- Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage ed. by Lisa Hopkins, Helen Ostovich
From an early age, we are introduced to witches and magic upon the stage—from the first time we boo the wicked witch in Cinderella, or applaud the pumpkin’s transformation. Working on magic in the early modern era we become conversant with magic beyond the fairy tale: Macbeth’s three hags, Faust and his pact, and Prospero’s magical meddling. At first glance, the inclusion of magic upon the stage may seem merely a means to provide entertainment and excitement, or touch of the sinister and a shiver up the spine. Magic upon the stage, however, is part of a wider discourse, enabling commentary upon religion, politics, and cultural stereotypes (to name but a few).
Ostovich and Hopkins’s collection deftly illustrates the latter point, providing an illuminating analysis of theatrical representations of magic, from such renowned portrayals as Doctor Faustus, to the less familiar, like The Late Lancashire Witches. This collection is especially concerned with the issue of transformation, as the introduction states, “plays themselves can be and often are, [End Page 141] agents of transformation in that they challenge perceptions and assumptions more often than they reinforce them” (15). With this as its missive the collection successfully establishes how such plays, as part of a wider discourse, tackled a host of issues. Moreover, the various portrayals discussed also indicate that perspectives about witchcraft and magic themselves were subject to transformation.
In order to achieve its aim the collection is divided into four sections with each segment tackling a diverse array of texts and subjects. The first, “Demons and Pacts,” focuses upon the encounter at the heart of the early modern understanding witchcraft, the demonic pact. Barbara Traister’s article applies Keith Thomas’s renowned thesis to the stage. With Dr Faustus, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and The Witch of Edmonton as her exemplars, Traister convincingly argues that the period 1590 to 1620 witnessed a decline in the seriousness and status of demonic magic upon the stage, paralleling that discernible in the wider culture. Faust is also the facilitator for Bronwyn Johnston’s essay, which adopts the interesting stance of perceiving the pact as “an issue of contract law as much as it is theological concern” (33). For Laura Levine, words themselves are the subject of consideration. Levine examines the debate discernible in Faust regarding the extent to which words can be said to have a “performative power”; can language really effect magic and instigate action? Levine argues that the play raises questions relevant to wider contemporary deliberations regarding magic. Intertwining in their choice of text and theme, these three articles skilfully demonstrate that performance of the pact upon stage was part of a far wider discourse.
“Rites to Believe” addresses the matter of magic’s ability to symbolize issues beyond itself; often, though not exclusively, acting as a signifier for religious issues. In this section it is the “Scottish play” that becomes the focus of attention, featuring in both Alisa Manninen’s and Verena Theile’s contributions. The former arguing that the portrayal of the witches and their rituals serve to create a pervasive, malign influence. Moreover, that the witches’ maleficent rituals both contrast with and undermine social rituals. Theile’s reading, which opens with a captivating premise comparing Macbeth with the de Palma classic The Untouchables, compellingly interprets the witches as a “representational presence” for evil, rather than a provocation of it. For Theile, the witches’ presence makes Macbeth (in whom the human capacity for evil is made manifest) more tolerable for the audience. Jil Del-singe takes a different text as her focus, A Winters’ Tale. Delsinge’s incisive reading of Hermione’s apparently miraculous restoration exhibits one of the themes of this work, magic’s representative malleability. Magic, which in this instance is suggestive of a valediction of the Catholic perspective, could be [End Page 142] capable of acting as a vehicle for a...