“See how I am bewitch’d”: Interpreting witchcraft accusations in Shakespeare’s “Richard III’

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King Richard’s Magic Week 2012 continues. The first post, on the significance of magic in the fifteenth century, is found here. My reading tip — if you want to plumb current scholarly understandings of what magic and witchcraft meant in the early modern context — and you’re not afraid of exposing yourself to some serious erudition — the book’s been described as “evocative and relentlessly academic” but also as “unrivalled” — I can make no more compelling recommendation than Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (1999), upon which many of my insights and arguments about the intertwining of various strands of early modern life with witchcraft are drawn. I love this book; my copy is battered and worn.

In this post, I draw on Clark’s idea that witchcraft accusations were not a pretext for political moves, but rather understood by early modern people as an intimate factor in how politics actually worked.

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In Act III, scene iv of Shakespeare’s Richard III, in an intriguing exchange, the character of Gloucester (Richard’s title before becoming king) attributes his physical deformity to the machinations of witches — specifically, his late brother Edward’s wife and Edward’s mistress, Jane Shore. After charging that they have sought his death with their “devilish plots,” he urges:

Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Laying aside Shakespeare’s bias against Richard, as well as the debates over the status of his physique — although the language and image of a “blasted sapling” are compelling to me — the modern reader is likely to interpret this accusation as a political or misogynistic pretext for Richard’s rapaciousness. Such a reading seems at first to be supported by Gloucester’s declaration, in subsequent lines, that if Hastings is not willing to agree to this explanation, he must be a traitor:

“If! Thou protector of this damned strumpet–

Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:

Off with his head!”

Gloucester appears, here, to accuse the women of witchcraft as an excuse to eliminate anyone who disagrees with his usurping power grab.

Hastings’ intermediate line, however, tends to balance this reading with evidence of a worldview that attributed misfortunes to supernatural influences; Hastings does not say, “there are no witches,” or “witches don’t do things like that,” or even, “don’t accuse these women of being witches,” but rather, “If they have done this thing […] –” a line that explicitly concedes that witches exist who accomplish such deeds, though Gloucester cuts Hastings off, and we don’t get a “then” from him. This interpretation gains more currency when we consider that Shakespeare lacked access to Titulus Regius, the document that formulated the charge of witchcraft against Woodville and her mother — Henry VII had ordered all copies of it in English archives destroyed in order to protect his wife against the claims of illegitimacy that had justified the deposition of her younger brother, and our modern awareness of it postdates Richard III — and must have had another source, which points to a cultural willingness to associate Woodville with witchcraft. Finally, when we think about this scene in the context of political history, we note that the elimination of Hastings — who was supposed to have been in league with Elizabeth Woodville to keep her son, Edward V, on the throne, with the infamous Shore, also his mistress, as go-between for the conspirators — constituted a key step in Richard’s move toward the throne. But Hastings had made important sacrifices for the York family in the past, going into exile with Edward and Richard, and supporting Richard’s role as Lord Protector against the Woodvilles. In light of these political circumstances, of which the playwright was certainly aware, I suggest that Shakespeare does not have Gloucester accuse the women of witchcraft in order to present him as scheming to achieve his ends. Rather, Gloucester’s accusation in the play reflects his conviction that if something is troubling in his body or his political circumstances, then there must be an explanation — witches.

Applying Clark to Shakespeare generates the following possible reading: One of the most common perversions associated with sorcery in the period was the distortion of love — and Richard should have loved Hastings. And yet he does not — which suggests something larger in the world of the play is amiss. While it’s clear that Shakespeare doesn’t much like Gloucester, this scene suggests that Gloucester is not so much evil because he lies — rather, he lies because everything around him, from his body to his ambitions, is permeated with demonic influences. In response, Richard, who reveals here that he’s quite conscious of this state of affairs, does not react against the influence of witches, but indeed cooperates with it. Richard, for Shakespeare, is thus much more than simply a usurper and a schemer — his usurpation and schemes are symptomatic of a political world gone wrong under the influence of supernatural forces.

***

Could he have reacted against demonic influence? Had Richard’s political and personal ends been fouled by witchcraft, could he have done anything about it? Yes, indeed — he could have. Seeing as how this is getting long, again, however, I’ll go to that theme in my next post, which will concern recommended fifteenth-century remedies against witchcraft.

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