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Comedy and the supernatural on the English stage between 1589 and 1621 : a study of the relevance for early modern audiences of comic representations of magic, fairies and witchcraft

Holland, Nicholas David


Nicholas David Holland


Rowland Wymer


What kinds of relevance to wider beliefs and practices did the comic representation of magic, fairies and witchcraft have for an early modem audience? This study will approach this main question through the consideration of two subsidiary questions. What is the cultural context for a series of comic, or partly comic, representations of the supernatural first performed between circa 1588 and 1621? What theatrical (and broader) strategies of performance informed the staging of the texts considered and what bearing would those strategies have had on the relevance of the subjectmatter for their original audience?

The premise that form and context are interconnected and historically specific will be central to the approach taken in this study. As one influential modern account of the early modem English stage has proposed:

‘history cannot simply be set against literary texts as either stable antithesis or stable background, and the protective isolation of those texts gives way to a sense of their interaction with other texts and hence of the permeability of their boundaries.’

(Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Shakespeare and the Exorcists’, 1988)

An appreciation of the `permeability' of the boundaries between early modern texts informs this study. This principle is particularly important in the study of comic representation, where a modem reader faces particular challenges when interpreting the function of comedy for early modem audiences. An improved understanding of comic representation is gained through a close consideration of the relationship between form and context in a range of texts concerned with the supernatural, followed by a consideration of the ways in which those texts might be related. For example, the function of the supernatural as a vehicle for the expression of hidden desires in a wide range of early modern texts provides a significant context for the understanding of the comic representation of the supernatural on the early modern stage. Moreover, recognition of the `permeability' of the boundaries between texts necessitates the reassessment of a simple notion of fictional and non-fictional texts about the supernatural in this period. Through the consideration of such issues, particular kinds of insight will be provided into the wider relevance that comic representation of the supernatural on the early modem stage might have held for its audience.

In embracing this approach, this study must avoid a narrow understanding of the `text'. The primary status of theatre as a medium for representation through performance needs to be appreciated. Although this study is specifically concerned with comic representation, the comic must be understood in the context of early modem theatre, more generally, as a performance medium. Chapter One will survey a series of approaches before arriving at a working model for the English theatre of the period which will be broad in its consideration of the functions of the comic and sympathetic regarding its status as performance. This study will also be inclusive throughout in its choice of texts. Comic material in plays generically signified as tragedy or tragicomedy will be considered where it helps to elucidate the argument of the thesis. The intention is to pursue relevant connections wherever possible, and to shadow the flexible, organic approach to genre demonstrated by much English drama of the period. Through such an approach, the meaning for audiences of comic representations will be shown to be ultimately underpinned by early modem notions regarding the nature of theatricality itself.

The diversity and stratification of views regarding the supernatural in early modem England, alongside the theatre the other significant cultural context for this study, will be considered in Chapter Two. The earliest impetus for this study came, in part, from a recognition that the particular historical interests of an older school of historians, in particular Frances Yates, continued to exercise a significant influence over published literary criticism of plays concerned with magic into the 1980s. This study aims in part to further the work of those who have sought to relate the drama to a range of more recent modem studies of early modem thought regarding the supernatural.

The organisation of the remainder of the study will be thematic. A detailed study in Chapter Three of two influential works from early in the period of study, Doctor Faustus and Friar Bacon, will be followed in Chapter Four by a study of patterns of representation in a series of plays concerned with magic that span the period of this study. Chapter Five will offer a reading of The Tempest in the context of the emerging themes of this study. Chapters Six and Seven will expand further the scope of the study by developing the provisional conclusions of the early chapters in a consideration of the comic representation of fairies and tragicomic representation of witchcraft on the early modern English stage. Chapter Eight will explore the relationship between Ben Jonson's comic portrayal of the supernatural and other texts considered by this study.

Some questions related to the subject of this study cannot be fully developed within a work of this length. These include the relationship between comic stage representation and the representation of the supernatural in other genres in the theatre and literature of period, the comic representation of devils beyond their stage association with magicians and witchcraft, and the comic stage representation of magic and witchcraft after 1621. Where possible, attention is given to these issues, in particular where it helps to elucidate the central concerns of the study.


Holland, N. D. (2002). Comedy and the supernatural on the English stage between 1589 and 1621 : a study of the relevance for early modern audiences of comic representations of magic, fairies and witchcraft. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date May 18, 2012
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords English
Public URL
Additional Information Department of English, The University of Hull
Award Date Sep 1, 2002


Thesis (21.7 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2002 Holland, Nicholas David. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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