The Witch of Edmonton
by Thomas Dekker is a "Jacobean" play, meaning that it was written during the reign of James I of England. Dekker co-wrote this play with William Rowley and John Ford in 1621. Ford co-authored several plays, with six surviving, including The Witch of Edmonton
. There are eight surviving plays written solely by Ford. Rowley’s contributions are not as well divided, but he wrote or co-wrote no less than 17 surviving plays. Nearly 20 plays by Dekker were published during his lifetime of 1572-1632. The Witch of Edmonton
is classified as a tragicomedy, containing elements of both tragedy and comedy.The Witch of Edmonton
is based on real events in Edmonton, located outside of London, earlier in 1621. Though the play was penned and acted in 1621, it wasn’t published until 1658. Scholars suggest that John Webster may have been a fourth contributing playwright, because Dekker, Rowley, and Ford were working with him on Keep the Widow Waking
at the same timeThe Witch of Edmonton
was written, and originally, the poets listed were Rowley, Dekker, Ford, "et cetera."
Inspired by the story of Elizabeth Sawyer, a real woman executed for witchcraft on April 19, 1621, as well as Henry Goodcole’s pamphlet, The wonderful discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, Witch
, written in 1621, The Witch of Edmonton
takes a more sympathetic approach to the conviction and execution of Sawyer. Originally performed at the Cockpit Theatre by Prince Charles’ Men on December 29, 1621, The Witch of Edmonton
shows how, after being shunned by neighbors, Sawyer sells her soul to the Devil to get revenge.
Elizabeth Sawyer is a poor elderly woman, and therefore lonely and ostracized by the rest of the village. Neighbors accuse her of witchcraft, unjustly. In order to get even with them, Sawyer becomes the witch they accused her being. Tom, a talking dog sent by the Devil, becomes her familiar. Together, Elizabeth and Tom drive one of the accusers to madness and suicide. Elizabeth’s other attempts at revenge are largely unsuccessful because so many of the other villagers are ready and willing to sell their souls to the Devil, as well. Subplots run alongside Sawyer’s that provide commentary on Dekker’s contemporary society.
One such subplot follows Frank Thorney. A farmer’s son, Frank secretly marries Winnifride. Winnifride is poor, but Frank loves her. He also thinks she’s carrying his baby. Frank’s father, who doesn’t know that Frank has married, insists instead that he marry another woman, Susan. Susan’s father is Old Carter, a wealthy farmer. Rather than confess the truth to his father, Frank marries Susan and becomes a bigamist. However, this doesn’t last long as he tries to flee Edmonton, disguising Winnifride as a male page. Susan finds out he’s left and pursues him, so he stabs her. When Tom reappears, the audience is meant to feel uncertain as to whether Frank wanted to stab Susan or whether the Devil made him do it.
Frank cuts himself, though not severely, so that he can feign having been attacked. He tries to accuse two men, Warbeck and Somerton, of killing Susan. Warbeck is Susan’s former suitor and Somerton wants to marry Katherine, Susan’s younger sister. While nursing Frank’s wounds, Katherine discovers a bloody knife among his things. She guesses that Frank is the one who killed Susan and tells her father. Tom appears again, joyful that he’s played a part in Frank’s ruin. With the truth revealed, Frank is sentenced to be executed along with Elizabeth Sawyer. Unlike Sawyer, Frank is forgiven. Winnifride goes to live with Old Carter’s family, so despite the fact that there are tragic elements, the play ends happily for some.
Sawyer is executed as a witch, though this doesn’t rid Edmonton of evil. For one thing, Tom isn’t destroyed—simply banished. He vows to go to London, where he plans to ruin more people. The play also presents the lord of the manor—Sir Arthur Clarington—in a less than favorable light. Elizabeth accuses him of lechery, and it comes to light that he’s had an affair with Winnifride. Elizabeth also accuses him of corruption. This shows a distrust of authority among English common people in the 1620s. The Witch of Edmonton
doesn’t suggest that Elizabeth wasn’t a witch, but rather it places the blame not solely on her shoulders, but on those of all in society, granting sympathy to her conviction and execution.