Superstition, Folklore, and Astrology in Shakespeare's Time
Papp, Joseph, and Elizabeth Kirkland. "Superstition, Folklore, and Astrology in Shakespeare's Time."EXPLORING Shakespeare. Online Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center - Gold. Thomson Gale. Irondequoit High School. 27 Feb. 2007
The Elizabethans were no different, in fact, in an age before computers had been invented, before medical science understood disease, before astronomy, meteorology, and geology had learned much about the heavens and the earth, magical beliefs played an even larger role in daily life than they do today. Most Elizabethan households were well stocked with peculiar superstitions and strange practices: there might be a horseshoe over the door to ward off evil spirits, an astrological almanac on the table, a bowl of cream set out for the fairies every night, and a stockpile of charms to ward off ghosts and witches should they come a-knocking.
There were many beliefs that guided day-to-day activities and gave great significance to the most ordinary occurrences. Certain numbers were luckier than others. And particular days of the month were advisable for starting a journey, sowing crops, or even cutting fingernails!
The Elizabethans were great believers in the influence of the stars and the planets. How could they have been otherwise when the rhythms and routines of their daily lives were so dependent on the skies? Without street lights, desk lamps, and electric wiring, travel was undertaken only by the shine of the full moon, study illuminated by the flickering light of the candle, and plays put on in the daylight hours of the afternoon. The working day was longer in the summer, when light lingered until ten or eleven o'clock at night.
The configuration of the skies and stars at the exact moment of a person's birth—which any half-competent astrologer could ascertain—determined what kind of person he or she would be and what kind of life, and death, would follow.
Consulting the stars—courtesy of the local stargazer in a village or a fancier private practitioner in London—helped confused Elizabethans determine what specific course of action to take. An astrologer who knew the position of the stars and planets at the exact moment a crucial question was asked could then provide answers to all sorts of personal queries—when to get married, when to look for a job, and even that rare dilemma of when to take a bath (never, was the usual answer!). Failing to act at the moment dictated by the heavens was invariably catastrophic.
Astrology wasn't just the preserve of the glittering stars of the Court. If anything, it was even more popular in the workaday world. Landless laborers and gentlemen farmers alike could keep up with the latest astrological forecasts for just a few pennies by buying an almanac from a wandering bookseller. These almanacs were as widely circulated in Elizabethan times as gossipy grocery-stand newspapers are today. Although they didn't have daily horoscopes counseling a romantic rendezvous with a dark lady or predicting a profitable business deal, they were absolutely chock-full of interesting and relevant information.
If worries about ghosts weren't enough to guarantee sleepless nights, there were the fairies to think about, too. Those to be feared weren't the tiny sweet playful fairies that Shakespeare invented for A Midsummer Night's Dream—that mischief-making but good-hearted fairy tribe led by Oberon and Titania; nor were they the cute little animated figures who flit around Walt Disney Studios on their shimmering wings. No, these Elizabethan fairies were life-sized creatures, fiendish and malicious, who made the milk go sour and the livestock sick. This is the kind of fairy that Dromio of Syracuse means when he calls his churlish master in The Comedy of Errors"A fiend, a fairy, pitiless and rough."
Fairies came in several models: there were hostile river spirits and wily mermaids who lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths; giants and hags; fairy aristocrats who, like their human counterparts, spent their time dancing, hunting, and feasting; and the ordinary everyday goblins. But not all fairies were malevolent. Best-known of all was the native English fairy Robin Good-fellow, or Puck, a "shrewd and knavish sprite," as Shakespeare calls him, who was the special guardian of home and hearth.
What is one superstition that Elizabethans believed in? ___________________________