Superstition, Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
From The England of Shakespeare by P. H. Ditchfield. London: Methuen.
In Shakespeare's time ignorance and superstition held relentless sway over the popular mind.
The woods were the haunts of fairies. Our modern enlightenment has driven away these
gentle creatures from their accustomed playgrounds. What are fairy rings but the marks of
the footsteps of these pretty little elves as they danced round in their mystic circle? Not long
ago they lived in Ireland and may still do so unless the Sein Fieners have killed them; and old people
would not go out of doors in the evenings, lest they should disturb the fairy revels. They were very
popular in the poet's time, and his audience would believe that it was not all fancy when they heard
"How now, spirit, whither wander you?"
and the Fairy answered:
"Over hill, over dale.
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through flood, through fire.
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green:
And cowslips to all her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see.
There be rubies, fairy favours.
In these freckles live their savours;
I must go suck some dew-drops here.
And hang a pearl on every cowslip's ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits, I'll be gone;
Our queen and all our elves come here anon."
Goblins and will-o'-the-wisps haunted the fields,
and ghosts lurked in the churchyards under the
Witches and witchcraft were fully believed in both by the learned and unlearned. In Elizabeth's
time the persecution was not so fierce as in that of her successor, and though some were executed
witches were usually placed in the pillory or ducking stool, or tested by a peculiar system of water ordeal,
and not condemned to death as they were later on. When the witch was thrown into a river, if she sank she was innocent, if she floated she was guilty. It is not stated whether, being proved innocent, she
was ever rescued from the water. Even prominent
and learned men believed in it. Lord Bacon, the
greatest scientist of the day, prescribed "henbane,
hemlock, mandrake, moonshade, tobacco, opium,
and other soporiferous medicines," as ingredients for a witch's ointment; Sir Walter Raleigh was a
firm believer in witchcraft, and Sir Matthew Hale, the judge, shared the same belief.
On the accession
of the Queen, Bishop Jewell preached a sermon against sorcery, and twenty years later there was
a mild form of witch persecution. That was partly in consequence of a waxen image of the Queen
being discovered in Lincoln's Inn Fields. This was a terrible practice of witchcraft. If you were a
dealer in the black art, and you bore a grudge against any one, you would make a figure in wax of your
victim, and occasionally torture it by pricking it with a pin or a bodkin, and wherever your victim
happened to be, he, or she, would feel the pain in that part of the body so punctured. You had only
to pierce the region of the heart, or burn the figure in the fire, and your victim would die. The discovery of this waxen image of the Queen seemed to suggest that some hateful witch had designs upon
It appears that the Queen had toothache,
caused doubtless by her fondness for sugar which had made her teeth very black, and she thought
that it was the result of a witch's spell. Dr. Dee, the famous astrologer, who on the coronation of
the Queen had foretold her future by consulting the stars, was consulted in haste, and he pretended that
he was able to defeat the designs of such evil-disposed persons, and prevent his royal mistress
feeling any of the pains which might be inflicted on her effigy. We shall return to Dr. Dee's exploits
In Lancashire witchcraft found a congenial home; and even the greatest men were not exempt from its
evil influences. Edward, Earl of Derby (1510-1572), entertained a conjurer in his house, one Mumford who (according to Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork) "lately cast out devils." Ferdinando, Earl of
Derby, in 1594 was supposed to have been killed
by witchcraft, and he believed it himself. There is a curious document entitled, "A true reporte of
such reasons and conjectures as cause verie many and the same also verie learned men to suppose his
Hon. to be witched." A Mr. Halsall found an image of wax in the Earl's bedchamber, and threw it into
the fire, thinking to deliver his friend from the power of some witch; but unhappily the Earl sickened
and died as the wax melted. Some witches were chained and examined and the test was applied as
to whether they could repeat the Lord's Prayer and one of them could not say "forgive us our
In 1597, Alice Brerley, of Casleton, was pardoned,
though she had been condemned to death for killing two men by spells. Nicholas Starkie had two
young children who were believed to be possessed by the devil. Miss E. M. Platt, who wrote a chapter
on Lancashire Witches for my book on Lancashire, suggests that they only had fits. [Memories of Old Lancashire, Fishwock and Ditchfield, eds. p.225] Hartley, a cunning conjurer, was called in, and by means of a magic circle and certain charms gave some relief, but he outstayed his welcome and was driven from the house.
Before he left he caused five females to
be possessed, and it was believed that he breathed
the devil into any one whom he kissed.
was consulted, but refused to act, recommending
the calling in of "some godlye preacher" who
prayed with the victims and fasted. Hartley was
sentenced to death, and some of the "godlye
preachers" were implicated in the charge of
familiarity with the black art, and one was deposed
from his living.
Witches were often deemed very useful folk. They were consulted by fair maidens and shy youths
about love affairs, and provided love philtres or potent herbs for compelling affection. They
healed cattle. A gentleman found many horses in his stables bewitched. They were "sick, crying,
grinning and starting." He consulted a witch who
advised him to burn a sick horse alive. The rest
immediately recovered. Another man did the same
with the sheep, and was told to roast the heart of
the sheep he burnt on a spit. With the advent of
James of Scotland witch-hunting began with renewed vigour. He was crazed with the witch mania of Scotland, and shared his madness with
John Knox. His first Parliament enacted new laws for the punishment of witches. Many childish old
women were hunted down, the victims of malice, or because they were old and ill-favoured, and many
of them certainly believed in their powers, and in
their familiars, their black dogs or their goblins
called " Tibb."
There was a very famous case in Lancashire, in the barren wilds of Pendle Forest in 1612, where
lived two old women nicknamed "Old Demdike" and "Old Chattox." They made a good living out
of their magical art. But two of a trade seldom
agree, and the old women quarrelled as to who had
the greater powers. They could cast spells on and
kill children, friends and cattle, and cause the loss of the goods of those who offended them. They
and many others used to meet at Malkin Tower to concoct their villainies and celebrate their magic
craft. They were brought before the justices, seventeen witches and three wizards, and many
were condemned to death. The whole account of
the proceedings was written by Potts, clerk of the
court, and his account called the "Discoverie of
Witches" has been published in the Cheetham
Society's transactions. It throws considerable
light upon the ways of witches, but it is too long
to be here recorded. In spite of persecution witchcraft flourished vigorously in the northern counties,
and there were many victims who paid the extreme penalty of the law.
Shakespeare in this, as in other masters, reflects
the spirit and beliefs of his age. There are constant
allusions to witchcraft in the plays. His witches are "foul and ugly" and "foul wrinkled." The
witches play a prominent part in Macbeth and brew most pestilential ingredients in their cauldron.
Poor Jeanne d'Arc, La Pucelle, was accused of
witchcraft, and Talbot says to her in I Henry VI,
"Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch."
alluding to the method of saving oneself from her
evil spells. If you could draw the blood of a witch by scratching her, she could not harm you — a, remedy that was practised by a young man so late as forty years ago [as of 1916]. There are many other allusions in the plays to witchcraft. In the poet's time there was the celebrated Warboy's case, and Reginald Scot's work The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was
published in 1579.
Cognate with popular superstition was the study
of Alchemy. In Timon of Athens there is the
"Hence! You are an alchemist, make gold of that,"
alluding to the constant search for the philosophers'
stone, by which base metals could be turned into
gold. It also cured all manner of human ills, a precious medicine, the Elixir Vitae, which could
prolong life indefinitely and make old men young again. Shakespeare's allusions to the art are metaphorical. Perhaps he feared Ben Jonson's warning concerning alchemy:
"You may come to end
The remnant of your days in loathsome prison
By speaking of it."
His play, The Alchemist; pours scorn on the art.
Therein we make the acquaintance of Subtle, a charlatan and pretended seeker after the philosophers' stone, and Dol Common, his accomplice.
Under the pretence of practising alchemy and soothsaying they attracted a great number of dupes. To
Abel Drugger he proclaims:
"The thumb, in chiromancy, we give Venus;
The forefinger, to Jove; the midst, to Saturn;
The ring, to Sol; the least, to Mercury,
Who was the lord of life. Sir, of his horoscope.
His house of life being Libra; which fore-show'd,
He shall be a merchant, and should trade with balance."
But this is astrology. Abel Drugger was told on the
east side of his shop to write:
"Mathlori, Turmiel and Baraborat;
Upon the north part, Rael, Velel, Thiel.
They are the names of those mercurial spirits
That do fright flies from boxes."
Sir Epicure Mammon is Subtle's great victim for
whom he prepared "the magisterium, our great
work, the stone"; and who is going about making
"Offering citizens' wives pomander-bracelets
As his preservative, made of the elixir.
Searching the spital to make old bawds young.
And the highways, for beggars to make rich."
He will say to all his friends "Be rich," change all that is metal in his house to gold, buy tin and lead
and copper, purchase Devonshire and Cornwall.
"He that has once the flower of the sun.
The perfect ruby, which we call elixir,
Not only can do that, but, by its virtue,
Can confer honour, love, respect, long life:
Give safety, valour, yea, and victory,
To whom he will. In eight-and-twenty days
I'll make an old man of fourscore a child."
Surly, his servant, suggests that he is that already,
but Mammon explains that his years shall be restored and that he shall be like an eagle, and get
sons and daughters, young giants, as the old philosophers, the ancient patriarchs before the flood, had
done. Such, and much more, had I space to set
them down, were some of the dreams of the searchers
of the philosophers' stone, who toiled day and night,
poring over strange books and mystic lore, mixing curious and weird ingredients, to obtain that
wonderful elixir that should make man immortal.
A learned divine, the Lady Margaret Professor of
Divinity at Cambridge, resigned his chair to study
alchemy. Paracelsus, a good scientist, but a
drunken charlatan, had many followers.
And then, there was Dr. Dee, whose slight
acquaintance we have made, noted alchemist and
astrologer, a learned and prolific author, who was warden of the collegiate church of Manchester.
