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On Diabolism in Othello and King Lear
This argument accompanies my suspicion that Shakespeare was about as agnostic as one could be in the 1600s.
‘I’ll Pour this Pestilence into his Ear’: Demonic Possession and Fraudulent Speech in Othello and King Lear
At the turn of the 17th century, a debate regarding the legitimacy of demonic possession and exorcism was raging in England. Samuel Harsnett’s polemical treatise, forthrightly entitled A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), dealt with demonic possessions and exorcisms which were feigned and staged by Catholics and puritans alike. Evidence of the Declaration’s influence on Shakespeare abounds in King Lear, in which Shakespeare stages demonic possession as an event steeped in human calculation and deceit rather than proof of nefarious supernatural forces. In a similar grain, in Othello, Shakespeare transposes the phenomenon of demons speaking through their victims into an exclusively earthly, corporeal domain: Iago’s manipulative guile takes on a property of quasi-demonic, ventriloquial power over his victims.
In an attack launched primarily against exorcism as practiced by Jesuits, Harsnett responds to a number of deliberately feigned possessions and exorcisms, but goes further by arguing that exorcism is inherently illegitimate. Stephen Greenblatt chronicles the cultural influence of Harsnett’s exposé, which ‘did seriously restrict the practice of exorcism’ and led to Canon 72 in 1604 outlawing any attempt by ministers ‘to cast out any devil or devils, under the pain of the imputation of imposture […] and deposition from the ministry’.  The Canon highlights the prevalence of staged demonic possession at the time of Lear’s composition: in 1604, the high-profile case of Anne Gunter’s faked possession was brought to the attention of King James, who detailed his own ardent belief in the insidious presence of demonic entities within the practice of witchcraft in Daemonologie (1597), and who believed that false possession could be distinguished from real. James enlisted Harsnett to scrutinise Gunter, who soon confessed that she had been acting. As James Shapiro notes, ‘even as Brian and Anne Gunter were consulting Harsnett’s Declaration as a guide for faking demonic possession, so was Shakespeare. Crucial to Lear’s subplot is Edgar’s disguise […] – and this is Shakespeare’s innovation, not found in Sidney’s original – by taking [the shape of a] possessed beggar, the kind who is haunted by devils and who pricks himself with pins and nails’.  In disguise as Poor Tom, Edgar feigns possession by devils whose names are directly inspired by Harsnett’s Declaration. Edgar mentions derivations of multiple names which Harsnett includes in his discussion of the 1585-6 exorcisms led by Father Edmunds, which he states to be among the ‘strange names of their devils’: these include Smulkin (Smolkin), Obidicut (Haberdicut), Hobbididence (Hoberdidance), Mahu (Maho), Modo (Modu), Flibbertigibbet (Fliberdigibbet), Frateretto, and Hoppedance (Hoberdidance).
The link between Shakespeare and Harsnett’s texts is more than nominal, however: the scene at Dover Cliff ‘deepens the play’s brooding upon spurious exorcism’.  Edgar persuades Gloucester that he is standing on a cliff’s edge so that, after Gloucester leaps forward, he may believe he has been miraculously saved from death, redeeming his faith in the heavenly powers. After Gloucester jumps, Edgar pretends to have witnessed a demon leave his father’s body who ‘had a thousand noses,/ Horns welk’d and waved like the enridged sea’, and insists ‘It was some fiend; therefore, thou happy father,/ Think that the clearest gods […] have preserved thee’ (IV.vi.69-74). Edgar attributes the ‘miracle’ of Gloucester’s survival to a demonic exorcism performed by the gods themselves: Shakespeare thus constructs a parallel between Edgar’s manipulation of the blind Gloucester and the false promises of redemption and salvation made by Harsnett’s phony exorcists. Crucial to King Lear is the silence from those supernatural forces which the characters attempt to invoke. The silence of the gods when Lear appeals to them during the storm has an earthly parallel in Cordelia’s silence: each mark Lear’s tragic deterioration, and ‘all attempts by the characters to explain or relieve their sufferings through the invocation of transcendent forces are baffled’.  It is no coincidence, then, that the preternatural events in the play, Tom’s possession and the expulsion of a demon from Gloucester, are feigned.
