The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been called 'the golden age of religious hermeticism' (Jean Dagen), a period when alchemy was the greatest passion of the age, and when some of its most prestigious texts were printed. It was also the age of Shakespeare. Alchemy was everywhere in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, and it is not a question of whether Shakespeare was aware of it or not, but to what degree it permeated his thought and writings. In this short book I have explored the significance of Hermeticism, neo-platonism and the ideas of Paracelsus in the intellectual world of Shakespeare's contemporaries; and more particularly, its influence on Shakespeare himself, and on his work. Together with a brief summary of the major Renaissance figures who contributed to the popularity of Hermetic Alchemy, I have considered five plays (King Lear, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest), together with the poems, in order to bring out the alchemical imagery and thought.
Excerpt from Heavenly Alchemy:
The English language itself, as spoken by Shakespeare's contemporaries, was barely two hundred years old. It was a time of exciting and disturbing change, and as the old sureties began to waver thinking people looked around for something to replace them. Hermetic alchemy, with its Neoplatonic concordances and astronomical symmetry, and Paracelsian medicine, less theoretical and remote than Galenic practice, seemed to promise a profounder spiritual recourse, pre-dating all the strife, intolerance and persecution thrown up by the Reformation and Counter- Reformation and, in addition, to hold out the hope of combining true Christianity with expanding scientific knowledge.
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