Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Demonic Possession

drunkeness-copyCards on the table: I haven’t had time to write a fresh blog post for this week, since I’m giving a lecture at the Rose Playhouse in London tomorrow (Monday 21st November 2016, to be exact), but things are gearing up towards Christmas, which puts me in mind of my favourite Christmassy Shakespeare play (that I’ve also given a lecture about at the Rose, and have extensive notes for).

What’s the title of that play? Well, just in case you didn’t have time to read the title of this blog post: it’s Twelfth Night.

What’s my favourite part? The sly references to Demonic possession in Act Four, Scene Two.

The Play’s The Thing

Why Shakespeare would have thrown in a wink to demonic possession is related to the possible first audience for the play. While the most well-known first performance date is Candlemass 1602, where the diary of the lawyer John Manningham tells us:

“At our feast wee had a play called ‘Twelue Night, or What you Will,’ much like the Commedy of Errores, or Menechmi in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practise in it to make the Steward beleeve his Lady widdowe was in love with him, by counterfeyting a letter as from his Lady in generall termes, telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparaile, &c., and then when he came to practise making him beleeue they tooke him to be mad.”

However, there’s evidence that the play might well have been performed earlier, at Whitehall. In the papers of the Duke of Northumberland, he describes:

1601/2, Jan 6. A full narrative or description of the reception and entertainment of the Muscovite ambassador and of an Italian nobleman, the Duke of Brachiana, who were received at the Court of Queen Elizabeth, together with the names of noblemen in attendance on her Majesty at her dining abroad upon Twelfth-day January 1601-2…”

The exact name of the play performed is not named, but the performance takes place on Twelfth Night, before the Duke of Brachiana, Duke Orsino.

He, however, is not the reason for the entertainment of the Duke. In fact, it’s unlikely that a foreigner would notice the possession reference, tucked into the language of Act Four, Scene Two.

Two other men, however, were present, and both would have very much appreciated a reference to the matter that had recently become their life’ work. Norfolk’s record notes the presence of ‘The Lord Bisshop of London’, Richard Bancroft, and likely his Chaplain, Samuel Harsnett.

Bancroft, Harsnett and Distaste for Puritans

As a woman whose life had been threatened and complicated by religious innovation, Elizabeth made no secret of her distaste for new developments in state religion. From the Pope’s excommunication of her in 1570, Elizabeth’s response to the Puritan movement had been brutal.

With a rising Catholic threat, the state machine had been anxious to avoid fighting on two religious fronts. No dissenting voice was tolerated: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, was placed under house arrest for defending Puritan doctrinal meetings.

The mainstream church had grave concerns over the Puritan love of decentralised grassroots worship, with church policy being set at regular ‘Prophesyings’ where Puritan ministers would worship, preach, and debate doctrine. At a time when the Church of England was still seeking to centralise worship, these unregulated ministers and their anti-Clerical rhetoric presented a growing threat.

One voice in the battle was a pamphleteer who called himself ‘Martin Marprelate’. Martin attacked the Church of England’s ecclesiastical structure, demanding that the Bishops be ejected from their palaces. His pamphlets were scurrilous, satirical and irreverent, attacking the very core of the church.

The Queen’s answer came the team of Archbishop Whitgift, Bishop Richard Bancroft, and Reverend Samuel Harsnett. Harsnett was an accomplished scholar and Bancroft’s personal chaplain. He was a former student of Lancelot Andrews – a skilled, if acerbic, writer. Bancroft was the one who put the plan into action: punishing Puritan sympathisers, raiding prayer groups, interrogating Puritans, seizing letters, spying on groups, and infiltrating the Puritan community of London.

A royal commission against seditious religious books sent printers and authors to prison and the gallows. The main struggle ended when Martinist Author John Pendry was hanged in Southwark on May 29th 1592.

That Malvoleo was meant to be portrayed as a Puritan is certain.

Maria describes him as, “a kind of Puritan”, snidely hinting at Puritan hypocrisy with the follow-up, “the devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swathes”.

Actors had a common enemy in Puritans. As much as the Puritan movement threatened the mainstream church, it threatened the theatre in far more direct terms. Stephen Gosson’s 1582 book, Plays Confuted in Five Actions, he writes, “that in Stage Playes for a boy to put one the attyre, the gesture, the passions of woman … is by outwarde signes to shewe [himself] otherwise then [he is] …. The diuel is not ignorant how mightely these outward spectacles effeminate, & soften ye hearts of men, vice is learned with beholding, sense is tickled, desire pricked, and those impressions of mind are secretly conueyed ouer to ye gazers, which ye plaiers do counterfeit on ye stage.”

Puritans and Possession

After Bancroft and Harsnett had infiltrated the Martinist groups and sent a number of writers either to prison or the gallows, then came possession.

