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.