Witchcraft in renaissance plays

By Dr Dorka Tamás



The Renaissance period is remembered for its rich cultural and artistic influences, yet it was also the era of witch hunts in Europe, lasting approximately from 1450 to 1750. Historians estimate the number prosecuted for witchcraft in Europe to be around ninety thousand, with executions making up roughly half of this figure [1]. The criminalisation of witchcraft was a long process, which developed from the religious persecution of pagans and heretics by the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation also contributed to the hunting of witches: the rhetoric used by Catholics and Protestants reinforced the fear of witchcraft and diabolism. Therefore, when Renaissance playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare brought witchcraft to the stage, they were reflecting on this turbulent historical period. By looking at some of the plays from the era, we can see how characters like Faustus and Macbeth’s witches represent ideas about witchcraft and magic in the early modern period, particularly when they intersect with gender.



In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), the portrayal of the Weird Sisters was influenced by the witch-hunt period and beliefs about witches. There are several allusions to the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, in which witches allegedly caused a tempest trying to sink the ship of James VI/I of Scotland. Macbeth starts with the appearance of the Weird Sisters: ‘Thunder and lightning. Enter three WITCHES’; ‘Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tossed’ [2].(Macbeth, IV.1. 22-23). In Act IV Scene 1, the Weird Sisters brew a potion, which functions as a parody of a recipe: ‘Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog’ (IV.1.14-15). The brewing focuses on mixing familiar and unfamiliar things, many of the featured ‘ingredients’ of the alleged witches of the North Berwick witch trials [3]. The Weird Sisters’s supernatural character is also linked to their unusual appearance:

‘By each at once her choppy finger laying

Upon her skinny lips; you should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.’ (I.1.41-44)

Here, Shakespeare evokes ideas about women accused of being witches who were often described as having unusual physical characteristics and transgressing strict gender roles (The Witch Hunt p. 160-162). Critics also have questioned whether the Weird Sisters’s prophetic knowledge and ability to vanish make them more than just witches [4]. The supernatural power of the witches over Macbeth represents fears and anxieties, not only of witchcraft but of powerful women. Shakespeare’s preoccupation in Macbeth with morality, fate and human encounters with supernatural beings shows the influences of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus [5]. Macbeth, like Faustus, is tempted by diabolic figures to gain power, which becomes his downfall. To demonstrate further how Shakespeare borrows elements from Marlowe’s play, I will compare The Tempest to Doctor Faustus.


The Tempest and Doctor Faustus 

Whereas women were often subject to witch accusations due to the strict gender norms, witches were not the only figures with alleged supernatural powers. Magicians who practised ‘white magic’ were regarded as helpers and healers; however, as the fear of witches heightened, they could also be accused of performing diabolic magic (The Witch Hunt p. 11). The popularity of those that were considered to possess supernatural knowledge and abilities in the medieval and modern periods suggests that magic was only perceived as fearful when it was linked to the Devil and demonic activities. Renaissance plays, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604), portray magician figures who, to some extent, represent this contrast between white and black magic. In some aspects, Doctor Faustus and Prospero are opposites, standing for the diabolic and the benevolent magician, yet they also share many similarities in their art of magic. They value knowledge which comes from their magic books: ‘And necromantic books are heavenly; / (…) Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires’ [6]; ‘and for the liberal arts / Without a parallel; those being all my study.’ [7] They both represent the learned magician, suggesting the Renaissance idea of the humanist scholar. Faustus ends up burning his magic books because they represent sinful knowledge (Doctor Faustus, Act I Scene 3, line 111); while Prospero wants to drown his books (The Tempest, V.1.57), which shows similarities to the act of a seventeenth-century magus who could also abandon his craft due to the changing hostile environment and association of magic with diabolism [8]. The two magicians also differ, for example, in their attitudes towards magic: Faustus desires magic for power, whereas Prospero’s use of magic is intended to express ‘moral’ authority [9]. However, critical studies likewise highlight a postcolonial reading of The Tempest, in which Prospero embodies the patriarchal colonial power and Caliban and Sycorax represent the colonised slave whose island was taken away by the magician [10]. Therefore, magic in The Tempest and Doctor Faustus is broadly understood as an intellectual ability of male figures, which signals their authority and power. Even though Faustus makes a pact with Mephistopheles, his black magic is never called witchcraft (instead, he is a necromancer or a magician), which suggests the influences of gender in witchcraft concepts. The only notable female character in Doctor Faustus is Helen of Troy who appears as a succubus, a sexual demon, suggesting that female sexuality (and female power) is dangerous and Mephistophelian.


