Goudie, Alexander. Dancing ‘Cutty Sark.’ c 2000.
- Play title: The Last Witch
- Author: Rona Munro
- First published: 2009
- Page count: 120
Playwright Rona Munro presents her audience with a tale of Devil worship in The Last Witch. The play is based on the historical, Scottish case of Janet Horne who was executed in 1727 and holds the dubious honour of being the last person executed for witchcraft in Britain. Set in Dornoch, Scotland, the story is chiefly about Janet and her disabled daughter named Helen.
Although Janet has a long-held reputation as a witch, the first serious accusation of sorcery comes from her neighbour, Douglas Begg, after his animals mysteriously fall ill. Janet is a poor yet wily woman who courts the rumour of witchcraft because it works to her advantage, putting food on her table and placing fear in the hearts of her enemies. When a new sheriff, Captain David Ross, arrives in Dornoch then Janet’s whimsical tales of casting spells find a new, legal interpretation that is far less tolerant. Additionally, Janet becomes a victim of her own vanity and stubbornness. David Ross insists on asserting his power and Janet proves too bothersome to tolerate. The play’s central themes are witchcraft, threatened masculinity, disability, poverty, and narcissism.
Ways to access the text: reading.
Munro’s play was published in 2009 so it is a contemporary work and therefore less easily sourced for free online. However, the text is available via Scribd which offers a 30-day free trial.
Why read The Last Witch?
Munro crafts a modern play from a notorious, historical case. Devil worship and witchcraft appear quaint topics for a contemporary work so Munro must invest it with special elements. These extras include elegant, poetic language; a proto-feminist protagonist; and a storyline that deals with the current, trending topic of threatened masculinity. Janet is an appealing character because she is vivacious and articulate, but also on account of her stubborn defiance! Rightly or wrongly, she is unwilling to comply with the conventions of female conduct deemed appropriate for her era and tragic events are thereby set in motion. Though the essential details of the case remain true, Munro’s fictionalization revitalizes an old story which makes it relevant for modern audiences. The play is still unavoidably historical, but the playwright diminishes one’s perception of a centuries long time gap by thrusting into the spotlight a woman who will never cower to the power of men.
The mystical aura of witchcraft is set against the grubby realities of crushing poverty in Munro’s play. It is amid a landscape of aching need and hunger that Satan materializes as one who holds the answer. The depiction of Satan in The Last Witch is seductive, a man who gently extends his hand to offer something that surely will not be refused. Yet, Satan is also just a metaphor to describe all the moral shortcuts one is forced to choose from when empty stomachs begin to growl. Munro cleverly conflates Satan with one of the central male characters to communicate how certain bargains will always turn treacherous in the end.
Post reading discussion/interpretation.
Witchcraft – A Quest for Power.
Is the Janet Horne whom we meet in The Last Witch a bone fide witch, proto-feminist, egotistical fiend, or simply an impoverished but resourceful woman? One may immediately, though sadly, discount the first option since there is no evidence in the text of Janet Horne possessing any supernatural powers. The daughter, Helen, highlights the hollowness of her mother’s fanciful spells and Captain David Ross vehemently denies Janet has any true power. Had Janet conceded to what others already knew and therefore simply denied witchcraft then she would have been freed from jail. What then is the true topic being addressed in Munro’s play if not witchery? Is Horne’s error not so much that she purportedly dabbled in witchcraft but that she furthermore challenged the patriarchy? Munro depicts a formidable, middle-aged woman who is not amenable to good advice nor accustomed to backing away from a confrontation. Horne is a maverick, a complex and uncompromising character. One may, as many do, interpret the text as a semi-fictionalized story of a woman of the Early Modern period who challenged the patriarchy and paid the ultimate price. However, that would be a reductive approach to the play and unappreciative of Munro’s writing skills. Munro depicts Horne in an often-unflattering light so the resulting portrayal of a famous witch of the early 18th century is multi-layered and challenging. The core theme of the play is not witchcraft per se, but power and how the wielding of power is enmeshed in gender politics. Janet Horne is an amorphous mix of faux-witch, fiend, feminist, and impoverished fantasist and the play shows how she temporarily and most gladly held great power in her own hands. In this essay, Munro’s play will be interpreted as an example of an historical play complicated by strong, postmodernist elements. Upon close scrutiny, the play evades providing easy answers but instead leads us to more complex, even frustrating questions. Labels that one would like to use when describing Munro’s characters, like heroine or villain, turn out to be inept and rudimentary and therein lies the motivation to dissect the play.
This essay is divided under various, autonomous topic headings. Each mini discussion will disassemble a particular aspect of the play in order to show how Munro’s work is not, after all, the conventional historical play it appears at first.
Witchcraft – a Misinterpretation.
Go to the website of any online bookstore and type in ‘witchcraft’ and the results reveal the public’s enduring interest in this topic. Many recent, best-selling examples are books which provide practical guides to the art of magic. Even so, who genuinely believes in witches or their craft? Apparently, not even Helen, the daughter of the infamous, 18th century witch at the heart of Munro’s play. However, to question the credibility of witchcraft is not a straw man argument but rather a circuitous route to the truth of the matter. In typical postmodernist style, to dismantle the idea of witchery is the means by which one finds a surprising, underlying conundrum.
In The Last Witch, the proposition that Janet has supernatural powers is unreliable from the outset. Instead, underhand trickery is hinted at when Elspeth drinks from Janet’s water jug and notices that “Something… tastes green” (Munro 59). Elspeth is soon lost in a dream-like state of gustatory delights as well as musicians playing delightful music. Janet’s trick is later revealed by Helen when she flatly tells Ross – “It’s no magic. It’s just herbs she puts in the water” (75). But a witch’s tale without some witchcraft would be anticlimactic, so Munro portrays Helen, not Janet, as the one who communicates with the dark side. Helen professes to Ross that – “The Devil came to me when I’d swallowed nothing at all… I saw him clearer then” (98). This is an engaging, dramatic ruse because the physically disabled girl who trudges through an array of laborious, daily tasks is surely the most unlikely wielder of magical powers. Helen’s double imprisonment in a deformed body and subservient living situation are proofs, not of magic but of an aching helplessness. If one questions the scenario just a little further then one may arrive at the conclusion that Helen is, in fact, delusional. Thus, the truth of witchery beings to come ever so slowly into view.
In a book entitled Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, one finds a plausible, modern explanation for Helen’s tales of meeting the Devil. In an essay by Goodare and Dudley, they looked at first-hand accounts of alien abduction and witchcraft and the similarities between these ostensibly dissimilar topics. They explain how “People experienced entities that approached them from the Outside-in, but the psychological interpretation shows the experiences coming from the Inside-out” (Dudley and Goodare 121). The authors concluded that – “The most likely experience behind … these testimonies is sleep paralysis” (122). To draw a comparison with Helen’s accounts, she invariably encounters the character Nick at night, which is significant, and on at least one occasion after imbibing her mother’s drugged water. Dudley and Goodare explain that during sleep paralysis, sufferers often recount “sensing a presence in the room with them” and/or “A feeling of levitation or flying” (122). One may additionally refer to the Sleep Foundation website where the phenomenon is explained as follows – “sleep paralysis involves a mixed state of consciousness that blends both wakefulness and REM sleep. In effect, the atonia and mental imagery of REM sleep seems to persist even into a state of being aware and awake.” Is it plausible that Helen’s fantastical encounters with Nick aka the Devil, are episodes of sleep paralysis? Journeying to the moon certainly sounds like an experience more typical of REM sleep. As such, the far-fetched idea of witchery is uncloaked to be, or at least more likely to be, a sleep delusion.
Helen’s Devil visions cannot be dismissed as charlatanism because she sincerely believes her own story (unlike Mommie dearest). Helen’s experiences clearly emerge as a consequence of her environment rather than a wilful deception. As outlined by Dudley and Goodare, “Sleep paralysis does not directly cause people to see witches, demons or aliens … People have to interpret their terrifying experience retrospectively” (124). The interpretation is dependent on the person’s innermost thoughts and “false memories” are readily constructed, especially by people who are suggestible (Dudley and Goodare 124). Furthermore, “This ‘memory’ will contain the kind of beings that people think likely to have been assaulting them: aliens today, witches or demons in the early modern period” (124). Who has been assaulting Helen, only her mother, the reputed witch of Dornoch. Helen tells the Devil how her mother has ridden her like a pony up to the moon – “I can feel her, feel her heels in my sides…! Aw! Rot her!” (Munro 65). Helen’s metaphorical language communicates how she feels since her mother unashamedly works the girl to the bone on their farm. What is more, all the specific elements of Helen’s delusions are directly informed by Janet’s colourful folklore about the Devil and flying to the moon (Munro 64, 25). The teenage girl has merely imbibed the atmosphere and her (likely) episodes of sleep paralysis are consequently transformed into meetings with Satan, Lord of the Underworld.
As outlined by Dudley and Goodare, the phenomenon of evil visitations is explainable through reference to sleep paralysis. The problem is not an attack from a frightening, external force but rather the personal psychology of the sufferer which finds expression in a waking-dream state. In the play, Janet’s rumoured witchcraft acts as a weak decoy and one subsequently assumes that the sincere Helen is the true witch. However, when one appreciates that the conduit for the fantastical, satanic visitations is an abused girl whose mind is chock-full of folklore along with repressed hatred of her mother then the witchery dissolves to nothingness. For all that, one still cannot be sure and even Dudley and Goodare give an ever-cautious conclusion on the numerous, fantastical confessions of Scottish witches – “for some of these witches, sleep paralysis was probably at the core of the experiences they related” (134; emphasis added). Once the play’s occult façade has been even partially chipped away, one may look more piercingly at the quotidian issues beneath.
Bad Mother …
There are scant records of the real-life Janet Horne, so Munro had ample latitude to portray the woman quite sympathetically. In Witchcraft Historiography, Katharine Hodgkin explains that “Popular perceptions of witch hunting focus above all on the burning of women, often associated with specific hostile male groups – doctors jealous of midwives, clerics driven mad by celibacy, or religious authorities aiming to obliterate ancient female-centred religions” (182). Munro could easily have taken advantage of any one of a multitude of these popular narratives where the woman becomes a scapegoat for male frustration and hate, but the playwright did not. Instead, an audience meets a decidedly flawed woman in Janet Horne who matches the negative stereotype of an 18th century witch. For instance, Janet is depicted as having quite base motives for her actions and she contributes nothing of benefit to her community. What lies behind Munro’s apparently perverse characterization of Janet? If not a true witch, then what descriptive title is left for Janet – widow/scold/bad mother? Katherine Hodgkin refers to Deborah Willis’ book, Malevolent Nurture, in the following, quite illuminating quote about bad mothers.
