Thomas Dekker & The Witch of Edmonton

A while back I collected a complete set of Thomas Dekker’s plays published by Cambridge Press. I bought the books individually for maybe $25 to $30 dollars each. The complete set of four books is worth around $250. In the meantime, it’s possible to buy a complete edition of Dekker’s plays for your Kindle for all of $3.36. That’s a great deal. I’ve been buying all of Delphi’s editions—Webster, Beaumont & Fletcher, Marlowe, and Jonson. That said, all of these editions come without annotation (including my Cambridge set), but for just over 3 dollars, so be it.


I’ve always been partial to Dekker and since I have the books, I’ve finally started to read and reread his plays. He was a congenial spirit with a true gift for poetry. Just about everybody, probably without knowing it, has heard Dekker’s poetry in the Beatle’s song “Golden Slumbers”, for which Dekker was never credited. Tragically, Dekker spent most of his life in debt and even spent seven years in debtor’s prison—a painfully long time given the short life spans of Elizabethans. He wrote no plays during this time and though he didn’t possess the genius of a Shakespeare or Marlowe, his imprisonment was nonetheless a literary loss. Dekker was among the most gifted of Elizabethan playwrights in terms of his poetic gifts, the “sweetness” of his verse (both of which naturally appeal to me), and his congenial and boisterous portrayals of London life. His faults are those of poor craftsmanship in terms of plot and plot devices. The one play, entirely his own, in which he beautifully ties together plot and subplot into a satisfying whole is the Shoemaker’s Holiday—a well-loved play even in its own time. Dekker had a love for the common man and a sharp eye for the hypocrisies of wealth and power, only further whittled to a razor’s edge by his imprisonment and concomitant suffering—from which he never seems to have fully recovered.

But on to The Witch of Edmonton. This was a later play that was a collaboration with Ford and Rowley. The play is generally considered among the finest of the era. I didn’t pick it for that reason, but simply because I’ve heard the play mentioned so many times. The play was based on real events—the institutionally sanctioned murder of a woman accused of being a witch. Of course, Elizabethan Jurisprudence didn’t see it that way. They saw the protagonist, Mother Sawyer, as a real witch in league with the real devil, who had somehow been the cause of a woman’s suicide. I expected to read a play celebrating the law’s triumph over the evils of a witch in league with the devil. Instead, I was surprised to read something very different. All things considered, she couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic portrayal; a portrayal generally credited to Thomas Dekker. I say all things considered because Dekker, Ford an Rowley weren’t about to question or challenge the authorities or her execution (all plays were censored and pre-approved by the Master of the Revels). Dekker dutifully portrays her as being in league with the devil (in the shape of a dog) but having made that concession he otherwise makes very clear where his sympathies lie.

Mother Sawyer’s first appearance is in Act II Scene i:

And why on me? why should the envious world
Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?
'Cause I am poor, deform'd and ignorant,
And like a Bow buckl'd and bent together,
By some more strong in mischiefs than my self?
Must I for that be made a common sink,
For all the filth and rubbish of Men's tongues
To fall and run into? Some call me Witch;
And being ignorant of my self, they go
About to teach me how to be one: urging,
That my bad tongue (by their bad usage made so)
Forespeaks their Cattle, doth bewitch their Corn,
Themselves, their Servants, and their Babes at nurse.
This they enforce upon me: and in part
Make me to credit it.

Dekker didn’t have to begin Sawyer’s introduction like this. He could have begun far less sympathetically, with a women driven by malice. Instead, we see that she’s been abused and accused of crimes she hasn’t committed. Immediately following this speech, the character of Old Banks enters. While she collects sticks with which to warm herself, Old Banks, the landowner, unleashes a tirade of abuse.

O Bank. Out, out upon thee, Witch.
Sawy. Dost call me Witch?
O Bank. I do, Witch, I do: and worse I would knew
I a name more hateful. What makest thou upon my ground?
Sawy. Gather a few rotten sticks to warm me.
O. Bank. Down with them when I bid thee, quickly;
I'll make thy bones rattle in thy skin else.
Sawy. You won't, Churl, Cut-throat, Miser: there they
be. Would they stuck cross thy throat, thy bowels, thy
maw, thy midriff.
O. Bank. Sayst thou me so? Hag, out of my ground.
Sawy. Dost strike me, slave? curmudgeon, now thy
bones aches, thy joynts cramps, and convulsions stretch
and crack thy sinews.
O. Bank. Cursing, thou Hag! take that, and that.

