Alyson Bardsley


Against a background of three stakes set for burning, the strangled corpse of a young woman is brought downstage in the last scene of Joanna Baillie's Witchcraft (1836). Is she a victim of witchcraft? A witch herself? As I will show, the enigma of this corpse exemplifies the unpredictable dialectical relationship between evidence and belief that is both Baillie's topic and the basis for her dramatic technique. Her play interestingly juxtaposes the problem of belief in witches with problems in the history of criminal evidence - historically related phenomena in Baillie's native Scotland - while also entertaining questions regarding what a play's audience can be brought to believe.

The term "witch-hunt" has become a synonym for an investigation gone wrong, through procedures contaminated by the investigators' beliefs, needs, and desires. Baillie approaches the topic from a different angle, publishing her play almost exactly one hundred years after the repeal of the witchcraft statute in Britain. For a writer in her position, witchcraft connotes a superseded and possibly shameful past, rendered even more distant by a period of intense penal reform, in which early nineteenth-century legislators and members of the judiciary, prompted in part by developments in late-Enlightenment philosophy, instituted new standards of proof and regularized procedure. However, if witch prosecutions are marked as primitive, they are also important precursors of the institutional and philosophical developments leading to legal reform. Furthermore, issues related to Scottish national identity greatly complicate the evaluation and representation of Scotland's past in Baillie's play - especially as those issues relate to developments in Scotland and England's relationship in the period between Witchcraft's late-seventeenth-century setting and the play's 1836 publication.