Superstition, Folklore, and Astrology in Shakespeare's Time

Citation metadata

Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 5,750 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1070L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

"Elizabethan Star Wars: Superstition and the Supernatural," in Shakespeare Alive!, Bantam, 1988, pp. 32-47.

In the following essay Papp and Kirkland discuss the extent to which superstition, folklore, and astrology permeated people's lives—influencing their daily activities and giving great significance to otherwise ordinary occurrences—during the Elizabethan period. The critics also cite several examples of how Shakespeare incorporated these commonly-held beliefs into his plays.

Do you know exactly why thirteen is an unlucky number? Or why it's a bad omen for a black cat to cross your path? Or why knocking on wood is supposed to protect you? If you stop to think about it, you might conclude that you don't have any explanation for these superstitions.

And yet they exert a mysteriously powerful influence on the way we behave. You'd have to look long and hard to find a skyscraper that has a floor numbered thirteen. Many people go to great lengths to avoid walking under ladders. And not long ago, a National League baseball team won a crucial victory after a black cat just "happened" to appear (some fans suspect it was planted) in front of the visiting team's dugout in the middle of the game; from that moment on, the players couldn't stop committing errors.

The Elizabethans were no different, in fact, in an age before computers had been invented, before medical science understood disease, before astronomy, meteorology, and geology had learned much about the heavens and the earth, magical beliefs played an even larger role in daily life than they do today. Most Elizabethan households were well stocked with peculiar superstitions and strange practices: there might be a horseshoe over the door to ward off evil spirits, an astrological almanac on the table, a bowl of cream set out for the fairies every night, and a stockpile of charms to ward off ghosts and witches should they come a-knocking.

Whether it was a magical cure for hiccups or a warning not to whistle after dark, few people questioned any of these beliefs or practices. The fact that their parents and grandparents had believed in them was good enough. "The superstitious idle-headed held," Shakespeare says in The Merry Wives of Windsor, describing one tradition, "Received and did deliver to our age This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth." No one really needed to know much more than that.

Except of course the Church, which did its best to discourage black (or malevolent) witchcraft. Village priests and city bishops all over England preached that belief in witches, fairies, ghosts, and the influence of the stars was wicked and sinful, the work of the Devil. "Let us also learn and confess with the Prophet David," they might thunder, "that we ourselves are the causes of our afflictions; and not exclaim upon witches, when we should call upon God for mercy."

But they were preaching to deaf ears, and their efforts didn't meet with much success, especially among the people in the countryside. Despite the law requiring attendance at Protestant services on Sundays, some people didn't put too much stock in churchgoing. One defiant old woman declared that she could serve God as well in the fields as in the church. The behavior of the vast majority who did go usually left a lot to be desired. Children ran up and down the aisles while disruptive servants and apprentices climbed onto the church roof. More mature members of the congregation contented themselves with spitting, telling jokes, falling asleep, shouting back at the preacher, and sometimes even firing off guns (accidentally). One man was hauled up to the front of his church and publicly scolded for "his most loathsome farting." The service must have been quite a show, for one worried bishop sermonized at length on the common people's "heathenish contempt of religion and disdainful loathing of the ministers."

Indeed, priests hadn't always enjoyed good standing among the ordinary people, especially in the days before the Protestant Reformation. One man, for example, refused to confess to a priest about his sins with a certain woman because he was sure that "the priest would be as ready within two or three days to use her as he [had]." And the dismantling of the Catholic rituals begun by Protestant reformers set off an orgy of pillage and plunder, fueled by resentment of the clergy. Sacred objects were destroyed, priests' robes vandalized and priests themselves beaten up.

And yet, even after the period of Protestant reforms many of the old habits and practices associated with the Catholic Church lingered on—and some seemed to lead a double life in the worlds of religion and magic. In pre-Reformation days, young women had prayed at saints' shrines for the blessing of blonde hair (Saint Urbane) or a boy baby (Saint Felicitas). People believed in those days that if they left church with the wafer of the Mass still in their mouths, they would have magical powers; others wore pages from the Scriptures as protective amulets against the Devil. One farmer even tried to cure his sick cow by reading it chapters from the Bible!

Were these things worship or wickedness? It wasn't always clear. If a farmer made the sign of the Cross to ward off evil spirits was he engaging in religion or blasphemy? If a local folk healer advised a troubled customer to repeat the Lord's Prayer seven times each morning when he woke up, was she advising magic or religion? And if a whole congregation believed in the efficacy of touching priests' robes or ringing specially-consecrated bells during thunderstorms, were they being religious or superstitious? Shakespeare's Dr. Pinch, in The Comedy of Errors, demonstrates how easily the lines could be blurred as he tries to cure the supposedly possessed Antipholus of Ephesus with this charm: "I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man, To yield possession to my holy prayers," and with this triumphant conclusion, "I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven."

The Catholic Church seemed to leave the criteria for distinguishing between magic and religion unclear, deciding arbitrarily that one practice was worshipful and another sinful. But the Protestant reformers, as might be expected, had very definitive views on the subject. They insisted that there were no magical powers in any of the old rituals and practices. Saints' shrines, church bells, repetition of prayers, holy relics, special amulets—all were swept away in the flood of reform, as "Catholic" gradually came to be equated with "superstitious" and "ritual" with "necromancy." One zealous Protestant even called the sacraments "plain devilry, witchcraft ... and all that naught is." Instead of spells, incantations, charms, and conjuring, Protestant preachers recommended prayer, penitence, fasting, and faith in God's inscrutable will.

Since this was not an easy exchange, it was one not often made by most people. Complicated and erudite theological debates didn't really interest them; their approach to religion was fairly elementary. The world was divided into good and evil; the good was to be embraced, the evil to be eschewed—by whatever means were at hand, including superstition and magic. And so they went right on making the sign of the Cross, using holy relics, and relying on a host of nonreligious superstitions to help them avoid or survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

There were many beliefs that guided day-to-day activities and gave great significance to the most ordinary occurrences. When an Elizabethan fell from his horse, for example, he would carefully note the day and hour of the fall as an unlucky time to ride. If a child or animal came between two friends as they strolled in the meadows, it was a sure sign that they would soon be going their separate ways. Putting a shirt on wrong side out in the morning usually foretold a bad day. Birds had their uses, too: chattering magpies announced the arrival of guests, while a croaking raven issued the more ominous warning that the dreaded bubonic plague was on its way.

Certain numbers, of course, were luckier than others; as Falstaff remarks in The Merry Wives of Windsor, "They say there is divinity in odd numbers." And particular days of the month were advisable for starting a journey, sowing crops, or even cutting fingernails! If paved sidewalks had been invented, Elizabethans would undoubtedly have taken great care to avoid stepping on the cracks.


The Elizabethans were great believers in the influence of the stars and the planets. How could they have been otherwise when the rhythms and routines of their daily lives were so dependent on the skies? The stars were not dimmed, as one day they would be, by the lurid yellow glow of big-city lights. And without street lights, desk lamps, and electric wiring, travel was undertaken only by the shine of the full moon, study illuminated by the flickering light of the candle, and plays put on in the daylight hours of the afternoon. The working day was longer in the summer, when light lingered until ten or eleven o'clock at night.

The influence of the heavens on the environment was equally inescapable; crops rose or rotted according to the disposition of the sun, the moon, and the rain. The weather, particularly the phases of the moon, also affected the balance of hot and cold, dry and moist in the human body—the humors. And so it followed, as the night the day, that the heavens influenced personal fortunes as well.

