Elizabethan Spirits

William Empson

  • The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances Yates
    Routledge, 224 pp, £7.75, November 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0320 X

Something badly needed has got left out from the great structure that Dame Frances Yates has been building as an exposition of her view of the Occult tradition. I have felt it since her book on Bruno (1964), though I am ill-equipped to complain. Still, my ideas derive from a critic who had something of her own range of knowledge, and she seems to ignore his views, so I may speak up.

C.S. Lewis, in the first chapter of his survey of English 16th-century literature (1954), said that earlier writers had treated magic as fanciful and remote, but in this period they felt it might be going on in the next street; and one reason was a thing they surprisingly called ‘Platonism’: ‘the doctrine that the region between the earth and the moon is crowded with airy creatures who are capable of fertile union with our own species.’ Another reason for feeling at home with the spirits was the doctrine ‘that the invisible population of the universe includes a whole crowd of beings who might also be called theologically neutral’. That is, they die like the beasts, and never come before the Judgment Seat; they are ‘far from Heaven, and safe from Hell’. They are not morally neutral, being a mixture of good and bad like ourselves: but they are not angels or devils, permanently engaged in a Manichean battle, wearing the uniform either of God or Satan. Clearly, this makes them likely to be useful to us, perhaps even to tell the secrets of Nature, if we have something to offer in return. It is an important change. But Dame Frances will have none of it, and so she does not mention the names of Puck or Ariel.

Lewis used his dubious phrase about neutrality to introduce the idea, I think, because the full doctrine is seldom stated. It would be considered heretical, and would anyhow be shocking: but the feeling of it, or an approach to it, is widespread in the period. One of the chief reasons for wanting some kind of belief in Middle Spirits was the reverence felt for the newly recovered classics, together with the belief, often expressed, that it would be impudent to deny experiences which had once been generally attested. Apollo could not have been nothing, and it was very disagreeable to believe him a devil. It was clear that he had lasted a long time, say two thousand years, and pretty certain that he was now dead; to believe he had been a Middle Spirit fitted very well. It would be unfitting if he were summoned to the Day of Judgment, so the educated tended to assume that this would not happen. Cornelius Agrippa does not face the question, but he was a very adroit writer who maintains a splendid ease, considering how likely he was to be burnt alive; and maybe, if he had faced it, his treatise would not have been available in ten of the Cambridge College libraries, including Marlowe’s, when Marlowe was up.

The only man in the period who supports it thoroughly, I think, is Paracelsus, a roving magic doctor who did not publish the De Nymphis during his lifetime. But it was printed at Basle while Marlowe and Shakespeare were boys, first in German as the author had demanded, and two years later in Latin; and, though he had defied the doctors’ organisations, his writing had continued to be searched for secret cures. A huge complete edition of them was published in Amsterdam from 1590 onwards, which proves that there had been an interest in the earlier texts. A grand house in London always had a library, if only for show, to which readers of Latin were admitted if properly introduced. And the De Nymphis is the only at all readable thing ever written by Paracelsus: only about five thousand words, and packed full of anecdotes which became sources for later German romantic authors. Some friends would be likely to put Marlowe onto reading this, even granting that he did not read much in Latin after leaving college.

Paracelsus begins by saying that Middle Spirits are not spirits at all, having bodies made of more subtle kinds of matter than ours, but adds that a creature who can pass through a stone wall is bound to be called a spirit, and it is no use quarrelling with common language. However, all creatures with material bodies will eventually die, so if we find them around they must be capable of breeding, though not often as they are long lived: whereas the angels and fallen angels, being real spirits and totally immortal, must be totally incapable of breeding, or they would clutter the place up.

A number of consequences follow from this, providing useful tests. For example, Middle Spirits can move at great speeds, but angels and devils do not really live in space, so they can poke into it anywhere, as if at an infinite speed. Also there are practical consequences. Devils can easily be induced to help men, because they want to corrupt them: but Middle Spirits do not consider that we have much to offer. Here there is a loophole: Middle Spirits are indignant at being rejected from Heaven, and want to go there, and Paracelsus agrees that it is very queer of God to have allowed humans to enter Heaven, but not these greatly superior beings. Of course, the acts of God are often beyond our understanding. But if a nymph has a proper marriage with a human man, she at once acquires an immortal soul, just as a woman marrying an American gets an American passport. Paracelsus earnestly warns his younger readers that it is dangerous to jilt a nymph: there have been several well-known cases where the result has been murder. And one cannot blame the nymph, he reflects: a human woman has no business to do it – what has she got to lose? – but a nymph has an infinite amount to lose. Undine and Melusina were already familiar. If Marlowe read this, he would at once feel that a passionate friendship between males must at least allow of a sacrifice in the same field. At any rate, the De Nymphis is enough to justify the assertion of C.S. Lewis.

