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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 to inner psychological processes of transformation and renewal. He gives a detailed analysis of Lear’s spiritual history in alchemical terms, illustrated by alchemical images. He presents Lear as destroyed in the Storm, which represents the destruction of matter in the nigredo, and as restored and regenerated by Cordelia, who represents the Philosophers’ Stone.

This “alchemical reading” of Lear as essentially on the theme of regeneration makes the tragedy less dark. Lear is destroyed only to be born again through the agency of Cordelia. One might feel attracted to this idea in a general way without necessarily accepting the too rigidly argued identification of Cordelia with the Stone. In all his alchemical reading of the story of Lear and his daughters, Nicholl ignores the fact that the story was taken by Shakespeare from pseudo-historical sources and from Spenser’s poetic presentation of the “British King” in the Faerie Queene. One is reminded of Michael Maier, the Rosicrucian, who in his Arcana arcanissima argues that all myths are really about the Stone.

Nicholl’s thesis is supported by some remarkable comparisons of language in the play with poetic passages in contemporary alchemical literature. These possible Shakespearean parallels should be carefully investigated. Nicholl’s reading of Lear would make of the play a stage in the process of Shakespeare’s evolution toward occult themes of which I have argued the presence in my Shakespeare’s Last Plays.* He thinks that the alchemical side of the movement is dominant in Lear, while the last plays are more generally magical and mystical. He hesitates to call the movement as found in Shakespeare “Rosicrucian,” because of the date of the Rosicrucian manifestos, too late to have influenced Shakespeare. However, the Rosicrucian type of alchemy, combined with “Magia” and “Cabala,” is present in the outlook of Shakespeare’s contemporary John Dee, who is perhaps a chief architect of the alchemical-Cabalist-mathematical movement of which the Rosicrucian manifestos are an expression.

This book will fill a gap for students of the Elizabethan age in its detailed analysis of the literature on Renaissance alchemy available in England. The interpretation of Lear strictly in terms of alchemical processes strikes one as forced, and too rigidly argued. Nevertheless, in a general way, Nicholl’s alchemical quotations bring home the fact that he is tapping neglected sources of poetic-alchemical imagery, and they suggest that, for contemporary audiences, the imagery of Lear would have had alchemical resonances which afterward became inaudible.

A point which Nicholl does not make is that Lear as a tragedy of kingship falls within an area associated with “Hermes Trismegistus,” who was called “Thrice Great” because of his triple role as priest, philosopher, and king. Francis Bacon reminded James I of his triplex hermetic destiny in the flattery of the king in the dedication of The Advancement of Learning (1605). “Because there is met in your Majesty a rare conjunction, as well of divine and sacred literature, as of profane and human; so as your Majesty standeth invested of that triplicity, which in great veneration was ascribed to the ancient Hermes.” The date usually conjectured for Shakespeare’s writing of Lear is 1605. Let me hasten to state that I do not regard this coincidence in dating as evidence that Bacon wrote King Lear but only as a straw in the wind blown toward Nicholl’s Lear as an alchemical king.

  1. *

    Frances Yates, Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).

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