have power 
over the soul. Hecate in Middleton has a son, a low buffoon: the hags of 
Shakespeare have neither child of their own, nor seem to be descended 
from any parent. They are foul anomalies, of whom we know not 
whence they are sprung, nor whether they have beginning or ending. 
As they are without human passions, so they seem to be without human 
relations. They come with thunder and lightning, and vanish to airy 
music. This is all we know of them. Except Hecate they have no 
names : which heightens their mysteriousness. Their names, and some 
of the properties which Middleton has given to his hags, excite smiles. 
The Weird Sisters are serious things. Their presence cannot co-exist 
with mirth. But, in a lesser degree, the Witches of Middleton are fine 
creations. They raise jars, jealousies, strifes, ' like a thick scurf o'er lif e^' ' 

There remain two remarkable plays in which English witch- 
craft is sketched from life. Their treatment in this place neither 
their late date nor the realism which allies them with the 
domestic drama whose theme is every-day life could excuse, were 
it not for the presence in both of a certain element of the gro- 
tesqueness and wonder and the humane spirit that suggests, even 
if it does not portray the pathos of the situation of these unhappy 
traffickers in evil. The Witch of Edmonton was most likely first 
acted towards the end of the reign of King James, and is assigned 
on its title page to the "well esteemed poets, William Rowley, 
Thomas Dekker, John Ford, etc." The play is grounded on a 
prose account of one Elizabeth Sawyer of Islington, who was 
executed in 1621 for witchcraft; and belongs in its general 
theme to the interesting series of tragedies dealing with domestic 
unhappiness and consequent crime. Mother Sawyer, a wretched 
and poverty-stricken old woman, is driven to commerce with the 
supernatural in revenge for outrageous and wanton ill treatment 
on the part of her neighbors. A devil in shape of a black dog 
surprises her in one of her paroxysms of impotent cursing, exacts 
from her the usual pledge of her soul, and becomes her 

1 Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (ed. 1893), Vol. I, p. 271. 


16 Felix E. Sohelling 

" familiar." ' Her feud with the neighborhood continues until, 
deserted by her evil spirit, her hut is set afire and she is arraigned 
and convicted of her many acts of spite and mischief. For- 
biddingly coarse as are many of the details of this story of vulgar 
witchcraft, the character of Mother Sawyer is conceived with a 
sympathy for the miserable old hag, with a touch of pathos and 
an apprehension of the moral responsibility of her persecutors 
which is surprising in view of the circumstance that neither her 
actual possession by her grotesque familiar spirit nor the super- 
natural quality of her traflSc is called into question for a moment. 
The Late Lancashire Witches was printed in 1634 as the 
work of Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome,^ its source the 
notorious trials for witchcraft of 1633 in the county named. 
Indeed, to judge from the epilogue, the composition of this play 
must have followed so close on the events that its influence in 
forestalling the judgment of the courts which tried these unfor- 
tunate creatures can scarcely be considered negligible. Attention 
has been called to the repetition of a familiar motif of Heywood's 
in the main event of The Lancashire Witches. Like Mistress 
Franklin, the woman killed with kindness, like Wincott's wife in 
The English Traveller, Mistress Grenerous, the wife of an hon- 
orable man, is led astray, here not by an earthly lover, but by 
the powers of darkness to which she pledges her soul and 
becomes a witch. In the other two plays the erring wife is 
magnanimously, even tenderly, treated; here the enormity of the 
crime demanded another denouement. The Lancashire Witches 
is a mine of current witch-lore, with its transformations of sup- 
posedly respectable housewives into midnight hags and thence 
into cats or supernatural jades that traverse miraculous distances, 
with its grotesque malice, unhallowed revels and wanton breeding 
of strife. The pathos is not for the witches, but for the upright 
husband deceived by his witch-wife, whose repentance is feigned. 
At length she is discovered by the loss of her hand in one of her 
midnight escapades while transformed into the shape of a cat ; and 
she is delivered over to justice by her sorrowful and offended lord, 

1 The Witch of Edmonton, It, i. 

a Dramatic Works of Heywood (1874), Vol. IV, pp. 167-262. 


The Supeenatueal as Kepeesented in Plays 17 

but without a qualm of conscience as to the rectitude of his act. 
The Lancashire Witches is an excellent example of the journalist's 
instinct that sees and instantly appropriates to present use 
material of current interest. It is terrible to think that the fate 
of some of the unfortunate thousands that perished in the seven- 
teenth century accused of these loathsome and impossible crimes 
may have hung on the reception of this circumstantial represen- 
tation of their alleged misdeeds on the popular stage. 

The dreadful compact of Faustus and the pleasing white 
magic of Friar Bacon were succeeded by the diablerie of Grim 
the Collier and Friar Rush, and by the savage irony of The Devil 
is an Ass. The terpsichorean fairies of Jonson's masques fol- 
lowed the poetical and fanciful sprites of A Midsummer NighVs 
Dream, to be followed in turn by the satiric elves of Randolph. 
In each of these cases the general absorption of the supernatural 
as a motive in Elizabethan drama is satirical; and satire and 
romance are things absolutely alien and incompatible. With 
witchcraft the tale is different. From a vague and indefinable 
element of the preternatural in the wizards of old romance, this 
motif dilated under the hand of Shakespeare into the mysterious 
horror and spiritual terror which the doings and the prophecies 
of the witches in Macbeth inspire; only to dwindle through 
Middleton's half successful imitation of the Weird Sisters, and 
through the grotesque hags of Jonson's masques to compassion 
for the maunderings of Mother Sawyer and contempt for the 
lewd gambols and physical transformations of Mall Spencer and 
Mistress Generous, the Lancashire witches. 

Felix E. Sohelling. 
University op Pennsylvania. 


Cornell University Library 
PR 658.S85S32 
Some features of the supernatural as rep 

3 1924 013 272 723