Toil and trouble

Shakespeare’s world of witchcraft

If you float you’re a witch.
If you scream you’re a witch
If you sink, then you’re dead anyway.
If you cure you’re a witch
Or impure you’re a witch
Whatever you do, you must pay.
Fingers are pointed, a knock at the door,
You may be a mother, a child or a whore.
If you complain you’re a witch
Or you’re lame you’re a witch
Any marks or deviations count for more.
Got big tits you’re a witch
Fall to bits you’re a witch

From Vinegar Tom, by Caryl Churchill

These lyrics never leave me. In my final year of grad school at Sarah Lawrence we did a production of feminist playwright Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, a play that reimagines 17th-century English witchcraft trials to examine intersections of gender and power. The play is punctuated with songs – such as “If You Float” which is quoted above. These songs are performed by characters in contemporary dress who function as kind of a Brechtian chorus, modern women commenting on a painful past of persecution. I operated lights for the show, something I have not done since. Anyone who has ever operated lights for a show can attest it gives you a special power and perspective in the playhouse. I sat in the show night after night, quietly humming along to all of the songs, flying high above the audience in my “booth broom”, looking down on the performance onstage and also witnessing the emotional spell the story cast upon the audience. My partner at the time played the character of Ellen, “a cunning woman”, who is publicly hanged at the end of the play. My hands trembled every night as I plunged the stage into darkness on that image, a woman swinging in silence. 

My romance with the 17th century – more broadly early modern English drama – and more specifically Shakespeare has always been a troubled one. That period in history is infused with a nasty cocktail of patriarchy and toxic religious zeal. I know the only way to stand in our power is to grapple with our past. With its profoundly influential, long-reigning female monarch (Queen Elizabeth I) and a theatre that obsessively played with gender, I’m endlessly attracted by the provocations the period and its cultural artefacts offer about gendered identities. These voices from the past scream the most potent commentaries on our contemporary world. Shakespeare’s infatuation with witches is one such elucidation.

The bubonic plague, other illnesses, agricultural atrocities, unexplained disasters – these misfortunes were all at some point in the Renaissance attributed to the work of witches. When people feel shame, they scapegoat. When people panic, they persecute. No doubt if we were living in the 16th or 17th century, Covid would be the work of witches. In 1542 the English Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, making witchcraft a crime punishable by death. The Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced with another act in 1563, and then a harsher law in 1604 soon after James Charles Stuart’s ascent to the English throne. King James I was a scholar of black magic who had a rather unhealthy obsession with witches.  He published a dissertation on the subject: Daemonologie. (James’ treatise also investigates vampires and werewolves.) James sought to prove the existence of witchcraft, and furthermore, offer a guide to witch-hunting so witch mania became part of the zeitgeist of the Jacobean era. All this would make one wonder if he was suffering some sort of inferiority complex as Elizabeth’s successor. 

“mischief followed by anger”

Once hunted down and brought to trial, suspected witches were subjected to tests to prove their witchiness. In addition to the revealing attribute of “mischief followed by anger”, witches might be searched for body marks. One’s mole, birthmark, or scar might be read as imprints from the Devil. They might also be put to water tests: if they sank, they passed, but if they floated – that is, if the water rejected them – they were a witch. Witches were thought to have “familiars”, demonic creatures such as rats, dogs, cats, or other small animals that did their bidding. Witchhood could also be proven through confession which was extracted by torture. Once convicted, witches were executed by hanging or burnt at the stake. In reality, witches were tragically marginalised women who were mostly low class, poor, vulnerable, old, and/or powerless. 

Shakespeare lived in this world of “witches”. He was born a year after the passing of the 1563 version of the Witchcraft and Conjuration Act, and witch trials were at their peak at the beginning of his playwriting career. James’ Daemonologie is purported to be one of the main sources for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Though Macbeth is synonymous with witches, the entire Shakespearean canon is peppered with references to “witches” and “witchcraft”, and the concept of “bewitchment”.