“The witch is a bad mother: instead of nourishing babies she suckles devils on her witch’s mark; instead of nurturing and supporting children, she kills them, often by poison, and eats them in cannibalistic rituals at the witches’ Sabbath. In the figure of the witch are fantasised the characteristics of the anti-mother, destructive and full of hate, and the violent fantasies of infancy, involving dismemberment and destruction of the body, underpin the desire to be revenged on the evil witch.”(Hodgkin 191)
Munro refrains from depicting Janet as a grotesque creature like one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Since Janet displays no magical power in the story, the stereotype as outlined above by Hodgkin would be incongruous. Yet, Munro still depicts an unquestionably bad mother, namely a negligent, selfish one and this curiously aligns with a core feature of a true witch. The proofs of Janet’s deficient maternal skills are easy to list. Of prime importance is that Janet does no work to provide nourishment for her only child. Helen complains to Nick, saying “I’ve eaten nothing but oats and a crumb of cheese since Tuesday” (Munro 38). Janet also blights Helen’s future by declaring that William McKenzie, a potential suitor, is not for Helen. McKenzie is one of Helen’s few marriage prospects since he does not mind that her hands are deformed (14). The sordid truth is that Janet simply fears being left alone if Helen marries, in addition to the prospect of losing her property – “I’ll not have some fat farting fool of a Mackenzie lording it in my house and calling my earth his” (63). Janet also takes advantage of Elspeth Begg’s unfailing generosity, knowing that it is on account of Helen, yet then perversely punishes her child, saying – “Elspeth Begg only loves you because she lost her own daughter” (15). The summation of Janet’s flaws makes her an unlikeable character in crucial respects. This is no benevolent midwife nor white witch but a vain, exploitative woman. Above all other possible descriptors, Janet is a ‘bad mother’ since Helen is at the front of the line of injured parties.
Munro has conceivably drawn Janet as a deficient mother to court the stereotype of the witch. Yet, it is not the expected depiction of a woman who participates in demonic rituals or breast feeds an incubus. Janet’s core badness is her inability to place her daughter’s needs first, at least not until a life-or-death situation arises. It may seem counterintuitive, but the technique actually highlights the severity of the legal punishment since a deficiency of maternal instinct is Janet’s sole crime, not sorcery, and therefore why is death her reward? The play arguably resists character idealization in order to lay focus on the punishment, as opposed to the redeeming qualities of the defendant. No counterweight is needed on the scales of justice since Janet has committed no supernatural crime against God so the sentence is unjust regardless of the accused’s personal character. Munro appears to court the stereotype of the witch so that it may be turned on its head. Consequently, one begins to ponder what is the whole truth of Janet Horne?
A Witch’s Reputation.
Janet Horne wears the mantle of the witch with surprising, even conspicuous ease. Is it therefore a universal truth that no-good can come from an accusation of witchcraft? In Lizanne Henderson’s book, Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment, one learns that “While most of those incriminated for witchcraft were clearly distressed, for good reason, by the accusation, some turned the situation to their advantage” (123). Even though Munro’s character of Janet Horne is self-evidently based on the historical figure, there is also a separate template upon whom the fictional character, Janet, may be partly based. This other historical figure is a woman who ingeniously turned adversity to advantage.
“An East Lothian woman, Catherine MacTargett, charged with witchcraft in 1688, not only readily confessed to her crimes, but encouraged her reputation as a witch for it brought her a certain degree of power and status.”(Henderson 123)
An examination of MacTargett’s case sheds light on Janet’s notorious behaviour and ultimately on her true character and motivations. MacTargett was “formally charged with witchcraft” and was “additionally rebuked for being an unlawful beggar” (Henderson 197). The records of the time outline how MacTargett “encouraged her reputation as a witch and seemed to gloat in the power it gave her … ‘and terrified the people soe as you [MacTargett] became insolent and imperious in your way of begging’” (Henderson 197). Janet Horne is shown to employ the same despicable tactics as MacTargett. For example, when Douglas Begg comes to retrieve his peat, Janet threatens to curse him, saying “your own eyes will melt out your head and run down your face like stinking tallow!” (Munro 17). Elspeth brings up a previous episode when Janet stole their winter hay. Janet is unable to claim rightful ownership of the peat or hay, so she uses her reputation as leverage to frighten her neighbours into docile submission. The tactic is effective since Elspeth placates her husband, accept her neighbour’s bad behaviour, and even feeds Janet and Helen. However, Janet’s true power is not actually witchcraft but, instead, the threat of the witch.
