Jan Tasker

Jan Tasker

Shakespeare Institute
Doctoral Researcher

Contact details

PhD title: Early English Drama and the Supernatural, 1533 - 1642
Supervisors: Dr Martin Wiggins and Dr Jonathan Willis
Home country: UK
PhD Shakespeare Studies


My study considers the process of post-reformation change in supernatural beliefs evidenced by potential audience understanding of contemporary drama. It considers evolving representations of supernatural elements in drama written between c.1530 - 1642, in relation to changing religious beliefs associated with the Reformation. The focus is therefore on supernatural elements which held for contemporaries potentially religious as well as folkloric connotations.

My focus in the early chapters relates to the changing representation of the Christian God, an area rarely considered by other scholars. It then moves on to consider the intimate relationship other supernatural elements had with the characterisation of God, as potential replacement figures, once it ceased to be acceptable to represent God anthropomorphically on the stage. This change began to take place in the period 1560 - 1580. Representations of God gradually moved from literal external relationships to protagonists to attempts at external representations of an internal relationship. Subsequently, agents such as the devil and witches were used to represent the effects of this relationship.  Ultimately, abstract concepts such as ‘Providence’ represent God’s role in the play world.

This thesis explores the ways in which early English drama engaged with, reflected, and informed contemporary beliefs and practices relating to the supernatural from the early reformation period through to the closure of the theatres in 1642. The ‘supernatural’ is taken to be anything that is not constrained by the rules of nature.  However, as its focus is on the consequences of the reformation, it excludes predominately folkloric beings, which contemporary theologians and other commentators did not usually discuss in religious terms, even if lay audiences were unclear on the distinctions. It includes God, the devil, angels, ghosts, witches and magic, providence (and its secular equivalent fortune), and prophesies. These were all connected to religious belief, but their inter-relationships changed during the reformation. Protestant reformers sought to abolish Catholic ‘superstition’, including attitudes to some supernatural elements. However, they also used scriptural authority to rationalise religious beliefs, and most of the supernatural elements are referenced in the Bible. The resulting theology was sometimes contradictory and often contested, with a spectrum of Protestant beliefs developing over a long period of time. 

Hence, the distinction between acceptable supernatural beliefs and illicit superstition was fluid. Theologians rehearsed multiple conflicting scriptural interpretations and political authorities used refined definitions of ‘superstition’ to demonise opposition groups. For example, increasingly Protestant commentators associated elements of Catholic ritual with ‘witchcraft’. However, lay belief inevitably changed more slowly. Frequent exhortations from pulpit and press, and evidence from witchcraft trials, indicate the ‘unorthodox’ and ‘unofficial’ supernatural beliefs held by the laity well after the Elizabethan settlement, whilst official theology contained many contradictory ideas creating tensions, and hence fruitful material for dramatists. The dramatic use of supernatural elements relied on contemporary belief in their possibility, so changes in conventions used to portray the metaphysical can indicate changing contemporary belief. This raises the questions: how did contemporary drama engage with these tensions and what role did it play in changing attitudes of its audiences? This broad methodological question is still relevant today as we seek to understand how social and cultural media contributes to or challenges the stigmatisation of minority groups, for example.