The Middle Ages and the Elizabethans - Anticipations - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The Middle Ages and the Elizabethans
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

With the demise of classical civilisation in the fifth century C.E., our interest must necessarily turn to the barbarian conquerors of Rome. Not much is known about the pre-Christian paganism of the German tribes, especially given that Christian influence began to make itself manifest almost immediately upon the German invaders’ sacking of Rome. Accordingly, the chief literary document of the early medieval period—the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf (8th century C.E.)—proves to be an illuminating glimpse at a dark period.

Our interest in Beowulf is focused on the creation of Grendel, a manifest invention of the Beowulf-poet. The entity is described as a descendant of Cain, making his relevance to Christian myth immediately obvious. The poet goes on to remark: “From him [Cain] sprang all bad breeds, trolls and elves and monsters—likewise the giants who for a long time strove with God” (3), a conception that has no particular biblical authority but exhibits the degree to which Cain had by this time become the source of all evil. Curiously enough, in spite of the fact that Grendel is variously described as “evil,” a “monster,” a “hell-demon,” and an “enemy of mankind,” no physical description is offered of him. Midway through the text it is stated fairly planly that both Grendel and his mother—who at one point is called a “monster-wife” (23)—are roughly humanoid:

[Hrothgar speaks:] “I have heard landsmen, my people, hall-counselors, say this, that they have seen two such huge walkers in the wasteland holding to the moors, alien spirits. One of them, so far as they could clearly discern, was the likeness of a woman. The other wretched shape trod the tracks of exile in the form of a man, except that he was bigger than any other man. Land-dwellers in the old days named him Grendel.” (24)

It is, however, stated that the mother has “claws” (27). Manifestly, both are of immense size, since Grendel is able to eat a man whole (13); moreover, when Grendel’s mother is killed by Beowulf and his comrades, “Four of them had trouble in carrying [her] head on spear-shafts to the gold-hall” (29). Grendel himself, who is said to be “at war with God” (15), is himself mortally wounded by Beowulf and drags himself back to “his joyless home in the fen-slopes” (15), a marvellous image that foreshadows a long tradition in supernatural literature of finding horror in the untenanted wilderness.

There are other horrific creatures in Beowulf, such as some water-monsters (25) and a dragon or two. The latter, “which on the high heath kept watch over a hoard [of treasure]” (39), “flies at night wrapped in flame” (40). It is killed by Beowulf and a colleague; but Beowulf himself is mortally wounded in the fight and dies.

Beowulf is a fascinating product of the fusion of Christianity and paganism; the battles with Grendel and the dragon are apparently of Scandinavian origin. It is believed that the poem describes an era about two hundred years before the date of writing. It has also been maintained that Beowulf’s battles with the various monsters can be interpreted allegorically, as embodying various Christian principles; but many of these interpretations are highly strained, and it is probably safest to follow R. E. Kaske in asserting that Beowulf, as a literary figure, chiefly embodies the heroic ideal, and that Grendel represents “external evil, or violence,” while the dragon represents “the greatest of internal evils, the perversion of the mind and will” (126).

There is certainly no fusion of traditions in Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1314), for he is clearly working within the Christian tradition and indeed seeking to convey the truth of that tradition; and while some of the particulars of his envisioned universe—notably the nine circles of hell in the Inferno—are likely to be of his own invention, they are all so subordinated to his Christian philosophy that it is impossible to regard them as independent expressions of his literary imagination. Dante is the prototypical instance of the dangers of regarding a literary work, or any part of it, as “supernatural” when the notion of supernaturalism cannot be said to have been well established: all the horrors of his Inferno are manifestly the product of the God in whom he so fervently believes, and even their nine levels are paralleled by the nine heavenly spheres that lead to Paradise.

And yet, the pungency of some of his descriptions cannot be gainsaid. Canto 18 introduces us to Malebolge (literally, “evil pouches”), a “baleful space” in the middle of which “yawns a pit of great breadth and space” (227). It is populated with a variety of sinners, and “horned demons with great whips [were] lashing them cruelly behind” (229). In the remarkable Canto 25, a serpent seizes upon a hapless sinner and actually fuses bodies with him: “then, as if they had been of hot wax, they stuck together and mixed their colours and neither the one nor the other appeared now what it was before” (309). It is significant that the narrator prefaces this remarkable transformation (probably derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) with the cautionary words: “If, reader, thou art now slow to credit what I shall tell, it will be no wonder, for I who saw it scarcely admit it to myself” (309)—a suggestion that, even in the mysterious realm of Hell, incidents of a quasi-supernatural cast can occur that strain the credulity even of those who witness them. All this leads to the depiction of Satan in Canto 34:

The Emperor of the woeful kingdom stood forth at mid-breast from the ice, and I compare better with a giant than giants with his arms… . Ah, how great a marvel it seemed to me when I saw three faces on his head; one in front, and that was red, the two others joined to it just over the middle of each shoulder and all joined at the crown. The right seemed between white and yellow; the left had such an aspect as the people from where the Nile descends. Under each came forth two great wings of size fitting for such a bird, sails at sea I never saw like these; they had no feathers but were like a bat’s, and he was beating them so that three winds went forth from him by which all Cocytus was kept frozen. With six eyes he was weeping and over three chins dripped tears and bloody foam. In each mouth he crushed a sinner with his teeth as with a heckle and thus he kept three of them in pain; to him in front the biting was nothing to the clawing, for sometimes the back was left all stripped of skin. (421, 423)

As John D. Sinclair notes in his translation, “The figure of Satan is taken in the main from the common stock of medieval iconography” (429). Dante’s Inferno overall owes much to Graeco-Roman literature, notably Aeneas’ descent into the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid. Peter S. Hawkins laments that “It is a great pity that Inferno is the only portion of the Commedia most people read, because the rest of the work serves to melt the Inferno’s deep freeze, to give a sense of hope” (47); but, as with a wide array of literary works both in and out of the Christian tradition, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, it is the horrific parts that have captured the imaginations of centuries of readers and writers, and it is these that continue to colour our views of the literary works and the authors who generated them.

The degree to which, in the entire late mediaeval and early modern period, the suspicion of baleful quasi-supernatural forces, chiefly induced by Christian orthodoxy—witches with awesome powers, the Devil and his legions of demons lurking in the shadows and occasionally possessing the bodies of hapless individuals—was accepted even by the educated classes can scarcely be overemphasised. The fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, in both Catholic and Protestant countries, were the heyday of the witchcraft persecutions, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children—mostly women—were tried and put to death. It should be recalled that the orthodox belief was that witches had entered into an explicit pact with the Devil, so that their “crime” was not the mere practice of witchcraft but the offence of heresy. It is in the context of this widespread belief in spectres that we should regard the work of the Elizabethan playwrights. These writers—influenced in part, as noted earlier, by the blood-and-thunder of Seneca—enthusiastically made use of both natural and supernatural horror in their plays, but only a few central works need be treated here. The plays of John Webster (1580?—1634?), especially The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), have long been notorious for their gruesomeness, but that gruesomeness is of a purely physical sort without the slightest suggestion of supernaturalism, so their relevance to us is quite limited. The White Devil certainly contains more than its share of murder, madness, false imprisonment, and other elements that would become the stock-in-trade of the Gothic novels, but aside from a pseudo-supernatural trick—one character appears to rise from the dead, although it is quickly revealed that the gun that purportedly killed him was loaded with blanks—it features nothing unearthly. The Duchess of Malfi, for its part, is an even more lurid revenge tragedy, containing liberal doses of murder, blasphemy (a cardinal, aside from having a mistress, murders the Duchess with a poisoned Bible), a suggestion of incest, and so forth.

In the end, it is most productive to focus on the supernaturalism found in two of the leading playwrights of the period—William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Amidst the multitude of supernatural or fantastic phenomena in Shakespeare—the realm of pure fantasy that is the Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the enigmatic monster Caliban in The Tempest, the ghost of Caesar in Julius Caesar, and the like—our chief emphasis must remain focused on the celebrated appearances of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena in Hamlet and Macbeth. Indeed, the most striking thing to observe is the stark differences in the ghostly manifestations in these two plays. There seems no question but that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is meant to be interpreted, in the context of the play, as a real occurrence. In the first place, we are told at the outset that the ghost has appeared twice before (1.1.25), and by both Bernardo and Marcellus, even though Horatio dismisses it as “but our fantasy” (1.1.23). When the Ghost then appears, Horatio not only sees it but attempts to speak to it; but it disappears without utterance. At a later appearance, the Ghost again disappears, and Bernardo remarks: “It was about to speak when the cock crew” (1.1.147). It is at this point that Horatio informs Hamlet of the existence of the Ghost, and Hamlet realises that he must speak to it, so he chooses, not the approach of dawn, but midnight for his vigil; as Horatio remarks, “It then draws near the season / Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk” (1.4.5—6). Again the Ghost enters, and both Hamlet and Horatio see it; later Hamlet and the Ghost appear by themselves, and this time the Ghost speaks, telling the story of his poisoning at the hands of his brother Claudius.

