The Witch was a play by Thomas Middleton, written between 1606 and 1620 (most likely c. 1613–16). It portrays the attempt of Rosamund, Duchess of Ravenna, to kill her husband Alboin after he forces her to drink a toast from a cup made from her father’s skull. The witch, Hecate, is summoned to assist in this attempt. She also becomes embroiled in the romantic and sexual intrigues of the subplots, which revolve around a love triangle and an unwanted pregnancy. Although written much earlier, The Witch was first published in 1778.
Portrayal of witchcraft
Middleton’s witchcraft lore is largely taken from Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), but without any of Scot’s scepticism. Middleton mixes scholarly notions of diabolic witchcraft practices (including flight, devil worship at a witches’ Sabbath, and sexual assaults by means of evil spirits or demons called incubi and succubae) with more popular beliefs that focused on specific actions that caused harm (such as the use of waxen effigies, the keeping of animal familiars and the laming of cattle). The play is sometimes luridly grotesque: the witches parading a baby for sacrifice, skinning live snakes and using human ingredients for their potions. The magic is frequently sexual (including inducement of impotence) and the witches are also lecherous, with Hecate even committing incest. However, the witches of Middleton’s play are strangely benign and the portrayal is possibly even celebratory at times. The courtiers approach Hecate as clients would an apothecary. These encounters with Hecate seem to be a way for the inhabitants of Ravenna to act out their existing desires rather than having any corrupting or harmful influence of their own.
Middleton and Macbeth
Two songs, ‘Come away, come away’ and ‘Black spirits’, occur in both The Witch and Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), the songs in Macbeth are only indicated by their first lines and the text is not given in full. The First Folio text is the earliest surviving edition of Macbeth, and there is still scholarly debate about how much of the text was written by Shakespeare and how much by revisers. The most commonly held view is that the two songs were written by Middleton and inserted into Shakespeare’s play at some point before 1623 (with or without Shakespeare’s knowledge, we just don’t know). It is speculated that this was done to update the play in line with changing fashions for spectacle. It is possible that some or all of the Hecate material in the text surrounding the songs in Macbeth was also added by Middleton. Some scholars even go as far as to suggest that Middleton rewrote Shakespeare’s weird sisters as the bearded hags we know today, contrasting the 1623 text with Simon Forman’s account of a 1611 performance where they appeared as ‘three women fairies or nymphs’. Collaborative working and adaptation of this kind was not unusual in the early modern theatre.
Digitised here are Act 3, Scene 3 (featuring the song ‘Come away, come away’) and Act 5, Scene 2 (with the song ‘Black spirits’).
- Article by:
- Carole Levin
- Shakespeare’s life and world, Magic, illusion and the supernatural, Tragedies
Did Shakespeare’s contemporaries believe in witches? Carole Levin looks at witchcraft trials in the 16th century and considers their relation to the ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth.
- Article by:
- Liza Picard
- Magic, illusion and the supernatural, Tragedies, Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s life and world
Liza Picard takes a look at witchcraft, magic and religion in Elizabethan England.
- Article by:
- Diane Purkiss
- Magic, illusion and the supernatural, Tragedies
Diane Purkiss discusses Renaissance beliefs about witches and shows how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare blurs the line between the witches and Lady Macbeth.