Word of the Day: Cacodemon

November 25, 2011 in Word of the Day

This word only appears once in Shakespeare’s works, but, I feel, nevertheless merits attention. It makes its appearance in the enormous third scene of Richard III, when Richard (currently Duke of Glo[uce]ster) enters a verbal duel with (the former) Queen Margaret. Given that Richard killed King Henry at the end of Henry VI part III, his wife does not hesitate to throw all manner of insults at him, interrupting his superficial piety.

GLOSTER. To fight on Edward’s party for the crown;
And for his meed, poor lord, he is mew’d up.
I would to God my heart were flint, like Edward’s,
Or Edward’s soft and pitiful, like mine:
I am too childish-foolish for this world.

QUEEN MARGARET.Hie thee to hell for shame and leave this world,
Thou cacodemon! there thy kingdom is.

The fact that Richard and those others on stage not only ignore this reference but go on to talk openly of how the one of Shakespeare’s most famous villains would be followed “if [he] should be our king” turn what might have been a biting interjection from the former queen into a proof of her waning power and Richard’s waxing strength. Just what, though, is a cacodemon?

Well, the word means ‘evil spirit’ and so might be adequately translated by lopping off its prefix and just using ‘demon’ (as the ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ does). ‘Demon’, in our AD society is always negative so the prefix caco-, meaning bad and found, for example, in cacophony (bad sound) and cacogastric (bad digestion), would seem to be redundant.

I’m not so sure, though. Shakespeare could have written ‘Thou art a demon’ and preserved his meter, but chose instead the pagan form, dating from the time when a demon or daimon could be good (eudaimon or agathodaimon) or bad (our cacodaimon). I think he did this to capture something superlative about Richard: as his actions in the play will prove, this character is not just diabolic, but superlatively so, evil even amongst other evils, and thus truly, as the ignored Margaret puts it, a caco-demon.

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