John Dee

WTC #5 John Dee @RCP

How do you capture personality in language?

16th Century alchemist, spy, mathematician and adviser to Elizabeth 1, John Dee is said to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero, as well as Marlowe’s Faustus.

In his1977 film The Tempest, Derek Jarman based his Prospero on Dee, casting Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien in the role.


You are invited to create a portrait of John Dee – either the historic one, or a modern manifestation – using all the linguistic magic at your disposal….

Explore the Royal College of Physician’s John Dee exhibition – the paintings, the notes and doodles in the margins of his books, and the objects –

Think about Dee’s use of codes, his horoscopes, his weather reporting, and his conversations with angels.

Think about his science and mathematics.

Consider the obsidian mirror and the crystal ball – Can you focus on an object and create a portrait through it?

If you choose to bring your portrait up to date, what equivalents can you use (without losing the richness of language)?

Dr Dee was particularly known in Elizabethan England for what he called his ‘showstones’, reflective objects like this mirror in which, combining prayer and optics, he was able to conjure and talk to angels. The angels turned out to be beguilingly chatty, and Dee recorded their long-distance conversations in a set of ‘angelic diaries’. A century later Dee’s angel messages were found being used to line pie dishes, but some were rescued and have survived and from them we can see that Dee’s whole set-up was very theatrical: the elaborately costumed angels carried crowns, rods and other props, and strangely declaimed their mysterious messages:

‘I am Prince of the Seas: My power is upon the water. I drowned Pharaoh . . . My name was known to Moyses. . .’

With visitors like this you can see why Dee became a celebrity. The consultations ended, we are told, with a black curtain being drawn within the stone.

John Dee was a celebrated mathematician, a particular expert on Euclid. But his behaviour was often that of a conjurer, someone who in Elizabethan terms had the power to call up spirits. It’s a disconcerting blend of science and magic that now leaves us a bit suspicious.

A magus was someone who was at once a magician and a scientist, and there really was no boundary between the two. A magus was somebody who exercised power over the natural world by some means that were unfathomable.

Dr Dee’s mirror was almost certainly itself a piece of Spanish booty from Mexico, because it turns out that this disk of black obsidian, so highly polished that you could now take it for a piece of acrylic, is in fact an Aztec mirror, painstakingly crafted in Mexico some time before the Spanish arrived. It was shaped with stone tools and we now know, although Dr Dee probably didn’t, that the high polish was achieved by long rubbing with bat excrement. The skeletons of the tiny insects that the bats had eaten survived the digestive journey to produce a wonderful abrasive paste at the other end.

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A meeting with Mr. Dee

I knocked on the door to his chambers some trepidation. I’d heard much about the man but had never met him.

A high voice replied from within. “Yes, you may enter. Wait in the antechamber. I am communing with angels in my study so please be quiet.”

He was close enough for me to smell his breath, yet he wasn’t in the room. I picked up a brown book, its paper worn. A copy of Al Kindi. I began to read. The room was lined with hundreds of books, and indecipherable charts lay on the table. Finding it difficult to concentrate I walked over to a cabinet in the corner of the room. In it lay a crystal ball displaying a ghostly light illuminating swirling symbols and changing images. Unexpected connections coursed through my mind. Lines, circles, crosses. Scorpions, bulls and fish. I could make no sense of it and could barely now remember the purpose of my visit.

I tiptoed towards the study door feeling a strong urge to look through the keyhole. But I found myself physically unable; it was as if some hidden force prevented it. However, I could hear that reed like voice from within speaking in Latin. A second voice replied in a strange language. I’ve heard he speaks in a tongue handed down by Adam. Could it have been that?

I opened another book. This one bore an exquisite drawing of a galleon, drawn in pen and ink at the foot of one of the pages. It had such fine attention to detail that you might have credited it to an artist. But this had been added by Dee and bore his initials. So the Queen’s conjuror had yet another skill.

At that moment the light that emanated from the crystal ball dimmed but, as it faded, an image of a woman’s face looked at me across the room. In that moment of twilight, the shape of the window changed. Could I really see a shape passing through the glass? Was I going mad?

I sat down again. I felt unwell. What was I experiencing? I could see some small round beetles appearing by my chair, scuttling under their heavy carapaces. One by one they flew upwards to the ceiling and were gone.

What was the work of this man I had come to see? Alchemist? Magician? Mathematician? Polymath? Or Charlatan?

I put my head in my hands to shelter myself from it all. But I soon sensed a presence. The first thing I saw was a pair of feet big enough for one to equal two in other men. As I stood, a tall bony man approached me, his long beard clinging like hoar frost to his black gown.

“Johannes Dee sum. Salve.”

Something in his hand reflected the light. It looked like a piece of obsidian.

Astrid Sutton Sharkey


Photo: Jacqueline Smith

John Dee

John Dee
Hate funerals at best of times, but this is a real poor show init? Heard he died at yours’.
Yeah. Sad. He was broke alright. We done our best. Got a social service paupers grant.
You’d think one of his eight kids could have bunged him a few quid.
Nah. They disowned him when he went loopy.
You know, same stuff going round and round in your head. Started after he saw that Damon Albarn rock opera in Manchester.
Was you with him?
Yeah. It was great. Ten scenes from the life of John Dee.
John Dee?
Yeah. A real old school mystic. Friend of Elizabeth 1. She hired him to travel all over Europe – to cure her virginity or spy or something. But what he really wanted to do was learn the word of God. Which, before you ask, is the language what Adam spoke, before the fall – apple and all that. Then how it was spoke was passed to some guy called Enoch.
Rivers of blood.
Shut up! Not him. This was well back in the day. So anyway this John Dee thought he could learn this language from communicating with angels.
Right! What’s this got to do with our mate?
So after we’d been to this Albarn gig, John comes away tranced. He converts to the idea that the word of God is pure sound that had gotten encrypted over time so we could name stuff. Label life.
For real?
Yeah! That created knowledge and true nature of man could only be found in symbols.
Like the artist formally known as Prince.
If you want. Anyway. Our John starts spending all his time searching for clues to this mystic language as well. Travels all over, picking up paying jobs here and there. Totally tunnelled visioned the rest of his life. Ended up he was unemployable, broken and speechless and dead.
Still think his kids could have looked out for him.
One of them did take one of his occult bits to the ‘erb dealer off the estate. Swapped it for some magic mushrooms.
So what we waiting for. Let’s go score a share. If we don’t meet any Angels, we can get away with the fairies.
Eveline Williams

Prospero: Spirits, which by mine art
I have from their confines called to enact
My present fancies.

(The Tempest 4.1.120-2)