It is in this spirit that I now enter upon the second division of the subject in hand, in which I shall try to indicate the chief features of the belief in demonology as it existed during the Elizabethan period. These will be taken up in three main heads: the classification, physical appearance, and powers of the evil spirits.
It is difficult to discover any classification of devils as well authenticated and as universally received as that of the angels introduced by Dionysius the Areopagite, which was subsequently imported into the creed of the Western Church, and popularized in Elizabethan times by Dekker’s “Hierarchie.” The subject was one which, from its nature, could not be settled ex cathedra, and consequently the subject had to grow up as best it might, each writer adopting the arrangement that appeared to him most suitable. There was one rough but popular classification into greater and lesser devils. The former branch was subdivided into classes of various grades of power, the members of which passed under the titles of kings, dukes, marquises, lords, captains, and other dignities. Each of these was supposed to have a certain number of legions of the latter class under his command. These were the evil spirits who appeared most frequently on the earth as the emissaries of the greater fiends, to carry out their evil designs. The more important class kept for the most part in a mystical seclusion, and only appeared upon earth in cases of the greatest emergency, or when compelled to do so by conjuration. To the class of lesser devils belonged the bad angel which, together with a good one, was supposed to be assigned to every person at birth, to follow him through life—the one to tempt, the other to guard from temptation; so that a struggle similar to that recorded between Michael and Satan for the body of Moses was raging for the soul of every existing human being. This was not a mere theory, but a vital active belief, as the beautiful well-known lines at the commencement of the eighth canto of the second book of “The Faerie Queene,” and the use made of these opposing spirits in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” and in “The Virgin Martyr,” by Massinger and Dekker, conclusively show.
Another classification, which seems to retain a reminiscence of the origin of devils from pagan deities, is effected by reference to the localities supposed to be inhabited by the different classes of evil spirits. According to this arrangement we get six classes:--
(1.) Devils of the fire, who wander in the region near the moon.
(2.) Devils of the air, who hover round the earth.
(3.) Devils of the earth; to whom the fairies are allied.
(4.) Devils of the water.
(5.) Submundane devils.
These devils' power and desire to injure mankind appear to have increased with the proximity of their location to the earth’s centre; but this classification had nothing like the hold upon the popular mind that the former grouping had, and may consequently be dismissed with this mention.
The greater devils, or the most important of them, had distinguishing names—strange, uncouth names; some of them telling of a heathenish origin; others inexplicable and almost unpronounceable—as Ashtaroth, Bael, Belial, Zephar, Cerberus, Phoenix, Balam (why he?), and Haagenti, Leraie, Marchosias, Gusoin, Glasya Labolas. Scot enumerates seventy-nine, the above amongst them, and he does not by any means exhaust the number. As each arch-devil had twenty, thirty, or forty legions of inferior spirits under his command, and a legion was composed of six hundred and sixty-six devils, it is not surprising that the latter did not obtain distinguishing names until they made their appearance upon earth, when they frequently obtained one from the form they loved to assume; for example, the familiars of the witches in “Macbeth”—Paddock (toad), Graymalkin (cat), and Harpier (harpy, possibly). Is it surprising that, with resources of this nature at his command, such an adept in the art of necromancy as Owen Glendower should hold Harry Percy, much to his disgust, at the least nine hours “In reckoning up the several devils' names That were his lackeys”?
Of the twenty devils mentioned by Shakespeare, four only belong to the class of greater devils. Hecate, the principal patroness of witchcraft, is referred to frequently, and appears once upon the scene. The two others are Amaimon and Barbazon, both of whom are mentioned twice. Amaimon was a very important character, being no other than one of the four kings. Ziminar was King of the North, and is referred to in “Henry VI. Part I.;” Gorson of the South; Goap of the West; and Amaimon of the East. He is mentioned in “Henry IV. Part I.,” and “Merry Wives.” Barbazon also occurs in the same passage in the latter play, and again in “Henry V.”--a fact that does to a slight extent help to bear out the otherwise ascertained chronological sequence of these plays. The remainder of the devils belong to the second class. Nine of these occur in “King Lear,” and will be referred to again when the subject of possession is touched upon.
