PUTTING THE WITCH TRIALS
The idea of the witch, though folkloric, had many real-life implications
for women. The Salem witch trials came at the end of an era of mass
persecution of women, and sometimes men, in Europe for being
witches. The Great Witch Craze that preceded our own American
version led to some 40,000 or more deaths. But Arthur Miller’s
haunting play, The Crucible, a parable of McCarthyism, doesn’t show
us what we used to be. It shows us what we are.
“The Puritans are a direct line to our national culture,” says Kristina
Bross, associate professor of English. “When we look at Salem today,
our impulse is to sympathize unequivocally with the victims and say
the accusers were ignorant superstitious bigots.” The problem is that
the Salem witch trials weren’t conducted by dunking women in water
or burning them at the stake. They were trials in the modern sense.
“There were warrants for the arrest, evidence, and witnesses. It was
crazy, but it was crazy within the rule of law,” she says.
Notions of witchcraft can relegate a queen’s power to wicked
malevolence. As The Crucible shows, it can also elevate unassuming
townspeople to a level worthy of fear and paranoia. In Salem, many of
those most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft were women.
“Women are the ones who give birth, and historically, took care
of the dying and the dead,” says Associate Professor of Theatre
Kristine Holtvedt, who directed Purdue Theatre’s striking interpretation
of the play. “In the Bible, when Christ was in the tomb, Mary, and
Jesus’ mother Mary, went to put oil on his body. Men didn’t do
that. The combination of women using natural remedies, that they
dealt with death, and that they bled made them very vulnerable to
these accusations.” Photo by John Underwood.
power, the prime minister—Angela Merkel is another
example—and then you have the amazing charisma that
women bring to the office, in someone like Lady Diana or
Kate Middleton.” Queens in early modern Europe often
embodied all of these aspects of political authority.
“This is not to say gender did not matter,” concludes
Zook. “I don’t think we can ignore the treatment of
women—even if it was significantly better among royals
and aristocrats than it was among the rest of the society.
Revising notions of female power
Here’s an experiment. Take a list of your favorite female
figures. Then make a grid, on the top separating it into
categories of “good” and “evil” and on the side separating it
into categories of “powerful” and “weak.” This is an overly
simple way to plot people and characters, but its simplicity
belies the spider web of morality that continues to tangle the
way we treat female characters.
The biggest hits of our time are attempts to turn the
long-held notion of female power on its head. Queens and
other women in The Tudors and Game of Thrones exercise
ambition without having to put aside their womanhood and
sexuality, unlike Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” plea.
You could hardly name a witch-themed show or
production after the 1960s production Bewitched that
didn’t have its own way of subverting the Wicked Witch
of the West. Frozen, for example, is an upheaval of fairy
tale gender dynamics, starring a queen who is outcast for
her sorcery. There is hope yet for our favorite fictitious
Historian Marianne Hester argues in Lewd Women
and Wicked Witches: A Study of the Dynamics of Male
Domination that witches were, in fact, empowered and
defiant women who challenged the established patriarchal
rule. It makes sense, then, why they have been such reviled
characters, why queens and other powerful women have
sometimes been accused of witchcraft and why, as they
become less boil-skinned villains and more just women
with power and powers, we’re slowly learning to love
By Wei-Huan Chen.