(Guelph, Canada)
May 1998, pp. 209-223

Reprinted with permission from the author.


by Richard W. Grinnell
Marist College

     In 1621, Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton was brought to trial, tried, and executed for using witchcraft to kill her neighbor, Agnes Ratcliffe. Records show us that Sawyer was typical of those accused of witchcraft in Renaissance England: she was female, elderly, poor, willing to lash out at those she felt had wronged her, and Ratcliffe was a typical victim: of slightly higher social status, in conflict with Sawyer over economic issues.(1) Like many witchcraft victims before her, Ratcliffe died of a wasting sickness shortly after a memorable clash with the woman who had been defined as a witch. Wallace Notestein notes the case briefly in his early A HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT IN ENGLAND FROM 1558-1718: "Agnes Ratcliffe was washing one day, when a sow belonging to Elizabeth licked up a bit of her washing soap. She struck it with a 'washing beetle.' Of course she fell sick, and on her deathbed accused Mistress Elizabeth Sawyer, who was afterwards hanged" [136]. What sets Sawyer's case off from other criminal prosecutions of witches during this period is the swiftness with which it was incorporated into popular and literary culture. First, Henry Goodcole, the minister who took Sawyer's confession and attended her in jail, wrote the popular pamphlet THE WONDERFUL DISCOVERIE OF ELIZABETH SAWYER, A WITCH. Goodcole was followed in the same year by Thomasright arrow left arrowDekkerright arrow, William Rowley, and John Ford who popularized Sawyer's story further in their tragi-comedy THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. Both texts came out in 1621, the same year that Sawyer herself was tried and executed.

     left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford's quick capitalization on the witchcraft trial gives the play an immediacy and a sensationalism that has encouraged critics to see the play through the historical lens of witchcraft.(2) In addition to capitalizing on the sensationalism of the Elizabeth Sawyer trial and execution, however, the play enters a complex conversation about the nature of power and meaning. left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford use the language of witchcraft to introduce us to a world in which the definitions used to place people within social categories are breaking down. The semantic breakdown apparent in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON is a part of the wider breakdown in the power of representation itself: a breakdown that leads ultimately to the English civil war and the execution of Charles I.(3)

     THE WITCH OF EDMONTON opens with Frank Thorney and his financial and marital woes and asks us as readers and viewers to consider financial issues before we consider demonic. Indeed, as we are sunk deeper into the world of Edmonton and the Frank Thorney plot, we come to believe that financial, rather than demonic, forces drive the play. All decisions are made, and actions taken, in response to financial pressures, and money is the play's primary social currency.(4)

     We learn at the beginning of the play, for example, that Frank Thorney's clandestine marriage to Sir Arthur Clarington's serving maid, Winnifride, is the result of Clarington's desire to make financial and social arrangement for Winnifride, who has been his mistress. Frank acknowledges the financial element of the marriage agreement when he parts from Clarington in the first scene of the play: "Sir, we shall every day have need to employ/The use of what you please to give" [1.1.108-09]. However, when Clarington finds out that Winnifride will no longer be his concubine when she is married, he withdraws his financial support from the couple with the telling line, "You may want money yet," precipitating them into dangerous financial waters [1.1.215]. Similarly, Frank keeps his marriage to Winnifride a secret precisely because of similar financial considerations. As he tells her when he leaves her at the beginning of the play:

     Now the longest
     Of our forbearing either's company
     Is only but to gain a little time
     For our continuing thrift, that so hereafter
     The heir that shall be born may not have cause
     To curse his hour of birth, which made him feel
     The misery of beggary and want.[1.1.12-18]

The threat of poverty and financial insecurity continue to fuel the primary plot of THE WITCH OF EDMONTON as Thorney must convince his father that his marriage to Winnifride is acceptable so that his father, Old Thorney, will not cut off his inheritance. When Clarington retracts his support because Winnifride is no longer malleable to his desires, it becomes even more essential that Frank not alienate his father. As Frank tells Winnifride, we must remain secret until "th' inheritance/To which I am born heir shall be assur'd" [1.1.28-29].

     Money remains at the forefront of the play even when the play shifts to the old men discussing a possible match between their children. When we first see Old Thorney and Old Carter, the conversation focuses primarily on the money involved in the liaison between their children, and who is paying what, and how.

     CARTER. Double, treble, more or less, I tell you, Mr. Thorney, I'll give no security. Bonds and bills are but terriers to catch fools and keep lazy knaves busy; my security shall be present payment. And we here about Edmonton hold present payment as sure as an alderman's bond in London, Mr. Thorney.[1.2.13-17]

Old Thorney's interest in marrying his son Frank to Carter's daughter is, not surprisingly, a financial one, for we have learned that Old Thorney's estate is near bankruptcy. From Clarington's attempt to make Frank and Winnifride dependent upon him financially so that he can continue his liaison with Winnifride, to the nuptial negotiations between the two fathers, economics is the language of the plot. Financial considerations provide Frank with the motivation for his illicit second marriage to Susan Carter, and is, finally, his explanation to Susan when he suddenly decides to kill her.