Given the arrangement of the universe, as it was then understood, astrology made a good deal of sense. Despite the recently-advanced theories of Copernicus, which took a long time to catch on, most people probably still believed that the Earth, not the Sun, was the center of the universe. The "heavens themselves, the planets, and this center," as Ulysses calls them in Troilus and Cressida, were seen as a series of spheres within spheres—not unlike the little wooden Russian dolls that keep opening up to reveal a still smaller doll inside. The outermost sphere was called by its Latin name, the primum mobile. Within it was the "starry firmament," as one poetic-minded astrologer called it—the sphere of stars, permanently in place. Next came the seven planets—cold, dry Saturn, fair and bright Jupiter, fiery Mars, the Sun ("the well of pure light," said the same astrologer), moist, chilly Venus, dimmer Mercury, and the Moon. And finally, in dead center, hung the small, motionless Earth, suspended from God's throne by a golden chain—the primary object of His attention.

An elaborate system of belief unfolded quite naturally from this picture of the universe. As the planets orbited and the spheres revolved against the permanent backdrop of the twelve signs of the zodiac, their influence was felt on human life below. For example, the configuration of the skies and stars at the exact moment of a person's birth—which any half-competent astrologer could ascertain—determined what kind of person he or she would be and what kind of life, and death, would follow.

Romeo and Juliet may be the most famous pair of "star-crossed lovers" but other Shakespearean characters also reflect the influence of the stars. In Henry VI Part 2, as the Duke of Suffolk is about to be murdered on shipboard, he recalls, "A cunning man did calculate my birth And told me that by water I should die." And sometimes astrology has less tragic consequences: when Benedick is having trouble composing a love poem to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, he consoles himself with the knowledge that "I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor I cannot woo in festival terms." Julia, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, puts all her faith in astrology, confident that her particular gentleman of Verona will be as faithful as she, since "truer stars did govern Proteus' birth."

Consulting the stars—courtesy of the local stargazer in a village or a fancier private practitioner in London—helped confused Elizabethans determine what specific course of action to take. An astrologer who knew the position of the stars and planets at the exact moment a crucial question was asked could then provide answers to all sorts of personal queries—when to get married, when to look for a job, and even that rare dilemma of when to take a bath (never, was the usual answer!). Failing to act at the moment dictated by the heavens was invariably catastrophic. As Prospero acknowledges in The Tempest, "my zenith doth depend upon A most auspicious star, whose influence If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes Will ever after droop."

Many of Queen Elizabeth's courtiers shared Duke Prospero's affinity for stargazing; it had a huge following at Court. High-ranking government officials and famous men were avid enthusiasts, among them Sir Walter Raleigh and the queen's favorite, the Earl of Essex. Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's right-hand minister, even invested some money in a corporation run by an astrologer/alchemist who promised to turn iron into copper, at huge profits to the investors. And the Earl of Leicester conferred at length with the well-known astrologer John Dee to ascertain the most auspicious day—and hour—for Queen Elizabeth's coronation.

Elizabeth herself, however, did not share her courtiers' enthusiasm; her own skepticism of astrology was well known and, like everything else about her, celebrated. She astonished and impressed a group of her courtiers when a comet came hurtling near the Earth; unswayed by their pleas that it was highly dangerous to look at comets, she walked right up to the window and said daringly, "The die is cast." The fact that she continued to rule successfully for more than twenty years after this incident should have told her superstitious nobles something about astrology but apparently it did not.

Astrology wasn't just the preserve of the glittering stars of the Court. If anything, it was even more popular in the workaday world. Landless laborers and gentlemen farmers alike could keep up with the latest astrological forecasts for just a few pennies by buying an almanac from a wandering bookseller. These almanacs were as widely circulated in Elizabethan times as gossipy grocery-stand newspapers are today. Although they didn't have daily horoscopes counseling a romantic rendezvous with a dark lady or predicting a profitable business deal, they were absolutely chock-full of interesting and relevant information.

