Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 9

New Science, Old Magic: Dr Dee's Magical Mirror

Shakespeare's plays are filled with spirits. They're usually invisible but they often a key part in the action.

Prospero: Spirits, which by mine art

I have from their confines called to enact

My present fancies.

(The Tempest 4.1.120-2)

Titania: I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee . . .

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed!

(A Midsummer Night's Dream 3.1.148-53)

Lady: Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty.

(Macbeth 1.5.38-41)

Shakespeare's spirits range from the hardworking servants (or do I mean slaves?) of The Tempest, to the flimsy whimsy of Titania's midsummer fairy train (which even then must have been obviously silly), right up to the dark spirits that Lady Macbeth invokes to turn herself into a killer. But in every case the proximity and the influence of a world of spirits are taken for granted.

'You are talking about a society that does believe in ghosts, is frightened of ghosts, is aware of the presence of the devil.'

Greg Doran will be telling us more later about how he conjures spirits into the theatre today. But in the late 16th century, harnessing invisible spirit power was essentially the same kind of challenge as harnessing the invisible power of the wind. It was complicated, you needed to be highly educated, but if you could do it -rather like improving the technology of your ship's sails, the world and its wealth were at your feet. Reaching the spirit realm however, was a touch more complicated than improving your ship.

One of the ways of accessing spirits in the 16th century is here in a case in the British Museum and I'm looking at it now. It's a large round disc of highly polished black stone. It's a mirror and it's said to have belonged to one of the world's most famous practitioners of the occult arts, Dr John Dee. Looking at it, it strikes you as oddly potent, and I'm almost nervous to pick it up. It's smooth, it's gleaming and I can see my reflection in it very clearly. It's made of obsidian, a black volcanic glass, it looks like something modern and industrial but in fact it's well over 500 years old.

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'. As is the way of history, 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 stagely 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. So I asked Professor Lisa Jardine what, in Shakespeare's day, would have distinguished a scientist from a magician?

L Jardine: 'Well, the term they used was a magus and 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'.

N MacGregor: So Dr Dee is in a very real sense is a magus?

L Jardine: 'Dr Dee is a real magus, he's probably our only home-grown Renaissance magus.'

N MacGregor: And what does that mean in Elizabethan England? To be a practising magus?

L Jardine: 'He's somebody who is extremely highly educated in mathematics, in astronomy, in probably languages - classical languages certainly, and who combines those intellectual trainings with a huge capacity to want to operate and control and actually aspire to power.'

With the educated elite, John Dee had the enormous authority of the scientist whose work we don't begin to understand. When physicists and astronomers talk to us today of black holes and negative matter, how can we either believe or disbelieve? Few of us know enough to have any idea whether these matters are true or not. All we do know is that this highly authoritative science apparently shapes our world and that is exactly what John Dee asserted for his understanding of the workings of stars and spirits.

Elizabeth I, a very clever woman, certainly took him seriously. Dee lived at Mortlake, West of London, where I am standing now in a house by the river. The Queen visited him here several times, consulting him about an auspicious date for her coronation and other astrological matters. He also provided some afternoon entertainment for her here using his scientific skills to conjure an optical illusion from a tricksy mirror that, as you moved towards it, gave the most alarming and amusing three-dimensional reflections. Dee's cleverly contrived optical effects produced, we are told, exactly the desired result, to quote: 'her Majestie's great contentment and delight'. It was a typical Dr Dee blend of high science, high society, high-jinks and high theatre.

To many of his contemporaries, Dee's science was little different from sorcery. They feared he was flirting with the Devil, and indeed he was charged with witchcraft. I asked Lisa Jardine what Dee had done to earn such a reputation:

'In his early life Dee showed off by being very clever, mostly doing things like casting horoscopes. He also used his knowledge of mechanics to just dazzle people with the clever things he could do. So in a production of an Aristophanes play at Trinity College, Cambridge, he used a three-pulley arrangement in mechanics to hoist a man and a scarab beetle up to the top of the theatre and everybody fled in dismay thinking he'd done magic.'

In Elizabethan England Dee was a scientific celebrity, the magus that you loved to hate and his reputation clearly stands behind the creation of some great theatrical characters such as Marlowe's damned Dr Faustus and Shakespeare's own master of magical effects, Prospero.