     Your marriage was my theft,
     For I espous'd your dowry, and I have it.
     I did not purpose to have added murder;
     The devil did not prompt me. Till this minute
     You might have safe returned; now you cannot;
     You had dogg'd your own death. (Stabs her.)[3.3.35-40]

Frank is trapped in an economic situation only partly of his own making and he finds it impossible to negotiate its pitfalls. The moral and ethical decisions that he makes, and the increasingly monstrous actions he takes, hinge directly on the economic pressures bearing on him.

     Significantly, in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, financial language is intertwined with demonic language to create a metaphoric space that is slippery, unstable, and ultimately dangerous. In the course of the play we come to see the monetary language that characterizes the Frank Thorney plot and provides the social framework within which the play takes place as inherently demonic, and ultimately explained by the overt demonism of the Elizabeth Sawyer plot. The implicit connection that will exist in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON between economic marginalization and demonic alienation is stated explicitly in Frank Thorney's first scene when he tells Winnifride that "beggary and want [are]/Two devils that are occasions to enforce/A shameful end" [1.1.19-20]. In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, Thorney's metaphor takes literal shape. Financial hardship ushers in real devils and causes the marginalization and destruction of all who fall into it.

     left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford reinforce this connection for us by associating moments of financial crisis with language that is explicitly demonic. In the confrontation between Frank Thorney and his father, for example, the demonic is directly connected to Frank's ability to come to his father's financial aid. Because Old Thorney has heard rumors that Frank has married Winnifride and will be unable to help him secure his financial situation by marrying a good dowry, when Frank agrees to help him, Old Thorney accuses Frank of being "a devil like a man," and says:

     Darest thou persever yet, and pull down wrath
     As hot as flames of Hell to strike thee quick
     Into the grave of horror?[1.2.181-83]

Frank, meanwhile, defends himself in similarly charged terms, in language that acknowledges the connection between his potential crimes and damnation.

     What do you take me for, an atheist?
     Am I become so insensible of losing
     The glory of creation's work, my soul?[1.2.172, 177-78]

Though the immediate sin that Frank defends himself against is bigamy, the bigamy that he is faced with is the result of financial pressures. Frank acknowledges, by pairing his crime with damnation, that he is sacrificing his soul for financial security; witches, according to contemporary demonology, did the same.(5)

     In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, economic pressure results in Frank Thorney's connection to the devil-dog Tommy (who appears to help him murder Susan Carter), and to the crimes he commits, including bigamy, murder, and falsely accusing innocent men of the murder he has committed. Thorney's metaphoric loss of soul at his marriage to Susan Carter connects him with the witchcraft that is the subplot of the play and with the contemporary demonology that attempts to describe that witchcraft in early seventeenth century English society. It binds him thematically with Elizabeth Sawyer herself who, even more dramatically than Frank Thorney, is forced into the demonic by social and economic pressures profoundly out of her control.

     We do not see Sawyer until the Frank Thorney plot, with its financial and demonic imagery, has been firmly established. She appears on the stage at the beginning of act 2, gathering sticks, and she describes herself and her social position clearly for us.

     And why on me? Why should the envious world
     Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?
     'Cause I am poor, deform'd and ignorant,
     And like a bow buckl'd and bent together
     By some more strong in mischiefs than myself?
     Must I for that be made a common sink
     For all the filth and rubbish of men's tongues
     To fall and run into?[2.1.1-8]

Sawyer is poor, old, ignorant. She is the figure of the witch described by the famous Elizabethan witchcraft skeptic, Reginald Scot in his important 1584 book THE DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT: "old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles" [4]. Sawyer has been fashioned into the poor, ignorant thing we see on the stage by, as she puts it, "some more strong in mischiefs than myself," in this case, not the devil (though he will appear to take advantage of her condition) but society itself. From Mother Sawyer's first appearance on the stage we learn that she is not a witch, but that her society has begun to define her as one. Indeed, Edmonton society has worked to alienate and marginalize her, and to force her finally out of the community and into the shadow-world of the margin.

     Some call me witch,
     And being ignorant of myself, they go
     About to teach me how to be one; urging
     That my bad tongue, by their bad usage made so,
     Forespeaks their cattle, doth bewitch their corn
     Themselves, their servants, and their babes at nurse.
     This they enforce upon me, and in part
     Make me to credit it.[2.1.8-15]

left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford continue to link the financial world with the demonic, and now place the blame for witchcraft on society and the economy. Poverty and social intolerance, the play seems to argue, make witches.(6)

     The self-conscious way in which Mother Sawyer is demonized by her culture sets up an important tension in the play that is reinforced by the financial references I have traced above. The world of Edmonton struggles to categorize and name its characters, to place individuals within proper economic and social niches, but the play finds the traditional labels unsatisfactory for ordering the world. Elizabeth Sawyer does not fit easily into the name of "witch." As we shall see, her character problematizes all the definitions proposed and slips beyond her name. The same instability in category can be seen in the play's attempts to categorize other, more socially conventional characters as well.