Queen Elizabeth was a firm believer in his astrological powers. He, however, disclaimed all dealings with the "black art" in his petition to
her successor, James, which was couched in these
"It has been affirmed that your majesty's suppliant was the conjurer belonging to the most honourable privy council of your majesty's predecessor, of famous memory, Queen Elizabeth; and that
he is, or hath been, a caller or invocator of devils, or
damned spirits; these slanders, which have tended
to his utter undoing, can no longer be endured; and
if on trial he is found guilty of the offence imputed
to him, he offers himself willingly to the punishment
of death; yea, either to be stoned to death, or to be
buried quick, or to be burned unmercifully."
In spite of his assertions Dr. Dee certainly
dabbled in the "black art," and was the companion
and friend of Edward Kelly, a notorious necromancer, who for his sins had his ears cut off at
Lancaster. Kelly used to exhume and consult the dead. In the darkness of night he and his companions entered churchyards, dug up the bodies of
men recently buried, and caused them to utter predictions concerning the fate of the living. Dr.
Dee's friendship with Kelly was suspicious. He was obliged to resign his clerical office, and wandered
over Europe with Kelly, as an honoured guest in the courts of many sovereigns. The Emperor Rodolph,
Stephen, King of Poland, and other royal personages, welcomed the renowned astrologers who could read
the stars, had discovered the philosophers' stone in the form of a powder which changed the bottom of
a warming-pan into pure silver, simply by warming it at the fire, the elixir that rendered men
immortal, and made the precious metals so plentiful
that children played at quoits with golden rings.
No wonder they were so welcome. They were
acquainted with the Rosicrucian philosophy, could
hold correspondence with the spirits of the elements,
imprison a spirit in a mirror, ring, or stone, and
compel it to answer questions.
Dr. Dee's mirror,
which worked such miracles, found in his study at his death in 1608, is now in the British Museum.
He died in poverty and great misery, as most of these professors of black magic did, and the philosophers' stone never brought them riches.
The superstition of the age manifested itself in
the portents of the stars and astrology. Every one
was born under a lucky or unlucky star. Hall, in
his Satires, scoffs at judicial astrology which professed to foretell human affairs. He wrote that it
was the daughter of Egyptian midwives, and that having been nursed by superstition she assumed the
garb of science.
"That now who pares his nails or libs his swine,
But he must first take counsel of the Signs."
Men had their horoscopes cast by astrologers, and
firmly beheved in what the stars foretold. Of this
popular belief Hall wrote:
"His fear or hope, for plentie or for lack,
Hangs all upon his New Year's Almanack.
If chance once in the spring his head should ake,
It was foretold — 'thus says mine Almanack.'"
A large number of pamphlets was published, called
Prognostications, and these proved how eagerly the
people sought to read the future by the help of the
stars. Richard Harvey, a learned astrologer and
astronomer of Cambridge, published in 1582 a
treatise called Astrological Discourse, predicting the
portentous conjunction of the primary planets,
Saturn and Jupiter, which was to happen in the
following year, prophesying many evils that would
befall the nation. Every one became alarmed.
But the year passed quietly and no great calamity
happened; the fears of the people subsided, and
Nashe wrote a parody upon Harvey's work, entitled,
A Wonderful, Strange and Miraculous Astrologicall
Prognostication, ridiculing the whole affair, and
Elderton, a ballad-maker, and Tarleton, the
comedian, joined in the laugh.
scorn on Gabriel Harvey, Richard's brother, and
wrote: "The best wit-craft I can turn him too,
to get 3d a week, is to write Prognostigations and
Almanacks, and that alone must be his best philosophers' stone till his last destiny."
Shakespeare reflects the current beliefs of his
time by many astrological allusions. King Richard
in his conversation with the widowed queen
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings." [1.2]
And yet in King Lear we read, "The stars above us
govern our conditions." But this is answered by
Edmund, who contends:
"This is the excellent foppery of the world that,
when we are sick in fortune — of ten the surfeit of our
own behaviour — we make guilty of our disasters the
sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains
by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves,
thieves and treachers by spherical predominance,
drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced
obedience of planetary influence; and all that we
are evil in, by a divine thrusting on," [1.2]
This was doubtless the poet's own belief, but he often makes
his characters utter the popular fallacies. He
makes one speak of "an auspicious star." Another
"There was a star danc'd, and under that I was born."
Another was "born under a charitable star," and
there is that amusing conversation between Sir
Andrew Ague-cheek and Sir Toby Belch as to
whether Leo or Taurus governs "the sides and
heart" or the "legs and thighs," that is what is
"nocturnal and bestial."
But we have had sufficient of astrological jargon.
Astrology led the way to the science astronomy,
and the triumph of the Copernican system destroyed
such "fond things vainly invented." And as
astrology led to a true knowledge of the stars and
the motions of the heavenly bodies, so alchemy was
the father of chemistry which made some progress
during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Not
that the conclusions of Copernicus had received
imiversal acceptance in the England of Shakespeare.
The earth was still commonly believed to be the
centre of the universe, and even Bacon accepted
that theory. It is a proof of the deep insight of our
poet into nature to observe how nearly he approached to the truth with regard to the "worlds
on worlds that compose one universe," when he
"The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and spher'd
Amidst the other." [Troilus and Cressida, 1.3]
How to cite this article:
Ditchfield, P. H. The England of Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/superstition.html >.