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Enfers et délices à la Renaissance

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Franck Lessay
, 
François Laroque

III - Enfers et délices : de Chaucer à Webster

Demonic Possession and Selfhood in The Comedy of Errors

Jan Franz Van Dijkhizen

Résumé

Dans La comédie des erreurs, la possession démoniaque occasionne la perte de contrôle de soi et une confusion identitaire. Le moi retrouvé dans les scènes finales se situe dans l’intériorité, dans le secret de la mémoire individuelle. Dans la pièce, l’exorcisme pratiqué par le Dr Pinch s’avère en effet incapable de guérir. Ce rite rappelle la contreverse qui faisait alors rage en Angleterre à propos des questions de possession et d’exorcisme. Pour l’Eglise d’Angleterre, il s’agissait d’un rite suspect et elle fut à l’origine d’un certain nombre de pamphlets qui furent lancés contre les exorcistes. La forme d’identité que la pièce célèbre est analogue à l’intériorité que l’on trouve dans les traités protestants qui rejettent l’exorcisme. Elle se fonde sur le rejet de la théologie pratique des catholiques et des rites d’exorcisme pratiqués par les puritains.

Texte intégral

  • 1 William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, in Stephen Greenblatt et al. (eds.), The Norton Shakesp (...)

1The terms “hell” and “delights” can be readily employed in a reading of The Comedy of Errors. Bewildered by the coincidences and identity confusions in the play, Antipholus of Syracuse wonders whether he is “in earth, in heaven, or in hell,” while Antipholus' servant Dromio claims that his master is “in Tartar limbo, worse than hell”1. The torments of Antipholus' “hell” serve as a foil for the “delights”, if you like, of the play's happy end. The comic resolution of The Comedy of Errors is partly a liberation from the hell of its preceding scenes. In addition to references to hell, The Comedy of Errors abounds in allusions to magic, witchcraft and, most relevant for this article, demonic possession. The nature of the “hell” in which Antipholus finds himself can be illuminated by looking at the ways in which The Comedy of Errors employs the idea of demonic possession. Within the play, demonic possession forms an image of self-loss and identity confusion. It is this loss of self with which the two Antipholuses are struggling, and which forms the main “problem” which the play needs to resolve before it can reach closure. The exorcism carried out by Dr Pinch is one of the attempts to heal the battered selves of the characters in the play, and one of the ways, therefore, in which the play attempts to achieve closure.

2The self regained in the closing scenes of the play is located in the inner life, in the individual memory. Moreover, the play represents exorcism as an ineffective healing ritual; Dr Pinch is unsuccessful in his attempt to cure Antipholus. This rejection of exorcism is in keeping with the notion of inner selfhood which The Comedy of Errors puts forward. As we will see, in contemporary accounts of exorcism, possession was recognised by external, bodily signs, rather than by an inner, spiritual State. Similarly, a ritual of exorcism was directed first and foremost at the human body. My basic point will be that The Comedy of Errors cannot acknowledge exorcism as a legitimate healing method because the play locates selfhood in an inwardness which a ritual of exorcism cannot accommodate.

3The exorcism carried out by Dr Pinch is partly an evocation of the controversy over possession and exorcism, which was generated by Puritan and Roman Catholic exorcisms in the 1580s and 90s. The Established Church viewed rituals of exorcism with suspicion, and waged a pamphlet war against exorcists such as the Puritan John Darrel. One of the reasons why the Church of England dismissed exorcists as quacks was because exorcism posited the body as the central site of religious experience. In their writings against exorcism, by contrast, conformist Protestants stress the inner life as the proper locus of spirituality. I want to read the rejection of exorcism in The Comedy of Errors in the light of this controversy. As I hope to show, the form of selfhood which the play celebrates is analogous to the inwardness found in conformist Protestant dismissals of exorcism. This inner selfhood is grounded, moreover, in a rejection of the physical theology of Roman Catholic and Puritan rituals of exorcism.

4In the second scene of The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Syracuse addresses his own experience of self-loss in terms which are significant for the play as a whole:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
(1.2.33-40)

  • 2 Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Ithac (...)
  • 3 The editors of The Norton Shakespeare gloss “content” in 1.2.33 as “pleasures, peace”. Within the (...)

5As appears from these lines, The Comedy of Errors stages a quest for self-identity, an attempt to restore a battered self. This dimension of the play has also been stressed by Barbara Freedman, who has argued that “The Comedy of Errors dramatizes a nightmare vision in comic form — a truly terrifying fantasy of a sudden, inexplicable disjunction between personal and communal accounts of one's identity,” and by Stephen Greenblatt, who links the play to the famous story of Martin Guerre, and claims that “the questions raised by the strange case of Martin Guerre linger unresolved at the end of Shakespeare's comedy: What is the self? What are the guarantees of identity? Who possesses a name and by what right? How is individuality secured?”2 Antipholus describes his trauma as self-loss, and as a form of self-absence, a hollowness at the core of his being: he claims to be without “content.”3 Moreover, Antipholus'anxiety is rooted in a lack of differentiation of the self vis-à-vis its environment: he is in danger of being engulfed by the world.

  • 4 See for instance R. A. Foakes' introduction to the Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors, London, (...)
  • 5 Gareth Roberts has analysed the role of the Circe myth in The Comedy of Errors, and argues that it (...)

