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  • How to Do Witchcraft Tragedy with Speech Acts
  • Eric Byville (bio)

I do not pray, you gods: my breath's "You must."

—John Marston, Sophonisba

In this essay I argue that speech act theory reveals a profound continuity between classical and Renaissance witchcraft tragedy, in the Western tradition in general and the English tradition in particular. So far as I know, this will be the first thoroughgoing attempt to apply speech act theory to early modern witch plays. While some historical studies of witchcraft beliefs and practices have invoked the speech act paradigm, Renaissance scholars have tended to discuss English witchcraft drama through an overwhelmingly sociohistorical lens, interpreting plays like The Witch of Edmonton in light of contemporaneous witchcraft persecutions and defining them as representations of social history rather than dramatic artworks possessing a set of essential generic features or an underlying classical structure.1 I propose, however, that Christopher Marlowe's Doctor [End Page 1] Faustus (1588–89) and Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton (1621) are not merely the fragmented, dramatized documents of contemporary cultural beliefs and practices, but members of a literary genre that goes back to Seneca's Medea (c. 30–65 ad).2 In sociohistorical terms, these three tragedies have little in common: one is the nightmarish Roman rendering of an infamous sorceress from Greek mythology, one the Renaissance reworking of a medieval legend about a male magician, and one the sensationalistic "true crime" dramatization of a real Jacobean woman executed for witchcraft. Yet through the lens of speech act theory, we will see that they resemble each other quite closely, displaying a remarkably unified set of generic "family features" whereby we can recognize Hecate's pockmarked face.3 What I am offering here, then, is not an empirical description of every play that might plausibly be called "witchcraft tragedy," but a theoretical model for defining the genre as a neoclassical form, its structure articulated by speech act theory and illustrated by three plays not usually seen as belonging to the same tradition.4

I. The Way You Do the Things You Do

Witchcraft tragedy—broadly speaking, drama featuring a witch as the tragic hero—is an especially good test case for Tzvetan Todorov's hypothesis that a literary genre "derives from a speech act by way of a certain number of transformations or amplifications."5 The tragic witch abandons "human" language and resorts to a radically antisocial utterance, the supernatural performative; this speech act, rather than other characters, divinities, random chance, or fate, defines her character and determines her catastrophic end. Unsurprisingly, the best exemplars of this notion of witchcraft tragedy are to be found—in the European canon at least—prior to the completion of the historical process famously described by Keith Thomas as the "decline of magic," before the coterminous rise of a disenchanted "realism" as the dominant mode of literary representation.6

J. L. Austin's speech act philosophy is uniquely well suited for conceptualizing not only the conflict between magic and religion that Thomas diagnoses at the heart of the history of European witchcraft, but also the binary tension between magical ritual and realistic measurement that [End Page 2] critics like Kenneth Burke and Robert Weimann posit in the "symbolic action" of literature.7 Central to Austin's theory, of course, is his original contrast between "constative" and "performative" utterances. Where constatives are factual assertions that might be true or false, performative speech acts "do not 'describe' or 'report' or constate anything at all, are not 'true or false.'"8 Instead they are, as John Searle says, "cases where one brings a state of affairs into existence by declaring it to exist, cases where, so to speak, 'saying makes it so.'"9 This distinction is especially useful for analyzing witchcraft tragedy because it isolates an essential feature of linguistic magic, of which the witch's spell is a notorious example. After all, to utter a performative is "not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it. None of the utterances cited is either...


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