So, what we have is a crippled old woman trying to keep herself warm and a landowner berating her, then beating her for it. Curiously, when Mother Sawyer later asks the devil to kill Banks, the devil answers that he can’t because Banks “is loving to the world,/and charitable to the poor. Now men/ That, as he, love goodness, though in smallest measure, / Live without compass of our reach.”

Now that’s obviously not true. Banks was neither loving nor charitable to the clearly impoverished Mother Sawyer. Two reasons for this moment come to mind. First would be the Master of the Revels or the Elizabethan censor. Whether Dekker believed it or not, he had to parrot the party line as concerns Banks. But that Dekker didn’t have much sympathy for Banks is made clear in the opening scene. Second, consider who it is that praises Banks—the Devil himself. Though it pleaseth the censor, we the audience have no reason to believe the devil. Indeed, the very opening of Act II belies the devil’s assertions. Why would the devil refuse to harm Banks? Well, he’s the devil and the play had to be somewhat true to its source.

Why I like this passage is that it reveals that even during those times there were those who were sensible to the cruelty and absurdity of witch trials and the accusations substantiating them. We tend to think that people before our own enlightened times weren’t themselves enlightened, but Dekker’s portrayal is almost feminist in its sympathies. Isn’t it obvious, he all but says, that such women as Mother Sawyer are being targeted because they’re poor, misshapen in some way, and easily bullied?

Dekker’s own experience with the hypocrisies of the law are brilliantly dramatized in Act IV. In Scene i we see a villager come in crying, “Burn the Witch, the Witch, the Witch, the Witch.” This is soon followed by all on stage crying, “Hang her, beat her, kill her.”

I find this is no accident. Just a minute or two later, while Mother Sawyer is defending herself before the Justice, the audience is presented with this exchange:

Sawy. A Witch? who is not?
Hold not that universal Name in scorne then.
What are your painted things in Princes Courts?
Upon whose Eye-lids Lust sits blowing fires
To burn Mens Souls in sensual hot desires:
Upon whose naked Paps, A Leachers thought
Acts Sin in fouler shapes than can be wrought.
Just. But those work not as you do.
Sawy.                 No, but far worse:
These, by enchantments, can whole Lordships change
To Trunks of rich Attire: turn Ploughs and Teams
To Flanders Mares and Coaches; and huge trains
Of servitors, to a French Butter-Flie.
Have you not City-witches who can turn
Their husbands wares, whole standing shops of wares,
To sumptuous Tables, Gardens of stoln sin?
In one year wasting, what scarce twenty win.
Are not these Witches?
Just.                      Yes, yes, but the Law
Casts not an eye on these.
Sawy.                    Why then on me,
Or any lean old Beldame? Reverence once
Had wont to wait on age. Now an old woman
Ill favoured grown with years, if she be poor,
Must be call'd Bawd or Witch. Such so abus'd
Are the course Witches: t'other are the fine,
Spun for the Devil's own wearing.
Sir Art.                  And is thine.
Sawy. She on whose tongue a wirlwind sits to blow
A man out of himself, from his soft pillow,
To lean his hand on Rocks and fighting waves,
Is not that Scold a Witch? The Man of Law
Whose honeyed hopes the credulous Client draws,
(As Bees by tinkling Basons) to swarm to him,
From his own Hive, to work the Wax in his;
He is no Witch, not he.
Sir Art.                   But these Men-Witches
Are not in trading with Hells Merchandize,
Like such as you are, that for a word, a look,
Denial of a Coal of fire, kill Men,
Children and Cattel.  

Now this is as fine an exchange as I’ve read in Elizabethan theater. The second interlocutor, Sir Arthur Clarington, is hardly a respectable claimant to ethical or moral behavior. In the play’s subplot, he has lecherously fornicated with the maid in his own household and, at the play’s end, is held to be largely responsible for the events of the play. Says the Justice: “you have indeed been the instrument that wrought all their misfortunes”. In Sir Arthur’s comments to Mother Sawyer, we have the pot calling the kettle black.

