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Cleric, alchemist, magician

06 July 2012

Alison Shell reads of a real-life Prospero in the Elizabethan C of E


Fiery victory: the English use fire ships against the Spanish invasion fleet seeking to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, as depicted in 1796 inDefeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588, by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, one of the paintings discussed inEmpire to Nation: Art, history and the visualization of maritime Britain 1768-1829by Geoff Quilley, formerly curator of fine art at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, where this painting can be seen (Yale, for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, £40(£36); 978-0-300-17568-4). This Sunday is Sea Sunday.Another illustration from the book overleaf

Fiery victory: the English use fire ships against the Spanish invasion fleet seeking to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, as depicted in 1796 inDefeat of...

The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee
Glyn Parry
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

"JOHN DEE, you are a very wise man." "And you are a very great lady."

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 much.

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.

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