All the lesser devils seem to have possessed a normal form, which was as hideous and distorted as fancy could render it. To the conception of an angel imagination has given the only beautiful appendage the human body does not possess—wings; to that of a devil it has added all those organs of the brute creation that are most hideous or most harmful. Advancing civilization has almost exterminated the belief in a being with horns, cloven hoofs, goggle eyes, and scaly tail, that was held up to many yet living as the avenger of childish disobedience in their earlier days, together perhaps with some strength of conviction of the moral hideousness of the evil he was intended, in a rough way, to typify; but this hazily retained impression of the Author of Evil was the universal and entirely credited conception of the ordinary appearance of those bad spirits who were so real to our ancestors of Elizabethan days. “Some are so carnallie minded,” says Scot, “that a spirit is no sooner spoken of, but they thinke of a blacke man with cloven feet, a paire of hornes, a taile, and eies as big as a bason.” Scot, however, was one of a very small minority in his opinion as to the carnal-mindedness of such a belief. He in his day, like those in every age and country who dare to hold convictions opposed to the creed of the majority, was a dangerous skeptic; his book was publicly burnt by the common hangman; and not long afterwards a royal author wrote a treatise “against the damnable doctrines of two principally in our age; whereof the one, called Scot, an Englishman, is not ashamed in public print to deny that there can be such a thing as witchcraft, and so maintains the old error of the Sadducees in denying of spirits.” The abandoned impudence of the man!--and the logic of his royal opponent!
Spenser has clothed with horror this conception of the appearance of a fiend, just as he has enshrined in beauty the belief in the guardian angel. It is worthy of remark that he describes the devil as dwelling beneath the altar of an idol in a heathen temple. Prince Arthur strikes the image thrice with his sword—
“And the third time, out of an hidden shade, There forth issewed from under th' altar's smoake A dreadfull feend with fowle deformed looke, That stretched itselfe as it had long lyen still; And her long taile and fethers strongly shooke, That all the temple did with terrour fill; Yet him nought terrifide that feared nothing ill.
“An huge great beast it was, when it in length Was stretched forth, that nigh filled all the place, And seemed to be of infinite great strength; Horrible, hideous, and of hellish race, Borne of the brooding of Echidna base, Or other like infernall Furies kinde, For of a maide she had the outward face
To hide the horrour which did lurke behinde The better to beguile whom she so fond did finde. “Thereto the body of a dog she had, Full of fell ravin and fierce greedinesse; A lion's clawes, with power and rigour clad To rende and teare whatso she can oppresse; A dragon's taile, whose sting without redresse Full deadly wounds whereso it is empight, And eagle’s wings for scope and speedinesse
That nothing may escape her reaching might, Whereto she ever list to make her hardy flight.”
The dramatists of the period make frequent references to this belief, but nearly always by way of ridicule. It is hardly to be expected that they would share in the grosser opinions held by the common people in those times—common, whether king or clown. In “The Virgin Martyr,” Harpax is made to say—
“I’ll tell you what now of the devil;
He's no such horrid creature, cloven-footed, Black, saucer-eyed, his nostrils breathing fire, As these lying Christians make him.”
But his opinion was, perhaps, a prejudiced one. In Ben Jonson's “The Devil is an Ass,” when Fitzdottrell, doubting Pug’s statement as to his infernal character, says, “I looked on your feet afore; you cannot cozen me; your shoes are not cloven, sir, you are whole hoofed;” Pug, with great presence of mind, replies, “Sir, that’s a popular error deceives many.” So too Othello, when he is questioning whether Iago is a devil or not, says—
“I look down to his feet, but that’s a fable.”
And 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 parted, thus:--
“As I stood here below, methought his eyes Were two full moons: he had a thousand noses; Horns whelked and waved like the enridged sea: It was some fiend.”
It can hardly be but that the “thousand noses” are intended as a satirical hit at the enormity of the popular belief.
In addition to this normal type, common to all these devils, each one seems to have had, like the greater devils, a favorite form in which he made his appearance when conjured; generally that of some animal, real or imagined. It was telling of “the moldwarp and the ant, of the dreamer Merlin, and his prophecies; And of a dragon and a finless fish, A clipwinged griffin, and a moulten raven, A couching lion, and a ramping cat,” that annoyed Harry Hotspur so terribly; and neither in this allusion, which was suggested by a passage in Holinshed, nor in “Macbeth,” where he makes the three witches conjure up their familiars in the shapes of an armed head, a bloody child, and a child crowned, has Shakespeare gone beyond the fantastic conceptions of the time.
But the third proposed section, which deals with the powers and functions exercised by the evil spirits, is by far the most interesting and important; and the first branch of the series is one that suggests itself as a natural sequence upon what has just been said as to the ordinary shapes in which devils appeared, namely, the capacity to assume at will any form they chose.
