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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 book is the first published edition of a previously unknown manuscript treatise on the theological underpinnings of witchcraft belief in late sixteenth-century England. The treatise comprises a point-by-point response to the most famous early modern English work on witchcraft, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). It was written by a personal friend of Scot’s, and internal evidence demonstrates that it offers critical feedback on a now-lost draft version of the Discoverie prior to the publication of that book, providing a rebuttal to Scot’s arguments in much greater detail than any other extant text, and showing precisely why his views were so controversial in their own time. The treatise is also a highly original and sophisticated theoretical defence of witchcraft belief in its own right, and the author’s position is based on detailed scriptural and theological arguments which are not found in any other English writings on the subject. The treatise’s arguments connect witchcraft belief to Reformed Protestant ideas about conscience, the devil, and the correct interpretation of scripture, and demonstrate the broader significance of witchcraft belief within this intellectual framework. It thereby provides evidence that the debate on witchcraft, as represented by the more dogmatic and formulaic printed works on the subject, shied away from the underlying issues which the author of the treatise (in a work never intended for publication) tackles explicitly.
The introduction describes the manuscript treatise, providing detailed arguments as to its date and authorship. It highlights the treatise’s relationship to Scot’s Discoverie, showing that the treatise is a response to a draft version of that book, and that it was written by a personal friend of Scot’s. It goes on to discuss the significance of the treatise in relation to the witchcraft debate that began at this time, and shows that the treatise reveals a more complex and nuanced view of witchcraft than the views typically expressed in printed works on the subject.
The text of the treatise comprises a list of numbered responses to ‘reasons’, which correspond closely to sections of the printed version of Scot’s Discoverie. The text is provided together with excerpts from the relevant parts of the Discoverie for comparison, and is fully annotated. The author uses a variety of theological sources in addition to biblical quotations, including St Augustine, Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Cyprian, and Chrysostom. The treatise touches on a range of issues in relation to witchcraft, including the veracity and causes of witches’ confessions, the question of whether accused witches are mentally ill or not, whether witches are guilty of idolatry and apostasy, and the circumstances under which execution is justified. The author presents a thorough critique of Scot’s method, as well as his conclusions.
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.