How to do witchcraft tragedy with speech acts.
--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 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 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 true or false ... [just as] 'damn' is not true or false." (10) In the same vein, witches "are not simply accused of hoping that something will happen, but of making it happen." (11) The only difference is that while Austin's "damn" only presumes to affect social reality, a curse like the witch's "A pox take it" (12) is a supernatural performative that aims to transform metaphysical reality. Thus, to count as witchcraft an utterance must eo ipso count as a performative: like the "I do" of the wedding ceremony, the magical spell of witchcraft is not a "constative" factual statement that might be true or false, but rather a "performative" verbal action that accomplishes some change in the world's state of affairs.
Provisionally, then, I will define European witchcraft tragedy as a genre in which (1) the hero practices infernal magic through supernatural performatives, (2) the hero, bound to radical and inhuman evil through this magical utterance, is alienated from his or her society, and (3) the plot foregrounds various other speech acts in a broader emphasis on performative utterances, of which the magical charm of witchcraft is only one spectacular example. First, the tragic witch is essentially defined through her own performative utterance, and it is this ritual speech act (not other powers, events, or characters) that shapes the tragic plot. (13) Such power stems from the very nature of supernatural performatives, which possess a unique capacity for self-determination and the ability to dictate, rather than describe, external reality. Searle calls this "the word-to-world direction of fit" in speech acts such as "commands" "vows" and "promises," performatives which he renames "declarations." (14) Following Searle's terminology, Culpeper and Semino maintain that "witches' curses are declarations that do not depend on an institution as such, but on the belief that particular people's words have become powerful due to a supernatural alliance." (15) Second, as Northrop Frye observed, tragic plots are those in which the hero is isolated from society. (16) In witchcraft tragedy, this social separation bears a dual relation to the supernatural performative, which is both the ultimate cause and the ultimate expression of the witch's alienation: she gives up on human society and opts for an illicit bond with some meta-physical evil, abandoning "mortal" existence and turning to the infernal power activated through magical utterances. Third, witchcraft tragedy, in foregrounding multiple speech acts, manifests a greater gravitational force in the whole field of performative language: thus vows, promises, oaths, curses, prayers, and commands take on special importance in this genre, as they draw parallels and contrasts between the illicit performatives of the witch and the utterances sanctioned by her society. The most striking example is the fact that all three of these plays set up the infernal vow of witchcraft in opposition to the sacred vow of marriage. At the heart of European witchcraft tragedy, from Medea to The Witch of Edmonton, we find the same speech act antinomy: the witch's infernal pact versus the spouse's wedding contract.
II. Black Magic Woman
Let us turn to my first example of witchcraft tragedy: Seneca's Medea. From the very beginning, the heroine defines herself with supernatural performatives. Her opening monologue invokes "Di coniugales" (the gods of marriage; 1. I), "Titan" (1. 5), "Hecate triformis" (three-faced Hecate; 1.7), and "ultrices deae" (the avenging goddesses; 1. 13). (17) The speech act performed here is ostensibly prayer: the verb precor (to pray, beseech, or invoke) appears four times in the first twenty-five lines alone ("precari," 1. 9; "precor" 1. 12; "precer," 1. 19; "precari," 1. 24). However, Medea also drops several hints that she is turning toward magic. One is the reference to Hecate, a sort of pagan patron saint of witchcraft; another is the mood of her appeal to the Furies--"nunc, nunc adeste sceleris ultrices deae" (now, now be present, you avenging goddesses of crime!; I. 13)--which is more assertive than prayer. Medea's imperious tone clashes with the next speech, a wedding hymn delivered by the chorus. Like her, the chorus says "precor" (I pray, 1. 90), and like her, it invokes supernatural powers with the verb adsum (to be present, to attend): "Ad regum thalamos ... / ... superi ... / adsint" (At this royal marriage, may the gods be present; ll. 56-58). But where the chorus addresses the marriage gods in the subjunctive mood--"adsint" (may they be present)--Medea summons the Furies using the imperative "adeste" (be present!). (18) These are categorically different speech acts: one an entreaty, one a decree. The crucial difference is that between magic and religion, as described by Burke: "If magic says, 'Let there be such and such; religion says, 'Please do such and such.' The decree of magic, the petition of prayer." (19) As John Marston's witch Erictho says, in a concise Renaissance formulation of the same idea, "I do not pray, you gods: my breath's 'You must.'" (20)
Such a contrast is borne out in the language of Medea's actual witchcraft, especially the incantation scene, where she employs the same imperative verb to summon a mythological serpent: "ades" (be present!; l. 703), she commands, and the monster appears before her. This utterance is a supernatural performative because it carries magical efficacy, creating rather than describing the presence to which it refers. The dragons are controlled by Medea's "cantibus" (incantations; 1. 704). This speech act--the cantus (a chant, incantation, song, or charm)--is another defining feature of the classical witch: Ovid's Medea, for example, says, "stantia concutio cantu freta" (I rouse the standing waters with my incantation; 7.201). (21) Likewise, Seneca's Medea declares to Creon, the king of Corinth, that "munus est Orpheus meum, / qui saxa cantu mulcet et siluas trahit" (my gift is Orpheus, who melts rocks and drags trees with his incantation; ll. 228-29). This line is suggestive: Orpheus's singing (cantu) does not describe the rocks melting and the trees moving; it literally "melts" the rocks and "drags" the trees--like Ovid's Medea, who says "saxa ... / et silvas moveo" (I move rocks ... and trees; 7.204-5). Thus it also fits Austin's definition of the performative as an utterance that does not simply describe something happening, but actually makes happen the event to which it refers. (22) Through this cantus, Medea abandons her human identity, realizing her full potential for infernal magic and calculating the destruction of the Corinthian royal family, a catastrophe accomplished not, as in other tragedies, by political machinations or armed conflicts, but by the very efficacy of her performative utterance: "uocis imperio meae" (by the power of my voice; 1. 767). The nurse says that Medea "addit uenenis uerba non illis minus / metuenda" (to her poisons adds words no less fearful than they; ll. 737-38), insisting on the intrinsically verbal nature of her violence.
Seneca's play also portrays the extreme social alienation that stands in a complex relationship of double-causation with the hero's witchcraft. Medea's alienation is both antecedent and consequence of her practice of infernal magic, a pattern beginning in the mythical backstory in which she used magic to kill her brother and elope with Jason--killing her family and fleeing her homeland to become a fugitive. Yet her current social isolation is even more extreme: in her first speech she prays ("precer"; 1. 19) that Jason "per urbes erret ignotas egens / exul pauens inuisus incerti laris, / iam notus hospes limen alienum expetat" (may wander through unknown cities, destitute, fearing, a hated exile of an uncertain house; already an infamous stranger, let him seek out an alien doorstep; ll. 20-22). This fantasy, however, is little more than projection, for Jason has not only been allowed into Corinth but has married into the ruling family, and it is Medea who now finds herself homeless, a hated exile without family, spouse, or nation. When the wedding hymn strikes her ears ("aures pepulit hymenaeus meas"; l. 116), she is totally isolated, bereft even of the husband for whom she gave up family and home: "hoc facere Iason potuit, erepto patre / patria atque regno sedibus solam exteris / deserere durus?" (Was callous Jason really capable of this, after my father and fatherland and kingdom had been stripped away, to abandon me alone in a foreign land?; ll. 118-20). In an important sense, her infernal magic is Medea's only form of compensation for this alienation. Told "nihilque superest" (nothing remains; 1. 165), she wraps herself in magical self-reliance: "Medea superest: hic mare et terras uides / ferrumque et ignes et deos et fulmina" (Medea remains: here you see ocean and lands, steel and fires, gods and thunderbolts; ll. 166-67). Exiled by Creon as a monster--"monstrumque saeuum horribile iamdudum auehe" (Carry off this savage and horrible monster, now!; l. 191)--she imports her own "monsters" to wreak vengeance upon his kingdom, through her incantations making this monstrous identity real in all of its infernal machinery, summoning the inhuman members of a demonic circle that makes up the only society to
which she now belongs: "pestes uocat ... / et omne monstrum" (she calls up plagues ... and every monster; ll. 681,684). She makes Creon almost literally eat his words, as he is killed by the poisons concocted from the monstra that this "monster" herself has collected. And at the end of the play, it is these conjured dragons that bear Medea away; unlike before, when she fled her native home in Jason's ship and the new bond of marriage, she eventually casts off without exception every human bond (the state, family, society) and leaves the terrestrial realm, flying off in her infernal car, a vehicle of metaphysical alienation.
