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Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, [1883], at

p. 49



The state of popular feeling in past centuries with regard to the active agency of devils has been well represented by Reginald Scot, who in his work on witchcraft has shown how the superstitious belief in demonology was part of the great system of witchcraft. Many of the popular delusions of this terrible form of superstition have been in a masterly manner exposed by Shakespeare, and the scattered allusions which he has given illustrative of it are indeed sufficient to prove, if it were necessary, what a highly elaborate creed it was. Happily Shakespeare, like the other dramatists of the period, has generally treated the subject with ridicule, showing that he had no sympathy with the grosser opinions shared by various classes in those times, whether held by king or clown. According to an old belief, still firmly credited in the poet's day, it was supposed that devils could at any moment assume whatever form they pleased that would most conduce to the success of any contemplated enterprise they might have in hand; and hence the charge of being a devil, so commonly brought against innocent and harmless persons in former years, can easily be understood. Amongst the incidental allusions to this notion given by Shakespeare, Prince Hal ("1 Henry IV.," ii. 4) tells Falstaff "there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man;" "an old white-bearded Satan." In the "Merchant of Venice" (iii. 1) Salanio, on the approach of Shylock, says—"Let me say 'amen' betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew."

   Indeed "all shapes that man goes up and down in" seem

p. 50

to have been at the devil's control, a belief referred to in "Timon of Athens" (ii. 2)—

   Var. Serv. What is a whoremaster, fool?
   Fool. A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ’Tis a spirit: sometime ’t appears like a lord; sometime like a lawyer; sometime like a philosopher, with two stones moe than’s artificial one: he is very often like a knight; and, generally, in all shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in."

   A popular form assumed by evil spirits was that of a negro or moor, to which Iago alludes when he incites Brabantio to search for his daughter in "Othello" (i. 1)—

"Zounds, sir, you're robb’d; for shame, put on your gown;
 Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
 Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
 Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
 Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
 Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
 Arise, I say."

   On the other hand, so diverse were the forms which devils were supposed to assume that they are said occasionally to appear in the fairest form, even in that of a girl (ii. 3)—

"When devils will the blackest sins put on,
 They do suggest at first with heavenly shows."

So in "The Comedy of Errors" (iv. 3) we have the following dialogue—

"Ant. S. Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!
 Dro. S. Master, is this mistress Satan?
 Ant. S. It is the devil.
 Dro. S. Nay, she is worse, she is the devil's dam; and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, God damn me;' that's as much to say, 'God make me a light wench.' It is written, they appear to men like angels of light."

(Cf. also "Love's Labour's Lost," iv. 3.) In "King John" (iii. 1) even the fair Blanche seemed to Constance none other than the devil tempting Lewis "in likeness of a new untrimmed bride."

   Not only, too, were devils thought to assume any human shape they fancied, but, as Mr Spalding remarks, 1 "the forms

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of the whole of the animal kingdom appear to have been at their disposal; and, not content with these, they seem to have sought for unlikely shapes to appear in"—the same characteristic belonging also to the fairy tribe.

   Thus when Edgar is trying to persuade the blind Gloucester that he has in reality cast himself over the cliff, he describes the being from whom he is supposed to have just departed—

"As I stood here below, methought his eyes
 Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses.
 Horns welk’d and waved like the endridged sea:
 It was some fiend."

Again, Edgar says ("King Lear," iii. 6)—"The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale"—the allusion probably being to the following incident related by Friswood Williams:—"There was also another strange thing happened at Denham about a bird. Mistris Peckham had a nightingale which she kept in a cage, wherein Maister Dibdale took great delight, and would often be playing with it. The nightingale was one night conveyed out of the cage, and being next morning diligently sought for, could not be heard of, till Maister Mainie's devil, in one of his fits (as it was pretended), said that the wicked spirit which was in this examinate's sister had taken the bird out of the cage and killed it in despite of Maister Dibdale." 1

   Even the shape of a fly was a favourite one with evil spirits, so much so, that the term "fly" was a popular synonym for a familiar. In "Titus Andronicus" (iii. 2) there is an allusion to this belief where Marcius, being rebuked by Titus for having killed a fly, gives as his reason—

              "It was a black ill-favour’d fly,
Like to the empress’ Moor: therefore I kill’d him."

   Mr Spalding gives the following illustrations of the superstition: "At the execution of Urban Grandier, the famous magician of London, in 1634, a large fly was seen buzzing about the stake; and a priest promptly seizing the opportunity of improving the occasion for the benefit of the onlookers, declared that Beelzebub had come in his own proper person

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to carry off Grandier's soul to hell. In 1664 occurred the celebrated witch trials which took place before Sir Matthew Hale. The accused were charged with bewitching two children, and part of the evidence against them was that flies and bees were seen to carry into their victims’ mouths the nails and pins which they afterwards vomited."

