“Hell is empty And all the devils are here”: The Absence of Devils in Shakespeare
The devil is so ubiquitous in medieval and early modern popular literature that his absence stands out. Even when devils are present, if a defining marker of the devil is absent it is obvious. As are variations of these demonic markers. There are no demonic figures in Piers Plowman (1360-1387) but there are two characters called Satan and Gobelyn. Satan in this case functions as adversary (his original role) and while Gobelyn has some demonic markers, he is more a folkloric figure. The devils in The Book of Margery Kempe (late 1430s) are not physically described because the focus is on her experience, her faith. These absences are just as important as the presence to analyze however because they are clues as to the work the devil figure is doing within the text. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589) has no physical description of devil, instead focusing on the pact aspect, necromancy and spirits, all associated markers with demonic figures. By far the largest absence is the fact that Shakespeare has no physical devil in any of his plays. This paper will examine how Shakespeare's lack of actual devil characters, and his move towards devilish characters such as Richard III, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Joan, Glyndŵr, and Falstaff from Henry IV Part 1, and Iago from Othello reflect a move in the early modern period towards the interiority of (d)evil. This move towards an internal, rather than external, threat illustrates the internalization of people's fears and anxieties and the growing influence of Luther on the common people.
Past scholarship such as the work of Neal Anthonisen, Ernest Jones, Stephen Ratcliffe, G.K Hunter, and Fredson Bowers has focused on the function of supernatural figures such as ghost, gods, spirits and fairies in works such as Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The scholarship of Millicent Bell and Margaux Deroux has focused on the issue of blackness through a post-colonial lens or as a mark of Other/subaltern. I see my work as a continuation of Leslie A. Fiedler’s in The Stranger in Shakespeare. Fiedler details the evidence of women, Jews, Moor, and “New World Savage” as stranger or Other within Shakespeare’s text, analyzing the text through close readings and associating these close readings with the larger literary traditions. However, where I feel she does not push far enough in examining is how these Others represent the cultural and historical moment or what exactly how these Others of women, Jews, Moors, and Native Americans represent and the work these figures are doing within the text. I see my work as building on Fiedler’s work, extending it, connection these portrayals of Others/strangers, as early modern stand ins for the devil, and examining why and how any this point in time these devil figures represents the fears, anxieties, and desires of a particular point in time.
In Shakespeare’s work there are all manner of supernatural figures- ghosts, spirits, fiends, and witches, but no devils. However, the folkloric devil in England, the devil of the people, can still be read in Shakespeare’s characters. The folkloric devil from c.1000 C.E up through the sixteenth century was identifiable through several key markers: he was physically distinct from people, appearing animalistic- dark in color, often with fur, cloven feet, claws, and a tail. He was often associated with the back, backside, or ass. He may be capable of magic, but is certainly capable of shapeshifting. He was also defined by his personality and actions- he is a tempter, a seducer, a deceiver, and is often identified by whom he makes pacts with (women and Jews). He acts as a counter to authority and often achieves his goals through cunning.
There is no way to know WHY Shakespeare did not include devils in his plays. It could have been because of stricter laws about showing heretical ideas onstage. It could be because Shakespeare is one of the few playwrights never jailed for heresy in his plays. It could be that his characters reflect a move towards the interiority of evil in the early modern period. Regardless, the majority of these devil “markers” can be read in several of Shakespeare’s characters: Richard III, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Joan, Glyndŵr, and Falstaff from Henry IV Part 1, and Iago from Othello. With each of these characters the markers of the folkloric English devil can be seen. Richard III and Aaron are described as either black, or a Moor. Shylock, Aaron, and Iago have beastly associations such as black dog, or bloody dog. Richard III, Aaron, Shylock, Aaron, Iago, and Joan are all named by others as being associated with the devil at some point, and Richard III, Aaron, and Shylock are also specifically tied to hell. Aaron, Richard III, Iago, and Joan are all named as tempters and Aaron and Richard are described as cunning. Aaron, Joan, and Glyndŵr are defined for how they counter authority.
