Words by Ali Arief 

Witchcraft and the Occult are subjects that I study earnestly. 

Throughout my years of studying these fascinating subjects, I have discovered incredible overlaps between the Occult world and the Theatre world. After spending a fair bit of time in both spaces, learning how each overlap intertwines and relates to the other, I truly believe that acting and stagecraft is a form of Occultism. Occultism is a term used for the study of Occult arts, those specific arts including tarot, astrology, witchcraft, and the practice of magic. 

Within the Occult arts, a heavy emphasis is placed on ritualistic practice and ceremony. A scene is set, candles will light the room, incense will fill the air and sacred words are spoken to an unseen entity, often in poetic tones. The stage follows the same protocol, with lighting, audience and actors honouring their script to deliver to their audience, who are largely unseen. I find this fascinating. 

If you’ve ever been to the Globe, you’ll understand the sacred atmosphere to which I am referring. The Globe itself is circular, which alludes to the magical circle one must cast before attempting a magical ritual. The ornate decorations above the stage show a zodiacal wheel, with mythical creatures upon it that looks rather like the beasts that decorate the Wheel of Fortune card in the Tarot. Its painted heavens is deliberate. It serves to create that magical atmosphere and to prepare your consciousness for the art that’s about to be performed. In the days of the ancient Greeks, to perform a play was seen as a sacred religious act, with each play, performed enacted as an offering to the Gods. It seems as if the Globe is calling back to that ancient past, honouring theatres ancestry as a space of worship. Churchlike, yet inherently pagan. 

If you’re a Dr Who fan like I am, you’re probably thinking of the episode ‘The Shakespeare Code’ written by Gareth Roberts when you picture the Globe in your mind. This episode is a fascinating look into the Occult in relation to the Theatre world, with the alien Witch species ‘Carrionites’ being the sole focus of the stories arc. The episode shows the three Carrionites bewitching the Globes architect Peter Street to create the Globe in a tetradecagonal design so that they can perform a ritual to release themselves from imprisonment. There is no historical evidence to suggest that the real-life Peter Street was involved in the Occult, however, the episode does suggest that the Globe could be used for Occult purposes due to the tetradecagonal design and the emphasis on words having immense power, with the idea being that you could perform a play on this stage, and it would manifest into reality. 

There’s also the matter of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, and that the Stage is where we go to create a tiny example of the larger whole in which we live. After all, we are enacting rituals in nearly almost everything we do. 

Shakespeare himself was well acquainted with Occult mythology, philosophy and knew a lot about Witchcraft. Macbeth is the obvious play that comes to mind when thinking about plays that include The Occult, and incidentally, it is not only my favourite Shakespeare play but all my time favourite play of all time. I cannot describe the chills, anticipation, and terror I feel when reading or seeing the opening scenes of Macbeth. The play has many meanings and interpretations, but from an Occultists standpoint, I truly see this play being about a man fighting with his own fate, and fate being victorious. The Three Witches or Three Weird Sisters have been the sole focus of my love for Macbeth. They are your classical archetype of a Witch, creepy, ugly, and all-knowing. A lot of modern-day Witches find incredible empowerment in this archetype. 

I see these three women as a warning against patriarchy, it almost seems like these Witches were written in to provide a warning against male domination. Witchcraft is seen by many as a reclamation of power against a religious patriarchal society, and the stereotype of the ugly and creepy is becoming a comfort to many feminist occultists. I couldn’t argue that the three Witches are presented in a negative light, rather the power that they hold over the fate of men is almost portrayed as a good thing. Divine, almost. When we are introduced to them in Act 1, Scene 1, they prophesise the events of the play about to unfold. They oversee destiny. They could be inspired by the Three Fates in Greek Mythology, who was in charge of the fate and destiny of the protagonists in the myths. The Fates were always revered and seen as extremely important. 

I believe it’s important to analyse the usage of Witchcraft within plays, as it can demonstrate an understanding of spiritual power. Often, the use of magic is portrayed in a negative and villainous light, but Shakespeare seems to show a more morally grey side to the practice of Witchcraft. It is neither force for good nor evil. To Shakespeare, magic just is. The chaotic, playful, and downright mischievous element of magical practice is always accepted and celebrated within his plays, which could have been seen as controversial in Elizabethan England. Nonetheless, it’s important to know that Queen Elizabeth had a court astrologer herself, by the name of John Dee. So perhaps Occultism was celebrated to an extent in Shakespeare’s time. 

Categories: Arts Theatre

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