In the play's concluding line, Jason tells Medea, "testare nullos esse, qua ueheris, deos" (Bear witness that there are, wherever you go, no gods; 1. 1027). This is a "meta"-speech act, a performative verb in the imperative mood (it commands her to testify). (23) Such speech acts, especially performative ones, define the key moments of witchcraft tragedy. Another is the verb precor and the related noun prex (a prayer, entreaty, petition, curse). In her meeting with Creon, Medea says, "illud extremum precor" (I pray for this last thing; l. 282), which is to spare her sons from being separated from their mother. Creon begrudgingly concedes her a "single day" of respite to spend with her children: "Etsi repugnat precibus infixus timor, / unus parando dabitur exilio dies" (Even though a vague fear fights against your prayers, a single day shall be granted for you to get ready for exile; ll. 294-95). The stark contrast here is dramatically figured in the two speech acts set face to face: the cringing prayer of the supplicant and the omnipotent pronouncement of the ruler. Where the performative "precor" (I pray you) embodies her weakness, the performative "dabitur" (it shall be granted) embodies his power. Medea's humiliating prayer, grasping after the remnants of her nuclear family, will soon be replaced by the proud assertion of magical performatives. But first she must go through one more posture of supplication with Jason, in a scene full of prayers and entreaties on both sides. Jason says, "Iustitia, numen inuoco ac testor tuum" (Justice, I invoke and bear witness to your power; l. 440), and "constituit animus precibus iratam aggredi" (my spirit is set to go after the angry woman with prayers; 1. 444). But Medea is the real supplicant. She entreats Jason, "liberos tantum fugae / habere comites liceat" (let me only be permitted to have our sons as companions in my exile; 11. 541-42), and he responds, "Parere precibus cupere me fateor tuis; / pietas uetat" (I confess myself wanting to obey your prayers, but piety forbids it; ll. 544-45). This is the last blow, ensuring her ultimate alienation and her makeover as a bloodthirsty witch who celebrates infanticide. It is the epitome of Medea's powerlessness at the hands of Jason's callous privilege, but also the beginning of the reversal of their respective positions as supplicant and tyrant. (24)
When Medea next "entreats" Jason, she is only pretending submission in order to exact her maternal vengeance. She asks the chance to give a final hug to their children ("ultimum amplexum dare"; 1. 552), playing nice with vicious irony: "illud uoce iam extrema peto, / ne, si qua noster dubius effudit dolor, / maneant in animo uerba" (I make this petition now with my last utterance, that any words spewed out by my unstable bitterness should not linger in your consciousness; ll. 553-55). In response Jason adopts the role of entreater, using for the verb precor for the first time in his sheepish reply: "Omnia ex animo expuli / precorque et ipse, feruidam ut mentem regas" (I've blotted all those words from my consciousness, and I myself pray that you get control over your raging mind; ll. 557-58). He thinks he still has the upper hand and makes this one benevolent gesture out of a luxurious excess of empowerment, superciliously aping his ex-wife's beseeching. But in fact the supplicating language that he adopts here with patronizing irony will become his defining speech act when Medea confronts him later as an omnipotent witch holding his son in her bloody hands. In the final scene, their positions are inverted: he is a powerless supplicant desperately invoking divine authorities, begging before the raving madwoman who stands over him having already murdered one son and holding the other child's life in the balance, savoring her infernal power over him and her ability to protract his pain and torment him with a futile hope. Jason swears by every onlooking power and relevant principle he can think of: "Per numen omne perque communes fugas / torosque, quos non nostra uiolauit fides, / iam parce nato" (By every divinity, by our shared exile and our shared bed, which my faith has not violated--spare the child!; ll. 1002-4). As he had done before with her, she lets him pray in vain.
Jason's appeal is ill-founded, of course, because it is based on the conjugal bonds that he has already broken and denied--his guarantee of his own fides is given in bad faith. This fact calls attention to the speech act perhaps most fascinatingly intertwined with, and ultimately opposed to, the witch's magical performative: the wedding vow. After Jason's "bigamous" new oath of marriage to Creon's daughter, Medea's only means of defense and counterassault is to contract herself to infernal powers through the magical cantus and votum of witchcraft, and simultaneously to injure Jason through the violation of her own familial obligations by killing their children. Medea conjures Hecate with vows ("uotis"; 1. 813), and, when her incantations work, declares "Vota tenentur" (my vows are held fast; 1. 840); the binding efficacy in these magical vota makes up, in a perverse fashion, for the lack of efficacy in her marriage vows, which have not been "held fast" by her husband. Medea's opening lines mention "quosque iurauit mihi / deos Iason" (those gods by whom Jason swore to me; ll. 7-8), and she echoes this verb iuro (to swear) when Jason exhorts her to "placare natis" (make peace for the children; 1. 507), to which she responds, "Abdico eiuro abnuo" (I disinherit them, I foreswear them, I deny them!; l. 507). (25) The utterance eiuro (to foreswear, abjure) is not a constative statement of fact, but a performative speech act that itself creates the state of affairs to which it refers. With this verbal repudiation, Medea cancels out the conjugal oath whose efficacy has been violated by her husband and whose lawful issue is tangible in their sons, whom she now "lawfully" swears off--eiuro like iuro derives from ius (law, right)--and will soon kill before their father's eyes. This performative abjuring of the children is as important as the physical murders, which only come later and, as it were, as its necessary consequence.
III. Signed, Sealed, Delivered
With Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, we fast-forward fifteen centuries to the golden age of Elizabethan tragedy. Its inclusion here may raise some eyebrows; Faustus is usually thought of as a "magician" rather than a witch. In an important sense, however, this distinction is false: the two concepts overlapped in the Renaissance. Paul Kocher points out that the term witch could "include anyone who performs supernatural acts by demonic agency" such as a conjuror, black magician, or enchanter." (26) He cites the definition of William Perkins: "A Witch is a Magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Deuill, in the working of wonders." (27) Likewise, Robert Burton wrote that the "parties by whom the devil deals may be reduced to these two: such as command him in show at least, as conjurors, and magicians ... or such as are commanded, as witches." (28) Burton cites James I, who tried to demystify "magical" speech acts by arguing that "it is no power inherent in the circles, or in the holines of the names of God blasphemouslie used: nor in whatsoeuer rites or ceremonies ... that either can raise any infernall spirit, or yet limitat him.... For it is he onelie, the father of all lyes, ... feining himselfe to be commanded." (29) Burton seconds this opinion: "The means by which they work are usually charms.... Not that there is any power at all in those spells, charms, characters, and barbarous words; but that the devil doth use such means to delude them." (30) Such views challenged the magical power of the witch's supernatural cantus: "these authorities contradict those ... who hold that there is a real, effective force in magical words and symbols. The difference marks a split in Renaissance (and medieval) opinion." (31) Neither side of this "split," however, denies the efficacy of supernatural performatives: those who demystify magical charms simply reinvest this power in another performative utterance--the demonic pact itself.
From the outset of the play, Faustus uses performative utterances to determine both his own identity and the course of the plot. He tells himself to "settle thy studies" and "sound the depth of that thou wilt profess," defining his career as an explicitly verbal activity, a speech act that must be uttered ("professed") into actuality. (32) He wants a new "profession" (1.1.26). Offering a survey of the liberal arts and sciences in which each is neatly packaged and set aside, Faustus defines them with representative intellectual jargon, especially constative Latin in the indicative mood such as "ubi desinit philosophus, ibi incipit medicus" (1.1.13) and "Stipendium peccati mors est" (1.1.39). But he abandons these studies--which are sanctioned religiously, culturally, socially, and legally--for the illicit pursuit of performative magic: "This night I'll conjure, though I die therefore" (1.1.165). Like Medea, he abandons pious prayer and turns to the magical decree, in particular the cantus (incantation) that conjures up infernal powers to perform the witch's bidding: "Faustus, begin thine incantations / And try if devils will obey thy hest" (1.3.5-6). And he abandons the indicative of scholastic Latin for a performative language that does not ask things of supernatural powers but presumes to command them:
Sint mihi dei acherontis propitii, valeat numen triplex Jehovae, ignei, areii, aquatani spiritus salvete: orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha et demigorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat, et surgat Mephostophilis.... Per Jehovam, gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo; signumque crucis quod nunc facio; et per vota nostra ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephostophilis. (1.3.16-22) (May the gods of Acheron be favorable to me, farewell to the triple power of Jehova; spirits of fire, air and water, welcome! Prince of the east, Belzebub, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, we propitiate you, so that Mephostophilis may appear and arise.... By Jehova, Gehenna, and the consecrated water which I now sprinkle, and the sign of the cross which I now make, and by our vows: let Mephostophilis himself, bespoken by us, now arise.)