For example, they had a helpful list of upcoming astronomical events, such as eclipses and full moons—events that could greatly influence schedules. No wonder Bottom calls for an almanac in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "A calendar, a calendar! Look in the almanac. Find out moonshine ..." as he and his company of amateur actors try to decide what night they'll perform their play. The almanacs also had calendars listing the months, the days of the week, and fixed church holidays such as Christmas. The "prognostication" outlined unusual astrological occurrences likely to happen in the next year. And sprinkled throughout were gardening tips, notices of markets and fairs, and weather reports; Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra says sarcastically that Cleopatra's sighs and tears "are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report." There was also helpful medical advice; one almanac prognosticator, Leonard Digges, warned his readers to undergo the operation of bloodletting only on "a fair, temperate day."


Many an Elizabethan bedside was haunted by fears of what one writer called "the terrors of the night." Chief among these night visitors were ghosts—souls of the dead who were making return trips to earth for very specific and rarely comforting reasons. They invariably limited their visiting hours to the hospitable darkness of the night, disappearing as dawn broke; as Puck points out to Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "yonder shines Aurora's harbinger, At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there, Troop home to churchyards."

Ghosts were terribly gruesome, nothing like the harmless white-sheeted Halloween figures that the word conjures up in the twentieth century. In fact, as revitalized corpses, they usually came back to earth looking as they did when they left it: the ghost of Hamlet's father wears "the very armor he had on When he the ambitious Norway combated." His beard, Horatio tells Hamlet, "was, as I have seen it in his life, A sable silvered," and his face is still pale from the poison that killed him. Banquo's ghost, stabbed to death by Macbeth's henchmen, appears at the banquet with bloodied countenance and still-oozing wounds, to Macbeth's horror—"Never shake Thy gory locks at me," he cries out. The ghost of Banquo, like many other ghosts, is only visible to the person he is haunting—which makes his visitation more terrifying still.

A ghost always had a mission when he came to earth—although it might vary considerably. Some came to ask for a proper burial, without which they were condemned to wander for an eternity; Puck speaks of "Damned [condemned] spirits all, That in crossways and floods have burial." Others saw into the future and wanted to warn the living, and still others intended to punish a promise-breaker. The ghosts who hover over the bed of Shakespeare's murderous Richard III have returned to avenge their deaths at his hands and to predict his imminent defeat in battle: "Despair and die" is their refrain, and, indeed, it is answered the very next day. Hamlet's father comes to expose Claudius' foul play, revealing to Hamlet that "The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown." When Hamlet fails to act in revenge, the ghost appears again, lecturing his son that "this visitation Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose."

Not only was a ghostly visitation unpleasant, but it also cast the visited into a state of spiritual confusion: the Church insisted that ghosts were really just devils in disguise. If a ghost told a young man to kill his uncle, how could he be sure that it wasn't Satan tempting him to sin? This is an essential part of Hamlet's dilemma: is the ghost of his father really who he says he is? "Angels and ministers of grace defend us! Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked or charitable, Thou com'st in such a questionable shape That I will speak to thee." Horatio fears that the ghost is a devil who will lure Hamlet to his death: "What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff ... And there assume some other horrible form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason And draw you into madness?" No doubt many Elizabethans felt caught in the middle: obeying a devil would cast them into hell, but ignoring a real ghost had equally dire consequences. Perhaps the safest tactic was to live an upright life—and hide beneath the bedcovers.


If worries about ghosts weren't enough to guarantee sleepless nights, there were the fairies to think about, too. Those to be feared weren't the tiny sweet playful fairies that Shakespeare invented for A Midsummer Night's Dream—that mischief-making but good-hearted fairy tribe led by Oberon and Titania; nor were they the cute little animated figures who flit around Walt Disney Studios on their shimmering wings. No, these Elizabethan fairies were life-sized creatures, fiendish and malicious, who made the milk go sour and the livestock sick. This is the kind of fairy that Dromio of Syracuse means when he calls his churlish master in The Comedy of Errors "A fiend, a fairy, pitiless and rough."

Fairies came in several models: there were hostile river spirits and wily mermaids who lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths; giants and hags; fairy aristocrats who, like their human counterparts, spent their time dancing, hunting, and feasting; and the ordinary everyday goblins. But not all fairies were malevolent. Best-known of all was the native English fairy Robin Good-fellow, or Puck, a "shrewd and knavish sprite," as Shakespeare calls him, who was the special guardian of home and hearth.

