The Witch and “Female Empowerment”

The Witch and “Female Empowerment”

Spoilers below.

Richard Eggers’s The Witch is beautifully shot, directed, and acted. As a debut film, it’s stunning. It’s atmospheric, it’s tense, it’s subtle. It examines the loneliness of frontier life mixed with the fervor of Puritan religiosity and the tormented uncertainty of exile, all of which produces genuinely terrifying psychological effects.

But most of all, it’s a treatise against female empowerment.

Eggers doesn’t think so. In this article from The Atlantic, David Sims quotes him: “‘It was not my intention to make a story of female empowerment,’ Egger said, ‘but I discovered in the writing that if you’re making a witch story, these are the issues that rise to the top.'” And it’s true that the history of witchcraft always, inevitably evokes questions about gender and power and patriarchy. But the history of witchcraft is not a history of empowerment. It’s a history of punishment for the women (and some men) who do not fit in.

I’m teaching a class this semester called “Magic and Witchcraft in British Literature.” We’ve read texts from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including a unit on early modern British witches and witch trials. We did a simulation of the historical Pendle witch trials of 1612, read Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (based on the second generation of Pendle trials in 1634), and have just wrapped up Dekker, Ford, and Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton, based on the 1621 trial of Elizabeth Sawyer. Although Salem is beyond the scope of the course, the rhetoric and procedures of the Pendle trials deeply influenced the rhetoric and procedures at Salem — which, in turn, gave language and turns of phrase to Eggers’s film.

My students and I have been engulfed in the 17th-century realities of witchcraft. And this movie handles those realities well. It’s clear that these characters believe deeply and fervently that witchcraft exists as a powerful and malevolent force. So does the film: there’s never any question about witchcraft. As in a folk tale — and The Witch is subtitled A New England Folktale — the film shows us from the very beginning that witches exist and they’re evil. There’s no ambiguity here. It’s not witch-as-misunderstood-loner. The witches are mad and demonic; they sexually assault children; they have familiars (a hare, a crow). When a witch enchants ten-year-old Caleb, the bewitching begins with sexual assault and ends with Caleb choking up a bloody apple before he dies in religious ecstasy, quoting Song of Songs.

In the film, the apple has symbolized England, the land of orchards and glass windows. These moments of nostalgia for the homeland provide some of the most compelling threads in the narrative, deft touches of that old American theme, frontier life. But, of course, there’s more to the apple than that. It’s the forbidden fruit, in European tradition. The dark woods become the inverse of the Garden of Eden, and at their heart lies a witch’s hut. The witch that assaults and enchants Caleb emerges from the dark, dank hut wearing a push-up corset and a scarlet cloak as red as the bloody apple Caleb later coughs up. But if it isn’t bad enough to see a grown woman kissing a young boy, Eggers makes it clear that this youth is an illusion: her hand on Caleb’s face is old and gnarled. What’s really monstrous here is not just that there’s a woman sexually assaulting a child. It’s that she’s old.

In fact, that’s the one visual cue that all the most horrifying moments of the film have in common: the revelation of a naked, aged female body, half-lit to highlight wrinkles and cellulite and soft, sagging flesh. The repeated message is that there is nothing more vile and appalling than a naked old woman. To Eggers’s credit, the camera never lingers on Thomasin’s naked young body when she sells her soul to the devil in the form of Black Phillip, the goat, and then wanders into the woods to join a coven of naked, writhing women around a fire. But there’s something monstrous about that, too, considering that the camera does linger on Thomasin’s clothed body as a way of showing Caleb’s troubled sexual awakening. Female nudity becomes, paradoxically, a rejection of the male gaze.

But it’s precisely that rejection that is figured in the movie as dangerous and evil. After all, how positive can any depiction of “female empowerment” be if said empowerment demands the murder of one’s entire family? Given the horrible deaths of her family, how we have to watch Thomasin’s mother descend into tormented madness, how Thomasin herself disappears from the film during that night that she and the four-year-old twins spend trapped in the goat pen, which ends with death and destruction (implying that she participated in their deaths) — given the enormous loss that Thomasin faces to achieve “empowerment” at the end, how could that empowerment really be worthwhile?

