- Secret, Black, and Midnight Hags": The Conception, Presentation and Functions of Witches in English Renaissance Drama
In his comprehensive study of witch characters in early modern English drama, Dietmar Tatzl performs a literary version of the social and legal witch-finding that registered immense fear and controversy in the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline eras. He has attempted to discover all the theatrical witches that entered and exited Renaissance English stages and, in some cases, lingered backstage by report, and has found precursors in two early Renaissance plays as well. In part 1, Tatzl provides an overview of historical European witchcraft, in which he clarifies basic terms including magic, sorcery, and witchcraft, distinguishes between the classical and the contemporary manifestations of witchcraft in Europe, and offers summaries of the best-known studies of the phenomenon. In contrast to other recent estimations of the number of executions, Tratzl's figures, from 100,000 to 500,000, are high: Linda Hults affirms a range between William Monter's 40,000 and Anne Barstow's 120,000 in her 2005 The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe.
Tatzl takes a more formalist approach to his literary investigations than many of his fellow scholars, announcing in his introduction that he will not focus on gender issues or social, historical factors, but rather treat the plays "as literary texts" (7). His theoretical perspective is shaped by his adherence to Manfred Pfister's system of categorizing characters according to sets of terms such as "static and dynamic," "monodimensional and multidimensional," "open and closed," and "transpsychological and psychological" (8). As Tatzl goes from one play to the next in part 2, "Malevolent Witches in English Renaissance Drama," providing thorough plot summaries as well as generous quotations from the works, he discusses in detail the types and roles of witch figures in each and labels them according to Pfister's system. This reader has begun to wonder how beneficial it is to fit these characters into a formal grid in respect to searching for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the literary witch figure in the English drama of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In addition to the summaries, quotations, and classifications according to the "presentation" and "functions" of some sixty figures — there is a table of "Witch-Like and Malevolent Witches" in the appendix — Tatzl also cites the comments of a multitude of critics on particular characters, but we rarely hear his own voice. When it does surface, it takes the form of statement rather than of carefully developed argument. Perhaps this seeming shortcoming exists because Tatzl's work is a revised version of his PhD thesis, submitted only in 2004.
What this reader would like to have encountered more is an acknowledgement of the "intertextual" and "extratextual" relations between the plays. One obstacle to affording more insights into the way the public might have registered a familiarity with stock figures or identified more individualized figures might be in the [End Page 1306] author's decision to disregard the chronology of the plays. He uses categories which transcend the timing of the plays, and yet the order in which the plays were performed, and the collective memories which would have been generated, are significant considerations. Removing a production of The Witch of Edmonton from the real-life circumstance of the play's performance, only a few months after the actual execution of the title figure in the spring of 1621, and taking little notice of the proximity of the real-life imprisoned accused witches to the stage on which The Late Lancashire Witches was being played in 1634, diminishes the power that the stage witches must have exerted over their audiences, even though, through time, playgoers were becoming increasingly skeptical. The reason that many of these figures, Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters in particular, inspired such fear, is that...