“Witch” is commonly used as an insult, usually towards a woman overstepping her place in early modern patriarchal ideology. Witches were a threat to men with their potential to undermine male authority with magic. In The Winter’s Tale, an enraged Leontes calls Paulina “a mankind witch” (2.3.66) when she confronts him with his mistreatment of his wife and child. Because the women in the play are the ones who can see through his corruption and threaten his power, Richard III, in the titular play, labels Queen Margaret a “foul wrinkled witch” (1.3.163) and Elizabeth Woodville  “that monstrous witch” (3.4.69). The latter usage is not merely an insult, for Richard is actually implicating Elizabeth and Jane Shore in witchcraft for causing his deformity, his misshapen arm that is “like a blasted sapling, withered up” (3.4.68). This ambiguous escalation is a common trope: what begins as a term of abuse contains the potential to be realised. Language calls into being, so that a woman may be called a witch and easily slip into practicing witchcraft. In Antony and Cleopatra, an embittered Antony calls Cleopatra a “witch” (4.12.47), and again, this is not simply a figure of speech – Anthony blames his loss in battle to Cleopatra’s “black magic”. Throughout the play, the Egyptian queen is associated with witchcraft, either directly or through innuendo and imagery. Earlier in the play, Cleopatra is a “great fairy” (4.812), and her cunning magic is credited with Antony’s initial victory over Caesar’s troops. Almost always, witchiness is enfolded with feminine agency, vocality, and power.

“witchcraft in your lips”

Witchcraft is often linked specifically to female sexuality and more broadly to seduction and charm. Upon kissing his betrothed Princess Katherine of France, Henry V exclaims, “You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate” (5.2.249). In the sonnet beginning the second act of Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus describes the star-crossed lovers as “Alike bewitched by the charm of looks” (2.0.6). This concept even transgresses gender when in Twelfth Night Antonio portrays his attraction to Sebastian as a kind of spell, “A witchcraft drew me hither. / That most ingrateful boy there by your side . . .” (5.1.74–5). The intermingling of lascivious overtones with witchcraft probably reaches its climax in Henry VI Part One where Joan of Arc (Joan LaPucelle), one of France’s greatest heroes, is figured as one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains, a sensual witch. Very early in the play, Talbot, leader of the English army, says plainly to Pucelle, “. . . thou art a witch” (1.5.6) and later “. . . that witch, that damned sorceress” (3.2.38). At the same time, she is continuously referred to by the English as a whore. It’s ambiguous whether Joan is truly a witch or just a duplicitous shepherd’s daughter turned warrior. Regardless, at the end of the play, she is burned at the stake; and in a final desperate attempt at redemption Joan claims she is pregnant and lists a slew of French noblemen who could be the father. 

In another play, The Tempest, a witch is actually saved from execution because she is with child. Mother to the deformed “thing of darkness” Caliban, the “foul witch” Sycorax, is brought to the island when banished from Algiers for her sorcery (1.2.309). Though she died some years before the play begins, Sycorax is an alter-ego and antithesis to the magician Prospero, and once again, we have largely patriarchal anxiety about female authority. The previous ruler of the island, she tormented and imprisoned the spirit Ariel because he would not obey “her earthy and abhorred commands” (1.2.326). Sycorax’s sorcery is figured as so strong that she could manipulate nature: controlling the moon and the tides. In post-colonial revisionings of the play, Sycorax, like Caliban, is often reclaimed. Rather than merely a witch, she is seen as a powerful figure, her race and gender intersecting, giving voice to the silenced. 

“Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”

The most famous witches in all of Shakespeare are the “weird”, or “weyward/wayward” sisters in Macbeth. The latter is how they are referred to by other characters in the First Folio (the earliest surviving text); in subsequent printings they call them “weird” but, interestingly, they do not directly call them witches. Diane Purkiss in The Witch in History states: “All our witches are daughters of the Weird Sisters”. Appearing only three times in the play before they vanish, the Weird Sisters’ pervasive presence looms over the entire world, shadowy instruments of all that unfolds. They enter at the very start of the play in “thunder and lightning” and discuss their plan to meet Macbeth. Later they prophesy he will be king, and finally, they employ a cauldron to call up apparitions which offer premonitions to the ill-fated thane. With some of the most famous lines in the play if not in all of Shakespeare – “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”, (1.1.12–3) and “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10–11) their verse is unique.  Like other supernatural beings in Shakespeare’s plays, the witches speak in rhythms that are “off-beat”. The usual iambic human heartbeat metre is replaced with eerie irregular thumping punctuated with rhyme – the prosody of magic. Their scenes also contain some of the most vivid imagery and spectacle in the play: thunder and lightning, fog, the bubbling cauldron filled with “eye of newt and toe of frog”, “finger of a birth-strangled babe”, and “baboon’s blood”, and dancing and incantation. They talk frequently of numbers, particularly their number, three, which constructs the trio as a kind of unholy trinity.

The presentation of the witches reflects the period’s commentaries. In Act 1, Scene 3, the First Witch recounts her anger at a woman who refuses to share her snack of chestnuts, and then chronicles how she will exact her excessive revenge by tormenting the woman’s husband. She says, “I’ll drain him dry as hay” (1.3.19) and then talks about plaguing him with an agonising insomnia. It’s a perfect example of the notable marker of “mischief following anger”. Banquo characterises their appearance as “withered” and “so wild in their attire” (1.3.41) and “fantastical” (1.3.56). Possibly the most fascinating description of the weird sisters, however, questions their womanhood, “…You should be women. / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (1.3.47–9). Hair in the early modern period is inextricably tied up in gender, and beards were a symbol of masculine authority and status. Banquo is perplexed by the witches’ gender because they wear a visible emblem of this masculinity on their faces. Rarely in the theatre do the beards manifest. I’ve never seen the witches in Macbeth played with actual beards upon their faces even though direct reference is made to them in the text. Are modern theatre makers just as uncomfortable with “hairy” women as Banquo is?

“…You should be women.
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so”

They are an important symbol, however. In Bearded Women in Early Modern England, Mark Albert Johnson says the beards show that Banquo “is not able to console himself with assertions of the bearded woman’s conformity to social stereotypes of female submissiveness; Shakespeare’s bearded women defy male desire and refuse to be defined by an artificially naturalized binary in which their beardedness—the visual signal of their weïrdness—figures as a hairy secret that must be negotiated, hidden, or erased. These unabashedly bearded, wayward, insubordinate sisters, then, constitute cultural wonders within the gendered economy of early modern England.”

In whatever way they present, witches remain liminal figures whose power resides in their threat not only to natural order but more specifically to patriarchal social order, the usurpation of male privilege and power. “Shakespeare” is not simply a man or male-authored plays, but rather “Shakespeare” is centuries of performance and literary creations, re-creations, and reclamations by diverse bodies and genders. This perspective is what drives my research and theatre practice. All of Shakespeare’s “witching” and witches continue to enact “wonders”, charming us through our imagination, confounding interpretation, and inspiring acts of rebellion and restitution, their most potent magic envisioning space to do the impossible for otherwise invisible beings. The spell cast transforms the slanderous title to a female badge of honour.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History : Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations London ;: Routledge, 1996, p.284.

Johnston, Mark Albert. Bearded Women in Early Modern England. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 47, no. 1 (2007), p.21-22.

By Lori Leigh

Dr. Lori Leigh (she/they) is a theatre director and playwright. They are a senior lecturer in the Theatre Programme at Victoria University of Wellington where their research focusses on gender and sexuality – queerness – in theatre. Lori has a particular interest in Shakespearean and early modern drama and has published widely on the subject including a monograph with Palgrave MacMillian and chapters and articles with Routledge and Oxford University Press. Her familiar is her dachshund, Dooley.

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