Perhaps Dame Frances would say that Paracelsus was being facetious. And it is agreed, after an exhausting day in the surgery (leaving him, as an honest man, anxious whether he had done good or harm), he would drink after his dinner, since he rejected sex, and dictate theories, getting sillier as the evening wore on. He might have a good reason for dictating the De Nymphis, even if he thought it nonsense: his patients were terrified of having devils inside them, and so he pretended the devils were far away. He also believed that their bodies could not even tick over normally without good spirits working for them, but he may have found that it did no good to tell them so. It has been suggested that he was merely echoing the beliefs of the miners, to whom he gave a good deal of time, inventing Industrial Disease to describe their troubles; but he also liked to insist that the learned professors were all wrong, and that the common opinion was more sensible. His assertions might be derived from the miners and yet be sincere. But he also argues from these beliefs, arriving at his own conclusions. In more specialist works, he also announced belief in independent resident spirits, themselves sometimes needing medical treament, and governed by an ‘archeus’ for each region, like the mayor of a city subject to a central government. The archeus of the belly is the chief of them, but with no supreme power. This is a splendid insight and, as I understand, justified by modern medicine, though it can have been of no use in his time for a cure. He is imagining the internal affairs of the body as a reasonable system, just sufficiently democratic. He is not peculiar here: we are echoing the same deep confusion when we speak of aeroplane ‘spirit’ or the poisonous ‘spirits of salt’. If you had shown one of the authors of the Hermetica magnified photographs of the germs of plague, with a full account of their behaviour, he would answer: ‘Yes, that’s just what I said – a very low form of spirit.’ Apollo, who was the god of plague, was a spirit too, of a higher grade. All spirits, including men, had regular reincarnations, as animals or angels, up or down the scale: so for a pagan there was no problem about it. For a Christian trying to be ‘syncretist’ about pagan belief, this might make it slightly easier, though still a problem, to think that Middle Spirits, like animals, did not have to attend the Last Judgment.

The rigid distinction between angels and Middle Spirits, one being spiritual, the other material, which Paracelsus treats so entertainingly, is firmly present in Aquinas, at least so far as he insists that angels, having no senses, can have no direct means of knowledge whatever. Aquinas therefore invents something very like the pre-established harmony of Leibnitz, who ascribed it to mankind: the only relation between the minds of angels and devils and the world around them, which in our case is secured by the senses, is in theirs dependent upon innumerable miracles perpetually done by God. This is clearly a tire-some theory, because for all we can tell the senses may be a miracle for us too, and once the belief in Middle Spirits had been forbidden there was no need to make them clearly different from angels or devils. The philosopher Pomponazzi made a great stir early in the century by insisting that there could be no knowledge for any creature without the senses (obviously, it had become very unusual to accept Aquinas on the point); and this inclined people to suppose that angels were made of a subtle kind of matter, as indeed Augustine had thought. When Milton in Paradise Lost said this about angels he was not considered shocking at all. But the change reflected back on those people who still believed in Middle Spirits (a few philosophers, and most of the countryside); it had now become hard to tell the difference between them and devils. King James in his Demonology (1597) is indignant at the idea of devils who live in the storm-clouds: probably he felt that this practically lets you get back to believing in the pagan demigods. The familiar of Faust in the original German has never been to Hell at all, and complains at having to live in the storm-clouds: of course the censor insisted upon altering this for the English translation. ‘Occult’ or no, there was quite a lot of busy discussion going on about spirits in the 16th century.