     Sir Arthur Clarington, the knight, for instance, is a lecher and actively helps Frank Thorney evade his father's censure and commit bigamy and murder. As the only aristocratic representative in the play, he fails to live up to the expectations of his class and becomes corrupt and corrupting. By the end of the play, Clarington has been censored by the Justice (and by the play) and given a heavy fine. Frank Thorney himself is a gentleman whose financial situation has forced him into the service of a more powerful gentleman. He is poor and powerless, but of gentle blood. In Frank Thorney, the conventional connection between power and blood is fractured in the same way that the relationship between nobility and blood is fractured in Clarington. Frank must move down the social scale to get the money he needs to survive. His father, Old Thorney, is a gentleman whose estate is insolvent. He must rely upon his son to salvage his financial security. As we can see, among the gentle characters there is an element of disorder, of legitimate power relationships being overturned or reversed, of the hierarchy coming apart. It is this inversion that makes demonology ultimately such a powerful language for describing it.(7) In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON the connection between class and financial power is broken and power relations, as a consequence, are demonized.

     The Carters, the only characters whose integrity and legitimacy do not seem in question, are members of an emerging middle-class. With no authorizing blood, their power derives directly from the money that they control. Old Carter is a wealthy yeoman, equally proud of his money and his common blood. When addressed by Old Thorney as a gentleman (the rank to which his economic status would seem to entitle him), he rejects the name as undesirable: "No gentleman I, Mr Thorney. Spare the mastership; call me by my name, John Carter. 'Master' is a title my father nor his before him were acquainted with, honest hertfordshire yeomen. Such a one am I; my word and my deed shall be proved one at all times" [1.2.3-7]. The play insists on the simple integrity of Carter, and on the value of that integrity. The play's presentation of Carter further problematizes Edmonton's attempts to name and order the characters. In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, all traditional classes are suspect. The wealthy yeoman class that seems to carry integrity does not fit effectively into the existing social framework, and those authorized by blood and property are disreputable and weak. As Molly Smith has written in THE DARKER WORLD WITHIN: EVIL IN THE TRAGEDIES OF SHAKESPEARE AND HIS SUCCESSORS, "Repeatedly, Jacobean and Caroline dramatists, even while they seem to support the hierarchical system, locate villainy among those who exercise power and thus, the plays posit a stark criticism of social morality" [12]. Interestingly though, whereas Smith sees Jacobean dramatists ultimately supporting the hierarchical system, one of the things that becomes apparent in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON is that that system can no longer even be accurately defined. The terms that should give meaning to the class system have broken down and can no longer be counted on. By the end of the play, Clarington has been fined and chastised, Frank Thorney has been hauled away to be executed, and Old Carter must come to the aid of the gentleman, Old Thorney: "Mr. Thorney, cheer up, man; whilst I can stand by you, you shall not want help to keep you from falling" [5.3.144-45].

     But though the old class system is insufficient to contain the economic entities dramatized in this play, the play cannot be considered a critique of that system, and in that sense Smith is right. The play flirts with such a critique, but ultimately it refuses to clearly authorize a rewriting of the social hierarchy. Old Carter is blunt and simple, and is in many ways a comic figure in a play that Kathleen McLuskie has characterized as designed to "entertain an urbane audience with scenes from country life" [68]. Additionally, Somerton, Kate Carter's wooer, is very traditionally authorized by his "fine, convenient estate of land in West Ham, by Essex" [1.2.82-83], and Arthur Clarington, though chastised, remains the most powerful man in the play, despite his wrong-doing. THE WITCH OF EDMONTON struggles to come to terms with the breakdown of social relationships at the beginning of the seventeenth century but fails to consistently do so. It acknowledges the shifting economic conditions facing early seventeenth-century England by crediting and discrediting both the old and the new ways of authorizing power but is able to side with neither. Jean Howard has argued convincingly that such struggles are a common, and in fact essential, aspect of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. As she says: "Frequently composed by several hands and cobbling together a variety of discursive and narrative conventions, the drama often accommodated ideologically incompatible elements within a single text. Rather than as signs of aesthetic failure, these incompatibilities can be read as traces of ideological struggle, of differences within the sense-making machinery of culture" [7]. In such a struggle to define economic and social identity, demonology emerges as a useful and effective language. For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century demonologists, witches are, as Elizabeth Sawyer implies, individuals who bring together all of the evils, the fears, and the threats, of a given culture. This is dramatically demonstrated in that attitude of the writer of the 1582 pamphlet, A TRUE AND JUST RECORDE, OF THE INFORMATION, EXAMINATION AND CONFESSIONS OF ALL THE WITCHES TAKEN AT S. OSES IN THE COUNTIE OF ESSEX. As the author, W.W., writes:

     "If there hath been at any time...any means used to appease the wrath of God, to obtain his blessing, to terrify secret offenders by open transgressors' punishments, to withdraw honest natures from the corruption of evil company, to diminish the great multitude of wicked people, to increase the small number of virtuous persons, and to reform all the detestable abuses which the perverse wit and will of man doth daily devise--this doubtless is no less necessary than the best: that sorcerers, wizards..., witches, wise women (for so they will be named), are rigourously punished."[A3]

The language of witchcraft, then, is a particularly apt language with which to describe a world in which bigamy, murder, violence and dissimulation reign, and in which social and economic categories are unstable and breaking down. The destabilization of social and economic categories dramatized in the Frank Thorney plot and the witchcraft dramatized in the Elizabeth Sawyer plot combine to critique the assumptions that bind meaning to word, and name to named. This critique reflects in an interesting way the mood and the concerns of early seventeenth-century English culture.

