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Shakespeare's Demonology: A Dictionary.

Shakespeare's Demonology: A Dictionary

By Marion Gibson and Jo Ann Esra

London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Marion Gibson and Jo Ann Esra's dictionary of Shakespeare's demonological language is part of the topic-centered Arden Shakespeare Dictionaries series, edited by Sandra Clark, which also includes such works as Shakespeare's Medical Language, Shakespeare and the Language of Food, and Music in Shakespeare, among others. Though called a dictionary in its subtitle, Shakespeare's Demonology is in some respects more like an encyclopedia, with many longer entries that include not only definitions and examples from the plays but also extensive analytic commentary and selected references to scholarly work on each topic. A lengthy and useful bibliography is provided at the end. The dictionary covers a field with porous boundaries; as the authors point out in their introduction, demonologists of Shakespeare's time were interested in a variety of phenomena in addition to demons and devils, including ghosts, spirits, angels, astrology, witchcraft, magic, divination and prophecy. Indeed, the boundaries between the "demonic" and the "natural" or "divine"--and hence between demons and other types of beings--were exactly what was in dispute and required investigation. Gibson and Esra rightly take an inclusive approach in their dictionary, with richly satisfying results.

There is, of course, no particular reason to think that Shakespeare's works were grounded in a distinct and internally consistent demonology, given the range of genres he worked in and the varying cultural and historical settings of his plays. Shakespeare does not offer us one cosmology or a single ideological stance; the Macbeth world is very different from the world of The Merry Wives of Windsor or of Henry IV, Part I, or for that matter, of most of the other tragedies. Nevertheless, this dictionary helps us identify some of Shakespeare's characteristic themes and tendencies and see more clearly the cross-currents of early modern thought that engaged his imagination. In so doing, it very successfully fulfills the authors' wish to provide "both a useful reference point and a stimulus to further scholarly work on key terms and ideas" (6).

What, then, are some characteristics of the Shakespearean supernatural that can be teased out from this book? One thing stands out clearly: Shakespeare embraces diversity in his conceptualization of the spirit world, in contrast to the more polarized views of Calvinist contemporaries and indeed, most demonologists, whatever their doctrinal affiliation. As the authors put it in their introduction, the "oversimplifying binary structure" of demonological thought "may perhaps be seen as going against the grain of most of his work" (5). Hence, this dictionary calls our attention not only to demons and angels but to a range of intermediate or indeterminate beings, from the relatively familiar (the fairies of Midsummer Night's Dream, Ariel, the ghost of Hamlet's father) to more obscure--ouphs, bugs, urchins, hedge-pigs, goblins, sibyls, mermaids, nymphs, and spirits of many sorts. Such beings could not be easily classified as either good or evil. The highly inclusive term "spirit," very common in Shakespeare, embraced a wide variety of beings across the moral spectrum, making it "a term fizzing with dangerous, anxious energy" (175). Often, a spirit's exact nature was hard to pin down. Puck, for example, is variously called fairy, spirit, and goblin; though not as benign as Ariel and a trickster like many devils, he stops short of being truly cruel or destructive, instead retaining what the authors aptly call an "indefinable edginess" (158). Other beings straddled boundaries of natural and supernatural. Mermaids, as half-human sea-creatures were natural if monstrous, but also sometimes interchangeable with sea-nymphs or water spirits and seductively dangerous like female demons. Shakespeare sometimes associates mermaids with benevolence and harmony, the authors note, but other times with a predatory, siren-like power that makes them resemble witches (134). Even the term "demon" had an element of indeterminacy. Shakespeare uses the word only twice, and one of those times is in the Platonic sense of "daemon," when the soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra refers to Antony's "daemon" as a spirit that protects him. The dictionary also shows that Shakespeare alludes to a range of occult practices associated with astrology, divination, and prophecy without explicitly classifying them as either demonic or angelic. Sigils, charms, auspicious stars, auguries, periapts, oracles--all get their own useful entries.

But Shakespeare had uses for unequivocally evil spirits too, usually referring to them as "devils" or "fiends." Not surprisingly, Satan is the most commonly named devil, followed by Beelzebub and Lucifer. In the early Henry VI plays, actual devils appear alongside the witch Joan La Pucelle in Part I; and, in Part II, a demon named Asmath is conjured by Margery Jourdain at the behest of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester. Other named demons are no more than passing references, such as "Amaimon" and "Barbason" in Merry Wives of Windsor--names that Master Ford finds less terrifying than "cuckold" (11). More than half of the named demons with entries in this dictionary are those that Edgar pretends are plaguing him while he is disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear.

