'Infotainment' in early modern England: the occult presented in law and on stage.

Dave Evans

This essay was adapted from some Masters degree coursework, and is intended to compliment the Film and TV reviews section. "Infotainment" is used here to describe how factual events were taken from life and re-presented via the media of the time to both provide entertainment within a lively but knowingly fictional script and give information, or educate. A modern example would be using 'soap operas' to convey a public service message based on some item of pressing social concern, such as discouraging drug use, educating about AIDS, or using the X Files to play down the weirdness in the world maybe? The distinction between 'real' magic and what was happening to portray the occult in the media of the time is interesting now in light of a couple of godawful TV programmes recently, especially the Channel 4 programmes about Crowley and John Dee. Many of the hyperlinks below take you to full online texts of plays, or summaries of what they were about.


In plays of this period, Witches and magicians are not always the central characters in the plays in which they appear; e.g. the (theatrical version of) the Witch of Edmonton is far from the most unpleasant character in a play filled with deceit, adultery and murder. Sometimes witches serve a purpose in the plot, while at other times they seems incidental; and perhaps have been written in from convention or to titillate. In the Morris-Men's play performed within the Witch of Edmonton the players include a witch in their production simply because "witches are so common nowadays." It almost seems that a bit of magic is as formulaic an element as, for example, a 'maverick cop' in any current motion picture from America.


If we can measure success of the infotainment procedure by survival of relevant texts, then this translation of life events to stage seems to have fared quite well. There are several plays from the period derived directly or closely from known real trials, i.e. those of which we still have contemporary records with which to compare the play scripts. In some witch trial pamphlets (the tabloid scum publications of their day, mostly) any trial or accusation details appear to be fictional; such as Richard Burt; which may also be an amazing novel tale returning from the New World. Burt seems to have perhaps had an alcohol-fuelled 'lost weekend' or the tale is a fictional recapitulation of the North American Native tale of the Wendigo; a spirit reputed to transport people by rapidly dragging them along the ground, often leading to their shoes and clothes being scorched. This scorching allegedly happened to Burt, but despite the lurid tone of the pamphlet there is no record of a trial to accompany a very flimsy case against the local witch who was implicated, so it may be best to sceptically equate these with a modern day fictional 'comic' magazine where someone has a vodka binge and then makes up an alien abduction tale to deflect disapproval from their peers for being drunk. There are also possible composite stories in pamphlets, based on events taken from several trials, hearsay and rumour (and often from bizarre continental witchcraft documents; e.g. The Malleus).

The commonly described offences in both trial documents and plays were maleficium (causing harm by magic), the use of prophecy (including astrology), having familiar spirits and evoking demons for various purposes. Familiars on stage make damn good theatre; especially the more unusual 'animals' like actors in costume as overly-large cats or speaking dogs. Offences that may have only existed in the minds of religious inquisitors, were heresy; such as attending witch meetings (sabbats); often via flight, making pacts with the Devil, denying God and blasphemy. The latter two were risky to portray on stage, as will be discussed later. Whereas the admission of flight to the sabbat in trials is now variously theorised as senility, a tendency of admitting to anything under torture, an effect of vegetable drugs in a witch's 'flying ointment' or some kind of astral/dream state; physical flight is very common in plays. The witches in Macbeth seem to spend as much time in the air as on the ground; Middleton's witches are also regularly airborne and in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Dr. Faustus and the Faerie Queene, there are examples of flight or miraculous, rapid transportation over long distances.

The plays would have been written in 'screenplay' format; i.e. with a view to being staged, so flights and other effects would have been visualised by the writers as they created the plays. Magical events such as flight make great entertainment in the theatre; allowing for maximum use of visual and auditory effects. In early modern Europe these would have seemed impressive to an audience with little or no technical knowledge and there would probably have been competition in the theatres to produce an ever more astonishing range of levitations, apparitions, vanishings and transformations, much as there is today in film where the FX budget might run into tens of millions of dollars.