     The insecurity over economic and class categories is a part of a larger concern over representation itself that haunts THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. THE WITCH OF EDMONTON grapples with the difficulty of matching up representational signs with what is being represented, the surface with what is underneath, the name with what is named. This slippage between signs and signified has consequence for Jacobean England. As many critics have effectively and convincingly argued, representation was an essential aspect of power in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.(8) To control the terms of representation was to exercise power.(9) The whole system of representation upon which aristocratic power was based depended upon the accuracy of the relationship between the sign and the signified, and on the control of the uses of those signs.(10) As a consequence, the breakdown in the signs used to represent witchcraft, like the unusual class relations, is a symptom of the larger breakdown in representation that concerns this play. Elizabeth Sawyer is named "witch" long before she actually practices witchcraft, and she is bounded and controlled by the assumptions inherent in that naming throughout the course of the play. But the play immediately questions the accuracy of that initial naming; when she is first named witch she is clearly not one. As the play progresses, she is named both by her fellow villagers, who see her as an evil practitioner of magic, and by the representatives of education and culture who see her as a heretic in league with the devil. Both definitions are questioned by the play.

     In act 4, the villagers attack Mother Sawyer as a woman whose curse results in damage to crops and sickness to themselves and their animals--a woman who can be held responsible for all types of misfortune. As Old Banks says, speaking for the mob of villagers that gathers in act 4 to lynch Mother Sawyer: "My horse this morning runs most piteously of the glanders, whose nose yesternight was as clean as any man's here now coming from the barber's. And this, I'll take my death upon't, is long of this jadish witch, Mother Sawyer" [4.1.1-4].

     Society's elite are just as ready to condemn Sawyer as a witch, but they do so on different grounds. They accuse her of being the enemy of God, rather than the author of damaging supernatural power. When Sir Arthur Clarington accuses her of being a witch, Sawyer responds: "I am none. None but base curs so bark at me. I am none. Or would I were! If every poor old woman be trod on thus by slaves, reviled, kicked, beaten, as I am daily, she, to be revenged, had need turn witch." And Clarington responds: "And you to be revenged have sold your soul to th' devil" [4.1.76-80]. These two separate and different acts of naming bring together two very distinct traditions and definitions and reconcile them in the character of Elizabeth Sawyer. These traditions mark the bipolar nature of witchcraft definitions for this period. As the historian Barry Reay has noted (simplifying what is admittedly a complex set of cultural definitions):

     "There were two conceptions of witchcraft in early modern Europe: the view of the elite and the view of the majority of the population. The learned stressed the role of Satan: witches made a pact with the Devil and agreed to serve him through the promotion of evil. The ordinary villager thought merely in terms of 'maleficium'; to him or her the witch was simply someone with the supernatural ability to do harm to others: there was no idea of Devil worship or of adherence to Satan."[114-15]

left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley and Ford provide both kinds of definitions in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. They effectively abstract the prevailing conventional wisdom about witches, and then, through Mother Sawyer, show each definition to be insufficient.

     The definitions that are erected around Sawyer by her enemies are only one aspect of the act of naming that occurs in the play. Elizabeth Sawyer herself defines witchcraft, and does so even more effectively than do her enemies. This alternative definition of witchcraft ultimately unifies the play around non-traditional categories of representation.

     We have seen how Elizabeth Sawyer's first appearance on the stage is a powerful statement for her innocence. She appears gathering sticks, complaining about the treatment she receives from her neighbors, complaining that they call her witch without legitimate grounds. When one of those neighbors joins her on the stage we see her complaints justified:

     BANKS. Out, out upon thee, witch!
     MOTHER. Dost call me witch?
     BANKS. I do, witch, I do, and worse I would, KNEW I A NAME MORE HATEFUL. What makest thou upon my ground? [my emphasis]
     MOTHER. Gather a few rotten sticks to warm me.
     BANKS. Down with them when I bid thee, quickly! I'll make thy bones rattle in thy skin else.
     MOTHER. Dost strike me, slave, curmudgeon? Now thy bones aches, thy joints cramps, and convulsions stretch and crack thy sinews!
     BANKS. Cursing, thou hag? Take that, and that! (Exit.)[2.1.16-21, 29-31]

Banks transforms Sawyer from a bent old woman into a witch by naming her. But Banks's definition is not based upon an understanding of Sawyer's essential self, or upon an understanding of the relationship between name and named. It is based simply upon hate, and upon the arbitrary attempt to use a name as a way to control and punish (see my emphasis above). As Banks says, "witch" is simply the most hateful name in his repertoire. It has no specific connection to what he knows about Elizabeth Sawyer. Sawyer herself recognizes the power in the act of naming, regardless of the motivation of the namer, and when Banks leaves the stage, she attempts to draw upon the power inherent in the name that he has given her.

