Elizabethan Demonology: An Essay in illustration of the belief in the existence of devils, and the powers possessed by them, as it was generally held during the period of the Reformation, and the times immediately succeedings; with special reference to Shakspere and his works, by Thomas Alfred Spalding
Reading this book was a somewhat strange feeling for me personally. The author wrote this essay of about 150 pages as a way of seeking to educating his audience in the beliefs that the Elizabethan era and Jacobean era had about demons. Part of the author’s point is to encourage the reader to recognize the topical importance of demonology and how it was viewed in the times that Shakespeare wrote to the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Admittedly, the author assumes that the reader does not know much about demonology at all, but it is a bit strange when the reader of the book does have beliefs in demonology that are closer to the Elizabethan era than they are to the presumed audience that the writer has, which is something rather disconcerting when the reader tries to convince the reader that the people of the 16th and 17th centuries actually believed in demons as if that was a strange or unusual belief to have in the 19th century, to say nothing about the 21st century.
This book is divided into four parts and takes up about 150 pages or so worth of material. The table of contents to the book is surprisingly and impressively detailed. The first part of the book discusses changes in laws regarding marriage and the importance of understanding demonology if we are to understand Shakespeare’s view of the spirit world as it relates to his writing, a subject that was and is not well known for the last couple of centuries. The second part of the book then discusses the importance of the supernatural to various religious traditions and how it was that Catholicism dealt with the religious beliefs of the heathen they were attempting to convert. The third part of the book then gives a lengthy discussion of the portrayal of spirits in Shakespeare’s writings and discussing of how it relates to the common view of such things rather than the view that corresponded to the rigorous Protestant view. This includes a discussion of ghosts (as in Hamlet) fairies like Puck or Ariel, witches in Macbeth, and the various demons discussed in King Lear. Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the distinction between fairies and demons and the influence of the reformation on the popularity of devils and views of hell.
Overall this essay is a good short book and demonstrates the author’s willingness to take his sources seriously. Little of this book consists on the author’s mere opinion, which is a substantial base of the sort of literary criticism that people frequently write about. This book is instead a triumph of wide and deep reading about the subject of demonology in the Elizabethan world and the author taking his sources seriously and revealing what they say to an audience that has little understanding of the context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. Over and over again the author is able to successfully demonstrate that what appears to be strange to contemporary readers of King Lear or Macbeth makes a lot more sense when one takes it from the point of view of the author writing about contemporary debates regarding the spirit world. King James, we must remember, was himself a writer on the subject of demonology and fancied himself an expert in the subject. And the reader who is able to understand this work will be much better informed about the influence of 16th and 17th century debates and popular culture on Shakespeare’s writing about the spirit world.