Thus I can only give rather weak evidence for the belief that the Middle Spirits died like beasts. To suppose that any responsible creature could escape God’s Judgment was felt as radically bad, and perhaps could only be printed in Basle or Amsterdam. Paracelsus was reckless, and seldom tried to get his works printed, whereas Agrippa was careful about it. They both died in their forties, when the brief time of intellectual freedom was over, because both sides in the Wars of Religion had closed their ranks. Probably C.S. Lewis could have produced other examples. However, I have a good reference from Reginald Scot: his Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) is mainly a denunciation of the witch-burners, but he adds as an appendix A Discourse of Spirits, having a broad interest in the subject. He remarks that the father of the famous Cardan (himself born in 1600, so we are back in the springtime of the movement) had a spirit in his power for many years, and the spirit would still pay visits after it had been released, sometimes bringing its friends, but then it usually told lies. ‘They said that their souls (and ours also) died with their bodies.’ Scot treats this evidence as contemptible, but Cardan was famous for telling truth – probably old Cardan had some kind of planchette.

More than a century later, the belief is firmly expressed in The Secret Commonwealth by Robert Kirk (1691), a Scots witness and believer, who says: ‘They are not of such stuff that they can come before God; they are far from Heaven, and safe from Hell.’ So the belief had hung on in Scotland, more than England. It is implied in some of the Border Ballads, and even in the legends of The Celtic Twilight, collected by Yeats and his friends in Ireland. So it was fairly widespread: but what we need here is evidence from London in 1590-1600.

General readiness to believe in Middle Spirits does seem to have collapsed by then, but the belief in changelings was quite sturdy: usually doubted by men, maybe, but forced upon them as practical behaviour by wives, midwives and nurses. The recent book by A.L. Rowse upon Simon Forman, a popular and successful medical practitioner, shows him treating the belief as a matter of course. To discover that your baby is a moron is a slow, painful process, and the men cannot feel it decent to interfere with any palliation for the mother such as letting her be told that her real child is being much appreciated among the fairies. The trouble is that it has lost its chance of Heaven, but it will live unusually long. This comfort was often enough. It made baby-watching a very responsible business, and probably increased the unhealthy shutting of windows, because the fairies flew in there, but to speak against it would be callous. If the baby had been stolen by devils, that would be horrible, and there could be no connivance in the belief. This proves, I submit, that it was still usually accepted, if only in a half-way manner.

The whole movement, as Dame Frances has done so much to make clear, started with the translation of the Hermetica from Greek to Latin by Ficino, in 1463, so that Cosimo Medici might read it before he died. The manuscript had recently been fetched in from Greece, and was widely believed to be by an Egyptian tutor of Moses: it deserved reverence. It is now dated at about 250 AD and ascribed to a group of pious people in Alexandria, perhaps helping at the hospital there as the attitude is so medical, much influenced by Plato but opposed to Christianity. It expresses quite opposite views on at least one topic, sometimes praising love and nature, sometimes asceticism: so the authors wrote independently. But they all carry the same tone of feeling. They are full of information about spirits, and on the whole give a strong warning against them; a reasoning man should try to rise above them, though they enter the most intimate parts of his body. It is readily admitted that they are ‘both good and bad in their natures’: the Manichean separation had not yet started.

One long document had been translated early into Latin and survives only in that form; it was known in the Middle Ages, and considered very shocking. Hermes is addressing the father of medicine (this is ‘Asclepius III’), and tells him how wonderful it was that Man, though of modest station, has such great powers; he is the fashioner of the gods who dwell in temples.‘Thus man not only receives the light of divine life, but gives it also; he not only makes his way upward to God but he even fashions gods.’ ‘Do you mean statues, Trismegistus?’ asks the doctor timidly, and is rebuked: these statues really do make prophecies and heal or inflict diseases. Then there is a long denunciation of Christians, who despise the creation; if they win, only bad spirits will remain around. After this he speaks again of the delightful experience of training up a spirit to be a god. Our ancestors had to learn gradually: ‘being unable to make souls, they invoked the souls of daemons, and implanted them in the statues by means of certain holy and sacred rites.’ Of course the spirits of great men may also be valuable here: both Hermes and Asclepius, it turns out, have grandfathers of the same name who preside over temples, but their consciousness is in Heaven; only their influence performs the miracles in the temples.