     MOTHER. Abuse me? Beat me? Call me hag and witch?
     What is the name, where, and by what art learn'd,
     What spells, what charms, or invocations,
     May the thing call'd "familiar" be purchas'd?[2.1.33-36]

Early in the play, then, left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford acknowledge the important relationship between names and power, and in the world of the play Mother Sawyer does as well. She recognizes that names begin as arbitrary constructs but that those constructs nevertheless have force. She recognizes too that to control the definitions associated with names is to control the power associated with those definitions. This understanding enables her, when she is accosted later by Clarington and the Justice of the Peace, to redefine witchcraft in her own terms. When they ask her whether she is a witch, she replies by redefining witchcraft away from the definitions proposed by Reay and mouthed by Old Banks, Clarington, and the Justice. By the end of the conversation, Mother Sawyer wins grudging approval for her definitions from the Justice and ultimately puts both the Justice and Clarington to flight with the power of her argument. Note how Sawyer adopts the power of naming, and how the Justice and finally Clarington authorize her right to do so. When Clarington calls her a witch, Sawyer responds:

     MOTHER. A witch? Who is not?
     Hold not that universal name in scorn then.
     What are your painted things in princes' courts,
     Upon whose eyelids lust sits, blowing fires
     To burn men's souls in sensual, hot desires,
     Upon whose naked paps a lecher's thought
     Acts sin in fouler shapes than can be wrought?
     JUSTICE. Yes, yes, but the law
     Casts not an eye on these.
     MOTHER. She on whose tongue a whirlwind sits to blow
     A man out of himself, from his soft pillow,
     To lean his head on rocks and fighting waves,
     Is not that scold a witch? The man of law
     Whose honeyed hopes the credulous client draws--
     As bees to tinkling basins--to swarm to him
     From his own hive, to work the wax in his--
     He is no witch, not he!
     MOTHER. Dare any swear I ever tempted maiden,
     With golden hooks flung at her chastity,
     To come and lose her honour, and being lost
     To pay not a denier for't?
     Some slaves have done it
     Men-witches can, without the fangs of law
     Drawing once one drop of blood, put counterfeit pieces
     Away for true gold.
     SIR ARTHUR. By one thing she speaks
     I know now she's a witch, and dare no longer
     Hold conference with the fury.
     JUSTICE. Let's then away.
     Old woman, mend thy life; get home and pray. (Exeunt.)[4.1.104-11, 123-24, 133-40, 142-51]

Sawyer acknowledges the name of witch that has been thrust upon her and redefines that name to include courtiers, wives, lawyers, young men, indeed anyone engaged in unethical and improper behavior (which includes most of the people in the play). She pushes her definitions with such force that she wins the debate with the two learned men. Arthur Clarington recognizes his own behavior toward Winnifride as witchlike behavior in Sawyer's definition, and tacitly authorizes her by fleeing. Neither he nor the Justice are able to hold their definitions in place in the face of Sawyer's power. left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford allow Sawyer's definitions to exist side by side with the other accepted definitions of witchcraft already presented, confounding what seemed to James's England the clear and authoritative definition of what constituted a witch.

     THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, then, tells us that there is no essential "witchness," that witchness is constructed by cultural forces that name, define, and ultimately create. Not only does one name not refer specifically to a natural essence, but the essence itself is variable and constructed by social and cultural forces. When first Banks and his mob of country-men, and then Clarington and the Justice confront Sawyer and attempt to define her using culturally distinct definitions of witchcraft, we are reminded that the definitions ARE constructed: that different groups have different definitions for the same phenomenon. This observation, linked with Sawyer's own powerful acts of self-definition, allows us to see the insecurity of the definitions that should control THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, both demonology and accepted economic and hierarchical positions are rendered problematic. Indeed, for THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, defining witchcraft is as problematic as defining social power and rank. The established categories do not contain the definitions proposed by the play.

     In ROMEO AND JULIET, written some twenty-five years before THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, Shakespeare challenges the supposedly natural relationship between words and meanings:

     What's in a name? That which we call a rose
     By any other word would smell as sweet.
     So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
     Retain that dear perfection which he owes
     Without the title.[2.2.43-47]

As Juliet attempts to disassociate the sign that makes Romeo a Montague from the essential young man who waits in the garden below her, Shakespeare seems to argue that there is an essential rose-ness, an essential Romeo-ness that cannot be adulterated, though the sign by which we recognize it may change. What is in a name? For Juliet the name is an arbitrary linguistic construct that can be changed without damage to the essential qualities of the thing being signified. For Juliet, the name is only a name and can be changed without changing the thing itself. By the end of the play, it seems, Juliet has been proven wrong. In the world of Verona, the name is a natural part of Romeo; he is Montague all the way to his core. The fact that Romeo is named Montague determines the direction of the plot and precipitates the tragedy. The name Montague forces the lovers' secrecy, forces the Friar's plots, and ultimately precipitates the young lovers' deaths. Despite Juliet's belief in semantic indeterminacy, Romeo's individualness cannot be separated from his name. Within the confines of Elizabethan culture, the name cannot be changed. The name, like the kind of clothes one can wear, is determined by one's nature.(11) In ROMEO AND JULIET, though he flirts with the slippage between sign and signified, Shakespeare ultimately argues that the name does matter, that Juliet is wrong to assume that she can separate Romeo from his name, because for Shakespeare, writing around 1594, the system of representation that places people in social positions is still relatively strong. As the social cohesiveness of Renaissance England continues to break down, however, (as it slowly does in the twenty-five years that separate these two plays) we begin to see slippage in the force that connects the named to the name; a slippage that becomes increasingly clear in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON.