I’m bewildered because even when Thomasin conjures the devil in the form of Black Phillip, his pitch to her is vague and, frankly, terrible! Like Mallory Ortberg at The Toast points out,

So the devil at the end asks Thomasin if she wants to “live deliciously” and promises her butter dresses and world travel, but look at what he has actually handed out to the previous witches: a shitty hut alone in the woods and nothing! This is a piece of shit deal, man!

I mean, of course it’s a piece of shit deal; deals with the devil always are (just ask Doctor Faustus). But that Eggers seems to think that a young woman would agree to this deal in the name of empowerment displays a deep patriarchal distrust of female independence and power. When the prerequisite of power is murder, then achieving that power is not a triumph!

So I think The Witch is amazing, but I mean that word in its most literal sense. I’m amazed by the quality of the acting and the beauty of the cinematography and the depth of the research that went into it. I’m amazed by its portrayal of Puritan family dynamics when New England was still a frontier. And I’m also amazed by its fundamental message that female empowerment requires the utter rejection of civilization in favor of pedophilia and murder.

It’s a powerful movie. But it’s not an empowering one.


Annabella’s Legible Heart in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Annabella’s Legible Heart in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

For sheer, visceral horror, it’s hard to beat cutting out someone’s heart. How many 80s kids were traumatized by the infamous scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in which the priest cuts out and holds up a heart (which then catches fire)?

The violence is almost as bad as the racism.
The violence is almost as bad as the racism.

Or there’s Alan Rickman’s delightful scenery-chewing in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves:

I’ve been thinking about Annabella’s heart in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Part of my current book project involves examining body parts as extratexts: objects that carry meaning, often textual meanings, both within and transcending the world of the text. The body itself signifies, and certainly we see the heart doing so in ‘Tis Pity. Take Giovanni, for example, who tells his sister that his love has become legible, physically inscribed on his heart:

Gio. Here.

Offers his Dagger to her.

Anna. What to doe.

Gio. And here’s my breast, strick home.
Rip vp my bosome, there thou shalt behold
A heart, in which is writ the truth I speake. (sig. C1r)

He treats the commonplace figure of speech as if it were literal, as if the emotions he feels could carve letters on the organs of his body. This notion takes on urgency in ‘Tis Pity. When Soranzo discovers that Annabella is pregnant, he demands to know the father’s name. She refuses to reveal it:

Anna. Neuer,
If you doe [discover it], let mee be curst.

Soran. Not know it, Strumpet, I’le ripp vp thy heart,
And finde it there. (sig. H1v)

Now it’s Annabella’s heart that’s legible. By the play’s logic, that actually might make sense. Like a conventional lover, Giovanni praises “the glory / Of two vnited hearts like hers and mine!” (sig. I2r). So maybe, by a sort of transitive property of heart-writing, Annabella’s heart became an extratext when she and her brother became lovers. They were flesh-and-blood to one another; now they are one flesh, and their twisted love is imprinted on and in their bodies.

In fact, the gruesome climax of the play relies on Giovanni and Annabella’s emphasis on their hearts as texts. Having killed his sister/lover, Giovanni cuts out her heart and carries it into Soranzo’s feast, brandishing it on his phallic symbol dagger. He keeps making ghoulish references to the heart throughout the rest of the scene. “Be not amaz’d,” he says:

                                  If your misgiuing hearts
Shrinke at an idle sight; what bloodlesse Feare
Of Coward passion would haue ceaz’d your sences,
Had you beheld the Rape of Life and Beauty
Which I haue acted? (sig. K2r)

Now revealed to everyone — including their father, who also now discovers his children’s incestuous relationship — Annabella’s heart paradoxically no longer bears the writing of Giovanni’s love but rather becomes mere spectacle, “an idle sight.” Giovanni feels like he has to identify it to his audience:

[Giovanni:] ‘[T]is a Heart,
A Heart my Lords, in which is mine intomb’d,
Looke well vpon’t; d’ee know’t?

