My students are always asking me what my favorite book or movie is. And I’ve reached a point where I’ve experienced so much of both that picking a favorite is no longer a sensible activity. Do I like Lolita more than Angle of Repose or Great Expectations? The Incredibles more than Good Night, and Good Luck or Cool Hand Luke? At some point, one just wants to respond, “why choose?” I like blue and purple.
So I’m not going to try to isolate one favorite aspect of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. There are too many moments, lessons, and people to single any one out. I could go on about Mike Lomonico taking my favorite Shakespearean film clip lesson to the next level by breaking student responses into different film-making components. Or Sue Hench’s masterful ability to structure a student-centered experience. Or Stephen Dickey changing much of what I thought I knew of Twelfth Night. Or Synetic Theater’s silent production of Othello. Or Amber Caron’s awesome “why is this man head-butting a cat” presentation. Or Kevin Costa prefacing every question with an experience or book recommendation I wanted to follow up on. Or Chris Lavold’s “Joe Shakespeare” moment. I could go on.
One moment, though, captures the excitement I felt throughout my four weeks at the Folger – finding the Statutes of the Realm. My research paper ended up focusing on witchcraft in Macbeth. To prepare I had read Marston’s The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy or Sophonisba and Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, as well as various section of a variety of Shakespeare’s plays that included examples of or allusions to witchcraft. In the library I pursued original documents that defined witchcraft: Lambert Daneau’s Dialogue of Witches (1575), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), George Gifford’s A Discourse of the Subtill Practices of Devilles (1587), Nicholas Remy’s Demonolatry (1595), and King James’s Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue (1597). And, as I narrowed my focus to Shakespeare’s historical plays, I read relevant sections of Edward Hall and Raphaell Holinshed’s chronicles.
My goal was to illustrate a connection between the perceived reality of witches and the theatrical depiction of them. In the process of writing the paper, I came across a number of Internet citations to sixteenth century “witchcraft acts,” laws in England that defined and penalized the practices of sorcerers. Now one of the big problems with the Internet is that lots of people who create web sites simply repurpose stuff from someone else’s site. You’ll notice this when you do a Google search, and the exact same info comes up on three different sites. It can be difficult to determine who posted it first, and doubly difficult to determine where it originally came from before it got on the web.
So it was with the Witchcraft Acts. The closest I got to a corroborating source were some weird numbers, like “1⁰ Jac. I c. 12.” I took these numbers to a Folger librarian, asking for help in finding the actual Witchcraft Act documents. I spent some time in the card catalog room looking under Great Britain – History – King James, to no avail. I did find some similar numbers in a secondary source, so I took them back to the librarian, who asked, “have you checked the Statutes of the Realm?”
Where are those, I asked.
In the basement of the Folger Shakespeare Library, on a shelf in the corner, there are a number of heavy brown folio-sized volumes. It turns out that George III, in the interest of historical preservation, had recorded a complete list of laws passed by his predecessors. These were organized by the year of each monarch’s reign, the monarch, and finally by law (listed as chapters). Quickly I found the statute passed under James I in 1603: “An acte against conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evill and wicked spirits.” But I had found a lot more.
Our laws define us; they define our fears, our culture, our knowledge and ignorance, our current events, and over time our history. The Statutes of the Realm opened an amazing window into Tudor and Stuart life. I wanted immediately to spend the next two months sitting in the Folger basement just reading statutes. Working my way backwards in my final forty minutes in the Library, I found Elizabeth’s, then Edward VI’s, then Henry VIII’s witchcraft acts. But I also found curios around which one could build an entertaining and scholarly career. In Edward VI’s laws, for example, exists an act that defines, thereafter, any death caused by poisoning as murder. Which begs the question: what was it before?
I made rapid xerox copies of the acts that pertained to my paper. There’s lots to think about, beginning with the easy comparisons that demonstrate how public opinion and concern about witches changed from 1541 to 1603. Henry VIII’s act begins: “Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised Invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, pretendying by such meanes to understande and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what treasure of golde and Silver shulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secrete places” (33⁰ Hen. VIII c. 8). It goes on to condemn other, more fantastical, practices, but I think it’s interesting that it begins with the simple use of conjuration as a form of graft.
By James I, the concern over conning folks out of their money is gone. James repeals the Elizabethan laws, then replaces them: “for the better restrayninge of the said Offenses, and more severe punishinge the same, be it further enacted ... That if any pson or persons, after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next coming, shall use, practise, or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and wicked Spirit, or shall consult covenant with, entertaine, employ, feede, or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead bodie resteth, or the skin, bone, or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchcrafte, Inchantment, Charme, or Sorcerie ... that then everie such Offendor or Offendors, their Ayders, Abettors, and Counsellors, being of any the saide Offences dulie and lawfullie convicted and attainted, shall suffer pains of deathe as a Felon or Felons, and shall loose the priviledge and benefit of Clergie and Sanctuarie” (1⁰ Jac. I c. 12).
We learn from James I’s Daemonologie, a reaction to Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, that there’s a fairly significant tension between those that believe in the supernatural power of witches and those that don’t. That statutes clearly show that shift toward the more punitive view, and in doing so, reveal a fascinating aspect of Tudor and Stuart life.
I had been skeptical about my ability to take advantage of my reading card, which gives me a year to continue my studies at the Folger. School keeps me busy, even during my breaks. But now I know I’m going back, whatever it takes. Somewhere, there’s a statute waiting which will reveal untold contemporary attitudes about parts of Shakespeare’s plays that I know I currently overlook. It’s like being on a treasure hunt, and finding the Statutes is like being handed a reliable map. The “X” is at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Book Note: Hag-Seed
20 hours ago