Witch of Islington, The

Anon. (1597?)

Historical Records

Performance Records

Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 27v ((Greg I) p. 54)

July 1597
|14| . . . . . . tt at the wiche of Jslyngton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 01|07|02 — 00 — 00
|28| tt at the wiche of Jselyngton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 01|08|00 — 13 — 00
marginal note: "marten slather went for the company of my lord admeralles men the 18 of July 1597" (See below For What It's Worth.)

Theatrical Provenance

The play first appears in repertorial listings for the Admiral's men in July 1597. Because it was not marked with Henslowe's "ne" (as his new plays tend to be), theater historians have assigned it a dating range of 1590-1597 but not offered suggestions on a previous owner. Its staging in proximity to the Admiral's acquisition of old plays from Pembroke's men invites consideration that this play too had belonged to that company.

Probable Genre(s)

Harbage offers "Realistic Trag. (?)"; another option is domestic drama.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Ben Jonson writes, in an annotation to his Masque of Queenes (1609), on witches making pictures of their victims in wax, etc.:

Bodin... hath... much of the witches later practise in that kind, and reports a relation of a French Ambassadours, out of England, of certaine pictures of wax found in a dunghill, neere Islington, of our late Queenes, which rumor I my selfe (being then very younge) can yet remember to haue bene current. (B2r, n.)

It has been suggested that it was on this episode that the play was based. Fleay writes: "This must have afforded the plot to The Witch of Islington (BCED II, 4-5). The supposed attack on the Queen took place in 1578 (Sharpe, 45).

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Malone has no opinion on the stage history or storyline of the play (p. 299). Collier, by implication commenting on the absence of Henslowe's enigmatic "ne," observes that "The Witch of Islington" might have been "a stock piece, brought out before the date when the Diary commences (p. 90, n.1).

Fleay, BCED, in a collective note on Henslowe's plays from 1594 to 1597 that are not marked "ne," avers that they all "must have belonged to the Admiral's men on 3 June 1594 ... [and] have been originally produced before June 1592" (2, p. 302).

Greg, II has nothing to suggest about the content and genre of the play (#111 p. 185).

Wiggins, Catalogue mentions but puts little stock as theatrical subject matter in a story about threats to Queen Elizabeth that were prompted by the discovery of "wax effigies of the Queen and two Privy councillors ... found in a dunghill." His source for the story is Jean Bodin, De magorum Demonomania (1581). Whatever the logic of "domestic comedy" having been suggested as the genre of this play, Wiggins thinks "probably not" despite its witch character's possibly being more a Heywoodian "wise woman" than demonic figure (#978).

H. W. Herrington posits a “dramatic vogue” for witchcraft plays in the late 1590s (478), and, after discussing Mother Redcap, writes:

Earlier in the same year [1597] Henslowe notes a performance of "The Witch of Islington." By the next year had been written "Black Joan." The former was either an out-and-out witch play, or else such a play with political bearings. The latter, in all probability, was a witch play also. If we may judge from the titles and the growing realism of dramatic treatment, they were of a kind far closer to actual life than those hitherto considered. (478)

Adams suggests that Henslowe's omission of 'ne' (i.e. new) in the diary entries indicates that it was a revival of an old play; he does not suggest narrative possibilities (95).

For What It's Worth

Henslowe made a somewhat longish note ("longish" for him) alongside four entries of performance between July 18 and 28, 1597 (Fol. 27v). One of those entries was for "The Witch of Islington" (on 28 July). That note says that Martin Slater left the company of the Admiral's men on the 18th of July. There is no reason to connect the plays offered between the 18th and 28th of July with Slater and his departure. "The Witch of Islington" was not one of the plays bought from Slater on the 16th of May 1598 (Fol. 45v).

Works Cited

Adams, H. H. English Domestic Or, Homiletic Tragedy 1575 to 1642. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1943. Print.
Herrington, H. W. “Witchcraft and Magic in the Elizabethan Drama”. The Journal of American Folklore 32.126 (1919): 447–85. Web.
Jonson, B. The Masque of Queenes. London: Nicholas Okes for R. Bonian and H. Wally, 1609. Print. Web (EEBO); web (ed. W. Gifford, 1855, Google Books).
Sharpe, J. Instruments of Darkness - Witchcraft in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Site created and maintained by Simon Davies, University of Sussex; updated 13 May 2011. Updated 10 October 2019 by Roslyn L. Knutson.