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A Prospero in Queen Elizabeth's Court: Shakespearean Astrology Part II

Elizabethan life easily provided all the material William Shakespeare could ever need to create his colorful and outrageous characters, even the fantastical ones. Its obsession with practical magic, and its practitioners, made sure of that.

As explained in Part I, consulting the motions of the planets for guidance was ubiquitous in all walks of life, from the very common to the rarefied. Not even royalty could escape its influence. But did anyone ever see them simply waltz down High Street to consult the local stargazer? No. So how does the Virgo (that's right) Queen Elizabeth find out her daily horoscope? Through court-appointed astrologers tasked with tutoring and advising the crown on matters celestial and pre-destined. The most famous and influential of the time was undoubtedly Dr. John Dee. But his fame lives on today through his influence on Shakespeare's Prospero in The Tempest.

Descended from gentlemen courtiers of Henry VIII, Dee graduated from Cambridge and traveled throughout Europe gaining a reputation as an excellent mathematician, astrologist, inventor, alchemist, and magician -- a real Renaissance man. By 1553 he's settling back in England as a rector and, only a year later, turning down a mathematics readership at Oxford; which seems like a bad move, but then, out of nowhere, Dee is casting horoscopes for Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth as soon as 1555. (You can snub Oxford when your fortune-telling prospects look promising.) And despite being charged with the crime of "calculating" that escalated to treason against Mary that same year, that does not stop him from submitting to the queen a radical plan rewriting the standards for the preservation of books, manuscripts and records as well as proposing the creation of a national library -- both ideas were unfortunately unsuccessful. And yet, somehow, with Elizabeth's ascent to the throne in 1558, Dee advances to her personal astrological advisor, even selecting an auspicious day for her coronation (January 15, 1559), to finally experience the joy of wielding supreme executive power*. Well, until James I ruins everything and he dies in poverty and relative obscurity in 1608/9.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni, late 19th century. Wellcome Library, London

In The Tempest, Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan but has been disposed by his brother's schemes and, somewhat hilariously, by his extreme love of books. Discovering the plots against him too late, being "rapt in secret studies", Prospero flees with his daughter Miranda to a remote island to preserve his life, yes, but mostly so he can continue to study his arcane arts in peace and, oh yeah, plan revenge. Which is interesting since he didn't seem to care much for his dukedom anyway. But that's if you take him at his word, ("my library was dukedom large enough" and "mine own library with volumes that I prized above my dukedom") so who can really say? Either way, for the next 12 years he perfects his craft, enslaves the locals, frees trapped spirits (then enslaves them), and patiently waits for the right star to enact his plan. The play ends with the good ending happily, the bad unhappily, the dukedom rightfully restored, and all magics voluntarily relinquished. Maybe a kind reimagining on Shakespeare's part for the happily-ever-after Dee never got.

Before his political downfall, Dr. John Dee was famous for many things, but especially for collecting the largest library in England - over 3,000 printed books and 1,000 manuscripts. Like Prospero, they were his most beloved possessions. He was also known for his attempts to communicate with angels and spirits, similar to Prospero's Ariel. He spent years recording "angelic conversations" to decipher truths about creation, nature, and the lost angelic language Enochian.

While nothing concrete connects Shakespeare's Prospero to Dr. John Dee, scholars agree that the similarities are too many to ignore. And with such a character as Dr. John Dee before him, how could Shakespeare resist the temptation to pen Prospero into life?

*not really supreme power but very impressive - a list of Dee's accomplishments:

  • Coined the word "Britannia" and developed a plan for the British Navy.

  • First person to use Euclidean geometry for navigation and trained the first great navigators.

  • Developed the maps of and charted the Northeast and Northwest Passages.

  • An angel conjuror with his associate Edward Kelly.

  • A founder of the Rosicrucian Order in England.

  • He was an alchemist, cabalist, and hermeticist, as well as adept in esoteric and occult lore.

  • The translator of Euclid and wrote the famous Mathematical Preface, which mapped a system of the sciences based on math.

  • Commissioned by Elizabeth to establish the legal foundation for colonizing North America.

  • Built novelty theatrical machinery creating one of the first magic devices for stage.

Hebron, Malcolm. Prospero: a Renaissance Magus. British Library, 2016.

Lantz, Patricia. Understanding Astrology in the Elizabethan Era.

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