The Tempest is full of elaborate magic directed by Prospero. The play's 'majestic visions', a little like the magic mirror tricks laid on for Elizabeth, are high-end stagecraft: shipwrecks at sea, lavish banquets that appear and vanish in a trice. These are simultaneously theatrical magic for the spectator and the product of some pretty hard science to get it right, and they were possible on stage primarily because Shakespeare's company had around 1608 acquired a second playhouse. Alongside the outdoor Globe theatre, they began to use an indoor space at Blackfriars. Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company explains the impact:

'When they moved inside to the Blackfriars theatre, they had control of light and that's a very important factor. If you can control the light, you can control the effect. In the Globe's stage, in the open air with no lighting effects to speak of, with the audience wrapped all the way around, very very difficult to as it were to hide the strings.'

Indoors at Blackfriars, stage magic reached a new pitch of sophistication in The Tempest. Flying beetles and other effects that had once seen John Dee labelled a conjuror were now easy to achieve and nobody suspected witchcraft, but the ability to surprise remains:

'We needed to spook the audience and as Lady MacBeth left the banquet she picked up one of the candles from the table and suddenly all the candles on the table extinguished, all by themselves. In fact the witches were sitting underneath the table and pulled the wicks through the candles, which is why they went out. They then suddenly pushed all the chairs over from underneath the table and then threw the table in the air and the audience pretty much screamed I have to say.'

Prospero's magic, like Dr Dee's, is much more than light entertainment - with his superior learning Prospero doesn't just whip up storms and banquets, he takes over the island. Magic, any mystification, confers authority and so we shouldn't be surprised that Dee's admired skills as a magus were closely aligned to the structures of Elizabethan power. Lisa Jardine again:

'The Queen was very very highly educated, Elizabeth I was a real intellectual and what she went to Dee about was advice - a lot of advice about where in the new world she might make discoveries, land claims she might make. But the reason that she respected his advice was their mutual intellectual depth and understanding.'

What do we make of Dr Dee advising the Queen on colonial expansion in America? Can we see him as a kind of Under-Secretary for Magic at the Colonial Office? Perhaps. Certainly, watching Caliban or Ariel do Prospero's bidding, the audience can never have been in any doubt that when two worlds meet, he who has the magic has the power. A clever, sophisticated European takes over an island - is this The Tempest, or is it really about England and Spain making conquests in the New World? Shakespeare's audience would certainly have been reminded of recent events on the other side of the Atlantic. Around 1590 Sir Walter Raleigh's settlers, who had tried to establish a colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina, had all perished. A new English colony at Jamestown in Virginia had been established just a few years before The Tempest was first performed. But nobody knew whether it would survive the climate or the natives.

Encounters with natives, like Caliban and Ariel, were always bound to be fraught. American Indians had profound knowledge of their land and its resources, but would scientific knowledge like Dee's overwhelm them? To those who don't understand, science often appears to be magic and it can easily be used as a tool for subjugation. It's a card that the Spaniards had played to great effect in the conquest of Mexico and Peru.

I find it disconcerting holding Dr Dee's mirror to realise that it 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.

Aztec royalty used obsidian mirrors, like this one, as symbols of their power and as a means of seeing into the future, deriving part of their authority from a god they called 'Lord of the Smoking Mirror'. When Spanish science defeated the magic of Mexico, this magical object travelled to Europe where it became part of a different, but disconcertingly similar, structure of knowledge possessed only by a few.

Across the whole of Europe ambitious rulers feted Dee as a magus, consulting him on everything from prospecting in the Americas to predicting the future. In the Imperial Palace at Prague, just as on the lawn at Mortlake, political might paid homage to the power of spirits.

Dr Dee's spirits, like Prospero's, were usually benign, although the spirits in The Tempest do cause a shipwreck. But others could conjure more dangerous, darker forces. In the next programme we'll be with another storm at sea, we will be with the witches trying to drown the King and Queen of Scotland.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

The Tempest (London: Penguin, 2007). ISBN: 978-0-141-01664-1

A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01260-5

Macbeth (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01369-5