Henderson explains that “The control and influence a reputation as a witch or a charmer could potentially bestow was, for some at least, a powerful force not easily ignored” (123). It is clear why Janet is enamoured with the witch’s reputation since it puts food on her table and fodder in her barn. Nevertheless, one should also scrutinize the dichotomy between a witch’s reputation and her deeds. In the community, Janet is known predominantly for malign threats rather than benevolent deeds. Even the minister, Niall, cannot muster more than a back handed compliment – “She [Janet] has healed beasts as well as cursed them” (Munro 30). Janet seems to favour threatening people rather than healing with magic. This prompts one to look at what personality type would be attracted solely to the power bestowed by a reputation for witchcraft. The apparent answer is a narcissistic personality. Janet’s ego overshadows the poverty-stricken reality of her desperate situation. As a result, she believes herself to be special, beautiful, and exceptionally powerful. Take for example the opening scene when Janet chides her humble, downtrodden daughter for constantly staring at the ground, in stark contrast to her proud mother.
“There was something in the air today. A warmer air. Reminding me of what I could be. I thought to raise a hot wind and fly upon it.”(Munro 10)
The mirage of exceptionalism, the ‘could be’ of Janet’s future, is founded on a base of inextricable narcissism and witchery. At a later moment, when speaking to Ross, Janet revels in her sustained, youthful beauty – “I think I might never grow old. There’s not a line on my face” (72). However, the crescendo of egotistical delusion comes when she tells David Ross, the sheriff, – “I’m the law here, Davey. Know it. Swallow it. Surrender and keep your mouth shut” (73). There is assuredly a blurry line between an assertive woman and a hollow narcissist but to bring that line into sharp focus one simply need look at how Janet exploits her reputation. Since Janet’s reputation is based on a charade of possessing supernatural powers, then the loss of the reputation will instantaneously rob her of everything. This is exactly what occurs in The Last Witch when Janet is finally exposed. The witch’s reputation is shown to be a potent device that masks the true ordinariness and impotence of the individual. Janet predictably clings to the reputation, even abusing it to see how egregiously she may behave without repercussion.
Referencing Catherine MacTargett, Lizanne Henderson explains that “Power, even when negatively expressed or experienced, is an addiction that is hard to break” (200). To frame Janet as a power-addicted narcissist assists greatly in explaining her predicament. David Ross quickly identifies Janet’s hunger for power and eventually exploits her predictably defensive character to lock her into an impossible situation. Just like in the MacTargett case, the sheriff, Ross, fails to get Janet to deny her witchcraft (Munro 42) but nonetheless concludes that she is little more than “A dishonest beggar” (53). Humiliated by the insult, Janet is determined to reciprocate and belittle Ross which she succeeds in doing when he falls into pig excrement after she lunges at him. The tables are shown to have turned when Janet is later imprisoned for witchcraft, and Ross goads her – “you’ve no power, is that what you’re saying? … You’re a sad old woman with dirt under her fingernails from gripping on to a few withered sods of land” (90). Ross even promises to set her free if she will just admit to common thievery. Janet cannot relinquish her reputation since it the reservoir of all the power she possesses, thus without it she is merely – “Mad Janet Horne who was so dottled she fancied herself a witch” (91). Ross ups the ante by making Janet’s humiliation a prerequisite of her freedom. Just like when Janet read Ross’ palm like a gypsy fortune-teller, he now exhibits his ability to read her. In this light, Janet’s final admission of witchcraft, though ostensibly to save her daughter, is also a defiant/desperate move that shields her from the sad, disempowered life that otherwise awaited her.
The potency of a witch’s reputation comes from the fact that it instils pure, adrenalized fear in others. This motif occurs throughout the play, beginning when Janet tells Douglas – “You’ll fear me!” (Munro 18), to the burnt patch of ground in the town square that Janet cursed, and which has subsequently become a taboo spot. Janet finally comes to believe that she is untouchable, that her neighbours would never risk accusing her of sorcery – “I’d like to see them dare!” (47). As a result of Janet’s narcissistic personality, she eventually falls foul of both the law and of herself too. Ross gloats that when she read his palm then she should have foreseen this tragic end. The power balance of their relationship finally tilts, and he tells her – “you should’ve feared me. Shouldn’t you, Janet?” (115; emphasis added). The ability to deploy a sense of fear was chiefly reserved for church and state in the 18th century, institutions that did not tolerate interlopers. The fall of Janet Horne reveals no witch, just a woman who became deliriously intoxicated with power.
When Henderson looked at the case of MacTargett, she came to a markedly more sympathetic conclusion as follows.
“The trial of Catherine MacTargett (1688) has shown how one woman tried to take advantage of a bad situation – whether consciously or subconsciously will never be known – by actually exploiting her reputation as a witch in order to make a living, gain power and acquire a modicum of respect.”(Henderson 240)
In the case of Janet Horne, the surprise revelation is a power-hungry narcissist who will avail of any avenue to secure what she desires. For a woman living in the Early Modern era, a reputation for witchcraft was one of the few, albeit dangerous, routes to acquire fawning or fearful respect, equality with men, and power. However, the fear that witchcraft instilled also antagonised powerful enemies like local sheriffs and clerics. Horne’s gleeful enthusiasm to ride on the coat tails (or broom) of a witch’s reputation is a vital signal that she is less than she professes, less than a true devotee of Hecate, and more of an intelligent opportunist.
The Feminist Witch.
Is it possible to legitimately label Janet Horne as a feminist? Janet certainly resembles a modern, liberated woman far more than her female peers of the early 18th century. Of course, to use the word feminist is, strictly speaking, anachronistic but one may certainly identify her as a proto feminist. The main support for this argument is that she asserts that she may act as an independent, free agent without male interference in her life. For instance, she does not fear to take various lovers (Archibald Ross, and the sheriff); she does not agree that her daughter should marry for solely practical reasons; and she does not consider herself inferior to men.
While Munro (born 1959) resisted the temptation to depict Janet as a white witch, leaving her instead as an unsavoury character, she did sympathetically portray her as the victim of arbitrary and cruel, male power. This aligns with how “The feminist movement of the early 1970s was keen to reclaim negative stereotypes …The witch was another figure ripe for reclamation, a type of the assertive woman crushed by patriarchy” (Hodgkin 184). The playwright homes in on the topic of the female body to highlight an archetypal example of male chauvinism.
Munro focuses specifically on Janet’s loss of youth and how a vibrant, sexual, powerful woman is seemingly transformed overnight into an unattractive, withered, old woman. The sheriff, who at first dismissed local gossip that Janet was a witch and subsequently engaged in a sexual relationship with her, now finds that she is worthy of imprisonment and his timing indicates a covert motive. The scenario suggests gender essentialism since Janet’s biological changes which are distinctly feminine, and likely menopausal, are now linked to a decline in her perceived value. Munro is participating in an age-old debate about how women are unfairly discarded by society after a certain age. Janet comprehends the change in Ross’ perception of her and assertively challenges him as follows.
Janet: “What do you see? A dribbling skull? Withered dugs and reeking holes? Aye, you run from me, you’ll not look on terror like this, will you? This is what the wombs that bear men come to, sucking dark and bony hips, death swallowing you whole even as it’s pushing against you and grabbing your arse and crying your name.”(Munro 92)
It is inconsequential if Janet’s prematurely aged appearance is the result of the menopause or the extremely harsh prison conditions because the affecting scene has a broader relevance. Munro highlights how women are often prized by men only so long as they provide children, sexual allure, and pleasure. For Ross, Janet’s perceived value rapidly diminishes in tandem with the loss of her youthful looks which are inextricably linked with hormones and biological processes. Janet has no recourse to fight this societal prejudice and must therefore accept it though her anger is justified and palpable. The play rehearses an inequity that women have faced for millennia.
Hodgkin quotes Lyndal Roper when addressing this crucial point about female fertility and the interconnections with witchcraft.
“Witches strike not only at children and babies, but at fertility itself, and the possibility of reproduction … The withered and ageing body of the no longer reproductive witch stands as a symbol for all failures of the fertile world.”(Hodgkin 192)
This stigma of barrenness, of failure, is noxious. Janet rebels against it but the aged witch is seen as a blight on all the community. In the play, Douglas Begg suspects Janet of cursing his small herd, resulting in “Two beasts dead! A quarter of all my wealth, food for flies!” (Munro 80). Ross discards his old lover, Janet, since she is no longer attractive and alluring. The curse is not witchcraft but womanhood and the inevitable, biological changes of mid-life.
Hodgkin explains how the superstitious and religious culture of the Early Modern era found a perfect scapegoat in women, writing that “To early modern demonologists in particular, it almost went without saying that femininity was correlated with evil, weakness, impurity and inconstancy” (Hodgkin 196). This links back to biblical teachings and the ‘curse of Eve’ administered by God after Eve took advice from Satan. Munro’s depiction of Janet Horne brings a doomed figure back to life for our modern scrutiny. Janet becomes the downtrodden, wronged woman whose crimes were her gender and her defiant flashes of freedom. Janet puts up a spirited fight against society’s prejudices but is a lone voice against a chorus of convention.
Interpreting witchcraft through a feminist lens certainly appears logical at first but is nonetheless rife with complications. Katharine Hodgkin explains as follows.
“Through feminism, the history of witchcraft was set in dialogue with a political movement, which reclaimed and appropriated the figure of the witch for political ends; and the politics of that movement, however much scholars of witchcraft may have been in sympathy with it, had a problematic impact on the historiography.”(Hodgkin 183)
The witch reclaimed through feminist writings must still face the rigours of historical fact. Hodgkin explains that “the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft in most European countries were women” but she then adds the complicating proviso – “The persecution of witches is not about gender alone” (182). For instance, there is the niggling problem of historical records that communicate a far more complex social environment. Hodgkin writes of two key counterarguments against holding gender as a defining feature of witch trials.
“A proportion – variable, but almost never insignificant – of those accused of witchcraft were men; and the fact that women’s involvement in witch trials was often on the side of the courts, with women playing important parts as accusers and witnesses [is significant]”(Hodgkin 185)
Munro counters and successfully undermines the above perspective regarding witnesses by portraying Elspeth as feeling obliged to heckle the witch at the public execution, making such an action interpretable as the result of peer pressure. Elspeth plaintively informs Helen – “I have to curse her [Janet] to stay alive” (Munro 109). However, such twists of perspective do not negate the other, opposing reading of history. Hodgkin references Larner when explaining that witches “were not hunted by the state because they were women; they were hunted because they were witches” (Hodgkin 186). Hodgkin uses a direct quote from Larner to explain the vehemence of the witch hunts – “The purpose of a witch-hunt was the prising out of dangerous persons who were enemies of God, the state and the people” (186).
In Munro’s dramatic depiction of Janet’s fate, the clergyman, Niall, and the neighbour, Douglas, become regretful of their respective actions. Niall tells Ross, “To burn her alive… It’s too cruel” (Munro 113), while Douglas tells Ross, “I can’t! I can’t strangle Janet!” (106), and he then asks an unconscious Janet for forgiveness. This is a playwright successfully prioritising pathos above historical accuracy. Hodgkin explains the historical truth of such scenarios, namely that “Violence in the form of torture was a central part of the judicial process in most of early modern Europe and New England, directed against men as well as women, and against those tried for other offences such as heresy or treason as much as against those tried for witchcraft” (188). In short, the judiciary handed out sentences which involved the application of severe violence, and such sentences were not exceptional. Hodgkin sums up the situation by saying it is problematic to “focus on witch persecution as a form of systematic male violence against women” (188). The dramatic depiction by Munro, therefore, does not hold up to sustained historical scrutiny.
Munro has an inalienable right, maybe even a duty to use poetic license. What is at question is solely the application of a feminist lens to understand Janet Horne. This modern lens fails not due to any dramatic missteps by Munro but because of the historical facts that belie such sympathetic plays. To identify Janet Horne as a proto feminist is to follow the same tendency of feminist writers to reclaim and historically reposition those who practiced witchcraft or were at least sentenced based on an accusation of witchcraft. The action of reclaiming brings with it the risk of historical scrutiny, so the action often ends up negating itself. Women like Horne were executed because they were seen primarily as a threat to society. To conflate the centuries long subjugation of women with the persecution of witches who happened to be women is to concoct a labyrinthine argument which is neither wholly provable nor disprovable.
Historical Inaccuracy – Inventing Janet Horne.
Janet Horne is accepted as an historical figure. Present day proof may be found at The Witch’s Stone in Littletown, Dornoch which is a memorial to Horne plus a marker of the site where she was executed. Therefore, Horne is unquestionably a figure from history upon whom any playwright, historian, or journalist may write an account. Yet, such certainty quickly falters when one peers back in time to see the true Janet Horne.
In the historical records, there is far more blank space than substance. Alexandra Hill points out that even the most rudimentary detail is untrustworthy, “The name ‘Janet Horne’ was assigned to the mother in the early twentieth century, though with dubious authenticity” (224). Lizanne Henderson expands upon this information, explaining that, “Jenny Horne seems to have been the generic name for a witch in the far north” (238). If the name is generic, then the strikingly unique witch portrayed by Munro quickly vanishes. Left behind is a generic tag, a marker of a type of woman rather than an individual, an easy byword for all females who dabbled in witchcraft. Thus, one has nothing reliable, only a stereotype neatly encapsulated in a moniker.
This Jane-Doe-Witch is further haunted by the fact that one cannot be sure when she died. Hill states that “Even the date is unclear, several references assigning it to 1722, but the date of 1727 was preferred by Cowan and Henderson, who studied the case in as much detail as the fragmentary records allowed” (225). Church records would normally have detailed such local events but “there is an inexplicable gap in the Dornoch presbytery records during the period in which the last execution allegedly took place” (Henderson 238). One last point on purported historical accuracy highlights the sheer paucity of information. Hill writes that “The mother was executed, while the daughter escaped” (224) but Henderson’s account says, “The younger was spared but the old woman “suffered that cruel death in a pitch barrel, at Dornoch”’ (234). Different records apparently give contrasting accounts, so the daughter (Helen) either escaped or was legally pardoned. The totality of the information is that a woman, a mother, whose true identity is uncertain was executed sometime within a specific five-year period in the late 18th century for the crime of witchcraft.
What is left, if anything, when one strips away the dubious, fragmented details? Simply that Horne was the last, the final woman to be sent to her death for the crime of witchcraft. She was wholly insignificant until history retrospectively took her as a marker of supreme importance. Now, she alone highlights a shift in judicial sentencing and a change in social attitudes. One may validly fault the system that executed Horne and did not even care to accurately record the woman’s most basic, personal details. However, the absence of that information necessarily means that any later assessment of Horne, as anything more than a marker in history, is a fiction or a subjective projection of some kind.
Conversely, maybe recourse to dramatic fictionalizations is unavoidable. Take for instance an eerie clue that is found in Janet’s modernized story. Munro explains that in the aftermath of Janet’s execution and burning, “Nick is raking through the ashes, breaking bones to bits with a cudgel” (Munro 119). Nick then confirms the crude burial method with Ross – “All the bits of her in a sack and then that in the river. Is that how you’re wanting it, master?” (119). In “Executing Scottish Witches,” Laura Paterson confirms the grim reality of such ‘burial’ methods.
“While the body of a murderer or common thief would often be kept on public display, which would add to the infamy of the individual, the total eradication of the body was an even greater disgrace.”(Paterson 208)
Witches were among the select few whose bodies were purposefully vanished. Paterson explains that the witch hunting craze “led to an estimated 2,500 executions being carried out between the imposition of the witchcraft act in 1563 and its repeal in 1736” (211). Despite the enormity of the injustice, historical records are riddled with information gaps just like those around Janet Horne. As a result, a one-time common criminal may be resurrected and moulded into something special, someone worthy. This is the epitome of postmodernist debate because rifling through Janet’s centuries old bones reveals nothing beyond a dubious date. One cannot even challenge official history as it is mostly silent regarding her case. The big historical reveal is an anticlimactic, blank space.
The title of Munro’s play sums up the foremost importance of Janet Horne, she was The Last. Horne presents a writer with a perfectly pristine blank page on which to summon a spirit of old. Janet Horne is nobody, not in the derogatory sense but simply in that we cannot know her, at least not like Catherine MacTargett or other well-documented women who stood trial for witchcraft. Horne is a temporal marker from the 18th century, a dot on a page from which new stories commence.
‘Better the Devil you know!’
In The Last Witch, the execution of Janet Horne is the final manifestation of one man’s hate, Captain David Ross. Janet reveals Ross’ vulnerable masculinity but does not bargain on the unusually aggressive response that will ensue. Munro portrays a relationship where the cards are stacked against the suspected witch and the inequity of the situation predictably garners one’s sympathy. Toxic masculinity is a modern term but one which is an apt description of Ross’ behaviour. An examination of the course of events from Janet and Ross’ first meeting to her death reveal that masculine power is undoubtedly a core theme of the play. Yet, congress with the Devil, the premise of any play about witchcraft, is shown to have multiple interpretations.
Ross ensures that a woman, whom he believes to be no more than an insolent beggar, is burned to death. Munro’s depiction is intriguing since it conforms closely with historical facts. For example, when Ross prematurely sentences Janet to death, Niall objects, saying “we have to wait until the Privy Council reviews the case… for a capital sentence” (Munro 102). Laura Paterson explains that the Privy Council could give permission for witches to be tried in their local parishes (197). However, “For those witches who were tried locally, the granting of this commission may as well have been a death sentence” (Paterson 197). This was because the local community had, in most cases, already decided on the fate of a witch (197). In the play, Ross does not bother with any pretence of fairness, choosing instead to immediately sentence Janet to death which is a conspicuous show of exceptional power. Douglas Begg cannot bring himself to strangle his neighbour, a task expected of appointed executioners in witch cases, so Ross concludes – “Then she’ll burn alive” (Munro 106). Paterson explains that “around 12 per cent of Scottish witches were sentenced to burn alive” but such sentences were rarely carried out in the literal sense and only “if a witch had committed a particularly serious and wicked offence” (204). The purpose of all this detail is to underline that Janet faced an exceptionally cruel death even though no one, neighbour, cleric, nor sheriff earnestly believed her to be a witch. Unjust is writ large over Janet’s trial and Ross is identified as the villain. Janet becomes the target for a level of hatred that is almost incomprehensible and reflective of a darkness in society. Munro’s play does not posit that the darkness is supernatural in origin, so one must identify a more familiar Devil at work.
There are two figures who represent the Devil in Munro’s play. Most obviously, there is Nick (old Nick) but also Captain David Ross. Confirmation of the second demon comes when Douglas Begg scolds Janet, saying, “You brought the Devil down to rule us all” (Munro 81) when referring to Ross and the oppressive rule of law that they have experienced since she first upset the captain. The crucial equivalence between Nick and Ross is that both hold power. Helen and Janet approach these men seeking or expecting favours and these implicit negotiations utterly complicate Munro’s play. The simple narrative of women wronged, whilst remaining essentially true, takes on strange, unexpected nuances.
Helen and Janet summon their respective devils for unrelated ends. Helen calls out in the night saying – “Devil… Lord Devil… I will have no master but you” (35) chiefly on account of her long-empty stomach but also to reassure herself of his existence. Later, we learn from Nick that “The Devil can’t go where he’s not invited” (68). Much like the figure of the vampire, the Devil relies on an invitation, and this emphasizes that the person who extends the invite is using their free will. Helen eventually pledges herself to Nick and in return her mother’s awful suffering will be cut short. The devil whom Janet approaches is the sheriff newly posted to Dornoch, David Ross. At first, it is arguable that Janet seeks nothing but to be left in peace, but that is to misread Munro’s play. Janet seeks to subjugate Ross, having first identified him as the highest-ranking government official in the locality. Ross has the potential to offer her immunity from neighbourly threats and more importantly, safety from religious and legal zealots. Janet sets about controlling Ross by two separate methods. First, she attempts to manipulate his fear of witches by purporting to read his palm and taking a lucky guess that he saw “the hags on the battlefield” (54) aka witches. Thus, as a self-identified witch, Janet hopes to lord over Ross on account of his fear of her kind. Janet haphazardly strikes upon an old trauma that Ross experienced in battle, and she endeavours to exploit this secret weakness.
What does an impoverished, 18th century Scottish woman have that the devil covets? The traditional answer is her soul but if the devil is human then the answer is more likely sex. This is the second lure by which Janet may control Ross. Dudley and Goodare explain that there was “a great deal of demonic sex reported in Scottish witchcraft trials. It was normal for women, at any rate, to be asked about sex with the Devil” (131). Janet playfully tells the gullible Elspeth – “Everything about the Devil is icy cold. His breath, his touch. His cock’s an icicle” (Munro 25). However, Janet woos her own devil in Ross. After humiliating Ross in an early scene, Janet makes a covert offer of sex, saying, “if you find a use for your anger, you know where I live” (56). Janet imagines that if she takes an officer of the law as her lover then the law will subsequently hold no threat for her. Additionally, Janet uses her sexual allure to hold Ross in submission to her (73). The irony of the power play becomes apparent when Ross later tells Niall – “She’s kissed the Devil. She’ll be burning till the end of time” (113).
Once again, Munro has taken a reader’s expectation and flipped it to reveal something quite surprising. Janet’s Faustian bargain is not with a denizen of Hell, but with a representative of patriarchal power and the results are no less gruesome. Sex and power were core issues in witchcraft trials. Witches were suspected of having intercourse with the Devil in exchange for supernatural powers. Janet disrupts the traditional tale of witchcraft when her devil is revealed to be human, and her desire is nothing short of utter control. Mary Daly explains how sex and devil worship first became so inextricably melded in the public’s consciousness.
“It is well known that the witches were accused of sexual impurity. ‘All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable,’ intoned the dominican priests, Kramer and Sprenger, authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, which was brought out in 1486 and remained the most important catechism of demonology.”(Daly 180).
The nuance on the traditional tale of witches’ victimhood is that Janet invited the Devil in, but then tried to dominate him. She toyed with a representative of a male-dominated system and realised her mistake too late.
These mini discussions on assorted topics from The Last Witch have all been written with a self-consciously contrarian attitude. The intention has been to go against the grain and thereby avoid a facile reading of Munro’s play. As noted at the start, the play delivers more questions than answers after it has been thoroughly scrutinized. The two key topics that have not been covered in this essay, namely women’s (witches’) subjugation and the motif of flight in the play, have only been neglected since they do not crumble to reveal something else when critiqued. Additionally, Munro addresses these topics so well that they overshadow, a little too successfully, the other topics at hand. Covering these topics briefly here in the conclusion simply acknowledges the top, most easily accessible layer of meaning in the play.
First, the references to flight in The Last Witch are numerous. Janet and her daughter dream of, and sometimes even imagine that they have flown. The play opens with Janet imagining she can fly on the warm wind and then she says, “I’m going to become a bee” (Munro 12), and when Janet is executed and eventually burned on the town square, Helen looks on from the hills and says “See the smoke. Rising in the air like a swarm of bees” (118). This motif of flying has been investigated by various academics researching witchcraft. Julian Goodare poses the vital question – “how did early modern folk imagine flight? … They thought of birds, they thought (though more rarely) of bees and other insects, and they thought of being carried by the wind” (161). The symbolism of flight is explained by Goodare as follows.
“Witchcraft, to the ordinary folk of early modern Scotland, scratching a precarious existence in the face of falling living standards and the looming fear of starvation, was linked to magic, and magic offered the power to carry them away to a land of Cockaigne. There was feasting there, of course, and music and dancing. As Larner showed so well, there was freedom from ‘want’. Folk could readily imagine all this, so long as they could imagine having magical power. But what better way to imagine escapist magical power than by imagining the power to fly.”(Goodare 171)
Janet Horne and her daughter led harsh, downtrodden lives so escapist fantasies offered relief and hope. As already discussed, one of the few possibilities to escape female subjugation in the Early Modern era was to wrestle power from those who traditionally held it, and witchcraft facilitated such a move. In the following quote, Mary Daly explains why specific groups of women were targeted for persecution by the authorities in the first place.
“The witchcraze focused predominantly upon women who had rejected marriage (Spinsters) and women who had survived it (widows). The witch-hunters sought to purify their society (The Mystical Body) of these “indigestible” elements – women whose physical, intellectual, economic, moral, and spiritual independence and activity profoundly threatened the male monopoly in every sphere.”(Daly 184).
Janet Horne is presented as just such an ‘indigestible’ element in society. However, as outlined in the introduction, this reading comes too easily and fits the stereotype too readily. Part of the joy of reading an historical play is to find the answer that one didn’t expect as opposed to the answer one already had in mind when opening the first page. Munro succeeds in having produced just such a play since it makes one consider the intricacies and contradictions of otherwise worn out stories.
Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology. Beacon Press, 1990.
Dudley, Margaret and Julian Goodare. “Outside In or Inside Out: Sleep Paralysis and Scottish Witchcraft.” Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 121-139.
Goodare, Julian. “Flying Witches in Scotland.” Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 159-176.
Henderson, Lizanne. Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Hill, Alexandra. “Decline and Survival in Scottish Witch-Hunting, 1701–1727.” Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 215-233.
Hodgkin, Katharine. “Gender, mind and body: feminism and psychoanalysis.” Witchcraft Historiography, edited by Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 182-202.
Munro, Rona. The Last Witch. Nick Hern Books Limited, 2009.
Paterson, Laura. “Executing Scottish Witches.” Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 196-214.