Imagining Alchemists and Magicians
New Atlantis, The Tempest, and The Alchemist
Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art
Wherein all nature’s treasury is contain’d.
In the epilogue to Shakespeare’s Last Plays Frances Yates not only reaffirms her view that Jonson’s The Alchemist and Shakespeare’s The Tempest offer two conflicting representations of the Renaissance magus, but on the pre-proto-penultimate page she introduces the ghostly figure of Bacon and links him with Shakespeare and ‘the Renaissance Hermetic tradition’. She quickly informs us that she is ‘absolutely convinced that the real author of the works of Shakespeare was Shakespeare’ and expands on her absolute conviction with a cut-and-dried full stop – which is somewhat qualified by the first word of the next sentence: ‘Yet…’. Yates continues:
…there is probably a link between Bacon and Shakespeare for they belong in the same line of country.
Yates sees The Tempest as a play ‘infused with the spirit of Dee’, and Bacon as partaking in that spirit but too cautious to declare himself. The ground for the scientific breakthrough of the seventeenth century, she insists, was laid by Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, made manifest in England through Dee, articulated for the London audience of The Tempest by Shakespeare, and adopted by Bacon. Bacon was frightened to show his hand because, she argues, he ‘had to placate James’, who pursued an equivocating policy of raising Protestant hopes through the marriage of Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine while ‘encouraging a Spanish match for other members of his family’. Jonson’s plays and masques are seen as articulating the anti-hermetic, and anti-alchemical aspect of James’s policy (against that of his children Henry and Elizabeth) and place Jonson in the opposing camp to Bacon and Shakespeare.
This is a neat and rather exciting interpretation of early Stuart ideological struggle and one which has engendered heated debate. Brian Vickers places the historical (or perhaps one should write rhetorical) method of Yates’s earlier book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment under scrutiny in an article in the Journal of Modern History, emphatically rejecting several of her claims. In doing so Vickers himself makes an assertion which deserves closer scrutiny. He claims that ‘Bacon delivered some violent attacks on alchemy and other occult sciences’ which, if true, would place him closer to Jonson and The Alchemist than Shakespeare and The Tempest, assuming that the opposition between these two plays is as Yates describes it.
It is my intention in this essay to look the way in which these three writers present the alchemist or magus figure. In dealing with Jonson and Shakespeare I shall concentrate on the two plays already mentioned, The Alchemist and The Tempest which were produced in 1610 and 1611 respectively and form the basis of much of Yates’s argument about the relative positions of Jonson and Shakespeare. In dealing with Jonson I will also mention some of his other references to alchemy. I will begin, however, by attempting an overview of some of Bacon’s statements on alchemy because this will provide us with some intimation of the complexities inherent in the subject. I shall then compare Shakespeare’s characterisation of Prospero with Bacon’s treatment of the Fathers of Salomon’s House in his fable New Atlantis before moving on to consider Jonson.
Bacon and Alchemy
In a speech which Spedding suggests was written for a court device sometime between 1590 and 1592 Bacon expresses his view that all the received knowledge of ‘the philosophy of nature’ is derived from ‘the Grecians’ or ‘the Alchemists’. Whereas the knowledge of the Grecians ‘is a loud crying folly’, that of the alchemists ‘is a whispering folly’ which ‘hath the foundation in imposture, in auricular traditions and obscurity; it was catching hold of religion, but the principle of it is, Populus vult decipi‘. Greek knowledge ‘is gathered out of a few vulgar observations’, but alchemical knowledge is gathered ‘out of a few experiments of a furnace’:
The one never faileth to multiply words and the other ever faileth to multiply gold.
Bacon claims to know ‘no great difference between these great philosophies’, both of which have failed to produce new knowledge. He aspires to knowledge because,
‘all things may be endowed and adorned with speeches, but knowledge
itself is more beautiful than any apparel of words that can be put upon it’.
The beauty of knowledge is not to be apprehended by credulous attachment to ‘vain notions and blind experiments’ however, but through the marrying of ‘the mind of man and the nature of things’. Bacon asserts in The Advancement of Learning that the knowledge which precipitated the Fall was not the natural knowledge of creatures, but the moral knowledge of good and evil which man, aspiring to know, defected from God and sought to depend wholly upon himself. Natural knowledge comes by observation, for ‘if men will intend to observe, they shall find much worthy to observe’.