I am using the translation of Walter Scott, whom Dame Frances describes sadly as too free; he is excluded from her indexes. She translates the above sentences as ‘not only does he receive life, but he gives it in his turn. Not only does he progress towards God, but he makes gods.’ And: ‘After having evoked the souls of demons or angels, they introduced these into their idols ... ’ (This is in her Bruno). It is true that the Latin says ‘daemons or angels’, but this is nonsense: clearly an angel would not be enlightened by being used in this way. Probably the translator hoped that the phrase would give an impression of a neutral spirit, ‘both good and bad’ like ourselves, which by this date (perhaps 360, Scott thinks) had become hard to recapture. The Latin for the earlier sentence is: non solum inluminantur, verum etiam inluminant, nec solum ad deum proficit, verum etiam conformat deos. So there is no doubt that the priests ‘enlighten’ an at first dubious imp; till now, his highest mental flight has been some practical joke, but soon he will be responsible and benevolent, and will sound like it too. When Dame Frances summarises the passage for her new book, she says it describes ‘how the Egyptians attracted celestial influences into the statues of their gods’, and reports that Agrippa believed these statues were worked by number-magic, cabalistic presumably. No doubt: but what Hermes himself said, when the doctor asked him, is that the imp would be coaxed to stay by jewels and scents: ‘And would you know why frequent sacrifices are offered to do them pleasure, with hymns and praises and concord of sweet sounds that imitate heaven’s harmony? These things are done to the end that, gladdened by the oft-repeated worship, the heavenly beings who have been enticed into the statues may continue through long ages to acquiesce in the companionship of man.’ And really they can do a great deal: they ‘assist, like loving kinsmen, in the affairs of men’, whereas the gods that push the stars round pay no attention.

A comparison to the education of a prince is hard to avoid and was probably intended. He too cannot be beaten so he has to be coaxed: flattery and sweets if he behaves tolerably, and pained silence when he does not, and an appeal to his vanity all the time. There are painful failures, but it is remarkable how often the technique succeeds. It shows, feels Hermes, that the Cosmos is really good. The doctor is rather startled to hear this, and no doubt Hermes assumed that man must handle it properly to get good results. ‘You may well hold man to be a marvel; he surpasses all other creatures.’ One wants to know how old this priest is, and what has really happened in his temple. It is like putting up a pigeon-loft, and finding that some pigeons come of their own accord (though that may lead to trouble with the neighbours). The passage might well give encouragement, around 1500, to the study of nature.

But any such sympathy depends upon not believing that all spirits are either angels or devils, all drilled and in uniform and for ever at war and under direct orders either from God or Satan. If you believe in the Principle of Plenitude, or Great Chain of Being – that is, believe that God has caused life wherever there is room – it seems plain that there is room for life between ourselves and Heaven; and it would be against the principle if these creatures were yet more enslaved than ourselves. That military concept is essentially Manichean; and Aquinas, who was anti-Manichee, did actually resist it, though in moderate terms. The Platonists, he says, maintained that all the gods were good, whereas some of the daemons were good and some bad; and by daemons they meant the intellectual substances which are beneath the lunar sphere, yet higher than men in the order of Nature. ‘Nor is this opinion to be rejected as contrary to faith,’ because God rules everything through the angels. Consequently, he goes on with his odd detachment, ‘there is nothing to prevent us from saying that the lower angels were divinely set aside for presiding over the lower bodies.’ This is far short of saying that the Middle Spirits can interbreed with mankind, also never come to judgment, also are sometimes both good and bad: but surely it should relieve some of the anxiety which must lie behind the campaign of Dame Frances. It would be hard to lay down how low a lower angel might get; and no one supposes that the imp seduced by Hermes committed an actual sin.

