Simon Forman

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Simon Forman
Born31 December 1552
Died5 or 12 September 1611
Resting placeSt Mary, Lambeth
EducationSalisbury grammar school
Alma materMagdalen College, Oxford
medical practitioner
Known forExtensive records of astrological practice, Eye-witness accounts of plays by William Shakespeare
Alleged complicity in murder of Sir Thomas Overbury
SpouseJean Baker

Simon Forman (31 December 1552 – 5 or 12 September 1611) was an Elizabethan astrologer, occultist and herbalist active in London during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I of England. His reputation, however, was severely tarnished after his death when he was implicated in the plot to kill Sir Thomas Overbury. Astrologers continued to revere him, while writers from Ben Jonson to Nathaniel Hawthorne came to characterize him as either a fool or an evil magician in league with the Devil.


Forman was born in Quidhampton, Fugglestone St Peter, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, on 31 December 1552.[1][2] At the age of nine he went to a free school in the Salisbury area but was forced to leave after two years following the death of his father on 31 December 1563. For the next ten years of his life he was apprenticed to Matthew Commin, a local merchant. Commin traded in cloth, salt and herbal medicines, and it was during his time as a young apprentice that Forman started to learn about herbal remedies. After arguments with Mrs Commin, Simon found his apprenticeship terminated, and he eventually went to study at Oxford as a poor scholar. He then spent a year and a half at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he may have become interested in medicine and astrology.[3]

Through the 1570s and 1580s Forman worked as a teacher while studying the occult arts. In the early 1590s he moved to London starting up a practice as a physician in Philpot Lane. Having survived an outbreak of the plague in 1592 his medical reputation began to spread. In 1597 a Buckinghamshire clergyman named Richard Napier (1559–1634) became his protégé. In the 1590s Forman began to develop a more serious interest in the occult,[4] eventually setting up a thriving practice as an astrologer physician, documented in his detailed casebooks of his clients' questions about illness, pregnancy, stolen goods, career opportunities and marriage prospects. His success and his methods attracted the attention of the College of Physicians (now the Royal College of Physicians) who attempted to ban him from medical practice. He eventually obtained a licence to practise from the University of Cambridge in 1603.

With a notable sexual appetite, Forman pursued numerous women. He wrote of his conquests in his diaries, showing as little regard for the background of his inamoratas as for the location of consummation. Many of his clients provided brief affairs. He wrote of having his first sex with his "beloved" on "15/12/1593, 5:00 PM, London." Then writing after "She died 13/6/1597." On 22 July 1599, Forman wed seventeen-year-old Jane Baker. Having never been content with just one woman, the marriage "did not make much difference to [his] way of life, except that he had an inexperienced girl now as mistress of the house; he continued to be master".[5] In 1611, he accurately predicted his own death on the River Thames. Another astrologer, William Lilly, reports that one warm Sunday afternoon in September of that year, Forman told his wife that he would die the following Thursday night (12 September):

Monday came, all was well. Tuesday came, he not sick. Wednesday came, and still he was well; with which his impertinent wife did much twit him in his teeth. Thursday came, and dinner was ended, he very well: he went down to the water-side, and took a pair of oars to go to some buildings he was in hand with in Puddle-dock. Being in the middle of the Thames, he presently fell down, only saying, 'An impost, an impost,' and so died. A most sad storm of wind immediately following.[6]

Five years after his death he was implicated in the murder of Thomas Overbury when two of his patients, Lady Frances Howard and Mrs Anne Turner, were found guilty of the crime. During the testimony of Howard's trial, lawyers hurled accusations at Forman, saying he had given Lady Essex the potion with which she plotted to kill Overbury. During the trial he was described by Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, as the "Devil Forman"; the result being that his reputation was severely tarnished.


Forman's papers have proven to be a treasure trove of rare, odd, unusual data on one of the most studied periods of cultural history. They include autobiographies, guides to astrology, plague tracts, alchemical commonplace books and notes on biblical and historical subjects. They also contain his disputes with the College of Physicians and his largely unsuccessful magical experiments. At one time he possessed the copy of the Picatrix currently in the British Library. Forman left behind a large body of manuscripts dealing with his patients and with all the subjects that interested him, from astronomy and astrology to medicine, mathematics and magic. His Casebooks are the most famous of these resources. They, like his diaries and autobiographies, contain extensive details of his life. His only printed work was a pamphlet advertising a bogus method for divining longitude while at sea.