Alchemists are censured, then, for four reasons: firstly, for whispering obscure ‘auricular traditions’; secondly, for mixing experimentation with religion; thirdly, for promulgating ‘imposture’ rather than observation; fourthly for their experimental method, which in failing to produce gold demonstrates the barrenness of alchemy as a multiplier of knowledge.
Vickers’ view that Bacon was opposed not only to alchemy but also to occult science in general would appear to have been confirmed. However, as Bacon’s thought develops it is possible to trace a modification of his attitude towards alchemy, a softening or a qualifying of his position.
In his discussion of ‘natural philosophy’ in the Advancement of Learning Bacon writes that alchemy, astrology and natural magic ‘have had better intelligence and confederacy with the imagination of man than with his reason’, but he adds, in a new tone of mitigation, that ‘the ends or pretences are noble’. However, in theory and practice alchemy remains ‘full of error and vanity; which the great professors themselves have sought to veil over and conceal by enigmatical writings, and referring themselves to auricular traditions, and such other devices to save the credit of impostures’ (III, p. 289). Alchemists make the mistake of mixing philosophy with the furnace. Bacon vividly illustrates his attitude to alchemy with the fable of Aesop in which a father told his sons he had left them gold in his vineyard:
and they digged over all the ground and gold they found none, but by reason of
their stirring and digging the mould about the roots of their vines, they had a great
vintage the year following.
Likewise alchemy had produced by default ‘a great number of good and fruitful inventions and experiments, as well for the disclosing of nature as for the use of man’s life’. Although Bacon remains sceptical about the likelihood of transmutation by means of projecting a few grains of ‘medicine’ (III, p. 362) and accuses the ‘great professors’ of alchemy of justifying imposture, he has modified his position so as to distinguish between the method, aims and results of alchemy. It is a modification, but not quite an endorsement of alchemy. Like Ixion, alchemists and hermeticists copulate with clouds and produce centaurs and chimeras:
So whosoever shall entertain high and vaporous imaginations, instead of a laborious and sober inquiry of truth, shall beget hopes and beliefs of strange and impossible shapes.
In his speculations and investigations of matter, however, Bacon often appears to speak a language similar to that of the very alchemists he censured. R. S. Westfall in his discussion of Newton’s glossary of chemical terms warns that ‘[t]he distinction between chemistry and alchemy in the seventeenth century, if indeed it is valid to speak of a distinction, is difficult to place with precision’.
In the Novum Organum although Bacon writes that ‘what are called occult and specific properties, or sympathies and antipathies, are in great part corruptions of philosophy’, he also writes that ‘it has not been ill observed by the chemists in their triad of first principles, that sulphur and mercury run through the whole universe’. He rejects the addition of salt as a third principle and proceeds to show the ‘consent’ which exists between sulphur, oil, flame, ‘and perhaps the body of a star’ on the one hand, and between mercury, water, air ‘and perhaps the pure and intersidereal ether’ on the other. Things within groups (or ‘tribes of things’) tend to agree in configuration, but differ in quantity of matter and density. Although Bacon engages in empirical observation of things and redefines terms (‘consent’ rather than ‘sympathy’) he still operates within the older Aristotelian, alchemical and Paracelsian paradigms which he criticizes. In Graham Rees’s discussion of Bacon’s biological ideas as laid out in an earlier manuscript written between 1612-1613 the mercury-sulphur-salt triad forms part of Bacon’s theory of matter which consists of twelve manifestations of matter arranged in three quaternions. The salt quaternion consists of ‘intermediates’ between the other two ‘mutually hostile quaternions’. Rees refers to the hostile quaternions as ‘the keys to Bacon’s hybrid, semi-Paracelsian cosmology and astrophysics’. Inanimate spirits are present in all things, animate spirits in living beings, arranged ‘in terms of a thoroughly traditional, commonplace regulative belief: the belief in the chain of being’ .
