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7 The Lancashire Witches By far the most surprising and controversial use of witchcraft as a dramatic symbol came towards the end of the Restoration in Thomas Shadwell’s play The Lancashire Witches (1681). This play was staged at a time of political crisis, with Charles II’s regime struggling to contain the so-called Popish plot and the increasingly rancorous debate about the succession to the throne which grew out of the plot. The Lancashire Witches is above all a political play – perhaps inevitably so, given its immediate context – and one whose use of

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

5 The Late Lancashire Witches The pioneering journalist and poet Joseph Addison once commented on the subject of witchcraft. Directly addressing the question of belief and scepticism, Addison wrote: In short, when I consider the Question, whether there are such Persons in the World as those we call Witches? my Mind is divided between the two opposite Opinions; or rather (to speak my Thoughts freely) I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as Witchcraft; but at the same time can give no Credit to any particular Instance of it.1 Addison does

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

This book situates witchcraft drama within its cultural and intellectual context, highlighting the centrality of scepticism and belief in witchcraft to the genre. It is argued that these categories are most fruitfully understood not as static and mutually exclusive positions within the debate around witchcraft, but as rhetorical tools used within it. In drama, too, scepticism and belief are vital issues. The psychology of the witch character is characterised by a combination of impious scepticism towards God and credulous belief in the tricks of the witch’s master, the devil. Plays which present plausible depictions of witches typically use scepticism as a support: the witch’s power is subject to important limitations which make it easier to believe. Plays that take witchcraft less seriously present witches with unrestrained power, an excess of belief which ultimately induces scepticism. But scepticism towards witchcraft can become a veneer of rationality concealing other beliefs that pass without sceptical examination. The theatrical representation of witchcraft powerfully demonstrates its uncertain status as a historical and intellectual phenomenon; belief and scepticism in witchcraft drama are always found together, in creative tension with one another.

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virtually anything to back up their argument.4 Probably taken from this purportedly factual source, it made its way into a play in the seventeenth century, The Late Lancashire Witches (1634).5 At a later date, another version of the story turns up as evidence provided by eyewitnesses in a criminal trial presided over by Sir Matthew Hale in the 1660s.6 Even more striking is the case of the 1592 witchcraft pamphlet mentioned by Marion Gibson, which ‘plagiarized a long extract from a play, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, inserting incidents from it into the

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

spinning of a twisted thread.9 Lucan’s standpoint is ancient rather than early modern, of course, and it has been suggested that literary attitudes to love magic had changed by the time of Marston’s play. Anthony Harris claims that the idea that love magic was impossible was an ‘established concept’,10 but it is not difficult to think of dramatic exceptions to this supposed rule (among them Fedele and Fortunio, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Witch, and The Late Lancashire Witches). It is far from clear that love magic was widely agreed to be impossible outside the

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681
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other extant play from the period in that it portrays a character matching the stereotype of the village witch, a character who can reasonably be regarded as plausible in terms of her psychology. Prior to The Witch of Edmonton, there are sceptical plays depicting tricksters in a more or less realistic fashion (The Wise Woman of Hogsdon), and there are plays showing witches as lurid, supernatural agents of the devil (Sophonisba, The Witch). After it, there are two-dimensional comic witches (The Late Lancashire Witches, The Lancashire Witches). But Elizabeth Sawyer is

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

young woman to remove her shoes until her child was born.51 Merrifield notes the old rhyme, ‘there was an old woman who lived in a shoe . . .’ as being further evidence of the connection with fertility, and states that in Lancashire women used to try on the shoes of women who had just given birth in order to try and conceive.52 This seems to relate to the personal nature of shoes and is reminiscent 180 Beyond the witch trials of the old American Indian practice of enemies walking in one another’s shoes in order to empathise more deeply – in this case to hopefully

in Beyond the witch trials

predictions of witches seriously are Pontia and Brianella, both of whom are obviously mistaken in doing so. The heroic general Crispus dismisses the witch-making British Bards as ‘Juglers’ (ii, p. 24). The theme of witchcraft performs a dual function, as in The Late Lancashire Witches. Witchcraft is only taken seriously as a symbol of rebellion against husband, king and god. In itself, witchcraft is treated as laughable. The most famous witches on the Restoration stage were of course those in the Davenant adaptation of Macbeth (1664). The political appeal of Macbeth in a

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

relationship, but this did not emerge until the seventeenth century. 92 Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama translator, or any of its early modern readers.110 A degree of scepticism appears to be built into the text. The opening of the novel – like the opening of The Late Lancashire Witches, discussed in Chapter 5 – features a debate about the possibility of witchcraft. The narrator overhears a conversation between two travellers. One of them has been talking about witchcraft, and his companion openly mocks his credulity, calling the stories ‘absurde

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681

, The Discoverie 56 London, British Library, Harley MS 2302, fol. 77r. The author also criticises Scot’s readings of other theologians, such as Chrysostom (fol. 80r), but returns most frequently to Calvin (e.g. fols 84r–84v). 57 Bodin, p. 216. 58 Thomas Shadwell, The Lancashire Witches, edited by Judith Bailey Slagle (New York: Garland, 1991), ii.415–17. 28 Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama of Witchcraft did not end that debate.59 Clearly, it was possible for some early modern people to dismiss stories like Bodin’s as absurd, just as it is for

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681