Similar to Doctor Faustus, the main themes of Othello (1622) are sin, morality and deception. In the play, female sexuality is likewise perceived as diabolic: Othello thinks his wife Desdemona was unfaithful to him and accuses her of being the Devil. While Shakespeare’s Othello does not portray a magician or a witch, in the tragic love story the deception and malice of various characters are identified with ideas about witchcraft. At the start of the play, Othello is accused of using magic, bewitching Desdemona to marry him: ‘Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her! / For I’ll refer me to all things of sense, / If she in chains of magic were not bound.’ [11] Throughout the play, Othello’s portrayal as a diabolic deceiver is linked to his racialised blackness: ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram (…) / Or else the Devil will make a grandsire of you.’; ‘you the blacker Devil’ (Othello, I.1. 97-100). Similar to Caliban in The Tempest, his racial blackness and association with malicious magic demonstrate the intersections of European colonialism and witchcraft as the fear of the other. Yet, it is not only Othello who is associated with witchcraft in the play: the Moor accuses Desdemona of committing witchcraft when suspecting her of being unfaithful: ‘O Devil, Devil! / If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears, / Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile’ (Othello, IV.1. 275-277). Here, Othello evokes the analogy of crocodile tears, suggesting that Desdemona is lying; therefore, his anger is directed towards her perceived dishonestly rather than being unfaithful. In Othello, deception as trickery is used in a similar way to magical conjuration [12]. The play’s real deceiver, Iago, uses his power of influence as a stage magician: he ‘bewitches’ Othello and ‘conjures’ many elements to achieve his demonic ends. His character evokes Mephistopheles who uses his influence on Faustus. Yet, in Othello, Shakespeare withdraws the supernatural characters appearing in his other plays and uses witchcraft to show that the actual evils in society are not witches or devils, but people who use power for malicious intent

The four selected Renaissance plays show the influence of the witch hunt period, during which beliefs about witches and other supernatural figures pervaded European countries. Faustus’s black magic raises questions about the production and access to knowledge during the Reformation period, Prospero’s art of magic alludes to authority and control in the early colonial era, Macbeth’s encounters with the Weird Sisters interrogates morality in politics, and witchcraft in Othello is related to deception and corruption. In these plays, witchcraft and magic express not only the presence of supernatural forces but reflect on complex issues, such as religion, politics, gender and power.




  1. Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2006), p. 23.
  2. William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997),  I.1; I.3.22-23.
  3. Marion Gibson, Rediscovering Renaissance Witchcraft (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 32-33.
  4. Walter Clyde Curry, ‘The Demonic Metaphysics of “Macbeth”’, Studies in Philology 30:3 (1933), pp. 395-426.
  5. Angus Fletcher, ‘Faustus, Macbeth, and the Riddle of Tomorrow’ Evolving Hamlet: Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 15-38.
  6. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (London: Methuen Drama, 2008), A I.50,52.
  7. William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), I.2.73-74.
  8. Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978) p. 176.
  9. Robert A. Logan, ‘“Glutted with Conceit”: Imprints of Doctor Faustus on The Tempest (ed: Sara Munson Deats; Robert A. Logan)  Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe: Fresh Cultural Contexts (Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), pp. 200-201; 208.
  10. For postcolonial reading of The Tempest, see John Gilles, ‘The Figure of the New World in The Tempest’. (ed: Peter Hulme; William Sherman) 'The Tempest' and Its Travels (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2000), pp. 180-200 and Paul Brown,  ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism’,in Jonathan Dollimore; Alan Sinfield (eds.) Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialis (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 48-71.
  11. Robert A. Logan, ‘“Glutted with Conceit”: Imprints of Doctor Faustus on The Tempest’, in Sara Munson Deats; Robert A. Logan (eds.) Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe: Fresh Cultural Contexts (Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), pp. 200-201; 208.
  12. Charlene Cruxent, ‘Conjuring Magic and Witchcraft in William Shakespeare’s Othello’, Journal of Dracula Studies, 17 (2015), p 28.




Dr Dorka Tamás has completed her PhD at the University of Exeter. 

She is interested in the literary representations of magic and witchcraft, particularly in the works of Sylvia Plath.