If we place the plays on a timeline from Richard III to Titus Andronicus, to The Merchant of Venice, to Henry IV Part 1, to Othello then we can examine the evolution of the characteristics of the English folkloric devil in Shakespeare. Starting with Richard III the psychality of the devil is emphasized but not necessarily the animalistic aspect of the English folkloric devil. Richard III states in the play’s opening that he is “deformed, unfinish’d” and he uses this as justification for his behavior, an explanation for why he is the villain. Later in the play he is described as a “monster of evil” (507) as well as a “fiend” (1.2.34) and a “foul devil” (1.2.50) and it is his monstrosity, his grotesqueness that first associates him with the devil. These physical markers can be read as evidence of his atrocities, proof of the state of his soul. Up until the reverse in Act III, he is constantly associated with the devil and hell. From that point on Richard projects his demonic markets onto his enemies.
Aaron in Titus Andronicus is defined from the beginning by his blackness, the fact that he is a Moor, and these physical descriptions are linked to paganism (61) and his “vengeance,” “death,” “blood,” “revenge,” (38-39). There is not a lot of physical description for Aaron, as though the fact that he is constantly referred to as “Aaron the Moor” is enough to differentiate him from others. If Richard’s grotesqueness and monstrosity is what labels him and is meant to act as evidence of his sins and actions then the next step in the evolution of the demonic character is Aaron where his physical description automatically is equated with evil behavior. It’s not until Act 4 scene 2 that Aaron isn’t also identified as “Moor” instead he is linked to the “devil”- “Pray to the devils; the gods have given us over” (48) and when Aaron asks the Nurse about Tamara’s baby she identifies their child as “a devil” (62-64). Aaron is then later described as a “hellish dog” (77) and a “fiend” (78). By Act 5 Aaron’s transformation from Moor to devil is complete as he is described as “the incarnate devil” (40) and “fiend” (45). The fact that he is visually different is again tied to his behaviors, “Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (204). Lucius ties Aaron to animals and by doing so ties him to evil acts, “O barbarous beastly villains, like thyself!” (97). Aaron internalizes this characterization calling himself “a black dog” (122) and stating that he has no remorse for what he has done, “But that I cannot do ten thousand more” (141-144). He is unrepentant to the end, “If there be devils, would I were a devil,/To live and burn in everlasting fire,/So I might have your company in hell/But to torment you with my bitter tongue.” (147-150). Aaron’s representation of evil and connections between being black, being a Moor, and being the devil are all explicit within the text.
While Aaron embraces his demonic characterization Shylock’s associations with the devil are alien to him- it is the other characters describe him as a devil as a way ofmarking him as an outsider but Shylock does not see it. From Act I there is an association with Shylock and the devil from when Antonio states “The devil can cite Scripture” (1.3). Even Lancelot, the clown, who if we read through a Bakhtian lens is the lowest character representing a counter to authority, calls Shylock a “kind of devil” (2.2), and he is further described as a “fiend” and “very devil incarnate” (21). Even Shylock’s own daughter, Jessica conflates her father, her home life, and Lancelot with demonic imagery: “Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil” (2.3). For these characters describing Shylock in this way serves to distance him from themselves, to show that he is not only Other but alien, totally separate and incomprehensible from them. He is also presented as a threat. It is Solanio who explicitly ties villainy to the devil and to Jewishness, “The villain Jew” (2.8) and “lest the devil cross my prayer-/ for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew” (3.1). With Shylock we see how devilish descriptions are used to stand in for descriptions of the Other/subaltern.
This overlay of the devil with the Other is refined in Henry IV Part 1 with the figures of Joan and Glyndŵr and to a lesser extent, Falstaff. Joan is a threat because she is French and a woman, as established by the Messenger in Act 1 (1.1.123), “The French exclaimed the devil was in arms.” Talbot explicitly links Joan as devil with Joan as witch from Act 1 scene 7 on describing her as: “Devil or devil’s dam, I’ll conjure thee./Blood will I draw on thee- thou art a witch” and “Foul fiend of France, and hag of all despite” (2.5.12). Joan is an easily recognizable Other- she is French, female, and powerful so she is clearly a threat. There is no way to “hide” Joan’s devilishness because there is no way to hide the fact that she is female, despite the fact that she dresses as a male, another sin that condemns her as unnatural, and a force of shapechanging. With Glyndŵr there is no physical description, his Welshness and his use of the Welsh language is enough of a marker of difference. Falstaf, as the embodiment of vice covers four out of the seven: pride, sloth, gluttony, and lust. His physical appearance ties him to these vices as it did in medieval literature.