In the early and middle ages it was universally believed that a devil could, of his own inherent power, call into existence any manner of body that it pleased his fancy to inhabit, or that would most conduce to the success of any contemplated evil. In consequence of this belief the devils became the rivals, indeed the successful rivals, of Jupiter himself in the art of physical tergiversation. There was, indeed, a tradition that a devil could not create any animal form of less size than a barley-corn, and that it was in consequence of this incapacity that the magicians of Egypt—those indubitable devil-worshippers—failed to produce lice, as Moses did, although they had been so successful in the matter of the serpents and the frogs; “a verie gross absurditie,” as Scot judiciously remarks. This, however, would not be a serious limitation upon the practical usefulness of the power.
The great Reformation movement wrought a change in this respect. Men began to accept argument and reason, though savoring of special pleading of the schools, in preference to tradition, though never so venerable and well authenticated; and the leaders of the revolution could not but recognize the absurdity of laying down as infallible dogma that God was the creator of all things, and then insisting with equal vehemence, by way of postulate, that the devil was the originator of some. The thing was gross and palpable in its absurdity, and had to be done away with as quickly as might be. But how? On the other hand, it was clear as daylight that the devil did appear in various forms to tempt and annoy the people of God—was at that very time doing so in the most open and unabashed manner. How were reasonable men to account for this manifest conflict between rigorous logic and more rigorous fact? There was a prolonged and violent controversy upon the point—the Reformers not seeing their way to agree amongst themselves—and tedious as violent. Sermons were preached; books were written; and, when argument was exhausted, unpleasant epithets were bandied about, much as in the present day, in similar cases. The result was that two theories were evolved, both extremely interesting as illustrations of the hair-splitting, chop-logic tendency which, amidst all their straightforwardness, was so strongly characteristic of the Elizabethans. The first suggestion was, that although the devil could not, of his own inherent power, create a body, he might get hold of a dead carcass and temporarily restore animation, and so serve his turn. This belief was held, amongst others, by the erudite King James, and is pleasantly satirized by sturdy old Ben Jonson in “The Devil is an Ass,” where Satan (the greater devil, who only appears in the first scene just to set the storm a-brewing) says to Pug (Puck, the lesser devil, who does all the mischief; or would have done it, had not man, in those latter times, got to be rather beyond the devils in evil than otherwise), not without a touch of regret at the waning of his power—
“You must get a body ready-made, Pug, I can create you none;”
But the theory, though ingenious, was insufficient. The devil would occasionally appear in the likeness of a living person; and how could that be accounted for? Again, an evil spirit, with all his ingenuity, would find it hard to discover the dead body of a griffin, or a harpy, or of such eccentricity as was affected by the before-mentioned Balam; and these and other similar forms were commonly favored by the inhabitants of the netherworld.
The second theory, therefore, became the more popular amongst the learned, because it left no one point unexplained. The divines held that although the power of the Creator had in no wise been delegated to the Devil, yet he was, in the course of providence, permitted to exercise a certain supernatural influence over the minds of men, whereby he could persuade them that they really saw a form that had no material objective existence. Here was a position incontrovertible, not on account of the arguments by which it could be supported, but because it was impossible to reason against it; and it slowly, but surely, took hold upon the popular mind. Indeed, the elimination of the diabolic factor leaves the modern skeptical belief that such apparitions are nothing more than the result of disease, physical or mental.
The devils had an inconvenient habit of appearing in the guise of an ecclesiastic--at least, so the churchmen were careful to insist, especially when busying themselves about acts of temptation that would least become the holy robe they had assumed. This was the ecclesiastical method of accounting for certain stories, not very creditable to the priesthood, that had too inconvenient a basis of evidence to be dismissed as fabricatious. But the honest lay public seem to have thought, with downright old Chaucer, that there was more in the matter than the priests chose to admit. This feeling we, as usual, find reflected in the dramatic literature of our period. In “The Troublesome Raigne of King John,” an old play upon the basis of which Shakespeare constructed his own “King John,” we find this question dealt with in some detail. In the elder play, the Bastard does “the shaking of bags of hoarding abbots,” coram populo, and thereby discloses a phase of monastic life judiciously suppressed by Shakespeare. Philip sets at liberty much more than “imprisoned angels”—according to one account, and that a monk’s, imprisoned beings of quite another sort. “Faire Alice, the nonne,” having been discovered in the chest where the abbot’s wealth was supposed to be concealed, proposes to purchase pardon for the offence by disclosing the secret hoard of a sister nun. Her offer being accepted, a friar is ordered to force the box in which the treasure is supposed to be secreted. On being questioned as to its contents, he answers—
“Frier Laurence, my lord, now holy water help us! Some witch or some divell is sent to delude us:
Haud credo Laurentius that thou shouldst be pen’d thus In the presse of a nun; we are all undone, nd brought to discredence, if thou be Frier Laurence.”
