Dee and Shakespeare: The Origins of the Hermetic Revolution in the Elizabethan Theatre

© 2009 by Vincent Bridges and Terry Burns
Republished with permission of Terry Burns.

In 1921, The Occult Review, a British illustrated monthly journal, ran an insightful article entitled “Shakespeare and the Occult” that quite plausibly concluded that many of his plays were unintelligible without an understanding of the esoteric subjects they featured. Today, if you google the words Shakespeare plus Occult, you’ll find over half a million hits. Included are modern Rosicrucian claims that: “No one familiar with esoteric doctrines can have any question as to Shakespeare’s familiarity with the wisdom of the Illuminati.” You’ll also find Jewish community groups studying “Shakespeare, Kabbalah and the Occult.” Dozens of books explore similar connections. From this, we can be fairly safe in concluding that the consensus on Shakespeare’s knowledge of esoteric wisdom is almost unanimous, from scholars to the public.

But that agreement raises the vexing question of how did even a well-educated young provincial with a definite gift for language come by such a wealth of occult knowledge? This question opens the door to the issue of Shakespeare’s identity; and, while it doesn’t prove that the Bard was really someone else (Bacon, or de Vere or even Marlowe) it does suggest that Shakespeare had some kind of secret life, one that brought him into contact with a mentor who could provide him with sources from Holinshead to Aggripa. If we follow the trail of Shakespeare’s esoteric themes and their sources we come to the conclusion that only one library, one knowledgeable teacher, existed for the necessary range of subjects: that of Dr. John Dee.

John Dee was the Einstein of the era, a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer, and occultist, who collected the largest library in England and one of the best in Europe. Dee occupied that middle ground in the history of science where mathematics and magic had not yet split into widely different disciplines, and much of his life was devoted to alchemy, angelic communication and Hermetic philosophy. Beginning in the early 1580s, Dee, along with his “scyer” or clairvoyant Edward Kelley, conducted a years long series of communications with angelic intelligences. In 1583, Dee, Kelley and their families embarked on a kind of apocalyptic missionary journey in which they attempted to enlisted both Stephen I and Rudolph II, the rulers of Poland and The Holy Roman Empire. Dee returned to England in 1589, leaving Edward Kelley behind in Prague, and found his library ransacked and his reputation wrecked. Elizabeth I eventually made him Warden of Christ College, Manchester, where lived until a few before his death in 1609. Kelley apparently died in Prague sometimes during the mid 1590s while attempting to escape from one of Rudolph II’s prisons.

From the work of Joy Hancox, who concluded that Dee was the most likely channel for the sophisticated geometry of the original Elizabethan theatres, we can place Dee and Shakespeare roughly in the same milieu, that of the Burbages and the Globe Theatre. However, even though Dee was in London during Shakespeare’s meteoric rise to fame in the early 1590s, and kept many journals and diaries of visitors and events, there is no mention of the name Shakespeare. If Dee knew Shakespeare, then he knew him under another name and from very different circumstances.

Curiously, some kind of oral or family tradition connecting Edward Kelley and Shakespeare seems to have survived long enough for Elias Ashmole, in the mid 17th century, to pick up on it and in his 1652 anthology dedicate Edward Kelley’s poem “Concerning the Philosopher’s Stone” (Ashmole’s title as well) to Kelley’s “especiall good Friend, G.S. Gent.” Calling William Shakespeare “G.S.” would not be much of a stretch; especially since Shakespeare’s baptism records in Stratford-upon Avon, from April 26, 1564, list his name as “Gulielmus Shaksper.” But if Shakespeare was the “G. S.” of Ashmole’s dedication, how did he become the “especiall” friend of Edward Kelly?

The original title of the 1589 poem was simply: “The praise of vnity for frendship’s sake made by a stranger/ to further his frende his Conceyts.” Since the poem itself is an instructional piece, designed to give insight into a kind of alchemical theatre, then we suppose that the “conceyts,” or conceits in the sense of personal creative endeavors, involve both the theatre and alchemy. Clearly, Kelley is writing to someone who knows the secret, has perhaps actually witnessed the art of transmutation. And just as clearly, that someone is a poet, “nature’s sower,” and a member of the “schoole” mentioned in the poem’s last line.

In Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, the same collection that includes Kelley’s poem, we find an important clue. Ashmole’s commentary on Dee and Kelley’s continental adventures contains a description of Kelley’s transmutation, performed to “gratifie Master Edward Garland and his Brother Francis.” Garland is a name that appears in the same collection of Danish documents that contains the original of Kelley’s Philosopher’s Stone poem. And both brothers turn up in Dee’s diary; indeed Dee refers to several “Garland” brothers; Francis, Edward, and Robert; and a fourth “Garland,” Henry. None have ever been positively identified, even though they’re most frequently described acting as couriers. No archival records in England have ever been found that show a payment to or letter from any of these men; no civic record of any kind lists their names.

Given their roles as couriers, it is quite likely that “Garland” is a code word, and “brothers” meant in the sense of members of an exclusive organization, such as a fraternity or a secret society. So these Brothers of the Garland are lumped together by Dee in his diary as a generic way to refer to these agents, and possibly students. Edward Garland is perhaps the easiest to identify, because his name disappears quickly from Dee’s diary entries to be replaced in the same context with the name of a person we can trace, Edward Dyer.

Dyer was a member of a “schoole,” the “Areopagus” circle around Sir Philip Sidney – whose uncle, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, had been tutored in his youth by Dr. Dee – and as such was certainly known to Dee before he arrived. The transition from Edward Garland, in the early diary entries, to Edward Dyer just over a year later shows how Dee used the concept of the Brothers Garland. They were the couriers, spies and students who were part of a larger group, or school, of poets and playwrights.

Francis Garland continued to appear in Dee’s diaries, including six mentions along with Edward Dyer. In fact a group that included Francis Garland, Joan Kelley’s brother, Edward Dyer, and Dyer’s “man” Rowles left for England just ahead of Dee and his family. If Dyer, an informant for Lord Treasurer Burgley, was indeed one of the witnesses of Kelley’s transmutation, then Burghley’s insistence on getting the now-knighted Sir Edward Kelley away from Rudolph II’s court and back to England becomes clearer. Dyer had seen the trick worked, and had persuaded his superiors so convincingly that when Kelley wouldn’t return, Dyer was dispatched back to Prague to become his student.

But what of Francis Garland? Here’s a man who apparently doesn’t exist outside of his connections to the circle around Dee and Kelley, and mainly appears in Dee’s diary connected with Edward Dyer. As with his “brother” Edward, we can safely assume that his real name wasn’t “Francis Garland.” Could this person be the G. S. or “Gulielmus Shaksper” to whom Ashmole thought Kelley had dedicated his poem on the Philosopher’s Stone? Could Francis Garland, confidant of Dee and Kelley and a witness to an alchemical transmutation, actually be William Shakespeare?

The simple answer seems to be yes.

Comparing the dates when Dee notes Francis Garland in his diaries with the known dates of Shakespeare’s life shows clearly that the idea is impossible to disprove. Most of the dates for Francis Garland fall in what is known as the “Lost Years” of Shakespeare. We know that Shakespeare left Avon around 1585, probably soon the birth of the twins Hamnet and Judith, and we know nothing of what he was doing until the early 1590s when some of his plays were produced. The next firm date we have is April 18, 1593, when his poem Venus and Adonis was registered in London. Francis Garland appears in Dee’s diary from December 1586 through March of 1595, and in all that time we find not a single instance of Shakespeare being somewhere else when Francis Garland was visiting Dee.

In fact, if we assume that Garland is Shakespeare, it appears that he visited Dee before the registration and publication of both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Francis Garland visits Dee on March 17th 1593, and Venus and Adonis is registered on April 18th. Garland visits Dee on March 28th 1594, and The Rape of Lucrece is registered on May 19th. It is tempting to think that the young pupil, Garland/Shakespeare, was showing his mentor his latest works of alchemical poetry; Venus and Adonis in particular is filled with alchemical symbolism. By Garland’s last visit in 1595 it is possible that both Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were finished and read with approval by Dee.