Here the speech act of propitiating the infernal powers--"propitiamus vos"--is performative because the first-person indicative verb performs the action to which it refers: "we propitiate you" is neither a true nor a false description of the action being performed, but is the action itself. Another element of the summons that--unlike the mere perversion of Christian symbols such as the "consecratam aquam" (consecrated water) and "signum ... crucis" (sign of the cross)--suggests autonomous magical power is the phrase "per vota nostra." While David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen translate vota as "prayers," I think it is better rendered in J. B. Steane's translation: "by our vows." (33) The term prayer implies passive supplication before supernatural power, which is precisely the subjection to divinity that the instrumentality of magic aims to circumvent. Votum, on the other hand, originally meant not to beseech divinities but to make them a formal promise; it was a "vow" an oath sworn to the gods, a performative speech act determined on the human side of the equation. And just as Medea's magical bond with Hecate is fastened by "vota" (840), so Faustus summons infernal spirits "per vota" and later refers to the demonic pact as "my vow I made to Lucifer" (5.1.94). Thus both witch figures are defined not by typically tragic actions like homicide, but through this performative vow that gives them magical power and simultaneously yokes them forever to the infernal guarantor of this power.
For Austin, the "uttering of the words" is "far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary" in a performative speech act, which often requires that "the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate" and that "either the
speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether 'physical' or 'mental' actions." (34) This applies to Faustus in making the sign of the cross, cutting his arm, et cetera, just as in Medea her magical invocations are accompanied by ritual actions performed "laeua ... manu" (by her left hand; 1. 680). Costa notes that "'laeva manu' must be 'touching, or gesturing, with her left hand," and Studley's translation has "layes her crossing hands upon each monstrous conjurde thing," an intriguing parallel to the signum crucis in Faustus' incantation. (35) This Austinian reading may strike some readers as wrongheaded; after all, Derrida famously argued that Austin, like Saussure, privileges the "living voice" of spoken language over the dead letter of writing, whereas Mephostophilis insists on putting the terms of the demonic pact on paper: "But now thou must bequeath it solemnly, / And write a deed of gift with thine own blood, / For that security craves great Lucifer" (1.5.34-36). Thus the act of writing seems to function, as Mephostophilis tells Faustus, to "bind thy soul" (1.5.50). But a performative is "a speech act in which the saying or writing of the words in some way or other does what the words say." (36) Austin's theory actually suggests that such documentation is best seen not as emptying out the verbal utterance but making of it a fossilized imprint, eternally vivified with the hero's blood. When Mephostophilis says "thou must bequeath it solemnly" he is concerned, as Austin puts it, with ensuring that the performative speech act will be "felicitous" or "happy"--in a purely formal sense, of course. (37)
Faustus's action of "bequeathing" is one of Austin's first examples of the performative: "'I give and bequeath my watch to my brother'--as occurring in a will." (38) Such performatives are expressed by "verbs in the so-called 'present indicative active'" and tied to the speaker "by means of the pronoun 'I' (or by his personal name)" or "by his being the person who does the uttering" or "by his appending his signature." (39) In his "deed of gift" (1.5.59), Faustus seizes all these options simultaneously: "hear me read it, Mephostophilis.... 'I, John Faustus ... do give both body and soul to Lucifer ... and his minister Mephostophilis, and ... full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh, blood or goods, into their habitation wheresoever. By me, John Faustus'" (1.5.94, 106-9, 111-14). Here Faustus uses present indicative active verbs, uses both the pronoun "I" and his personal name, utters the words himself, and "appends his signature." Thus he offers a striking example of the performative that Austin calls "written utterances" or "inscriptions": "'You are warned that the bull is dangerous' is equivalent to 'I, John Jones, warn you that the bull is dangerous' or 'This bull is dangerous. (Signed) John Jones." (40) Faustus's performative bequeathing literally "dictates" the rest of the play: "Consummatum est: this bill is ended, / And Faustus hath bequeathed his soul to Lucifer" (1.5.73-74). For him, it is already all over--the act is fully accomplished through the declaration itself. Regarding the misuse or "abuses" of performatives, Austin says that "we speak of our infelicitous act ... as not implemented, or not consummated." (41) Faustus certainly believes that his performative speech act is consummated. Consummatum est. (42)
Once thus "consummated" this demonic pact divides Faustus from God and man. Soon alienation becomes central to his "profession." Like Seneca's heroes, Faustus leaves the community of men bound by social relations and enters a community of monsters. (43) However, the extreme social isolation of Medea, her total exclusion from humanity, is only partially present in Marlowe's play. Faustus is a towering pillar of his community, an admired scholarly overachiever who need not resort to witchcraft in order to revenge himself on social forces that have victimized him. (44) Where the typical Renaissance witch is alienated both socially and theologically, initially Faustus is socially well connected and alienated only theologically. With a syllogistic shudder--"we must sin, / And so consequently die" (1.1.44-45)--and a performative shrug--"Divinity, adieu!" (1.1.48)--he gives theology the kiss-off, dismissing this sacred discipline as he has already done with medicine and the rest--"Physic, farewell" (1.1.27)--and turning to magic. Thus his spiritual alienation is both a precedent cause and a consequent effect of Faustus's demonic contract: the variously frenzied and silly magic tricks with which Faustus passes his twenty-four years can be seen as a long, largely unsuccessful attempt at self-delusion, distracting himself from his recurrent sense of metaphysical isolation, of being "deprived" of divine grace. And this spiritual alienation redounds on the human sphere and leads to his alienation from mankind; in the final scene, Faustus tells his academic advisors, "save yourselves and depart" (5.2.80). No scholarly comrades remain at his side, and he must bid farewell to human society just as he earlier bade farewell to divine society: "Divinity, adieu" becomes "Gentlemen, farewell" (5.2.92).
This gesture of "bidding farewell" is one of several speech acts that Marlowe, like Seneca, sets in dynamic relation to the generically central magical performative. Just as Medea prefers the illicit vota of witchcraft to the prayers (preces) of sanctioned religion, so Faustus abandons pious prayer and appeals to the powers of the underworld through vows (per vota). He says, "Contrition, prayer, repentance, what of these?" (1.5.16) and commits himself to the "vow I made to Lucifer" (5.1.79), which inspires his devotion more than theological imperatives. And, as in Medea, alongside the rejection of prayer there is an emphasis on Latinate "swearing" verbs deriving from iuro. Most obvious is the word for practicing magic: conjure. (45) Studley's English Medea has "[s]he mumbling conjures up by names of ills the rable rout." (46) Likewise, Marlowe's opening scene ends with Faustus promising, "I'll conjure," and soon he awards himself an occult diploma: "Now, Faustus, thou art conjuror laureate" (1.3.32). The speech act of conjuring is explicitly connected to another performative verb with the same Latin root: abjure. When Mephostophilis appears, Faustus asks, "Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee?" to which the devil replies:
That was the cause, but yet per accidens; For when we hear one rack the name of God, Abjure the scriptures and his saviour Christ, We fly in hope to get his glorious soul. Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring Is stoutly to abjure all godliness. (1.3.46-49, 52-53)
Faustus asks if he has "conjured" Mephostophilis, and the devil replies that, strictly speaking, he only conjured the devil insofar as he "abjured" God. This provides a remarkably elegant theological equation in which magic is swallowed up by theology: conjuring = abjuring. This Renaissance Christian formula reduces the positivity of magic to the negativity of sin and demystifies the autonomous witch as a tool of the devil. The best way to conjure is to abjure; the best way to swear oneself into the company of spirits is to swear oneself out of the company of God. Just as magic is conceived as abjuration of religion, repentance is conceived as the abjuration of magic: "Abjure this magic, turn to God again" (1.5.8). As he had earlier "sworn off" prayer, Faustus now considers swearing off conjuration--like Shakespeare's Prospero, who declares "this rough magic / I here abjure." (47) But when Faust-us tries to pray--"Christ my saviour, / Seek to save" (2.1.86-87)--and thus reneges on his demonic contract, a trio of devils appears to accuse him: "We are come to tell thee thou dost injure us" (2.1.93). The verb injure belongs to the same family as conjure and abjure, all related to the Latin iuro (which ultimately derives from ius). This etymology is pertinent; Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephostophilis are fallen angels, after all, and already suffer the infinite pains of hell. So it is not as if Faustus could "injure" them in any physical sense. Rather, the point of "injure us" lies precisely in its connection to formal swearing (iuro): the demonic pact is a mutual bond fastened by performative oaths from Mephostophilis--"Faustus, I swear by hell and Lucifer" (1.5.92)--and Faustus: "Now by the kingdoms of infernal rule ... / I swear" (3.2.47, 49). Faustus injures the devils by violating the oath he has sworn to them, just as Jason "injured" Medea by violating the oath of marriage he had sworn to her ("iurauit"; 1. 7). (48)
