Shakespeare and Demonology

[This is taken from Thomas Alfred Spalding's Elizabethan Demonology, originally published in 1880.]

1. It is impossible to understand and appreciate thoroughly the production of any great literary genius who lived and wrote in times far removed from our own, without a certain amount of familiarity, not only with the precise shades of meaning possessed by the vocabulary he made use of, as distinguished from the sense conveyed by the same words in the present day, but also with the customs and ideas, political, religious and moral, that predominated during the period in which his works were produced. Without such information, it will be found impossible, in many matters of the first importance, to grasp the writer’s true intent, and much will appear vague and lifeless that was full of point and vigor when it was first conceived; or, worse still, modern opinion upon the subject will be set up as the standard of interpretation, ideas will be forced into the writer’s sentences that could not by any manner of possibility have had place in his mind, and utterly false conclusions as to his meaning will be the result. Even the man who has had some experience in the study of an early literature, occasionally finds some difficulty in preventing the current opinions of his day from obtruding themselves upon his work and warping his judgment; to the general reader this must indeed be a frequent and serious stumbling-block.

2. This is a special source of danger in the study of the works of dramatic poets, whose very art lies in the representation of the current opinions, habits, and foibles of their times—in holding up the mirror to their age. It is true that, if their works are to live, they must deal with subjects of more than mere passing interest; but it is also true that many, and the greatest of them, speak upon questions of eternal interest in the particular light cast upon them in their times, and it is quite possible that the truth may be entirely lost from want of power to recognize it under the disguise in which it comes. A certain motive, for instance, that is an overpowering one in a given period, subsequently appears grotesque, weak, or even powerless; the consequent action becomes incomprehensible, and the actor is contemned; and a simile that appeared most appropriate in the ears of the author’s contemporaries, seems meaningless, or ridiculous, to later generations.

3. An example or two of this possibility of error, derived from works produced during the period with which it is the object of these pages to deal, will not be out of place here.

A very striking illustration of the manner in which a word may mislead is afforded by the oft-quoted line:

“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.”

By most readers the secondary, and, in the present day, almost universal, meaning of the word assume—“pretend that to be, which in reality has no existence;”—that is, in the particular case, “ape the chastity you do not in reality possess”—is understood in this sentence; and consequently Hamlet, and through him, Shakespeare, stand committed to the appalling doctrine that hypocrisy in morals is to be commended and cultivated. Now, such a proposition never for an instant entered Shakespeare's head. He used the word “assume” in this case in its primary and justest sense; ad-sumo, take to, acquire; and the context plainly shows that Hamlet meant that his mother, by self-denial, would gradually acquire that virtue in which she was so conspicuously wanting. Yet, for lack of a little knowledge of the history of the word employed, the other monstrous gloss has received almost universal and applauding acceptance.

4. This is a fair example of the style of error which a reader unacquainted with the history of the changes our language has undergone may fall into. Ignorance of changes in customs and morals may cause equal or greater error.

The difference between the older and more modern law, and popular opinion, relating to promises of marriage and their fulfillment, affords a striking illustration of the absurdities that attend upon the interpretation of the ideas of one generation by the practice of another. Perhaps no greater nonsense has been talked upon any subject than this one, especially in relation to Shakespeare's own marriage, by critics who seem to have thought that a fervent expression of acute moral feeling would replace and render unnecessary patient investigation.

In illustration of this difference, a play of Massinger’s, “The Maid of Honor,” may be advantageously cited, as the catastrophe turns upon this question of marriage contracts. Camiola, the heroine, having been precontracted by oath[1] to Bertoldo, the king’s natural brother, and hearing of his subsequent engagement to the Duchess of Sienna, determines to quit the world and take the veil. But before doing so, and without informing any one, except her confessor, of her intention, she contrives a somewhat dramatic scene for the purpose of exposing her false lover. She comes into the presence of the king and all the court, produces her contract, claims Bertoldo as her husband, and demands justice of the king, adjuring him that he shall not—

“Swayed or by favor or affection, By a false gloss or wrested comment, alter The true intent and letter of the law.”

