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Shakespeare’s Demonology

A Dictionary


Marion Gibson & Jo Ann Esra


Arden Shakespeare Dictionaries

London: Bloomsbury, 2014

Hardcover. ix + 238 p.   ISBN 978-0826498342. £100


Reviewed by Sophie Chiari

Aix-Marseille Université



In England, by the end of the 16th century, the Church authorities tended to dismiss all magical beliefs as ideological deceptions inherent in Catholicism. No wonder then if in Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself acknowledges that he no longer believes in miracles: “It must be so, for miracles are ceased, / And therefore we must needs admit the means / How things are perfected” (1.1.68-70). Thus, on the face of it, the new religion was incompatible with miracles, prophetic activities and supernatural events. Yet, endowed with a somewhat subversive power, magic and occult truths kept attracting a wide number of practitioners. As a consequence, old superstitions persisted in Shakespeare’s England, even though the playwright himself alludes to popular beliefs with a mixture of fascination and contempt. Indeed, if Othello’s handkerchief is presented like a “magic piece of cloth” [127] and if a comedy like All’s Well That Ends Well focuses on the amazing healing powers of Helena, one also recalls Edmund’s mockery of Gloucester’s superstitious astrology in King Lear.

Shakespeare was in fact neither totally sceptic nor completely credulous. The truth is that the complex interplay which then existed between the illusory and the real nourished his imagination and that of his contemporaries, too. While renowned astrologers such as Simon Forman and William Lilly did not hesitate to set themselves up as magicians, Queen Elizabeth I herself firmly believed in John Dee’s magical powers, and her successor to the throne, James I, showed a keen interest in demonology as he had written on the topic in l597, when he was still James VI of Scotland.

A dictionary of early modern beliefs in magic and witchcraft especially connected to Shakespeare’s plays and poems (which, interestingly enough, are not forgotten) was therefore urgently needed, if only because the vast Renaissance literature on witchcraft and demonology, associated with a wide number of intellectual issues, has now been definitely integrated in the field of early modern studies. Such an ambitious project, launched by Bloomsbury, required talented authors—authors who, above all, would not dodge controversial issues and conceptual difficulties.

A specialist of the supernatural, Professor Marion Gibson has devoted much of her time to witches and witchcraft. Having already published Reading Witchcraft (Routledge, 1999), Possession, Puritanism and Print (Pickering & Chatto, 2006) and Witchcraft Myths in American Culture (Routledge, 2007), she is probably one of the most competent specialists in the field, and her collaborative work with Jo Ann Esra, a promising young expert in Shakespeare’s writings, is undeniably successful. Shakespeare’s Demonology is indeed a clear and up-to-date comprehensive guide, reader-friendly, covering most of Shakespeare’s works.

In a brief but useful introduction, the two authors focus on the “struggle to categorize” [3] a rather ambiguous notion whose porous boundaries often lead scholars to examine apparently unrelated demonological objects, and they logically try to redefine “demonology” itself. First reappraised through a number of negative assertions—whereby we learn that the overlapping categories of the demonic, the natural and the divine, remain both problematic and stimulating today, as no clear consensus seems to emerge on the real nature of ghosts, fairies or monsters—demonology is envisaged as “an entire genre in its own right” [2], at the same time encompassing and overcoming theological writings, cony-catching pamphlets and scientific tracts. No wonder if the entries selected by Gibson and Esra sometimes seem to imply very different worlds. To quote but one example, if one can easily see why the concept of foresight (under the umbrella terms “Foresee/ foretell”) should figure out prominently in the dictionary, the presence of the next entry, namely “Fortune,” is a bit more surprising since the notion of providence belongs more to theology and philosophy than to the world of demonology. Yet, because the word crops up at least 300 times in Shakespeare, Gibson and Esra skillfully suggest that it has in fact much to do with magic and astrology when examined in the context of Renaissance England. This is made clear by the young Viola who, disguised as the page Cesario in Twelfth Night, realises that Olivia may have fallen in love with her, and soon comes to consider how Fortune is likely to interact with love and bewitchment: “Fortune forbid my outside have not charm’d her” (2.2.18).

Numerous cross-references under the thematic headings suggest an interesting variety of interrelated topics. Each entry provides an impressive overview and is scrupulously divided into several sections. First, Gibson and Esra put it in context and discuss its implications. To do so, they either pick up a number of early modern demonologists such as the Puritan preacher George Gifford, or rely on more famous writers like Giovanni Della Porta, who published his Natural Magic in Naples in 1558, as well as Reginald Scot, whose Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) certainly helped Shakespeare to shape his rather sceptical responses to prophecies and conjurations. Then, they address the plays and poems and reassess the playwright’s sometimes ambiguous position regarding magic, charms and monsters. It is worth noting that the authors also deal with the metaphorical meanings and resonances of their entry if need be. A case in point is Shakespeare’s allusion to the “sprites” mentioned in an aside by Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors (2.2.190): obviously, far from being immaterial creatures, these spirits are equated, in the play, with the “apparently magical people that [the Syracusian visitors] are meeting” [177] in Ephesus. Eventually, Gibson and Esra aptly summarise various critical attempts to discuss the issue under focus and highlight essential bibliographical references.

Of course, the topics under discussion vary in emphasis and some are indeed very succinctly written. Whereas preternatural creatures such as “fairies” are frequently granted 5-page entries, minor animals like “hedge-pigs,” alluded to in Macbeth and The Tempest, are understandably offered a mere paragraph. More disappointingly perhaps, general notions such as “evil,” probably because they are much too inclusive, are treated in a fairly superficial way. “Evil” is here mainly associated with the evil eye and with female evil, and possibly frustrated readers are then quickly referred to Stanley Wells’s “Shakespeare and Human Evil,” published in 1980, to acquire more information on the subject. Similarly, important symbols like the “circle” are scarcely commented upon. Indeed, while we learn what most of us already knew—that “[t]here are several sexual innuendos associated with circles and magic” [43]—it might have been useful to establish a typology of circles ranging from the astronomical to the more openly sexual ones. On the other hand, the authors painstakingly cover as many subjects as possible. Not only do they provide us with a separate entry devoted to “witchcraft” which reminds us of its links with secrecy and artisanal mastery, they also offer their readers a detailed analysis of early modern witches, who are not simply seen as “ideological constructions” [197] but also as powerful tropes exploring the boundaries of femininity as well as “political weapon[s]” [201] often used in connection with race and gender issues.

All in all, Marion Gibson’s and Jo Ann Esra’s dictionary is highly reliable: its entries, which include notions, symbols, characters (even minor ones like the Witch of Brainford, i.e. “the aunt of one of the maidservants in the household of Master and Mistress Ford” in The Merry Wives of Windsor [30]), prove agreeably diversified, thoughtful and well written. Such a convenient volume will not just seduce Shakespeare scholars and students, but more generally, all of those eager to understand the deep significance of dreams, invocations, planetary influence, goblins, ghosts, sorcery and the like in Shakespeare’s works. In short, it will appeal to a readership fascinated by supernatural Shakespeare, and in quest of synthetic and illuminating discussions on the subject. If Shakespeare’s Demonology does not offer close readings of the plays and poems or new interpretative tracks (it is simply not what it is aiming at), it is nonetheless a very helpful tool for Shakespearians who will find instructive details and precise data on the Bard’s demonological hints, sources and quotes. As such, it certainly deserves to be widely read


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