The Human Witches of Thomas Middleton’s The Witch: An Essay
An Introduction on "The Witch"
While many early modern plays lack the presence of female characters, Thomas Middleton’s The Witch is rife with them. In fact, Middleton’s inclusion of female characters sets him apart from other early modern playwrights like Jonson and Chapman (Bradford, 1). However, an interesting aspect about Middleton’s use of women in his plays is that none of these women garner sympathy from the reader (Bradford, 1). Instead, Middleton creates depraved and conniving women to tell his story. Through the creation of exaggerated depravity, Middleton shows how witch-like qualities in women forces them to function as witches themselves. This essay will explore the treatment of female characters in The Witch and the characters who have been cast as “human witches”.
The Witch is a complicated tale of love, death, and drama. It reads as an early modern soap opera. So much so, in fact, that it is hard to see why the witches are included in the story at all. Complicated in structure, Middleton follows various plotlines as they interweave throughout the story. Sebastian, who is engaged to and in love with Isabella, was reported dead. Isabella married Antonio the day Sebastian returned to Urbino, unbeknownst to her. Sebastian vows to do anything to reclaim Isabella as his own. Meanwhile, Antonio has a courtesan named Florida who is jealous of Isabella. Francisca, Antonio’s sister, is pregnant out of wedlock with Aberzanes’ child. A man named Almachildes is in love with Amoretta who is the waiting women to the Duchess. The Duchess is angry with her husband and is plotting to kill him. The plot is already complex enough, and this is before the witches have been thrown in the mix. The witches, Hecate and her coven, do little more than aid in the complicated plans put in motion by the other characters. Sebastian, Almachildes, and The Duchess all go to the witches for various charms. However, other than those interactions, the witches play a small role in the play. It is hardly enough for the play to be named after their presence.
Witches in Tragicomedy
Middleton, as many other playwrights who dabbled in the tragicomedies, was influenced heavily by John Fletcher (Schoenbaum, 3). Fletcher, considered a genius of the genre, is well remembered for his famous definition of tragicomedies (Waith 2). In his preface to The Faithful Shepherdess, Fletcher said “it wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie " (The Faithful Shepherdess). Fletcher used a specific formula when he wrote his tragicomedies. Interested in human sexuality, Fletcher created scenarios that explored sex within the most basic formula of the tragicomedy: sex must be linked to death and laughter (Verna 82). A Fletcher tragicomedy steered away from death. Instead, he focused on sex. This created both comedic situations as well as sex-linked tragedies such as rape, lust, incest, jealousy, and frustrations (Verna 82). Fletcher creates characters who had fully realized their sexuality, though they may not have fully consummated it (Verna 82). While Fletcher’s comedies focused heavily on sex they were still linked to death, as death was often a suitable punishment for sex (Verna 82). Death also occurred as a suitable alternative to sex (Verna 82).
Middleton called this play, “this ignorantly-ill-fated Labour of mine” which suggests his uncertainty and self-consciousness (Schoenbaum, 3). The Witch was Middleton’s first foray into the genre of tragicomedy and it is clear he sticks closely to Fletcher’s formula for the genre (Schoenbaum, 3). In the conflict of Isabella and Antonio, Sebastian has purchased a charm from the witches that render Antonio impotent. “You look not like a man was married yesterday. There could come no ill tidings since last night,” Antonio’s servant remarks as he sees his newly married master for the first time (II.I.2-3). This is clearly Middleton copying Fletcher’s use of realized sexuality that has not yet been consummated. A married couple who is unable to consummate creates a delightful joke for the audience. Middleton also exploits the fear of death as punishment for sex in The Witch, making sure to follow Fletcher’s formula to a T.
In Act 5, scene 2, Antonio threatens Aberzanes with a duel to the death for indulging in sexual activities, and impregnating, with his sister, Francisca. When Aberzanes refuses, Antonio insists that Francisca and Abzeranes wed right there. After they both drink from the ceremonial marriage cup and leave, Antonio drinks himself, revealing to the audience that he has poisoned the wine:
“Spread subtle poison! Now my shame in her
Will die when I die. There’s some comfort yet.
I do but think how each man’s punishment
Proves still a kind of justice to himself.” (V.I.55-58)
This echoes Fletcher’s use of death as both punishments for sex, as in Francisca and Aberzanes’ situation, as well as death as an alternative to sex, as in Antonio’s choice to kill himself rather than suffer the shame of impotence. Thankfully, in true tragicomedic fashion, it turns out that Antonio’s faithful servant, Hermio, did not add the poison to the wine. Middleton takes some of his major plot devices straight from the pages of Fletcher.