6Read in the light of Antipholus' soliloquy, the farcical identity mix-ups in the play acquire an acute psychological dimension: they serve as so many pointers to the traumatic disintegration of the self with which Antipholus is struggling. As a number of critics have observed, the above passage is the first of a whole range of references in the play to the potential mutation or even disintegration of human identity.4 In some instances, such transformations are linked to erotic desire, and refer to a transformation of male identity by women. At his first meeting with Luciana, Antipholus of Syracuse attaches to her words a supernaturally transformative power: “Are you a god? would you create me new? / Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield” (III.2.39-40). The meeting between Antipholus and Luciana finds a comical counterpart in the kitchen-maid's accosting of Dromio. Dromio, much upset by the kitchenmaid's advances, tells his master that “if my breast had not been made of faith, and my heart of Steel, She had transform'd me to a curtal dog, and made me turn i' th' wheel” (III.2.144-5)5.

7The threat of metamorphosis in the play is repeatedly associated with the demonic. Antipholus of Syracuse construes the first misunderstanding in the play as a symptom of the rampant demonism in Ephesus:

They say this town is full of cozenage,
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body
(1.2.97-100)

8In keeping with the anxiety over self-loss which informs The Comedy of Errors, it is the witches' ability to “change” and “deform” their victims that Antipholus' mind fastens on. At other moments, too, Antipholus detects the powers of witchcraft behind the otherwise inexplicable confusions in which he has become embroiled: “Sure these are but imaginary wiles, / And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here” (IV.3.10-11).

9It is evident, however, that such readings of witchcraft arise out of the coincidences woven into the plot of the play. The audience know full well that the witches and sorcerers which Antipholus and Dromio fear so much do not exist. This is made clear partly by the mundane realities underlying the “demonic” events in the play. Dromio of Syracuse employs the language of the demonic as a comic device when he describes the officer who arrested his master (as he has been led to think) as “a devil in an everlasting garment” and as “a fiend, a fury” (IV.2.33-35), and the latter's predicament as “Tartar limbo, worse than hell” (IV.2.32). These references to the demonic are clearly marked out as comic exaggerations. Similarly, in Act 4, scene 3 Dromio and Antipholus of Syracuse mistakenly construe the appearance of the courtesan as an instance of diabolic temptation:

Cour. Well met, well met, master Antipholus;
I see, sir, you have found the goldsmith now;
Is that the chain you promis'd me to-day?
Syr.Ant. Satan avoid, I charge thee tempt me not.
Syr.Dro. Master, is this mistress Satan?
Syr.Ant. It is the devil.
(IV.3.41-46)

10In spite of the play's comic treatment of the demonic Antipholus of Syracuse's anxieties about his selfhood, and his fear of the demonic, are authentic. The representation of the demonic in the play is double-edged, both comic and serious. Indeed, the comic deflation of the demonic is partly a discursive defence strategy to defuse the concern with precarious selfhood for which the demonic forms the principal conduit.

11 The Comedy of Errors offers three ways of restoring the battered selves of both Antipholus of Ephesus and Syracuse, and of neutralising the forces of the demonic. The first is the exorcism carried out by Doctor Pinch, on whom the distraught Adriana has put her hopes:“'Good Doctor Pinch, you are a conjurer;/Establish him in his true sense again” (44.45-6). Pinch is confident that “both man and master is possessed” (4.4.87) and orders Antipholus and Dromio to “be bound and laid in some dark room” (4.4.89). In a sense, demonic possession forms the climax of the various supernatural images of self-loss which run through The Comedy of Errors, and the fears of the demonic in the play culminate in the exorcism in Act IV, scene 4.

12Contemporary possession narratives abound in images of the metamorphosis feared by Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse. In a case of demonic possession, patients become unrecognisable, disturbing versions of themselves, as in John Swan's account of the possession and exorcism of the teenage girl Mary Glover in 1602:

  • 6 John Swan, A True and Breife Report of Mary Glover's Vexation, and of Her Deliverance by the Meane (...)

Now, (as I saide) was shee entered into her sharpest conflict, now had Satan appalled her senses, especially benummed the left side of her body, now her eyes fearfully turned upward, her tongue blacke and retorted inward, her countenaunce owglie & distorted, her mouth excessivelie wyde, gaping sometime more in length upwards and sometime againe more stretched out in bredth: her face fierce, sometime as if it were scornfullye disdayninge, sometimes terriblie threatning, and so nodding her head and gaping uppon the woemen that stood or kneled before her, as if shee would devoure them, then her head tossed from one shoulder to another, often and thicke and that with swiftnes, and was sometime so farr writhed to the one side and stayed ther so long: as that I feared it would have remained.6

  • 7 Cf. Douglas Lanier, “Stigmatical in Making: ‘The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors,’” in (...)
  • 8 Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Chicago, The Uni (...)
  • 9 Swan, True and Breife Report, sig. Kl.
  • 10 Sebastien Michaëlis, The Admirable History of the Possession and Conversion of a Penitent Woman, L (...)