   Once more, another form devils assumed was that of a dead friend. Thus Hamlet (i. 4), when he confronts the apparition, exclaims—

"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
 Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
 Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
 Be thine intents wicked or charitable,
 Thou comest in such a questionable shape
 That I will speak to thee."

for, as Mr Spalding remarks, "it cannot be imagined that Hamlet imagined that a 'goblin damned' could actually be the spirit of his dead father; and, therefore, the alternative in his mind must be that he saw a devil assuming his father's likeness—a form which the Evil One knew would most incite Hamlet to intercourse."

   The same idea seems present in Horatio's mind:—

"What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
 Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff,
 That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
 And there assume some horrible form,
 Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason,
 And draw you into madness?"

   Once more, in the next act (ii. 2), Hamlet again expresses his doubts:—

"The spirit that I have seen
 May be the devil: and the devil hath power
 To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
 Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
 As he is very potent with such spirits,
 Abuses me to damn me."

   In the Elizabethan times, too, no superstitious belief exerted a more pernicious and baneful influence on the credulous and ignorant than the notion that evil spirits from time to time entered into human beings, and so completely gained a despotic control over them as to render them perfectly

p. 53

helpless. Harsnet, in his "Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures" (1603), has exposed this gross superstition; and a comparison of the passages in "King Lear," spoken by Edgar when feigning madness with those given by Harsnet, will show that Shakespeare has accurately given the contemporary belief on the subject. Mr Spalding also considers that nearly all the allusions in "King Lear" refer to a youth known as Richard Mainey, a minute account of whose supposed possession has been given by Harsnet.

   Persons so possessed were often bound and shut up in a dark room, occasionally being forced to submit to flagellation—a treatment not unlike that described in "Romeo and Juliet" (i. 2):—

"Not mad, but bound more than a madman is,
 Shut up in prison, kept without my food,
 Whipp’d and tormented."

   In the "Comedy of Errors" (iv. 4) we have an amusing scene, further illustrative probably of the kind of treatment adopted in Shakespeare's day:—

   "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 ecstasy!
    Pinch. Give me your hand and let me feel your pulse.
    Ant. F. 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 hie thee straight,
 I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven."

   Pinch further says:—

"They must be bound and laid in some dark room."

   As Brand remarks, 1 there is no vulgar story of the devil's having appeared anywhere without a cloven foot. In graphic representations he is seldom or never pictured without one.

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[paragraph continues] In the following passage, where Othello is questioning whether Iago is a devil or not, he (v. 2) says:—

"I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable.
 If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee."

   Dr Johnson gives this explanation, "I look towards his feet to see if, according to the common opinion, his feet be cloven."

   In Massinger's "Virgin Martyr" (iii. 3), Harpax, an evil spirit, following Theophilus in the shape of a secretary, speaks thus of the superstitious Christian's description of his infernal enemy—

"I'll tell you what now of the devil,
 He's no such horrid creature; cloven-footed,
 Black, saucer-ey’d, his nostrils breathing fire,
 As these lying Christians make him."


   It was formerly commonly believed that not only kingdoms had their tutelary guardians, but that every person had his particular genius or good angel, to protect and admonish him by dreams, visions, &c. 1 Hence in "Antony and Cleopatra" (ii. 3), the soothsayer speaking of Cæsar says:—

"O Antony, stay not by his side,
 Thy demon, that's thy spirit which keeps thee, is
 Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable,
 Where Cæsar's is not, but, near him thy angel
 Becomes a fear, as being o’erpower’d."

   Thus Macbeth (iii. 1), speaks in a similar manner in defence to Banquo:—

                 "There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and, under him,
My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said,
Mark Antony's was by Cæsar."

   So too, in 2 Henry IV. (i. 2), the Chief-Justice says—

"You follow the young prince up and down, like his ill angel."

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   We may quote a further reference in "Julius Cæsar" (iii. 2), where Antony says—

"For Brutus, as you know, was Cæsar's angel."

   In the Roman world, says Mr Tylor in his "Primitive Culture" (1873, ii. 202), "each man had his 'genius natalis,' associated with him from birth to death, influencing his action and his fate, standing represented by its proper image, as a lar among the household gods, and at weddings and joyous times, and especially on the anniversary of the birthday when genius and man began their united career, worship was paid with song and dance to the divine image, adorned with garlands, and propitiated with incense and libations of wine. The demon or genius was, as it were, the man's companion soul, a second spiritual ego. The Egyptian astrologer warned Antonius to keep far from the young Octavius, 'For thy demon,' said he, 'is in fear of his.'"

   The allusion by Lady Macbeth (i. 5), in the following passage is to the "Spirits of Revenge":—

                         "Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty."

   In Nash's "Pierce Pennilesse" we find a description of these spirits and of their office. "The second kind of devils which he most employeth are those northern Martii, called the Spirits of Revenge, and the authors of massacres and seed-men of mischief, for they have commission to incense men to rapine, sacrilege, theft, murder, wrath, fury, and all manner of cruelties; and they command certain of the southern spirits to wait upon them, as also great Arioch, that is termed the Spirit of Revenge." In another passage we are further told how "the spirits of the aire will mixe themselves with thunder and lightning, and so infect the clime where they raise any tempest, that suddenly great mortalitie shall ensue of the inhabitants." "Aerial spirits or devils," according to Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," "are such as keep quarter most part in the aire, cause many tempests, thunder and lightnings, tear oakes, fire steeples, houses, strike men and beasts, etc." Thus in "King John" (iii. 2), the bastard remarks:—

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"Now, by my life, this day grows wondrous hot;
 Some airy devil hovers in the sky
 And pours down mischief."

