THE CRUCIBLE - Historical Background of Witches in Salem, 1692


James I was king of England (1603-1625) when the Pilgrims set sail for Northern Virginia (New England) in 1620. James I was a firm believer in witches and witchcraft and the harm they could do. He even wrote an authoritative account of witchcraft entitled Daemonologie. His belief in witchcraft probably inspired William Shakespeare to prominently feature witches in Macbeth, a play widely believed to be an homage to James I and his supposed ancestor Banquo ("Thou shalt get kings though thou be none").

This passage from Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth by Garry Wills helps us imagine the climate of the times in the late 16th and early 17th century in England:

Witchcraft was not just a matter of private concern, filling the law courts with complaints of hexes and love spells. It was a factor in affairs of state. Elizabeth's government showed enough concern when a crude image of herself was discovered that it called in John Dee, the master of occult lore, to prescribe protective measures. This baffled plot against Elizabeth was described by Dekker in The Whore of Babylon, where a conjurer offers his service against the Queen (2.2.168-175):

This virgin wax Bury I will in slimy-putrid ground, Where it may piecemeal rot. As this consumes, So shall she pine, and (after languor) die. These pins shall stick like daggers to her heart And, eating through her breast, turn there to gripings, Cramplike convulsions, shrinking up her nerves As into this they eat.

This is the "pining" spell witches were known for, the one Shakespeare's witch casts on a sailor (1.3.22-23):

Weary sev'n-nights, nine times nine, Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

King James discussed such magic use of images in his dialogue. Elizabeth was also attacked with hellish potions, including the magic poison smeared on her saddle pommel by Edward Squire.

King James was even more plagued by political witchcraft than was Elizabeth. Most of the major conspiracies against his life involved witchcraft. In 1590 Dr. Fian used a "school" of witches to cast spells on him. In 1593 Bothwell's rebellion led to an indictment for witchcraft. In 1600, when the Gowrie Plot failed, magic formulas were found on the body of the man who tried to assassinate the King. It is not surprising that the King should dwell on the dark arts that abetted the Powder Plotters-this was just a new piece in the old pattern of James's psychomachia with hellish powers. (Wills, Garry, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, Oxford University Press, 1995, pages 41-42.)

This was the climate of the times when the Puritans settled New England. Witches and witchcraft were often blamed for unknown phenomena, and deeply religious people like the Puritans were especially prone to see the devil's hand in unpleasant circumstances. The wilderness of the New World presented a particularly potent set of unknown circumstances and dangers. Perhaps it is not surprising that the hysteria of Salem was the result.


“The Crucible - Historical Background.”  Social Studies School Service.  8 Nov. 2007 <>.