Mythologizing John Dee

This is not really a post but more a short rant. To do real justice to John Dee, which I fully intend to do sometime in the future, would require more time and effort than I have to spare at the moment.

As some of my readers are probably already aware the Manchester Festival has commissioned pop musician Damon Albarn and the theatre director Rufus Norris to create the musical drama Doctor Dee. In principle, as a great admirer of the estimable Dr Dee and somebody who worked in fringe theatre for many years, I have absolutely nothing against this undertaking. I also think that John Dee is a perfect subject for a public performance of any sort but given the complex range of themes that his life and work offer for anybody wishing to interpret it, I do object to them creating pointless and stupid myths about the man.

I haven’t seen the work so why am I so upset? The lead advertising phrase for the piece has been getting up my nose for a couple of weeks and now the New Scientist have compounded the stupidity with their article on the topic. The Manchester Festival advertising reads as follows:

There was once an Englishman so influential that he defined how we measure years, so quintessential that he lives on in Shakespeare’s words; yet so shrouded in mystery that he’s fallen from the very pages of history itself.

That man was Dr Dee – astrologer, courtier, alchemist, and spy.

To which the New Scientist added the following:

JOHN DEE, the 16th-century mathematician and occultist at the centre of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, has inspired some of the world’s greatest minds. Shakespeare evoked him as the enigmatic conjuror Prospero in The Tempest, while Christopher Marlowe created the power-hungry Doctor Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil for greater knowledge.

Let’s take a look at how many of the facts contained in these two brief passages are correct. John Dee did not define how we measure the years. He was consulted by the court on the possibility of introducing the Gregorian Calendar into England. After careful study he recommended its adoption but suggested backdating it to the birth of Christ instead of the Council of Niceae, which would have meant that the English calendar would have been out of step with the Gregorian one. However the Synod of Bishops objected to the acceptance of a Catholic calendar so Dee’s recommendation was ignored. I will come to Shakespeare’s words in a minute. Far from being so shrouded in mystery that he’s fallen from the pages of history I can think of no other minor figure from the Elizabethan Age, and let us not fool ourselves in comparison to many others Dee in a very minor figure, who is so present in the pages of history. In not just British but European literature Dee is THE Renaissance Magus, minor and major figure in novels, films and theatre.

The list, astrologer, courtier, alchemist and spy, leaves out his principle occupation mathematician. Dee was one of the leading mathematical practitioners of the age known and respected throughout Europe. Also calling him a courtier is not strictly correct as although he was often consulted by the court as an expert on a wide range of topics he never succeeded in his aim of receiving an official appointment at court, Elizabeth and her advisors preferring to keep him at arms length. This also deals with the New Scientists false claim that he was “at the centre of Queen Elizabeth I’s court”.

Lastly we turn to his supposed inspiration of Shakespeare and Marlow. The claim that he was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero is a rather dubious supposition with no proven basis in fact. This claim seems to have been fuelled by Peter Greenaway basing his Prospero, in the film Prospero’s Books, at least partially on Dee.

The claim that Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus is based in Dee is pure bullshit and would earn any student of English literature a straight F. Marlowe’s Faustus is based on the Faust-Sage, which is a legend based in turn on the life of the German occultist Johann Georg Faust  (c. 1480 – c. 1541). Dee wasn’t the only Renaissance magus you know.

By all means write about John Dee, but he was a real historical figure so you don’t need to invent myths about him.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Mathematics, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

18 responses to “Mythologizing John Dee

  1. Pingback: Mythologizing John Dee | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Anger Bear

    This blowing out of all reasonable proportion of Dee’s role in the history of calendar reform is really something else. It would be good for a laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

    • Actually Dee’s analysis of the calendar reform is very perceptive and very interesting, which however didn’t stop it being ignored.

      • Anger Bear

        Hey, I know, it was an interesting contribution. But with these things, it’s all about impact, innit?

  3. How can you not mythologize John Doe?

  4. I’m going to suspend all questioning of historical accuracy until after I’ve seen (and hopefully enjoyed) it.

  5. Although it is briefly mentioned in the New Scientist article, you don’t write anything about Dee’s contributions to English exploration, which were both theoretical–he published the General and Rare Memorials pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation in 1582–and practical–he advised the English Muscovy Company and worked to promote voyages to discover the Northeast Passage with a view to developing “a periplus Scythian and Asiasticall” and reaching Cathay. Characteristically, his aims were both economic and fantastical. Sailing in Northern waters was obviously difficult, but it offered a way to get around the Spanish while reestablishing an empire that could be traced by King Arthur. One of the things I get a kick of about the 16th Century is the way that the various projectors, explorers, and geographers were motivated at the same time by greed, political ambition, religious aspiration, and a taste for high adventure nurtured on the kind of romances that turned Don Quixote’s wits. You don’t really need to misrepresent people like Dee to enter a world where the boundaries of magical, philosophical, religious, and commercial endeavor were not yet sharply defined.