But even if we accept that both alchemists and natural philosophers drew on a common discursive paradigm it is still surprising to discover in the fourth part of Bacon’s Natural Historya careful description of an experiment in the transmutation of gold. Bacon rejects the feasibility of transmutation from quicksilver ‘for quicksilver will not endure the manage of the fire’ (p. 450). Instead Bacon advises the use of silver ‘which is the metal that in nature symbolizeth most with gold’.
There are several important points to note about Bacon’s approach to this experiment however. Firstly, he makes his experiment available for imitation and scrutiny. Secondly, he sets it down in plain terms, each part clearly described without ornament or imagery. Thirdly, he distinguishes what he is doing from what alchemists do, as when he states that the experiment be given ‘time enough for the work; not to prolong hopes (as the alchemists do), but indeed to give nature a convenient space to work in’. Fourthly, the experiment avoids any ‘catching hold of religion’. Nevertheless, we seem to have come some way from the confident implication behind Vickers’ statement that ‘Bacon delivered some violent attacks on alchemy and other occult sciences’. Vickers’s observation in his introduction to Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance that ‘it can be seen that the distinction between occult and nonoccult was widely understood and employed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ is interesting because Bacon does seem to have made that distinction. Yet the very fact that Bacon felt it necessary to advocate a knowledge that is open to scrutiny and severed from religion might bring the wider application of such a statement into question. In the same paragraph Vickers acknowledges that scientists such as Bacon, who attack the occult mentality, ‘themselves retain many instances of occult beliefs and thought habits’. Rossi argues that Bacon’s attacks on magic were in fact aimed at the impostures and lies that multiplied around it:
He accused it of fraud, of a craze for genius, and of megalomania; he refuted its
non-progressive, non-co-operative methods and especially its attempts to replace
human sweat by a few drops of elixir or an easy combination of substances.
Inasmuch as magicians and alchemists seek to dominate and improve nature they should be imitated rather than practised. Bacon borrows the image of the alchemist and adapts it to his own aims:
I shall need some alchemist to help me, who call upon men to sell their
books, and to build furnaces; quitting and forsaking Minerva and the Muses as
barren virgins, and relying upon Vulcan.
Rossi argues that Bacon’s view of nature differed from that of Pico (pace Yates) in the following way:
For him man’s powers were not infinite but always subject to the laws of nature
(obsessus legibus naturae) and he cannot break or loosen the causal ties that
govern it. Man’s portion is neither to praise his infinite freedom nor to preserve his
essential unity with the whole, but to realise that, in order to consolidate his limited
power he must adapt himself to nature, submit to its commands and assist in
developing its operations.
One of Bacon’s aphorisms reads:
Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.
However, evidence of the retention of occult habits of thought that Vickers mentioned is often to be found in Bacon’s writing. The very statement that silver ‘symbolizeth most with gold’ evinces a debt to the hermetic turn of mind. Karin Johannisson points out that ‘magical science coincided at several points with the science that was to become institutionalized during the seventeenth century’, and argues that for the magus ‘the laws of nature are not regarded as absolute and can be exceeded by art’. This, Johannisson claims, was Bacon’s outlook. In Magnalia Naturae Bacon lists works of nature ‘quoad usus humanos‘, such as the ‘[i]mpressing of the air, and raising of tempests’ and the ‘[f]orce of the imagination, either upon another body, or upon the body itself’. Some of the items are borrowed from Agrippa, as Rossi notes, and seem to lead us back into the world of Prospero as interpreted by Kermode, a Prospero who conforms to the image of the magus. Yet the key difference, I would argue, between Bacon and the magus, is that Bacon believes that wonders are attained not by transcending but by mastering natural law, and that study of wonders might be undertaken ‘for the further disclosing of nature’. Bacon emphasised that ‘art’ is to be approached through nature, and that by following nature her effects may be repeated:
… from the wonders of nature is the nearest intelligence and passage towards the
wonders of art: for it is no more but by following and as it were hounding Nature in
her wanderings, to be able to lead her afterwards to the same place again.
