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In 1606, as Shakespeare staged Macbeth, James I had published his book on witchcraft and the supernatural called Daemonology, and witch trials were rampant across the UK bringing women of all ages and classes before a court hearing for acts of anger, revenge, and even mental illness, all of which called them under suspicion of evil magic. The presence of witches on stage was not merely theatrical for Shakespeare’s plays but also represented a cultural reality for turn of the 17th century society in which witches, spells, magic, and the consequence of delving into the supernatural were active in the lives of Elizabethan England. One particularly harsh case of witchcraft in 1578 occurred when Shakespeare was just 14 years old, and saw a woman named Elizabeth Stile brought before the court for her acts of anger, considered so threatening that Elizabeth I had her famous magus and astrologer John Dee perform acts of counter magic to defend against Elizabeth Stile. Here this week to share the story of what happened to Elizabeth Stile, why she was charged as a witch, and what these incidents tell us about Shakespeare’s presentation of witches in Macbeth and Henry VI part 2, is our guest and author of Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Englandfor The British Library, Carole Levin. 

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Carole Levin about: 

  • We think of witches as fake, for the most part, and when we see them in plays as an audience, there’s not an expectation that we are seeing real witch behavior on stage. However, when Shakespeare was writing about Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester conjuring a spell to determine the fate of Henry VI in Henry VI part 2, for Shakespeare and the audience of 1590s England to which he was presenting this play, that scene was much more real than we take it today. Carole, was that scene based on a real incident Shakespeare would have been familiar with?
  • When it comes to the case of Elizabeth Stile in 1578, what did she do specifically that brought her to court?
  • Carole writes that Elizabeth Stiles claimed that two women had gotten her involved in witchcraft, Mother Devell and Mother Dutton. Carole, why are these women called “Mother” as a title, and what was the “image magic” they were said to practice? 

….and more!

Carole Levin is Willa Cather Professor of History at the University of Nebraska where she specializes in early modern English cultural and women’s history. She is the author or editor of nineteen books, including The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (2nd edn., 2013) and the co-authored (with John Watkins), Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds (2009). She is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was a Fulbright Scholar the University of York in 2015.  She is also the author of the one woman, one act play, Elizabeth I in Her Own Words, most recently performed at part of the 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival, New York City, October 2019. Her current research projects on royal women during in the late medieval and early modern England. 

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Here’s what’s available in this episode:

  • Image depicting the 3 Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
  • 20th century oil painting, The Duchess of Gloucester forced to walk through the streets as punishment for necromancy
  • An image of a witch and her familiar spirits during the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile and others in 1579
  • Title page of the pamphlet describing Elizabeth Stiles case,1579
  • 19th century oil painting showing the examination of a witch
  • Witch Finder General: Depiction from a broadside published by Hopkins before 1650
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Related Episodes You Might Enjoy:

Ep 143: 1604 Witch Trial with Todd Butler

Ep 28: Exploring 16th Century Witches and Witchcraft with Marion Gibson

Episode #13: Interview with Barbara Traister exploring astrology, doctors, herbs, and witches in Shakespeare’s England

Ep 154: 16th C Puppets with Maureen Benfer

Ep 152: Public Executions with Murat Öğütcü (This episode explores the topic Carole Levin touches on in Ep 184–the idea that there were different judgements placed on people depending on their class/status. This relates to Eleanor of Gloucester’s banishment)

Episode 005: Interview with Dr. Paul Menzer about the superstitions, legends, and magic that follow Shakespeare’s plays

Resources Carole Levin Recommends:

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