A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures

Shakespeare’s Library –  Witchcraft

#13 Samuel Harsnett, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603)

The fascination with witches and devils—so evident in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—was a result of changes in the religious and economic environment in England. In the first year of the reign of King James, the Protestant divine Samuel Harsnett was directed by the new government to write this Declaration in order to expose the practices of certain Catholic priests who claimed to be conducting exorcisms. Harsnett described the details of these events, revealing the exorcisms as nothing more than elaborate performances. For example, Harsnett listed the names of various devils uttered by people who claimed to be possessed. Shakespeare drew on these descriptions when writing King Lear, in which the character of Edgar, in the guise of “Poor Tom,” goes mad and uses some of these names (such as “Fliberdigibbet,” visible here). In his role as a licenser for the press, Harsnett approved the publication of his friend John Hayward’s History of Henry IV (item 8) and barely escaped punishment. This copy of the Declaration lacks the preliminary leaves and a few other pages which have been supplied in manuscript by a later owner.

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