Alongside such "swearing" are speech acts that mobilize supernatural powers in a benevolent or malevolent mode: cursing and blessing. In the Christian tradition that Marlowe inherited, performative benediction and malediction adhered to a Catholic Church that claimed the privilege of bestowing them as a kind of ecclesiastical "magic" a privilege that came under attack during the Reformation. (49) Thus the English Renaissance saw a theological evacuation of magical language, "a spectacular reduction in the power attributed to holy words and objects, so that the more extreme Protestants virtually denied the existence of any Church magic at all." (50) As the official medieval counteragent to witchcraft, this ecclesiastical power of cursing and blessing is relentlessly lampooned in Marlowe's burlesque scenes at Rome. Here two kinds of supernatural performative--church magic in the mouth of the pope and infernal magic in the mouth of Faustus--are set in comic antagonism. (51) Marlowe emphasizes the supernatural power invested in papal decrees, utterances which are the performative analogues to the witch's illicit power of cursing. The pope describes "all power on earth bestowed on us" (3.2.153), cataloguing "our seven-fold power from heaven, / To bind or loose, lock fast, condemn or judge, / Resign or seal" (3.2.157-59) and threatening papal malediction: "all the world, shall stoop, / Or be assured of our dreadful curse, / To light as heavy as the pains of hell" (3.2.160-62). Hand in hand with such malediction walks its positive analogue, papal benediction: "Make haste again, my good lord cardinals, / And take our blessing apostolical" (3.2.195-96). Marlowe satirizes the presumption and impotence of these two speech acts, as when the pope explodes at the cardinals--"Cursed be your souls to hellish misery" (3.3.54)--and at Faustus when the latter boxes his ear: "Damned be this soul for ever for this deed!" (3.3.90). The parody escalates as Faustus is "cursed with bell, book and candle" (3.3.92), a ritual utterance that he mimics with gleeful irreverence: "Bell, book and candle, candle, book and bell, / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell" (3.3.94-95). The friars' refrain, "Maledicat dominus" (let the Lord curse him; 3.3.99), is a speech act of literal "malediction" aiming to injure by means of "the power of the voice" (Medea's vocis imperio). (52) Of course, although Faustus heaps irreverent scorn on the Roman Church's power to condemn with its curse, he is nevertheless damned through his own performative speech, and in the tragic recognition of his literal "eleventh hour" he no longer satirizes such malediction but rather grasps at its terrible efficacy with the desperate faith of a drowning man: "Cursed be the parents that engendered me! / No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer" (5.2.190-91). Here he echoes, without his former irony, the ecclesiastical presumption to "curse Faustus to hell."
Finally, we should observe that Marlowe's play also bears traces of a generic opposition between the infernal votum of witchcraft and the sacred vow of marriage. The issue of marriage arises immediately after the demonic pact, and for perhaps the first time Faustus runs into the unexpectedly cramped boundaries in which he has inscribed himself. Initially he had demanded a contract stipulation that the devil "give me whatsoever I shall ask" (1.3.94), a precondition to which Mephostophilis agreed. Yet when Faustus asks to get married--"Let me have a wife" (1.5.143)--the demand is refused: "a wife? I prithee, Faustus, talk not of a wife" (1.5.146). After some haggling, Mephostophilis delivers a significant speech that begins, "Tut, Faustus, marriage is but a ceremonial toy" (1.5.153). The devil doth protest too much. As one of the holy sacraments of the church, the wedding ceremony is no longer available to the magician who has abjured God and sworn vows of allegiance to Lucifer. Remarkably, this Christian logic produces the same opposition between witchcraft and marriage as
we observed in the pagan context of Medea. There is some profoundly transhistorical and transnational link, revealed by witchcraft tragedies, between the performative vow of infernal magic and that of sanctified marriage. Our next play makes this generic opposition the foundation of one of the most sensational double plots in all of Tudor-Stuart drama.
IV. Two Girls for Every Boy
Written by Dekker, Ford, and Rowley roughly thirty years after Doctor Faustus, The Witch of Edmonton features two main plots: that of Elizabeth Sawyer, a real woman tried and executed for witchcraft only months before the production of the play, and that of Frank Thorney, a fictional bigamist and murderer. Despite its cut-and-paste construction, however, the play displays a remarkable dramatic unity through its representation of performative language. Like Seneca's Medea and Marlowe's Faustus, Elizabeth Sawyer and Frank Thorney are heroes whose tragic guilt consists in essentially verbal rather than physical crimes.
First, Sawyer explores the same performative language as does Faustus in pursuing the "art" of demonic magic: the speech act that defines and empowers both of these tragic witches is a supernatural performative bequeathing their souls to the devil. Just as he wants to "behold all spells and incantations" (1.5.169-70), she wonders, "What spells, what charms, or invocations?" (53) Faustus delivers a "deed of gift, of body and of soul: / But yet conditionally, that thou perform / All covenants and articles between us" (1.5.89-91). Likewise, the Dog tells Sawyer,
Command me Do any mischief unto man or beast, And I'll effect it, on condition, That uncompelled thou make a deed of gift Of soul and body to me. (2.1.129-33)
This "deed of gift" is the performative that changes these characters' relationship to supernatural powers, determining their exceptional status and their tragic fate. The verbal deed is accompanied by ritual gestures to ratify its efficacy: Faustus must "write a deed of gift with thine own blood" (1.5.35), while Sawyer must "make a deed of gift" and "seal it with thy blood" (2.1.132, 135). (54) These details reflect a social distinction between the poor and unlearned Sawyer, whose conjurations are illiterate, and the prestigiously learned Faustus, whose magic is scholarly. Where Faustus writes out the contract and cuts his arm for the sanguinary signature, Sawyer repeatedly affirms the pact verbally--"I am thine" (2.1.142), "All thine" (2.1.144)--and then the Dog "sucks her arm" (s.d.) to seal the deal. Still, like the declaration "Faustus gives to thee his soul" (1.5.66), Sawyer's assertion "I am thine" is not true or false (constative), but felicitous or infelicitous (performative), not describing her subjection to the Dog but creating this subjection.
Both heroes are similarly threatened with mauling by the demonic ambassadors: Faustus is told, "If thou repent devils will tear thee in pieces" (2.1.84), and Sawyer is told, "If thou deniest, / I'll tear thy body in a thousand pieces" (2.1.135-36). However, where Faustus is only threatened after voluntarily swearing allegiance, the Dog threatens Sawyer before any pact--not in anticipation that Sawyer will renege on her vow, but that she will refuse to make such a vow in the first place. This contrast fits a pattern in which the plebeian female witch is more disempowered than the aristocratic male magician. Nevertheless, there is a broad parallel arc in their tragic spiritual narratives. (55) Both turn away from religious prayer, rejecting heaven and praying to infernal powers: Mephostophilis tells Faustus to "pray devoutly to the prince of hell" (1.3.54), and the Dog instructs Sawyer to "put credit in my power, / And in mine only; make orisons to me" (2.1.169-70). Like Medea's efficacious "prayer" to Hecate ("Comprecor"; 1. 740), Sawyer's demonic "orison" endows her voice with magical efficacy. The Dog says,
When thou wishest ill ... Turn thy back against the sun, And mumble this short orison: ... If thou to death or shame pursue 'em, Sanctibicetur nomen tuum. (2.1.172, 174-77) (56)
This is the maleficium of practical witchcraft, a performative utterance that Sawyer uses to "bewitch" Anne Ratcliffe, the crime for which she is executed by hanging. In act 4, Ratcliffe is driven mad on the "charge" of Sawyer, who commands the Dog, "Touch her" (4.1.180, 197). Ratcliffe immediately goes offstage to "beat out her own brains" (4.1.218). As with Medea's magical murders, the fatal efficacy of Sawyer's verba makes physical death an afterthought, secondary to the verbal utterance itself.
Like Medea, Sawyer is also socially ostracized. Her alienation, however, starts well before she practices magic: this sequence of events exemplifies the vicious circular logic by which the turn to witchcraft is both an effect and a cause of social isolation. She enters speaking of the antagonism directed against her by the entire community (indeed the whole "world"): "And why on me? Why should the envious world / Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?" (2.1.1-2). This witch is not only alienated but also constructed by society: "Some call me witch; / And being ignorant of myself, they go / About to teach me how to be one" (2.1.8-10). The circularity of this process makes for dizzying syntactic convolutions in her complaint, a series of profound ambiguities regarding causal relation and temporal sequence: "urging / That my bad tongue (by their bad usage made so) / Forespeaks their cattle, doth bewitch their corn, / Themselves, their servants and their babes" (2.1.10-13). Does her community's "urging" signify its accusing her of witchcraft, exhorting her toward witchcraft, or inspiring her, successfully, to practice witchcraft? Is she "bad" only in reputation, or in practice? When she describes "my bad tongue (by their bad usage made so)" the adjective seems prophetic, describing her future utterance of maleficia. These ambiguities suggest the circular causality by which social alienation produces witchcraft and witchcraft produces social alienation, a vicious cycle in which the serpent keeps biting its own tail. As with Medea, Sawyer's rising reputation for witchcraft is accompanied by increased alienation, leading her to be cast out of human society and hurled into exile by public judgment. There is an effort to banish or kill Sawyer--"Rid the town of her" (4.1.10)--the same impulse portrayed in Medea: "liberet fines metu / abeatque" (let her rid our territory of fear and depart; 185-86). This isolation helps explain Sawyer's perverse and intimate attachment to the Dog; when townspeople burn her roof and inundate her with accusations, she welcomes him as her single ally amidst a field of enemies:
My dear Tom-boy welcome. I am torn in pieces by a pack of curs Clapped all upon me, and for want of thee. Comfort me. Thou shalt have the teat anon. (4.1.158-61)
The crudely psychosexual, weirdly maternal flavor of the passage is shocking, but no less remarkable is how the threat originating from the Dog is attributed to neighbors ("torn in pieces"), how nature's order has been inverted so that the dog is a person ("Tom-boy") while the townspeople are dehumanized dogs ("a pack of curs"), and how isolation is now framed not in terms of social ostracism (a foregone conclusion) but of separation from the Dog himself ("for want of thee"). This separation later becomes actual when, abandoned by the Dog, Sawyer finds herself in the same spot where she began, set adrift in the empty existence that is both the culmination and origin of her turn to witchcraft: "I'm lost without my Tomalin" (5.1.6).
Her subsequent despair takes a universal and ultimately metaphysical form: like Medea, Sawyer no longer confines her resentment to personal enemies (Old Banks, Jason) or the community that has spurned her (Edmonton, Corinth), but unloads it across the earth and the entire cosmos. She upsets the whole cosmological order of things and embraces absolute disorder--or an inverted, infernal order--a "world-picture" analogous to the perversion of social, natural, and sexual order exhibited in her deviant relationship with the Dog:
So that my bulch Show but his swart cheek to me, let earth cleave, And break from hell, I care not. Could I run Like a swift powder-mine beneath the world, Up would I blow it all, to find out thee, Though I lay ruined in it. (5.1.18-23)
While this passage strikes notes of pathetic overreaching, it also hits a sublime pitch of cataclysmic grandeur. Its suicidal nihilism is an English counterpart to Medea, who threatens "sternam et euertam omnia" (I shall strike down and overthrow everything; 1. 414) and declares, "Sola est quies, / mecum ruina cuncta si uideo obruta: / mecum omnia abeant, trahere, cum pereas, libet" (There is only peace if I see everything ruined, obliterated along with myself: let everything pass away with me. It feels good to drag things along with you as you're going down; 11. 426-28). Sawyer's universalized death wish, like Medea's, aims at destroying all legitimate society, all sanctioned ties with fellow people and gods: exiled from the human world, the tragic witch can, like Seneca's heroes, only migrate "du monde des hommes dans le monde mythologique des monstres." (57) Just as Medea summoned her infernal monstra, Sawyer wants to "muster up all the monsters from the deep" (5.1.17).
Like Seneca and Marlowe, the authors of The Witch of Edmonton also set the witch's performative in opposition to other speech acts, including prayers, curses and blessings, oaths, and marriage vows. Sawyer turns toward magic by turning away from prayer: "Be at hate with prayer" (2.1.111). As do Medea and Faustus, who both access witchcraft by delivering unholy appeals to infernal powers (Medea's conprecor to Hecate, Faustus's propitiamus to Lucifer), Sawyer directs a perverted "orison" to the underworld. And after performing infernal magic she finds herself, like Faustus, spiritually ruined, incapable of prayer: "Have I scarce breath enough to say my prayers?" (5.3.48). Thus Sawyer embraces cursing: in the outburst that prompts the Dog's arrival, she determines to "study curses, imprecations, / Blasphemous speeches" (2.1.112-13); when the Dog enters, he says, "Ho! Have I found thee cursing? Now thou art mine" (2.1.120). Just as Faustus chose to "abjure all godliness;' Sawyer uses Latinate diction that conflates the conjuring of infernal powers with the swearing off of divine powers: "Abjure all goodness" (2.1.111). (58) In the play she swears continually: "the curse of an old woman / Follow and fall upon you" (4.1.22-23); "I am dried up / With cursing" (4.1.163-64); "'tis my black cur I am cursing, / For not attending on me" (5.1.29-30). Finally the Dog tells her, "Thy time is come to curse, and rave, and die" (5.1.63). Thus the witch's profane oath (cursing) both precipitates and reinforces the heretical oath (ritual swearing) that contracts her, body and soul, to infernal powers.
This pattern of cursing, oath-taking, and oath-making is also the central motif of the other main plot, the love triangle between Frank Thorney, Winifred, and Susan. Thus, in the first scene, Frank wants to ensure that his unborn child "may not have cause / To curse his hour of birth" (1.1.16-17), and he goes on to curse himself if he should "falsify that bridal oath / That binds" (1.1.62-63) him to Winifred: "let heaven / Inflict upon my life some fearful ruin" (1.1.66-67). Winifred makes a similarly hypothetical curse upon herself (a "conditional" performative) in case she should break her vows, telling Sir Arthur, "May I be cursed / Even in my prayers, when I vouchsafe / To see or hear you" (1.1.190-92). (59) Of course, the central speech act in this plot is Frank's bigamous marriage vow, the
performative significance of which is reinforced by the cloud of cursings and blessings surrounding it. Confronted by his father, Old Thorney, about the rumor of a prior marriage, Frank is threatened with malediction: "Son of my curse. Speak with truth, and blush, thou monster, / Hast thou not married Winifred?" (1.2.165-66). After reassurances that the match of Frank and Susan has not been pre-empted, Old Thorney negates his cursing with paternal blessing: "Blessing on you both" (1.2.230). Frank observes, "He would not bless, nor look a father on me, / Until I satisfied his angry will" (3.2.25-26). Susan, ignorantly celebrating her part in the bigamous marriage, says, "Pray heaven I may deserve the blessing sent me" (1.2.227).
Such familial cursing and blessing offer a secular parallel to the ecclesiastical maledictions and benedictions in Doctor Faustus. They are explicitly tied up in, by, and with vows, which are, like the witch's vota, supernatural utterances that fix metaphysical bonds. Such a performative bond is made when Frank and Winifred swear ("in hearing / Of heaven and thee, I vow"; 1.1.58-59) to honor their marriage, the "bonds, in which we are to either bound" by a "sacred oath set on record / In heaven's book" (1.1.200, 202-3). Because he "vowed with oaths" (1.1.198), Frank can say that "such an oath is passed, / As pulls damnation up if it be broke" (3.3.84-85). Thus his damnable violation of this "sacred oath" is equivalent to Jason breaking the oath "sworn" (iurauit) to Medea before the gods. Indeed, Austin's famous criticism of the line from Hippolytus--"my tongue swore to, but my heart (or mind or other backstage artiste) did not"--applies equally to the bigamous bad faith of Jason and Frank: "he provides Hippolytus with a let-out, the bigamist with an excuse for his 'I do.' ... Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond." (60) Or, as Old Carter says, "my word and my deed shall be proved one at all times" (1.2.6-7).
