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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
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witchcraft both extends and departs from the earlier Restoration plays discussed in Chapter 6. Shadwell’s play has not received much critical attention in the present day, largely because of its author’s poor reputation following Dryden’s attacks on him, but perhaps also because it has often been perceived to be unoriginal. The Lancashire Witches draws on previous witchcraft plays, including The Late Lancashire Witches, The Witch of Edmonton, and The Masque of Queens. The situation of the Shacklehead and Hartfort children resembles that in Lyly’s Mother Bombie, in that 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

derive from the late seventeenth century. In his Late Memorable Providences, published in 1691, Cotton Mather described how witch-bottles contained, ‘Nails, Pins, and such Instruments . . . as carry a shew of Torture with them’.11 That defender of the reality of witchcraft, Joseph Glanvill, related a tale of witchcraft involving witch-bottles. He tells of a woman whose health had been languishing and how a travelling cunning-man diagnosed that the cause of her malady was a ‘dead Spright’. He recommended that her husband, ‘take a Bottle, and put his Wife’s Urine into it

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

horrified by what he saw.21 Perkins’s book on witchcraft was published posthumously in 1608, at a time when witchcraft prosecutions seem to have begun to decline. There is no suggestion of any personal involvement in witchcraft accusations or trials in Perkins’s treatise on the subject, although he was rumoured to have been involved in astrology as a student, which, it has been suggested, might account for a later hostility towards magic.22 20 George Gifford’s mouthpiece in his Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes (London, 1593), Daniel, seems to argue that two

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