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- Author: Eric Pudney x
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This book situates witchcraft drama within its cultural and intellectual context, highlighting the centrality of scepticism and belief in witchcraft to the genre. It is argued that these categories are most fruitfully understood not as static and mutually exclusive positions within the debate around witchcraft, but as rhetorical tools used within it. In drama, too, scepticism and belief are vital issues. The psychology of the witch character is characterised by a combination of impious scepticism towards God and credulous belief in the tricks of the witch’s master, the devil. Plays which present plausible depictions of witches typically use scepticism as a support: the witch’s power is subject to important limitations which make it easier to believe. Plays that take witchcraft less seriously present witches with unrestrained power, an excess of belief which ultimately induces scepticism. But scepticism towards witchcraft can become a veneer of rationality concealing other beliefs that pass without sceptical examination. The theatrical representation of witchcraft powerfully demonstrates its uncertain status as a historical and intellectual phenomenon; belief and scepticism in witchcraft drama are always found together, in creative tension with one another.
This chapter introduces the book and outlines the broad argument, which revolves around expressions of scepticism and belief towards the phenomenon of witchcraft. It outlines the theoretical and methodological framework for the study, introducing historians of witchcraft, such as Walter Stephens, on whose work it builds. It also positions the study in relation to various previous views of witchcraft drama, especially the work of Diane Purkiss, and indicates how the present book’s concerns and arguments differ.
This chapter discusses the rediscovery of sceptical philosophy (pyrrhonism) during the Renaissance and its relationship with discussions of witchcraft and other debates of the period. It considers the arguments used in the witchcraft debate, especially those of Reginald Scot, and the status of ancient myth as supposedly historical evidence. The terms rhetorical scepticism and submerged scepticism are used to describe and account for various rhetorical strategies and attitudes adopted by authors on witchcraft. It also discusses some of the earliest witchcraft drama, such as Three Laws and Gammer Gurton’s Needle, which predates the Elizabethan anti-witchcraft legislation of 1563, and is connected with the emergence of the English Reformation. These early dramatic works establish a connection between Catholic superstition and witchcraft which endures throughout the period.
The chapter opens with a discussion of Elizabethan attitudes to witchcraft, arguing that a gender gap in credibility between male and female users of magic was something that proponents of witchcraft persecution had to overcome. The supposed absence of witches in Elizabethan drama is discussed, and this perception is ascribed to the way in which female magic users are represented before 1603 – they tend to be modelled on classical witches such as those of John Lyly and Robert Greene or (male) magicians rather than popular ideas about witches. An example of witchcraft without witches is also examined: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the context of its source, The Golden Asse. Some exceptions to this rule are also examined, and it is argued that the first properly demonological witch to be represented on stage is Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.
This chapter presents the evidence for King James I’s immediate impact on witchcraft plays, arguing that the theatrical representation of witchcraft is much more clearly influenced by demonology after his accession to the throne. The Jacobean period produces an elite mini-genre of witch plays such as Sophonisba, Macbeth, and The Masque of Queens which represent monarch and witch (or witch’s client) as opposites. These plays are interpreted within the context of the court and its concerns. Eventually, however, growing dissatisfaction with the new monarch and his notoriously corrupt and licentious court came to a head with the scandal surrounding the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch exploited the resulting public outrage in a daring parody of this genre.
This chapter studies a specific witchcraft play in depth: Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton. Based partly on the historical case of Elizabeth Sawyer, the play presents a plausible picture of witchcraft by representing it as one sin among many, locating the crime of witchcraft on a scale of human sin which encompasses all humans. By representing the activities of the devil not only with Sawyer but also within the invented story of Frank Thorney, a bigamist and murderer, the play works to normalise the idea of diabolical witchcraft. The sympathy for the witch that so many critics have detected in the play is a function of this levelling vision of human sin, which distributes culpability for the tragic events of the play throughout the Edmonton community.
This chapter studies a specific witchcraft play in depth: Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches. Heywood’s previous interest in witchcraft (as shown in his previous works Gynaeikon and The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels) and other discussion of witchcraft from the period provide the intellectual context. It is argued that both context and play demonstrate an increasingly prevalent bifurcation in attitudes towards witchcraft: individual cases of witchcraft are treated with much greater scepticism than previously, but belief in witchcraft in general remains an important cornerstone of religious faith for most orthodox Christians. While the play maintains the reality of witchcraft as a demonic pact in one important scene, it also reveals the growing scepticism of the contemporary culture.
This chapter discusses the growing importance of spirits, and growing interest in precisely what spirits are and how they supposedly interact with the physical world, during the Restoration. This interest in spirits, always of great underlying importance within the debate on witchcraft, enters into this debate more openly during the Interregnum and Restoration periods. A number of dramatic treatments of witchcraft during the Restoration are discussed, many of which bear traces of this increasing interest in the connections between the spiritual and physical realms, and all of which tend to suggest increasing scepticism towards witchcraft. Particularly striking in this regard are the Shakespeare adaptations of Richard Davenant, whose versions of Macbeth and The Tempest exemplify much greater interest in the workings of the spiritual world than Shakespeare’s originals.
This chapter studies a specific witchcraft play in depth: Thomas Shadwell’s The Lancashire Witches. The play is shown to be a highly polemical play which uses scepticism about witchcraft in order to establish its favoured characters as rational, lending authority to their unwavering belief in the Popish Plot. The chapter elucidates the play’s anti-Catholicism, and points out the various parallels drawn between Catholics and witches. The play’s extreme Whig position in relation to the succession crisis is established and literary responses by opposing Tory poets are also discussed. The huge irony of the play decrying witchcraft persecution as cruel while encouraging belief in the major witch-hunt of its own time is highlighted.