     In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford ask a question very like the question that Shakespeare asks in ROMEO AND JULIET. When Mother Sawyer first takes the stage, her challenge to the audience is precisely the question that has haunted Juliet. "What is the name?" she asks, after being beaten and accused of being a witch by the countryman Banks. But for Mother Sawyer and THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, the answer to that question is complex. For THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, the thing itself seems to shift as the name changes. Called witch, Mother Sawyer becomes one. She changes her essential nature to conform to the boundaries of the name her society gives her. Whereas Shakespeare presents the necessary connection between name and named, left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford present the primacy of the sign, the essentialness of the name. The name seems to be the most important thing in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, for the name determines the essence. Elizabeth Sawyer becomes a witch because her society has defined her as one, not because she inherently is one.

     But even as left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford present the power of the name to transform the named, the play flirts with the opposite. The confusing conflation of witchcraft definitions that we have seen above encourages us finally to see BOTH the power of the name and the arbitrary nature of it. THE WITCH OF EDMONTON bends the act of naming back upon itself and shows us that it is ultimately a social and cultural endeavor, but one that has powerful implications both for those doing the naming and for those being named. In this play we are faced with both the power of names, and the cultural nature of the act of naming. This is, ultimately, a more dangerous, more destabilizing, and more contentious idea than Shakespeare's, marking what is a more contentious and less stable world.

     Though it appears that society's attempts at naming carry transformative powers, the play gives those powers a dark, illegitimate, and ultimately demonic cast. The metaphoric devils of beggary and want, with which Thorney begins the play, are transformed into an actual devil who preys upon the impoverished and the economically disadvantaged. Old Thorney's accusation that his son is "a villain,/A devil like a man" [1.2.156-57] becomes truth as Frank is transformed into a bigamist and murderer. Society names Mother Sawyer "witch" and the devil himself intervenes to transform Sawyer into a witch. In each case characters are transformed (usually with the help of the devil) by the names that society has chosen.

     At the beginning of act 2, as Sawyer struggles with her anger at Old Banks, who has beaten her, cursed her, and denied her the sticks that would keep her warm, she characterizes Banks as "this black cur/That barks and bites and sucks the very blood/Of me and of my credit" [2.1.114-16]. This graphic description of a neighbor who is denying her the wherewithal to live is helpful to our understanding of the play as a whole, because immediately after the reference to Banks in these economic terms, the devil appears to Sawyer in the shape of just such a black, blood-sucking dog.(12) The language of the play juxtaposes the black dog of society (with Banks as the referent) with the black dog of the devil and equates them. For THE WITCH OF EDMONTON the two dogs are the same. Hence, the social world is also the demonic world. The world of unreliable representation based exclusively on financial criteria is a world already infected with the chaos of the demonic. This economy transforms old women into witches and young men into murderers. The transformative act of naming in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON is a demonic power, a transgressive power, and society wields it.

     Throughout THE WITCH OF EDMONTON are signs that the old hierarchies are breaking down, and both the Frank Thorney and the Elizabeth Sawyer plots are driven by that break-down. In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, instead of occupying the bottom rung in a hierarchical view of the world, poverty becomes a metaphorical hell into which characters can be precipitated--not by their own deserts, or even by the will and hand of God, but by a society whose rules can no longer be predicted, and whose power to name and transform is considerable.

     The connection between demonology and the economy that I have traced here is one way that THE WITCH OF EDMONTON engages the breakdown of an old hierarchical view of the world. Because names were breaking down in the culture, because power was shifting to a new merchant class, because old hierarchies were beginning to break down, because those at the pinnacle of English society were seen to be increasingly immoral, because, as Larry Champion says, "the crisis of authority in every facet of life left few values unchallenged" [71], the accuracy of representation was shaken. The basic connection between the sign and the signified had become unreliable. Though Juliet's famous challenge to the relationship between name and named encourages us to see the potential instability in the act of naming, THE WITCH OF EDMONTON's challenge is more dramatic and ultimately more sinister. In THE WITCH OF EDMONTON neither the name NOR the essence is stable, nor can they be relied upon. Names transform individuals in a demonic parody of creation, and individuals redefine themselves and their surroundings, using an equally demonic power to implicate and redefine the original namers. The name "gentleman," the appellation "sir," the name "witch" no longer have social meanings that can be predicted in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. The definitions of witchcraft, the definitions of class and economic categories, in fact, the definitions that maintain the social organization itself are implicated in the subtle break-down of the accuracy of representation. left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford show us a society that is chaotic and dangerous, by 1621 already infected with instability and the demonic.

