John Ford & ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

The next play I just finished is John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This is the one play by John Ford that is usually included in anthologies of Elizabethan Plays. Interestingly, John Ford got lots of attention at the start of the millennia when A Funeral Elegy was identified as being by Shakespeare (note that the link to MITs site still lists it as being by Shakespeare). The Elegy was even included in the 2nd edition of the Norton Complete Shakespeare as by Shakespeare until scholarly opinion finally converged on John Ford as the actual author. The poem, needless to say, is not in the 3rd edition and Norton took some heat for including it. To my credit, I never thought that it was by Shakespeare and even proposed (though I was roundly ignored because I’m a nobody) that the poem was by John Ford. There’s proof on the Shaksper Listserv somewhere—if they still call it that.

John Ford was born some 20 years after Shakespeare and so didn’t really get started until Shakespeare was at his peak. Around 1601 when he would have been 15 or 16, he joined the Middle Temple, an institution that was considered a prestigious law school. Whether he studied law is debatable but he was obviously well educated, a man of letters, and must have had literary ambitions. After being kicked out of the Middle Temple due to financial issues, he set about looking for patronage by writing an elegy and a prose pamphlet. Yet it isn’t until 1620, four years after Shakespeare’s death (though Ben Jonson was still alive and active) that he appears as an active playwright. What can be said for Ford is that he became one of the Elizabathen era’s finest dramatists and collaborated with other dramatists like Dekker (with whom he co-authored The Witch of Edmonton), Webster and Massinger. That said, while Ford had a fine instinct for drama and could write some of the most pellucid blank verse of the era, he was a mediocre poet at best (which makes the mis-identification of his Funeral Elegy as Shakespeare’s all the more baffling).

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is generally thought to be the finest incest tragedy of the Elizabethan Era, a highly popular genre in its day, that continued to be performed through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Not only that, but according to Wikipedia, the 20th century saw the play adapted into two movies: My Sister, My Love (Sweden, 1966) and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Belgium, 1978). The genre remains popular for all the obvious titillating reasons.

So what was my impression? Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. This though I knew it was all going to end tragically—and that’s probably the point. The dramatic tension is not in wondering how the play will end, but in the spectacle of its unraveling—as one character after another is stabbed and/or poisoned. Before they even stepped foot in the theater, Elizabethans knew matters were going to go spectacularly bad. The only question was how bad. Ford handles it all beautifully, disappointing no one when, in the final scenes, a bloody Giovanni steps into the banquet hall with Annabella’s heart impaled on the tip of his phallic dagger. Has there ever been a more brutally symbolic manifestation of incest?

But is there anything for the modern reader beyond an Elizabethan fondness for incest, bloody denouements, and murderous spectacle? First to be said is that Annabella is really little more than the shiny object around which all the men plot and scheme; which is to say, Annabella’s own agency is slim to none. When she takes Giovanni as her lover, there’s little to no deliberation on her part. While Giovanni is wracked with doubts throughout Act I, essentially deliberating for both of them, Annabella confesses her love after the briefest of conventional and clichéd Elizabethan tropes. In short, Giovanni claims that if his love is not requited, he would rather die. Of course, this symbolically makes Annabella responsible for Giovanni’s fate. To drive home the point, Giovanni “offers his dagger to her“. That’s Annabella’s one moment of agency. Take her brother as lover or murder him. The correct response would have been obvious to any self-respecting Elizabethan play-goer: she should have murdered him and taken her own life forthwith. Instead, after a series of pro-forma objections, she blows it:

...what thous hast urged
My captive heart had long ago resolved.
I blush to tell thee—but I'll tell thee now—
For every sigh that thou hast spent for me
I have sighed ten; for every tear shed twenty:
And not so much for that I loved, nor scarcely think it.

And so let the play begin. Would that the Elizabethans had had popcorn.

Once the secret tryst between Giovanni and Annabella is sealed, the other suitors, none the wiser, court Annabella with all the gusto of horse-traders. Annabella’s father Florio, meanwhile, makes a somewhat modern concession:

My care is how to match her to her liking:
I would not have her marry wealth, but love...

One often reads that marriage in those days, especially among the aristocracy, was a bleak market wherein marriageable women were used as currency, to be “bedded”, buying peace between warring families, buying social status, securing extravagant endowments which would be promptly gambled away by profligate husbands, etc… The desire of women, and men, to marry for love wasn’t a foreign concept. Some one hundred and fifty years later Jane Austen would make marrying for love (among the aristocracy) the centerpiece of her novels. And don’t forget that Giovanni and Annabella’s love is an ironic commentary on Florio’s statement coming, as it does, immediately after Annabella and Giovanni have gone off to make love for the first time. Such is Ford’s dramatic art.

At any rate, immediately after Florio has stated that he would not have Annabella marry for wealth, Donado (the father of one of Annabella’s suitors) reassuringly states:

Sir, you say well,
Like a true father, and for my part I,
If the young folks can like ('twixt you and me),
Will promise to assure my nephew presently
Three thousand florins yearly during life,
And after I am dead, my whole estate.