Coming now to Cornelius Agrippa, one should realise that he was a cautious writer, and had reason to be: dying in bed was an achievement, and so was his wide acceptance in the Cambridge College Libraries. To print his spoof-book, saying that no branch of learning was any good, while not actually implying that magic was any worse than physics or history, shortly before he finally printed his great treatise on magic, was an inspiration: but a more placid competence had already taught him that the dons would like a summary of what other people had thought, particularly the Byzantine authors of around 1000 AD, not otherwise well-known. He hardly ever expresses his own opinion, though he sometimes allows it to emerge. We do not reach the spirits till his third and final Book, and must begin it by reading many chapters of determined piety. At last he explains that among his authorities the magicians, as apart from the theologians, ‘establish angels as Ministers for the disposing of these things which are below ... Hence the gods of the Woods ... satyrs ... nymphs of the sea ... the Graces, Hobgoblins and the like ... And they who have written the chronicles of the Danes and Norwegians do testify that spirits of diverse kinds in those regions are subject to men’s demands; moreover some of them to be corporeal and mortal, whose bodies are begotten and die, yet to be long-lived as is the opinion of the Egyptians, and the Platonists, and especially approved by Proclus. Plutarch also doth affirm ...’ This is the English version of 1651, by J.F. (Chapter 19). Augustine says that he does not believe angels have no matter, but allows them an airy matter. Psellus thought that the nature of spirits is not without a body, but that angels and devils are without matter. So it goes on till in Chapter 33 Agrippa appears to feel he may speak in person, though with a let-out to some unnamed previous occasion: ‘There is however, as hath before been said, a certain kind of spirits not so noxious, but most near to men, so that they are even affected by human passions, and many of them delight in men’s society ... He therefore that will call them may easily do it in the places where their abode is, by alluring them with sweet fumes, with pleasant sounds, and by such instruments as are made by the guts of certain animals.’ He has just named these creatures by saying: ‘the fairies and hobgoblins inhabit champaign fields; the Naiads fountains ... the nymphs marshes and ponds.’ Surely it would surprise a pagan nymph, in her horse pond, if she were summoned to a Christian judgment? It is hard to believe that Agrippa expected that. He is frankly conscious of the state of public opinion, of what it will let him say. Soon after this he is saying with relief: ‘all now believe that Merlin, a British prophet, was the son of a spirit, and born of a virgin.’ Of course he could not be the son of a devil – that is agreed. It is at least a step towards accepting Middle Spirits.

Agrippa is much more hopeful than the Hermetica about these spirits, saying in a splendid passage that they may in their three grades bring inspiration to a technician or an artist or a philosopher, and Dame Frances gives this due prominence. But she spells them as ‘demons’ not as ‘daemons’. The OED makes clear that English writers in the 16th and 17th centuries were conscious that a ‘daemon’ in Plato is quite different from a ‘demon’ in a sermon, and used the spellings for the distinction; it was given up in the 18th century, perhaps out of distaste for pedantry, and perhaps Dame Frances feels the same. So she quotes Milton as confessing, in ‘Il Penseroso’, that he has some contact, during his reading at night, with ‘those demons that are found ... underground’. Milton printed ‘daemons’, and had mentioned the spirit of Plato just before; he would be indignant at this misspelling, regarding it as typical of the ignorant slander by which he was persecuted. And I think the habit may be shown to mislead Dame Frances herself, in the book now under review. She is saying that the Cabala is very important, in Agrippa’s scheme, as ‘a guarantee of safety’ against evil powers. ‘The three stages of inspired melancholy described by Agrippa would seem to be much in need of such protection since the inspiration is definitely said to be of a demonic nature.’ But at least the daemons of the third stage, who tell you about God, are plainly meant to be of the highest goodness and purity. Of course, bad spirits often do break into a seance, and if the pitiful cabalist number-magic helps to keep them out, it had better be used: but this gives no excuse for suspecting the noble daemons themselves. In effect, Dame Frances adopts the position of Calvin, who thought them simply devils, though she can hardly intend to.

This book says several times that Agrippa and Bruno and such characters wanted to give Christianity greater power by magic, without discussing what kind of power. It does seem an improvement; in her book about Bruno she appears shocked at his corruption (whereas he was plainly an excessively innocent man) whenever he thinks of making his magic any use. Well, the Lord’s Prayer says, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ a definitely materialist attempt to secure gain, and there has probably never been a war in Christendom in which the priests on both sides did not pray God for (in effect) the death of the opposing troops in battle. The moral position of the Winter King in Bohemia, ancestor of our royal house, becomes at least decent if he had expected to win by magic. The pacifist doctrine is hard to carry out, but need not be handled as badly as he handled it. When he accepted the crown he put himself in a military situation, but after one defeat he left in his carriage, and his supporters were to suffer. If this was one of the decisive cases where magic failed to work, he looks just a bit better. No such considerations ever occur to Dame Frances, when she praises him in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972).

The end of the chapter on Agrippa says: ‘Though the genuine Hebrew Cabalist might be shocked by Agrippa’s interpretation of Cabala solely as white magic, yet this interpretation served a purpose in fortifying man for intellectual and spiritual endeavour.’ It ‘fortified’ him by giving insurance against being caught by devils and sent to Hell; she has just explained that, and no doubt a real Cabalist might be ‘shocked’ because his science was meant to teach deep truths about God. But Agrippa does not seem under strain when he says it is easy to raise a nymph in a water-meadow, and gives brief instructions for it; nor does he mention any high purpose there, intellectual or spiritual. He seems to assume that anyone would like to do it. Considering the fierceness of his opponents, it was only sensible to make the standard claims for his line of study, but he does not regard himself as perpetually struggling against devils.

