- Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage ed. by Lisa Hopkins, Helen Ostovich
With Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage, editors Lisa Hopkins and Helen Ostovich have very carefully and skillfully assembled fourteen wide-ranging essays about how representations of magic on the early modern English stage both reflected and influenced the culture of that time. In their introductory piece, the editors provide a clear and strikingly accessible introduction to the essays, noting how these pieces fit and work together. Insisting that magic is fundamentally invested in transformations, a particularly important concept given the social and cultural structure of the early modern period, they note that all the essays included are interested in considering whether the transformations depicted are positive or negative. Perhaps most interestingly, the collected essays contemplate “to what extent these plays may themselves help to effect transformation by working on the attitudes of their audiences”; or, put another way, plays about magical transformation may “do some magical transformation of their own” (3). Noting that many of the essays offer readings of canonical texts such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the editors also point out that some essays examine lesser-known works. While it might be easy to assume a huge difference in the quality of these plays, they note “the most obvious thing to emerge is the extent to which all these plays form part of an essentially coherent discursive web.” These plays are “agents of transformation in that they challenge perceptions and assumptions more often than they reinforce them” (15). The editors wish us to see that the plays and texts discussed in the collection ultimately open up the possibility that views about magic and witchcraft could be transformed, [End Page 119] a compelling line of argument that appears most prevalently in the third and fourth parts of the collection.
Part 1 of the collection is titled “Demons and Pacts,” and not surprisingly, all three essays are especially concerned with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Barbara H. Traister’s essay on Keith Thomas’s seminal study Religion and the Decline of Magic considers whether his argument is borne out in the period’s drama—that is, did the early modern English stage see a decline in representations of magic and demons? Looking at the period from 1590 to the 1620s, Traister argues that yes, both the humans who interact with the spirits and the spirits themselves become increasingly ineffectual as the period progresses, moving from well-respected intellectual men like Faustus to marginalized figures like the village witch. The devils themselves no longer appear but rather take the shapes of criminals and animals, leading Traister to see spiritual magic as having fallen out of favor. In many ways, Traister’s essay is an ideal starting point, as it offers an introduction to the plays and sketches a portrait of how playwrights used magicians, magic, demons, and witches over the course of thirty years on the English stage.
Next, in “Who the Devil Is in Charge?” Bronwyn Johnston deals specifically with Marlowe’s play and considers the Faustian pact, arguing that the play is unusual in its depiction of demonic pacts precisely because the scholar does not believe he can escape from the contract. Looking specifically at the “terms and conditions” of the arrangement, Johnston argues that the play focuses on the pact as an “issue of contract law as much as it is a theological concern” (32–33). Noting the ways in which the early modern world and the play collapse the differences between the human and the devil, she posits that this allows for the possibility of the human out-maneuvering the devil, something repeatedly revealed in both writings on magic and popular legends. According to Johnston, Faustus is unfortunately unschooled in demonic contract law. In the final piece of part 1, Laura Levine’s essay on the power and danger of words in Marlowe’s plays interacts nicely with Johnston’s piece. Levine considers how Faustus makes repeated promises...