[Act I, Scene iii]

La! Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Florio responds approvingly, to which Donado adds:

Well,
Here's hope yet, if my nephew would have wit;
But he is such another dunce, I fear
He'll never win the wench.

[Act I, Scene iii] 

And that’s the tone with which the suitors discuss Annabella—wench this and wench that—though it should be said that the appellation ‘wench’ didn’t carry the same negative connotations then as now. One could use ‘wench’ as as term of endearment, but it was more commonly used as shorthand for a sexually available young female. “Wenching” was used in the sense of lecherous, and Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare, did seem to take a certain relish and discussing women. Bergetto, Donado’s nephew has taken to a different wench, Philotus, and comments:

O, the wench! Uda sa' me, uncle, I tickled her with a rare speech, that I made her almost burst her belly with laughing.

The sexual innuendo wouldn’t have been lost on Elizabethan audience. He tickled her (penetrated her) with a rare speech (intercourse) and almost burst her belly (impregnated her) with laughing (their mutual orgasm). And if you suppose I’m reading too much into this, Ford clears up any confusion when Donado, Poggio (Berghetto’s servant) and Berghetto are later discussing Annabella:

Donado What’s the news now?
Bergetto Save you Uncle save you, you must not think I come
for nothing Masters, and how and how is ’t? what you have
read my letter, ah, there I — tickled you i’ faith.
Poggio But ’twere better you had tickled her in another place.

[Act II Sc. vi]

So, Donado’s use of the word wench is both an endearment and a mutual acknowledgement as to the purpose to which his daughter should be put. Who wins the right to conceive in a female? You may think that’s a crass way to put it, but the seriousness of the question will be what leads to the play’s bloody denouement. In general, the lascivious way in which Annabella and other women are discussed, given the play’s central theme and the way in which incest takes that objectification to its extreme, no doubt contributed to the play’s popularity.

Modern readers might be more taken with the early inklings of humanism, atheism and enlightenment rationalism in Ford’s play. When one read’s Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, a modern reader gets that sense that Marlowe, though he dutifully damned Faust, was sympathetic. Likewise, though Ford no doubt would have condemned incest without the Master of the Revel’s prompting, one does get the sense that he was sympathetic with the humanistic impulse behind the arguments made (by Giovanni) in defense of his relationship with Annabella. The very first words of the play begin thusly:

Enter Friar and Giovanni.

Friar Dispute no more in this, for know (young man)
These are no School­points; nice Philosophy
May tolerate unlikely arguments,
But Heaven admits no jest; wits that presumed
On wit too much, by striving how to prove
There was no God; with foolish grounds of Art,
Discovered first the nearest way to Hell;
And filled the world with devilish Atheism:
Such questions youth are fond; For better ’tis,
To bless the Sun, than reason why it shines;

In other words, like any perplexed parent when too cleverly challenged by their child: The Friar’s response is: Do it because God said so. And this was an absolutely legitimate theological argument in the medieval era (of which the Elizabethans were still a part). Even so, you will find strikingly modern thought.

Giovanni.
What Judgement, or endeavors could apply
To my incurable and restless wounds,
I thoroughly have examined, but in vain:
O that it were not in Religion sin,
To make our love a God, and worship it.
I have even wearied heaven with prayers, dried up
The spring of my continual tears, even starved
My veins with daily fasts: what wit or Art
Could Counsel, I have practiced; but alas
I find all these but dreams, and old men’s tales
To fright unsteady youth...

Love to God or love to one another? The passage could have been written as a critique of arranged marriage, rather than incest. Do we owe primacy to love, to ourselves, or to societal norms and conventions? While incest might be the “libertarian ethicist’s” most extreme provocatoin, the tension between individual liberty and societal conventions is fiercely ongoing especially as regards gender, marriage, adultery, erotic fantasy and even pornography. At any rate, hundreds of years later Steinbeck will take up the same question in Grapes of Wrath, only this time it will be the “Friar” himself, in the shape of an old preacher, who loses religion.

An’ I got to thinkin’ like this—’Here’s me preachin’ grace’. An’ here’s them people gettin’ grace so hard they’re jumpin’ and shoutin’. Now they say layin’ up with a girl comes from the devil. But the more grace a girl got in her, the quicker she wants to out in the grass [have sex].’ An’ I got to thinkin’ how in hell, s’cuse me, how can the devil get in when a girl is so full of the Holy Sperit that it’s spoutin’ out of her nose an’ ears. ¶ Finally it give me such pain I quit an’ went off my myself an’ give her a damn good thinkin’ about. [….] I says to myself, ‘What’s gnawin’ you? Is it the screwin’?’ An’ I says, ‘No, it’s the sin.’ An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought ot be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ all full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets fingerin’ his pants buttons?’ ¶ And it come night, an’ it was dark when I come to. They was coyotes squawkin’ near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some things folks do is nice. and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.” ¶ “I says. ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ thought, an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people. An’ sometimes I love ’em fit to bust, an’ I want to make ’em happy.’