Unfortunately it proves indubitably to be that good man; and he is ordered to execution, not, however, without some hope of redemption by money payment; for times are hard, and cash in hand not to be despised.
It is amusing to notice, too, that when assuming the clerical garb, the devil carefully considered the religious creed of the person to whom he intended to make himself known. The Catholic accounts of him show him generally assuming the form of a Protestant parson; whilst to those of the reformed creed he invariably appeared in the habit of a Catholic priest. In the semblance of a friar the devil is reported (by a Protestant) to have preached, upon a time, “a verie Catholic sermon;” so good, indeed, that a priest who was a listener could find no fault with the doctrine—a stronger basis of fact than one would have imagined for Shakespeare's saying, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
It is not surprising that of human forms, that of a negro or moor should be considered a favorite one with evil spirits. Iago makes allusion to this when inciting Brabantio to search for his daughter. The power of coming in the likeness of humanity generally is referred to somewhat cynically in “Timon of Athens,” thus—
“Varro’s Servant. 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 more 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.”
“All shapes that man goes up and down in” seem indeed to have been at the devils' control. So entirely was this the case, that to Constance even the fair Blanche was none other than the devil tempting Louis “in likeness of a new uptrimmed bride;” and perhaps not without a certain prophetic feeling of the fitness of things, as it may possibly seem to some of our more warlike politicians, evil spirits have been known to appear as Russians.
But all the “shapes that man goes up and down in” did not suffice. The forms of the whole of the animal kingdom seem to have been at the devils' disposal; and, not content with these, they seem to have sought further for unlikely shapes to assume. Poor Caliban complains that Prospero's spirits “Lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark,” just as Ariel and Puck (Will-o'-th'-wisp) mislead their victims; and that “For every trifle are they set upon me: Sometimes like apes, that mow and chatter at me, And after bite me; then like hedgehogs, which Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount Their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I All wound with adders, who, with cloven tongues, Do hiss me into madness.”
And doubtless the scene which follows this soliloquy, in which Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano mistake one another in turn for evil spirits, fully flavored with fun as it still remains, had far more point for the audiences at the Globe—to whom a stray devil or two was quite in the natural order of things under such circumstances—than it can possibly possess for us. In this play, Ariel, Prospero's familiar, besides appearing in his natural shape, and dividing into flames, and behaving in such a manner as to cause young Ferdinand to leap into the sea, crying, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!” assumes the forms of a water-nymph, a harpy, and also the goddess Ceres; while the strange shapes, masquers, and even the hounds that hunt and worry the would-be king and viceroys of the island, are Ariel's “meaner fellows.”
Puck's favorite forms seem to have been more outlandish than Ariel's, as might have been expected of that malicious little spirit. He beguiles “the fat and bean-fed horse” by “Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: And sometimes lurk I in a gossip's bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab; And when she drinks, against her lips I bob, And on her withered dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me; Then slip I from her, and down topples she.”
“Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound, A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire; And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn, Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.”
With regard to this last passage, it is worthy of note that in the year 1584, strange news came out of Somersetshire, entitled “A Dreadful Discourse of the Dispossessing of one Margaret Cowper, at Ditchet, from a Devil in the Likeness of a Headless Bear.
In Heywood and Brome's “Witch of Edmonton,” the devil appears in the likeness of a black dog, and takes his part in the dialogue, as if his presence were a matter of quite ordinary occurrence, not in any way calling for special remark. However gross and absurd this may appear, it must be remembered that this play is, in its minutest details, merely a dramatization of the events duly proved in a court of law, to the satisfaction of twelve Englishmen, in the year 1612. The shape of a fly, too, was a favorite one with the evil spirits; so much so that the term “fly” became a common synonym for a familiar. The word “Beelzebub” was supposed to mean “the king of flies.” 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 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 the victims’ mouths the nails and pins which they afterwards vomited. There is an allusion to this belief in the fly-killing scene in “Titus Andronicus.”