Vas. What strange ridle’s this?

Gio. ‘Tis Annabella’s Heart, ’tis; why d’ee startle?
I vow ’tis hers, this Daggers poynt plow’d vp
Her fruitefull wombe, and left to mee the fame
Of a most glorious executioner. (sig. K2r)

“[T]his Daggers poynt plow’d vp / Her fruitefull wombe.” Gross, Giovanni.

So, really interestingly to me, the moment when Annabella’s heart becomes visible is when it becomes illegible, spectacular, a literal prop for Giovanni. This is what I mean by calling it an extratext: it’s textish, and there’s a sense in which it could become textual, but mostly it’s outside the framework of textual meaning while still being treated by the characters as textually meaningful.

I’ve also been wondering how Annabella’s heart would have been staged. Is it a little stuffed facsimile (like a pillow)? Is it, say, a pig’s heart? Or a sheep’s? Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa point out that George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar calls for

‘3 violls of blood and a sheeps gather’, that is, three pieces of sheep’s entrail, the liver, heart, and lungs, one for each corpse, along with an appropriate flow of blood from each victim, for display to the excited multitude. (61)

Given Giovanni’s condemnation of his father’s and others’ “bloodlesse Feare,” I think it’s likely that in early productions he was handling an animal heart and possibly was covered in blood (as surely would be expected for someone who has just stabbed his sister and cut out her heart). The image above shows that the 2014 production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre certainly went with that option.

If I were a director, that’s what I’d do. You’ve got a brother who has slept with and impregnated his sister, then murdered her, cut out her heart, and showed up in front of her husband and their father with her heart stuck on his dagger. If that moment doesn’t call for a great deluge of blood, I don’t know what does.


  • John Ford, ‘Tis Pitty Shee’s a Whore (London: Nicholas Okes for Richard Collins, 1633, STC 11165, accessed 4 November 2015 via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America).
  • Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Oxford UP, 2000).

Sir Philip Sidney’s Unamputated Leg

Sir Philip Sidney’s Unamputated Leg

As I delve into the gruesome world of early modern amputations, I’ve been wondering: What really happened to Sir Philip Sidney’s leg? Or, more specifically, why wasn’t it amputated?

Sidney met his death-wound on September 22, 1586, in the heavy fog at Zutphen. Pushing forward into enemy lines to rescue Lord Willoughby, Sidney was shot in the left thigh, just above the knee. (Contrary to legend, he left off his cuisses not out of gallantry but simply because he was in too much of a hurry to put them on.) He refused assistance as he retreated, riding back to camp on his own. According to George Whetstone — possibly already mythologizing — Sidney insisted on doing so without help so that “The foe shall misse the glory of my wounde” (sig. C1r).

His uncle, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, called the wound “the most grievous that ever I saw with such a bullet” (qtd. in Duncan-Jones 295). The bone was shattered, and although Sidney recovered well at first, his condition took a sharp turn for the worse after a visit from Leicester on October 7. By this time he had developed horrible bedsores; Fulke Greville writes that “the very shoulder-bones of this delicate Patient [had] worn through his skin.” Trying to find comfort, Sidney shifted around in bed and smelled “some extraordinary noisom savor about him” (sig. L5r). Correctly deducing that his wound had turned gangrenous, he resigned himself to the worst; his new symptoms were “a welcome messenger of death” (sig. L5v).