This Austinian point about the binding force of performative language underscores both The Witch of Edmonton's dramatic unity and its generic continuity with Medea and Doctor Faustus as a bona fide witchcraft tragedy. The union of the double plot through parallel speech acts has been hinted at by several critics but never fully explained or conceptualized in the theoretical terms of speech act philosophy. Anthony Dawson raises the obvious question: "Why, we might want to ask, is the witch story yoked to a narrative of bigamy and 'forc'd marriage'?" There has not been a fully satisfactory answer. Dawson wants to explain the double plot in terms of a broadly construed parallelism of social relations, arguing "that the linkage between the plots is tied to a dialectical relationship between marginality and power, that in both plots social pressure and a desire for individual autonomy come into conflict and in both infraction of social order and of ritual is the result" This leads him, however, to the vague assertion that "Mother Sawyer's turn to witchcraft, like Frank's bigamy, is a direct response to her particular social circumstances" (61) Arthur Kinney takes a similar view of the play, emphasizing that its two plots are connected through the common social pressures acting on Frank and Mother Sawyer: "One of the basic purposes of the double plot, and of the play, is to show that her situation is essentially no different from Frank's" Kinney says that, for Frank, "social conditioning and social construction work in a double way that puts him in a double bind" and that "the same double bind is also true of Mother Sawyer." (62) Although these observations are perhaps true, the very broadness of the parallels they identify limits their explanatory value. David Atkinson draws a more concrete set of correspondences when he observes that "Mother Sawyer's wickedness lies not so much in the crimes she perpetrates by means of her familiar as in the fact of her signing over her soul and body to the devil. In homiletic terms her curse upon Old Banks is equivalent to Frank's broken oath of fidelity to Winifred." (63) In a similar vein, David Nicol points out that "Sawyer's meeting with the Devil is the result of her cursing, and Frank's murder of Susan [is] the result of his bigamy (which the dramatists may see as a verbal crime like bearing false witness)." (64) And, most recently, Todd Butler observes, "The marital oaths sworn by Thorney transform (or at least promise to transform) both bride and groom into a new state of being, while Sawyer's curses bring forth first the devil and then her revenge upon the village." (65)
This speech act parallelism between Sawyer and Thorney suggests, I think, not only a thematic overlapping but an actual identification of the two plots: the double storyline can be seen as a single "Medean" plot in which the authors, by conjoining the trash-journalistic melodrama of the historical Sawyer case with the fictional Thorney tale, have intuitively supplied the elements of marital alienation and violated wedding vows that were "missing" from the narrative outlines found in the witch case. Why is the witch story yoked to a narrative of bigamy and forced marriage? Because this yoking brings together Hecate's pale team, the same tragic vehicle already harnessed by Euripides and Seneca: witchcraft + bigamy = Medea. Like half-conjugal bodies joined at the waist, the twin plots together constitute a single, prosthetically unified witchcraft tragedy.
V. It's Too Late, Baby
While my reading of Sawyer as a "neoclassical" heroine of witchcraft tragedy has played up her resemblances to Medea, there are of course profound ways in which she diverges from the Senecan model. Even such divergence, however, is rendered more sharply distinct and legible by reading it through the theoretical model of witchcraft tragedy that this essay offers, and thus reinforces rather than undermines the speech act framework I have employed. Indeed, speech act theory helps us describe the broad historical shift that puts Renaissance "Christian" witches like Faustus and Sawyer in a more precarious, and perhaps ultimately tragic, position than ancient, "pagan" witches like Medea. It is, after all, precisely through her supernatural performative that the classical witch maintains and exerts an autonomous power of magical fiat that enables her to dictate her own terms of tragic existence: pulling herself up, as it were, by her own performative bootstraps, Medea calls down a monstrum ex machina at play's end to lift her up and carry her off into the mythical stratosphere. Renaissance witches like Faustus and Sawyer, however, ultimately lack this autonomous power. Thus, while Seneca's heroine gets on an ethereal highway ramp--"patuit in caelum uia" (a path has opened to heaven; 1. 1022)--and flies away, Marlowe's hero thrashes in his final hour like a wild animal chained to the floor--"I'll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?" (5.2.155). And whereas earlier in the play he traveled in a dragon-powered car, Faustus is helpless now that the infernal monsters revolt against him: "Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile. / Ugly hell, gape not, come not, Lucifer!" (5.2.198-99). In addition to earlier scenes in which Faustus easily commanded hell's ministers--"Come Mephostophflis! / Veni, veni, Mephostophilet." (1.5.28-29)--his impotent imperatives here can be contrasted with Seneca's finale, where the witch's "gemini ... serpentes" (twin serpents) still do her bidding: her "flying serpents ... / Submitted ... theyr scaly Neckes to yoake" ("squamosa gemini colla serpentes iugo / summissa praebent"; 11. 1023-24). (66)
The Witch of Edmonton offers an even starker contrast with Seneca. When Medea defies Jason from her rooftop, he orders the Corinthians to overturn the house and apprehend her ("uertite ... domum"; 1. 981). Similarly, suspicious townspeople set fire to Sawyer's thatched roof and arrest her. Faced with the machinery of mob justice, Sawyer tries to harness infernal powers like an early modern Medea: "If in the air thou hover'st ... / ... as I oft have seen / Dragons and serpents in the elements, / Appear thou now so to me" (5.1.13-16). She wants to play the part of Seneca's heroine, summoning demonic serpentes with the performative command to "appear" (adeste). But her words have no effect:
Not yet come! I must then fall to my old prayer. Sanctibiceter nomen tuum. Not yet come! (5.1.23-26)
The Dog arrives eventually, but instead of attending Sawyer, he simply disobeys her: she says, "go and bite / Such as I shall set thee on" (5.1.55-56), and he replies, "I will not" (5.1.56). He leaves her dangling, metaphorically and then literally. This theological undermining of Renaissance witches is evident not only in the eventual impotence of their words but also in the confessional note they finally adopt. Just before the clock strikes twelve, Faustus declares, "curse thyself, curse Lucifer," condemning his own career in magic and the infernal power in whose service he was employed. Likewise, in her last words Sawyer pronounces, "Bear witness, I repent all former evil; / There is no damned conjuror like the Devil" (5.3.50-51). Both heroes thus curse their arch-witch, Satan, the Christian analogue to Hecate. In this, her final utterance, Sawyer delivers not only one more curse but also another performative speech act: testifying. In fact, her call to "bear witness" echoes the last line of Seneca's tragedy, which is also a command to give testimony: "Beare witnesse" ("testare"; 1. 1027). (67) However, in echoing Jason's words with her final breaths, Sawyer takes up the role not of the inexorable pagan witch but of the impotent ex-husband. She ends in his position, not solipsistically dictating the nightmarish conclusion of the play by magical fiat, but exhorting other characters to perform the human, all-too-human speech act of bearing witness, testifying to some truth greater than her own performative self-determination.
In a sense, then, the ending of this play points to the end of witchcraft tragedy itself, because Sawyer's confessional appeal to "bear witness" anticipates the dominant note struck by modern witchcraft drama, in which the key speech acts are not supernatural performatives, but rather the social and judicial speech acts of testimony and confession: the witch's infernal precor is replaced by the merely human testor and confiteor. But whereas Sawyer's ultimate confession and bearing witness is represented as "true" in the world of the play, such testimony and admissions of guilt tend to be portrayed as false in modern witchcraft drama. Thus, in contrast to the supernatural performatives (which determine reality and cannot be false) in Medea, Doctor Faustus, and The Witch of Edmonton, the definitive speech acts of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom are not only, in Austin's terminology, fundamentally infelicitous, or "unhappy" but in fact profoundly untrue. Indeed, the speech act par excellence of such modern witchcraft drama is a sort of marriage arranged in hell between the false constative and the unhappy performative: the false confession of the witch is forcibly led down the aisle to meet the false testimony of the accusers. So, for instance, when he is faced with perjured accusations of witchcraft in The Crucible, Proctor signs, like the bastard child of Faustus and Sawyer, a perjured confession of witchcraft. "Come, then, sign your testimony," Danforth urges him, like another Mephostophilis, "You will sign your name or it is no confession, Mister!" And Proctor eventually obliges, performing Austin's "written utterance" or "inscription" and rendering, as he does so, his own American version of Faustus's ironic consummatum est, or Medea's tragic peractum est: "I have signed it. You have seen me. It is done." (68)
Thus, "witches" such as Miller's Proctor and Mary or Churchill's Alice and Susan are, unlike Medea, ultimately defenseless against human society and unable to empower themselves by commanding demonic forces. And furthermore, unlike Faustus and Sawyer, they were never even able to activate such performative power in the first place--they were forever, in both their crimes and their punishments, verbally impotent. In this way, speech act theory points out the place where disenchanted
or "demystifying" modern plays like Churchill's Vinegar Tom are located: at one far end of a spectrum upon which Seneca's Medea lies at the opposite end and The Witch of Edmonton stands somewhere in the middle. In Medea, after all, it is the witch whose powerful utterance dictates all of the tragic deaths both offstage and on; in The Witch of Edmonton, by comparison, Sawyer dictates only one death, for which she is indicted and convicted and then suffers the literally performative "sentence" of death at the hands of society; in Vinegar Tom, however, it is the social authorities and vigilantes whose officious declarations decree all of the tragic deaths, leaving the supposed "witches" stripped of the actual magical power that was presumed to inhere in their performative curses, which in truth have injured no one and accomplished absolutely nothing but for which they are nevertheless still condemned. Thus, Seneca portrays the witch's supernatural performative, embodied in the dragons, as ultimately omnipotent in overmastering the human community; Dekker, Ford, and Rowley show her demonic performative, embodied in the dog Tom, locked in a mutually destructive stalemate with the locals, who strike back against it and eventually eradicate its demonic power; but Churchill represents the witch's antisocial sharp tongue, embodied in the titular cat Tom, as utterly impotent from beginning to end, devoid of performative power and helpless against the Foucauldian machines of discipline and punishment embodied in the institutional authority of the witch hunters. Therefore, if the twentieth-century witnesses--at least within English literature--a generic revision or decline of witchcraft tragedy, speech act theory would suggest that this decline is parallel to, and even synonymous with, a reduction in power of the witch's performative language.
