Category Archives: Shakespeare

Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden - stained glassFor this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.

Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring. Continue reading

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Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Filed under English Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Scottish Folklore, Shakespeare, Strange History, The Devil, Things D&D Got Right, Welsh Folklore, Whole Article

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Demonic Possession

drunkeness-copyCards on the table: I haven’t had time to write a fresh blog post for this week, since I’m giving a lecture at the Rose Playhouse in London tomorrow (Monday 21st November 2016, to be exact), but things are gearing up towards Christmas, which puts me in mind of my favourite Christmassy Shakespeare play (that I’ve also given a lecture about at the Rose, and have extensive notes for).

What’s the title of that play? Well, just in case you didn’t have time to read the title of this blog post: it’s Twelfth Night.

What’s my favourite part? The sly references to Demonic possession in Act Four, Scene Two. Continue reading

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Filed under Books and Writers, English Folklore, Religion and the Occult, Shakespeare, Strange History, The Devil, Whole Article

Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy

CircletriangleOne of the most iconic images of the ‘black magician’ is the ominous figure standing in a magic circle filled with intricate designs and mystical symbols. Magic circles have been a big part of my life recently, after being involved in a production based on the Elizabethan Occult, and watching NBC’s Constantine – so I thought I’d write a little about what they are and where they came form.

Christopher Marlowe, writer of demonological play Doctor Faustus, described the popular vision of the magical circle:

“Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th’abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform.” (1.3.8-15) Continue reading

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Filed under Amulets and Talismans, Books and Writers, Learned Magic, Religion and the Occult, Shakespeare, Sorcerers, Strange History, Whole Article

Hamlet’s Father: Ghost or Demon?

Marcellus: What, has this thing appeared again tonight?

Bernado: I have seen nothing…

Marcellus: Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us… that if this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak of it.

Horatio: But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!
I’ll cross it though it blast me. Stay, illusion.
If thou has any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid,
Oh speak.
If thou hast uphoarded in thy life,
Extorted treasure in the womb of the earth,
For which they say you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it…

Marcellus: Shall I strike at it with my partisan?

Horatio: Do it if it will not stand.

Marcellus: ‘Tis gone.
We do it wrong being so majestical
To offer it the show of violence,
For it is as the air invulnerable,
And our vail blows malicious mockery.

Bernado: It was about to speak when the cock crew.

Marcellus: It faded on the crowing of the cock.

Above is an abridged version of the scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet where three officers of the watch witness the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting the castle of Elsinore.

When Hamlet himself, already identified as a bit of an odd bird, meets the ghost he says:

Hamlet: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane…

Here, we see that the spirit seen in the castle of Elsinore has three possible identities: ghost, demon, or hallucination. Continue reading

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