Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture

By Auger, Emily E. | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture


Auger, Emily E., Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture Ryan Curtis Friesen, Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture. Brighton, Portland, and Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2010. 249 + x pp. $74.95 USD (Hardcover) ISBN: 978 1 84519 329 4

Ryan Curtis Friesen's Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture is an analysis of representations of "acts of magical efficacy" in different kinds of texts. Three chapters are dedicated to various works by individual authors, including Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and John Dee (1527-1608). The discussions about Agrippa and Bruno are followed by a chapter titled "Early Modern England's Belief in Fictional Witchcraft." Four chapters are dedicated to individual texts: Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1616), Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606) and The Tempest (1611) and Thomas Middleton's The Witch (1615); while Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1610) and Mercury Vindicated (perf. 1615) are treated together.

In many respects, Freisen's book may be productively compared with Heidi Breuer's Crafting the Witch (2009), a study of representations of the witch in twelfth- to sixteenth-century Arthurian literature. Breuer, like Friesen, considers works by Shakespeare, but her other principal authors include Chaucer, Malory and Spenser. The affinities between Breuer's chosen texts are sufficiently obvious that she does not need to interrogate the categorical definition of "fiction" in relation to intentionality, although her references to the transcripts of witch trials and differences in local beliefs about the power of witches suggests that this might be a fruitful avenue of investigation. Indeed, Friesen's chapter on beliefs about witchcraft is the most informative of his entire book as he distinguishes between belief and fraud, between church doctrine and folklore, and between anti-witchcraft legislation and its implementation in relation to various kinds of texts. Friesen, however, applies "fiction" categorically to his chosen texts as a kind of rationalization for their study in the opening lines of his introduction: "Acts of magical efficacy--necromancy, alchemy, conjuration, sorcery, witchcraft--were as impossible in the early modern period as they are in the twenty-first century. …

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