Date:April 23, 1993
Class:Literature & Arts A-40b, Harvard University
Comments: During the year of Shakespeare class, I became interested in the Shakespeare's focus on names and naming and the mystical overtones involved. I wrote this mostly for myself, though it happened to coincide with a paper being due.
  One of the neat things for me was that fact that a number of the books I found for research wouldn't have been available in most university libraries.
Hook: In writing this I made use of the (back then) fairly new technology of CD-ROMs, with a searchable electronic version of all of Shakespeare's work. The number of hits generated when you search for "name" in Shakespeare is surprising.

“Entity in my friend…”
   — Ozzy Osbourne

“Various considerations impelled Him to attempt conjurations in the English language. There already existed one example, the charm of the witches in Macbeth; although this was perhaps not meant seriously, its effect is indubitable. (A true poet cannot help revealing himself and the truth of things in his art, whether he be aware of what he is writing or no.)”
   — Aleister Crowley,
Magick in Theory and Practice

“And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’
He replied ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’”
   — Mark:5.9

…and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i

This is not about Shakespeare, nor is it about his plays, except in a limited sense. Rather, this explores the beliefs and superstitions of Shakespeare’s original audiences—specifically, those regarding witchcraft, demons and naming—and how they might have influenced his work and the audience’s interpretation of it. Witchcraft and the persecution thereof ran amok in England during the 1600’s, and this reflects the beliefs of the time, which in turn indicate a more direct and serious response to some of Shakespeare’s more mystical symbols, ideas and characters than would be prevalent today.

Any discussion of witchcraft or magic or magick is somewhat hindered by the obscurity and unreliability of texts, so perhaps a note on sources is in order. Most of the sources used herein are historical accounts of English history, witchcraft or both. While a more accurate picture of what witchcraft really is could be drawn from how-to books (Wiccan ‘cookbooks’, if you will), such sources are both hard to find and hard to confirm. As this author is more interested in how the society viewed witchcraft, demons and so forth, rather than how the practitioners of such traditions viewed them, the histories paint a more accurate picture. While it would be interesting to see how hermetic traditions (such as the Rosicrucians) or even specific members of a tradition may have influenced literature, that topic is not discussed here for two reasons: 1) such traditions are not generally public knowledge, and as such would tend to distract from the societal focus of this paper, and 2) sources on such traditions are inaccurate more often then not (for example, Hargrave Jennings’ The Rosicrucians is, if not mostly lies, at least deeply obscured truth).

The one non-history source used is, perhaps, the most important one. In 1597, King James I of England printed Dæmonologie, an extremely coherent work which addressed such issues as why witchcraft was a sin, what the tools of the witch were, and, indeed, whether witchcraft really existed in the first place. This last point is addressed first by King James, and seems to receive an inordinate amount of attention. Using mostly biblical evidence, James determines that witchcraft is a real force of evil, in the process makes “this arte to appeare verie monstruous & detestable.” (James I, 24) Katherine Briggs perfectly restates definitions used in the Dæmonologie, saying:

King James makes the distinction commonly drawn at his time, between sorcery and witchcraft; sorcery, the art by which the devil is compelled, or believed to be compelled, by charms, hidden names and the drawing of circles; and witchcraft, which entails a formal pact with the devil, ending almost invariably in his worship. King James points out that the tediousness of the practice of magic, and the danger in which the magician stood if they accidentally omitted any precautionary measure commonly induced them to descend in the end from sorcery to witchcraft, and to make a pact for ease and safety. (Briggs, 35)

Being servants of the devil, witches can, according to King James I, cause disease, make a person love or hate another, raise storms, cause insanity, command spirits, sympathetically kill, and bewitch people to Satan’s cause. Demons are credited with many of the same powers, with an emphasis on tempting people to sin and with the notable addition of possession. In short, these arts were considered evil and corrupting, worthy of fear.

Dæmonologie makes it clear that King James was not a practitioner of the black arts and that he thought ill of them. This feeling and, in fact, all the beliefs contained in Dæmonologie, were mostly shared by other Englishmen of the time. This is not because King James set out a whole new belief system which his subjects then followed, but that his simply wrote a treatise about the belief system which his subjects already followed:

The treatise, though well-constructed and compendious, is not original. It adduces neither new facts nor new arguments. Mr. Gardiner [an English historian] is perfectly right when he says that James ‘had only echoed opinions which were accepted freely by the multitude, and were tacitly admitted without inquiry by the first intellects of the day’. (Kittredge, 6)

The time was simply rife with witches when James I came onto the royal main stage. All facets of English society took witches as evil reality. The period from 1588-1618 has been called the great witch scare, during which many witch trials and other such events took place. (Davies, 32) “The accession of James found the English public—both in its educated and its uneducated classes—deeply impressed with the actuality of witchcraft as an ever-present menace to soul and body, intensely excited on the subject and pressing hard for the extermination of witches.” (Kittredge, 26)

It is this reality which must have made the magical elements in Shakespeare’s plays much more powerful and effective, compared to the somewhat whimsical way we treat witchcraft today. In our own, skeptical, seasoned society, for example, the opening scene of Macbeth would likely require lighting, smoke, and special effects to be even believable, much less the frightening spectacle is must have seemed to a 1606 audience without the benefit of such technology. Also more readily accessible to audiences of the day was the fact that witches can only bring you to do evil if you are predisposed to be tempted. Macbeth is obviously of such a predisposition, fairly leaping into an abyss of evil. As such, Shakespeare’s original audience would likely have less sympathy for Macbeth for allowing his own temptation than modern audiences.