It is barely conceivable (as W. W. Greg suggested long ago) that the appearance of the Ghost is a purely psychological phenomenon—a kind of collective hallucination engendered by the superstitiousness of Bernardo and Marcellus, who claim to have seen the Ghost in the first place. But this interpretation is highly strained, for it is difficult to credit how Hamlet could have come by the news of his father’s murder if the Ghost had not told him of it. Moreover, the fact that Horatio, when first seeing the Ghost, states that “It harrows me with fear and wonder” (1.1.44; my emphasis) suggests that a genuinely supernatural phenomenon is taking place, for Horatio clearly believes that ghosts do not and cannot exist, and yet he is confronted with manifest evidence that contradicts his presuppositions (a point that leads to Hamlet’s celebrated utterance, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” [1.5.166—67]). It is of some interest to note that the Ghost appears not because, as in so many works of Graeco-Roman literature, it was not given a proper burial—for Shakespeare emphasises that Hamlet’s father was in fact buried in an orthodox Christian rite—but merely because it was the victim of murder. The Ghost itself remarks that it must “walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burned and purged away” (1.5.10—13). Indeed, part of Hamlet’s hesitation to act upon the ghost’s pleas for revenge rests upon his uncertainty as to whether the ghost is a real phenomenon or either a hallucination or a devil sent to trick or deceive him.

When we turn to Macbeth, we are in a very different realm. Shortly after Macbeth has Banquo killed by hired assassins, his Ghost appears—but it is seen only by Macbeth. This is made plain when, at the banquet where the Ghost appears, other characters express puzzlement at Macbeth’s speech and actions: “Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your Highness?” (3.4.47), Lennox asks in bafflement when Macbeth refuses to sit in the seat designated as his, where Macbeth believes the Ghost is sitting; and Lady Macbeth chides him harshly: “O proper stuff! This is the very painting of your fear” (3.4.60—61). It is plain, therefore, that Macbeth is so consumed with guilt at his murders (he has by this time already killed Duncan as well) that he is envisioning ghosts and goblins pursuing him—a scenario repeated time after time in the subsequent history of supernatural fiction. Presently, Lady Macbeth also appears to suffer hallucinations created by a guilty conscience: her fantasy that her hands are continually stained with blood (“Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” [5.1.47—48]) leads a Doctor of Physic to lament the “great perturbation in nature” (5.1.9) that is afflicting her.

The true supernaturalism in Macbeth is, of course, embodied in the three witches. In their initial appearance, they do nothing more than predict that Macbeth will be king—whereupon they “vanish” (stage direction after 1.3.78). In a sense we can consider this to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, for (forcefully urged by his wife) Macbeth immediately undertakes the murders that lead both to his attaining the kingship and to his ultimate downfall. Even here, however, Macbeth himself speaks of “supernatural soliciting” (1.3.130) in reference to the witches’ prophecy. But the second appearance of the witches (4.1) is of considerably greater interest. Here they acknowledge that Hecate is their mistress (although the actual apperance of Hecate at 4.1.39—43 is regarded as an interpolation) and, more pertinently, make various cryptic prophecies—such as that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.92—94)—that Macbeth believes only enhances his position, for they seem contrary to nature and therefore of no effect. It should be noted that the actual playing out of these prophecies does not involve any supernaturalism (the one about Great Birnam Wood refers merely to soldiers that have disguised themselves with tree branches, so that it looks to Macbeth as if the wood itself is approaching him), but the witches’ knowledge of these future events is clearly supernatural.

Some sidelights on Shakespeare’s distinctive use of the supernatural can be gleaned from a study of his sources. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet probably between 1600 and 1602. The Hamlet story was derived from Saxo Grammaticus’ Historiae Danicae (a treatise in Latin first published in 1514); but this story had no ghost in it. The ghost appears to have been introduced in an anonymous play called Hamlet (now referred to as the Ur-Hamlet) performed no later than 1594. In addition, plays featuring ghosts urging a character toward revenge can also be found in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1592) and John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (c. 1600; published 1602). In spite of all these antecedents, Shakespeare’s use of the ghost is both more dramatically effective and more convincing than that of his predecessors, who occasionally descended into implausibility or even buffoonery in the presentation of their spectres.

