Travelers’ tales: magic and superstition on early modern European and London stages

Katritzky, M. A. (2013). Travelers’ tales: magic and superstition on early modern European and London stages. In: Theile, Verena and McCarthy, Andrew D. eds. Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, pp. 217–238.



This examination of early modern stage magic overviews its occurrence in the earliest type of mixed-gender professional theater, the Italian commedia dell’arte, discusses necromancers and stage magicians, and concludes by inquiring into the significance of magical impotence superstitions for the London stage. Drawing on travel journals and medical treatises as well as more familiar sources, it confirms that ‘travelers’ tales’ can represent an invaluable documentary resource for the theater historian even when, as with the Swiss physician Thomas Platter’s account of the ritual practice of magical impotence in southwestern France, their connection to the stage is indirect and previously unrecognized. Creative early modern London playwrights drew on an astonishingly wide range of printed and other sources to embrace the opportunities that occult characters offered for introducing stage magic, music, spectacle, novelty, and exotic excitement into their performances. Their researches took account of classical and contemporary dramatic and witchcraft treatises, trial records, pamphlets and popular print, court gossip, and, as convincingly explored by Verena Theile, for whom “continental European interpretations and treatments of the supernatural had a considerable influence on the literature composed for the London theaters,” European demonological literature. There is no simple dichotomy between English and European witchcraft concepts or superstitious practices. Cultural exchange was constantly facilitated in England at every level, from the highest London court circles, to the untraveled rural spectators of the itinerant quack troupes who took their stage magic across regional and national borders. The accounts of educated travelers have the potential to enhance our understanding of these transnational borrowings. Thomas Platter is rightly recognized for his brief notice of an early performance of Julius Caesar at the Globe. My aim in focusing on his substantial little-known record of ligature in Languedoc is to highlight the potential relevance of non-theatrical tales to our understanding of transnational borrowings on the early modern London stage.

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