Detail from Henry Howard, artist; John Thompson, engraver. Macbeth, Act IV, scene 1. Print, 19th century.
The spookiest month is upon us and with it come the staples of the season: ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and, of course, witches. Witches and magic appear again and again throughout Shakespeare’s plays, most notably in Macbeth but also scattered through histories (King Henry VI, Part 2) and comedies (Bottom’s new look in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This is hardly surprising, as Shakespeare was writing during an intense period of witchcraft paranoia in Europe, during which an estimated 50,000 people lost their lives. Those accused were often women—many of them older—who were simply outside society in some way, and their stories deserve to be told.
Witches and witchcraft have remained at the forefront of our collective imagination, evolving from subjects of persecution and sources of fear to something that can be explored, celebrated, and even emulated. Exploring early modern witchcraft through historical fiction is one way we can better appreciate how far we’ve come.
In that spirit, we have curated a trio of contemporary novels which offer contrasting views of early modern witchcraft for you to enjoy during these autumnal nights — including our latest selection for the Folger Book Club on Thursday, October 7, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch.
1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet is an achingly beautiful reflection on love, parenting, and grief as told through Anne Hathway, Shakespeare’s wife. O’Farrell bestows her version of Anne—called “Agnes” in the novel—with healing powers and the gift of premonition, playing with the already blurred lines between medicine and magic that characterized early modern curative practices. Though viewed as a witch by her Stratford neighbors, Agnes is never formally charged with witchcraft, and her supernatural leanings are subtly woven through the greater story of moving on in the face of loss.
Learn more from Maggie O’Farrell on Hamnet on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast; see our Collection Connections: Hamnet on the Folger Spotlight blog; and read a short passage in Excerpt — ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell here on Shakespeare & Beyond.
2. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé
European witch panic was winding down by the end of the 17th century, but in America the fear continued, heavily influenced by continental thinking and literature with which Shakespeare would have likely been familiar. In 1692, a number of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts, seemingly became possessed by malevolent influences, leading to our country’s most famous witchcraft trials. One of the first accused was an enslaved woman named Tituba. It is her story Condé skillfully explores through her 1986 novel, which won the French Grand Prix award for women’s literature. Tituba, like Agnes, is a skilled natural healer, but hers is a story about agency forfeited and reclaimed. Worried that posterity will reduce her to a historical footnote, Tituba is given a voice in this compelling novel.
Trace witchcraft from Shakespeare to Salem in Collection Connections: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem on our Folger Spotlight blog.
3. Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen
Rivka Galchen’s darkly funny and deeply sobering book about town gossip and suspicion recounts the true story of Katharina Kepler—the mother of famed astronomer Johannes Kepler—who was accused of witchcraft in early 17th-century Germany. Sarcastic and strong-willed, Katharina is an exemplary scapegoat for the petty jealousies that fuel her town of Leonberg. Based on historic documents, Galchen’s novel is a wry look at how we treat outsiders.
Explore resources connected to witchcraft and astronomy in Resource Guide: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch on our Folger Spotlight blog.
Join our Folger Book Club to discuss Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch on October 7, 2021, at 7:30pm. We’d love to see you there.
⇒ Related: For more about witches and witchcraft, in Shakespeare and in history, explore these Shakespeare & Beyond posts:
Toil and trouble: Recipes and the witches in ‘Macbeth’
A manual for witch hunters
Illustrating Shakespeare: Three witches on the heath