More interestingly, I don’t think it’s accidental that Dekker begins this scene with the crowd’s chants that Mother Sawyer should be killed. This entirely undercuts Sir Arthur’s claim that “these Men-Witches” cannot with a word or look “kill Men”. Indeed, this is precisely what all these Men-Witches were doing at the scene’s opening. They are, with words and looks, calling for Mother Sawyer to be killed. While she is accused of her accomplishing her aims by means of the devil, the others accomplish their aims by means of the law. And I can’t help but read Dekker’s critique of the law and its hypocrisy in these lines.

And think of our own times, when we have a corrupt President who, with the aid of a corrupted Department of Justice and a corrupt Party willing to shield him, has placed himself above the law. It could equally be said of him that the ‘law casts not an eye on him’. Think also of Mother Sawyer’s critique, in essence, of the One Percent.

Have you not City-witches who can turn
Their husbands wares, whole standing shops of wares,
To sumptuous Tables, Gardens of stoln sin?
In one year wasting, what scarce twenty win.
Are not these Witches?

Then as now, conspicuous consumption at the expense of the poor was blessed by the law, the law being an arm of those conspicuously consuming. Mother Sawyer represents not just Dekker but anyone and anyone of us who are not just blamed but abused for our own misfortunes.

In Act V Dekker drives home the point he’s making, and goes further by contradicting the claim made by Sir Arthur that these “Men Witches / Are not trading with Hell’s Merchandize”.

Clow. It seems you Devils have poor thin souls [...] where
do you borrow those Bodies that are none of your own? [...]
Dog. Why wouldst thou know that? fool, it availes thee not.
Clow. Onely for my mindes sake, Tom, and to tell some of my
Dog. I'll thus much tell thee: Thou never art so distant
From an evil Spirit, but that thy Oaths,
Curses and Blasphemies pull him to thine Elbow:
Thou never telst a lie, but the Devil
Is within hearing it, thy evil purposes
Are ever haunted; but when they come to act,
As thy Tongue slaundering, bearing false witness,
Thy hand stabbing, stealing, cozening, cheating,
He's then within thee: thou play'st, he bets upon thy part;
Although, thou lose, yet he will gaine by thee.

In other words, the notion that Men-Witches aren’t also trading in Hell’s Merchandise, or the hypocrisies of the law for that matter (though Dekker doesn’t dare state this outright), is utter self-delusion. The devil is “within thee” too, he plainly states.

What I haven’t discussed is the subplot by John Ford. This involves a bigamous young man, Frank Thorney, who murders his second wife, Susan, in order to escape with his first wife (the first wife being the maid with whom Sir Arthur had had an affair before she married the young man). The subplot is less interesting, for modern readers, but well-handled by Ford. The scene in which Frank murders his second wife is particularly heartless given her devotion to him, but it’s telling that the characters within the play have more sympathy for him (who is hanged along with Mother Sawyer) than for Mother Sawyer. Apparently, bigamy and cold-blooded murder (even if influenced by the devil) was worse than being a witch who caused another women to take her own life.

All that said, the finest and perhaps only poetry in the play, though brief, can be found in those passages. Susan, who Frank will murder, says to him:

You, Sweet, have the power
To make me passionate as an April-day:
Now smile, then weep; now pale, then crimson red.
You are the powerful Moon of my blood's Sea,
To make it ebb or flow into my face,
As your looks change.

Though the subplot was written by Ford, this particular instance feels more like Dekker than Ford. It’s entirely possible that Dekker touched up some of Ford’s verse as they pieced the play together. As I read more of these plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, I’ll continue to share my impressions.

3 responses

  1. Interesting read. Dekker is definitely not the craftsman Shakespeare is, but his broad sympathies are apparent. Money and legalisms rule in tandem. I once told a psychiatrist she should give every one of her patients a million dollars if she wants to see who’s really sick. Either that, or limit the maximum income of every American to $100,000. What does $380 in fines and court costs for speeding ticket mean to a Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates or to the coke-snorting Hollywood glitterati? Rest assured that in the New Confederacy the disparate impact of these oppressions will be addressed!


  2. Pingback: John Ford & ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore « PoemShape

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