On occasions these effects seem to have gone perhaps a little too far towards realism, as in a performance of Dr. Faustus at Exeter, UK, when it was noticed that the number of 'demons' on stage was one more than there had been in rehearsals... the show was hurriedly and worriedly abandoned; and "every man hastened to be first out of doors". Such an event would have been doubly frightening; seemingly having a real demon being bad enough, but also the producers could have been liable for prosecution for raising the demon, however inadvertent it may have been. It would also have been variably blasphemous to have actually depicted God in a play; so the stage was largely open for the Devil, both figuratively, and perhaps in this case, literally.

We are more used today to a media, which has some level of freedom of expression, but in early modern times there many taboo or risky areas. These included the above mention of seeming to actually be involved in magic, encouraging use of it, heresy, insulting the Crown, Church or State or slander of individuals. Avoidance of too close scrutiny of a script's social meaning was often achieved by setting plays in earlier times, or foreign countries; such as Shakespeare's regular use of Italy as a location to retell stories that were actually much closer to home. Since the major plays were often performed or even premiered before royalty, who often provided the funding for the theatre companies it was doubly important to use contentious topics carefully, or present them in such a way as to be extremely flattering to the regal viewers.

This may even have extended to involving an oblique reference to the viewers: in The Tempest; Sebastian, Antonio and Gonzalo speculate about how Utopian a place they could make the island, were they rulers of it; Gonzalo says he would "with perfection govern... to excel the Golden Age" to which Sebastian hurriedly adds "save His Majesty!" Where 'save' can be read ambiguously as 'except for' rather than 'preserve'. With the King himself in the audience on the first night it may not do for actors wishing to have a continuing career (and life) to proclaim how they themselves can be the greatest ruler ever known.

In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, particular care was also taken to emphasise the superiority of English magic over that of the German magician Van Der Mast; with the English King being, by association, thus better than his German counterpart. However the German magus's full name; Don Jacques Van Der Mast seems to be an amalgam of Spanish, French and German- possibly a device to maximise the English magical superiority over three nations all in one go.

One of the more daring writers was Christopher Marlowe; his Dr. Faustus is a highly educated man who wishes to transcend the earthly limits imposed by the church, and signs a demonic pact to do so; blasphemously using the last words of Christ as he signs the pact. His character also states that "hell hath no limits", contrary to the Church notions that God is in ultimate control. This would all have been extremely risky material at the time; and Marlowe was variously accused of atheism and blasphemy before his apparent assassination, perhaps in a Masonic fashion, as a very politically and theologically dangerous young man in 1593. Dr. Faustus was not performed until the following year, taking more money at the opening performance than any other contemporary play. This would be today's equivalent of a minor but allegedly blasphemous motion picture such as 'The Last Temptation of Christ' selling more tickets than a mainstream 'blockbuster' such as 'Terminator 2' which would be most unlikely.

The role of malefic, cursing witch allowed some leeway in stage expressions of discontent, as in the Witch of Edmonton. The examination and trial record describes Elisabeth Sawyer as an ignorant and confused old woman, but in their dramatisation, Rowley, Dekker and Ford provide her with an eloquent series of speeches about societal inequalities and she is able to more than hold her own in a philosophical debate with a learned judge. Even if the real Sawyer had been able to articulate such feelings it is unlikely the court or interviewer would have recorded them verbatim, so it is probable that the dialogue says more about Rowley et al's thoughts on society than anyone else's.

Witches were sometimes accused of controlling the weather: "and by her hellish science rais'd streightway foggy mist, that ouercast the day", especially the ability to raise storms: In The Changeling the custom of paying witches for a fair wind to sail by is mentioned. An early sequence in Macbeth has the three witches discussing their most recent work, including sinking a ship: "here I have a pilot's thumb, wrecked as homeward he did come" and in The Tempest, the magician Prospero goes one stage further by giving a ship-ful of characters the illusion that they are being wrecked by a storm, causing them to abandon a seemingly 'sinking' ship that is actually in no danger at all. This, and Macbeth, can be seen as a link to King James, who was almost lost at sea to a storm allegedly raised using supernatural means by the North Berwick Witches.

