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Edward Kelley is the central character in Burn Your Bookes. For many, this English alchemist is a personage of mystery, malfeasance and menace. But I find him fascinating and very misunderstood despite his obvious flaws. My grappling with Kelley is what animates the play. Who was he? What was he doing?
Back in 2007, when I was in Prague for five weeks for rehearsals and the four performances of the one-act version of Burn Your Bookes, I found a place to stay in Mala Strana, near one of the houses where Kelley lived when he was a "golden knight" of Emperor Rudolf II's court in the late 16th Century.
There are a few places associated with Kelley still extant in central Prague, including the famous but wildly misnomered "Faust House" on Karlovo náměstí. Kelley owned that house for a time, but there is no connection between the legendary scholar who sold his soul to the Devil and Prague. (Though that didn't, of course, stop filmmaker Jan Švankmajer from setting the beginning of his version of Faust in Prague!)
The other place associated with Kelley is a house on Jánský Vršek in Mala Strana called "At The Donkey in the Cradle." It is linked with Kelley as a place he lived after his first arrest, and its nook on a narrow street in the shadow of Prague Castle seems the perfect location to try and mount a comeback at Rudolf's court. It also has a tower that peeks out over Mala Strana -- and a courtyard with a wine bar and restaurant. (See photo above of thoroughly-chilled playwright at base of tower.)
I rented a place at the bottom of the same street, a few doors away, to stay during my theatrical sojourn in Prague. I also wrote much of the play's third act during that same trip, and the knowledge that Kelley's stepdaughter -- Neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Jane Weston -- likely stayed in that house as well also provided some good vibrations. (Kelley and Weston are the main figures in the third act.)
Prague is the sort of place where one can imagine oneself back into a Renaissance past, especially on a narrow street like Jánský Vršek. But imagining oneself back into Kelley's shoes is a difficult task, for a number of reasons. And as I unfold them below, you will see why I felt trying to get nearer somehow to the places Kelley haunted felt like the right thing to do.
First, there are the layers of mystery and inscrutability that surround all alchemy in this period. Alchemists intentionally made themselves difficult to understand. Charles Nicholl, in the preface to a new edition of his wonderful 1980 book, The Chemical Theatre, puts it best:
I suspect that a measure of bewilderment and exhaustion attends anyone who attempts to unravel the complexities of alchemy. Like all occult systems, alchemy employs a language of symbolism and subterfuge. You enter a linguistic labyrinth full of cross-references and false trails. Its strange and wonderful images -- its green lions and red kings, its nigredos and albedos, its lactating virgins and cannabalistic couplings -- have a multiplicity of interpretations and counter-interpretations. One avoids with difficulty the old scholarly pitfall of ignotum per ignotius, explaining the obscure by the more obscure.
Nicholl is right. The hardest thing about writing Burn Your Bookes was deciding that I needed to find my way out of the labyrinth of researching alchemy and start to actually write the play. And in that writing, I struggled with ways to clarify and simplify without stripping the science alchemical of its complexity and linguistic beauty.
The second hurdle in representing Kelley is navigating the obscurity of much of his early life, untangling the messy strand of the seven years (1582-1589) in which we have a bounty of detail (too much?) about his life, and then plunging back to shape the fragments that have come down to us about his final years.
When Kelley walks into the house of John Dee, one of the most impressive English intellectual figures of the Renaissance era, in early 1582, he literally walks into history. We know almost nothing about him before that moment. He comes under an assumed name (Talbot), offering his services as a scryer (or crystal gazer). We only know his birthdate (August 1, 1555) because Dee casts his horoscope. Dee is suspicious and with good reason. But he also finds Kelley strangely compelling and useful.
From that moment on, thanks to Dee, we have almost 500 pages recording the "spiritual actions" conducted by the two men, first published in 1659 by Meric Causabon as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between John Dee... and Some Spirits. We also have almost 70 pages of Dee's personal diaries, scribbled down in the margins of Johannes Stadius' Ephimerides Novae -- a year by year published chart of planetary positions that also served Dee as a datebook of sorts. (More on this material to come in future posts.)
Act I of Burn Your Bookes examines the end of the Dee and Kelley partnership. When the two men part, the trail of information about Kelley thins out once again. (Nicholl does an incredible job of piecing together what we do know about him in a London Review of Books piece from April 2001. Subscription only, alas.)
Even the date of Kelley's death is uncertain, though Nicholl argues that he died in the castle in the Czech city of Most in late 1597. We do have a letter from Elizabeth Jane Weston to her brother John Francis, written from that city in July 1597, and published in her second book of poetry (Parthenica) referring to their "magnificent Parent" (Kelley) in a way that implies he is still alive. (In a letter from October 1598, however, he is referred to as "our magnificent Parent of blessed memory.") The rest can only be pieced together from legal documents, letters about him and legends.
The legends about Kelley, alas, took the firmest root of all for almost 500 years. The blanks of his early life were filled with lurid tales of necromancy, coining and forgery, and a cropping of his ears at Lancaster -- none of which has been conclusively proven in the documentary record. One must also take into account that both the spiritual and personal diaries of Dee record the relationship from Dee's perspective -- though we do not have much cause to doubt their veracity.
A third difficulty in getting a true read on Kelley is modern scholarship on John Dee, which steadfastly denigrates Kelley to reestablish Dee's reputation as one of the great -- and most interesting intellects -- of the Renaissance.
The project of restoring Dee is a worthy and useful one that was long overdue -- and it has produced some rich and wonderful scholarship. (Nicholas Clulee's John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion and William Sherman's John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance are among the best.) But all too often the scholars who've embarked upon it have cut through the knotty complexities of the relationship between the two men in favor of deriding Kelley, eliding Kelley, or just plain ignoring him.
Unless one actually does believe that spirits were talking to John Dee through Edward Kelley, it is hard to dismiss the centrality of Kelley to the joint enterprise. But the more vexing question for those who denigrate Kelley as a charlatan or a fraud is that while Dee was eventually sent packing back to England, his former scryer was knighted and moved for a time in the highest circles of Rudolfine Prague.
And what complicates the question further? Contemporary scholarship has largely established that Kelley's first arrest may well have been -- at least in part -- a sort of "protective custody" to prevent him fleeing back to England with courtier and poet Edward Dyer, who was placed under arrest in Kelley's house at the same time that the alchemist was being pursued in South Bohemia and finally arrested in Soběslav. Nicholl posits that Kelley's second and final arrest and imprisonment was because of a duel or debts.
In neither case, however, does it appear that Kelley arrested for alchemical fraud. So the
question is: What was Edward Kelley doing? In the next post, I'll talk a bit about the best theory that has emerged, and what it might mean to our understanding of Kelley.