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Interrogating the Devil: Social and Demonic Pressure in The Witch ofEdmonton David Nicol In its tale ofwitchcraft,murder,and bigamy,Thomas Dekker,John Ford and William Rowley's The Witch ofEdmonton (1621) powerfully dramatizes both social and demonic forces operating within a small rural community. Although a number of recent studies have discussed the play's depiction of the social causes of crime and of the witchcraft phenomenon, there has been less interest in its representation of supernatural causation, which is personified by a devil who appears throughout the play in the shape ofa dog and brings about its tragic events. The Dog is often dismissed as a disappointing retreat bythe playwrights into superstition, or else is rationalized awayas an hallucination or as a purely symbolic figure. This essay contends that to downplaythe importance of the Dog is to misunderstand the ways in which skepticism about witchcraft was typically articulated in the period. Reading the play as a demonological study—that is,as a textthat attempts to define theboundary between social and demonic causation—reveals the intellectual sophistication of The Witch ofEdmonton while acknowledging its roots in the beliefsystems of early modern England. My reading ofthe play is inspired by Stuart Clark's important study of demonology, Thinking with Demons, which argues that studies of early modern witchcraft beliefhave tended to construct a simplistic oppositionbetween demonologyandrationalismbyassumingthat anyearly modern writer who discusses the role of demons in the material world must be credulous and retrograde.1 Clark finds that modern historians tend to overemphasize the importance of the few early modern writers 425 426Comparative Drama who appear to pre-empt post-Enlightenment thought on magic and devils .He arguesthatwhen discussing aperiodinwhich almost everythinker believed in the existence ofdemons thatcould influencehuman thoughts and actions, demonological writings must be taken seriously and cannot be disregarded as intellectually unimportant. The problems Clark finds in modern historical scholarship are also discussed in John D. Cox's recent studyofstage devils in medieval and earlymodern drama. Cox contests the influential argument of E. K. Chambers that' the presence of devils on the stage marks the introduction of secular elements to the drama—in other words, that stage devils are symptoms of skepticism about the supernatural. Cox instead makes a powerful case for reading stage devils as dramatizations of sincerely held beliefs about the presence of spirits in the material world that are the enemies of positive values, such as charity and communality.2 Although his discussion of The Witch ofEdmonton is brief, Cox's arguments are highly applicable to the play, which features a splendidly frightening and entertaining devil in the shape of a black dog. Despite the Dog's important role in the play's events, criticism of the play has tended to focus on those elements ofit that seem skeptical about supernatural causation, while leaving comparatively unexamined those elementsthatemphasizetheDog 'sagencyinbringingabouttheplay'sevents. It is certainly true that the play's depiction of Elizabeth Sawyer, an old woman scapegoatedas awitchbyherneighbors,is one ofthemost sober and skeptical accounts of the witch craze in the drama of the period.3 Similarly, the depiction of Frank Thorne/s slide into bigamy and murder emphasizes its origin in his fear ofpoverty and social scandal.4 Yet, as Jonathan Dollimore notes, while the play places"[an] emphasis upon identity as socially coerced," it also depicts Sawyer actually becoming a witch aftermakingapactwiththe Devil,5 andthe same Devil apparently provokes Frank's murder ofhis second wife. For modern readers, these interventions by the Dog may indicate a retreat into superstition, sensationalism , or even silliness,6 and the importance of the Dog's power in the play's intellectual framework may be overlooked. This essay argues that focusing on the social causes of crime at the expenseofthe demonicobscurestheintellectualcomplexityof TheWitch ofEdmonton. The dramatists deliberately highlight the two forms of David Nicol427 causation in order to stage a debate about the location of the boundary between them. In so doing,theydraw on two demonological texts, adapting them to draw their own distinctive conclusions. Furthermore, they use the clown plot,which is usuallydismissed as naïve comedy,to deliver the play's conclusions clearly and inventively. The play is thus carefully constructed to draw a specific conclusion: it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 425-445
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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