Shakespeare’s Demonology

The belief in demonology as it existed during the Elizabethan period, and the time of Shakespeare, was a subject that from its very nature, could not be settled ex-cathedra. And consequently, the subject had to grow up as best it might, each writer adopting the arrangement that appeared to him most suitable. It was an era of change. The nation was emerging from the dim twilight of mediaevalism into the full day of political and religious freedom.

Arthur Hacket, with casting out of devils, and other madnesses, vehemently declaring himself the Messiah and King of Europe in the year of grace 1591 and getting himself believed by some, so long as he remained unhung. It is solemnly recorded in the Commons’ Journals that during the discussion of the statute against witchcraft passed in the reign of James I., a young jackdaw flew into the House; which accident was generally regarded as malum omen to the Bill.

Extraordinary bravery on the part of an adversary was sometimes accounted for by asserting that he was the devil in the form of a man. This is no mere dramatist’s fancy, but a fixed belief of the times. Sir William Russell fought so desperately at Zutphen, that he got mistaken for the Evil One. But the semi-skeptical state of thought was in Shakespeare’s time making its way only amongst the more educated portion of the nation. The masses still clung to the old and venerated, if the not venerable, belief that devils could at any moment assume what form soever they might please—not troubling themselves further to inquire into the method of the operation. They could appear in the likeness of an ordinary human being, creating thereby the most embarrassing complications in questions of identity; and if this belief is borne in mind, the charge of being a devil, so freely made, in the times of which we write, and before alluded to, against persons who performed extraordinary feats of valour, or behaved in a manner discreditable and deserving of general reprobation, loses much of its barbarous grotesqueness. There was one rough but popular classification into greater and lesser devils. The former branch was subdivided into classes of various grades of power, the members of which passed under the titles of kings, dukes, marquises, lords, captains, and other dignities.(see the Lesser Key,Dionysius the Areopagite,Johannes Wierus and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage for a greater understanding of these titles) Each of these was supposed to have a certain number of legions of the latter class under his command.

These were the evil spirits who appeared most frequently on the earth as the emissaries of the greater fiends, to carry out their evil designs. The more important class kept for the most part in mystical seclusion, and only appeared upon earth in cases of the greatest emergency, or when compelled to do so by conjuration. To the class of lesser devils belonged the bad angel which, together with a good one, was supposed to be assigned to every person at birth, to follow him through life—the one to tempt, the other to guard from temptation so, that a struggle similar to that recorded between Michael and Satan for the body of Moses was raging for the soul of every existing human being. This was not a mere theory, but a vital belief, as the use made of these opposing spirits in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” and in “The Virgin Martyr,” by Massinger and Dekker, shows quite well.

Another classification, which seems to retain a reminiscence of the origin of devils from pagan deities(and is well known to any Magician or Wytch worth their salt these days), is affected by reference to the localities supposed to be inhabited by the different classes of evil spirits.

According to this arrangement, we get six classes:—

(1.) Devils of the fire, who wander in the region near the moon.

(2.) Devils of the air, who hover round the earth.

(3.) Devils of the earth; to whom the fairies are allied.

(4.) Devils of the water.

(5.) Submundane devils.

(6.) Lucifugi.

These devils’ power and desire to injure mankind appears to have increased with the proximity of their location to the earth’s center; but this classification had nothing like the hold upon the popular mind that the former grouping had, as the King and Queen were all the rage at the time (and still is with the Little Prince hitting the UK Tabloids with such regularity).

Of the twenty devils mentioned by Shakespeare, four only belong to the class of greater devils. Hecate, the principal patroness of witchcraft, is referred to frequently and appears once upon the scene. The two others are Amaimon and Barbazon, both of whom are mentioned twice.

Amaimon was a very important personage, being no other than one of the four kings. Ziminar was King of the North, and is referred to in “Henry VI. Part Gorson of the South; Goap of the West; and Amaimon of the East.(this is not a hard and fast correspondence with Magicians then or today, so please bare with me, my dear Magical correctness police, I promise all of my papers are in order 🙂 ). He is mentioned in “Henry IV. Part I., and “Merry Wives. Barbazon also occurs in the same passage in the latter play, and again in “Henry V.A fact that does to a slight extent help to bear out the otherwise ascertained chronological sequence of these plays.

The remainder of the devils belongs to the second class. Nine of these occur in “King Lear”.One Dr.Harsnet gave such a highly spiced and entertaining account in his “Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures,” first published in the year 1603. It is from this work that Shakespeare took the names of the devils mentioned by Edgar, and other references made by him in “King Lear;” this gives us a true look at the subject of possession by Devils at that time, and even today much of this holds water in occult circles. A comparison of the passages in “King Lear” spoken by Edgar when feigning madness, with those in Harsnet’s book which seem to have suggested them, will furnish as vivid a picture as it is possible to give of the state of contemporary belief upon the subject of possession, something I will try and do at a later date.

Shakespeare, in “The Comedy of Errors,” and indirectly also in “Twelfth Night,” has given us intentionally ridiculous illustrations of scenes which bring vividly before us the absurdity of the methods of diagnosis and treatment usually adopted for Demonic Possession:


Courtesan: How say you now? is not your husband mad?

Adriana: His incivility confirms no less.

Good doctor Pinch, you are a conjurer;

Establish him in his true sense again,

And I will please you what you will demand.

Luciana: Alas! how fiery and how sharp he looks!

Courtesan: Mark how he trembles in his extasy!

Pinch: Give me your hand, and let me feel your pulse.

Ant. E. There is my hand, and let it feel your ear.

Pinch: I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,

To yield possession to my holy prayers,

And to thy state of darkness his thee straight;

I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven.

Ant. E: Peace, doting wizard, peace; I am not mad.

Pinch: O that thou wert not, poor distressed soul!

After some further business, Pinch pronounces his opinion:

“Mistress, both man and master are possessed;

I know it by their pale and deadly looks:

They must be bound, and laid in some dark room.”

But “good doctor Pinch” seems to have been mild even to feebleness in his conjuration; many of his brethren in art had much more effective formulae. It seems that devils were peculiarly sensitive to any opprobrious epithets that chanced to be bestowed upon them. The skillful exorcist took advantage of this weakness, and, if he could only manage to keep up a flow of uncomplimentary remarks sufficiently long and offensive, the unfortunate spirit became embarrassed, restless, agitated, and finally took to flight.

So much more could be said about Shakespeare and the Occult that it would take a whole book to write it all, and much greater writers than I have already written books on the subject, so I will stop while I’m ahead. I leave you, faithful reader, with these lines….

“That, not a worm is cloven in vain;

That not a moth with vain desire

Is shrivel’d in a fruitless fire,

Or but subserves another’s gain,”

(I haven’t even touched “Macbeth,” That’s for a much longer piece.)

Sources: “The Witches in Macbeth,” “The Demonology of Shakspere,” the New Shakespeare Society in the years 1877 and 1878.”The Globe Edition of the complete works of Shakespeare” August 3, 1998 (Author), Howard Staunton, ELIZABETHAN DEMONOLOGY by THOMAS ALFRED SPALDING, LL.B. 1880.

Copyright 2019 Vincent Piazza

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