Academic journal article Early Theatre

Theatre And/as Witchcraft: A Reading of the Late Lancashire Witches (1634)

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Theatre And/as Witchcraft: A Reading of the Late Lancashire Witches (1634)

Article excerpt

Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome's The Late Lancashire Witches is a journalistic play capitalizing on the presence in London of four women (1) who had been convicted of witchcraft in Lancashire, but were referred to central authority (together with their accusers) for further examination. (2) They arrived in the capital in late June 1634. The play was performed mid-August at the Globe with great success, judging by Nathaniel Tomkyns's letter of 16 August. (3) As scholars have demonstrated, it draws on details from the depositions of both accused and accusers: this source material has led to a theory that members of the privy council commissioned the play in order to further the case of the prosecution, (4) which looked more and more fragile as on 10 July the eleven-year-old boy whose testimony was key evidence confessed he had made it all up.

The hypothesis has sparked a critical debate about the play's support to or challenge of political authority. (5) On the one hand, the play presents witchcraft as real and patriarchal law eventually checks the witches' unruly energies. On the other hand, most of the play is devoted to comic misrule, as the witches 'celebrate to sport' and explicitly 'mean no hurt' (4.4.805). (6) At a deeper level Helen Ostovich has emphasized the variety of attitudes to witchcraft in the play, drawing attention to 'its sharper critiques of credulity'. (7)

Ostovich's recent electronic edition, (8) with its detailed notes and exploration of staging possibilities, has shed new light on the texture of the play and invites further literary investigation (in the broad sense of attention to text, dramatic construction, and performance) as a useful complement to a historical and contextual approach. This is the path I wish to follow in order to look again at the play's ambivalent subversiveness. I will first address the representation of patriarchal authority, whose pervasive destabilization still resonates after the witches' inversions of social and sexual hierarchies have been set straight. Articulating that patriarchal insecurity along with pointed metatheatricality, the play offers its most subversive suggestion that the actual trial is about fiction and performance-like illusion. Yet the apparent challenge is perhaps not as daring as it seems in the context of growing scepticism. The other effect of equating witchcraft with theatre is to allow the playwrights to exploit and even promote the resources of the public stage.

The Destabilization of Patriarchal Authority

The preservation of judicial records allows us to identify what the playwrights adapted from alleged facts and what they added. On 10 February 1634, young Edmund Robinson told the court about meeting two greyhounds who turned into a woman and a boy. The woman supposedly transformed the boy into a horse, then rode to a devilish rally where witches produced a feast by pulling magic ropes: acts 2 and 4 dramatize those events. The miller's boy's report of meeting with a cloven-footed demon in 5.1 also comes from Robinson's deposition, while the details of Meg's intercourse with the devil (5.5) are lifted from Margaret Johnson's confession of 9 March 1634. The dramatists introduced the whole Seely plot, as well as the events in the Generous household. (9) Theirs is the description of the topsy-turvy Seely family, with servants bullying children who dominate their parents, and the servants' marriage resulting in Lawrence's magically induced impotence and Parnell's consequent aggressiveness. Theirs, too, is the motif of Mistress Generous riding Robert/Robin the groom. Here the playwrights amplified a detail from the deposition, supplementing the boy's alleged equine transformation with a number of other horses, including Robert's and Mistress Generous's metamorphoses as well as Mall and Robert's riding of a magic horse, and the animal used in a skimmington in act 4. Horses play an important structural part as an element of continuity between diverse episodes, while the authors exploit the sexual connotations attached to 'riding' and the reversibility of mount and rider. …

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