     THE WITCH OF EDMONTON represents the increased insecurity of the early seventeenth century and dramatizes it on the semantic level. The rapid rise of capitalism and the money economy becomes, in the language of the play, a demonic power that threatens the very basis of representational power itself. Because it already carries with it the idea of cultural violation, reversal, and inversion and because witchcraft had long been defined as an oppositional and destabilizing force out to destroy a world ordained by God, demonology becomes the language for left arrowDekkerright arrow, Rowley, and Ford to imagine the dangers inherent in a social system that was undergoing rapid and often unpredictable change. As we have seen, both the Thorney plot and the Sawyer plot echo one another and both describe an economic situation that is unstable and dangerous. Sawyer is outrightly demonized and she becomes a witch; Thorney's situation precisely parallels Sawyer's. He is demonized indirectly, yet just as surely. Both, then, represent states that are dangerous to the society within which they are found and both destabilize that society. The implicit demonization that the specter of poverty invests in Thorney begins to deconstruct social, economic, and moral categories leading to a social organization that increasingly mirrors the state of late Jacobean England. THE WITCH OF EDMONTON gives us a detailed look at the dangers, and the fear, inherent in a world that is increasingly indefinable, increasingly unstable, and increasingly unpredictable. THE WITCH OF EDMONTON shows us a world that is already firmly on the road to the social upheaval that will lead to the English civil war.

     * * *


     1. See Alan Macfarlane's work, particularly WITCHCRAFT IN TUDOR AND STUART ENGLAND: A REGIONAL AND COMPARATIVE STUDY, for this paradigm.

     2. Many scholars and critics of the play have focused on this witchcraft, and have emphasized the connection between the play and the historical event. For example, Robert Reed has argued in THE OCCULT ON THE TUDOR AND STUART STAGE that the play has "a convincing tone of realism--at least in terms of the Elizabethan point of view" [184], and many commentators have echoed Reed's judgment; Katherine M. Briggs, in PALE HECATE'S TEAM, calls it "the soberest and most factual of all the witch plays" [94]; Montague Summers writes in THE HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT that the play is "a sordid and a terrible, but one cannot doubt, a true picture" of witchcraft [291]; and Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge point out in their introduction to the play that "THE WITCH OF EDMONTON is precisely located in the rural environment of Jacobean Edmonton and its surroundings, the contemporary audience's familiarity and association with the play-world being supported by frequent references to neighbouring villages such as Enfield and Waltham, and to districts and locations in nearby London" [21].

     3. That the early seventeenth century in England was a time of mounting destabilization has been noted and documented by historians as diverse as: Christopher Hill in, for example, CHANGE AND CONTINUITY IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY ENGLAND or THE CENTURY OF REVOLUTION, 1603-1714, Lawrence Stone in CRISIS OF THE ARISTOCRACY, 1558-1641, and David Morse in ENGLAND'S TIME OF CRISIS: FROM SHAKESPEARE TO MILTON: A CULTURAL HISTORY, who are among the many who have described the range of destabilizing factors that led to the English civil war and the execution of Charles I.

     4. Viviana Comensoli [see 44-46] and Corbin and Sedge [see 21-22] emphasize the importance of poverty and economic forces in the plot of THE WITCH OF EDMONTON.

     5. James I marks the belief held by educated demonologists in his DAEMONOLOGIE. "These witches...[are] intised either for the desire of revenge, or of worldly riches" [34]. Reginald Scot answers just such a claim derisively in his DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT when he points out that witches neither obtain for their "service and paines nor by their art, nor yet at the devils hands (with whome they are said to make a perfect and visible bargaine) either beautie, monie, promotion, welth, worship, pleasure, honor, knowledge, learning, or anie other benefit whatsoever" [4-5].

     6. Viviana Comensoli makes a similar point: "the subversive structures of the Mother Sawyer plot locate the roots of witchcraft in the external conditions of class, misogyny, and poverty" [45].

     7. Witchcraft has traditionally been associated with the inversion of cultural and social rules. For example, James L. Brain tells us that "witch-like behavior is a simple reversal of normal and socially accepted behavior" [15]. Brain concentrates especially on the reversal of Christian ritual in defining what constitutes witchcraft. Similarly, Stuart Clark argues that "both festive behavior and learned demonology were dependent on inversion itself as a formal principle" [102]. The world of witchcraft, as Clark says, is the world of dominant culture in reverse [127]. Peter Burke traces a similar tradition of inversion in European witchcraft: "Witches like heretics were believed to have their own rituals, which were seen as an upside-down version of the true faith. Witches were believed to tread on the cross instead of worshipping it and to worship the devil instead of treading on him (as the Virgin does in many images). They were believed to do homage to the devil backwards, using their left hand and kissing his anus. Witches were, quite literally, 'perverse'" [39-40]. Christina Larner tells us in ENEMIES OF GOD that it is an "anthropological truism that witch-beliefs represent a direct inversion of the values of the society in which they are held" [134], and in WITCHCRAFT AND RELIGION she tells us that "just as popular witch beliefs are an inversion of positive cultural values, so educated demonology is an inversion of official theology on the nature of God" [55]. G.R. Quaife summarizes a similar argument: witches "were depicted as inverting Christian principles and practices and therefore diabolic....The witch personified these inverted values and her existence and persecution affirmed and strengthened the basic mores of society" [63].