But it was not invariably a repulsive or ridiculous form that was assumed by these enemies of mankind. Their ingenuity would have been but little worthy of commendation had they been content to appear as ordinary human beings, or animals, or even in fancy costume. The Swiss divine Bullinger, after a lengthy and elaborately learned argument as to the particular day in the week of creation upon which it was most probable that God called the angels into being, says, by way of peroration, “Let us lead a holy and angel-like life in the sight of God's holy angels. Let us watch, lest he that transfigureth and turneth himself into an angel of light under a good show and likeness deceive us.” They even went so far, according to Cranmer, as to appear in the likeness of Christ, in their desire to mislead mankind; for—
“When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows.”
But one of the most ordinary forms supposed at this period to be assumed by devils was that of a dead friend of the object of the visitation. Before the Reformation, the belief that the spirits of the departed had power at will to revisit the scenes and companions of their earthly life was almost universal. The reforming divines distinctly denied the possibility of such a revisitation, and accounted for the undoubted phenomena, as usual, by attributing them to the devil. James I. says that the devil, when appearing to men, frequently assumed the form of a person newly dead, “to make them believe that it was some good spirit that appeared to them, either to forewarn them of the death of their friend, or else to discover unto them the will of the defunct, or what was the way of his slauchter.... For he dare not so illude anie that knoweth that neither can the spirit of the defunct returne to his friend, nor yet an angel use such formes.” He further explains that such devils follow mortals to obtain two ends: “the one is the tinsell (loss) of their life by inducing them to such perrilous places at such times as he either follows or possesses them. The other thing that he preases to obtain is the tinsell of their soule.”
But the belief in the appearance of ghosts was too deeply rooted in the popular mind to be extirpated, or even greatly affected, by a dogmatic declaration. The masses went on believing as they always had believed, and as their fathers had believed before them, in spite of the Reformers, and to their no little discontent. Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, in a letter to Archbishop Parker, dated 1564, complains that, “among other things that be amiss here in your great cares, ye shall understand that in Blackburn there is a fantastical (and as some say, lunatic) young man, which says that he has spoken with one of his neighbors that died four year since, or more. Divers times he says he has seen him, and talked with him, and took with him the curate, the schoolmaster, and other neighbors, who all affirm that they see him. These things be so common here that none in authority will gainsay it, but rather believe and confirm it, that everybody believes it. If I had known how to examine with authority, I would have done it.” Here is a little glimpse at the practical troubles of a well-intentioned bishop of the sixteenth century that is surely worth preserving.
There were thus two opposite schools of belief in this matter of the supposed spirits of the departed:--the conservative, which held to the old doctrine of ghosts; and the reforming, which denied the possibility of ghosts, and held to the theory of devils. In the midst of this disagreement of doctors it was difficult for a plain man to come to a definite conclusion upon the question; and, in consequence, all who were not content with quiet dogmatism were in a state of utter uncertainty upon a point not entirely without importance in practical life as well as in theory. This was probably the position in which the majority of thoughtful men found themselves; and it is accurately reflected in three of Shakespeare's plays, which, for other and weightier reasons, are grouped together in the same chronological division—“Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” and “Hamlet.” In the first-mentioned play, Brutus, who afterwards confesses his belief that the apparition he saw at Sardis was the ghost of Caesar, when in the actual presence of the spirit, says—
The same doubt flashes across the mind of Macbeth on the second entrance of Banquo’s ghost—which is probably intended to be a devil appearing at the instigation of the witches—when he says, with evident allusion to a diabolic power before referred to—
“What man dare, I dare:
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, The armed rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger, Take any shape but that.”
But it is in “Hamlet” that the undecided state of opinion upon this subject is most clearly reflected; and hardly enough influence has been allowed to the doubts arising from this conflict of belief, as urgent or deterrent motives in the play, because this temporary condition of thought has been lost sight of. It is exceedingly interesting to note how frequently the characters who have to do with the apparition of the late King Hamlet alternate between the theories that it is a ghost and that it is a devil which they have seen. The whole subject has such an important bearing upon any attempt to estimate the character of Hamlet, that no excuse need be offered for once again traversing such well-trodden ground.
Horatio, it is true, is introduced to us in a state of determined skepticism; but this lasts for a few seconds only, vanishing upon the first entrance of the specter, and never again appearing. His first inclination seems to be to the belief that he is the victim of a diabolical illusion; for he says—
“What art thou, that usurp’st this time of night, Together with that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march?”
And Marcellus seems to be of the same opinion, for immediately before, he exclaims—
“Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio;”
having apparently the same idea as had Coachman Toby, in “The Night-Walker,” when he exclaims—
“Let’s call the butler up, for he speaks Latin, And that will daunt the devil.”
