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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: March 2007

Jonson, Shakespeare and the Exorcists


In The Puritan (published in 1607), there is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek moment when Captain Idle (a highwayman pretending to be a conjurer) explains his supposed scruples about conjuring to Sir Godfrey Plus, the principal target of his trickery:

I understand that you are my Kinsmans good Maister, and in regard of that, the best of my skill is at your service: but had you fortunde a mere stranger, and made no meanes to me by acquaintance, I should have utterly denyed to have beene the man; both by reason of the Act past in Parliament against Conjurers and Witches, as also, because I would not have my Arte vulgar, trite, and common.


In other words: we all know what you are asking me to do is illegal (I can even cite the precise statute), but seeing as you are a gentleman and vouched for by my kinsman, I am prepared to employ my skills for you in private. The statute referred to dated from 1604 and was not against conjuring and witchcraft per se (which were covered by other laws) but was aimed at persons ‘taking upon them by witchcraft &c., to tell or declare in what place any treasure of gold or silver should or might be found or had in the earth or other secret places’.

That is, it was a law against pseudo-supernatural con-trickery, which is doubly funny in context, because the whole point of this con is to restore to Sir Godfrey a gold chain that has previously been ‘borrowed’. The con itself is splendidly theatrical (4.2. in modern editions), with Idle laying out a ‘circle’ that might have been taken from the props for Dr Faustus, to the accompaniment of timely ‘thunder’ and ‘lightning’.

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Shakespeare Survey
  • Online ISBN: 9781139052771
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