If we make the identification of Dee’s “Francis Garland” with the rising playwright William Shakespeare then most of the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare’s life disappear like actors at the end of a play. A sudden light is thrown on the so-called lost years, and a real person, not a cipher or a mask, emerges. The young Will didn’t waste his time holding horses in front of playhouses and apprentice as an actor; he went directly to the source of the national literary Renaissance; the Sidney group. And in that circle he met Dyer, who was perhaps in need of another bright young poet who could write quickly and cleanly. And so, off to Prague as Francis Garland…

Garland, or Shakespeare, was likely a member of Dee’s inner circle for close to nine years. In the later years, he was Dee’s main point of contact with Kelley, and he was, in light of Kelley’s poem, perhaps even closer to Kelley than Dee. During those years, full of adventure and marvels, we can easily see Shakespeare, or Garland, maturing and learning, absorbing everything, from politics and court protocol to intrigue and esoteric insights, that he would later turn to such good use in his plays.

And what of those plays? If we see Shakespeare as a poet who was also a spy and an occultist, then where did the theatre come from? Perhaps he was already interested in acting and playwriting when he met Dyer, and Dee and Kelley, or perhaps the idea came from Dee, who was known from his youth for being interested in the mechanics of stagecraft. Indeed, many of the standard theatrical devices of the Elizabethan stage, such as ending a show with a curtain drop, apparently have their origins in Dee and Kelley’s angelic workings. It is even likely that Dee designed the “sacred geometry” of the theatre space itself.

When Dee returned to England in December 1589, he found that much had changed. But he still had the Queen’s ear and lost no time in heading to Richmond and her court. Elizabeth would stay in touch, including a private visit to Mortlake in December 1590, where Dee apparently wanted permission, and money, for some unnamed venture. Two days later, a visitor, Richard Cavendish, confirmed her agreement with Dee’s venture in “philosophie and alchemie.”
Early versions of both Spenser’s Fairie Queen and Sidney’s Arcadia had been published since Dee’s return, and young playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe were inventing a new form of literature down in Shoreditch and on Bankside. Even Garland/Shakespeare was at work on a play, Henry VI part one. Perhaps part of Dee’s “philosphie” endeavor was the encouragement of the new theatrical art form, which was indeed allowed to flourish over the next few years until the plague closed the theatres. Dee’s role was of necessity behind the scenes, but Shakespeare/Garland took up front and center stage. By 1594, he was a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and one of the most popular of the rising playwrights.

The rise of Shakespeare’s popularity in the mid-1590s represents a watershed for art, politics and occultism. In the best sense of turning the wheel, this was truly revolutionary. Suddenly, very deep and powerful ideas were turned loose in the public consciousness without the control and interference of the Church. The Elizabethan theatre was essentially a magical theatre, from the sacred geometry of the space in which they were presented to the subject matter and language of the plays themselves. And because of Dr. Dee’s influence, this was a Hermetic revolution.

This Hermetic revolution in the theatrical arts served as the starting point for further revolutions, both political and scientific. The Tempest, whose main character Prospero is thought by some scholars to be based on Dee, and by others on Shakespeare himself, , was performed for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine in 1613. Frederick V would go on to become the King of Bohemia and the leader of the Protestant revolution in central Europe until he was deposed in 1622. This was also the years when the Rosicrucian manifestos were circulating, attracting minds such as that of Liebnitz and leading the way toward the Royal Societies in England and France.

Dee’s work, particularly his Monas Hieroglyphica from 1564, was a major influence on Rosicrucian philosophy, and there are echoes of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosencrutz. Dee and Kelley’s alchemical work and the work of their followers can be seen as the origins of modern chemistry and physics. In the same way, Shakespeare’s plays are the origin point of modern psychology.

Once we begin to see Shakespeare in the light of his years as Francis Garland, and begin to appreciate the deep and long lasting influence of Dee on Shakespeare’s life and development, the outlines of a larger plan emerges. Dr. Dee had lost none of his missionary fervor, which had launched the long exodus to begin with, after his return in 1589. It was simply channeled in a different direction, toward perhaps the growing hermetic revolution in the Elizabethan theatre, spearheaded by his old pupil Garland, or William Shakespeare.

One last point: The 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s works opens with The Tempest. His friends who published it must have known his connection to John Dee and gave the pride of place to the play that makes the point most clearly. From Shakespeare’s point of view, the play can be seen both as a nod toward his old mentor, and as a salute and elegy to his own career as a magician and hermetic revolutionary. Dee could expect no less from a friend like Francis Garland.

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