Middleton also copies Fletcher in his treatment of female characters in his plays. Fletcher has recently been attributed with the frequent instances of misogyny in his plays (Henze, 391). Fletcher is criticized for his hateful treatment of female characters as well as his disregard for their sexuality (Henze, 391). Fletcher sets up a double-standard in his plays; men are forgiven for their premarital sexual encounters while women are severely punished (Henze, 391). In Fletcher’s Philaster, the suitor to the king’s daughter is caught with another woman. When discovered, the kind merely says, “Sir, I must dearly chide you for this loosenesse, / You have wrong’d a worthy Lady; but no more:/ conduct him to his Lodging, and to bed.” (II.IV.124-6). In contrast, the king says to his daughter:
“Now Lady of honour, where's your honour now?
No man can fit your pallat, but the Prince.
Thou most ill shrowded rottennesse: thou piece…
Thou all sinne, all hell, and last, all Divells.” (II.IV.134-41).
As seen in the text, the daughter of the king is severely scolded for her transgressions while her suitor is but chided. Middleton copies this in his contrast of Francisca and Antonio. While Antonio is married, he still has the courtesan Florida. This is not seen as one of Antonio’s sins in the play. However, Francisca is punished by her brother for her sexual escapades, nearly killed for sleeping with Aberzanes out of marriage. The treatment towards women in both Fletcher’s and Middleton’s work is clear; women are not full people and their sexuality is to be used for the pleasure of men rather than their own personal pleasure.
Furthermore, Middleton plays around with the same use of character exaggeration. Fletcher focused more on using exaggeration of plot and characterization to tell his story, rather than careful construction of plot like his predecessors (Hatcher 68). Instead, Fletcher likes to employ more simplistic plots and create meaning through his shocking amplification of character (Waith 4). Fletcher relied heavily on contrasting characters to get his point across, an example being an evil man tempting a virtuous woman (Hatcher 70). Middleton copies this as well. To create conflict in his play, Middleton exaggerates his female characters, contorting some into witch-like figures and others into angelic maidens. Isabella is shaped into the ideal woman, someone virtuous and kind, the perfect heroine that other women may aspire to be (Keller). The characters of the Duchess, Francisca, and Florida are shaped into being witch figures in the play. They are deceptive and sexually charged, isolating them from the sympathies of the audience while setting them as stark contrasts to the sweet Isabella (Keller).
Why did Middleton Include Witches?
What is baffling to critics is the use of the witches in Middleton’s play. Though Hecate and her band of magical women are the title characters of the play, they only appear in three different scenes and are noticeably absent from the ending of the play (Middleton.). Hecate functions, not as a prominent influence over the happenings in the play, but rather as a dues ex machina. The humans come to her to find a way out of their terrible problems. Aside from being linked to magic and other traditional markers of the witch, Hecate does not find herself frequently in the play. Instead, the other females in the play are portrayed as human witches.
The early modern idea of the witch can be traced back to the early seventeenth century. Changes in society had given rise to more freedom in the role of wife and mother (Keller, 2). Women were finding ways to leave the domestic sphere of femininity and enter into the public sphere of masculinity. Labor shortages and the increase of contraception had made it possible for more women to become financially independent (Keller, 2). This threatened the current patriarchal society.
The witch was created as a counter-action against the recently empowered female. They embodied traditionally unattractive female qualities such as ugliness, abrasiveness, ill-temperament, promiscuity, and a quarrelsome nature (Keller, 3). By vilifying these qualities, protectors of the patriarchal society hoped to quell the sudden rise in female empowerment by making it undesirable, even dangerous, to express these qualities. Many of these traditional female qualities can be seen in the various female figures in The Witch.
The first character that comes to mind when discussing the females of The Witch is the Duchess. She plans to kill her husband to take revenge for him killing her father. This is not a tale Middleton himself came up with. Instead, it is a retelling of a famous Medieval story that follows the Duke of Ravenna and his delightful control of his husband by forcing her to pledge herself to him over the skull of her father (Schoenbaum, 3). He works within the well-known figure of the Duchess to create a vengeful and vindictive character, modeled after the witches themselves. The Duchess pushes the bounds of being a submissive wife. Instead, she takes it fully upon herself to deceive her husband, and hopes to murder him. With the help of her Amoretta, Almachildes, and Hecate, she concocts a plan to murder the Duke.