Indeed, one might feel in more immediate danger from the horse-play of the Middle Spirits. Scot remarks that people used to be afraid of Robin Goodfellow (but now they are only afraid of witches, he goes on), and Robin had never been thought a killer. It is rather a hard matter to assess. ‘They laugh and are glad and are terrible,’ says The Immortal Hour. ‘And they dwell in the hills, the hollow hills.’ It is good poetry, but Robin at least was a more homely kind of spirit. Jan Kott, in Shakespeare our Contemporary, argued at length that he was a devil, and found direct proof of it when the players, running in terror from Bottom and his ass’s head, tear their clothes on the brambles. Kott had set out to be grim and manly, forcing his readers to recognise the dire truth, but here he has to become quaintly maidenly: ‘Oh, their poor jerkins! I can’t bear to think of it.’ Shakespeare would consider this reaction unsoldierly: but one may suspect that he did not himself enjoy the horse-play which is so prominent in his earlier plays, and gave it up when he could afford to. The story, in any case, presumes that Puck is not malignant. Oberon is at first angry enough with his wife to intend a painful humiliation. He says: ‘Wake when some vile thing is near.’ Puck is presumed to stage-manage what happens next, and he presents to her the translated Bottom, so Oberon gets the Indian changeling and a small bit of revenge, all he really needed, without upsetting her. And at the end, as Puck says, ‘the man hath his mare again, and all shall be well.’ It was rather hard for the playwright to keep the story from appearing too soft. Anyhow, to say that Puck and Oberon are devils (or, for that matter, angels) is mere misreading.

Teachers usually have a down on horse-play, having been swots when at school and being exposed to the rough young afterwards. I feel with my colleagues there entirely. I would greatly dislike having to engage in horse-play, let alone be horse-played upon. But it is no use talking as if only low-class criminals behaved like this: within living memory, the chief danger at the universities was from young men who were heirs to titles. Nor is such behaviour always hated by people who feel they cannot afford it: towards the end of the career of Faust, Marlowe calls an indignation meeting of people who think he has fooled them, and even these characters, when an indignant man tells how the horse he had bought melted into the village horse-pond, cry out all together: ‘O brave doctor.’ He is a very popular character in the German Faust-book too, especially in the additions made during the first year, when the book had succeeded. The reactions of such people, even if muddle-headed, are in their way generous-minded, and one does not really become more spiritual by calling them the work of the Devil.

The Tempest is more cautious than the Dream, having to be shown before James (indeed, it might be said, in partial defence of Jan Kott, that Shakespeare was teasing his audience in the Dream, allowing hints that Puck was a devil, before making clear that he wasn’t). Ariel is so much a nature-spirit that he positively wants to dissolve into the more handsome parts of Nature, and renounce all contact with mankind. But he likes playing practical jokes (both he and Puck are obeying their masters, and help on the plot by it, but they do it with evident pleasure); and he is lying sanctimoniously when he pretends to be obeying the supreme powers, and not a human magician. For their foul deeds, he tells the villains:

The powers, delaying (not forgetting), have
Incensed the seas and shores – yea, all the creatures,
Against your peace.

Prospero praises him afterwards as a good actor who said all that he was told to. He is, in fact, clearly another Middle Spirit, and not an angel. And surely nobody says he is a devil.

I am not maintaining that Dame Frances says anything wrong here: she merely ignores the characters who do not fit her account. But these ones are usually considered important elements in the two plays. The fairies who really do fit her account are those of the Merry Wives. They are related to the Virgin Queen ‘through their loyalty and their fervent defence of chastity’. Well, the story is that the Queen wanted to see Falstaff in love, and the Bard turned out this play very rapidly: such, then, is the impression it made at the time. Giving the Queen precisely what would please her need hardly be ‘occult’. We are also told, what seems a support for the theory, that these fairies took to pinching because the Vestal herself was accustomed to pinch the sluts who waited upon her, as a punishment for their foulness, so that she would accept this detail as a simple compliment. Dame Frances calls these fairies ‘imagery’, as if they are merely allegorical: but there seems no reason why she should not agree with Aquinas and accept such beings as the very lowest grade of angel. Still, if Puck may count as a fairy, it is hard to say that all the fairies are devoted to chastity, considering that he gave Titania a craving for Bottom.

