Shakespearean Witchcraft

IN PROGRESS

Becoming king in 1603, James I Brought to England and Scotland continental explanations of witchcraft. His goal was to divert suspicion away from male homosociality among the elite, and focus fear on female communities and large gatherings of women. He thought they threatened his political power so he laid the foundation for witchcraft and occultism policies, especially in Scotland. The point was that a widespread belief in the conspiracy of witches and a witches’ Sabbath with the devil deprived women of political influence. Occult power was supposedly a womanly trait because women were weaker and more susceptible to the devil.

In Heidi Breuer’s book, Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England, she focuses on the 15th and 16th century works of Malory, Shakespeare and Spenser. She argues that wicked female magical practitioners are more numerous and more dangerous than before. The magic of both men and women is more explicitly associated with illusion, deception and demons, reflecting the increasing tendency in intellectual culture to see all magic as demonic. Nevertheless, the women are portrayed as more villainous than the men. Breuer suggests that this reflects a backlash against women’s increased economic opportunities from the mid-15th century onwards, which is plausible, although again unlikely to be the only explanation. The individual analyses of the literary works are interesting and persuasive, and in Malory’s case the results are particularly striking. Malory died in 1471, long before the new stereotype of the devil-worshipping witch was leading to trials in England, but still he emphasizes the demonic nature of both male and female magic. The implications of this for the way in which magic was perceived in 15th-century England are intriguing, suggesting that despite the absence of trials, attitudes were changing. I wondered, however, if more could be made of the demonization of all forms of magic in these stories: male magicians may be on average less villainous than female ones, but the anxiety that these literary works project about all forms of magic is significant. I was also less convinced by some of the contextualization here. It seems odd, although not impossible, that the reaction to a narrowing of women’s economic opportunities in the second half of the 15th century should be an intensified version of the reaction to their earlier expansion: yet more demonization of childless women. Other forces at work may include the way that magical practitioners were perceived more generally in the 15th and 16th centuries. Here the pattern is in some ways similar to what Breuer has found: the rise of the image of the devil-worshipping and usually female witch reflected anxieties about all forms of magic, but as in literature, learned male magical practitioners tended to receive less severe condemnation than women accused of magic.

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