13In this passage, Mary has turned from an average teenage girl, into an alien, “terriblie threatning” creature, almost capable of devouring humans. Swan's unease about Mary's metamorphosis is registered in the use of conditional phrases such as “as if” and “as that I feared.” These simultaneously evoke and withhold the meanings which Swan ascribes to Mary's symptoms. Of course, Antipholus's symptoms are different from those in Swan. But the True and Breife Report illustrates how demonic possession could be construed as a horrifying self-loss which, for Swan, threatens to be permanent:“I feared it would have remained.” As we shall see shortly, the exorcism in The Comedy of Errors has strongly parodic overtones, and it is made clear that Antipholus is not possessed. But the significance of possession for the play goes beyond the merely comic. On one level, Adriana's assessment of her husband's condition as demonic possession is entirely appropriate, since possession narratives provided one cultural vocabulary in which the idea of self-loss could be described.7 Indeed, Peter Brown's characterisation of exorcism in early medieval Christianity as a drama of “reintegration into the community of the individual human being through the assertion against the demonic of the abiding resilience of his human nature” is also applicable to rituals of exorcism in early modem England.8 Exorcism was an attempt to reclaim an individual who had become alienated from himself, and from his community. In the reports of John Swan and Stephen Bradwell, Mary Glover, initially a rebellious demoniac, is eventually re-absorbed into a godly Puritan community, her demonic screams now replaced by the words of Psalm 116: “I love the lorde because my voyce, / and prayer heard hath he.”9 Similarly, the exorcising priests in Sebastien Michaëlis' Admirable Historie depict the conversion of the demoniac Magdalene as a re-integration into a Christian family: “Your God calleth himself your spouse, the Virgin Mary stiles herselfe your mother, and Saint Magdalene your deare sister.”10 Similarly, in associating his own identity crisis with the work of “soul-killing witches” (1.2.100), Antipholus of Syracuse voices an important aspect of Renaissance witchcraff beliefs. As Frances Dolan points out, the engulfment of the self in its environment with which Antipholus struggles — “I to the world am like a drop of water” (1.2.35) — also played a crucial role in early modem anxieties over witchcraft:

  • 11 Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England 1550-1700, Ith (...)

witches could dictate their victims' behaviour, depriving them of agency, or facilitate demonic possession. Witches were thus understood as persons separate from or outside of their victims, yet simultaneously inside of them. Like our conception of the virus, alien but inside, hostile but included, the construction of the witch attempted to describe a threat perceived as not precisely locatable, a consequence of the unfixed boundary between self and other.11

14In spite of these conceptual parallels between demonic possession and self-loss, however, the play rejects exorcism as a healing ritual. Dr Pinch's methods in The Comedy of Errors are ineffective, and Antipholus of Ephesus protests vociferously against the treatment to which he is subjected: “Peace, doting wizard, peace; I am not mad” (IV.4.56). The inefficacy of exorcism is further underlined by the verbal parallels between the commands which Pinch directs at the devils supposedly inhabiting Antipholus' body, and the dialogue between Antipholus and the Courtesan in Act IV, scene 3. Both Antipholus and Doctor Pinch address the devil in the idiom of exorcism:

Avoid then, fiend, what tell'st thou me of supping?
Thou art, as you are all, a sorceress:
I conjure thee to leave me and be gone.
(IV.3.63-5)
and
I charge thee, Satan, hous'd 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.
(IV.4.22-55)

15This parallel links the exorcism carried out by Pinch with Antipholus' mistaken fear of witches. Both are part of a belief System which cannot be accommodated by the terms of closure which The Comedy of Errors offers.

  • 12 For the standard analysis of official attitudes towards exorcism, see Keith Thomas, Religion and t (...)

16The parodic rejection of exorcism in the play may partly be a matter of political expediency. Authorities within the Church of England were suspicious of the ritual, and in giving credence to exorcism as a healing method, the play would have implicitly aligned itself with Roman Catholicism or with nonconformist Protestantism.12 Yet there is also a conceptual reason why the exorcism in The Comedy of Errors is presented as ineffective, namely its preoccupation with the human body. The remedy suggested by Doctor Pinch is a double physical confinement of both Dromio and Antipholus: “They must be bound and laid in some dark room” (IV.4.89). Moreover, Antipholus'“demonic possession” is diagnosed entirely on the basis of physical symptoms, outward signs. Luciana is aghast at Antipholus' angry aspect — “alas, how fiery, and how sharp he looks” (IV.4.48) — while the Courtesan urges bystanders to “mark how he trembles in his ecstasy” (IV.4.49). Doctor Pinch himself feels Antipholus' puise and is convinced that both Antipholus and Dromio are possessed on the basis of “their pale and deadly looks” (IV.4.91). Antipholus'physical strength also adds validity to the diagnosis of possession. When Antipholus struggles against Pinch's assistants who are trying to bind him, Pinch calls for “More company!” and exclaims that “The fiend is strong within him” (IV.4.102).

  • 13 John Cotta, The Triall of Witch-craft, London, 1616, p. 27.
  • 14 Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, trans. E. A. Ashwin, London, John Rodker, 1929, pp (...)
  • 15 Edward Nyndge, A True and Fearfull Vexation of one Alexander Nyndge, London, 1616, sig. B3.

17In associating possession and exorcism with the body, The Comedy of Errors draws on a widespread aspect of early modem possession discourses, where possession was described in terms of external, bodily signs, rather than an inner, spiritual State: “Was not the Divell seene to rend and teare the bodies of men by him possessed, in an extraordinarie and supernaturall manner and sort [...]?,” wrote John Cotta in The Triall of Witch-craft13 Similarly, in Francesco Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum (1608), the characteristics of possession are of a mainly physical nature. Demons can cause their victim's throat or head to swell, send a cold wind through his shoulders, alter the demoniac's complexion, or make the demoniac stretch his mouth wide open and thrust out his tongue.14 Writers on exorcism interpreted the physical signs of possession as a rebellion of the body. The demoniac Alexander Nyndge saw his possession by demons as a manifestation of “the pride of [his] rebellious flesh.”15 A similar preoccupation with the body is pervasive in the following excerpt from Stephen Bradwell's Mary Glovers Late Woeful Case, Together with Her Joyfull Deliverance:

  • 16 Bradwell, Mary Glovers Late Woeful Case, fols. 10-1 lv.

