Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Man Who Would Be Prospero

Around 1603, when London theatres were again closed because of a major outbreak of the Plague, Shakespeare and his King's Men company took up residence in a small town called Mortlake on the Thames.  Also living in that small town was Doctor John Dee, who for awhile had been one of the most famous and influential men in England.

Doctor Dee was a learned  man who combined studies in mathematics, cartography and astronomy with studies in alchemy, astrology and magic.  This was not an uncommon combination in those times.  Dee first made his name with the mathematics of navigation, guiding British ships in the era of discovery.

Like Prospero, he loved books.  His personal library was reputed to be one of the greatest in England.  He drew up a plan for a national library during Queen Mary's reign, though it wasn't adopted.

He later became a highly influential court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.  He wrote on mathematics but also on occult documents.  He created and interpreted a glyph which expressed the mystical unity of creation, at a time when such symbols themselves were thought to have power.  He later delved more deeply into magic, seeking contact with angelic spirits.

But like Shakespeare, he also was deeply interested in British explorations, especially to the New World.  He was an advocate for British imperialism, and is credited with coining the term "the British Empire."

Doctor Dee eventually retired to his summer home in Mortlake, where he found his library and his instruments had been looted.  According to writer Peter Ackroyd, at some point he announced that he had burned his books on magic.

Dee lived his last years in Mortlake with his daughter Katherine.  He died in his early 80s, about a year before Shakespeare started writing The Tempest.  There seems to be no record of Shakespeare meeting Doctor Dee while they were both in Mortlake, but Dee probably was a topic of conversation in that small town.  Shakespeare would have taken note of Doctor Dee years before as a unique and powerful figure in the court of Elizabeth, .  It seems reasonable that Doctor Dee was a major model for Prospero.


London said...

Enjoying your exploration of Tempest themes and characters. Also learning a bit about a play I have long admired. e.g. Mortlake today is a bedroom community I have often passed through -- I was unaware of the connection to Shakespeare & Dee. The photos and images along your posts are also welcomed; great production photos of the NCRT show. Thanks for posting!

BK said...

While at Mortlake, Shakespeare stayed at the estate of Augustine Phillips. Phillips died in 1604, leaving Shakespeare 30 shillings in gold. I have no idea if there's any trace left of Phillips' estate in Mortlake. Nor where John Dee and his daughter might have lived there. Thanks for your comment.