It seems very likely that Prospero is modelled on the Elizabethan magician John Dee who died in 1608 (a little before the play was first performed; so he would have been still a current 'name' in public consciousness). Dee was Court astrologer, alchemist, magician, geographer and spy to Elizabeth I, but during his life was hounded by angry yokels, imprisoned on suspicion of magical interference with the health of Queen Mary, was forced into exile in Europe for some time and while he was gone his house was partially ransacked by an angry mob. He was a leading figure in the new science of geography, and this can be married to Prospero's command of both the seaways around his island and the various locations on it. From 1551-83 Dee advised the English voyages of discovery; trained ship's pilots including Frobisher and Raleigh and may have advised on the navigation methods for Drake's voyages. He was a friend and collaborator of Mercator, whose mapping techniques are still used today. Dee's magic involved conversing with spirits or 'aetheric' angels and he worked extensively with a powerful angel called Uriel. Prospero's main assistant is a non-human entity; a spirit of the air called Ariel. In Cabalistic magic (of the kind known in Shakespeare's time) one of the many Angels is Auriel and Auriel/Ariel/Uriel seem to have much in common. Bacon, in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay may also have been scripted from Dee's abilities, although the real Roger Bacon was, like his fictional namesake, also an accomplished academic and occult scholar, also dead before this play was performed. John Dee will be the subject of a long article elsewhere on the web-orama/occult e-books website soon.

Prospero is a castaway on an island that was formerly inhabited by the evil witch Sycorax; who was herself exiled there as punishment for maleficium in North Africa. Much is made in the play of the contrasts between Sycorax, who is described as old, so bent as to be hooped and malefic; much as witches are described in trial pamphlets and books of the time (e.g. Elisabeth Sawyer is "crooked and deformed, even bending together"). Shakespeare's words in general are almost interchangeable with those of the sceptic Scot when describing witches; and the weird sisters in Macbeth should be perceptible as women but "your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so" which again echoes the purported ugliness of real-life witches. Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene contains numerous derogatory references to the witch; who (in various Stanzas) is cruel, wicked, foul, ugly, filthy, angry, false, wrathful, mis-shapen, loathly, wrinkled and a poisoner:

"Then tooke the angrie witch her golden cup, which still she bore, replete with magick artes; death and despeyre did many thereof sup, and secret poyson through their inner parts"

Prospero, by comparison is powerful but wise, learned, kind and largely benign; although capable of maleficium if necessary and while it is not said overtly, his manner and nobility of birth would seem to make him a very handsome man. Sycorax's grown-up son Caliban is the result of her union with a demon. Such an offspring of a potent witch and a superhuman devil could be assumed to be a formidably powerful being, but Caliban is subhuman, and held in servitude by the magic of Prospero. It is also possible than Caliban is intended to refer obliquely to Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Caliban's purported father is not unique: intercourse with devils is a common accusation in mainland European anti-witch literature. Dr. Faustus, a European, rather than an English character, has a night of passion with a succubus, who appears to him as Helen of Troy.

Further to the 'factionality' aspect, it seems that the shipwreck-castaway theme of The Tempest was also taken from a contemporary news reports about a ship lost on the Bermudan coast in 1609, from which the survivors eventually made their way to the still strange new world that was America. This event would still have been 'hot news' when the play was first performed.

Prospero is credited with having "bedimmed the noontide sun". On Christmas Eve 1601 there was a total solar eclipse which only happens once in a lifetime, over Northern Europe, with the totality lasting a full ten minutes. The coincidence with the orthodox religious festival of Christmas and the extreme duration of darkness would have probably been profoundly unsettling to the general populace, and their animals, since in the 1999 solar eclipse in Europe, a duration of around 2 minutes is much more the norm, and even with a scientifically-informed populace the event was still deeply affecting. There was also an 'occultation' of Jupiter with Venus above a totally eclipsed moon shortly afterwards in 1602; which happens only around every 190 years.

As such, these intimidating and portentious celestial events would make ideal dramatic effects to assign to the powers of a great magician; such as Prospero, especially if he was based on Dee; a renowned astronomer and astrologer who had cast horoscopes for Elizabeth during the reign of Mary (for which he was indicted later) and selected the best astrological day for Elizabeth's coronation. Prospero is obviously aware of the planetary movements:

"...most auspicious star whose influence if I now court not, but omit, my fortunes will ever after droop".

