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Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the Devils of Denham.

The title of this book is misleading, since it is essentially an edition of Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, 1603, with elaborate notes and an excellent introduction putting Harsnett in context, especially in his political and theological context. There are twenty-five pages on Shakespeare and his use of Harsnett in the creation of Edgar in King Lear and his feigned demoniac possession. Brown-low's argument depends heavily on the studies of Kenneth Muir, and we are not surprised to learn that Brownlow's book originated as a dissertation at the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham in 1963 and is dedicated to Kenneth Muir. The relation between Shakespeare and Harsnett in King Lear is very plain to see, but Brownlow seems to be carried away with his own enthusiasm when he declares that "King Lear is Shakespeare's reply to Harsnett" (128). I don't think that Shakespeare felt either such scrupulous adherence or antipathy to his sources.

The main thrust of the long (181 pages) introduction is to locate Samuel Harsnett in the religious history of England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Shakespeare figures only incidentally in this thorough account of ecclesiastical history and politics, especially in relation to Richard Bancroft, bishop of London and later archbishop of Canterbury, who was Harsnett's patron and protector. The Declaration is flamboyantly anti-Catholic, but in its hidden agenda it is aimed primarily at the Puritans, who were just as inclined as Catholics to use demoniac possession to propagate the faith. In 1599 Harsnett published his Discovery of the Fraudulent Practises of One John Darrel, who was a radical Puritan exorcist. Harsnett's Discovery is followed by an extensive pamphlet war with Darrel, in which the Puritan seems to have had the upper hand.

Harsnett's objections to exorcism, whether Catholic or Puritan, are based on liberal Anglican theology. In this view, miracles have ceased, so that diabolic possession, as we know it from the Gospels, no longer occurs. Religion is much more an expression of quiet, reasonable faith; it is definitely not associated with fervency and passionate zeal. Thus Harsnett's approach, "presenting Jesuitry and Puritanism as two varieties of the same fanatical threat to sound religion, became the common strategy of Anglican argument" (75). Harsnett in the Declaration writes as a classically trained humanist, who regards the absurdity of the exorcisms with withering irony. They are much more actively an offense to reason than to faith.

The most consistent imagery in the Declaration comes out of the theater. The exorcists present carefully rehearsed plays, with stage effects about devils drawn from the contemporary playhouse. The Catholic priests are skillful actors and stage managers who play to a gullible audience and depend strongly on spectacle for their emotional climaxes. A typical theatrical passage, among the hundreds in the book, concerns Edmunds, or Father Weston, the leader of the Catholic exorcists: "The same Edmunds and his twelve holy disciples that have feigned a devil Tragedie, sorted it into acres and scenes, furnished it with hangings, set up a stage of forgerie, replenished it with personated actors, adorned it with fictitious devises, dreames, imaginations, and ridiculous wonders. . ." (304). Obviously, Harsnett was not himself a theater-goer and his view of the seductive powers of the theater fits in only too well with Puritan anti-theatrical diatribes like those of Prynne.

The heart of Brownlow's book is the edited text of A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, which makes for lively reading. Harsnett seems to be continuously astonished by the farcical nature of the exorcisms, and the writing is consistently comic in tone. In this sense, Harsnett's book is a vital part of early seventeenth-century satire. As a sample of his stylistic exuberance, he writes with great vigor about the Catholic ritual of baptism: "In my opinion, there was never Christmas-game performed with moe apish, indecent, slovenly gawdes then your baptising and super-baptising ceremonies are. Your puffe, your crosse-puffe, your expuffe, your inpuffe uppon the face of a tender infant, beeing the impure stinking breath of a foule impure belching swaine; your enchaunted salt, your charmed grease, your sorcerised chrisme, your lothsome drivell that you put uppon theyr eyes, eares, noses, and lyppes, are fitting complements for hynch pynch and laugh not; coale under candlesticke; Frier Rush, and wo-penny hoe" (229). Harshett speaks not as a theologian but as a satirist here, and his colloquial and proverbial extravagance expresses his own amused Anglican disapproval.

In essence, Brownlow's book is much more than a background to Shakespeare's King Lear. Edgar's devils, who come directly out of Harsnett's Declaration, play an important part in the religious controversy at the beginning of the seventeenth century. King Lear is hardly the kind of play that would give comfort to a good Anglican like Harsnett - the whole Declaration sees theater as a snare and a delusion. Nevertheless, it is a distinct pleasure to read Harsnett's personal and idiosyncratic prose, which looks forward to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, especially to something so free-form as the "Digression on Air."

MAURICE CHARNEY Rutgers University
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Charney, Maurice
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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