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Witches which Never Flew: Native Witchcraft and the Cunning Woman on the Stage
International Journal of Literature and Arts
Volume 2, Issue 5, September 2014, Pages: 130-141
Received: Aug. 17, 2014; Accepted: Aug. 25, 2014; Published: Sep. 10, 2014
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Shokhan Rasool Ahmed, English Department, University of Sulaimani, Sulaimani-Kurdistan, Iraq
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In early modern England cunning men and women (often older people on the fringes of society) became easy targets for gossip within rural communities. I will examine some figures of the cunning woman in this period and show how they appear in different senses: the cunning woman as a healer, nurturer, fortune-teller and domestic manager. Mother Sawyer, in The Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford (1621), complains of the community of Edmonton that she has been convicted because she is ‘poor, deform’d, and ignorant’ (II.i.3).1 Sawyer has been abused because she is old and ugly and does not have any means by which to make her living. She is physically portrayed as a contemporary English witch. However Sawyer is not a witch from the beginning of the play, and not presented as one until her community accuse her of witchcraft. After she realizes that there is nothing left to lose, she makes a pact with the devil and thus her identity changes from an old woman into a real witch. In John Lyly’s Mother Bombie (1594), Bombie is a ‘white witch’ or ‘cunning woman’ whose mysterious power is used to help people, not to harm. In Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hogsdon (1604), the Wise Woman pretends to be a cunning woman and skilled in fortune-telling, palmistry and curing diseases. The three protagonists in the mentioned plays are drawn from English witch-lore, and they live in the suburbs and resort to witchcraft in order to make their living. Mother Sawyer, a traditional English witch, is portrayed as hag-like whereas Mother Bombie and the Wise Woman are English local cunning women. The witches do not fly and stage directions do not call for flight in the witch scenes; their feet remain firmly on the ground in all scenes. Cunning women are not the same as witches: they do not have a familiar, they tell fortunes and cure diseases, are benevolent, they do not hold covens on the Sabbath, do not make pacts with the devil in return for rewards and they do not act maleficium. The chronological approach taken here is used in order to determine the dramatic development of the witches and cunning women in two theatrical modes—the tragic (The Witch of Edmonton) and the comic (Mother Bombie, and The Wise Woman of Hogsdon).
Stage Directions and Genre, The Witch of Edmonton, Mother Bombie, and The Wise Woman of Hogsdon
To cite this article
Shokhan Rasool Ahmed, Witches which Never Flew: Native Witchcraft and the Cunning Woman on the Stage, International Journal of Literature and Arts. Vol. 2, No. 5, 2014, pp. 130-141. doi: 10.11648/j.ijla.20140205.11
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