Does Shakespeare, then, view the demonic primarily through a skeptical lens? Shakespeare gives significant attention to demonic possession in Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and King Lear, but as Gibson and Esra (along with earlier scholars) point out, these examples all turn out to be mistakes or make-believe. As a demonologist, Shakespeare is closer to Reginald Scot and Samuel Harsnett than to James I, Jean Bodin, Nicholas Remy, or most other authors of demonologies in his lifetime. Examples of explicit skepticism about the supernatural are noted in many of the dictionary's entries, such as Hotspur's dismissal of Glendower's conjuring power as "skimble-skamble" stuff (1 Henry IV 3.1.152). (1) Hotspur's portrait of Glendower as a "pompous fantasist is funny, and thus hard to dismiss, particularly as we never see Glendower perform any magic," the authors conclude (105). Divination, they note, "is a concept mostly metaphorical in Shakespeare's works, deployed as a joke, political necessity, or self-mockery" (67). References to "fiends" and "devils" are often little more than name-calling, revealing more about the speaker than the thing named, such as when they are used as racial epithets to insult Othello, Shylock, or Caliban (63). Some characters call into question the reality of devils altogether, as when Aaron in Titus Andronicus says "if there be devils, would I were a devil" (5.1.147). This "disruptive reflection," according to the authors, could indicate Aaron's non-Christian origin, his location in a pagan classical world, or a radical Sadducism--"either way, it stands out boldly" (64). Elsewhere devils are human vices: "the devil luxury," "the devil wrath" (63). On the other hand, the idea that powers attributed to devils are sometimes all-too-human deceptions, passions, or misunderstandings does not mean they always are, and some devils in Shakespeare's plays even when portrayed as fictions convey a darkly menacing sense that the demonic may be indistinguishable from extreme forms of human villainy. Indeed, Edgar's fictional fiends are a good example; his play-acting is so effective that it is not too great a stretch to think that Mohu or the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet might in fact be tormenting some actual Tom O'Bedlam beggar, even if not Edgar. More indirectly, they are resonantly interconnected with the human "fiends" active elsewhere in of this play. Gibson and Esra also note Othello's speculation that Iago might be a devil--"If thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee" (5.2.287)--seemingly confirmed when Iago does not die after Othello stabs him (63).

Perhaps what is most characteristically Shakespearean lies neither in examples of skepticism nor in appearances of actual demons but in instances of uncertainty and blurred boundaries. As the authors point out, "preternatural" might be a better word than "supernatural" for many events outside the usual course of nature that Shakespeare does not allow us to clearly identify (181). Obvious examples are the appearance of the dagger in Macbeth and the ghost in Hamlet. But the dictionary helps us see more subtle examples, such as in Shakespeare's use of the word "blast," which could refer not only to a purely natural explosion or gust of wind but also to a magical power to blight and destroy with words and looks, sometimes attributed to witches and devils and other supernatural beings (28). Is the "blasted heath" (1.3.77) in Macbeth merely windswept or is it afflicted by a magical malevolence? Even more subtly, the innocent word "take" could suggest the possibility of magical malevolence in some contexts; witches were said to "take" the cattle when they caused them harm, usually through illness. The power to "take" in this sense is attributed to Herne the Hunter in Merry Wives of Windsor (186) and could also be possessed by fairies. In these and many other examples, Shakespeare keeps alive the sense of ambiguous dark forces that certain individuals could tap into but that could not be fully understood or contained.

Commendably, this dictionary gives considerable attention to Shakespeare's figurative uses of the supernatural, allowing us to see how its terminology provided Shakespeare with tools to think about other types of phenomena. Not surprisingly, sexual passion, love, and the power of physical beauty are especially likely to be described through metaphors of bewitchment, spell-casting, and related terms. Even when used playfully or as compliments, such metaphors hint that something coercive informs experiences of love and desire even in the best of circumstances, something that the person experiencing them may at least partly resist. "Overlooking," for example--the power sometimes attributed to witches to cause harm by the 'evil eye'--is figuratively attributed to Bassanio by Portia in Merchant of Venice (3.2.14-16) when she chides, "Beshrew your eyes, / They have o'erlooked me and divided me / One half of me is yours" (146). Love and desire can be alien to the self, and become even more so when associated with deception and betrayal, as is amply demonstrated in the dictionary's entries on "charm," "enchantment," "fiend," "witch," and "witchcraft." While this figurative language is commonly used by Shakespeare's male characters to lash out at or express ambivalence about women's sexual powers, Shakespeare's female characters not infrequently apply it to men (as Portia does above) and occasionally men apply it to other men (as Antonio does when complaining that Sebastian's "witchcraft drew me hither" [5. 1.76] at the end of Twelfth Night, or, more playfully, when Falstaff says of Poins that he has been "bewitch'd by the rogue's company" [2.2.17]). Not all such usage is clearly figurative; maybe there is some real witchcraft in women's sexual powers, as in the case of Cleopatra (203). Fathers, moreover, often make quite literal accusations of witchcraft when speaking of unwanted suitors of their daughters, as does Brabantio in Othello, Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and King Simonides in Pericles (27).

Shakespeare's figurative language also commonly associates magic and witchcraft with the power of words, story-telling, and the arts, especially music and trompe-l'oeil effects in painting and sculpture. Othello's "witchcraft" lies in the stories he tells Desdemona; Iago uses "wit" not "witchcraft" to poison Othello's mind but his exercise of wit strongly resembles witchcraft in the seductively destructive use of words (205). Music charms by being hypnotic and sleep-inducing, while sculpture, painting, and theatre can bewitch by powerfully simulating reality like devils can. A subset of this type of usage occurs in political contexts. Cardinal Wolsey's influence through the power of rhetoric is called "a witchcraft/Over the king" (3.2.18) in Henry VIII (204); Cardinal Beaufort warns against a bewitching power in the "smoothing words" (1.1.156) of the future Richard III in 2 Henry VI (27). The names of famous political figures such as Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Antony are names to conjure with (47), while what the authors call Coriolanus's "charismatic leadership" seems a form of witchcraft to his enemy Aufidius (204).

