In The Witch of Edmonton, the playwrights utilize the function of ambiguity in depicting witchcraft. The play works to critique the victimization of impoverished old ladies who have been used as scapegoats within their small communities. The use of the English legal system to facilitate the right to remove insignificant yet “dangerous” members of the Edmonton community illustrates the paranoia regarding supernatural beings that were beyond the control of the government. On the other hand, the play cruises on the sensationalism and fascination of supernatural abilities during the Jacobean period. As a result, the classic stereotypical beliefs about witchcraft, such as the fact that it ” causes disease, livestock death, as well as the death of children” (Stymeist 34) only further fuels the justification for the continuation of the witch trials. Mother Sawyer’s poverty, ignorance and deformities aided in making her the perfect scapegoat as she expresses in her soliloquy within the first scene.
” Must I for that be made a common sink For all the filth and rubbish of men’s tongues To fall and run into? They call me witch, being ignorant of myself, they go about to teach me how to become one” (2.1.1-15). Although faced with such injustice, Sawyer submits to her societal pressures and allows for domination over her own thoughts. She concludes that if society is going to associate her synonymously with that of a sewage dispenser phrased as “sink”, then she will convince herself that she is such and act accordingly. Despite the fact that the play is based upon real occurrences, the playwrights include an alternative plot in which the Frank Thorney engages in a bigamous marriage, and struggles psychologically, leading him to murder. Both plots intertwine with the interference to the devil in the form of a dog for help.
Critic David Atkinson argues that the subplot within the play is “rather sketchy and unrelated”, asserting that the only valuable unity between them is the common theme of knowledge of good and evil. Thus, the development of the characters within the play are characterized by consciousness of their deeds and repentance. Though the two plots are not integrated well, I extend Atkinson’s argument that in addition, unity can be found between the two as both stories serve to reaffirm the struggle between societal pressures and personal autonomy.
In addition, gender representation in theater frowns upon the actions of women more than it does men, and rather glorifies the victimization and execution of women. Henry Goodcole,an Anglican minister during the Jacobean time and witness of the witch trials, recounts the events regarding Elizabeth Sawyer’s death in his pamphlet, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer: a Witch. In order to appear unbiased, Goodcole asserts a sense of skepticism, in such that for the reader to formulate their own opinion. In fact, I argue that this is his own psychological attempt to get the reader to arise to the conclusion that Elizabeth Sawyer was guilty and to prevent retaliation from those who feel she wasn’t given a fair chance to defend herself. He states,”In these I was ashamed to see and heare such ridiculous fictions of her bewitching. Corne on the Ground, of a ferret and an Owle dayly sporting before her, of the bewitched Woman braiding her selfe, of the Spirits attending in the prison: all which I knew to be fitter for the Ale-bench then for a relation of proceedings in the Court of Justice.”(3) By displaying such ambivalence it would cause the reader to think critically. I would conclude that because he is a man of God, he would take the stance against anything that could be potentially evil, especially witch craft.
However, when Goodcole accounts the reasons the jury used to indict Sawyer, he appears to sensationalize her characteristics calling her “pale and ghost like without any blood apparent” as well as “deformities in her body”. Through my perspective of reading this, I conclude that she wasn’ given a fair trial especially since she was forced to “confess” through punishment. Sawyer within the play represents societal pressures and the effect it can have on a person. Within her community she is mistreated and disdained for no apparent reason. She turns into a witch because society makes her one. The topic of witchcraft is often portrayed through women, and more often than less those that are older and appear to look sickening.
However, Stymeist’s argument bases strongly on the fact that during this time period a women’s economic state played an important role in whether or not they would be accused (Stymeist 39). Within the plot after Mother Sawyer had sold her soul to the Devil in the form of a dog she allows him to suck blood from her breasts (2.1.142).
This in itself sets the cear stereotypical gender norms for what a witch should look like, and that is feminine. As the play is wrapping up, Sawyer turns herself in, confessing that she has in fact had interactions with the devil and is convicted of “black lust”(4.1.263 ). The playwright’s make it a point to sensationalize the witch’s admission, taking it as far as blaming the female gender for being most susceptible to craving or lust and therefore it is okay to conclude that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”(Stymeist 41).
However, I disagree with the critic Stymeist that women are insatiable because in Mother Sawyer’s case, she only turned to the devil in the first place as a place of comfort after being fully ostracized from everything she has ever known. The most effective method in the analysis from where the play has taken us, would be to observe the function of the alternative plot. Despite his interactions with the devil, Thorny attributes most of his issues psychologically more than externally. He struggles in a bigamous relationship, trying to tackle two wives and please different people. It results in the murder of one wife. In actuality Thorny appears very weak minded and easily influenced, while Sawyer is portrayed more masculine in the sense that she composes herself better than Thorney does. In the aspect of character strength, I argue that the stereotypical gender norms were reversed as Thorney appeared more feminine and frail.
What really draws him over the edge is his inability to please two people by marrying the people they want him to. Sir Arthur’s ability to manipulate Thorney to marry his pregnant mistress further displays how feeble he is. Although, being forced into a marriage does not justify murder.
It is the social pressures in addition to his own psychological issues that trigger Thorney’s insanity and satanic worshiping. Frank Thorney does not have to marry Susan, but he is in fact encouraged to do so by the very father who has wanted to arrange the match, had he not been already married. Frank denies this and goes ahead, choosing to please his father without thinking about what consequences he would face or if it was healthy for his already deteriorating mental health. In addition to the play exploring gender norms in relations to societal pressure and internal struggle, it portrays the overall anxiety and paranoia around social change and the possibility that someone could possibly be exceptional or have conflicting views against that of what society has laid out for them.
This relates back to the problematic reign of King James according to author Peter Elmer, concerning the place of “traditional pastimes and embodying the contradictions focused by between old values and individualism”(Elmer 7 ). The play’s third plot with the character Cuddy Banks is used to provide comical relief due to the fact that as hard as the devil tries, he can not corrupt the young boy because he’s so naive. The play was first debuted at Phoenix Theater in 1621.When first performed, the playwrights intended the main character Cuddy’s morris dancing to represent a sense of belonging to everyone in the community and to make a point of unity divide the apparent sectionality displayed. In previous years, the king had published a book about what acceptable pastimes were which sparked some significant controversy. However, because during this time period , maintaining the acceptable social expectations was important, it is not wonder that the playwrights decided to represent a stance that supported King James’ opinion about the preservation of pastimes that have been carried on from generations to generations. Elmer discusses how the the different social classes came in unity around certain social issues they felt oppressed by and how despite such alliance, since it was rather unstable, there was a concern that the poor felt too strongly and would therefore become disorderly.
Within the text the ambiguity around these issues were ever so present. The morris dancing topic concerning was an acceptable traditional pastime was correlated with that of King James and the fact that Mother Sawyer was ostracized mainly due to her social class sparked some controversy and commentary as not everyone who is suffering economically should be associated with witchcraft or anything negatively connotated with the supernatural arts. I would like to take a look on the effect economic status during this time period truly affected the way you were presented to society and the representation in theater. Frank Thorney, although an abled man was extremely impoverished, described as penniless and is relying on his father’s will to eventually support himself financially.
Because of the vulnerability of his economic situation he allows himself to be “bullied” by others of better economic status into doing things that make him uncomfortable. Upon Susan’s death, Frank’s conscious interferes