In 1603 Samuel Harsnett (1561–1631), an academic, humanist and powerful archdeacon, published A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, a work commissioned and officially sponsored by the Anglican Church. The book was the result of an inquiry into the public exorcisms performed by Catholic priests in Denham, Buckinghamshire in the 1580s. A Declaration includes priestly accounts of the exorcisms, statements of witnesses (including the demoniacs, i.e. the possessed) and Harsnett’s own commentary. Harsnett was sceptical about the existence of demons, arguing that possessions and their subsequent exorcisms (by both Catholic and non-conforming Protestant priests) were a fraudulent attempt to convert people away from Anglicanism. He linked Catholicism to pagan superstition, using sarcasm, satire and an intimidating bombastic tone to condemn the beliefs and practices under question in this public and propagandist work. He also made frequent allusion to priests as theatrical performers. Although A Declaration was not itself widely read, the exorcism controversies and the debates they engendered were well known.
Harsnett’s work had an influence on a number of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly King Lear. In Lear this is most notable in the storm scenes, the details of Lear’s madness and the simulated demonic possession of Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom, which are influenced both by the general style of Harsnett’s accounts and by particulars such as the names of the devils that Edgar claims haunt him or the imagery of stormy assaults and human suffering. It is possible that Harsnett’s account of the cruel restraining of some of the demoniacs in a ‘holy chaire’ for their exorcisms is the origin of the binding of Gloucester when he has his eyes put out.
Scholars are divided as to whether Shakespeare agreed with Harsnett’s text or not and what his use of it means. What does seem clear is that Shakespeare’s allusion to Harsnett is much more complex than just a borrowing of names or a satire on fake possession. King Lear engages with the wider principles of Harsnett’s work and the exorcism debate, such as the question of where authority comes from, the relationship between appearance and truth, and the nature of suffering and the human condition.
Shakespeare was distantly related to one of the Catholics attacked in A Declaration, Edward Arden (c. 1542–1583) and possibly knew (or knew of) a few of the others who had Stratford connections. Although Shakespeare and his family were outwardly conforming Anglicans, there is evidence suggesting possible recusancy in the family (this is still under debate by scholars). It is also important to note that as an official publication of the Anglican Church, Shakespeare was not free to openly criticise or mock it.