Loyola University Chicago
(1) Jonathan Culpeper and Elena Semino, "Constructing Witches and Spells: Speech Acts and Activity Types in Early Modern England," Journal of Historical Pragmatics 1 (2000): 97-116, argue that "witchcraft events constituted ... a structured set of speech acts" (111). Likewise, Stuart Clark, "Inversion, Misrule, and the Meaning of Witchcraft," in The Witchcraft Reader, ed. Darren Oldridge (New York: Routledge, 2002), 149-60, discusses demonological texts in terms of "what J. L. Austin called a 'total speech situation'" (158). Literary scholars, however, make claims such as that The Witch of Edmonton "reflects the slowly developing attitude to witchcraft" in English society; see Anthony Harris, Night's Black Agents: Witchcraft and Magic in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), 90. Likewise, Julia M. Garrett, "Dramatizing Deviance: Sociological Theory and The Witch of Edmonton" Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 49 (2007): 327-75, argues that the play "provides a species of sociological knowledge" (329). As Diane Purkiss observes in The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (New York: Routledge, 1996), "there is a tendency on the part of critics to assume that The Witch of Edmonton is truthful by modern standards. That is, it is seen as representative of popular witchcraft, so that social histories like [Alan] Macfarlane's or intellectual histories like Stuart Clark's can be mapped straight onto it" (232). Such studies treat witchcraft as a sociocultural phenomenon; they look in witchcraft plays for the contemporary matter of history rather than generic form. For instance, Deborah Willis, in Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), tries "to clarify the relation of literary constructions of the witch to the very specific beliefs, attitudes, and social practices that made particular individuals subject ... to physical violence and death at the hands of the state and of local communities" (10).
(2) Although Euripides' Medea is now better known, Seneca's play was more influential in the English Renaissance. The latter was popular and available in English translation while Euripides' play was not, and thus possibly influenced plays like Doctor Faustus and The Witch of Edmonton. Furthermore, Seneca actually portrays Medea's performative language of witchcraft in the play: he "has thrown in a long and brilliant incantation scene" where Euripides has none. See C. D. N. Costa, introduction to Seneca, Medea (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 9.
(3) On the notion of "family resemblance" in recognizing genres and subgenres, see Alistair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
(4) I limit myself to plays in which the tragic hero is an actual witch. Thus I exclude one play--Macbeth--that probably comes first to readers' minds as a witchcraft tragedy, and include another play--Doctor Faustus--that probably never comes to their minds at all. I would exclude not only Renaissance plays like Macbeth, Sophonisba (whose tragic hero is not the witch), and The Witch (whose witches are not tragic figures), but probably also modern plays like The Crucible and Vinegar Tom, whose witches are not "actual" witches (i.e., there is no real witchcraft in the world of the play). Indeed, Vinegar Tom is not so much a witchcraft tragedy as it is a dramatic illustration of precisely the realistic socioeultural "demystification" of witchcraft that modern historians have offered; Caryl Churchill cites Macfarlane as an influence and reveals that she "wanted to write a play about witches with no witches in it" in order to illustrate "the theory that witchcraft existed in the minds of its persecutors" (Caryl Churchill, introduction to Vinegar Tom, in Plays: One [New York: Methuen, 1985], 129-31 [130, 129]). See also my conclusion.
(5) Tzvetan Todorov, Genres in Discourse, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 21.
(6) Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971).
(7) In terms of speech act theory, we could say that Weimann and Burke both explain the shift from "magical" to "realistic" representation as a shift from performative to constative speech acts. Weimann describes "mimesis" as a process that originated in "mimetic magic" and developed into "realism": primitive drama "did not represent the mythic happening" but rather "embodied or incarnated it" but eventually "possession became drama and embodiment became representation?' Thus "the gradual movement from myth to realism" is a shift from magic to measurement--ritual "embodiment" gives way to realistic "measuring?' See Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 1-5. Likewise, Burke locates language along a continuum, on which there is at one end "magic, verbal coercion" and at the other end "the realistic sizing-up of situations" which Burke calls the "chart." Burke claims that even the realistic statement of fact shares something of the magical verbal decree: "I take the realistic chart to possess 'magical' ingredients.... The choice here is not a choice between magic and no magic:' Here Burke negotiates the performative-constative binary by insisting on a fundamental kinship between magic and realism, equating the magical decree "So be it" with the realistic description "It is so." His "translation of a command into the idiom of realista" renders the grammatical contrast between indicative and imperative statements merely formal rather than functional: "It is wrong" becomes "a stylized variant of 'Don't do it." In Austin's terminology, Burke is suggesting that although "It is wrong" and "Don't do it" have a different illocutionary force--one a constative claim stating a fact, one a performative utterance delivering a command--nevertheless they have the same perlocutionary force. See Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 3-7.
(8) J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), 5.
(9) John R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 16. See also Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc., trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988): "As opposed to the classical assertion, to the constative utterance, the performative does not ... describe something that exists outside of language and prior to it. It produces or transforms a situation, it effects" (13).
(10) Austin, 6.
(11) Culpeper and Semino, 108.
(12) Thomas, 524.
(13) According to Florence Dupont, Les Monstres de Seneque: Pour une dramaturgie de la tragedie romaine (Paris: Belin, 1995), "Dire le nefas ou l'accomplir revient au meme ... a condition que la formulation du crime p our devenir performative soit ritualisee" (173).
(14) Searle, 4, 18.
(15) Culpeper and Semino, 107.
(16) Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), 35.
(17) Seneca, L. Annaei Senecae Tragoediae, ed. Otto Zwierlein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Hereafter cited in the text by line numbers from this edition; translations are mine.
(18) The same performative is used by Ovid's Medea: "dique omnes noctis adeste" (all you gods of night, be present!). See Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 7.198.
(19) Burke, 4.
(20) John Marston, Sophonisba, in Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 4.1.138.
(21) In the Arthur Golding translation, "By charmes I make the calme Seas rough"; see Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, ed. John Frederick Nims (Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2000), 7.269. Ovid's lines are quoted in Middletoffs The Witch (5.2.18-25) and adapted, via Golding, in Shakespeare's The Tempest (5.1.33-50). See Corbin and Sedge, and William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). All quotations of Shakespeare are from this edition.
(22) This cantus echoes through Medea, appearing eight times--more than any other Senecan play except the almost two-thousand-line Hercules Oetaeus, which has a verbose chorus on, unsurprisingly, Orpheus. See Joseph Denooz, ed., Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Tragoediae index verborum: Releves lexicaux et grammaticaux (Hildesheim: Olm, 1980), 43. The nurse describes how monstrous serpents are "tracta magicis cantibus" (drawn by her magic incantations; 1. 684), and Medea says the mythical Python "adsit ad cantus meos" (must be present at my incantations; 1. 699). She also describes the Hyades "nostris cantibus motae" (shaken by my incantations; I. 769) and brags that "aestiua tellus horruit cantu meo" (the summer land froze from my incantation; 1. 760), which again recalls Orpheus, who, in Shakespeare's Henry VIII, "made trees, / And the mountain tops that freeze, / Bow themselves when he did sing" (3.1.3-5).
(23) Dupont, 131, states, "Le performatif testor indique a la fois qu'elle parle comme 'temoin' et qu'elle le fait en presence des dieux et des morts qu'elle 'prend a temoins.'"
