How to conjure the Devil in an Early Modern Theatre

A magician with a staff in once hand and a book of magic in the other (as well as a damn fine pair of mustachios) faces off a grinning bearded figure with wings, tail and scaly skin. It’s the woodcut illustration from Christopher Marlowe’s 1616 edition of Doctor Faustus. But the devil doesn’t spend the whole play as this dragon-like figure. At the request of Faustus, the demon Mephistopheles changes into the likeness of an old Franciscan friar.

Ah yes, the Elizabethan/Jacobean devil had a lot of different looks and scaly dragon was only one of them…

In Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, the devil appears as a traditional animal familiar, Malkin the cat. Similarly, in The Witch of Edmonton, Rowley, Dekker and Ford’s 1621 play based upon the real-life story of executed witch Elizabeth Sawyer, the devil appears as a large black dog. Yet the sinister, witty dog (genuinely a barrel of laughs) reminds us the devil can assume ‘any shape to blind such silly eyes as thine’.

Funnily enough, devils are often found displaying the many talents of an Early Modern actor, playing instruments, singing and dancing, such as the ‘horn pipe’ performed in Barnaby Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter. Want to call up a devil for yourself? Well here, according to Mr Barnes, is the formula:

Alexander fashioneth out his circle then taketh his rod … standing without the circle he waveth his rod to the East.

And calleth upon VIONATRABA.

To the West. SUSERATOS.

To the North. AQVIEL.

To the South. MACHASÄEL.

Conjuro, et confirmo super vos in nomine. Eye, eye, eye; haste up & ascend per nomen ya, ya, ya; he, he, he; va; hy, hy; ha, ha, ha; va, va, va; an, an, an.

But beware… Edward Alleyn one of the most famous actors of his day, had a dreadful shock when performing in a play as a demon. Apparently, a mysterious extra devil popped up on stage. Had the real thing been inadvertently summoned? Alleyn certainly wasn’t taking any risks and swore to give more money to charity in future, a nice way to ensure the safeguarding of his soul. Other rumours say the extra devil incident was what made him decide to retire from the stage. (So perhaps go easy on the ‘ya, ya, ya, he he, he’s unless you are very sure….)

So just how did all this calling up of devils, and flitting from one shape to another happen on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage?

Handily (and unusually), Barnaby Barnes puts lots of stage directions into The Devil’s Charter and we see characters lugging props on and offstage as well as dragging the murdered from the scene. Fireworks, multiple demons and dancing also make an appearance in the directions for Dr Faustus. And in Henslowe’s Diary, a list of costumes, properties and accounts compiled by theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe lists a ‘hell mouth’ amongst his assets. We can only imagine what it was and how it was used, but perhaps devils came springing out of there, surrounded by smoke and fireworks. The trapdoor found in most purpose-built Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres would have been a popular option for devil entrances too.

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