Prospero is also able to raise the dead: "graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped and let 'em forth by my so potent art" (a criminal offence in the real world) and Scot sceptically details the rituals for doing this.

By contrast to the almost omnipotent fictional Prospero, many witches in plays conformed to the limits of power theorised by the Church investigators' witch manuals : Hecate says that her colleague can "destroy the young of all his cattle, blast vineyards, orchards, meadows..." but "we cannot disjoin wedlock; tis of Heaven's fastening...".

Throughout magical plays there are specialised occult references; such as Middleton's witch Hecate who uses a blue fire; which is a particular, unique part of Strega witchcraft from Italy (where the play is set). Inclusion of such educated esoteric detail implies that the plays could have been enjoyed on many levels- from the stereotypical dense "common folk" (who seem largely to have not existed anyhow; stupid people die quickly in this kind of society) to the very learned and well read. It is perhaps optimistic to assume that all of the audiences would have understood all of the references, but that they were written into the plays at all implies that at least some theatregoers would have understood and appreciated the esoteric niceties.

One aspect of witch trials that stage productions fail to put over to their audience, and which could have been politically dangerous to depict, was the arbitrariness and tyranny of the questioning and trial procedure; including any notions of torture. It was not really until Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a modern review of the witch-hunt motif in the light of the similar hunt for communists in 1950s America, that these aspects were portrayed.

In trial records of the time there seems to be a dichotomy between poor rural witches, who were often prosecuted and magicians; who were often of the elite class, or in the employ of nobles were thus largely protected from the common law; despite performing similarly magical acts. As Scot said (of the Pope) "he canonizeth the rich for saints and banneth the poor for witches". John Dee is one (partial) example in real life, and Dr. Faustus is promised that "whatever thou dost, thou shalt be in no ways prejudiced or damaged" by the Emperor.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all of the witch plays can be seen as conforming to the commonly supposed morality of the time. It might be expected that all plays would show that being a witch, or even hiring their skills for your own ends would result in some kind of 'just deserts', with the good prevailing in the end. Dr. Faustus, and Antonio in The Witch are either torn to pieces by devils or taken away to hell for their misdeeds; but many other witches, sinners or blasphemers are not. The execution of Elisabeth Sawyer is not shown on stage, as it is subsidiary to the main story of The Witch of Edmonton, and in The Witch the Duchess receives no punishment for employing a witch to kill Almachildes. The Macbeth family do suffer death for their earthly acts, which were based on following the prophecy of the witches, but the witches themselves; who had also raised fatal storms, escape. Prospero uses his magic to regain his Dukedom, enforce love and keep a virtual slave in Caliban but suffers no penalty. Conversely, the government banned Middleton's political satire A Game At Chess, so it seems that freedom of expression was a little more flexible, or at least less consistent, than might be expected.

"Infotainment" is a convenient description of how factual events were taken from witch trials and pamphlets and re-presented via plays and poetry. This was to entertain with a knowingly fictional script while informing and giving social comment, which might not have been possible more overtly. But as for accuracy... Often the plays were pure fiction, and hijacked the name of a famous witch trial purely to garner publicity. Given another 5000 words I could have just about scraped the surface of what popular songs of the time were doing with the subject.

A final sobering thought. Plays were often distinctly unreal compared to a court situation, with a different set of morals and likely fates for the practitioners of magic than might befall them in life. The re-constructed voice of the witch (or magician), albeit with words provided by the playwright, was heard much more clearly on stage than in reality; where their lives were mainly either 'silent' in the public sphere or their only (often last) public and recorded statement was a forced or fabricated confession on the way to their deaths.

Dave Evans


To reduce the already monstrous size of this piece I have omitted such things as source line references and extremes of academic detail for quoted plays- if anyone wants them, please drop me an email (dave@occultebooks.com) and you can have the original Word document. Similarly, all of these plays and poems (if not online as free texts) should be available in your local bookshop, especially if you are anywhere near a University or large college, or failing that get them via Amazon US www.amazon.com or Amazon UK www.amazon.co.uk As they should be so easily available I've not done individual buying links for each one here.

And do try to see them live if you can, especially the Tempest.