The fairies considered the workings of the household to be their special concern and inspected domestic operations during their nocturnal visits. They rewarded a well-kept house and a well-swept hearth by helping with the chores and bringing luck. Puck could make himself particularly useful to a family that treated him well; as a fellow-fairy points out in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Those that 'Hobgoblin' call you, and 'Sweet Puck,' You do their work, and they shall have good luck."

The best strategy for an Elizabethan family to adopt with the fairies was one of preemptive obedience and flattery, which might work where charms and conjurations failed. They could also be won over by food and drink left out for them at night. As a contemporary wrote, women "were wont to set a bowl of milk before [the fairies] and Robin Good-fellow for grinding of malt or mustard, and sweeping the house at midnight."

But woe to the housewife who neglected her chores! The fairies were enemies of untidiness, or "sluttery," and punished it wherever they found it, almost always by third degree pinching during the night: "Where fires thou find'st unraked, and hearths unswept, There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry. Our radiant Queen hates sluts and sluttery," the make-believe fairies are reminded in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Pinching wasn't reserved only for the slovenly housekeeper, however; the lustful and lecherous—or any other mortals judged offensive by the fairies—often found themselves similarly bruised when they woke up. This is why Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, the merry wives of Windsor, can punish the lustful (and superstitious) Falstaff by dressing children up "fairylike, to pinch the unclean knight." And Dromio of Syracuse, bewildered by the topsy-turvy events of The Comedy of Errors, wonders if he and his master have blundered into the wrong place: "This is the fairy land. O spite of spites, We talk with goblins, elves and sprites! If we obey them not, this will ensue: They'll suck our breath or pinch us black and blue."

One thing fairies enjoyed more than anything was causing domestic confusion with their practical jokes—which sometimes weren't so funny. They loved dairy tricks—spilling the milk from the pail as the milkmaid carried it back to the house, or keeping the cream from turning to butter. Fairies put spells on animals, sometimes even causing death. And they considered it great fun to lead travelers astray: Caliban, in The Tempest, mutters that his master Prospero will send fairies who will "lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark Out of my way."

Fairies were most notorious and most feared for their practice of abducting a human baby from its cradle and replacing it with a fairy changeling, which was usually hideous, deformed, or retarded. This was one of an Elizabethan mother's greatest fears. But King Henry IV, fed up with his Plantagenet son's wild and riotous behavior (in contrast to the honor and valor of the young Percy) resorts to some wishful thinking about changelings: "O that it could be proved That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged In cradle clothes our children where they lay And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!"

Of course, no Elizabethan actually saw the fairies abducting a human baby, for that matter no Elizabethan ever saw a fairy at all. In the first place, they came out only during the night—Puck calls himself "that merry wanderer of the night." In the second place, everyone knew that mortals were expressly forbidden to see or speak to fairies. They guarded their privacy fiercely and didn't take at all kindly to being spied on even accidentally. This is the fear that grips Falstaff as the child-fairies dance around him. Throwing his huge body down on the ground outside Windsor Forest, he yelps, "They are fairies. He that speaks to them shall die. I'll wink and couch; no man their works must eye."

The fact that the Elizabethans never saw the fairies didn't suggest to anyone that they weren't real. After all, proof of their existence could be established in the overturned milk pails, the diseased animals, the lost travelers, the housewives pinched black and blue. What more evidence did anyone need?


Even more sinister than fairies, in the minds of Elizabethans, were the old hags thought to be evil witches. The accused men and women were often ugly, poverty-stricken, disheveled, and diseased, or as a contemporary put it, "commonly old, lame, bleary-eyed, pale, foul, and full of wrinkles." A frequent scenario leading to charges of black witchcraft (as opposed to the helpful white magic of the local wise woman) was this: someone—usually a woman—living on the fringes of village life was offended by a neighbor or a passerby. She uttered a curse or some sort of malediction; when someone fell ill or something went wrong, her harsh words were remembered, and she was brought to trial as a witch.

