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Title:The forms of things unknown: The impact of Reginald Scot's skeptical treatise, "The Discoverie of Witchcraft", on "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "King Lear", and "The Tempest"
Author(s):Gulstad, William Olaf
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Klein, Joan L.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Literature, English
Abstract:Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft argued that God's omnipotence precluded the existence of any other supernatural power, especially witchcraft. My thesis is that Shakespeare's treatment of witchcraft and associated issues in A Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, and The Tempest was influenced by Scot's skepticism.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare works with the belief in fairies. I contend that this play is Shakespeare's preliminary examination of the conflicting roles of reason and imagination. This conflict, I argue, is explored through Theseus' Scot-like skepticism and Bottom's glorious but also foolish Dream, especially his experience with an ass's head, which has traditionally been seen as inspired by passages in Scot's Discoverie. I also analyze the behavior of the young lovers in the woods in terms of this tension between reason and imagination.
King Lear, I argue, examines the question of supernatural causation, the subject at the heart of Scot's Discoverie. The play explores and then discards (as did Scot) a wide variety of theories of causation current in Shakespeare's day, including the belief in witchcraft, possession, and astrology. I pay special attention to the way Lear interprets the wickedness of his elder daughters in terms of witchcraft, especially in the scene of the mock-trial. However, I argue that Lear remains purposefully ambiguous about whether it endorses or denies the existence of God's providence, leaving the audience to judge for themselves.
My examination of The Tempest begins by looking at how key sections of the Discoverie probably influenced Shakespeare in constructing the plot and substance of the play. I contend that the particular combination of classical sources used by Shakespeare, especially Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses, was suggested to Shakespeare by Scot's pinpointing of these classical works as the authorities on which many credulous writers based their belief in witches. The play, I argue, agrees with Scot's thesis that there are neither witches nor magicians, though Shakespeare expects us to suspend disbelief in this regard for the duration of the play. I contend that Prospero's art, like that of the charlatans which Scot discredits, consists mainly of theater and illusion.
Issue Date:1994
Rights Information:Copyright 1994 Gulstad, William Olaf
Date Available in IDEALS:2011-05-07
Identifier in Online Catalog:AAI9512382
OCLC Identifier:(UMI)AAI9512382

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