In contrast to Aaron’s “blackness” of skin and soul, Othello’s description as a Moor and hence his blackness, is countered in many ways by his conversion and his noble actions. While Othello’s blackness is emphasized and he is described as a devil, it is Iago who is the devil figure. Othello states that he is surprised Iago doesn’t have cloven feet (5.2) reflecting a move from the older, physical devil to something new.. Iago represents the culmination of the evolution of the English folkloric devil because we have moved from the monstrous grotesque of Richard III, to the blackness of Aaron’s soul due to his actions to the conflation of Jew and devil in Shylock, then the conflation of Other (female, French, Welsh, vice) in Henry IV Part 1, ending with Iago a white male who is devilish because of his actions and what he chooses to do, not because of his skin color, or because of his characterization as Other. While each of the previous devilish figures are equally defined by their physicality as well as their personality and actions, Iago is strictly defined by what he does.
Personality and Actions
In Act III, Richard III flips the devil characterization from himself to refer to the people who oppose him, “That do conspire my death with devilish plots/of damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed/Upon my body with their hellish charms?” (3.4.60-62). He goes onto say that they’ve bewitched him (3.4.68), describes the women who oppose him into witches (3.4.70-71) and conflate the idea of the devil with Turks or infidels (3.5.39). Once Richard flips the characterization the focus changes to the actions of devilishly characters with no mention of physical appearance. Richard’s adversaries become devilish because he describes their actions as such, and because they act to oppose him, not because of any physical markers. In this way we can read this flip as a projection of Richard’s own demonic nature. These characterizations are also demonic because they counter the authority figure- Richard III.
Aaron’s monstrous actions, his horrendous acts in Tamora’s name and at her bidding, are seen as inevitable within the confines of the play because of the blackness of his skin. There is no way for Aaron to escape his monstrosity, and he has no desire to. He not only orchestrates Lavinia’s rape and mutilation but these were his idea. He is able to deceive Titus into thinking that giving up his hand will spare his sons’ lives. Aaron’s relationship with Tamora can also be seen as a trangression or taboo against racial boundaries. In this way Aaron’s actions counter natural order and authority, both for trangressing racial and moral boundaries for continuing his affair with Tamora even after she is married to the Emperor. Even when given the chance to repent in order to save his son he gives Lucius the information he wants while at the same time specifically mentioning that he feels no remorse for his actions. With Aaron there is no separation between his physicality and his actions. Just as with Richard III they are marked as monstrous on the outside because they are monstrous on the inside.
While Shylock’s actions are viewed by others as monstrous, and he is certainly characterized as the villain, those perspectives are from the other characters in the play not his own perspective. From his own perspective Shylock is the victim in how the action plays out.. This presentation represents a middle ground between how the devil views himself, such as with Richard and Aaron, to how others view the devil figure, such as Joan,Glyndŵr and Falstaff, in Henry IV Part 1. Shylock also represents a change in perspective from a clear demonic figure presented to the audience to a more ambivalent demonic figure whose characterization is based more on the perception of other characters. In this way Shylock can be read as multiple projections of fear of the other characters- fear of Jews, fear of outside control of economic factors, and fears over conversion.