Compare Ford’s “old men’s tales” to Steinbeck’s “just a bunch of stories”. The humanist questions are the same. Is it intrinsically wrong to sleep with ones sister? Is it intrinsically wrong to sleep with girls in the grass after baptizing them? Why shouldn’t we take pleasure in lust and love? Giovanni will make other ingenious arguments defending his incestual love, all while obliquely criticizing the absurdity of the religious arguments on which they’re based:

Giovanni Father, in this you are uncharitable;
What I have done, I’ll prove both fit and good.
It is a principle (which you have taught
When I was yet your Scholar) that the Fame
And Composition of the Mind doth follow
The Frame and Composition of Body:
So where the Body’s furniture is Beauty,
The Mind’s must needs be Virtue: which allowed.
Virtue itself is Reason but refined,
And Love the Quintessence of that, this proves
My Sister’s Beauty being rarely Fair,
Is rarely Virtuous; chiefly in her love,
And chiefly in that Love, her love to me.
If hers to me, then so is mine to her;
Since in like Causes are effects alike.

[Act II, Sc. v]

The friar’s impotent response is to call him a madman, though that would certainly have been sufficient for the censor. Likewise, many Elizabethans would have deemed Giovanni’s argument so absurd as to merit no other retort but madman. And what do the women say? Ford leaves that to Annabella’s older nurse and servant:

Putana Nay what a Paradise of joy have you passed under?
why now I commend thee, charge, fear nothing, sweetheart;
what though he be your Brother? Your Brother’s a
man I hope, and I say still, if a young Wench feel the fit upon
her, let her take anybody, Father or Brother, all is one.

[Act II, Sc. 1]

And that’s no argument at all. So frank and extreme is Putana’s amorality that I have to suppose it’s to make her later treatment, when her eyes are gouged out and she’s ordered to be burnt to ashes, more just and palatable.

Ford’s awareness of the hypocricies at work will make itself felt in the final scenes of the play when Soranzo, who has married Annabella unaware of her affair with her brother, demands to know who has already conceived a child in her—essentially robbing him of his prize.

Soranzo Tell me his name.
Annabella Alas, alas, there’s all
Will you believe?
Soranzo What?
Annabella You shall never know. Soranzo How!
Annabella Never,
If you do, let me be cursed.
Soranzo Not know it, Strumpet, I’ll rip up thy heart,
And find it there.

Soranzo’s servant will interrupt Soranzo and Annabella:

Vasques Now the gods forefend!
And would you be her executioner, and kill her in your rage too?
O ’twere most unmanlike; she is your wife, what faults hath
been done by her before she married you, were not against you;
alas Poor Lady, what hath she committed, which any Lady
in Italy in the like case would not? Sir, you must be ruled by
your reason, and not by your fury, that were unhuman and
beastly.
Soranzo She shall not live.
Vasques Come she must; you would have her confess the Authors
of her present misfortunes I warrant ’ee, ’tis an unconscionable
demand, and she should lose the estimation that I (for
my part) hold of her worth, if she had done it; why sir you
ought not of all men living to know it: good sir be reconciled,
alas good gentlewoman.

And what does Vasques mean by “you ought not of all men living to know it”? Vasques knows that Soranzo has slept with another man’s wife, Hippolita; and did so shortly before courting and marrying Annabella. Soranzo is a hypocrite of the first order, but ultimately Vasques’s efforts are also hypocritical. He only means to calm Soranzo long enough to trick Annabella’s servant, Putana, into revealing who it was that impregnated Annabella.

Before it’s all said and done, Annabella is murdered by her brother, another of Annabella’s suitors is mistakenly murdered by the servant of the man whose wife Soranzo has slept with. The wife, Hippolita, in attempting to exact revenge, is tricked into drinking from her own poisoned cup. Putana, Annabella’s servants, has her eyes gouged out and is burned as a heretic, Vasques is banished to Spain and poor Florio, the well-meaning, decent and honorable father of Giovanni and Annabella, dies of a heart attack during the death and blood-letting of the final banquet.

La!

My final thought is to remark on the one passage that offers anything like poetry, and this is Ford’s Dante-esque description of Hell. Ford’s poetic muse seems to wake right up when it comes to Hell:

Friar I am glad to see this penance; for believe me,
You have unripped a soul, so foul and guilty.
As I must tell you true, I marvel how
The earth hath borne you up, but weep, weep on,
These tears may do you good; weep faster yet,
Whiles I do read a Lecture.
Annabella Wretched creature.
Friar Ay, you are wretched, miserably wretched.
Almost condemned alive; there is a place
(List daughter) in a black and hollow Vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no Sun,
But flaming horror of consuming Fires;
A lightless Sulphur, choked with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness; in this place
Dwell many thousand, thousand sundry sorts
Of never dying deaths; there damned souls
Roar without pity, there are Gluttons fed
With Toads and Adders; there is burning Oil
Poured down the Drunkard’s throat, the Usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten Gold;
There is the Murderer forever stabbed,
Yet can he never die; there lies the wanton
On Racks of burning steel, whiles in his soul
He feels the torment of his raging lust.

And that’s that. I leave you with a famous description of Ford by a contemporary:

Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat,
With folded arms and melancholy hat.

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.

houghton_14433.26.13_-_witch_of_edmonton_title

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
Friends.
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.