Other facts would also have not slipped by the audience as they often do now. With a greater knowledge of demons and devils, the fact that ‘Lucifer’ means ‘light-bearer’ would have been much more mainstream then, as opposed to the Trivial Pursuit answer it is today. Such a datum would make Iago’s entrances into a scene of death while carrying a lantern more meaningful to the general audience of the time, enhancing his evil nature. Iago’s evil nature (or even Richard III’s) would itself likely be interpreted differently as well, the modern view of Iago as evil incarnate giving way to seeing him as demonic or actually as a demon. This is a subtle difference, but a case could be made that the incarnation idea gives way to questions of human nature and morals, while the demon idea could be (mis)interpreted as a religious question.

On the less tragic side of Shakespeare, comedies require more suspension of disbelief than other plays, and Shakespeare often used witchcraft in subtle ways to allow such disbelief. Ironically, this use of witchcraft tends to be viewed today as a cop out. Central to many comedies was the liminal world, a place of change and general oddness. The action of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, takes place in the fairy woods, a realm of magic and lust. Although not technically witchcraft per se, Shakespeare adds in enough spells, magic potions and transformations into animals to call upon superstition to integrate quick plot shifts and changes in character relations, and generally make the comedy work. In A Comedy of Errors, the madcap zaniness deals with two strangers in a mixed up land called Ephesus. “Ephesus had a reputation for witchcraft, and the strangers from Syracuse were the readier to accept whatever happened to them because of this.” (Briggs, 72) The audience was as well, knowing the witchcraft always presented a clear and present danger. Modern audiences, on the other hand, view the witchcraft explanation of why the characters behave in such a stupid manner as a forced fallback position, as if Shakespeare had just waved his hands at the problem and said “uh…witchcraft! yeah, that’s what it is.”

From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t require much mental acuity to notice that witchcraft plays a more overt role in the Jacobean plays than it does in Elizabethan plays, and that one reason for this was King James’ interest in the topic. Given King James’ patronage of Shakespeare’s company in 1603, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that Shakespeare added mystical events and characters to his plays to placate, honor or at least interest the King with witchcraft.

Lastly, portions of witchcraft place a high importance on words, especially names. Shakespeare often wrote plays featuring names and naming as an important plot element, or used names to define character’s personalities. While it would be absurd to assume that Shakespeare placed emphasis on names solely because of contemporary theories about demonology and witchcraft, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some of his audience at the time had opinions about names and naming which owed something to magical theory.

Names are important to witchcraft in two ways: the first is as a sympathetic connection to the target of a spell or hex; the second is as a way of controlling demons. The former is not quite as important as the latter, but is formidable nonetheless. As an example of witches power, King James gives the following example of a witch’s instruction: “To some others at these times hee teacheth, how to make Pictures of waxe or clay: That by the roasting thereof, the persones that that beare the name of, may be continuallie melted or dryed awaie by continuall sicknesse.” (James I, 44) To have a name was to have power of the person so named. For this reason, witches often had a secret name known only to them, denouncing all other names. This concept of name and truename shows up in demonology as well, both as a means of summoning and control. Learning the truename of a demon was said to give total control over it when conjured; however, truenames are difficult to discover, so often the simple name of the demon would have to do. This name served as controlling agent for both the summoner and a clergyman attempting exorcism. Citing the precedence of Jesus asking the name of the devil when tempted in the desert, a priest often would try to discover the name of a demon possessing someone. The seemingly unauthored Manual of Exorcism gives this warning and advice:

When the demon, compelled by the incantations, says his name, the exorcist must try to learn its meaning, because the name that he bears usually explains his importance, characteristics, or natural inclination or disposition; that is, the vice or sin that he takes care of and governs. In this way, the exorcist can oblige the demon to reveal the nature of his name or the sin over which he presides and reigns, in order to be able to apply more easily the remedy that is effective against it. (Manual of Exorcism, 39)

In other words, the name the demon uses encompasses what the demon is, an indication of its outlook and demeanor.

Juliet’s rosy comments aside, Shakespeare uses names in almost the exact same way, especially in Coriolanus. When Caius Marcius is given a new name, he does not just take on the name of Coriolanus, he becomes Coriolanus, Conqueror of Corioli. When banished, he effectively looses this name—it is excess baggage which is not honored—and looses the man he was with it. Like a demon, his name is a reflection of himself. And, like a demon, has a truename which controls him, like a disarmed puppet: “thou boy of tears.” (Coriolanus, V.vi.103) In the same play, men meeting know each other only by name. When a Roman greets Volse with his name, Volse responds not by saying that he has forgotten the Roman’s name, but that he has forgotten the Roman; “Truly,” he says, “I have forgot you.” (IV.iii.2) There are countless other examples of the name defining the person throughout Shakespeare (Appendix A holds a few of them), and one really only need hear a few of the names to see this in operation: Anthony Dull, Mistress Quickly, Hotspur, Toby Belch, Abhorson, Seyton, Volumina, and so on.

Again, Shakespeare likely used these names to make his own points, not echo current dogma about witchcraft, but the audience of his time, well aware of the power of names, would be quick to pick up on such things. Their strong belief in witchcraft likely made this and other of Shakespeare’s mystical references much more important, likely different from modern readings of plays, and perhaps much more meaningful.


James I, King of England. Dæmonologie. G. B. Harrison, ed. London: John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd, 1924. Original text, 1597.

Briggs, Katherine M. Pale Hacate’s Team: An Examination of the Beliefs on Witchcraft and Magic among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and His Immediate Successors. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

Conway, Moncure Daniel. Demonology and Devil-Lore. 2 vols. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1879.

Kittredge, George Lyman. English Witchcraft and James the First. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912.

Davies, R. Trevor. Four Centuries of Witch-Beliefs. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1947.

Eunice Beyersdorf, trans. Manual of Exorcism. New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1975.

Notestein, Wallace. A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. New York: Russel & Russel, 1911. (Reissued 1965.)

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