Joan’s characterization as a devil is innately tied to her sex and the concept of female as tempter, with her physicality as the reason for her actions, her sex the source of her weakness as it was with Eve. Alencon states in Act 1 scene 3, “These women are shrewd tempters with their tongues” (1.3.102). Joan is also read as a devil because she is a violation of the natural order, for her actions of woman as warrior, but also for the implication of Joan as whore, seen with the pun with “pucelle”/virgin and “puzzell”/whore. Despite accusations throughout the play the final condemnation of Joan doesn’t come until Act 5 and when it does it is because of the supposed power she, as a witch, has received from the devil. She is also defined as a demonic figure because she can do- enact spells, conjure up spirits and curse people (5.3.2, 5.3.10, 5.6.86). Glyndŵr and Falstaff have no physical descriptions associated with the devil but their actions of threatening authority and the status quo can be read in line as how the devil functions. Glyndŵr is a threat because he is Welsh an Other marked different by his language, and by the threat his rebellion is a threat to the authority of the monarchy. While he is not specifically named as a devil the equation of Other with devil has already been established with Joan, and the reading can be applied to Other characters within the play. To a lesser extent, and not fully realized until Henry IV part 2 and Henry V, Falstaff represents a threat as Other because he threatens the monarchy himself with his corruption of Hal. Falstaff is not described as devilish but he is defined by his association with vices, and from medieval morality and mystery plays vices are often portrayed as minions of the devil.
Iago is the culminating figure, in Othello it is Iago through his temptations and manipulations and pacts who is the devil figure. He is Vice. He is Envy. He is temptation. He orchestrates the actions of the rest of the characters to do his bidding. His manipulations of Cassio can be read as a type of devil’s pact. He is the ultimate representation of fear in the early modern period because he is not what he seems. He is the internal, not external threat. Part of the reason why he is so terrifying as a devil figure is because there is no way to know he’s the devil.
Starting at the beginning, it is the monstrous, the grotesque that is threatening. People fear that which is physically different. Portrayals of the monstrous represent anxieties of what is different or monstrous within ourselves. Riots rocked London in 1592, the year Richard III is performed, common people who rose up against people in power, poor soldiers and sailors who were adrift after the mobilization of the Spanish Armada. Richard’s monstrosity can be read as a desire for all threats to be so easily recognizable. Coinciding with this the plague closing theatres so it is easy to read the physical monstrosity of plague victims against the monster within (the common people). In 1594, the year Titus Andronicus is performed the Nine Years War in Ireland begins- with Irish chieftain Hugh O'Neill’s rebelling against the oppression of the English government. The Irish are different because of their religion, their language, and their appearance. They are markedly different from the English. The presentation of Aaron as markedly different and his barbaric nature, as well as his function as the physical/martial arm of the Queen of the Goths, Tamora can be read as representing fears of Irish invasion and threat. When The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV Part 1 are performed in 1596-8 exterior threats are the biggest concern- food crisis and famine (causing Elizabeth I to call for the removal of all Africans from Britain), and the dangers of exploration and conquest (Cadiz, Jamaica). The Shylock as outsider/Other and the Welsh and Joan as the same represent fears and anxieties about these external threats. However, by 1604 and Othello, as work begins on the King James Bible and as the Anglo-Spanish War ends, there is a desire for national unity under the banner of religion and a turning away from external threats towards internal ones. In the end the devil is us. Iago represents the completion of the move of the devil from a visually different, easily recognizable threat/devil to an unknown, ubiquitous threat. In part this interior move reflects conversion fears or rather false conversion fears. Crypto-Jews, and false conversions are a form of shapeshifting that cannot be seen. Iago is the perfect example that people are not what they seem and the threat that represents. Iago is able with only the power of his words to bring down Othello, and by extension the military in general.
In the end, we can see that the devil is not absent from Shakespeare, he was simply been subsumed into the characters. From Richard III to Aaron to Shylock to Joan, Glyndŵr, and Falstaff to Iago each exhibits key markers of the English folkloric devil. However, it’s also clear from Richard III to Iago there is a clear evolution from a physical devil to an internal devil. This move reflects the larger trend through the early modern period, the influence of Luther and Protestantism. Examining these figures through this lens allows us to see them as part of a larger tradition of devil figures in English popular literature. By doing this we can view Shakespeare not as a gap in the narrative of the English folkloric devil but as a revision of the figure.
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