"My charms crack not": The Alchemical Structure of The Tempest


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In a previous essay I have discussed Shakespeare's Prospero as an Orpheus figure, as the persuasive rhetorician of mythology who leads mankind from barbarity to civilization through music and eloquence.1 That he might also be an alchemist in The Tempest, which is to say an adept in a science that was more often than not an important aspect of the Renaissance magician's art, should not surprise readers and spectators familiar with the kind of alchemical language we hear spoken throughout the play. One of the original argonauts engaged in the Quest of the Golden Fleece, Orpheus himself, was considered by adepts to be an early alchemist as well as a magician.2 Famous Renaissance magicians who also practiced alchemy as part of their repertoire included Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, Giambattista Della Porta of Naples, and the English alchemist Dr. John Dee, who taught chemistry to Sir Philip Sidney and his group. And, as many scholars have noted in other contexts, Shakespeare's audience probably knew alchemical language as well or better than we in the humanities today understand the language of modem physics and chemistry.3 An important part of the intellectual discourse of the time and widely discussed in hundreds of Renaissance books of secrets, alchemy often served as a familiar poetic metaphor for wit, love, death, religious conversion and salvation, and political reform-and even for the transforming art of poetry itself in the works of such authors as John Skelton, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan, and many others, as Stanton J. Linden has recently argued.4

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