Prospero and the Fathers of Salomon’s House
Yates, who supports Kermode’s view, writes:
Prospero has learned that ‘occult philosophy’ which Agrippa taught and knows
how to put it into practice. Moreover, like Agrippa, Shakespeare makes very clear
in The Tempest how utterly different is the high intellectual and virtuous magic of
the true magus from low and filthy witchcraft and sorcery. Prospero is poles apart
from the witch Sycorax and her evil son. Indeed, Prospero as the good magus has a
reforming mission; he clears the world of his island from the evil magic of the
witch; he rewards the good characters and punishes the wicked. He is a just judge,
or a virtuous and reforming monarch, who uses his magico-scientific powers for
When the description of Prospero has been extracted from this passage and examined in isolation it will be seen that it accords with Yates’s view of Bacon as having emerged from the Hermetic tradition.
His ‘great instauration’ of science was directed towards a return to the state of Adam before the Fall, a state of pure and sinless contact with nature and knowledge of her powers. This was the view of scientific progress, a progress back towards Adam, held by Cornelius Agrippa, the author of the influential Renaissance textbook on occult philosophy. And Bacon’s science is still, in part, occult science.
Thus, like Prospero, Bacon is familiar with Agrippa’s teaching, is a magus, avoids witchcraft and ‘has a reforming mission’. One might add that like Yates’s Prospero, he was also considered a ‘just judge’, and ‘always gave judgement secundum aequum et bonum‘ as Aubrey put it. Although Bacon follows Agrippa in the ideal of making ‘known the hidden and secret powers of nature’, this account does not allow for Bacon’s censure of Agrippa in Temporis Partus Masculus:
… Agrippa, neotericus homo, in istiusmodi sermone ne nominandus quidem, sed trivialis scurra, et singula distorquens et lusui propinans…
Bacon may appropriate some of the rhetoric of Agrippa; Agrippa’s method he rejects. Bacon’s ‘restauration’ is always envisaged as a communal project of social amelioration through the collective gathering of knowledge; a laborious process ‘in sudore vultus tui‘. Tis becomes evident if Prospero’s work is compared with that of the Fathers of Salomon’s House in Bacon’s New Atlantis.
The first point to note is that Prospero’s studies became an increasingly private activity before his exile:
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.
I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retired,
O’er-prized all popular rate…
He continues his private studies in exile:
Is hard at study. Pray now, rest yourself;
He’s safe for these three hours.
In contrast, the Fathers of Salomon’s House constitute an elite community, a benevolent fraternity that partakes of and contributes to a commonwealth of knowledge and discovery. ‘The End of our Foundation’, says the Father of Salomon’s House, ‘is the knowledge of Causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. As the body of knowledge expands with new inventions, the ‘profitable inventions’ – those which are considered to be of benefit to society – are published while other discoveries are kept secret. This dedication to concealment is, of course, one of the perceived similarities between the Foundation of Salomon’s House and the occult studies of Agrippa and Prospero.
Two important points need to be made here. Firstly the nature of that secrecy seems to me to signify the employment of a paternalistic prudential discretion which seeks to disseminate only that which is ‘good’, unlike hermetic practices in which the ‘good’ is a secret commodity. The political nature of the Foundation’s secrecy is implicit in the admission by the Father of Salomon’s House that ‘some of those [secrets] we do reveal sometimes to the state, and some not’. As Karol Berger points out in a slightly different context, the confusion between the political and the magical is an easy one to make:
The methods of magical and political power are deceptively similar. The same figures can be used for the mechanisms of both magical and political influence.
Secondly, the way in which beneficial knowledge is made available to the people ‘enlarging the bounds of Human Empire’ is something entirely absent from Prospero’s preoccupations. As well as publishing inventions, the Father of Salomon’s House explains,
we do also declare natural divinations of diseases, plagues, swarms of hurtful
creatures, scarcity, tempests, earthquakes, great inundations, comets, temperature
of the year, and divers other things; and we give counsel thereupon what the people
shall do for the prevention and remedy of them.
Prospero’s powers, by contrast, remain those of a private magus practised, albeit, in service of the political aim of dynastic restoration. Unlike the studies of the Fathers of Salomon’s House Prospero’s studies do not contribute to the enlarging of the bounds of the ‘Human Empire’. He emasculates everyone who falls under his influence. His victims become mere ciphers of his imagination, robbed of their will, and thereby of their very humanity (as Berger argues), without which there can be no ‘Human Empire’ at all. Prospero remains alone, the sole director of his island of illusions. If he is to re-enter human society and recover his dukedom he will also have to relinquish his solipsistic studies, his rough magic, the private theatre of his imagination and occupy a public stage, assume a political role, engage civil society. Prospero’s status as a magus is in direct conflict with his status as a duke, despite the theatrical attributes and deceptive similarity of both roles. Ironically, he can only use his magical powers in order to recover his dukedom, a recovery that can only be realised when those same powers are relinquished, or, as Berger puts it:
Magic must be abjured before it can become truly operative.
The dilemma is one of the relationship between coercion and will. As Egan argues, Prospero seeks to impose ‘the ideals of his art’ upon his enemies as a condition of the union of Ferdinand and Miranda; he ‘intends to eliminate, by force if necessary, all elements of humanity which will not conform to his vision’.
By the end of act four Prospero is able to say:
At this hour
Lies at my mercy all mine enemies
Yet, led by Ariel, Prospero chooses to relinquish the practice of magic for that of virtue, or virtus, which Orgel glosses as implying ‘both heroic magnanimity and the stoic ability to remain unmoved by suffering’. Prospero declares that his aim is to achieve the penitence of his enemies, something which coercive magic cannot attain; penitence must be as freely willed as forgiveness. Neither is easily given – Prospero’s terse forgiveness of his silent brother seems to stick in his throat:
For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault,
Prospero’s magic can neither influence a free and determined will such as Antonio’s nor serve any wider social ends even if we accept that it is indeed the magic of a magus, as Kermode, Sisson, Yates, and Berger assert. The difficulty with the presentation of Prospero as a magus, however, is that other voices within the play must be accommodated. Barbara A. Mowat remarks upon the influence of Ovid’s Medea, which may indeed have a larger impact upon Prospero than that of the Ficinian magus:
Ovid’s Medea is an enchanter, a magician who, unlike the magus, does not seek
spiritual growth, but seeks instead godlike control over the natural and supernatural worlds.
This influence is acknowledged by Kermode when he writes that ‘the most resonant echo of Ovid in the whole corpus is in Prospero’s valedictory invocation of the spirits’. He acknowledges Malone’s observation that Sycorax possesses some of the characteristics of Ovid’s Medea, but argues that Shakespeare adapted Medea’s incantation:
Only those elements which are consistent with “white” magic are taken over for
Prospero, though some of the remnant is transferred to Sycorax.
Sisson presents a similar argument in greater detail, as Orgel notes, but acknowledges that Prospero’s invocation includes some ‘disconcerting phrases… which seem inconsistent with the general picture of his white magic and import what he himself calls “rough magic”, the violence and chaos of black art’.De Grazia, however, argues that Prospero and Sycorax have similar histories, interchangeable powers and are both ‘driven by the same passion – anger’.
But whether or not the different voices which speak through Prospero can be contained within the magus-persona as Berger implies, or whether those voices speak of a mind in which a multiplicity of influences prosper, the movement of The Tempest towards a series of problematic and ambiguous renunciations and reconciliations is such that Prospero’s knowledge, however it may be characterised, cannot operate toward the same ends as the knowledge of the Fathers of Salomon’s House. The concerns of New Atlantis are not the same as those of The Tempest, the method by which knowledge is accumulated, and the ends which that knowledge serves are quite different. Only in so far as those two texts can both be presented as rejecting a solipsistic hermeticism in favour of some form of social engagement might it be argued that their writers ‘belong in the same line of country’, but that country would not be the one in which Yates had planted them. Besides, Prospero’s rejection of Ovidian magic in favour of ‘the rarer action’ of ‘virtue’ rather than vengeance’ (the employment of virtus rather than virtu`) might also imply a movement towards the stoicism of Jonson, and, indeed, of Bacon.
Jonson and Alchemy
If his reaching after virtue brings Prospero closer to the stoically centred Jonson, Mowat’s description of his relationship to Ariel as that of ‘the mundane world of the street-corner “art-Magician” or “Jugler”‘ inevitably invites comparison with Subtle’s relationship to Face in The Alchemist. Such a comparison can only be taken so far, however, for whereas Prospero can range from magician to juggler, creator to faker, Subtle can only range through a series of juggling fakeries and rhetorical tricks. Yet the influence which the pseudo-alchemist and his Protean ‘lungs’ exercise over the minds and imaginations of the gulled does have something of the magician’s power in it; for Jonson those powers are one and the same.
Jonson, who seeks ‘[t]o make his Base such, as no Tempest shall shake him: to be secure of all opinion’, is unwavering in his hostility to alchemists, as Yates argues. In the sixth of his Epigrammes he writes ‘To Alchymists’:
If all you boast of your great art be true;
Sure, willing pouertie liues most in you.
While in the forty-third poem of The Underwood his tone is hardly less scathing:
Some Alchimist there may be yet, or odde
Squire of the Squibs, against the Pageant day,
May to thy name a Vulcanale say;
And for it lose his eyes with Gun-powder,
As th’other may his braines with Quicksilver.
The contemptuous locution ‘Some Alchimist’ echoes Bacon’s quip mentioned previously that ‘I shall need some alchemist to help me… relying upon Vulcan’. Jonson’s attitude to alchemists echoes both the image of them as impoverished cozeners present in Chaucer, Norton, Nashe, Scot, Lyly, and Lodge, and that of Bacon in his contempt for their vain boastfulness.
But as is Bacon, so is Jonson partly fascinated. Both writers make use of alchemy in different ways. In Eastward Hoe it is thought that it was Jonson who laid out the alchemical plot much as he had deployed humour types in his earlier plays. In The Alchemist Jonson displays his knowledge of and interest in alchemical studies, and it seems to me that there is something of correlation between the sulphur, mercury, salt triad and the triumvirate of sulphorous Subtle (‘I fart at thee’), the mercurial Face (‘Who am I?’), and the salty Doll Common, who mediates between them and ‘fixes’ them in the ‘venter tripartite‘. F. Schuler points out both the alchemical parallel present in Jonson’s attempt to transform us through the medium of his plays and reminds us that ‘one must maintain a balance between the metaphorical and the literal, the abstract and the concrete’, while H. Mares cautions the impatient modern reader from hasty conclusions about his attitude to alchemy:
Jonson himself, while exploiting the comic possibilities of the jargon of alchemy, as he exploited other kinds of jargon in other plays, may still have accepted the ideas that lay behind that jargon. At any rate, even if he did not believe alchemy possible, his disbelief would have had grounds quite different from those of the modern audience of his play.
Mares goes on to point out something which I touched on earlier in this essay concerning Bacon:
Even the makers of the scientific revolution could not escape from the modes of thought of their own day, except in limited areas; and we should not assume that Jonson, whose cast of mind was essentially conservative, could escape from them either.
I think, however, that Mares has overstated the case because whatever ideas about matter Jonson may have held in common with the alchemists, it was that same conservatism of his which fuelled his hostility to the actual practice of alchemy.
In his masque Mercury Vindicated From the Alchemists at Court Jonson has Mercury complain that alchemists attempt ‘to commit miracles in art and treason again’ nature’. In The Alchemist Sir Epicure Mammon describes Face to Surly by saying:
That’s his fire-drake,
His lungs, his Zephyrus, he that puffes his coales,
Till he firke nature vp, in her owne center.
There is in Jonson a parallel sense that man as well as nature must be securely ‘based’ upon his centre:
Live to that point I will, for which I am man,
And dwell in my Centre, as I can,
Still looking to, and ever loving heaven;
With reverence using all the gifts then[ce] given.
The alchemist, however, will either attempt to ‘firke nature up, in her own center’, or he will ‘firke up’ the minds of those he seeks to gull, as happened to Sir Epicure Mammon. In both cases he is acting contrary to Jonson’s conservative sense of order. As Promethius sings in Mercury Vindicated:
Nature is motions mother, as she is your’s.