Against the backdrop of Anglican repression of exorcists following a decades-long debate surrounding false demoniacs, Shakespeare draws on the theatricality of demonic possession: the theatre, that 'fraudulent institution’ which ‘signifies absence’ and ‘transforms the literal into the metaphorical’ is his ideal office for exploring the powers of human deception.  In Othello, fraudulent speech plays a crucial role in the staging of Iago’s villainous plot in Venice. Iago places his deceitful words into the mouths of other characters; as such, his manipulative control is almost ventriloquial in character, a quality associated with demonic possession. To return to the influence of Harsnett: the question of speech during possessions arises in his attempts, alongside other sceptics including John Deacon and John Walker, to debunk the legitimacy of exorcisms in a pamphlet war against renowned puritan exorcist John Darrell. Among their arguments included the charge of vocal fraud by the supposedly possessed: they explained the effect of otherworldly voices during the staged exorcisms to be a result of vocal affectation through practice, and accused the exorcists of feigning a multiplicity of voices at the scene.  That nefarious human deceit could result in the feigning of demonic ventriloquial control over the purported victim constituted part of Harsnett’s argument against exorcisms, and is an overlooked feature of Iago’s villainy in Othello. Whilst Shakespeare’s knowledge of these pamphlet exchanges with Darrell is undetermined, it has been long asserted that he interacted extensively with Harsnett’s works in the context of the exorcism debate.
Shakespeare uses pointedly diabolic language to describe the influence which Iago exerts over one particularly susceptible character, Cassio: Iago uses wine, ‘the invisible spirit’, which Cassio calls ‘the devil’ (II.iii.271-2) to weaken him, and Cassio explicitly describes the speech-altering effect of his drunkenness: ‘Drunk? And speak parrot?’ (II.iii.269). Shakespeare’s language here seems crafted to allude to the ways in which Iago later uses Cassio’s voice, unbeknownst to him, to dupe Othello: Iago speaks ‘through’ Cassio by staging a conversation within Othello’s earshot in which Cassio seemingly admits to an affair with Desdemona. As such, Iago seems to exercise dominion over the characters’ speech which Othello overhears, ‘possessing’ their voices in order to beguile his foe. Jacobean demonology held that ears were vessels through which devils could make incursions; perhaps Iago’s declarations that he will ‘abuse Othello’s ears’ and ‘pour […] pestilence into his ear’ are further aspects of his characterisation as quasi-demonic in terms of his manipulative power (I.iii.384 and II.iii.341). Iago’s spoken poison, poured into the porches of Othello’s ears like Claudius’s juice of cursed hebenon, achieves its desired narcotic effect: Othello becomes dependent upon Iago’s words, begging him not to withhold any speech. He beseeches Iago: ‘Thou dost conspire against thy friend, Iago,/ If thou […] mak’st his ear/ A stranger to thy thoughts’ (III.iii.146-8). By the end of the play, Iago seems to have instilled in Othello a murderous impulse, or awakened one which had been dormant. Since swearing the oath with Iago and invoking ‘black Vengeance from thy hollow hell’, Othello is plagued by ‘the strong conception/ That I do groan withal’ (III.iii.447-50). It is this ‘strong conception’, planted by Iago, which facilitates the hero’s downfall and compels him to speak more and more like Iago as the play progresses. A scene which most explicitly draws a parallel between Iago’s influence over Othello and demonic possession is Othello’s ‘fit’, as termed by Iago, or a ‘trance’ as described by the stage direction in IV.i. These two descriptors recall the demonic attack against Thomas Darling (1596), attended and recorded by Darrell. In the document describing A True Report of the Strange Torments of Thomas Darling, the word ‘trance’ is used thirty-four times, and the word ‘fit’ fifty times, and Darling’s is possessed by a demon who speaks ‘through’ him, saying: ‘I wil goe unto my master Belzebub, and he shall dubble their tungs’.  Othello’s fragmented speech is at one remove from this kind of demonic glossolalia, but his incoherence highlights that his mind is unsound and his language crude: ‘Pish! Noses, ears, and lips! Is’t possible? Confess? Handkerchief? O, devil!’ (IV.i.39-40). That final utterance, ‘O devil’, further brings an element of implied diabolic influence, heightening the quasi-demonic dimension of Iago’s manipulation of Othello.