[Footnote 1: Act v. sc. I.]

Now, the only remedy that would occur to the mind of the reader of the present day under such circumstances, would be an action for breach of promise of marriage, and he would probably be aware of the very recent origin of that method of procedure. The only reply, therefore, that he would expect from Roberto would be a mild and sympathetic assurance of inability to interfere; and he must be somewhat taken aback to find this claim of Camiola admitted as indisputable. The riddle becomes somewhat further involved when, having established her contract, she immediately intimates that she has not the slightest intention of observing it herself, by declaring her desire to take the veil.

5. This can only be explained by the rules current at the time regarding spousals. The betrothal, or handfasting, was, in Massinger’s time, a ceremony that entailed very serious obligations upon the parties to it.  There were two classes of spousals--sponsalia de futuro and sponsalia de praesenti: a promise of marriage in the future, and an actual declaration of present marriage. This last form of betrothal was, in fact, marriage, as far as the contracting parties were concerned.[1] It could not, even though not consummated, be dissolved by mutual consent; and a subsequent marriage, even though celebrated with religious rites, was utterly invalid, and could be set aside at the suit of the injured person.

[Footnote 1: Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, 1686, p. 236. In England the offspring were, nevertheless, illegitimate.]

The results entailed by sponsalia de futuro were less serious.  Although no spousals of the same nature could be entered into with a third person during the existence of the contract, yet it could be dissolved by mutual consent, and was dissolved by subsequent sponsalia in praesenti, or matrimony. But such spousals could be converted into valid matrimony by the cohabitation of the parties; and this, instead of being looked upon as reprehensible, seems to have been treated as a laudable action, and to be by all means encouraged.[1] In addition to this, completion of a contract for marriage de futuro confirmed by oath, if such a contract were not indeed indissoluble, as was thought by some, could at any rate be enforced against an unwilling party. But there were some reasons that justified the dissolution of sponsalia of either description. Affinity was one of these; and—what is to the purpose here, in England before the Reformation, and in those parts of the continent unaffected by it—the entrance into a religious order was another. Here, then, we have a full explanation of Camiola’s conduct.  She is in possession of evidence of a contract of marriage between herself and Bertoldo, which, whether in praesenti or in futuro, being confirmed by oath, she can force upon him, and which will invalidate his proposed marriage with the duchess. Having established her right, she takes the only step that can with certainty free both herself and Bertoldo from the bond they had created, by retiring into a nunnery.

[Footnote 1: Swinburne, p. 227.]

This explanation renders the action of the play clear, and at the same time shows that Shakespeare in his conduct with regard to his marriage may have been behaving in the most honorable and praiseworthy manner; as the bond, with the date of which the date of the birth of his first child is compared, is for the purpose of exonerating the ecclesiastics from any liability for performing the ecclesiastical ceremony, which was not at all a necessary preliminary to a valid marriage, so far as the husband and wife were concerned, although it was essential to render issue of the marriage legitimate.

6. These are instances of the deceptions that are likely to arise from the two fertile sources that have been specified. There can be no doubt that the existence of errors arising from the former source—misapprehension of the meaning of words—is very generally admitted, and effectual remedies have been supplied by modern scholars for those who will make use of them. Errors arising from the latter source are not so entirely recognized, or so securely guarded against.  But what has just been said surely shows that it is of no use reading a writer of a past age with merely modern conceptions; and, therefore, that if such a man’s works are worth study at all, they must be read with the help of the light thrown upon them by contemporary history, literature, laws, and morals. The student must endeavor to divest himself, as far as possible, of all ideas that are the result of a development subsequent to the time in which his author lived, and to place himself in harmony with the life and thoughts of the people of that age: sit down with them in their homes, and learn the sources of their loves, their hates, their fears, and see wherein domestic happiness, or lack of it, made them strong or weak; follow them to the market-place, and witness their dealings with their fellows—the honesty or baseness of them, and trace the cause; look into their very hearts, if it may be, as they kneel at the devotion they feel or simulate, and become acquainted with the springs of their dearest aspirations and most secret prayers.