     8. For some of these arguments see Tennenhouse and Pye, among others.

     9. Elizabeth I is the most compelling example of this maxim. Theodora A. Jankowski [66-68] discusses Elizabeth I's manipulation of her representations in a particularly interesting and effective way.

     10. English sumptuary laws are just the most dramatic example of the policing necessary, and the importance placed on the accuracy of representation by the forces controlling English society. Sumptuary laws insisted that one's clothing be an accurate sign of one's interior being, and proposed punishments (often serious) for those who violated that accuracy. As a consequence, the theater itself was a problem area for many, as the very interesting work done by Jean Howard and Laura Levine has indicated.

     11. When Romeo takes to heart Juliet's belief that his name is unimportant, the play quickly reminds him that the differences between Capulet and Montague are unreconcilable. This is perhaps most graphically illustrated when he attempts to treat Tybalt as his cousin. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt, and chaos and tragedy descend over the world of the play. Names matter in this play.

     12. The belief that familiars sucked the blood of witches has a long history in the literature of witchcraft. In witchcraft beliefs involving familiars, familiars are either devils or the representatives of devils. Banks becomes a demonic representative, and a representative of society as a whole. Hence, Banks metaphorically sucking the life from Sawyer and from her credit (note again the mixing of the demonic with the economic) shifts nicely into an actual devil-dog sucking Sawyer's actual blood, reaffirming the power of the social system to transform Sawyer into a witch through naming.

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     Brain, James L. "An Anthropological Perspective on the Witchcraze." THE POLITICS OF GENDER IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE. Ed. Jean R. Brink, Allison P. Coudert, and Maryanne C. Horowitz. Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 12. Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal P, 1989. 15-28.


     Burke, Peter. "Witchcraft and Magic in Renaissance Italy: Gianfrancesco Pico and his STRIX." THE DAMNED ART: ESSAYS IN THE LITERATURE OF WITCHCRAFT. Ed. Sydney Anglo. London: Routledge, 1977. 32-52.


     Clark, Stuart. "Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft." PAST AND PRESENT 87 (1980): 98-127.

     Comensoli, Viviana. "Witchcraft and Domestic Tragedy in THE WITCH OF EDMONTON." THE POLITICS OF GENDER IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE. Ed. Jean R. Brink, Allison Coudert, and Maryanne Horowitz. Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 12. Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal P, 1989. 43-60.

     Corbin, Peter and Douglas Sedge. Introduction. THREE JACOBEAN WITCHCRAFT PLAYS. Ed. Corbin and Sedge. The Revels Companion Library. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1986. 1-33.

     left arrowDekkerright arrow, left arrowThomas, William Rowley, and John Ford. THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. London: Methuen, 1983.


     Hill, Christopher. CHANGE AND CONTINUITY IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY ENGLAND. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1975.

     ---. THE CENTURY OF REVOLUTION, 1603-1714. Edinburgh: Nelson, 1961.

     Howard, Jean. THE STAGE AND SOCIAL STRUGGLE IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND. New York: Routledge, 1994.

     James VI. DAEMONOLOGIE. 1597. The English Experience 94. New York: Da Capo, 1969.

     Jankowski, Theodora. WOMEN IN POWER IN THE EARLY MODERN DRAMA. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1992.

     Larner, Christina. ENEMIES OF GOD: THE WITCH-HUNT IN SCOTLAND. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.


     Levine, Laura. MEN IN WOMEN'S CLOTHING: ANTI-THEATRICALITY AND EFFEMINIZATION: 1579-1642. Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 5. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.


     McLuskie, Kathleen. RENAISSANCE DRAMATISTS. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989.


     Notestein, Wallace. A HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT IN ENGLAND FROM 1558-1718. 1911. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.



     Reay, Barry. "Popular Religion." POPULAR CULTURE IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND. Ed. Barry Reay. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. 91-128.

     Reed, Robert R. Jr. THE OCCULT ON THE TUDOR AND STUART STAGE. Boston: Christopher, 1965.

     Scot, Reginald. THE DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT. (1584). Ed. Montague Summers. New York: Dover, 1972.

     Shakespeare, William. THE COMPLETE SIGNET CLASSIC SHAKESPEARE. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Harcourt, 1972.


     Stone, Lawrence. THE CRISIS OF THE ARISTOCRACY: 1558-1641. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

     Tennenhouse, Leonard. POWER ON DISPLAY: THE POLITICS OF SHAKESPEARE'S GENRES. New York: Methuen, 1986.


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     Richard W. Grinnell is Assistant Professor of English at Marist College. His most recent work focuses on the relationship between historical witchcraft and the English Renaissance stage, and on the relationship between social anthropology and literature. He is currently at work on a book titled ENGLISH DEMONOLOGY AND RENAISSANCE DRAMA: THE POLITICS OF FEAR.