Philip Butterworth. Magic on the Early English Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xxii+295pp. ISBN: 978-0521825139.

Andrew D. McCarthy
Washington State University

Andrew D. McCarthy. "Review of Philip Butterworth, Magic on the Early English Stage."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 11.1-6 <URL:>.

  1. In the prefatory note to Magic on the Early English Stage, Philip Butterworth provides a disclaimer of sorts. He explains that though some stage tricks and illusions are discussed within the pages of his study, it does not necessarily mean they work or have worked in the past. These "performers' tricks" are evaluated not on their own efficacy but as evidence of "ingenuity, insight, lateral thinking and guile." He also notes, "References to the 'stage' in this book are concerned with both the physical stage and that performance space created by the ambit that surrounds the performer, whether he be actor or juggler" (xix). Given that this is a book about stage magic, it seems only fair that the artistry and performance be examined as closely as the illusions themselves. Butterworth's willingness to evenly explore the wide variety of techniques and performers of magic on the English stage results in a study that is both informative and compelling.

  2. Before stage magic can be studied, stage magic must be defined. Butterworth's introduction provides a number of helpful definitions, a project he continues in the final chapter, "Terminology." The juggler is central to the first pages of this monograph because the author identifies that figure as central to magic and the early English stage. Drawing on medieval definitions in the OED, Butterworth explains that jugglers are those who perform magical tricks. Though he recognizes "conjurer" has become the modern equivalent, the author is quick to point out that this term was not used to describe sleight-of-hand performers until the nineteenth century. Butterworth then provides examples of jugglers themselves, noting that evidence regarding these provocative figures can be found in scattered records of payment, or even detailed and vivid eye-witness accounts of performances. Interweaving these source materials, Butterworth recounts the work of Thomas Brandon, the King's juggler from 1517/18-1540/1 and William Vincent, alias "Hocus Pocus" and author of Hocus Pocus Iunior, an important early work on magic. Drawing on another important work from the period, Butterworth makes excellent use of Reginald Scot's Discouerie of witchcraft by revealing the ways in which Scot used the example of jugglers and their acts to dismiss witchcraft as superstition.

  3. The early chapters of the book clearly reflect Butterworth's conception of the early English stage as the area, indeed in some cases the very air, surrounding the performing jugglers. Chapter two examines feats of activity and physical skill such as tumbling, vaulting, and dancing on the rope. Particularly striking is the observation that, though these performers were not necessarily seen as dramatic actors, costuming them in the appropriate tight-fitting tumblers' garments or the loose-fitting jugglers' clothes was paramount to their success. In his discussion of conveyance and confederacy, both types of tricks requiring sleight of hand, Butterworth spends significant time on the confederate relationships between man and animal, specifically the partnership of William Banks and his horse Morocco. Not merely a heartwarming tale of man and beast, because confederacy required, in Scot's words "a compact" or prior agreement between parties, Morocco's various performances serve as an important case study of confederacy's potential and popularity. The chapter then concludes with the climactic account of Morocco climbing to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, an event a number of English playwrights cite in their own works.

  4. As the book progresses, Butterworth moves the discussion from an examination of the immediate area surrounding the juggler to a study of the physical stage. Chapter four explores the logistics of causing someone or something to appear or disappear. Noting the importance of pulleys, the manipulation of light and dark, and "patter" or language to help facilitate misdirection, Butterworth also reveals the importance of sound in similarly aiding in the juggler's act. The author describes the use of various mechanical images and puppets, as well as the act of substitution, noting the ways in which hands, arms, and even whole bodies were substituted for dramatic effect. The penultimate chapter makes good on the title's promise by explicitly addressing the English stage and the ways in which stabbings, beheadings, and hangings-all crucial to the period's tragedies-were orchestrated. As to be expected, this chapter is largely concerned with the physical stage, and draws its examples from a number of medieval and Renaissance plays. The detailed description of how Hieronimo bites out his tongue in Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, encourages the reader to appreciate the magic staged by that role's original performers.

  5. What makes Butterworth's Magic on the Early English Stage so remarkable is its ability to be at once profoundly erudite while conveying the wonder of these performers and their performances. This is achieved in part by the inclusion of eye-witness accounts and sixteenth-century illustrations. Equally impressive is Butterworth's exhaustive compilation and use of sources, many of which, as he notes, have not been in print since their original publication. To this end, the author attaches four appendices to his work, including the first English translation of Edward Melton's text (1681), an amazing account of the legendary Indian rope trick.

  6. The reader leaves this text feeling quite certain that though his subject is sleight of hand and other devices meant to misdirect, Butterworth himself is guilty of no such tricks, instead delivering a truly spectacular work that will be of use to all interested in the early English stage for many years to come.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).