The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Three Jacobean witchcraft plays

This book was my BookCrossing find from last December. I have read it now, not only because I found issues of marginalising of women as scapegoats during this period interesting during my course while studying Macbeth, but also because it completes #2 of the 2009 mini challenges - to read a play and blog about it. I can also now send the book off on the next leg of its journey.
Witchcraft was a very real problem to the people of the 1600's, and women, usually poor and living on the edges of society, were easy pickings for the rest to use as a scapegoat, should misfortune blight their lives. Fear and gossip would add to the fanciful accusations and help to justify their persecution. It was a common knowledge and belief of the time that the devil could infiltrate their lives with harm through those who were little understood. Some were healers and had experience in midwifery and herbalism. Others were simply elderly, deformed or mentally deficient, and living rough, together or alone. All of these circumstances could be used against them when society needed someone to blame.
There are 3 plays in this book and all of them reveal facets of the beliefs in witchcraft during this period .The one I read most closely was The Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. The plot is quite complicated so I will try and summarize it...
Frank Thorney loves Winnifrede who is pregnant and wants him to do the decent thing and marry her which he does, but there is a problem. His father has forbidden him to marry because he wants to arrange his bride. His father has threatened disinheritance so to get round this Frank has asked Sir Arthur, a local dignitary, to write to him saying he is unmarried while he plots to leave with Winnifrede after he has won his father round. His father, meanwhile, is betrothing his son to Susan Carter, who genuinely loves him, and the marriage will be beneficial to both families. Frank, on meeting his father, totally loses his nerve and agrees to marry Sue in a few days time. There is also an old woman who is persecuted as a witch, Elizabeth Sawyer. Poor and frail, with no family (although a former husband and children are hinted at) she is baited regularly by locals, ostracised and beaten. When the devil appears to her as a dog and offers a chance for revenge she says yes. The dog wreaks its mischief on locals, spoiling crops, turning the milk, but also putting suggestions in their heads. It doesn't really show any loyalty to old mother Sawyer either. Sue knows something is wrong with her new husband and she knows it is to do with Winnifrede, who has also heard of his new marriage and has come disguised as a boy to find out what is going on. Frank, egged on by the dog, murders Sue and blames it on 2 other men. When he is found out he is arrested and so is Mother Sawyer. Both are hanged for their crimes.
This was an interesting plot with lots of layers and sub plots. It has lots of classic Jacobean features of treachery and cross-gender disguise. I found it fascinating how the play depicted the witch character as someone drawn into what she had long been accused of in order to find a way out of her persecution, therefor fulfilling the locals suspicions. I also found it interesting how Frank got all the sympathy at the end when he had behaved badly for most of the play. To be honest the men did not come over at their best in any of the plays in this book.
This is not light bedtime reading and many would find the language difficult. However those who like reading Shakespeare will enjoy this as an alternative. Also anyone into medieval depictions of women will also find this book invaluable. This is an excellent collection of plays for those interested in the period.
You can follow this books progress on the BookCrossing site here.
This completes #2 of the mini challenges 2009 to read a play and blog about it. I read a lot of stage scripts as part of my job but this one seemed quite a rare opportunity not to use it in this instance.


Gentle Reader said...

I'm fascinated by the persecution of "witches" during this time period, so I know I would enjoy this. I'm also fascinated by BookCrossing, though I haven't actively pursued cool that a book can have so many adventures on its own!

David said...

Great blog! It was my book that you found, propped up on (I think) a wall mounted ashtray outside the Playhouse.

I am really glad you liked it, and as my reward I have discovered some reading matter of my own in the shape of your blog, which I will be bookmarking and calling in on!

Keep up the good work!


Leah said...

Gentle Reader - it really is a great book to get hold of if you have interests in this area.

David - thanks for leaving the book, I was excited to find it and enjoyed reading it. Glad you like my blog, I hope you drop by again and share your thoughts. Thank you for the good wishes.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye