Trip to the Secret Library of John Dee

London F19

I was very excited when I found out that The Royal College of Physicians was mounting an exhibition of Dee’s books. It is believed that Dee is a possible model for Prospero, the magician and alchemist in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Both men are occultists and while Dee claimed to be in contact with an angel by the name of Uriel, Prospero’s goes by the more mellifluous name of Ariel, invoking one of the two higher of the four elements.  More than this both men have bibliophilia in common:  Prospero‘s magic is intimately tied to his books to the extent that Caliban proposes that the destruction of the books spells the end of Prospero as a magus. Dee, on the other hand, is reputed to have had the largest library in private hands in the period.

Students on the trip were amazed to be able to view Dee’s marginalia for he made notes on all the books he read and can be found enquiring in a book on the Trojan War why the Wooden Horse has not been referred to! It does seem a major omission! Dee also doodled and students were genuinely touched by a page from Dee’s copy of the works of Cicero which has a beautifully detailed drawing of a ship together with tiny figures: a possible illustration for a future edition of The Tempest perhaps?

Most striking for most students was a huge painting by the late nineteenth century painter, Henry Gillard Glindoni which features John Dee performing a magical ritual or alchemical experiment before Queen Elizabeth. In a macabre twist, skulls surrounding the conjuror which had been painted out are making a re-appearance. The question is whether these spectral additions are an entirely fanciful addition (which the painter later decided against) or a depiction of an event which actually took place? The painting, with or without its ghostly  presences, suggests that Queen Elizabeth was much more open-minded where the occult was concerned than her successor who was terrified of witchcraft and thus would have nothing to do with Dee, who died in penury six years into James’ reign.  Now The Tempest was first performed in 1611 so the proximity of the dates allows us at the very least to wonder whether Dee and his recent death prompted Shakespeare as he embarked upon his last (non-collaborative) work.

The exhibition enabled our students briefly to look through a window onto a world where talking to angels was not a sign of insanity but an activity that could happily co-exist with spying, studying mathematics and writing a book on navigation that materially aided the Elizabethan navy. Dee, a student of St. John’s College, Cambridge helped found Trinity College ‘next door’. He was a polymath and if there are few books by him, it is because he took an interest in everything, limiting his sleep to 4 hours a night the better to spend his time reading. There’s a lesson for all of us there.   

Richard Martin