Article Title

How to Do Witchcraft Tragedy with Speech Acts


Eric Byville


In this essay I employ speech act theory to bring a new clarity to the outlines of an old genre: witchcraft tragedy. Witchcraft tragedy is a good test-case for reconsidering the hypothesis according to which literary genres can be traced back to primordial speech acts: its heroes abandon “human” language in exchange for a radically antisocial utterance, the supernatural performative, and this speech act defines the tragic witch and her catastrophic end. While some historical studies of witchcraft have involved speech act theory, literary scholarship has tended to discuss witchcraft drama through an overwhelmingly socio-historical lens, interpreting the plays in light of contemporaneous witchcraft persecutions and defining them as representations of social history rather than examples of an art-form possessing a distinct dramatic structure and internal logic. I will try to show, however, that speech act theory offers a model for understanding western witchcraft tragedy not just as the fragmented, dramatized document of cultural beliefs and practices, but as a transhistorical literary genre. I examine a classical model, Seneca’s Medea (ca. 30-65), and then two Renaissance incarnations, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1588-1589) and Dekker, Rowley and Ford’s The Witch of Edmonton (1621). Although these three plays illustrate many historical differences between classical and Renaissance tragedy, their profound parallels suggest, in the midst of chronological change, the abstract identity of “witchcraft tragedy” as a neoclassical form.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.