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Verena Theile and Andrew D. McCarthy (eds.), Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-4094-4008-6, 308pp. HBK. £54.00.

Reviewed by Martha McGill

Theile & McCarthy Jkt_Theile & McCarthy Jkt‘To serve each purpose be it ne’er so odd
Be sure to introduce a Ghost or – God
Make Monsters, Fiends, Heav’n, Hell, at once engage,
For all are pleas’d to see a well-fill’d Stage’.[1]

[1]  This satirical advice for playwrights, penned by James Miller in 1731, reflects the special relationship between the supernatural and the stage. Despite the mockery of Miller and many of his eighteenth-century contemporaries, demons, ghosts and other magical creatures had become thoroughly entangled with the theatrical tradition. It was perhaps a rather uneasy alliance. Stephen Greenblatt may have gone a step too far when he wrote that ‘performance kills belief’ (as Verena Theile suggests in this collection (81)), but it was nonetheless true that the trappings of theatre – white sheets, fake beards, flour, trapdoors – could pose a threat to the credibility of a belief set that was closely intertwined with religious teachings.[2] Despite – or perhaps because of – this fact, theatrical representations of the supernatural can offer a unique window into wider social and cultural patterns, as Greenblatt himself has demonstrated.[3] Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe, edited by Verena Theile and Andrew D. McCarthy, takes this idea as a starting point, and proceeds to explore the intersections between supernatural belief, theatre, and early modern culture.

[2]  The scope of this collection is, paradoxically, both broader and narrower than is suggested by the title. The focus is largely on England and English writers: of the ten essays, only four make any excursions into continental Europe, and only one of those (Peter A. Morton’s work on Lutheran religious literature) is primarily focused on non-English texts and contexts. Furthermore, as with so much research on the topic of supernatural beliefs, there is a bias towards witchcraft, sorcery and demonology. Although Shakespeare features prominently, creatures such as ghosts or fairies are, unfortunately, neglected. However, the collection goes beyond the suggested limits of its title when it comes to the notion of ‘staging’. Only two of the essays here (Kristina E. Caton’s chapter on the joint-stool and M. A. Katritzky’s contribution on theatrical magic) are concerned with the physical stage. The real focus is on texts which relate to the supernatural (usually, but not necessarily, dramatical texts), as well as their contexts. The collection’s title struck me as curiously anachronistic (why use the loaded term ‘superstition’?), but in fact it proves accurate enough: it is the volume’s contributors who are really doing the staging here.

[3]  Darren Oldridge sets the scene for the collection with an elegant foreword which explores the importance of contextualising early modern literature. The editors’ introduction expands on this notion, focusing on the theoretical framework behind the collection. Interdisciplinarity is key here. The collection brings together historians and literary scholars, with the editors’ primary goal being to ‘demonstrate a history that informs literary inquiries and vice versa’ (10). Blending historical and literary analysis is hardly revolutionary nowadays, but there is still merit in re-iterating the advantages of interdisciplinarity – particularly, perhaps, when looking at a topic such as the supernatural, on which modern ways of thinking have diverged so far from early modern precedents. The essays in this collection certainly demonstrate the value of the approach. The authors interweave history and literary studies, allowing text and context to enhance and develop one another vividly.

[4]  The collection is divided into three sections: ‘Early Modern Superstitions: Religion, Reformation, and the History of Fear’; ‘Witchcraft on Trial’; and ‘Stage Dissections’. The delineation between these headings and the logic behind the placement of the essays are not completely clear, but this is a minor quibble. Peter A. Morton begins the first section with an examination of Lutheran demonological and homiletic texts. He focuses on how these texts promoted Reformation theology, arguing that sorcery was primarily condemned not because it implied a pact with the devil, but because the magician’s attempt to manipulate the natural world was in defiance of God’s providential plan. While Morton perhaps rather underplays the importance of the diabolic pact, his essay serves as an important reminder that we should not be blinkered by it: although the fear of witchcraft was common to various confessional cultures, demonological writings cannot be divorced from their specific theological contexts. Morton’s beginning is built upon by contributions from Adam H. Kitzes and the volume’s co-editor Verena Theile. Kitzes analyses a 1582 pamphlet by one Barnabe Riche, on the topic of a young woman who confessed to having been coerced by a Catholic priest into feigning demonic possession. Kitzes traces Riche’s uneasy attempts to laugh off the woman’s prophecies, and highlights the limitations of certain rhetorical strategies employed in both Protestant and Catholic religious propaganda. Finally, Theile’s essay unravels the diverse influences that fed into Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, analysing how early modern theatrical texts could both draw on and challenge contemporary belief systems.

