Prospero, who art thou?

It is popular to run to the historical visage of the famous physician, astrologer, and scrier, John Dee, as a probable influence whenever the stereotype of the bearded, crystal gazing, and be-robed wizard appears in literature or mythology. Dee has been suggested for Soloman of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Prospero of the Tempest, Faust of the Faust legends, and many other similar wizard-like personages over the centuries. And there is no doubt he has been the major influence on the archetype mage/wizard/alchemist/necromancer… but is it always correct to look only to him as the sole source?

John Dee: The (almost) Universal Mage Icon

John Dee has been suggested as an inspiration for the character of Soloman, the leader of the fictional scientific utopia of Bensalem, in The New Atlantis. But Rosalie Colie, in her 1955 article, Cornelis Drebbel and Solomon de Caus: Two Jacobean Models for Salomon’s House (Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3, May, 1955), bypassed Dee. Instead she suggested that the Soloman of Bacon’s utopia could have been partially inspired by Cornelis Drebbel, the alchemist and inventor, and his contemporary, Solomon De Caus. This may be correct in part, for the reasons she has given. Mostly her argument is based on the inventions and experiments described in Bensalem, and in that she does have a point. But rather than the model for the leader of New Atlantis, I personally think that Drebbel is more likely the model for the character who relates the story, who visits the island with his fellow shipwrecked crewmates. I feel this way for several reasons. First of all, back to reality: Drebbel was invited to Rudolf II’s court to present the Emperor with one of his perpetual motion clocks, which were the rage of Europe at the time. While there, Drebbel became Rudolf’s chief alchemist, and also, purportedly, the manager and creator of the royal fireworks displays. In 1612, after Rudolf’s brother Matthias usurped Rudolf, Drebbel was briefly jailed, and almost executed. It was with a promise of return, in a letter from King James, that Drebbel was allowed to return safely to London… along with, significantly, a bounty of 1,000 ducats.

Cornelis Drebbel: The (sometimes) Mage Icon

Now it would be expected that this near fatal sojourn of Drebbel’s would be familiar to Bacon… and right around the time that Bacon was apparently formulating the concept of New Atlantis. In fact, the two men had rooms at Eltham Palace, Drebbel for his experiments in perpetual motion and hydraulics and artificial cooling; Bacon for… well don’t we wish we knew, exactly? But it is reported he “had rooms” there, and so would have been familiar with Drebbel and his experiments. But we don’t have to guess, as Bacon did write of several of these… that is, the cooling experiments, and underwater boats. And, of course, as Colie points out, many of these inventions appear in The New Atlantis. In any case, there is a parallel between the protagonist/relater of the New Atlantis story and Drebbel. Both men went away and visited a place where science and experiments were funded by the state. And both came back to report on their experiences there, and both received a bounty from the state on their leaving… Drebbel, as I said, 1,000 ducats, and the New Atlantis narrator, 2,000 ducats.

Rudolf II The (never chosen) Mage Icon

But then if not Drebbel or DeCaus, who would Soloman, the leader and founder of Bensalem, be modeled on? I feel he is more probably based on Rudolf II than John Dee, or Drebbel or De Caus. Like Rudolf, Soloman spent the fortunes of the nation on the pursuit of knowledge, and collected and honored those who achieved great things. The author of the work, Francis Bacon, was promoting the idea that the state should fund scientific experiment, for the ultimate good of its citizens. Rudolf, for all his inconsistency and unpredictability, and his very short reign, was trying to do just this… to collect and use all the scientific and artistic knowledge of the world, to solve problems and improve the state of humanity. Well, that and  to make gold from lead, to fund his armies, and so protect his interests  and position.  Drebbel was more an experimenter in such a system, he was not a leader. Rudolf II was more the model and hope for, I think, a new beginning of state-run scientific funding and experimentation, and I believe he is the true model for Bacon’s Soloman.
Also worthy of mention, with some parallel to the concepts of New Atlantis, is the experience of Tycho Brahe. He was given the island of Hven by the Swedish government, so that he could pursue his experiments in astronomy. This was purportedly at a greater cost to the nation, a full 7% of the national budget, than any previous or later funding of a scientific project. So in this story, we have an island, a scientist, and scientific funding… no doubt this was of great interest, and possible influence, to Bacon, in writing of his similar concepts in his Utopia. And interestingly, Brahe was later welcomed into the court of Rudolf II, pet moose and all. So we might suspect a cross influence on the history of Brahe, to the story of The New Atlantis, even if I am correct and Rudolf was the model for Soloman.
As for Faust, I can’t disagree with an attribution, in part, to Dee. There was an actual Dr. Faust, which historians do believe was a partial basis for the character, while assuming that many of Dee’s attributes filled out the fictional character. Faust plied his magic, but did not run a state, he was not a leader. Faust uses his powers for purely selfish ends. In the Marlowe version, Faust summons two magicians, Valdes and Cornelius, whose names are somewhat reminiscent of Basil Valentine, and Cornelius Drebbel. But I do not know if this has ever been an issue with scholars of Marlowe, and so it is idle musing on my part. At least, again, with his books and magic, the character of Faust is certainly reminiscent of John Dee, and not of Rudolf at all.

Faust! Watch out! He does not play fair!

