Testimony and truth: The Witch of Edmonton and The Witches of Lancashire
James I moved from paranoid investigation of the truth of witchcraft to sceptical debunker of the claims of the possessed, while the staging of witchcraft grew more and more sensational around him. This sensationalisation sought to ride the eddies of changing ideas of witchcraft rather than to fix them. It reflected the growing and amused scepticism of the learned, while incorporating half-understood fragments of once-cogent popular beliefs into its glittering and getpenny rhetoric. Although the elite everywhere were becoming more sceptical of the claims of accusers all over the country, with a resultant fall in the number of prosecutions, the growing scepticism did not produce new unanimity. Rather it arose from gaps and fissures in the seventeenth-century understanding of what truth was and how it could be procured. James, admittedly, was motivated chiefly by a cynical wish to display himself to best advantage as a truth-finder, but others, including his son Charles, were more interested in the genuine discovery of truth. In Charles’s case this interest seems to have extended well beyond what was politically useful and even into realms of political danger. But where and how was truth to be found? There was a clash between providential ideas of the discovery of truth by the agency of providential revelation, humanist notions of truth as the product of forensic rhetoric, and new empirical notions of the uncovering of truth by diligent scientific enquiry. Stageplays, however, could respond only by presenting truth as the outcome of layers of plot. Nevertheless, plays as well as other discourses were eager to turn the uncovering of the truth about the witch into a saleable commodity. The witch’s guilt or innocence was the truth which the procedures of the witch-trials and the witch-texts sought to uncover, but this discovery could also become the basis for
dramatic plotting. The witch-dramas of the later seventeenth century, which often preferred to exploit the sensationalism of actual trials in a new attempt to present themselves as true, explored the conflicting orders of truth through plot. All these discourses, including the most arrantly sensational plays, tried to oppose their truth to the commercial exploitativeness and crudity of other and especially popular accounts of witchcraft; that is, truth came to seem the opposite of sensationalism governed by consumer demand. In the process, it also came to seem the opposite of the popular superstition thought to be catered for by such populist publications, the popular superstition held up to ridicule in plays of the early Jacobean witch-vogue. Then as now, popular superstition was always apt to be feminised, and the eventual result was to construct an idea of the superstitious as crude, unlearned, ugly, illiterate, irrational and deeply unfashionable, an idea then promptly equated with both the witch’s female accusers and with the supposed witch herself. This process can be seen in The Witch of Edmonton, which draws on the godly reluctance of Henry Goodcole to construct Elizabeth Sawyer herself as the self-deceiving blockage to understanding the truth about witchcraft, even though she is also a truth-teller, or scold. The dramatists construct a narrative of the revelation of truth which relies on establishing the spectacle of revelation via a witch’s recognisable staged behaviours and speeches in opposition to the questionable truth of testimonies, thus drawing on an epistemological procedure becoming established in the courts. Nonetheless, the theatricality of being a witch, usually an index of falsity, cannot altogether be banished from the play, any more than can the discourses of commerce and commodification. The Witches of Lancashire understands that truth is difficult to obtain, but nevertheless offers to substitute the stage spectacle of witchcraft-somewhat outrageously-for the truth of the body valorised by the courts, while following scepticism in calling into question the truth of testimony or confession.