In his portrayal of the subtle interplay between demonic possession and Iago’s malevolence in ventriloquial form, Shakespeare engages with the debate around exorcism between a sceptical Anglican administration and a large number of believers in exorcism, including recusants and Anglicans alike. Iago’s character is coloured with diabolic aspects, and the recurring depiction of Iago ‘taking over’ the voices of other characters by various manipulative means recalls the replacement of the demoniac’s voice by that of the demon; however, Iago is not literally or even explicitly demonic. Marvin Rosenberg finds that the ‘charge that he was a creature of subhuman evil, malignant without any motivation, an embodiment of Satan himself’ discounts the complexity of his character and the significance of his relationship with Othello, arguing convincingly that it is misguided to ‘make his implicit diabolism explicit’.  Shakespeare’s choice of setting for the play may lend itself to the discussion around Iago’s ambiguous relationship with diabolic power. The state of religious plurality in Venice, coupled with Venetian social implementation of the studia humanitatis, stood in stark contrast with the English religious landscape in the aftermath of the Reformation. The perception among English diplomats and travellers that Venice was spiritually destitute is well documented: Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice, wrote in a letter to James I that Venice is ‘a Signory that with long neutrality of State is at length (as it seemeth) almost slipped into a neutrality of religion’.  William Thomas explicitly associated this state of ‘neutrality’ with the commingling of Jews, Turks, and plural Christian denominations in the city, and likened this state of religious freedom with a tolerance of demonic practices: ‘If thou be a Jewe, a Turke, or beleevest in the divell (so thou spreade not thyne opinions abroade) thou arte free from all controllement.’  The Venetian setting, as it was regarded by the Jacobean audience, provides the play with a backdrop of scepticism and implied religious laxity; Shakespeare was likely playing off of this perception and furthering the danger of Iago’s ambiguously demonic power in a setting in which officials like the Duke exhibited the kind of scepticism to be expected from the official figurehead of a humanist republican city. Indeed, the Duke’s refusal to take seriously Brabantio’s religiously minded complaints highlights the Venetian inhabitants’ profound susceptibility to Iago’s potentially demonic influence – however, it remains that Iago’s manipulation of Brabantio through Roderigo is an entirely natural machination, a staged demonstration of his manipulative skill that is a distinct from the utterly depersonalising effect of real demonic possession. Indeed, Shapiro concludes that ‘Othello has no explanation for why this ‘demi-devil’ Iago ‘hath thus ensnared [his] soul and body’, since ‘devils should have cloven feet, but this one doesn’t’; Othello does look to Iago’s feet to ascertain if he is a devil, and finds no hooves.  In this moment, Shakespeare symbolically prompts the questions ‘where does evil come from?’ and ‘in what shape does it appear?’. Neither question is answered by an interpretation of Iago as literally demonic; rather, the answer lies in his humanity.
The interaction between Shakespeare’s theatre and Harsnett’s anti-exorcist treatise is most explicit in the scenes of Edgar’s feigned possession in Lear; these scenes can, and have, been read as an exploration of the spuriousness of the practice. It is difficult to attribute to Othello a polemical message against feigned possession and exorcism, but given the deliberately ambiguous extent of Iago’s diabolic characterisation – one which seems most likely reserved to symbolism – Shakespeare clearly takes advantage of the debate over demoniacs, one already steeped in stagecraft and ‘playing’. Iago is better interpreted not as an embodiment of evil itself, but of a human capacity for evil and a ‘propensity for cruelty’ which ‘cannot be so easily explained’, beyond being motivated by manifestations of jealousy and unfettered ambition. Iago’s victims, then, embody an equally human susceptibility to manipulation and deception.
1 Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare and the Exorcists.” In Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berekely: U. California P. 1988), p. 201.
2 James Shapiro, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (London: Simon & Schuster 2016), p. 88.
3 Greenblatt, p. 214
4 Ibid., pp. 220-221
6 Marion Gibson, Possession, Puritanism and Print: Darrell, Harsnett, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Exorcism Controversy (London: Routledge 2015), pp. 150-155.
7 John Darrell, The Most Wonderfull and True Storie, of a Certaine Witch Named Alse Gooderige of Stapen Hill, Who Was Arraigned and Conuicted at Darbie at the Assises There. As Also a True Report of the Strange Torments of Thomas Darling, a Boy of Thtrteene Yeres of Age, That Was Possessed by the Devill, With His Horrible Fittes and Terrible Apparitions by Him Uttered at Burton Upon Trent in the Countie of Stafford, and of His Marvellous Deliverance (London, 1597), pp. 34-5; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 6170.7.
8 Marvin Rosenberg, “In Defense of Iago.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 2, 1955, pp. 145–158. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2866395.
9 Sir Henry Wotton to Sir Robert Cecil, Venice, 23 May 1603, in The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ed. Logan Pearsall Smith, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 1:317-9, 318.
10 William Thomas, The Historie of Italie, a Boke Excedyng Profitable to Be Redde: Because It Intreateth of the Astate of Many and Divers Common Weales (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1549), pp. 73-113; EEBO STC (2d edn.)
11 James Shapiro, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (London: Simon & Schuster 2016), p.90.