Many Elizabethans were afraid that these "Soul-killing witches that deform the body," as Antipholus of Syracuse calls them in The Comedy of Errors, would overrun England unless they were hunted down and punished according to the law—which could require death. Even members of the queen's government were alarmed; the Lord Chief Justice declared that "The land is full of witches ... they abound in all places...." Out of these irrational fears came the massive witch-hunts of the sixteenth century in which hundreds of defenseless old people were burned to death for crimes they didn't commit.

It wasn't only England's problem; witches were feared all over Europe as well. The Europeans hated the witches for different reasons. They objected more on theological grounds, citing the supposed satanic beliefs of the witches and their heretical partnership with the Devil. Not too many of the ordinary people in England cared much about heretical beliefs—indeed given the constant switching back and forth between the Catholic and the Protestant Church in the last few decades, what was "heretical" one day was "belief" the next. To most Elizabethans, witchcraft wasn't a matter of thought but of action; they went on the hunt only when there was actual damage done, either by witches or their Satanic sidekicks known as "familiars," evil spirits that became cats or other animals to carry out the witches' instructions.

Unlike the fairies' activities, black magic was always malevolent; the harm witches could do ranged from the merely annoying to the totally destructive. They kept the beer from fermenting and the butter from hardening. They caused men and women to commit adultery; they could prevent women from getting pregnant and cause miscarriages or stillbirths. A contemporary document had them "boil infants (after they have murdered them unbaptized)" and "eat the flesh and drink the blood of men and children openly." Witches also cast spells on animals and humans, causing sickness and death.

They had fearful powers over the elements; like "the foul witch Sycorax" of Shakespeare's The Tempest, they had the power to "control the moon, make flows and ebbs," manipulating the winds and rains to bring bad weather. Macbeth begs the witches, "Though you untie the winds and let them fight Against the churches ... Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down ... answer me To what I ask you."

Cursing and uttering evil charms were probably the most common ways these witches operated. Caliban and Prospero practically have a cursing contest in The Tempest: the monster cries, "All the charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!" and Prospero, in turn, issues equally dire threats: "If thou neglect's, or dost unwillingly What I command, I'll rack thee with old cramps, Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar That beasts shall tremble at thy din."

The Elizabethans didn't have to rely on Shakespeare for evidence of witches' "mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible" (as Prospero calls them) when there were plenty of real-life examples closer to home. There was the case in one village of a young man who simply insulted a foul-looking old woman in the alehouse after one beer too many. "Do you hear, witch," he called to her, "look tother ways, I cannot abide a nose of that fashion, or else turn your face the wrong side outward, it may look like raw flesh for flies to blow maggots in." She cursed him, he fell ill, and she "worthily suffered death."

In another village, Alice Trevisard knocked on her neighbor's door one afternoon and asked for a half-penny's worth of beer. The neighbor refused, Alice muttered ominously, "I will not leave you worth a groat," and two days later one of the neighbor's precious beer barrels suddenly leaped in the air of its own accord, fell on the ground, and exploded. All the beer was lost—ruinous in times of high grain prices. Alice faced charges of witchcraft as a result.

There was more to witchcraft than ominous mutterings and curses—charms and magical methods were equally effective. Some witches concocted truly horrible mixtures of hair, saliva, blood, urine, and animal entrails—as stomach-turning as anything Macbeth's witches throw into their bubbling cauldron—"Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog," "sow's blood, that hath eaten Her nine farrow; grease that's sweaten From the murderer's gibbet."

Image-magic was another technique in the witches' bag of tricks, though one less frequently used. The witch would make a likeness of her intended victim out of clay, wax, wood or whatever material she could get her hands on, and then prick the part she wanted to hurt. When the Earl of Derby suddenly died there was rumor that a wax image with a hair through its heart had been found in his room and an old woman was held for questioning. A surgeon in another parish was suspected of making a wax picture of his mother-in-law in order to get rid of her!

