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Dee, John

Entry updated 13 February 2023. Tagged: Theme, People.

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(1527-1609) UK mathematician, astrologer, cartographer, Neoplatonist and Hermetic philosopher influential in the complex currents of the sixteenth-century English Renaissance; along with figures like Roger Bacon, he is an underlying model for later generations of the magus: half-Scientist, half-sorcerer. Because Dee stands on the cusp of worlds, and because of the passion with which he attempted to arrive at the truth behind the sleep of matter, he has attracted some attention over the centuries, though the first known Proto-Sf reference to him, in Margaret Cavendish's The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666), is disparaging, and his reputation was put into eclipse for a century after the publication of William Godwin's Lives of the Necromancers (1834), which vilified him. In addition to his own original investigations, Dee also amassed an immensely important library (larger than contemporary libraries at either Cambridge or Oxford); though it was looted and dispersed on various occasions, much of it survives in the British Library and elsewhere.

Dee gained an early reputation through his invention in 1546 of a mechanical flying beetle for a production of Aristophanes's Peace. His travels through Europe began as early as 1547, when he met (and was influenced by) Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594); in 1577 he was the first person to refer to the British Empire, and later (circa 1580) he created for the Crown deeply influential charts of newly discovered countries. He drew horoscopes for Mary Tudor after she became queen in 1553, and gave Elizabeth I astrological advice as to the best date for her coronation ceremony in 1559. His interest in Hermetic philosophy grew throughout his life, and he published prolifically, beginning with Monas Hieroglyphica ["The Hieroglyphic Monad"] (1564 Antwerp), an occult dissertation on the nature of mathematical form as understood through the Cabbala; he proposed that a single hieroglyph (which represented all the planets in an astrally significant shape) reflected the "monas" (or Oneness) of the world (see Cosmology; Eschatology), and that through this hieroglyph the mind might gain some sight of a portal into that Oneness, which is Heaven.

Like so many speculative thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dee was what Arthur Koestler called a Sleepwalker – one of the visionaries who created the modern measurement-governed world through their attempts better to explore the prescriptive contours of the old. Dee's involvement in occult matters – scrying, receipt of messages from angels – combined credulity and an intellectual passion for discerning patterns in the universe. There is no evidence that Dee ever met Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), though Bruno certainly knew Dee's work; nor is there evidence that he met William Shakespeare (1564-1616), though he tutored Fulke Greville (1554-1628), who declared himself "master to William Shakespeare", and it has more than once been suggested that the character of Prospero in The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) is a portrait of Dee. In Theatre of the World (1969) and more sustainedly in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979), Frances A Yates argues that the Elizabethan theatre was what might be called a Body English of Renaissance hermeticism, specifically Vitruvian Cosmology, an outcome anticipated by Dee and instaurated by Robert Fludd (1574-1637) as a literal rendering of his memory theatre. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), Ted Hughes argues that Shakespeare must have been familiar with the work of both Dee and Bruno.

Of literary responses to Dee and his Icon status, Guy Fawkes (January 1840-November 1841 Bentley's Miscellany; 1841) by W Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) gives him a sorcerous role in the Gunpowder Plot; Gustav Meyrink's Der Engel Vom Westlichen Fenster (1927; trans Mike Mitchell as The Angel of the West Window 1991) makes effective use of Dee's Prague years in a complex tale involving his haunting of a contemporary man. Dee shapes the perception of reality of the protagonists of Helen Simpson's Maid No More (1940), set in the seventeenth century; he makes an appearance in Michael Moorcock's Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen (1978; rev 1993), and his Mirror haunts a contemporary investigator in The Devil's Looking-Glass (1985) by Simon Rees (1958-    ). The most sustained fictional investigation of Dee's actual life and purported findings can be found in John Crowley's Ægypt sequence, where he is the subject of at least two fictional books written by Fellowes Kraft, and in which Dee and Bruno do meet; he is also central to Crowley's later Flint and Mirror (2018). Dee is important to Mercurius, or The Marriage of Heaven & Earth (1990) by Patrick Harpur; the contemporary protagonist of Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee (1993) comes to fear that he embodies the spirit of a homunculus created by the magus; Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door (2002) has Dee help Rabbi Loew create a Golem in Prague; in The Poison Master (2003) by Liz Williams, Dee is portrayed obsessively planning to visit the Stars; an opera, Dr Dee (2011) by Damon Albarn (1968-    ), frontman and songwriter for the Britpop group Blur and currently for Gorillaz, treats Dee's life as a Faustian tragedy; in the Swords of Albion sequence (2009-2012) by Mark Chadbourn (1960-    ), Dee appears as a spy and conjuror who uses his supernatural powers to create potentially world-changing Inventions; in Rebecca Alexander's The Secrets of Life and Death (2013), Dee becomes involved with Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), serial killer and (it may be) Vampire. [JC]

John Dee

born London: 13 July 1527

died London: 26 March 1609

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