Warning, Familiarity and Ridicule: Tracing the Theatrical Representation of the Witch in Early Modern England

Warning, Familiarity and Ridicule: Tracing the Theatrical Representation of the Witch in Early Modern England

Porterfield, Melissa Rynn

Master of Arts, Miami University, Theatre, (


This work traces the theatrical representation of the witch on the Early Modern English stage. I examine the ways in which the witch was constructed as a binary opposite against which dominant society could define itself. This work provides close readings of three representative plays from the era: Macbeth, The Witch of Edmonton, and The Witches of Edmonton. I also investigate the significance of the personal involvement of King James I in real-life witch trials. This work breaks the progression of the witch into three stages – fear, familiarity, and ridicule – each of which served to allay the anxieties of dominant culture. Situating the texts within the specific historical cosmology of their original productions, I suggest one possible mapping of the intersections of the intersections of gender, class, nation, politics, and economics which they depict.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries saw a dramatic rise in witchcraft prosecution across Western Europe. In England, this witch-mania reached its historical height near the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, roughly from 1580 to 1600; that is to say, the greatest number of recorded cases of witchcraft prosecutions and executions occurred during this relatively small period of time, in comparison to the long- running pervasiveness of witchcraft prosecutions in the rest of Europe (Macfarlane 26-28). Yet despite these historical circumstances, the cultural witch-craze in England did not reach its true height until later, primarily during the reign of King James. This social fad manifested itself in a number of ways, including its enormous popularity as a subject for theatre of the day. Montague Summers chronicles the appearance of witches in plays from 1500-1800 and counts twenty-four plays depicting accused witches performed on the English stage from approximately 1595-1635 – more than twice that of the combined total remaining witchcraft plays he discusses. These productions capitalized on the supernatural aspects of witchcraft and were performed with great frequency throughout both the Jacobean and Carolinian eras, until the closing of the theatres in London in 1642.



Click here to read this thesis from Miami University



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