It is here said that her body was laide down againe, by the like slow motion, in which it arose to sitt up. One tyme, as it was so goinge downe, some there present, desiring to see what would befall, if she were thrust downe at once, did suddainely (laying their hand on her brest) beare her body downe to the pillowe, but as thus, her body went downe, so her foote rose up, from the bed (the stiffenes was such throughout all her body) and their hand being taken away, the head and brest rose up after, and the feete contrarie-wise went downe. [...] [H]er body would be throwen from the place where it lay, somtime to the beddes head, somtime to the beds side, likelie to have falne of the bed, save that she was rescued and kept, by the standers about her, in which deformed throweing, her body would be strangely writhen, and crooked, backward, or sideways, and remayne so a good space.16

  • 17 This is also apparent from the fact that superhuman strength was one of the classic signs of posse (...)
  • 18 Swan, A True and Breife Report, p. 41.

18In this passage Mary's body seems to take on a life of its own. It becomes a force in itself, independent of the will.17 In a case of possession, the body manifested itself as a source of anarchic, animal energy. When one of the preachers present during Mary's exorcism attempted to hold her down in a chair, Mary “with her foote and legge that was at libertie, stamped vehementlye, and getting some hold or stay with her foote, she raised her body a loft, and forced backwarde both the chaire and him that stood behind her.”18 Mary's satanic rebelliousness expressed itself physically.

  • 19 Darrel, A True Narration: 253.
  • 20 Edward Jorden, A Briefe Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother, London, 1603, (...)

19As a result of the strongly corporeal nature of possession, a ritual of exorcism was directed at the body that needed to be tamed. Thus, the Puritan John Darrel defended the method of prayer and fasting as a means of subduing the body: “we are given too much to spare and pamper our bodies, and cannot abide to tame them, and bring them into subjection by fastinge.”19 Prayer and fasting were also recommended by the physician Edward Jorden, who dismissed demonic possession as a medical diagnosis, but saw prayer and fasting as means to subjugate, or “pull downe,” the demoniacs' bodies20

  • 21 Peter Milward, Shakespeare's Religious Background, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1973, pp (...)

20In Shakespeare's Religious Background, Peter Milward says it is unclear whether the satire of possession in The Comedy of Errors is directed at Puritan or Roman Catholic exorcists. He notes that Dr Pinch's efforts may be a parody of the exorcisms carried out by the Jesuit William Weston (with the assistance of a number of Seminary priests, one of whom, incidentally, was Robert Dibdale, a former school companion of Shakespeare). But, as Milward points out, the exorcisms performed by the Puritan John Darrel “were hardly less notorious than those of Weston,” and Darrel could equally well be the object of the satire in The Comedy of Errors.21 This ambivalence should be taken seriously: in The Comedy of Errors, exorcism represents both the radical Puritan and the Roman Catholic approach to the subject. This is a crucial ingredient of the notion of disembodied selfhood which the play advances. The play rejects exorcism because it is representative of a physically oriented theology which was important for Catholicism and Puritanism alike, and which is in conflict with the idea of interior selfhood articulated in The Comedy of Errors. The failure of exorcism in the play is caused by the fact that it is directed solely at the human body, and by its inability to cure, or account for, non-physical traumas. The play partly constructs its notion of selfhood by positioning itself within the contemporary theological debate over matter and spirit. This debate was also at the heart of the early modem possession controversy. It is this theological dimension of possession and exorcism which furnished The Comedy of Errors with its definition of the self. In order to explain this, I shall first investigate some of the Roman Catholic, Puritan and conformist Protestant views on possession more closely.

  • 22 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 87. Cf. Taylor, Sources of the Self, who points out (...)
  • 23 Lyndal Roper, Œdipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modem Europe, Lond (...)
  • 24 Ibid., p. 175, my italics.
  • 25 Nyndge, True and Fearfull Vexation, sig. A4.
  • 26 Ibid., sig. A4.

21Keith Thomas has interpreted the Protestant reformation as “a deliberate attempt to take the magical elements out of religion, to eliminate the idea that the rituals of the Church had about them a mechanical efficacy, and to abandon the effort to endow physical objects with supernatural qualities by special formulae of consecration and exorcism.”22 Reformation theology denied that the sacred can manifest itself in material signs. Protestantism weakened traditional theological links between the matter and spirit, and advocated a theology in which material signs of the sacred were replaced by the Word of God.23 Lyndal Roper has argued that during an exorcism, the ties between the material and the spiritual became apparent in a particularly stark manner. Analysing a number of German possession cases, she points out that exorcism formed an apt vehicle for conveying a physical theology, in which the sacred is visible in the material world, because “it represented religious truth in a way that depended on physical sensation.”24 Roper's observation is also applicable to English possession cases. Asked by an exorcising priest what he wanted, the devil possessing the teenage boy Edward Nyndge exclaimed that he would have “his Soule and body too.”25 Edward's brother Alexander, commenting on the affair, adds that the devil “began to torment and racke the same Alexander and dis[fi]gure him more horribly then before.”26 Alexander's body forms the site on which the battle for his soul is fought out.