To which the chorus responds:
The spring, whence order flowes, that all directs
And knits the causes with th’effects.
From this point of view the alchemist is regarded as one who unravels effects from their natural causes and diverts the ordering spring of nature from its proper direction.
It was a similar sense of order unravelled which caused Jonson to criticise the The Tempest in his induction to Bartholemew Fair:
If there bee never a servant-monster i’the Fayre; who can helpe it? he sayes; nor a nest of Antiques? Hee is loth to make Nature afraid in his Playes, like those that begat Tales, Tempests, and such like Drolleries, to mixe his head with other mens heeles, let the concupisence of Iigges and Dances, raigne as strong as it will amongst you…
Not only does The Tempest present deformities of nature and offer a serious consideration of the effects of magic, it also mingles genres by importing the ‘Iigges and Dances‘ of the masque.
Jonson’s attack, it should be noted, for all his hostility to magic, is directed more towards theatrical considerations rather than towards occult practices. It is as if Jonson realizes that the material upon which he ‘centres’, or ‘bases’, himself is more directly challenged by Shakespeare’s ‘mimetic preoccupation’ with magic than by the practice of magic itself. If that is so, it would perhaps be because Jonson was aware that the real function of Shakespeare’s preoccupation, which in The Tempest represents the culmination of an elaborate theatrical conceit, was not so much to present occult practices in a sympathetic light as to employ them as discursive tools, objective correlatives of the creative process with which to weave and scrutinize a ‘baseless fabric’ of theatrical representation.
From these observations it has become clear that Bacon, Shakespeare and Jonson share a dialectical approach to Renaissance hermeticism. Bacon seeks to make alchemy conform to empirical research, Shakespeare explores the relationship of magic to society, power to will, virtu` to virtus, while Jonson attacks alchemy yet adopts it as a metaphor, working as an eiron on the raw matter of his alazonic audience to achieve transformation through laughter. Yates, and some of the other critics I have mentioned, therefore, offer interpretations that are too schematic and do not allow for what Orgel refers to as
that complexity of sensibility which is what we have come to value most in
Shakespearian drama, and in Renaissance culture as a whole.
Both Yates and Vickers err in their respective presentations of Bacon. Yates, eager to place him among the company of the magi disregards his censure of the impostures of alchemists and magicians; Vickers, eager to rescue him from Yates disregards Bacon’s qualified accommodation of alchemy and magic. Bacon summarised his position in a single sentence in Filum Labyrinthi, which I can hardly better except by italicization:
He thought also, that the invention of works and further possibility was prejudiced
in a more special manner than that of speculative truth; for besides the impediments
common to both, it hath by itself been notably hurt and discredited by the vain
promises and pretences of Alchemy, Magic, Astrology, and such other arts, which
(as they now pass) hold much more of imagination and belief than of sense and
The three arts were to be placed under collective empirical scrutiny after the manner of the Fathers of Salomon’s House, a methodology quite alien in its aims and orientation to that of Prospero, suggesting that Shakespeare and Bacon did not occupy the same ‘line of country’ though they sometimes passed through the same regions.
Prospero’s voices are too several for him to conform satisfactorily to the role of an neo-Platonic magus, while his renunciation of magic, and his desire to leave the island are hardly the most reassuring signs that Shakespeare fulfils the role Yates assigned to him. Prospero’s struggle is one which ultimately requires the renunciation of magic if he is to re-enter society and fulfil his aristocratic role.
Only Jonson seems to have been securely located by Yates, at least as far as his opposition to the practice of magic and alchemy are concerned, although his argument with Shakespeare concerned the representation rather than the practical employment of those mystifying arts. Subtle is a charlatan, but Touchstone is not; Jonson may expose the cozener of gulls or of audiences, but with an zest which betrays the delight he took in the mimesis of multiplication. Jonson may oppose the non-satirical portrayal of alchemy and magic, but he recognises and exploits the parallels between the laboratory and the theatre.
In a sense – if I may conflate where Yates had merely divided – all three writers may be represented as seeking ‘the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire’ through theatrical play and alchemical ‘feats of juggling’.
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