7. A hard discipline, no doubt, but not more hard than salutary.  Salutary in two ways. First, as a test of the student’s own earnestness of purpose. For in these days of revival of interest in our elder literature, it has become much the custom for flippant persons, who are covetous of being thought “well-read” by their less-enterprising companions, to skim over the surface of the pages of the wisest and noblest of our great teachers, either not understanding, or misunderstanding them. “I have read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton,” is the sublimely satirical expression constantly heard from the mouths of those who, having read words set down by the men they name, have no more capacity for reading the hearts of the men themselves, through those words, than a blind man has for discerning the color of flowers. As a consequence of this flippancy of reading, numberless writers, whose works have long been consigned to a well-merited oblivion, have of late years been disinterred and held up for public admiration, chiefly upon the ground that they are ancient and unknown. The man who reads for the sake of having done so, not for the sake of the knowledge gained by doing so, finds as much charm in these petty writers as in the greater, and hence their transient and undeserved popularity. It would be well, then, for every earnest student, before beginning the study of any one having pretensions to the position of a master, and who is not of our own generation, to ask himself, “Am I prepared thoroughly to sift out and ascertain the true import of every allusion contained in this volume?” And if he cannot honestly answer “Yes,” let him shut the book, assured that he is not impelled to the study of it by a sincere thirst for knowledge, but by impertinent curiosity, or a shallow desire to obtain undeserved credit for learning.

8. The second way in which such a discipline will prove salutary is this: it will prevent the student from straying too far afield in his reading. The number of “classical” authors whose works will repay such severe study is extremely limited. However much enthusiasm he may throw into his studies, he will find that nine-tenths of our older literature yields too small a harvest of instruction to attract any but the pedant to expend so much labor upon them. The two great vices of modern reading will be avoided—flippancy on the one hand, and pedantry on the other.

9. The object, therefore, which I have had in view, is to attempt to throw some additional light upon a condition of thought, utterly different from any belief that has firm hold in the present generation, that was current and peculiarly prominent during the lifetime of the man who bears overwhelmingly the greatest name, either in our own or any other literature. It may be said, and perhaps with much force, that enough, and more than enough, has been written in the way of Shakespeare criticism. But is it not better that somewhat too much should be written upon such a subject than too little? We cannot expect that every one shall see all the greatness of Shakespeare's vast and complex mind—by one a truth will be grasped that has eluded the vigilance of others;--and it is better that those who can by no possibility grasp anything at all should have patient hearing, rather than that any additional light should be lost. The useless, lifeless criticism vanishes quietly away into chaos; the good remains quietly to be useful: and it is in reliance upon the justice and certainty of this law that I aim at bringing before the mind, as clearly as may be, a phase of belief that was continually and powerfully influencing Shakespeare during the whole of his life, but is now well-nigh forgotten or entirely misunderstood. If the endeavor is a useless and unprofitable one, let it be forgotten—I am content; but I hope to be able to show that an investigation of the subject does furnish us with a key which, in a manner, unlocks the secrets of Shakespeare's heart, and brings us closer to the real living man—to the very soul of him who, with hardly any history in the accepted sense of the word, has left us in his works a biography of far deeper and more precious meaning, if we will but understand it.

10. But it may be said that Shakespeare, of all men, is able to speak for himself without aid or comment. His works appeal to all, young and old, in every time, every nation. It is true; he can be understood. He is, to use again Ben Jonson’s oft-quoted words, “Not of an age, but for all time.” Yet he is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit and opinions of his era, that without a certain comprehension of the men of the Elizabethan period he cannot be understood fully. Indeed, his greatness is to a large extent due to his sympathy with the men around him, his power of clearly thinking out the answers to the all-time questions, and giving a voice to them that his contemporaries could understand;--answers that others could not for themselves formulate—could, perhaps, only vaguely and dimly feel after. To understand these answers fully, the language in which they were delivered must be first thoroughly mastered.


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