Date of Award


Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

English, PhD


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Lori-Anne Ferrell

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

David Luis-Brown

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Mark Eaton

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Wendy Martin

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2020 Yiju Liao


early modern England, ghosts, madness, Reformation, Shakespearean Drama, witchcraft

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


This dissertation examines how Shakespeare approached elements of the supernatural – ghosts, madness, and witchcraft – in his plays. The aftermath of the England’s break from the Catholic Church led to societal upheaval in the way early modern England viewed the supernatural. Prior to this break, Europeans interpreted the supernatural through the religious explanations provided by the Church. However, the Reformation opened the gates for scholars, physicians, and theologists to offer up non-religious explanations for supernatural phenomena. In England in particular, tropes and fears towards the supernatural were colored by the foreign threats against Queen Elizabeth I by the Catholic powers of continental Europe. I examine the topics of ghosts, witches, and madness because they represent the three main ways in which the Reformation caused society to reinterpret the supernatural. I am interested in the areas in which Shakespeare’s portrayals diverged from the interpretations embraced by those in power. While the state tried to associate the supernatural with the demonic or with Catholic conspiracy, Shakespeare tried to separate religious explanations from the supernatural. Using a New Historicist approach, I look at the religious, political, and cultural background which informed Shakespeare’s portrayals. I look particularly at the works of skeptical scholars who challenged the prevailing religious dogma towards supernatural phenomena. By examining at the works, epochs, and attitudes that Shakespeare drew on, we can learn why Shakespeare chose to portray the supernatural in the way he did. Specifically, in his portrayals, he provided the minority and subalterns of his society a voice on his stage. He also warned his audience of the danger behind a belief in the power of supernatural based on political reasons. Finally, his plays demonstrate he tried to refute the religious explanations for supernatural as dangerous illusion. I believe we can gain a better understanding of the culture and history of early modern England by examining the ways in which Shakespeare interpreted ghosts, witches, and mental illness in his plays.