Yet, according to Greville, Sidney had given the surgeons permission to do whatever was necessary:

When they began to dress his wound, he both by way of charge, and advice, told them, that while his strength was yet entire, his body free from feaver, and his mind able to endure, they might freely use their art, cut, and search to the bottome. (sig. L3r-v)

Why wasn’t the leg amputated? Amputation had become a common treatment for gunshot wounds precisely because they so easily turned gangrenous. Katherine Duncan-Jones is equally mystified:

According to Moffet, the ‘stitched edges of the muscles [were] opened and pulled apart’ by a doctor from Bergen; but the bullet was never extracted, lying too deep in the thigh, and amputation, which might conceivably have saved his life, was apparently not attempted. (297)

By the time his leg turned gangrenous, surely it would have been better to attempt amputation than simply to let him die. Perhaps Sidney objected; Greville paints him in his last days as ready for death, and maybe the agony of amputation and the prospect of living without a leg for the rest of his life seemed far worse than dying. As far as I can tell, though, the subject was never even broached, unless Greville describes the conversation in the most general terms possible:

Shortly after, when the Chirurgions came to dress him, he acquainted them with these piercing intelligences between him, and his mortality. Which though they opposed by authority of books, paralleling of accidents, and other artificiall probabilities; yet moved they no alteration in this man, who judged too truly of his own estate, and from more certain grounds, than the vanity of opinion in erring artificers could possibly pierce into. (sig. L5v)

And, frankly, amputations were so dangerous that it’s entirely possible the procedure could have been done and Sidney might still have died. Ambroise Paré, who introduced the practice of sealing amputations with ligatures instead of cauterizing the wound, was still alive in 1586, but his practices would not become commonly accepted for some time yet.

Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing to wonder what would have happened if Paré had been one of the many doctors at Sidney’s bedside in Arnhem. Would it still have been his deathbed? Might Sidney have survived to complete the New Arcadia? Would the Arcadia have become as central as it did if it had an ending?

How might early modern English literature have been different with an amputee as one of its cornerstone authors?


  • Charles B. Drucker, “Ambroise Paré and the Birth of the Gentle Art of Surgery,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 81.4 (2008): 199-202.
  • Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney, Courtier Poet (New Haven: Yale, 1991).
  • Fulke Greville, The Life Of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney (London: Printed for Henry Seile, 1651, Wing B4899, accessed 31 October 2015 via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America).
  • George Whetstone, Sir Phillip Sidney, his honourable life, his valiant death, and true vertues (London: Printed for Thomas Cadman, [1587], STC 25349, accessed 31 October 2015 via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America).
Early Modern Ghosts

Early Modern Ghosts

My dissertation was called “Textual Ghosts,” and the first chapter was about ghost pamphlets. In the post-1641 publication boom, ghost pamphlets started getting woodcuts for their title pages, providing a recognizable iconography of ghostliness that included shrouds and torches. (Today we still use sheets as shrouds if we want to dress up as ghosts, but we’ve apparently decided to abandon torches in favor of not getting burned in horrible torch/shroud accidents.)

In honor of Halloween, have some of my favorite images from my searches into early modern ghosts.

Sir Thomas Gresham His Ghost
Gresham has the best-starched shroud of all the ghost pamphlets. Look at that perfect arc, framing his quaint Elizabethan styles. What a guy. (Wing S3898)
Strange Apparitions, or The Ghost of King James
I like how the Duke of Buckingham appears to be leading them all in learning torch choreography. (Wing S5880)
The Earle of Straffords Ghost
While Gresham’s shroud looks well-starched, Strafford’s just looks like a hut. He also looks like he’s about to say “DUDES!” and invite everyone to a party in his shroud. He seems inappropriately festive given the topic, is what I’m saying. (Wing E84)
The iust reward of Rebels, Or The Life and Death of Iack Straw, and Wat Tyler
Here the ghosts are joined by a spooky skeleton. Look at the baby ghost in the front center though. Creeeeepy. (Wing J1241)
Tom Nash his Ghost
Finally, Tom Nash, who has not prepared adequately for his ghosthood and had to just drape himself in a sheet instead of having a proper shroud like everybody else. And where’s your torch, Tom Nash? Shocking. I should also note that, kind of hilariously, EEBO lists Thomas Nashe as the author of this pamphlet. It really was written by his ghost! (Wing T1784)

Sources: All images were accessed via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America.