An Alchemical Lear

The Chemical Theatre

by Charles Nicholl
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 292 pp., $35.00

Frances Yates died on September 29. This is one of the last reviews she wrote. We mourn the death of this brilliant and original scholar, a longstanding contributor and friend.—the Editors

Among the “renaissances” of the Renaissance one of the most important was the renaissance of alchemy. Like the occultist movement in general, the alchemical movement involved a return to ancient sources, in this case an intense interest in, and revival of, medieval writers on alchemy. The fascination of, for example, the obscure works of the medieval alchemist George Ripley for the intelligentsia of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries can be seen as a form of prisca theologia, a return to hermetic sources. “Hermes Trismegistus,” the secret patron of Renaissance Neoplatonism, was associated with the “Egyptian” science of alchemy, as the supposed author of alchemical texts.

The part played by alchemy in the hermeticism of the Italian Renaissance is not yet clear, but in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in northern Europe alchemy may be said to have been a dominant form of the occultist tradition. Charles Nicholl’s book tackles the difficult subject of the alchemical renaissance, the intense interest in alchemical practice and the great spate of learned and obscure works on alchemical theory, which poured from the presses of Europe, particularly around the turn of the century. It is characteristic of this new alchemy that it grounded itself on the works of medieval alchemists like George Ripley or Roger Bacon. By a process which in other contexts would be called “humanistic,” this return to ancient sources resulted in something new, the new alchemy.

Though he interestingly brings out this archaizing aspect of the new alchemy, Nicholl is aware of other influences that were affecting alchemy, the influences of other magical and occult systems with which the alchemical renaissance was associated. He emphasizes John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica with its manifold meanings, alchemical, Cabalistic, mathematical, as a potent expression of the new alchemy, but he does not explore these other aspects, singling out only the alchemical side of the complex movement for special study and analysis.

His goal is the influence of the alchemical renaissance on English poetry. He discusses, rather hurriedly, alchemy in Donne and Ben Jonson, without bringing out that The Alchemist is a very well-informed satire on the whole movement, and one which touches on its Cabalistic and mathematical sides. But his chief objective is King Lear, which he treats as an alchemical allegory.

One of the best parts of the book is the survey of alchemical literature published in England in the last years of the sixteenth century and first years of the seventeenth, the years when Lear was forming. Nicholl’s analysis of the publications of these years includes some little known writers, for example, Thomas Tymme, author of a lost translation of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica. Nicholl argues that Lear is suffused with the influence of “spiritual alchemy,” the application of the terminology of alchemical processes and imagery …

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