Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Between You and Her No Comparison': Witches, Healers, and Elizabeth I in John Lyly's Endymion

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Between You and Her No Comparison': Witches, Healers, and Elizabeth I in John Lyly's Endymion

Article excerpt

In the late 1580s, John Lyly was pursuing his aspiration to be made the master of the revels at the court of Elizabeth I. As part of this ambitious project, he presented the queen with the play Endymion, the epilogue of which explicitly sets out the playwright's hopes of preferment, urging her highness to 'vouchsafe with [her] favourable beams to glance upon' the performance (Epilogue, 13-14). (1) While Lyly chose a classical--and thus distant--tale of Endymion's love for the Moon as the basis for his play, (2) he also strove to secure the interest of his prospective audience by engaging thoroughly with contemporary concerns--in particular, with the current debate on the subject of witchcraft. To enter the debate, Lyly introduces the witch Dipsas, a character not found in any of the versions of the classical myth: she is appropriately malevolent, disruptive of the natural order, and ultimately inferior to Cynthia, the Moon and the healer who rehabilitates the order upset by the witch and represents Queen Elizabeth herself. The two characters may be easily imagined as occupying the opposite ends of the spectrum and engaging in a battle of powers where the weaker one is vanquished and the stronger triumphs. This juxtaposition, however, is complicated by closer analysis of the two figures and their relationship: as Philippa Berry points out, 'Lyly's use of witchcraft as a central element in his plot should have reminded anyone versed in classical mythography of the connections between Cynthia or Diana and witchcraft'. (3) As both Berry and Christine Neufeld argue, Cynthia's maids--and specifically Tellus--act to destabilize the suggested dichotomy by acting as 'the channel between the exceptional Cynthia and the discourse of monstrosity that taints the rest of femininity', (4) and 'these misogynistic representations also contaminate by their proximity the icon of Elizabeth'. (5)

And yet, while Berry and Neufeld brilliantly highlight the connection between the flawless Moon and the wicked witch and bring to the foreground the importance of other women in the play, they do not take into consideration the thrust of the contemporary witchcraft debate, which seeks not to expose and overthrow the powerful witch but to elide her completely. To a large degree, as Stuart Clark shows, such elision was typical of protestant demonology, which strove to move away from the layperson's emphasis on the figure of the witch and the act of maleficium. (6) While pre-reformation works, such as Malleus Maleficarum, focused on the powerful and malevolent female witch and the disasters that she wreaked, protestant writers were much more interested in the victim's perception of harm and reaction to it. In 1584, shortly before the estimated date of Endymion s composition, Reginald Scot condemned those who believed in the supernatural abilities of witches, writing that 'he that attributeth to a witch, such divine power, as dulie and onelie apperteineth unto GOD ... is in hart a blasphemer, an idolater, and full of grosse impietie'. (7)

Such a shift in emphasis also reflected on the figure of the female healer, which was already becoming suspect before the reformation and merging with the figure of the witch. Malleus Maleficarum spoke with indignation of 'those affected by sorcery [who] run to superstitious womenfolk, by whom they are very often freed and not by priests or exorcists' and the cases where 'acts of sorcery are broken with the help of demons'. (8) In the protestant learned discourse, folk healers--most commonly imagined as women (9)--were evil only insofar as they enabled the mistaken and blasphemous belief in maleficium and in miraculous cure from it, which they were incapable of performing. In other words, treatise writers suggested that witches and healers were guilty of the same offence--claiming power and difference where none existed--but in reality did not differ from other women, shrewish and loquacious as they might have been. …

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