It is easy to call the Duchess a bad wife. She fits well within the stereotype of the witch by being anything but a submissive woman (Keller, 4). Disorderly women, and therefore witch-like women, are said to be “trick their husbands” and “take lovers.” (Keller, 4). The Duchess tricks her husband by acting the kind and obedient wife. She then takes a lover by sleeping with Almachildes and convinces him to kill her husband. Purely from the surface of her plot line it is clear that she could be considered witch-like in all but magic.
Instead, it can be argued that the Duchess uses her lies as a certain kind of magic. Lying and deceit are strongly associated with witches as they are sinful behaviors and not ideal in the perfect woman (Keller, 7). The Duchess weaves lie after lie into a convoluted web that she uses to get what she desires. She lies to almost everyone she encounters, Amoretta, Almachildes, and the Lord Governor. These lies are all told to manufacture one occurrence, to kill the Duke. Much like the witches use their magic spells, the Duchess uses the power of her lies to create her desired outcome. Of course, much like various witches in other plays, her “spells” do not go as planned and the Duchess fails in killing her husband. However, this is not because her lies fail to do their job, instead, Almachildes fails to kill the Duke which shows the lack of power the Duchess has over him. This is commonly seen in witches who are not quite powerful enough, their spells work but their power fails to hold.
There is even more evidence against the Duchess. When the Duchess interacts with Hecate in Act Five, she is addressed by Hecate as “daughter” and responds with “mother.” (Middleton, Act Five). It is unclear in the play whether this is supposed to be read as literally a mother-daughter relationship or if it is simply supposed to show kindred spirits (Keller, 6). Though this relationship is unclear, this interaction works well to solidify the Duchess’s relationship with witchcraft and witchlike behavior in the play.
In literature and folklore, witches traditionally pass down their magical arts through their daughters (Keller, 6). While the Duchess is never seen using magic herself, she is the only human woman to interact with Hecate face-to-face. Hecate literally passes her magical tokens from her hands and into the Duchess’s hands. While not inherently magical herself, the Duchess is a vehicle for magic in that she tells Hecate specifically what she wants to happen and makes sure Hecate performs those tasks.
The Duchess is not the only woman directly linked to witchlike qualities in Middleton’s play. Francisca, the sister of Antonio who has fallen pregnant out of wedlock, displays the heinous qualities of sexuality as is common in witches. She is set up as a foil to her sister-in-law, Isabella, who shines as a woman who is impossibly good. (Karpinska, 11). This illustrates Middleton’s love for exploring the virtues, and lack thereof, in women (Schoenbaum, 3) Francisca represents the depraved juvenile. (Keller, 7).
Francisca is unnaturally sexual, for she is seen as a virgin by the other characters in the play, rendering her as unnaturally pregnant (Karpinska, 12). She stands out by being unacceptable in society’s standards by not submitting first to a man and then begetting his legitimate child (Keller, 8). Instead, she is whisked away to bear her child in secrecy.
Her inability to maintain her chastity is congruent with the characteristics as it shows she is promiscuous. This is in direct comparison to Hecate who is shown so promiscuous and insatiable that she lies with her son, Firestone, as well as enjoying the fantasy of Almachildes when he comes to take a charm from her. (Middleton). (find a quote from that scene to put here.) In fact, Hecate is so lustful that she admits to enjoying the fantasy of Almachildes three times (Middleton.). Francisca’s engagement of premarital sex further distances her from the idealized female characteristics and moves her closer to the depictions of the witch in the play.
While the witches in Middleton’s first exploration into tragicomedy are hardly involved in the actual happenings of the play, the female characters in the play stand in as witch figures themselves. Their connection with Hecate is only a small part of their witchlike qualities. Instead, the characters of the Duchess and Francisca are condemned as witches for their deceitful behavior and lascivious sexuality. It is in this way that Middleton utilizes the characterization and story-telling techniques developed by Fletcher and uses it to tell a story that explores the virtues of women while capitalizing on society’s obsession with witches. Furthermore, Middleton’s play echoes the misogyny of Fletcher’s plays by focusing on traditional views of women. His exaggerations create human witches that drive the tale, showing that when a woman rejects society’s values she becomes a witch herself.
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