  6. Seeing this tomorrow night. Will be interesting to see how they handle the history, but suspect the most appropriate answer to that question will be “It wasn’t that kind of show…”

    I reckon the problem with “so quintessential that he lives on in Shakespeare’s words” is not so much poor historical understanding, as a lack of any perceived need for the promo copy to do anything but look the part. As far as the promoter’s concerned, this has presumably done its job: it follows a conventional stylistic pattern, and it works in a name that the casual reader can latch onto. Unfortunately, for those of us who care, it doesn’t really mean anything. (Quintessential to what? And what is particularly special about popping up in Shakespeare? You could say the same of the fifteenth-century sheriff Alexander Iden, who gets nine lines in 2 Henry VI and is likewise shrouded in mystery.)

    That said: Not My Period, but I thought the “Dee as chief influence on Prospero” thesis was widely touted before Greenaway’s film. Isn’t it in Frances Yates?

    • The theory is certainly earlier than Greenaway but became, I think, much more prominent after he modeled his Prospero on Dee. I have no idea who first floated the idea but it doesn’t seem to be Yates. In her Dee book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment she doesn’t mention Propero at all. In her Bruno book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition she writes the following: (page 357)

      Was it not Shakespeare who created Prospero, the immortal portrait of the benevolent Magus, establishing the ideal state? How much does Shakespeare’s conception of the rôle of the Magus owe to Bruno’s reformulation of that rôle in relation to the miseries of the times?

      To this she adds the following footnote:

      1) Prospero has been thought to reflect John Dee which may also be true, but as we have seen, Dee and Bruno are both variations on the Renaissance theme of Magia and Cabala.

  7. Hmm. A production to be filed under “glorious missed opportunity”, I think. The stagecraft elements (sets, props, choreography, lighting, projection work etc) were superb, and justified the price of admission on their own. But the narrative didn’t make its point.

    Granted, you can’t get away with lecturing an audience of opera-goers, but we really needed at least *some* background on the early-modern attitudes to natural knowledge and English/British identity the piece was trying to deal with. What we got instead was a series of uncontextualised “scenes from the life” which were just downright puzzling for anyone who didn’t know all about it already.

    Thus: we see the young Dee developing a geometric proof (a remarkable bit of delivery on the part of the performer), apparently casting horoscopes, and having some unspecified dealings with ships. In all this he is watched over by a fantastical representation of Francis Walsingham, who seems gratified by his progress in a doomy kind of way. Later on, he meets Edward Kelley and takes to communing with angels. Walsingham is now most sorely displeased, as are various other people who mutter about him. What little narrative there is doesn’t presume to suggest any particular reasons why all of this should have happened as it did. The story is interspersed throughout with Albarn’s characteristic musings on the nature of Englishness, which – contrary to the PR – barely relate to the version of Dee’s life presented.

    There’s an exit-door “what was all that about?” survey on the Guardian website which perfectly illustrates the problem. I liked the response from Andy Cane, who confines himself to what was presented and doesn’t find any central theme or claim at all. The other audience members who try to impose one are mostly doing so on the basis of silly received history. I hope at least some of the audience will be moved to find out more about the period and the people, but the production doesn’t give them much help.

    • thonyc

      Thanks for your review of the performance James. If I’m honest I wasn’t expecting anything else. I’m curious what others will make of it.

  8. Jeb

    I think I will wait for Prince Madoc the Musical and its exploration of the true origins of American history, identity and Culture.

  9. Jeb

    backed by a chorus line of Native American Dancing Druids and a large choir of Freemason’s.

    I think I should contact Mr Albarn and suggest a sequel exploring his interest in Dee and identity further. It seems the perfect vehicle for him and I am sure it would be very well received in America.

  10. Jeb

    It’s also the time when classical accounts of the druids are first translated from Latin into English and importantly at a price that makes the texts accessible to a wider public for the first time. As Stuart Piggot noted.

    Politics, technology and economy create the perfect storm to see this romance hold and spread like a wildfire.

  11. Pingback: The Virgin Queen was in reality John Dee in drag. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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