   It was anciently supposed that all mines of gold, &c., were guarded by evil spirits. Thus Falstaff in 2 Henry IV. (iv. 3) speaks of "learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil." This superstition still prevails, and has been made the subject of many a legend. Thus it is believed by the peasantry living near Largo-Law, Scotland, that a rich mine of gold is concealed in the mountain. "A spectre once appeared there, supposed to be the guardian of the mine, who being accosted by a neighbouring shepherd, promised to tell him at a certain time and on certain conditions, where 'the gowd mine is in Largo-Law,' especially enjoining that the horn sounded for the housing of the cows at the adjoining farm of Balmain should not blow. Every precaution having been taken, the ghost was true to his tryst; but, unhappily, when he was about to divulge the desired secret, Tammie Norrie, the cowherd of Balmain, blew a blast, whereupon the ghost vanished with the denunciation—

'Woe to the man that blew the horn,
 For out of the spot he shall ne’er be borne.'

The unlucky horn-blower was struck dead, and as it was found impossible to remove the body, a cairn of stones was raised over it." 1

   Steevens considers that when Macbeth (iii. 2) says—

"Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
 Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse,"

he refers to those demons who were supposed to remain in their several places of confinement all day, but at the close of it were released; such, indeed, as are mentioned in the "Tempest" (v. 1), as rejoicing "to hear the solemn curfew, because it announced the hour of their freedom."

   Amongst other superstitions we may quote one in the "Merchant of Venice" (iii. 1) where Salanio says—"Let me say 'amen' betimes, lest the devil cross my prayers."

p. 57

   Of the devils mentioned by Shakespeare may be mentioned the following—

   Amaimon is one of the chief, whose dominion is on the north side of the infernal gulf. He might be bound or restrained from doing hurt from the third hour till noon, and from the ninth hour till evening. In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 2) Ford mentions this devil, and in "1 Henry IV." (ii. 4) Falstaff says—"that same mad fellow of the north, Percy; and he of Wales, that gave Amamon the bastinado and made Lucifer cuckold." 1

   The north was always supposed to be the particular habitation of bad spirits. Milton, therefore, assembles the rebel angels in the north. In "1 Henry VI." (v. 3), La Pucelle invokes the aid of the spirits—

"Under the lordly monarch of the north."

   Barbason. This demon would seem to be the same as "Marbas, alias Barbas," who, as Scot 2 informs us, "is a great president, and appeareth in the forme of a mightie lion; but at the commandment of a conjurer cometh up in the likeness of man, and answereth fullie as touching anything which is hidden or secret." In the "Merry Wives of Windsor" (ii. 2) it is mentioned by Ford in connection with Lucifer, and again in "Henry V." (ii. 1) Nym tells Pistol—"I am not Barbason, you cannot conjure me."

   The names of the several fiends in "King Lear," Shakespeare is supposed to have derived from Harsnet's "Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures" (1603).

   Flibbertiggibet, one of the fiends that possessed poor Tom, is, we are told (iv 1.), the "fiend of mopping and mowing, who possesses chambermaids and waiting-women." And again (iii. 4), "he begins at curfew and walks till the first cock; he gives men the pin and the web."

   Frateretto is referred to by Edgar (iii. 6). "Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend."

   Hobbididance is noticed as "prince of darkness" (iv. 1),

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and perhaps is the same as Hopdance (iii. 6), "who cries," says Edgar, "in Tom's belly for two white herring."

   Mahu, like Modo, would seem to be another name for "the prince of darkness" (iii. 4), and further on (iv. i) he is spoken of as the fiend "of stealing;" whereas the latter is described as the fiend "of murder." Harsnet thus speaks of them:—"Maho was general dictator of hell; and yet, for good manner's sake, he was contented of his good nature to make show, that himself was under the check of Modu, the graund devil in Ma(ister) Maynie."

   Obidicut, another name of the fiend known as Haberdicut (iv. 1).

   Smulkin (iii. 4). This is spelt Smolkin by Harsnet.

   Thus, in a masterly manner, Shakespeare has illustrated and embellished his plays with references to the demonology of the period; having been careful in every case—whilst enlivening his audience—to convince them of the utter absurdity of this degraded form of superstition.


50:1 "Elizabethan Demonology," p. 49.

51:1 Harsnet's "Declaration of Egregious Impostures," p. 225.

53:1 "Pop. Ant.," 1849, ii. pp. 517–519.

54:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," i. pp. 365–367.

56:1 See Jones’ "Credulities Past and Present," 1880, p. 133.

57:1 See Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft" (1584, p. 393); Douce's "Illustrations of Shakespeare," p. 264.

57:2 Ibid., p. 378.

Next: Chapter V. Natural Phenomena