Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Interrogating the Devil: Social and Demonic Pressure in the Witch of Edmonton

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Interrogating the Devil: Social and Demonic Pressure in the Witch of Edmonton

Article excerpt

In its tale of witchcraft, murder, and bigamy, Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton (1621) powerfully dramatizes both social and demonic forces operating within a small rural community. Although a number of recent studies have discussed the play's depiction of the social causes of crime and of the witchcraft phenomenon, there has been less interest in its representation of supernatural causation, which is personified by a devil who appears throughout the play in the shape of a dog and brings about its tragic events. The Dog is often dismissed as a disappointing retreat by the playwrights into superstition, or else is rationalized away as an hallucination or as a purely symbolic figure. This essay contends that to downplay the importance of the Dog is to misunderstand the ways in which skepticism about witchcraft was typically articulated in the period. Reading the play as a demonological study--that is, as a text that attempts to define the boundary between social and demonic causation--reveals the intellectual sophistication of The Witch of Edmonton while acknowledging its roots in the belief systems of early modern England.

My reading of the play is inspired by Stuart Clark's important study of demonology, Thinking with Demons, which argues that studies of early modern witchcraft belief have tended to construct a simplistic opposition between demonology and rationalism by assuming that any early modern writer who discusses the role of demons in the material world must be credulous and retrograde. (1) Clark finds that modern historians tend to overemphasize the importance of the few early modern writers who appear to pre-empt post-Enlightenment thought on magic and devils. He argues that when discussing a period in which almost every thinker believed in the existence of demons that could influence human thoughts and actions, demonological writings must be taken seriously and cannot be disregarded as intellectually unimportant. The problems Clark finds in modern historical scholarship are also discussed in John D. Cox's recent study of stage devils in medieval and early modern drama. Cox contests the influential argument of E. K. Chambers that the presence of devils on the stage marks the introduction of secular elements to the drama--in other words, that stage devils are symptoms of skepticism about the supernatural. Cox instead makes a powerful case for reading stage devils as dramatizations of sincerely held beliefs about the presence of spirits in the material world that are the enemies of positive values, such as charity and communality. (2)

Although his discussion of The Witch of Edmonton is brief, Cox's arguments are highly applicable to the play, which features a splendidly frightening and entertaining devil in the shape of a black dog. Despite the Dog's important role in the play's events, criticism of the play has tended to focus on those elements of it that seem skeptical about supernatural causation, while leaving comparatively unexamined those elements that emphasize the Dog's agency in bringing about the play's events. It is certainly true that the play's depiction of Elizabeth Sawyer, an old woman scapegoated as a witch by her neighbors, is one of the most sober and skeptical accounts of the witch craze in the drama of the period. (3) Similarly, the depiction of Frank Thorney's slide into bigamy and murder emphasizes its origin in his fear of poverty and social scandal. (4) Yet, as Jonathan Dollimore notes, while the play places " [an] emphasis upon identity as socially coerced" it also depicts Sawyer actually becoming a witch after making a pact with the Devil, (5) and the same Devil apparently provokes Frank's murder of his second wife. For modern readers, these interventions by the Dog may indicate a retreat into superstition, sensationalism, or even silliness, (6) and the importance of the Dog's power in the play's intellectual framework may be overlooked. …

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