  • 27 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580, New Ha (...)
  • 28 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 60.
  • 29 For a similar qualification, see Darren Oldbridge, Devil in Early Modem England, Stroud, Sutton Pu (...)
  • 30 See for instance Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 576; Oldbridge, The Devil in Early (...)

22The corporeality of possession, Roper argues, formed a poignant expression of a Roman Catholic theology to which the intermingling of matter and spirit were central. Similarly, in his study of traditional religion in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century England, Eamon Duffy has stressed the 'insistence on the objective power of sacred things and formulae [...] to banish the Devil' that “characterized the service of blessing of salt and water, performed before Mass each Sunday. Both salt and water were exorcized with repeated signs of the cross, and the words of the exorcism attribute to the substances so hallowed actual power.”27 This may well be one of the reasons why, during the Tudor Reformation, the rejection of the rite of exorcism became central to the Protestant attack on Roman Catholic religiosity.28 It would be an oversimplification, however, to equate “physical” theology (in which the sacred manifests itself in material signs) with Catholicism, and “linguistic” theology (in which God can be known through his work) with Protestantism.29 Scholars agree that the exorcist John Darrel belonged to the Puritan camp.30 The human body, however, occupies a central theological position in his writings on exorcism. The symptoms displayed by the demoniacs in Darrel's True Narration are manifestly physical:

  • 31 Darrel, True Narration, pp. 175-6.

Their faces (as I remember) were disfigured, their bodyes (I am sure) greatly swelled, and such a sensible stiring and rumbling within their bodyes, as to one sight and feeling, they had some quick thing within each of them; and not only so, but such a violent moving there was also in their inward parts […].31

23Similarly, as we have seen, the theology which governs John Swan's True and Brief Report is clearly “physical”: Mary Glover's body is the terrifying sign of satanic presence. Yet, like Darrel, Swan was a Protestant. His theological position may be inferred from the closing pages of his True and Breife Report. When Mary's demon has finally been driven out, Swan writes that she expresses her gratitude through a rhyming rendition of Psalm 116:

  • 32 Ibid., sig. Kla.

I love the lorde because my voyce,
and prayer heard hath he:
When in my dayes I cald on him,
he bowed his eare to me.
Even when the snares of cruell death,
about besett me rounde:
when paynes of hell me caught & when,
I woe and sorrowe founde.32

  • 33 According to Coburn Freer, Robert Crowley's Psalter of David Newely Translated (1549) was the firs (...)
  • 34 The popularity and cultural importance of The Whole Book of Psalms are evident from the fact that (...)

24Mary's version of Psalm 116 was taken from The Whole Book of Psalms Collected into English Metre (1562). This publication, often referred to as “The Old Version,” was one of the first complete metrical psalters in English33. In incorporating a metrical psalm from The Whole Book of Psalms, Swan linked his own treatise to an important document of English Protestantism.34 Indeed, the entire tradition of metrical psalmody in England was partly a product of the Reformation, with its practice of making sacred texts available to the laity, and received an important impulse from Luther's own German psalm translations.

  • 35 King, “Religious Writing,” p. 126.
  • 36 Michael MacDonald, Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London: Edward Jorden and the Mary Glove (...)
  • 37 Hirst writes that “Those who took their religion seriously were likely to be called ‘Puritans’[... (...)
  • 38 Swan, A True and Breife Report, p. 18.

25In according such an important position to The Whole Book of Psalms, Swan aligned himself with Puritanism. As John N. King has noted, The Whole Book of Psalms “gained renown as a collection of hymns used by Puritans to examine their souls.”35 Similarly, as McDonald argues, the exorcists on whose behalf Swan's report was written were Puritan.36 Swan's tract is an exercise in the intense godliness which, as Derek Hirst has suggested, was characteristic of Puritanism.37 The exorcism described by Swan is a series of passionate, often lengthy sermons and prayers, a collective, fiercely emotional struggle against Satan: “diverse of the company called on the preachers still to be doeinge, and not to give the Lorde any rest untill he had heard us, much lesse to give Satan any rest to harbour where he did.”38

  • 39 Oldbridge, The Devil in Early Modem England, p. 123.

26What becomes apparent from the True and Breife Report and from Darrel's True Narration is that the fierce Protestantism of writers such as John Swan and John Darrel shared with Catholicism a strongly physically oriented theology, in which the sacred manifests itself through material signs. As Darren Oldbridge has argued, “the commitment of devout protestants to renounce Satan throughout their adult lives placed them in a role similar to that of an exorcist.”39

27Because of this preoccupation with Satan, Puritan religiosity also accorded an important theological role to the human body, which could serve as a site of spiritual conflict. Whereas the Church of England denied the role of the human body as a locus of religious experience, the body could adopt a central position within Puritan religiosity.

28This preoccupation with the body was dismissed in orthodox Protestant writings on possession and exorcism. Thus, in his Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles (1587), George Gifford denounced exorcism as spiritually useless because it was directed solely at the body:

  • 40 George Gifford, A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles, London, 1587, sig. H1.
  • 41 Ibid., sig. 13v.

As all the workes of God are good, and unto right good end: so of necessitie all Satans workes be evill and to most devilish purpose. If he have power given him to possesse and to plague the bodie: he is not driven out, (for Satan doth not drive out Satan) but healeth the bodie, to the end he may the more fully possesse and destroy the soul. His charitie and his pitie are no better. O miserable health so recovered. O wretched men so relieved: they do imagine that the devill is driven out of them and he hath entred in deeper. For can that which is devilish, as a charme, drive out the devil?40
Exorcism may cure the body, but it corrupts the soul. It enables Satan to “enter in deeper,” not into a person's body, but into his inner being, and this is what the exorcist cannot prevent. Satan uses the seemingly benign physical effects of exorcism to cover up a more insidious attack on the human soul. The only defence against demonic attacks lies in inward piety and purity of mind: “All the power of God wherewith wee resist and overcome the devill, is conveyed into us by faith alone.”41

29A similar rhetoric is present in the Dialogicall Discourses of Spirits and Divels on demonic possession by the conformist ministers John Deacon and John Walker. The pro-exorcism party in this treatise believes that Satan is capable of physically entering a human body, and even of physically inserting himself into a demoniac's mind. Deacon and Walker go to great lengths to deny the possibility of this kind of possession. They go beyond purely religious arguments, and draw extensively upon natural philosophy. The laws of nature, they argue, preclude the physical processes necessary for a literal demonic possession:

  • 42 John Deacon and John Walker, Dialogicall Discourses, London, 1601, p. 46.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 42.

If the divell doth essentially enter into the very substance it selfe of the possessed mans minde: then necessarily there must be, either a confusion of substances, which to hold were absurd, or else a rending and separation of substances at least, called properly a vacuum, which were follie to imagine, but madness for any to avouch.42 In this tract, belief in possession becomes symbolic for an ontology which posits a continuum between the material and the spiritual.
Deacon and Walker, by contrast, advocate an “anti-material” theology, which revolves around the inner life of a Christian. Their spokesman Orthodoxus deploys Judas Iscariot as an example, arguing that the latter was never physically possessed by the devil, but that Satan subjected him to what Orthodoxus calls “actuall, or powerfull possession.” These terms are used to indicate that “the divell (according to god his determinate councell) did but actually suggest, and effectually thrust the intended treason into Judas his hart.”43

  • 44 See for instance Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modem Europe,(...)
  • 45 See also Clark, Thinking with Demons, pp. 509-25.

30Historians have argued that this spiritualisation of the demonic is part of a large-scale Protestant attempt to eradicate, or at least modify, a whole range of popular beliefs common in early modem Europe. Among its most important aims was the inculcation of a sense of spiritual interiority in the minds of common people.44 In England this undertaking is epitomised, in addition to the tracts written by Gifford himself, by the writings of the clergimen Henry Holland and William Perkins and the physician John Cotta.45 In these texts both witchcraft and demonic possession were de-literalised, and made into matters for the inner life.

  • 46 Douglas Lanier has offered a similar suggestion in “Stigmatical in Making,” p. 310.

31The controversies outlined above form an important context for The Comedy of Errors. The play, I want to propose, rejects exorcism on the same grounds as George Gifford, Harsnett, John Deacon and John Walker did. The play cannot acknowledge exorcism as a valid healing ritual because it locates selfhood in an inwardness which an exorcism ritual cannot accommodate. Indeed, exorcism reproduces the very identity confusions in the play which need to be untangled. The Antipholuses and Dromios in the play are mistaken for each other because of bodily resemblances, and they are, therefore, in need of gaining access to that part of their selves which is not related to, or goes beyond the body.46 This need is expressed most poignantly by Egeon, who is not recognised by his son because his face and voice have changed:

O, grief hath changed me since you saw me last,
And careful hours with time's deformed hand
Have written strange defeatures in my face.
(V.l.298-300)
and
Not know my voice? O time's extremity,
Hast thou so cracked and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untuned cares?
(V.1.308-11)

32Bodily characteristics, then, being subjected to the effects of time, do not provide a key to the self, which, as Egeon implies, is located beyond the realm of the physical. Both in the symptoms to which it responds and in the remedy which it proposes, however, Dr Pinch's exorcism, too, limits itself to the body, and offers no terms for addressing the immaterial.

33In her attempt to heal the selves of both Antipholuses, the Abbess repeats Dr Pinch's mistake. She does not doubt that Antipholus is possessed, as becomes clear from her question to Adriana: “How long hath this possession held the man?” (V1.44). The remedy which she proposes is based on Pinch's inaccurate diagnosis, and, like Pinch's methods, the “wholesome syrups” and “drugs” (V. 1.105) which she recommends are directed at the body. Only at the eventual appearance of Egeon does a solution to the identity chaos in the play begin to manifest itself. Significantly, Egeon restores, or re-activates, the memory of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse—“Egeon art thou not? or else his ghost?” (V. 1.338) — and of the Abbess, who turns out to be his wife. The Abbess proceeds to relate her own fortunes, and ends the scene by announcing a“'gossips'feast” (V. 1.406), during which the members of her now reunited family will each tell the story of their lives: “go with us into the abbey here,/And hear at large discoursed all our fortunes” (V. 1.395-6). The dramatic irony established in the opening scene of the play, in which Egeon presents the audience with a long account of his misfortunes, is at last undone. The restoration of the past, and of memory, through narrative is the one effective healing ritual in The Comedy of Errors, the only antidote against the dangers of demonic metamorphosis. Discrete selfhood is realised through a full knowledge of one's own individual past, one's own non-bodily traumas.

  • 47 Michaëlis, Admirable Historie, p. 10

34The solution in The Comedy of Errors is markedly different from that in possession narratives, which seem to reproduce the self-loss and self-transformation with which the play is preoccupied. On the one hand, possession is here seen as a form of self-loss. The demoniac Magdalene exorcised in Sebastien Michaëlis' Admirable Historie describes herself as “swallowed up in the immense sea of my offences, and with the foulnesse of my transgressions,” and her choice of imagery recalls Antipholus of Syracuse's anxious words “I to the world am like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop” (V. 1.235-6).47 But exorcism in the narratives could also take the form of a transformation in which the demoniac is re-created. God, speaking through a possessing devil, tells Magdalene that He will make her into a new person:

  • 48 Ibid., pp. 147-8.

Thou shalt bee Magdalene no longer. Thou shalt be changed Magdalene, and as it were transformed from what thou art into a new forme. [...] I will enter in, I am master of this house, and am come to fashion this Image a new, whom the Divell hath so deformed. I am the Painter; shall not I mend this picture when it seemeth good unto me?48

35The cure of exorcism here represents the self-loss, the threat of self-transformation, from which the characters in The Comedy of Errors are trying to recover. At one stage it is true that Antipholus demands such a self-transformation and self-renewal of Luciana (III.2.39-40). In its closing scenes, however, The Comedy of Errors does not seek the solution in creating anew a lost self. Egeon's remedy suggests a retrieval, a re-awakening of the original self. Reactivating the memory of his wife and sons, Egeon helps them regain their former selfhood, not to fashion a new self.

  • 49 For a different reading of The Comedy of Errors and Puritanism, see Donna B. Hamilton, Shakespeare (...)

36In advancing a notion of inner selfhood, The Comedy of Errors rejects the physical theology of radical Protestantism, represented in the play by Dr Pinch's exorcism.49 In addition, the play's rejection of exorcism reveals its ambivalent relation to Roman Catholicism. As Peter Milward claims, The Comedy of Errors alludes to Roman Catholic as well as Puritan rituals of exorcism, and its critique of rituals may, therefore, also be read as a critique of the materialist theology of Roman Catholicism. That the restoration of the self in The Comedy of Errors goes hand in hand with a rejection of materialist Roman Catholic religiosity is also suggested by the figure of the Abbess. In the closing scene of the play, Emilia, as she is now called, discards her role as Abbess. She is no longer the representative of Catholicism in the play, carrying out the “charitable duty of [her] order” (IV. 1.108), but adopts the role of mother instead. Indeed, as she herself claims, the moment marks her inauguration as mother:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne'er deliverèd
(V.2.402-4)

37When she relates the events which have brought her to Ephesus, she refers to her religious function as “this fortune that you see me in” (V. 1.362). Her formulation suggests that she thinks of her position as Abbess as an external role, forced upon her by circumstance, rather than as an innate part of her self. As Dromio and Antipholus regain their selfhood and their memories, so does Emilia, and the play implies that this self-recovery is at the same time a shedding of her temporary role as Abbess. As Abbess, she was unable to restore the selves of her confused sons. Indeed, the Abbess's belief in the reality of demonic possession effectively places her outside the terms of closure which The Comedy of Errors provides. It is as mother, however, that Emilia is able to preside over the reunion of her family.

38Having said this, it remains true that the Abbess offers “sanctuary” (V. 1.95) to Antipholus, a place where he is temporarily safe from the turmoil of Ephesus, and from Dr Pinch's healing methods. This invisible, off-stage sanctuary contrasts sharply with the noisy, public exorcism performed by Dr Pinch. The Comedy of Errors seems to endorse a form of Roman Catholicism that does not partake in the theatrical, politicised religiosity expressed during exorcism rituals, but that seeks withdrawal from the public sphere.

Notes

1 William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, in Stephen Greenblatt et al. (eds.), The Norton Shakespeare, London, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, II.2.212; IV.2.32.

2 Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1991, p. 79; Greenblatt et al., The Norton Shakespeare, p. 684.

3 The editors of The Norton Shakespeare gloss “content” in 1.2.33 as “pleasures, peace”. Within the play's concern with selfhood, a pun on the alternative meaning of “content”, on which I draw for my reading of Antipholus' soliloquy, also seems plausible and appropriate.

4 See for instance R. A. Foakes' introduction to the Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors, London, Methuen & Co Ltd, 1969. For the idea of self-transformation in the play, see also Gareth Roberts, “The Descendants of Circe: Witches and Renaissance Fictions,” in Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modem Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 183-206.

5 Gareth Roberts has analysed the role of the Circe myth in The Comedy of Errors, and argues that it figures in the play as “a configuration of attitudes, anxieties and fears about the magical transformation of men by women”(Roberts, “The Descendants of Circe,” p. 196).

6 John Swan, A True and Breife Report of Mary Glover's Vexation, and of Her Deliverance by the Meanes of Fastinge and Prayer, London, 1603, p. 40, 1. 6.

7 Cf. Douglas Lanier, “Stigmatical in Making: ‘The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors,’” in Robert S. Miola ed., The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, New York and London, Garland Publishing, 1997, pp. 299-334, who suggests that because the “outward characters” of the twins in the play “are not exclusively their own, identifies can be projected upon them from without, an operation that feels to the twins like being inhabited by a spirit” (p. 310).

8 Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 111.

9 Swan, True and Breife Report, sig. Kl.

10 Sebastien Michaëlis, The Admirable History of the Possession and Conversion of a Penitent Woman, London, 1614, p. 25.

11 Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England 1550-1700, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 184.

12 For the standard analysis of official attitudes towards exorcism, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth-and Seventeenth-Century England, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971; repr. London, Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 569-88.

13 John Cotta, The Triall of Witch-craft, London, 1616, p. 27.

14 Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, trans. E. A. Ashwin, London, John Rodker, 1929, pp. 167-9.

15 Edward Nyndge, A True and Fearfull Vexation of one Alexander Nyndge, London, 1616, sig. B3.

16 Bradwell, Mary Glovers Late Woeful Case, fols. 10-1 lv.

17 This is also apparent from the fact that superhuman strength was one of the classic signs of possession (see D. P. Walker, Undean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth, London, Scolar Press, 1981, p. 12).

18 Swan, A True and Breife Report, p. 41.

19 Darrel, A True Narration: 253.

20 Edward Jorden, A Briefe Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother, London, 1603, fol. 24.

21 Peter Milward, Shakespeare's Religious Background, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1973, pp. 52-3. That Dr Pinch is repeatedly referred to as a “conjurer” (IV.4.42; V. 1.178; V. 1.243) may suggest that he is a Roman Catholic exorcist. As Keith Thomas notes, during the reign of Elizabeth I, “the term conjurer came to be a synonym for recusant priest” (Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 79).

22 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 87. Cf. Taylor, Sources of the Self, who points out that “one of the most powerful forces working against magic, and for the disenchanted view of the world, was the Protestant Reformation, which was profoundly suspicious of such meddling with occult forces” (p. 191).

23 Lyndal Roper, Œdipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modem Europe, London, Routledge, 1994, pp. 171-98.

24 Ibid., p. 175, my italics.

25 Nyndge, True and Fearfull Vexation, sig. A4.

26 Ibid., sig. A4.

27 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992, p. 281.

28 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 60.

29 For a similar qualification, see Darren Oldbridge, Devil in Early Modem England, Stroud, Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 113.

30 See for instance Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 576; Oldbridge, The Devil in Early Modem England, p. 12; Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Early Modem England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 97.

31 Darrel, True Narration, pp. 175-6.

32 Ibid., sig. Kla.

33 According to Coburn Freer, Robert Crowley's Psalter of David Newely Translated (1549) was the first complete metrical English psalm translation (see his Music for a King: George Herbert's Style and the Metrical Psalms, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972, p. 18).

34 The popularity and cultural importance of The Whole Book of Psalms are evident from the fact that new editions appeared with great frequency until well into the nineteenth century. John N. King has observed that, during the first century after its first publication, The Whole Book of Psalms was “published in more than five hundred editions” and that it was “the most popular collection of English Renaissance verse” (see his “Religious Writing,” in Arthur F. Kinney [ed.], The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1500-1600, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 126.1 have consulted an edition dating from 1612.

35 King, “Religious Writing,” p. 126.

36 Michael MacDonald, Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London: Edward Jorden and the Mary Glover Case, London, Tavistock/Routledge, 1991, pp. X, XIII, XVII, XIX. Henry Paul has described Swan as “writing for the Puritans” Paul points out that “John Swan signs his name as'student of Divinitie.” He was therefore not an ordained clergyman with a living of which the bishop might deprive him, and this is probably why he was chosen to be responsible for the book rather than any of the other clergy who took part in the exorcism of Mary Glover'(see Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth, New York, MacMillan, 1950, pp. 106-10).

37 Hirst writes that “Those who took their religion seriously were likely to be called ‘Puritans’[...]. The characteristic Puritan stress was on a ‘lively faith, one that was ‘experienced.’‘Godliness’meant internalizing and living out a creed to which ‘the common sort of Protestants’ paid only lip service” (see his Authority and Conflict: England 1603-1658, London, Edward Arnold Ltd, 1986, p. 69).

38 Swan, A True and Breife Report, p. 18.

39 Oldbridge, The Devil in Early Modem England, p. 123.

40 George Gifford, A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles, London, 1587, sig. H1.

41 Ibid., sig. 13v.

42 John Deacon and John Walker, Dialogicall Discourses, London, 1601, p. 46.

43 Ibid., p. 42.

44 See for instance Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modem Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 437-545; Tim Harris, “From Reformation to Toleration: Popular Religious Cultures in England, 1540-1690,” in Tim Harris (ed.), Popular Culture in England, c. 1500-1850, London, MacMillan Press, 1995, pp. 95-123; Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 217-31; and Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modem Europe, London, Temple Smith, 1978.

45 See also Clark, Thinking with Demons, pp. 509-25.

46 Douglas Lanier has offered a similar suggestion in “Stigmatical in Making,” p. 310.

47 Michaëlis, Admirable Historie, p. 10

48 Ibid., pp. 147-8.

49 For a different reading of The Comedy of Errors and Puritanism, see Donna B. Hamilton, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England, New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, pp. 59-86. Hamilton argues that The Comedy of Errors expresses a tolerant stance towards religious nonconformity and that the play criticises the exclusions of Puritans by the Church of England.

Auteur

Université de Leyde (Pays-Bas)
Enseigne la littérature anglaise à l’Université de Leyde aux Pays-Bas. Il a récemment soutenu une thèse intitutlée “Le théâtre du diable : possession démoniaque et exorcisme dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance, 1558-1642”.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2003

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