- Supernatural Environments in Shakespeare’s England: Spaces of Demonism, Divinity, and Drama by Kristen Poole
This ambitious book seeks to elaborate the spatiality of the nether regions (Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” [3.1.81]) in a selection of early modern plays: Doctor Faustus, Othello, Hamlet, and The Tempest.1 The author has a just sense of the difficulty of this task. At the very time of the rise of early modern geography and cartography, “supernatural geographies were in a process of rapid transformation” (4). They were indeed in full retreat. Did hell and purgatory even exist? One could disbelieve in either as distinct locations, while continuing to establish their reality in existential terms. Thus, in explaining the meaning of the phrase descendit ad infernos, Calvin affirms the reality of hell while suggesting that its traditional depiction as a fiery dungeon was effectively figurative.2 In this sense, the fate of hell was different from that of purgatory, the reality of which was rejected by Protestants of all persuasions. To chart the spatiality of the supernatural at a time of its disintegration is then an inherently tricky exercise. What is a weakness in the context, however, adds up to a potential advantage for the literary critic. Precisely because the context is so friable, the role of the text—its room for maneuver, for discretion, for intervention—should be enhanced.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, of course, hinges upon the existence of hell. Faustus would never have risked damnation and hellfire had he actually believed in them. Nor would he have struck bargains with devils had he taken them at their word. Poole finds an irony, therefore, in the overdetermined representation of the diabolic contract. Where else would this patently material document repose but in a material hell? Faustus, in other words, is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he buys into the metamorphic reality of demons and the demonic, or what Poole calls “Ovidian physics” (51). On the other, he persists in denying their reality precisely because they are “eminently plastic” (48). Faustus cannot, however, have his cake and eat it. His obsession with magic blinds him to the “concrete” “visions of the universe” (49) that Poole finds in tension with the metamorphic version. In the end, hell does exist as a concrete entity. To dismiss hell more or less as Protestants dismissed purgatory is thus a fatal error. Poole’s instincts are right, but she might have pushed her explorations just a little further. Noting as she later does in her fourth chapter the extraordinarily plastic quality of the physical universe in Calvin’s theology, she might also have noted the virtually existential quality of his [End Page 235] idea of hell. Following Saint Augustine, who thought of hell as the deprivation of God, Calvin speaks of the traditional account as “figured to us by corporeal things” so as “to impress all our senses with dread.”3 Surely then, the point of Doctor Faustus might be that the hero disbelieves in hell as a place only to have it increasingly affirmed as an existential condition: “where we are is hell.”4 Hell is real but not in its traditional and placial sense. Faustus of course has gambled the house on the proposition that hell is not real because it is not a place.
If Faustus would seem the ideal testing ground for Poole’s thesis, Othello would seem just the opposite. Poole seeks to overcome the apparent lack of an other-worldly dimension in this play by reading it through the tradition of the ars moriendi, which enters the play through the dominant symbolism of the bedroom. This approach’s advantage is that the ars moriendi figures the dying person (the moriens) as beset by demons and thus by hell. While the approach is sound, I find the reading itself a little strained. If it obliges us to see Desdemona as the moriens, would it not by the...