On the second appearance of the illusion, however, Horatio leans to the opinion that it is really the ghost of the late king that he sees, probably in consequence of the conversation that has taken place since the former visitation; and he now appeals to the ghost for information that may enable him to procure rest for his wandering soul. Again, during his interview with Hamlet, when he discloses the secret of the specter's appearance, though very guarded in his language, Horatio clearly intimates his conviction that he has seen the spirit of the late king.
The same variation of opinion is visible in Hamlet himself; but, as might be expected, with much more frequent alternations. When first he hears Horatio’s story, he seems to incline to the belief that it must be the work of some diabolic agency:
“If it assume my noble father’s person, I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape, And bid me hold my peace;”
although, characteristically, in almost the next line he exclaims—
“My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well,” etc.
This, too, seems to be the dominant idea in his mind when he is first brought face to face with the apparition and exclaims—
“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!--
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned, Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell, Be thine intents wicked or charitable, Thou com’st in such a questionable shape, That I will speak to thee.”
For it cannot be supposed that Hamlet imagined that a “goblin damned” could actually be the spirit of his dead father; and, therefore, the alternative in his mind must have been that he saw a devil assuming his father’s likeness—a form which the Evil One knew would most incite Hamlet to intercourse. But even as he speaks, the other theory gradually obtains ascendancy in his mind, until it becomes strong enough to induce him to follow the spirit.
But whilst the devil-theory is gradually relaxing its hold upon Hamlet's mind, it is fastening itself with ever-increasing force upon the minds of his companions; and Horatio expresses their fears in words that are worth comparing with those just quoted from James’s “Daemonologie.” Hamlet responds to their entreaties not to follow the specter thus—
“Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin’s fee;
And, for my soul, what can it do to that, Being a thing immortal as itself?”
And Horatio answers—
“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 other horrible form, Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness?”
The idea that the devil assumed the form of a dead friend in order to procure the “tinsell” of both body and soul of his victim is here vividly before the minds of the speakers of these passages.
The subsequent scene with the ghost convinces Hamlet that he is not the victim of malign influences—as far as he is capable of conviction, for his very first words when alone restate the doubt:
and the enthusiasm with which he is inspired in consequence of this interview is sufficient to support his certainty of conviction until the time for decisive action again arrives. It is not until the idea of the play-test occurs to him that his doubts are once more aroused; and then they return with redoubled force:--
“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.”
And he again alludes to this in his speech to Horatio, just before the entry of the king and his train to witness the performance of the players.
This question was, in Shakespeare's time, quite a legitimate element of uncertainty in the complicated problem that presented itself for solution to Hamlet’s ever-analyzing mind; and this being so, an apparent inconsistency in detail which has usually been charged upon Shakespeare with regard to this play, can be satisfactorily explained. Some critics are never weary of exclaiming that Shakespeare's genius was so vast and uncontrollable that it must not be tested, or expected to be found conformable to the rules of art that limit ordinary mortals; that there are many discrepancies and errors in his plays that are to be condoned upon that account; in fact, that he was a very careless and slovenly workman. A favorite instance of this is taken from “Hamlet,” where Shakespeare actually makes the chief character of the play talk of death as “the bourne from whence no traveller returns” not long after he has been engaged in a prolonged conversation with such a returned traveler.
Now, no artist, however distinguished or however transcendent his genius, is to be pardoned for insincere workmanship, and the greater the man, the less his excuse. Errors arising from want of information (and Shakespeare commits these often) may be pardoned if the means for correcting them be unattainable; but errors arising from mere carelessness are not to be pardoned. Further, in many of these cases of supposed contradiction there is an element of carelessness indeed; but it lies at the door of the critic, not of the author; and this appears to be true in the present instance. The dilemma, as it presented itself to the contemporary mind, must be carefully kept in view. Either the spirits of the departed could revisit this world, or they could not. If they could not, then the apparitions mistaken for them must be devils assuming their forms. Now, the tendency of Hamlet’s mind, immediately before the great soliloquy on suicide, is decidedly in favor of the latter alternative. The last words that he has uttered, which are also the last quoted here, are those in which he declares most forcibly that he believes the devil-theory possible, and consequently that the dead do not return to this world; and his utterances in his soliloquy are only an accentuate and outcome of this feeling of uncertainty. The very root of his desire for death is that he cannot discard with any feeling of certitude the Protestant doctrine that no traveler does after death return from the invisible world, and that the so-called ghosts are a diabolic deception.