The British Empire — a thing culled from Arthurian legends whispered between Faerie Queenes and court astrologers — stood for a time as proof of magic’s power. ‘Twas a rabbit pulled from the hat of Elizabeth I’s wizard-friend John Dee. The same rabbit that draws Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Enlisted as Her Majesty’s spymaster — indeed, he was the original secret agent, Mr. 007 himself — Dee stormed the reality studio, made Elizabeth a Time Traveler, conversed with angels.
And this thing Dee dreamt into being was of course a terrible thing: an expansionist project armed with ships of fools and launched outward to seize others — other persons, other worlds — for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
Literary greats went on to reimagine Dee just as he himself was a reimagining of Merlin. Shakespeare figures him as Prospero, and against him imagines the colonized subject Caliban. To overthrow Prospero, says Caliban, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot.”
Christopher Marlowe supplies the more influential imagining of Dee, however, by casting him as Doctor Faustus.
Among the more fearsome of the precursors to what follows is John Dee, the great Renaissance spymaster, court magician and inventor of the British Empire. Filmmaker Derek Jarman is just one of several artists to have made much of Dee in recent decades. In fact, Dee appears repeatedly throughout Jarman’s oeuvre. We first meet Dee, for instance, in Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, where he operates as a kind of early-modern Doc Brown. At Her Majesty’s behest, the Dee of that film works up a spell that sends Queen Elizabeth I 400 years into the future–i.e., to London in the age of punk. And what begins in Jubilee continues in the films that follow, with Dee cropping up again the very next year by way of Shakespeare’s famous magician character Prospero. The latter wields a wand modeled upon Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in Jarman’s adaptation of The Tempest (1979). Nor is this the last of Dee’s appearances in Jarman’s catalog. He also turns up as muse, for example, in a film named after Dee and Kelley’s famous scrying experiments, The Angelic Conversation (1987). Nor was Jarman alone in thinking highly of Dee. The latter captured the imaginations of several of Jarman’s contemporaries. To mention just two examples: Dee appears as a character in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen; and comics artist Alan Moore wrote a libretto about him. For Jarman’s own reflections on his interest in Dee and in related topics like alchemy, see his memoir Dancing Ledge.