Welcome to Episode #028 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

Halloween is coming up a few days from now, and it seems like a good opportunity to explore the origins to the holiday, which began as a religious celebration. Of course, since then it’s grown into a fun night of candy and costumes for us here in the US, but for William Shakespeare, ghouls, ghosts, and witches had real life implications.

While king of Scotland, James VI became convinced witchcraft was an active danger to him personally, and in order to prevent that danger, he conducted witch trials that began in 1591. James was convinced that a coven of powerful witches was conspiring to murder him through magic, and that they were in league with the Devil. In 1597, after the Scotland witch trials concluded, James published his study of witchcraft, called Demonology. When he then became king of England in 1603, that book was published in London. James I’s fascination with witches was so well known that many historians believe Shakespeare composed Macbeth just two years later, and included the famous three witch sisters, specifically for James I.

To help us understand this part of Shakespeare’s life and exactly what the state of witchcraft was in Shakespeare’s life, as well as the influence of this part of society on the plays we have from Shakespeare, we welcome Marion Gibson as our guest today.

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Marion is a specialist in Witchcraft and Magic in Literature. Her research investigates the relationships between writings about magic and the supernatural. She has written several books on representations of witchcraft, magic, and the renaissance including Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing and her latest book which she just completed in 2018, is Rediscovering Renaissance Witchcraft, a book examining the ways in which sixteenth and seventeenth century writings on witchcraft have continued to inspire modern literature, She is also the author of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Exorcism Controversy, Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches and The Arden Shakespeare Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Demonology among several others.  Learn more about Marion here. 


In this episode, I’ll be asking Marion about :

  • Was suspicion of witches a daily event for Shakespeare in 16th century England?
  • With so many witch trials, and opposition to performance of magic, why was counter magic considered acceptable?
  • What was the association between madness and witchcraft?
  • …and more!
This image is the cover art from a 1603 printing of James I Daemonologie. Copyright belongs to the Wellcome Collection Gallery. Used under attribution license CC 4.0

Daemonologie. by King of England James I

Written and published in 1597 by King James I of England. Available in London, and to William Shakespeare, after his ascension in 1603. This is the book Marion references in today's episode as the book King James wrote about demons and witches. He was paranoid about witchcraft and the supernatural. This book is one reason we have to suspect Shakespeare had James in mind when he included the witches of Macbeth.

Read Daemonologie online here.

Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin:

Antipholus of Syracuse

Comedy of Errors I.2

Malleus Maleficarum (1487) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger

Der Hexenhammer (Latin/German for “The Hammer of Witches”) is an infamous medieval European publication focused on identifying, characterizing, and combating witchcraft. It was written in 1486 endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII, who wanted to ensure “that all heretical depravity should be driven far from the frontiers and bournes of the Faithful.” This book is mentioned as one of the original sources Marion recommends in today's episode, and was first published in Germany in 1487.

Read Malleus Maleficarum online here.

This image is the cover art from a Henri Boguet's Discours des sorciers (1602) Source

The Cornell University Witchcraft Collection

Part of Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell's Witchcraft Collection contains over 3,000 titles documenting the history of the Inquisition and the persecution of witchcraft, primarily in Europe.

View their collection here.

16th century British Puritan publication denouncing Satan


One primary account of witches from this time period includes George Gifford, A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes (London, 1593).

When his account of witches was published in London, William Shakespeare was writing  Richard III (1592–1593) The Comedy of Errors (1592–1593) Titus Andronicus (1593–1594) and The Taming of the Shrew (1593–1594)



There's none but witches do inhabit here;

Antipholus of Syracuse

Comedy of Errors III.2

The Snake in the Grass or Satan Transform'd to an Angel of Light, title page engraved by Richard Gaywood, ca. 1660

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