The Diſcouerie of Witchcraft was widely read in the late 16th and early 17th century. In The Reception of Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft: Witchcraft, Magic, and Radical Religion, S.F. Davies explains that “almost every English author who subsequently wrote on the subject of witchcraft mentioned Scot despairingly […] even though on many issues their viewpoints were not wholly dissimilar.” The many extant copies of the treatise suggest that although this work may have been dismissed by some, it was popular among many. Despite Scot’s denunciations of witchcraft, his book was condemned by the House of Commons, and by King James VI of Scotland in Daemonologie (1597).
William Shakespeare appears clearly to have been influenced by Scot’s work The Diſcouerie of Witchcraft, as one might deduce from his treatment of witches in Macbeth, as well as the development of Puck’s character and Bottom’s transformation in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Prospero’s and Ariel’s magical relationship in The Tempest, and more (see Discovery, British Library). These are but a few indications of this work’s appeal for popular culture. Thomas Nashe calls upon it frequently and directly in The Terrors of the Night, and Christopher Marlowe’s inscription of the summoning circle in Doctor Faustus is also a direct echo. These citations likely only scratch the surface of Scot’s influence on early modern literary and dramatic culture.
The British Library has digitized the following extracts of Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft, and offers them in facsimile with commentary indicating Shakespeare’s likely use. The first section discusses Incubus and contains mentions of Robin Goodfellow and other spirits (pp. 85-86). The second section discusses a man turned into ass and returned once again into a man (pp. 94-97). The third section from pages discusses people’s fears of bugs and how they are connected to Christ’s miracles (pp.152-154). The fourth section discusses how to know of treasure hidden in the earth (pp. 408-410). The fifth and last section includes a diagram with circles and stars used for conjuring (pp. 420).
*It should be noted that on page 153, a crude racial epithet is used. While we in no way condone the use of this word, we represent it here for documentary purposes. Tracing such words is important for research and for discussions of historical racism.