Did Shakespeare model Prospero on this man?
Dr Dee was an astrologer and mathematician who became an influential scholar in Elizabeth I’s court. As the royal astrologer, he advised the queen, Francis Walsingham, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake on matters ranging from national security to navigation at sea. Dr Dee was even consulted to find the most auspicious day for Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559. With ambassadorial appointments from the English queen, Dr Dee also travelled widely in European courts. He was not, however, popular with John Foxe: the author of the Book of Martyrs referred to him as an ‘Arch Conjuror’ and ‘caller of Devils’.
Dr Dee’s reputation as a learned and powerful magician extended into the public playhouses. It is thought he was the model for such characters as Faustus in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the three con-artists in Jonson’s The Alchemist and Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero, the duke wronged by his perfidious brother Antonio, is also dedicated to ‘secret studies’:
My brother and thy uncle, called Antonio— I pray thee, mark me— that a brother should Be so perfidious!— he whom next thyself Of all the world I loved and to him put The manage of my state, as at that time Through all the signories it was the first And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed In dignity, and for the liberal arts Without a parallel. Those being all my study, The government I cast upon my brother And to my state grew stranger, being transported And rapt in secret studies.
(Act 1 Scene 2)
While on the island, it is his art which gives Prospero power over the elements and over Ariel and Caliban. His books are the source of his power and Caliban attempts to burn them as part of Trinculo and Stephano’s plan to take over the island:
First to possess his books, for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command. They all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.
(Act 3 Scene 2)
Like Prospero, who called his library ‘dukedom large enough’, Dr Dee also loved books. On 15 January 1556, he presented plans for a national library to Mary I. Although his plans did not result in the national library he envisaged, he developed his personal library into an extensive collection of prized manuscripts and books. It drew scholars from around England and Europe, and the collection was said to be the largest and finest in Europe.