The Arch-Conjuror of England: John
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"JOHN DEE, you are a very wise man." "And you are a very great
In Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The
Golden Age (2007), Cate Blanchett's queen seems unable to
take any step without consulting her in-house astrologer, played by
David Threlfall. While Glyn Parry's finely documented study has
considerably more claim to historical accuracy than Kapur's film,
it suggests that the latter may not have been bending the truth too
Dee is, admittedly, a character whose dramatic qualities barely
need heightening: he can be seen as a real-life analogue to
Shakespeare's Prospero and the other conjurers who populated the
Tudor and Stuart stage. Yet he would have taken pains to
distinguish himself from such practitioners of black magic as
Marlowe's Dr Faustus. In his view, summoning angels into crystal
was all part of understanding God's creation, and Parry follows
many recent commentators in stressing how intimately Renaissance
occultism was linked with the beginning of modern science.
Dee himself saw no contradiction between his magical endeavours
and energetically seeking preferment as a Church of England
clergyman. More surprisingly, perhaps, this was not an uncommon
view at the time. As Parry argues, "Men, and from the Queen
downwards many women, of Dee's education understood astrology,
alchemy and angel magic as the common inheritance of the learned. .
. Contemporary politicians, steeped in such learning, were
comfortable using occult knowledge to advance their policies and
defeat their opponents."
Parry's pacy narrative traces Dee's public life in unprecedented
detail, making particularly compelling use of his financial
difficulties. For him, as for so many others, Elizabeth's
appreciation of his services did not always translate into hard
cash. Intellectually, too, his was a hand-to-mouth existence, and
he had constantly to explain why predictions did not come off, or
why the philosopher's stone remained elusive.
Ben Jonson, Dee's contemporary, used the alchemist as a
personification of dishonesty in his comedy of that name, partly
inspired by Dee's life and reputation. Yet Dee differs from
Jonson's shysters in believing his own invocations. What comes over
from this biography, powerfully and touchingly, is his sincerity.
To that extent, at least, the angels were on his side.
Dr Alison Shell teaches in the
En-glish Department of University College, London. She was formerly
Professor of English at Durham University.