Dee After Dee

John Dee died aged 81 in 1609, but his legend lived on. His son Arthur survived him and became a famous alchemist in his own right. It is thanks to him that the Science Museum in London holds a crystal (allegedly) used to summon angels.

Dee’s death may have inspired the King’s Men, London’s top company of players, to use his life and his reputation as a conjuror of spirits for two extraordinary plays written around 1610. Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” is a savage satire on the pseudo-science Dee practiced. Set in contemporary London it sees the butler of an aristocrat masquerade as an alchemist, Captain Face, duping greedy Londoners with his spells. He is assisted by a fellow conman called Subtle and a prostitute called Doll Common. William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” followed about a year later and has a far more generous depiction of a man of magic. Prospero, with his vast library, deformed sidekick and conversations with an angelic spirit is so close to Dee as to be beyond a coincidence. Shakespeare and Jonson had many mutual acquaintances with Dee in the 1590s, from Queen Elizabeth to Walter Raleigh and Kit Marlowe.

In 1642 a confectioner called Robert Jones bough a large cedar chest from an antique shop. 20 years later the chest revealed its secret: a hidden drawer, that contained old books and papers that once belonged to Dee. They were eventually sold to the historian Elias Ashmole. Dee’s reputation as a man of magic however had already been established with the publication in 1659 of Meric Casaubon’s  “A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits“, based on Dee’s own transcripts of his angelic actions. These had been discovered buried in the land around Dee’s house shortly after his death by the collector Sir Robert Cotton. Dee was a subject of one of John Aubrey’s “Brief Lives” in the 1670s and a full (and critical) biography by Thomas Smith appeared in 1707, considering Dee insane. William Godwin’s “Lives of the Necromancers” followed in 1834, the chapter on Dee contains a few inaccuracies and lambasts both Dee and the Elizabethans for their credulity in believing in the ungodly tricks of such conmen as Dee’s associate, Edward Kelly. In Victorian times Dee was enough of a household name for the renowned artist Henry Gillard Glindoni to paint a beautiful depiction of Dee performing alchemy for Queen Elizabeth (see above).  The twist to this is the painter’s original version contained a circle of skulls and much more alchemical equipment. These were painted out, presumably at the instruction of whoever bought the painting. Why? Maybe he or she felt Glindoni had gone too far swallowing the myth of Dee as a necromancer, conjuring the dead back to life.

In the twentieth-century Dee’s reputation as a scholar was restored by historians Charlotte Fell-Smith, Frances Yates and Peter French. He was becoming respectable again. Both the British Museum and the Royal College of Physicians now hold many of Dee’s books and possessions for public view. In the cinema he turns up as Queen Elizabeth’s spiritual advisor in Derek Jarman’s quirky “Jubilee” and Shekhar Kapur’s stunningly inaccurate “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and in 2012 his life was even made into an entertaining opera by Blur frontman Damon Albarn. Most recently we’ve had a wave of historical fiction featuring Dee from authors like Peter Ackroyd and SJ Parris and two excellent biographies from Benjamin Woolley and Glyn Parry. There is clearly still much more to say and be discovered about this ultimate Renaissance man.


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