Greenblatt's Shakespeare and the Exorcists

Greenblatt covers many ideas in his essay, but essentially develops a progressive relationship between religious ceremony and the theater. The ceremony is exorcism, and theater is Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Greenblatt’s essay expels myths about exorcism.

The English church rules the people, and is upset by the presence of Catholics performing exorcisms. Harsnett desires to deconstruct exorcism. Because they are conducted by Catholic Jesuit priests, they threaten the power of the English church. He deconstructs exorcisms as theater, with the exception that exorcism is deceptive and manipulates and fools the masses, opposed to theater that requests the audience to surrender their disbelief.

Shakespeare is at the bleeding edge and more than willing to assist Harsnett by embracing the elements of an exorcism into the theater, specifically his play King Lear.

The effect is that exorcism (and religion as a whole) is emptied of its significance and only retains meaning as a metaphor.

The theater replaces the communal need filled through exorcism.

While this is the broad scope of his work, Greenblatt brings to light the problems Harsnett creates when discrediting exorcism. At one point in the text, he says that the church is not willing to discredit exorcisms by denying the existence of demons, because in turn, that denies the existence of God. The English church, which is the state, the controlling government, then has to walk a very fine line to address the problem without undoing itself in the process.

As a side note, I think it’s interesting that the English church, from my observation, then begins to take on the role of a priest exorcising the Jesuit demons from the body of its people. It becomes what it is trying to destroy. It’s an ironic parallel to me.

Because exorcisms are not limited to the Catholic faith alone, Greenblatt explores some of its communal meanings. Outside of Harsnett’s own research to show the theatrics involved, we see that there is almost a human need that is met through this ritual. It serves as a tool to cleanse not just the individual, but the community of participants. It keeps the community in check and helps everyone abide by cultural norms.

Harsnett’s problem in addition to not undoing the church, is filling the void that is created by destroying the ritual. Instead of destroying it outright, which would create many problems, he deconstructs it to an act of theater, and exposes its deception. In one of our forum conversations, Dr. Nester pointed out that literature is not deceptive because it does not pretend to be anything that it isn’t. Exorcisms, as pointed out by Harsnett, are deceptive because they call real what is fiction.

Shakespeare, as mentioned above, is more than ready to incorporate exorcisms and demons into play in King Lear. He uses religious language, cries for redemption, demons, and exorcisms in a sick twist of irony that further builds Harsnett’s case, but goes a step further than Harsnett was willing or able to go.

In King Lear, Shakespeare gave Nietzsche his words, “God is dead”. In his use of religious language, clothing, and ritual embedded into a story where people call on the supernatural, the only continuous response is silence. There is no redemption. There is no divine intervention, neither good nor evil. All that is responsible for the wonder and pain of humanity is humanity—King Lear empties humanity of hope for redemption.

At the same time, theater fills the communal void left by exorcism’s deconstruction—with an important change. The actors are known. The audience joins and leaves the entertainment as it wants. There is no motivation from the theater to control and rule. There is no manipulation into belief, but an invitation to suspend disbelief.

Greenblatt’s conclusion is concise and says it better than I can,

Shakespeare’s theater empties out the center that it represents and in its cruelty paradoxically creates in us the intimation of a fullness that we can savor only in the conviction of its irremediable loss:

we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


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