Most Elizabethans probably preferred a tactic of non-confrontation with those they thought were witches. But when they did find themselves the victims of witchcraft, what could they do?

They could start by trying to identify which witch was the guilty one, with the considerable help of the village wizard. Burning a handful of thatch from a suspected witch's cottage, for example, usually brought about a confession. To find the witch who had bewitched his cattle a farmer need only follow this charm: "Put a pair of breeches upon the cow's head, and beat her out of the pasture with a good cudgel upon a Friday, and she will run right to the witch's door, and strike thereat with her horns."

Once the witch's identity had been pinned down, there were various kinds of retaliatory magic that would reverse her spell, courtesy of the local wizard. Burying a bottle filled with thorns or pins or needles, adding fingernails or hair or urine for good measure, often did the trick. A truly foolproof method, which had the extra advantage of curing the victim of the spell, was to scratch the witch until she bled. And, of course, execution by burning was a fool-proof solution.


One comfort in the midst of all this anxiety about the supernatural was the local wise woman or cunning man whose white magic provided remedies for the perplexed, injured, or beleaguered. Combining the roles of astrologer, physician, and psychologist, these white witches were enormously popular with the ordinary people and offered a range of useful services.

They could help their hapless customers recover stolen goods or escape arrest, win at cards or win at love. They could catch a thief using a contemporary version of a police lineup: writing the names of the suspects on scraps of paper, rolling them up in little clay balls, throwing them into a pail of water, and pronouncing the guilty party to be whichever ball unrolled first. They also advised on personal affairs. In The Merry Wives of WindsorSlender seeks out a wise woman to find out "whether one Nym ... that beguiled him of a chain, had the chain or no," while Simple inquires "if it were my master's fortune to have [Ann Page] or no."

The wizards also acted as local doctors, at much more affordable prices than real medical men. They had fistfuls of home remedies for stings, blisters, burns, running sores, cramps, and the "thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to" (as Hamlet might say). They cured headaches—not by advising two aspirin and a call in the morning but by the more hands-on method of driving a nail into the skull of a dead man. If that failed, there was always this charm: "Tie a halter [noose] about your head, wherewith one hath been hanged." Were warts the problem? Relief was at hand not in the form of Compound W, but in the more down-to-earth remedy of sprinkling dirt from a newly-dug grave over the offending growths. One shudders to think what their cure for pimples was.

Of course, sometimes these cunning folk ran afoul of the Church because of their prominence in the lives of their fellow villagers. Many Elizabethans would choose the instant gratification of a visit to a white witch over the longer-term Church treatment of prayer end fasting, much to the annoyance of the village clergy. Of course, the Church itself wasn't above using a little white magic; officials in one parish hired a wise woman to discover who ran off with their altar cloth!

Magical beliefs provided the Elizabethans with the comfort of explanations and the satisfaction of redress when random and inexplicable misfortunes occurred. The preachers of the day preferred to view such calamities as instances of God's wrath toward sinful mortals. But to many Elizabethans, it was much more consoling to believe that the cause of the disaster was something outside of them, that the fault lay not in themselves but in their stars, that a fairy was to blame for the spilled milk, or that a devil made them do it.

Witches, of course, were the best scapegoats of all. They were real people readily available to scream at, scratch and even put to death. Because of their odd appearance and behavior, people suspected of being witches were easy targets. In fact, anyone perceived as deviating from the English norm might suffer this kind of "outrageous and barbarous cruelty." The need for a scapegoat was overwhelming; if witches weren't there to fulfill it, other groups—immigrants and foreigners, for example—might step in to take their place.

Papp, Joseph, and Elizabeth Kirkland, "Elizabethan Star Wars: Superstition and the Supernatural," in Shakespeare Alive!, Bantam, 1988, pp. 32-47. EXPLORING Shakespeare. Online Edition. Gale, 2003.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2115615211