Finally, the language of magic and witchcraft provided Shakespeare with a way of thinking about inwardness. In the view of many demonologists, dreams, hallucinations, madness, and forbidden desires could be supernaturally caused or aroused and it can often be difficult to distinguish between metaphorical and literal references in Shakespeare's own works. The power of suggestion is a kind of "supernatural soliciting" (Macbeth, 1.3.130) resembling witchcraft when it conjures up horrid images in Macbeth's mind, arousing "black and deep desires" (1.4.51) or perhaps it actually is a form of witchcraft (27). In a more comic vein, Master Page asks "What spirit, what devil suggests this imagination" (3. 3.215) when commenting on Master Ford's delusions in The Merry Wives of Windsor (177). "Spirit" could refer to natural, vital, or animal spirits within the body according to early modern humoral theory, but, rather confusingly, spirits could also be "ambient evil creatures wreaking havoc independently in the world" (in other words demons or devils), capable of passing into bodily cavities and organs, upsetting humoral balances, and producing disordered mental states (175). As Gibson and Esra note, the spirits invoked by Lady Macbeth hover in "an unspecified place and state awaiting evil thoughts" and then seem to be invited inside her body to "corrupt ... natural substances such as milk and blood" and "transform humoral spirits" (177)--perhaps contributing to the perturbations of mind later apparent in Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. Shakespeare also refers to certain mental impulses as "devilish spirits," "worser spirits," "ill angels," and to other, better impulses by their more positive counterparts (12-13, 179). The dictionary's entries on "conjuration," "dream," "possession" "spirit," "angel," and "devil" all provide insightful commentary on the porous boundaries between supernatural and psychological phenomena throughout Shakespeare's works.

Indeed, throughout the dictionary the authors are admirably sensitive to ambiguities and resist the temptation to force decisions on the undecidable. They have also done a wonderful job of calling attention to unusual and obscure references, with particularly illuminating entries on "bug," "ducdame," "ecstasy," "elf," "Flibbertigibbet," "mummy," and "ouph." As in most first editions of reference works, there are omissions and small errors, (2) and one could quarrel with some decisions affecting coverage. More about Shakespeare's sources would be very valuable. The demonic pact is discussed briefly in the entry on the term "devil" but could benefit from fuller treatment in an entry of its own. A separate entry on witchcraft accusations would also be helpful. Perhaps most disappointingly, despite the detailed discussion of figurative uses of demonological language, most of the characters we associate with demonic extremes of villainy (Iago, Richard III, Goneril, Macbeth) are discussed only in passing. Yet each and every one of the ghosts that appear in Richard's dream at the end of Richard III gets its own entry. Do they really need such extensive attention? Gibson and Esra have restricted their entries on Shakespeare's characters to magical practitioners, persons formally accused of witchcraft, and literal ghosts, fiends or fairies. While this is a sensible principle of selection, it comes with a cost. Lady Macbeth gets her own entry, presumably because she invokes spirits and can therefore be considered a "magical practitioner," but Macbeth, who merely consults with witches, does not. Goneril is mentioned only once in the whole dictionary, Iago six times, but Roger Bolingbroke, a minor character in 2 Henry VI, is mentioned fifteen times and gets his own entry. An entry on the term "evil" as it relates to the supernatural is brief and superficial. The dictionary thus makes it hard to see how Shakespeare, through his major villains, "foretells demonic modernity," as Ewan Fernie has recently suggested. For Fernie, impressed by "the sheer vitality of the demonic," the demonic is the subjective possibility of evil, "evil not in the abstract but as a form of life." (3)

But decisions about what to exclude are always judgment calls, unlikely to please everyone. Ultimately, what is included is far more important. Grounded in impressive scholarship, Shakespeare's Demonology is a rich, stimulating, wide-ranging dictionary that makes a major contribution to the study of Shakespeare's use of magic and witchcraft and his place in demonological tradition.


(1.) All quotations are from G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflan, 1974), following the practice of Gibson and Esra. They base their analysis on Marvin Spevack's Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, which is keyed to The Riverside Shakespeare; hence its use here.

(2.) For example, Egeon from Comedy of Errors is mistakenly substituted for Egeus from A Midsummer's Night's Dream on page 27 and in the index. The key term "bewitched" offers only minimal coverage of scholarship or criticism. The entry on Caliban has none, though there is a vast critical literature on this character. The bibliography at the end, though extensive, leaves out some important works, such as John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare; Linda Woodbridge, The Scythe of Saturn: Magical Thinking in Shakespeare; Barbara Traister, Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in Renaissance Drama; and Kristin Poole, Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare's England.

(3.) In The Demonic: Literature and Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 6, 21.
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Author:Willis, Deborah
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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