His intimate knowledge of Shakespeare's circle makes him especially attractive to literary historians. Modern scholars—A. L. Rowse is one prominent example,[a] and others have followed his lead—have exploited Forman's manuscripts for the manifold lights they throw on the less-exposed private lives of Elizabethan and Jacobean men and women. One of Forman's patients was the poet Emilia Lanier, Rowse's candidate to have been Shakespeare's Dark Lady; another patient was Mrs Mountjoy, Shakespeare's landlady. Sixty-four volumes of his manuscripts were collected by Elias Ashmole in the seventeenth century, and are now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. His records have been digitised by a team led by Professor Lauren Kassell of the University of Cambridge.[7]

The "Book of Plays"[edit]

Simon Forman's description of a production of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre, 20 April 1610. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 208, f. 207r.

Among Forman's manuscripts is a section titled the "Bocke of Plaies", which records Forman's descriptions of four plays he saw in 1610–11 and the morals he drew from them. The document is noteworthy for the listing of three Shakespearean performances: Macbeth at the Globe Theatre on 20 April 1610;[8] The Winter's Tale at the Globe on 15 May 1611; and Cymbeline, date and theatre not specified. The fourth play described by Forman is a Richard II acted at the Globe on 30 April 1611; but from the description it is clearly not Shakespeare's Richard II. The manuscript was first described by John Payne Collier in 1836, and in the 20th century it was suspected as one of his forgeries.[9] Most modern scholars now accept the section as authentic,[10] but some still suspect it could be a forgery.[11]

References in fiction[edit]

Simon Forman is the protagonist of the Elizabethan mystery series by Judith Cook, The Casebook of Dr Simon Forman—Elizabethan doctor and solver of mysteries. The novels are based on the original casebook manuscripts, and contain a mix of historical and fictional characters.[12]

Dr Moth, a role loosely based on Forman, is played by Antony Sher in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.[13]

Forman's life and work form the basis of the 2019 video game Astrologaster.[14]


  1. ^ Rowse's books Shakespeare the Man (London, Macmillan, 1973) and Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974) draw heavily on Forman sources.


  1. ^ "Forman, Simon" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  2. ^ Ann Hoffman, Lives of the Tudor age, 1485-1603 (1977), p. 177
  3. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Forman, Simon" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 668.
  4. ^ "Simon Forman (1552–1611)".
  5. ^ Rowse, p. 93
  6. ^ William Lilly's History of his Life and Times; pp. 43–44. Reproduced online at Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  7. ^ Alison Flood (15 May 2019). "Purges, angels and 'pigeon slippers': methods of Elizabethan quacks finally deciphered". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  8. ^ Scholars, critics, and editors usually assume that this "1610" is a mistake for "1611," and that the whole of the Book of Plays most likely dates from that year. See: E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1930, 2: 337.
  9. ^ Altick, Richard D. The Scholar Adventurers, Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1950, 1987: 155–159.
  10. ^ Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: Records and Images, New York: Oxford UP, 1981, pp. 16, 20.
  11. ^ Wagner, John A., Voices of Shakespeare's England: Contemporary Accounts of Elizabethan Daily Life, p. 143., Greenwood Publishing, 2010.
  12. ^ Jardine, Lisa (10 February 2001). "Weird science". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 June 2018.
  13. ^ Buhler, Stephen M. (2002). Shakespeare in the Cinema: Ocular Proof. Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 182. ISBN 9780791451403. OCLC 52418388.
  14. ^ Todd Martens (9 May 2019). "What to play: 'Astrologaster' gets topical with Shakespearean-era alternative facts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 16 May 2019.

Works cited[edit]

  • Judith Cook, Blood on the Borders: The Casebook of Dr. Simon Forman–Elizabethan Doctor and Solver of Mysteries, London, Headline, 1999.
  • Judith Cook, Dr. Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician, London, Chatto & Windus, 2001.
  • Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman, Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Barbara Howard Traister, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

External links[edit]

  • Extracts from Forman's Metrical Autobiography with other notes (published 1853). [1]
  • "Forman, Simon (FRMN604S)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  • Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, John Young, Joanne Edge, Janet Yvonne Martin-Portugues and Natalie Kaoukji (eds.), The casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634: a digital edition. [2]