Drebbel is the accepted influence for the alchemist Subtle of Ben Johnson’s “The Alchemist”. And Johnson had some interest in Drebbel’s work, we know, as he mentions his perpetual machine in another play. The Subtle character has his magic, and his books, but he is more of a charlatan than a respected purveyor of the “Arts”. From what I understand of Drebbel’s reputation at times, he may have owned a bit of a similar, negative reputation. But at least in this instance, the wizard of choice is Drebbel, and not John Dee.

Sir John Geilgud as Prospero... with prop book

Finally, the character of Prospero, the magical “Right Duke of Milan”, is usually attributed to John Dee, and sometimes, in part, to Drebbel. And of course it would be hard to argue with Prospero being slightly autobiographical to Shakespeare, as many surmise. But I see other parallels which point again, for me, to Rudolf II. Prospero, like Rudolf, is a leader of his realm, while a Dee or Drebbel were really servants to the crown, merely participants in the society. I wouldn’t insult the memories of either man with a comparison to either Ariel or Caliban. But like those two characters, they served, and did not lead. It is true that Prospero not only gives orders to his magical assistants, but also uses the “dark arts”, himself. But this alone should not label him “Dee”, as the same could be said of Rudolf, who had a great interest in the alchemic arts, and dabbled in his own experiments, and wandered about in a long robe covered with mystical symbols. Rudolf was somewhat “Dee-like” in his own right.
Of greater interest, and possibly the trump card to my Prospero-is-Rudolf argument, is that Prospero was usurped by his brother, just as Rudolf was usurped by his brother, Matthias. Both men were nobles, who were unjustly thrown from power, and both, by their brothers. Of course the real story of Rudolf II ends there, in tragedy, while the story of Prospero begins 12 years earlier, in tragedy, and ends in triumph. But I don’t think that this coincidence should be ignored, especially considering the others I have noted. In addition, the timing of the play fits precisely… it was first performed in 1611, the same year that Rudolf was forced from power. Seen in this light, the play could be seen as a hopeful, fantastic and imaginative dream, in which Rudolf, as Prospero, regains his throne from his brother.
Unfortunately Rudolf died before the next known performance of the Tempest, which was at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick of the Palatine. But this event also points to Rudolf as Prospero, because Frederick was groomed for, and tragically placed in, the very position Rudolf lost… Holy Roman Emperor… only a few years later. In a sense, if Rudolf failed to attain the retribution which Shakespeare may have imagined in the likeness of Prospero, Frederick succeeded… if all too briefly. The Winter King lost his lands, and the title, in the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. But perhaps the running of this play at the wedding had a hopeful political message for the young couple, and for anyone who knew it was performed there, if I am correct.

Frederick V Elector Palatine & Princess Elizabeth: "Starcrossed" does not come close to describing what happened next.

The historical and contemporary concept of the bearded mage certainly has much to owe to John Dee, but it would be unfair to exclude the powerful influences and contributions to the “wizard lore” that Rudolf II and Cornelis Drebbel made, especially when considering the context at which such wizards were written into literature. All our Prosperos were not, and are not, John Dee. Perhaps not even the original Prospero, the Rightful Duke of Milan… or, should that be of Austria-Hungary?

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7 Responses to “Prospero, who art thou?”

  1. Eric Says:

    William Caxton published Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” in 1485, and this book influenced the Tudor dynasty greatly. In fact, the play “The Misfortunes of Arthur” by Thomas Hughes, was performed for Queen Elizabeth I in 1588. “The Faerie Queene” by Edmund Spenser published in 1590 was a celebration and critique of the Tudor Dynasty. My opinion is that John Dee was heavily influenced by Merlin as artist/mage/councilor to kings, as much as the Tudors were influenced by Camelot and Arthur. As far as appearance, the image of the bearded Merlin was already popular, as seen in Robert de Boron’s “Merlin en prose” illustrations (c.1300), woodcuts from Hartmann Schedel in the Nuremberg Chronicles in 1493, etc.

    • proto57 Says:

      Interesting… I did not think of Dee, himself, being influenced by earlier characters. What you say makes sense. As for Prospero, we are not given guidelines for what he is to look like, only his actions, speech, and history. If Shakespeare envisioned any type, it may have been a Merlin, a Dee, a Rudolf, or even, himself. Thank you for the feedback.

  2. Alan Says:

    Your Rudolf II theory is fun for your stated “trump card”. If you are pursuing the right inspiration, then there is scope, from what I understand of your article, for Drebbel to play the loyal Gonzalo to Rudolf’s Prospero.

    • proto57 Says:

      Thank you for your comments, Alan. I’ll re-read the play in that light, and consider your suggestion. All the best, Rich.

  3. rampagingcurmudgeon Says:

    About the Armadillo
    They may have existed on Indonesian Islands as far back as 12,000 years. “Ebu Gogo” ~~Homo floresiensis ~~
    A hunter is depicted carrying one…

  4. Ragnar Kinzelbach Says:

    The Voynich amadillo is a misinterpretation. The drawing certainly shows a species of aquatic crustaceans of the order Amphipoda, approximately 5 to 10 mm long. Thus it is a proof of the use of a microscope and no one for a New Worls-relation.

    • proto57 Says:

      Ragnar: It does look quite a bit like Amphipoda, I admit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amphipoda Ironically, you are using my microscope theory against my armadillo theory… what should I do? But although it does look like Amphipoda, I still think the ear, eye, legs and tail of the Voynich drawing would tip me toward armadillo again. However, I do not claim to know! Thank you for your input, and great idea. Rich.

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