As for Macbeth (performed no later than 1606), the story was derived from Holinshed’s Chronicles, which indeed featured the witches—referred to, in a phrase borrowed by Shakespeare, as the “Weird Sisters,” a locution that points to their function as indicators of destiny (the noun weird meaning, in this context, one’s personal fate or destiny)—but no ghost, either supernatural or psychological. Overall, it is difficult to ascertain Shakespeare’s own attitude toward ghostly phenomena or witchcraft. There is evidence that he read both James I’s treatise Daemonologie (1597), which asserted the existence of witches with supernatural powers, and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which cast a highly sceptical eye on the witchcraft phenomenon and chastised the (Catholic) church for its persecution of purported witches. The presentation of ghosts and witches in Hamlet and Macbeth is manifestly designed to heighten the dramatic effect of the action, and little regarding Shakespeare’s own beliefs can be derived from it.

Influential as Shakespeare’s plays were upon the subsequent supernatural tradition, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (probably first performed 1592; published 1604) by Christopher Marlowe (1564—1593) might have been even more influential. The simplicity of the scenario—Faustus sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge, comes to regret his decision (especially his decision to reject God and take the side of the Devil), and ends up in Hell—does not diminish the grim power of the several supernatural episodes. The frequent accusation, made during and after Marlowe’s day, that he was an atheist (even if that term were interpreted as meaning his refusal to accept orthodox Christian theology) certainly falls to the ground in Dr. Faustus, which emphatically endorses the Christian notion of sin and punishment and thereby casts a wide influence on much subsequent literature dealing with temptation, forbidden knowledge, and related issues. And yet, to the degree that the play contains faint hints of sympathy for Faustus and a fascination with the unholy knowledge he has obtained, Dr. Faustus also looks forward to the many Faust figures in supernatural fiction who, at a minimum, elicit our respect and awe if not our admiration.

In a thunderstorm, Faustus utters an incantation to summon Lucifer and other devils; they (including Mephistophilis) appear, whereupon Faustus acknowledges his worship of them:

So Faustus hath already done, and holds this principle:

There is no chief but only Beelzebub,

To whom Faustus doth dedicate himself.

This word “damnation” terrifies not me,

For I confound hell in elysium. (1.3.55—59)

Not long thereafter, Faustus signs over his soul to Lucifer by signing his name in blood:

Lo, Mephistophilis, for love of thee

I cut mine arm, and with my proper blood

Assure my soul to be great Lucifer’s,

Chief lord and regent of perpetual night.

View here the blood that trickles from mine arm,

And let it be propitious for my wish. (1.5.53—58)

Lucifer later shows Faustus the seven deadly sins, each of whom delivers a brief monologue emphasising its baneful character.

Faustus, however, ends up frittering away the twenty-four years he has been given by Lucifer to gain unholy knowledge and to utilise Mephistophilis as his servant. As the time for his inevitable damnation approaches, Faustus begins expressing regrets for his decision:

Though my heart pant and quiver to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years, oh would I had never seen Wittenberg, never read book. And what wonders I have done all Germany can witness, yea all the world, for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea heaven itself, heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy, and must remain in hell for ever. Hell, oh hell for ever. Sweet friends, what shall become of Faustus, being in hell for ever? (5.2.46—55)

But of course it is too late.

Throughout the play, the characters of the Good Angel and the Evil Angel appear, acting respectively as Faustus’ conscience and, as it were, his imp of the perverse. The latter now reveals Hell to him:

Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare

Into that vast perpetual torture-house.

There are the furies tossing damned souls

On burning forks. Their bodies broil in lead.

There are live quarters broiling on the coals

That ne’er can die. This ever-burning chair

Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in.

These, that are fed with sops of flaming fire,

Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,

And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates.

But yet all these are nothing. Thou shalt see

Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be. (5.2.126—37)

The devils carry Faustus down to Hell.

Dr. Faustus might be said to be the only Elizabethan tragedy whose very foundation is supernatural. It is true that, in their varying ways, the supernatural episodes in Hamlet and Macbeth are catalysts for the subsequent action, but supernaturalism does not occupy the forefront of the action in those works as it does in Dr. Faustus. The source of the Faust story is a matter of some controversy; evidently Marlowe derived it from a German work (now apparently lost) that served as the basis for an English translation entitled The English Faust Book (1592). But whatever the source, Marlowe has written a gripping play of overreaching and punishment that, however closely it may be tied to religious orthodoxy, set an example for countless supernaturalists of subsequent centuries to follow.