(24) Just as Creon had countered her supplicating prayers with his performative royal pronouncement dabitur ("it shall be granted")--"unus parando dabitur exilio dies" (a single day shall be granted for you to get ready for exile; 1. 295, my emphasis)--so, in the final scene, Medea puts Jason in his place with the same language of imperious declaration: "gnatus hic fatum tulit, / hic te uidente dabitur exitio pari" (that son has met his death, and this one shall be granted the same fate while you watch; 11. 1000-i001, my emphasis).
(25) See Medea's speech to Jason in Euripides: "Faith in your word has gone. Indeed, I cannot tell / Whether you think the gods whose names you swore by then / Have ceased to rule and that new standards are set up, / Since you must know you have broken your word to me" (The Medea, trans. Rex Warner, in Euripides I: Alcestis, The Medea, The Heracleidae, Hipplolytus, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955], 11. 492-95).
(26) Paul H. Kocher, "The Witchcraft Basis in Marlowe's Faustus," Modern Philology 38 (1940): 9-36 (10).
(27) William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge, 1608), 167, accessed May 2011, Early English Books Online, http://eebo.chadwyck.com.
(28) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: New York Review Books, 2001), Partition 1,203.
(29) James I, Daemonologie (Edinburgh, 1597), bk. 1, chap. 5, 16-17, accessed via Early English Books Online.
(30) Burton, Partition 1,205.
(31) Kocher, 26.
(32) Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, in The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (New York: Penguin, 1969), 1.1.1-2; hereafter cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line number.
(33) David Bevington et al., eds., English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology (New York: Norton, 2002), 256.
(34) Austin, 8.
(35) See Costa, 129, and Seneca, Medea, trans. John Studley, in Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies Translated into English, ed. Thomas Newton, 2 vols. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), 2:84.
(36) J. Hillis Miller, Speech Acts in Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 2 (my italics).
(37) Austin, 14.
(38) Ibid., 5.
(39) Ibid., 60.
(40) Ibid., 62. Faustus must orally "sign" the document--"Speak, Faustus, do you deliver this as your deed?" (1.5.115)--an act that resonates with the postmodern performative signature of Derrida, 21: "Remark: the--written--text of this--oral--communication was to be delivered to the Association.... That dispatch should thus have been signed. Which I do, and counterfeit, here. Where? There. J.D."
(41) Austin, 16.
(42) Here, rather than to the famous Gospel allusion, we might point to a resonance with Seneca's Medea, who declares "bene est, peractum est" (good, it's finished; 1. 1019).
(43) Dupont, 160-61, writes that <<l'individu heroique quitte-t-il une collectivite humaine, la societe de sa cite ou de sa famille humaine, qui le definissait tout entier par les rapports qu'il entretenait avec le groupe dans son ensemble et ses membres en particulier, pour une autre collectivite, ou il se definira de la meme maniere, mais par rapport a des monstres."
(44) Etta Soiref Onat writes, in her introduction to The Witch of Edmonton: A Critical Edition (New York: Garland, 1980), pp. 1-170, "Faustus ... is not at all like the witches feared by the community and hailed into the courts at the instigations of their neighbors. The magicians had professional standing and great knowledge of art, and often commanded great respect" (92).
(45) According to Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), "If the circle ... is the main visual element in the necromancer's techniques, the conjuration is the key oral component. The conjuration usually revolves about one or another imperative verb for 'command': ... 'I adjure you' or 'I conjure you'" (161).
(46) Seneca, Medea, trans. Studley, 2:84.
(47) The Tempest, 5.1.50-51.
(48) The same complex of iuro-ius verbs provides Corneille's Medee a rhyming couplet in her opening speech: "Souverains protecteurs des lois de l'Hymenee, / Dieux, garants de la foi que Jason m'a donnee, / ... / Voyez de quel mepris vous trair son parjure, / Et m'aidez a venger cette commune injure" (Pierre Corneille, Medee, in Oeuvres completes, ed. Georges Couton, 3 vols. [Paris: Gallimard, 1980-87], 1:541-94 (11. 197-202).
(49) Keith Thomas describes this history in terms of three successive and overlapping beliefs about cursing. The first involves a popular tradition outside of any particular theological framework: "The legend of the Beggar's curse--the fateful malediction upon those who refused alms--enjoyed a continuous currency from the Dark Ages to the nineteenth century" (506). The second is ecclesiastical "church magic;' in which divine malediction is channeled through the church's institutional structure: "In the Middle Ages the power to bestow God's curse had been claimed by the Church and used as a sanction" (502). The third concerns the Reformation prohibition against cursing: "for Protestants this human bestowal of God's malediction was a blasphemy, for it implied that the priest or the Church could command God himself" (503).
(50) Ibid., 256.
(51) On arrival Faustus promises, "The Pope shall curse that Faustus came to Rome" (3.2.126). This offhand comment is echoed moments later in the formalized power of malediction invoked by the pope, who will "depose the Emperor" and "curse the people that submit to him" (3.2.129-30).
(52) Maledico comes from dico (to speak), which also produces the participle applied to Mephostophilis in Faustus's incantation--"nobis dicatus" (bespoken by us; 1.3.23)--and the "interdiction"
threatened by the pope: "Both he and thou shalt stand excommunicate, / And interdict from Church's privilege" (3.2.131-32).
(53) Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, The Witch of Edmonton, ed. Arthur Kinney (New York: Norton, 1998), 2.1.34; hereafter cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line number.
(54) According to Harris, 98, "Both the dog and Mephistophilis trap their prey by pretending friendship and tempting them with promises of supernatural powers. They both make compacts sealed with blood, compacts which are immediately broken."
(55) Harris, 107, writes that "the play is similar to Doctor Faustus and, as in Marlowe's play, the audience witnesses the actual making and destruction of a witch."
(56) According to Culpeper and Semino, 102, "The verbs most frequently used in witchcraft narratives to refer to this central speech act are to curse and to wish ... that or to wish harm/evil." The Dog's "wishest ill" is obviously a variation of the latter.
(57) Dupont, 160.
(58) The playwrights' source text, The Wonderful Discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer a Witch, emphasizes the same speech acts: "the Devil came unto me ... when I was cursing, swearing, and blaspheming.... Oh! have I now found you cursing, swearing, and blaspheming? now you are mine. A wonderful warning to many whose tongues are too frequent in these abominable sins; I pray God that this, her terrible example may deter them, to leave and distaste them, to put their tongues to a more holy language then [sic] the accursed language of Hell. The tongue of man is the glory of man, and it was ordained to glorify God: but worse than brute beasts are they, who have a tongue, as well as men, that therewith they at once both bless and curse." See appendix 1 in Onat, The Witch of Edmonton, 381-400 (389-90).
(59) When Sir Arthur swears "by this good sunshine!" (1.1.181), Winifred is disgusted that he would "name / That syllable of good" and "use it for an oath" (1.1.181-82, 184). Susan echoes this sentiment with one of her own suitors: "Take a false oath? / Fie, fie" (1.2.55- 56).
(60) Austin, 9-10.
(61) Anthony Dawson, "Witchcraft/Bigamy: Cultural Conflict in The Witch of Edmonton," Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 77-98 (78, 80).
(62) Arthur Kinney, introduction to The Witch of Edmonton, by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley (New York: Norton, 1998), ix-xl (xx).
(63) David Atkinson, "Moral Knowledge and the Double Action in The Witch of Edmonton," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 25 (1985): 419-37 (431).
(64) David Nicol, "Interrogating the Devil: Social and Demonic Pressure in The Witch of Edmonton," Comparative Drama 38 (2004/5): 425-45 (436).
(65) Todd Butler, "Swearing Justice in Henry Goodcole and The Witch of Edmonton," Studies in English Literature 50 (2010): 127-45 (129). Butler also notes that "bigamy and witchcraft ... share a striking bit of legal history in Jacobean England" because "in 1621, Parliament passed two successive acts making bigamy and compacting with an evil spirit punishable by death." He writes that "the Thorney and Sawyer plots ... are unified by their common concern with the legal and performative power of words" with "the power of words to constitute and to transform not only individual identities but also the communal relationships that define and bound them" (129). Here Bufler suggests the importance of performative language in the play, but without addressing its theoretical relationship to speech act philosophy or its generic relationship to other witchcraft tragedies. Following the sociohistorical bent of modern criticism, he considers instead how it might reflect or construct the culture contemporary with the play: "the particular complexity of oath taking in early modern England" (138).
(66) Seneca, Medea, trans. Studley, 2:98.
(68) Arthur Miller, The Crucible (New York: Penguin, 1995), 129.
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