[5]  ‘Witchcraft on Trial’, the second section, begins with two essays on the witches of Lancashire, by Deborah Lea and Meg F. Pearson respectively. Lea considers the ways in which Lancashire witch-trials and dispossessions were manipulated by contemporary pamphleteers and playwrights to serve specific agendas. Pearson offers an in-depth reading of Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634), analysing theories of vision to present the play as a sceptical piece which casts doubt on ‘the hypervisual processes of identifying, trying, and condemning witches’ (107). The two essays complement one another well, demonstrating that even comedic and farcical depictions of witchcraft could offer meaningful social and political critiques. Next is Kristina E. Caton’s essay on the humble joint-stool – a piece that stands out for its originality and freshness. Caton explores the life of the joint-stool as a stage prop, and breaks down its connotations in terms of gender relations, power and sexuality. Her essay offers a fascinating glimpse of the early modern stage from a contemporary perspective. Finally, Hilda H. Ma continues the theme of gender relations, presenting a persuasive analysis of how early modern notions of the post-menopausal woman fed into witchcraft discourses and influenced the depiction of Lady Macbeth. She argues that Macbeth offered a sinister critique of the barren body of Elizabeth I, so celebrating the ascension of James VI.

[6]  The last section (‘Stage Dissections’) is introduced by the editors as an exploration of the beginning of the end of early modern superstitions (16-17), although, upon reading, this was slightly obscure. Liberty Stanavage examines Prospero through the lens of early modern conceptions of memory, displaying him as a parodic figure and an ultimate failure. Per Sivefors considers the plays of John Lyly, and through them explores the diversity of early modern theories on the significance of dreams. Between them, Stanavage and Sivefors offer an intriguing glimpse into the world of the early modern mind. M. A. Katritzky’s lively essay on travellers’ tales and the staging of the supernatural seems an incongruous follow-up, but successfully serves to conclude the collection. Her piece is fragmented, shifting between Italy, France and London, from stage mechanics to the marketing of medicine to sexual impotence, but it is hugely enjoyable, and concludes with a convincing examination of how continental supernatural writings fed into the work of London-based playwrights.

[7]  The quality of the scholarship here is high. However, the overall balance of the content is not altogether satisfying. For all its interdisciplinarity, and despite the fact that the study of supernatural beliefs is still a relatively fresh field (at least within history), this collection was somewhat predictable. For the most part it followed better-trodden paths, with its focus on England, witchcraft  and (to a lesser extent) Shakespeare. There was a certain patchiness in its coverage of the topic as a whole – inevitable, perhaps, in an edited collection, but still regrettable. However, this is not to detract from the individual quality of ten fascinating essays, which between them offer reflections on a broad range of subjects (including, but not limited to, early modern religious debates and the Reformation; the language of rhetoric; gender relations; sexuality; political affairs; violence and crime; and mind and memory). Furthermore, it is only fair to acknowledge that the collection does not pretend to offer a comprehensive picture. The editors’ stated goal is to demonstrate how historical and literary analysis can inform one another on the topic of early modern supernatural beliefs. From that point of view, the book is a clear success.

University of Edinburgh, March 2013


[1] James Miller, Harlequin-Horace: Or, the Art of Modern Poetry (London, 1731), 15. [back to text]
[2] Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 109. [back to text]
[3] Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). [back to text]