A number of interesting pictures in the book are intended to illustrate the passage in Agrippa (largely quoted on her page 53) which says that discovery and inspiration are often produced by daemons, and that they do it by giving a trance-like melancholy, as in the great engraving by Dürer (who could have seen an earlier version of the book in manuscript). I think she proves that Chapman had read this impressive passage, but if the artists other than Dürer were trying to represent such a melancholy they failed. At least, the attempt to capture the memorial bust of Shakespeare goes too far. She says that ‘the fixed gaze, the trance-like expression, the half-open mouth’ showed him as one who never blotted a line because he wrote when entranced. Surely the air of surprised rueful uneasiness, as of one awaiting the next spasm deep within, should also be considered. I suggest he has just come from a City banquet, with a series of grand courses and a round of wines, and is wondering whether he will keep it down. He has started writing to his doctor but now it seems too late. And yet he keeps a certain assurance: ‘I’ll be all right if I’m not joggled,’ he may be saying to some anxious lady. There is a suggestion of the later Evelyn Waugh.

Still, though the method can produce boss shots, the sturdy indifference to received opinion, the basic earnestness and the eye open to the whole scene, allow her to come out with important judgments. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, as it now stands, is not only disgusting but a betrayal of all he might be expected to stand for: in effect, it is a vote to bring the witch-burnings and their attendant corruption to England. It ought not to be praised with an air of simpering connivance, and I hope very much that Dame Frances will affect opinion there. But she is unjust when she tries to show that other plays by Marlowe are similar. Marlowe does not whitewash Edward II, but we are expected to feel sorry for him, and indignant with his murderers, by the time he is tortured to death at the end. Marlowe has evidently studied the sources about Tamburlane: he was a ruthless conqueror, but a man of taste – at least, his architecture was admired. The chief emphasis is on the strangeness of such a man. If you recognise the fondness for horse-play of the Elizabethans, you regard the Jew of Malta as a kind of Punch, though of course you are pleased to have him stopped at the end. The B-text of Dr Faustus, the worst of which always gets printed now as part of Marlowe’s play, builds up to a laborious but powerful piece of sadism intended to make the audience hate Faust and gloat over his agony as he approaches his eternal torture. No other play by Marlowe ends like this at all. One can imagine a travelled expert on the subject assuring his stay-at-home audience that, though of course nothing could touch the real thing, Dr Faustus came far nearer than any other play to catching the atmosphere of a witch-burning.

I think, and hope to prove, that the A-text is right, and all the nastiness was added to Marlowe’s play after he had been murdered by Government spies (not for that purpose, but it might turn out convenient). A play needs a plot, and Marlowe made Faust try to escape Hell by becoming a Middle Spirit; he bought the help of Mephistophelis, who was a Middle Spirit, not a devil, by promising him his immortal soul. Neither of them dare say this because the Devil would overhear, but the Chorus to Act Two, which is mysteriously missing, explained what they are hinting at; a Chorus was needed because the Devil could not overhear it. By the end of Act Two Faust is already certain that he has been cheated, and is damned; he takes to horse-play to stave off his terrors; but after his terrible final speech denouncing Hell he cries ‘Ah, Mephistophelis’, and dies in his friend’s arms with ecstasy, finding that his plan has worked after all. Of course the censors could not realise from the script how the play would be produced, and when they found in 1590 that the audience were delighted at the escape of Faust they clamped down on it, demanding total silence, until a thoroughly sadistic version had been prepared for 1594. The story of Marlowe’s version did not seem pointlessly improbable, because it was a means of saying to the audience: ‘You and I dare not say what we think, living as we do under a censorship, just like these characters.’ It was what Marlowe would want to do next, after The Jew of Malta, and no wonder the Government never forgave him.

However, the important thing is to recognise, as Dame Frances does, and as all our moral critics seem unable to do (though Bernard Shaw could), that the B-text of Dr Faustus is disgusting, and had a harmful political intention. If one is allowed to feel this, it is fairly easy to recognise that the bad parts are not by Marlowe.