While the mainstream view promoted by the Church was that the age of miracles was over, and therefore wonders could not occur, Puritans maintained that Demonic Possession wasn’t a miraculous thing, it was simply a method, like witchcraft, for God to demonstrate his wonder. The power of the preacher and his congregation to drive out a demon was tacit proof that theirs was the right path, and superior either to the mystically disarmed CofE, or the superstitious and ritualistic Catholic faith.

Into this came John Darrel, a B.A. and former law student who had begun a career dispossessing demoniacs in the North of England.

Darrel had been a bright and ambitious. He attended Queens’ College Cambridge as a sizar – a poor student on a scholarship –required to earn his scholarship money by waiting on tables and reading the bible aloud during meals. Sizars were also expected to excel academically and behave impeccably, with study being especially important, considering that their scholarships constrained them from taking more than four years to complete their degrees.

Darrel’s first case had been an abortive attempt at dispossessing Katherine Wright in 1586. This fitted the mould that we would see again and again with possession cases in the Early Modern – a girl or woman was possessed and accused another of sending a spirit to torment her by witchcraft. The Justice overseeing the case seems to have been a staunch sceptic and threw the whole matter out on its ear, threatening Darrel with imprisonment.

Despite his failure, Darrell was still influential enough to be brought into the case of Thomas Darling ten years later. This led to another case, that of the ‘Seven at Lancashire’ and finally, to the dispossession of William Sommers, in Nottingham.

It was the case that gave Darrel the closest thing he got to recognition: during his battles with Sommers the demoniac, the people of Nottingham installed Darrel as a regular preacher.

Unfortunately, Sommers’ demon got the better of them: he started to identify witches, and accused Alice Freeman, a cousin of the Alderman and Justice of the Peace William Freeman.

Understanding the legal issues at stake – others had been hanged on the word of demoniacs – the Freeman camp immediately accused Sommers of witchcraft and had him arrested, where he admitted to pretending his fits. The Darrel camp pressured Sommers to withdraw his claims, but this was the beginning of the end.

The Archbishop of York set up a commission, which brought Samuel Harsnett to the north. In the meantime Sommers have vacillated between admitting fraud and claiming to be genuine – claiming his fits were genuine on March 20th, and then not only admitting fraud to the mayor and justices on March 31st, but demonstrating his fits before them.

The Archbishop of Canterbury took decisive action. Sommers, Wright, the Lancashire victims, Darling, Darrel, and Darrel’s co-exorcist More were all imprisoned in London.

Harsnett, eager to provide a blast against the cohesion of the Godly community, published his record of Darrel’s trial and fakery in his 1599 book, A Discovery of the Fraudulent Practices of John Darrel, which Shakespeare seems to have read.

Malvoleo the Daemoniac

A key dialogue between Malvoleo and the Fool as a fake exorcist, is the idea that the place where Malvoleo is locked is lightless, while the fool facetiously maintains that it is light enough.

Blindness, or the depravation of any of the senses, was one of the most common of the symptoms of possession amongst Puritan demoniacs. Writing in defence of John Darrell, the Starkie Children, known as the “Lancashire Seven”, are stated by George More, “Most of them were both blind, deaf and dumb for divers days together… they were out of their minds without the use of the senses…”

Darkness was also dangerous. This came from another Augustinian idea that darkness was an ethereal fluid that hung in the air. This fluid contained demons. With it’s cold, wet, etheric body, the demon could hang in the darkness, or in the ‘bad air’ and possess the unwary victim.

The visionary nun Hildegard von Bingen wrote, “[The devil] overshadows [the soul] and obscures it with shadows and the smoke of his blackness…; meanwhile the soul is as if sleepy and unaware what the flesh of its body is doing.”

A huge part of the devil’s activities would seem to fit with Mavoleo’s fit of strangeness. While Malvoleo dresses in his yellow stockings cross gartered and makes improper suggestions to the lady Olivia, the same vanity of dress seems to have been afflicted onto the Lancashire demoniac Margaret Hurdman.

She narrated visions of beautiful, courtly clothing: “I will have a fine smock of silk, not of red but of the best silk that is. It will be embroidered a foot high. It will be laid on with gold lace…”

Finally, in the Puritan community, possession was often seen as a punishment for sin, which would have made Malvoleo the prime candidate. Malvoleo is almost the human embodiment of pride: derided as proud by other characters throughout the play. In the view of Puritan Clerics this would have made him the ideal candidate for possession.

Considering his status as a fairly stereotypical Puritan in the play, this would doubtless have been a reference that would have raised a smile in both Bancroft and Harsnett.


Donations Keep This Blog Running

The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.

If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.

Buy Me a Coffee at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *