Ted Hughes, 'An Alchemy' and Shakespeare.

Ann Skea

Part of this paper was presented at the British Library Symposium on Ted Hughes's Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity on September 15th, 2023.

NOTE: Because of the limits placed on quotations by copyright laws, the reader will need a copy of the poem in front of them. Hughes’ much later and far more detailed exposition of his theory in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (Faber 1991) is also frequently referred to in order to elucidate some of the puzzles of the poem. Quotations from 'An Alchemy' (THCP 279–282) are shown in bold italics.

When Ted wrote ‘An Alchemy’ for a Limited Edition anthology to be published by the Globe Theatre Trust, he expected that readers would recognise Shakespeare’s characters and would be familiar with the plays in which they appeared.

The curious structure of his poem, however, with its staggered lines and lack of punctuation, makes strange connections between characters from different plays. In effect, Ted was creating an Alchemical matrix, which was the ‘Base Matter’ from which he intended to produce the Alchemical ‘Gold’ of his belief in the Alchemical nature of Shakespeare’s works.

He saw Shakespeare’s works as ‘ritual, transformative drama’, and when he sent a copy of his poem to Peter Redgrove in 1973 , he told him that the it derived from his ‘note to my selection of Shakespearev’ Verse – about the unity of the poetic theme’1. Almost 20 years later, he would expound that theme in detail in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being but he had already decided, as he told Redgrove, that ‘Not one scholar in a hundred knows Shakespeare well enough to guess whether I have something or haven’t. Not one in a hundred of those hundreds has the nose for poetry to know what I’m distinguishing in the total Himalayas of Shakespeare’s ore’2.

Hughes was not interested in the worldly, laboratory–based alchemy from which modern chemistry derives. His interest was in the spiritual alchemy which began in Italy when, in 1460, Cosimo de Medici, instructed Marsilio Ficino to translate an ancient Greek document, purportedly based on the writings of an Egyptian sage know as Hermes Trismegistus. These Hermetic writings were taken up and further developed by Pico della Mirandola, and, especially, by the Franciscan friar, philosopher and poet, Giordano Bruno, who brought his teachings to England in 1583.

Spiritual alchemy, is based on the Hermetic principle ‘As Above: So Below’. It seeks to break down the Base Matter of human nature in order to free it from its impurities and release the Divine Spark (the ‘Gold’) which is embodied in every human. It involves a continuous process of examination and reformation.

But in Bruno’s time, which was also Shakespeare’s time, to undertake alchemy in any form was dangerous. The changes produced by an alchemist in a laboratory seemed like magic; and the emphasis in spiritual alchemy on the ability of a human being to change their Divinely allotted place in life skirted very close to heresy, for which Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. Alchemical texts, therefore, were written in code, using symbols, metaphor, story–telling, and, especially, poetry.

Iconic alchemical images represent progressive stages in the cyclical process of alchemical purification: The killing of the King (as in Macbeth for example) precedes the dissolution and putrefaction of the Base Matter into a black Crow–like chaos called ‘the Nigredo’. There, the Toad spews out its poisons (Shakespeare’s Richard III is repeated called a ‘foul toad’). The dove of Divine spirit (the Gold) repeatedly flies from the flask and is returned for further purification, until ‘the Chemical Marriage’ of purified, balanced, Male and Female essences is achieved – as in the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, which in the masque in The Tempest gets Divine blessing. This alchemical marriage heralds a new and purer beginning, just as is foretold at the end of many of Shakespeare’s plays.

In alchemy, the interaction of Body and Spirit (represented by Sulphur and Mercury) is essential in the repeated purifying process of dissolution and reformation, but there is also an essential secret ingredient, without which the ‘Gold’ cannot be achieved. In laboratory alchemy it is sometimes called ‘Red Mercury’ (Wikipedia offers a modern interpretation of Red Mercury). In spiritual alchemy the secret ingredient is Pure Unconditional Love.

A doctrine of Love, however, is easily open to misinterpretation, as Hughes showed in the ministrations of the changeling Reverend Lumb in Gaudete. And in our world, as Shakespeare vividly shows in his plays, love is distorted by religion, culture, power, lust and jealousy. It is this aspect of the plays, and the ‘developing sequence’ of Shakespeare’s alchemical ritual, that shapes Hughes’ poem,‘An Alchemy’.

For Hughes and, as he believed, for Shakespeare, the active alchemical agent, representing both Mercury and Sulphur in various forms, was the Goddess – Nature – with her universal creative and destructive powers. Especially, as she works within us through our emotions, ambitions, pretensions, deviance, failings, empathy and love. In Shakespeare’s work, Hughes believed she was present in all her forms – Sacred Bride (Venus/Diana/Aphrodite), Divine Mother (Juno/Hera), and Hag (Hecate/Queen of Hell). And she is present in the many elemental and psychological tempests of Shakespeare’s plays.

In the early part of Hughes’ poem, he uses the vitriolic nature of Tamora from Titus Andronicus (Salt Tamora – the Goddess as Queen of Hell) to break down characters who distort and abuse Love. The Moor / Aaron, rapacious Tarquin, Puritan Icicle Angelo, power–hungry Richard III, and justice–and–ducat loving, Shylock, for example. And he ends that section with the release of a mourning dove – the dove of the Love Goddess Aphrodite.

Flittering dove

A detailed discussion of the first part of ‘An Alchemy’ is published on the ‘Online First’ webpages of Intellect Discover Book 2.0 at https://intellectdiscover.com/content/journals/10.1386/btwo_00087_1

This early part of the poem constitutes the first stage of Hughes’ alchemical work, but since Aphrodite’s dove can only ‘flitter’, ‘mourning’ from the Base Matter in the alchemical flask, and is not a bird in firm and steady flight, the alchemical process of purification must continue.

The next alchemical steps take place in the lines from Ancestral her sourcery to Who came again. These eleven lines are steeped in references to sorcery and herbal lore. They refer to the characters and plays in which, as Hughes outlines in Shakespeare and the Goddess… , the Goddess, in her triple aspects, is very clearly the active alchemical agent of change.

Our ‘Ancestral’ sorcerer and healer is the Goddess, Nature, and it is her herbal remedies that ‘Helena the Healer’, in All’s Well that Ends Well has inherited from her father and uses to cure the King3.

Helena, who loves Bertram, regardless of his rejection of her and his lustful pursuits4, worships at the altar of ‘Diana5. She discusses chastity often in the play, and chastity, Hughes wrote later, ‘signifies the dedicated spiritual aspect of ‘total unconditional love’’ (SGCB 218). It is Bertram’s impure Spirit which must be alchemically purged, just as must that of ‘Angelo’ in Measure for Measure, who rejects Mariana’s unconditional love and flouts his own Puritanical laws. Androgyne Both are tricked, by their own lust and by the subterfuges of the women, who represent ‘Diana, her owl side’, into sleeping, under cover of darkness, with the constant, loving woman each had rejected and, thereby, uniting, Male and Female essences to create the alchemical androgyne, which represents ‘spiritual (winged) potentiality’6.

It is the Goddess who provides the link, in Hughes’ poem, between Angelo, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Othello’, and it is ‘Hamlet’ and Othello on whom Hughes believed she works as the Queen of Hell.

Hamlet and Othello differ from Angelo in that both love the woman they reject. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia and Othello’s love for Desdemona is, as Hughes wrote in Shakespeare and the Goddess… ‘unconditional love’(SGCB 216, 228). Yet both are led to believe that a woman’s love cannot be trusted.

The Ghost, with the information that Hamlet’s mother has married his father’s murderer (and Brother), presents his son with the double vision – the loved and the loathed woman within the one body of the mother.… Hamlet cannot separate Ophelia from his mother. He accuses her of possessing the same treacherous nature by virtue of being female.(SGCB 133–4).

Othello loves Desdemona and she him [but] Iago … the emissary of Hell, pours his sexual cynicism into Othello’s as–if–sleeping ear… with the sibylline handkerchief, Iago makes the double vision seem real… ..Othello rises mad with his purpose to kill Desdemona.(SGCB 228).

Both the Ghost and Iago are, in Hughes’ analysis, cold, manipulative emissaries of the Queen of Hell.

However, it was not Angelo who ‘walled up’ Ophelia, as Hughes’ linked lines might suggest. Ophelia is not ‘walled up’ in a nunnery, as Hamlet tells her to be; or by her brother’s urging that she be wary of Hamlet’s professions of love; and not by her father, who charges her to have nothing more to do with Hamlet; but metaphorically, she is ‘walled up’ by Nature from her distress over Hamlet’s cruel rejection of her and from her grief for her father’s death. As Laertes says,

Nature is fine in love; and where t’is fine
It sends some precious instance of itself
After the thing it loves. (Hamlet IV v 155–7)

After Polonius’s hurried burial, Ophelia appears ‘fantastically drest with Straws and Flowers’7. She sings of Hecate’s world of death and the grave. And the flowers she gathers are Nature’s medicinal herbs.

Even the unlearned among Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with herbal medicine and would have known the common folk–names and usages of at least some of Ophelia’s flowers. Ophelia describes some of these: Rosemary ‘that’s for remembrance’; Rue, for regret, ‘we may call it herb–grace o’Sundays’; and pansies (Heartsease) ‘that’s for thoughts’ (IV v 68–77). Some of her flowers are specifically associated with the Goddess and with love: pansies and columbine (Granny’s bonnet) are both sacred to Venus. Daisies (Bruiswort) were used by girls in the divinatory, petal–counting of ‘He loves me: He loves me not’ and were common in Mayday garlands. Fragile violets, like pansies, were used in love–spells and for healing; and Giant Fennel once made the thyrsus – the wands of the Dionysian bacchants. All these plants were, and still are, used in herbal medicine. Even nettles (Devil’s claw) have long been used to help rheumatic pain (if you roll in them)8.

Willow, the branch of which broke and tipped Ophelia into the ‘weeping brook’, is Hecate’s tree of enchantment, sorcery and witchcraft9. In the water, ‘she chanted snatches of old tunes’ and, as Gertrude says, lay ‘like a creature native and indu’d / unto that element’ before merging with water and earth in ‘muddy death’. (IV vii 180–6 ). A fine alchemical ‘dissolution’ into the four elements: air (Ophelia’s singing), fire (Hecate’s witchy tree), earth and water.

Willow Willow’ is not one of Ophelia’s songs. It is sung by Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, The Moor of Venice. And it was the Goddess, like the mourning dove earlier in Hughes’ poem, who ‘wept’ for the death of these innocent women, and for the impurities of Love and Spirit which cause their deaths. In Shakespeare and the Goddess…, Hughes writes of the ‘special pathos’ of Ophelia’s helplessness, which ’is inseparable from the cut and wilting flowers’; and he sees her role as being to ‘register the human cost, the metaphysical cost to the soul (to the hero’s own soul)’ of rejecting Love (SGCB 239).

The same could be said of Desdemona’s plight. She calls her willow song ‘an old thing’ sung by a forsaken maid, ‘but it expresses her fortune / And she died singing it’ (IV iii 28–9 ). So, too, does it express Desdemona’s misfortune.

Othello is a hero who has, indeed ‘lopped his rivals’ both in war and in love, but The Queen of Hell reveals his imperfections. His military skills link him to ‘Fortinbras’, the son of the king of Norway who was killed by Hamlet’s father in the battle for Denmark. Young Fortinbras (whose name means ‘strong–arm’) has not ‘lopped his rivals’ but he is soldier – a man carrying a sword and ‘steeled’ for battle – and a man who will, as Hamlet says (perhaps ironically) ‘find quarrel in a straw / when honour is at stake’(IV iv 51–3). In Hamlet, he completes Nature’s uroboric circle of death and rebirth by taking back the Kingdom of Denmark which was originally taken from his father:

For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me. (V ii 375–7)

Steel, however, is an amalgam of iron and carbon which also contains traces of other elements. It is not a pure metal – not alchemical ‘Gold’ – so, alchemically, it must still be tested and purified.

In Hamlet, the Goddess’s herbal poisons kill many of the characters. ‘Gertrude’, however, throughout the play demonstrates unconditional love. She loved Hamlet’s father: ‘she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on’ (I ii 143–5). She loves Hamlet’s uncle unquestioningly until Hamlet tells her of his guilt. And she is a truly loving mother to Hamlet, even in his seeming madness. Her death is accidental and self–administered. So, as the Mother Goddess, she ‘Came again’ in Shakespeare’s plays in different forms.

There is numerology here in these 11 lines, too: 10 (a complete cycle) + 1 (a new beginning). Nature’s Uroborus eats its tail, and the alchemical process begins again.


For Hughes, as early as 1973, when this poem was first published, it was the Goddess, in all her forms, that he saw as the chief alchemical agent in Shakespeare’s works. There, she is not just the ‘Vitriol’ – the dissolving ‘Salt’ of the first part of Hughes’ poem, and the potent ‘ancestral sorcerer’, Nature, of the second, she is also the Androgyne which, for alchemists, embodies ‘the two corresponding powers of the soul’ and ‘the two forces or poles of human nature (the Sulphur and Quicksilver [Mercury] of inward alchemical work)’10.

She ‘came again’ in the next lines of ‘An Alchemy’, ‘rising’ as the chaste ‘Desdemona’, the ‘Sacred Bride’, who, unlike her maid, Emilia, cannot believe any woman who truly loves her husband could ‘abuse her husband in such gross kindv as to ‘couch’ with another man (IV iii 66). She is also Isabella, the (almost) ‘Nun of Vienna’ who, like Circe (who turned Ulysses’ men into swine), uses Angelo’s swinish nature to destroy him before redeeming him in his acceptance of Mariana – thus heralding the advent of the Love Goddess’s ‘ring–dove’.

She is also Hecate, the Moon Goddess, who in Shakespeare’s plays causes the cosmic disturbances which are reflected in the madness and the mental disorders of his characters, and are spoken of frequently as omens portending chaos, such as the social upheaval and jealousy which pervade Caesar’s world.

In The Tempest, Prospero’s magic creates the tempest that brings Shakespeare’s shipwrecked characters to the island where the Great Witch, Sycorax, rules. But when Sycorax’s power is overcome and Miranda and Ferdinand are finally joined it becomes an island of love – ‘Venus’s Island’.

As ‘the Blue Hag Hecate’, the Goddess stirs the storm in which Macbeth first meets the three ‘weird sisters’. Hughes describes them in Shakespeare and the Goddess… as representing ‘the Queen of Hell in her most virulent form’(SGCB 234). Shakespeare’s Hecate, ‘the close contriver of all harms’(III v 6), calls Macbeth ‘a wayward son / Spiteful and wrathful; who, as others do, / Loves for his own ends’(III v 11–13), and it is her witches and Macbeth’s equally diabolical wife who work on the doubleness in his nature to turn him from the ‘noble’ ‘peerless kinsman’(I iv 58) of ‘Saintly Duncan’ into a Tarquinian murderer.

There is doubleness throughout Macbeth, where ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’(I 11), and it is Macbeth’s recognition of his own evil nature, the knowledge of his ‘false heart’ and of the evil he has done, that tips him into near–madness – to seeing ‘daggers of the mind’ – and ultimately destroys him:

It is the bloody business informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one half–world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings; and wither’d murder,
Alarm’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his steady pace
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. (II i 50–6)

Alchemically, it is significant that rather than directly destroy Macbeth the Goddess deflects ‘the dagger’ to saintly Duncan in his ‘Sanctum’. So, Macbeth’s knowledge of his sins includes his own treasonous and sacrilegious murder of an anointed King. It is alchemically necessary, too, that the impure King must die and from his death a new King will be born. Macduff, who kills Macbeth, destroys the impure King, and by his death becomes the new, potentially purer King. Macduff was ‘of no woman born’(V viii 36), and his caesarean birth – technically a virgin birth – links him, mythologically, to the Divine.

An early alchemical treatise translated by Janus Lacinius Therapus the Calabrian describes the stages of the alchemical process. It includes eight allegorical images in three of which the King is killed, the killer joins him in the grave, and from their bones a new King arises, ‘full of the grace of God’11:

Killing the King

This is the alchemical pattern of dissolution and recreation (‘dissolve and coagulate’) which is present in Macbeth, as it is, too, in Richard III, Hamlet and King Lear.

Nor is it just in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that the ‘crown’s contagion’ reflects the doubleness in human nature which alchemy must address. It is there, too, in the rivalries for the crown which pervade King Lear. Hughes’ references to this play end this section of the poem with mention of ‘Gloucester’, ‘Cordelia’ and ‘Lear’, but the linked lines ‘Cordelia guiding / Blinded Gloucester’ seem problematic.

In King Lear, it is not Cordelia who guides the blinded Gloucester, but first an old man, then Gloucester’s banished, illegitimate son, Edgar.

Gloucester’s blinding is an extreme example of the terrible results of double nature in many of the characters in King Lear. It is also a metaphor for Lear’s own blindness in the way he values his sons: ‘I stumbled when I saw’ he tells the old man, recognising Edgar’s betrayal of him. It is almost immediately after Lear meets Gloucester, recognises his voice and learns of his blindness, that, mixing ‘Reason in madness’, he describes himself as ‘cut to the brains’(IV vi 72, 192), which in ‘An Alchemy’, becomes ‘Cutting to the brain’.

Cordelia, as the exemplar of unconditional love, could be seen as a guide for those watching or reading King Lear; but the simple phrase,‘Cordelia guiding’, belies the importance Hughes attached to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s alchemy. Hughes explained this in detail in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, the original title for which was ‘The Silence of Cordelia’, because, as he wrote to Keith Sagar: ‘Cordelia’s silence. The key to the whole complex’12.

In that work, Hughes wrote that ‘Shakespeare always presents as the natural path towards the heart’s truth, that ‘matter of the heart’ which will finally reject words’(SGCB 278); and Cordelia fails to find words to express her love for Lear, because ‘Nothing can pretend to express the truth’(SGCB 277). ‘Ordinary words’ he wrote‘are inherently false but can encompass the truth in their fashion’… ‘glanced at crookedly, as by the Fool in King Lear’(SGCB 278).

It is the Fool who points out Lear’s errors of judgment, telling him soon after his division of the crown: ‘thou had’st little wit in thy bald crown when though gavest thy golden one away’(I iv 157–8). And Lear’s ‘under–crown lightning’ – his madness – begins when both Regan and Goneril drive him away.

The most powerful dissolution in this section of ‘An Alchemy’, and in Shakespeare’s play, is the madness of Lear, caused by his own misinterpretations of love, his rejection of Cordelia’s ‘unconditonal love’, and by his obstinacy and pride. Hughes places the blame firmly on the Goddess in her retributive form as ‘The Boar’, something he only explains fully in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. It is she who alchemically dissolves and re–constitutes Lear. The storm is hers: ‘The lightnings are heavenly fires and suffering of rejected Divine Love, alias the rage of the Boar’(SGCB 274); and Lear’s madness – ‘the charge of the Boar’ – is, ‘a psychological event, a shock wave of death–rebirth’(SGCB 383). Her presence as Nightmare, with her ‘nine–fold’ minions, is attested to in the play by Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom where he invokes Saint Swithin to banish her13:

Saint Withhold footed thrice the ’old;
He met the night–mare and her nine–fold;
Bid her alight,
And her troth plight,
And, aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!br /> (III iv 115–9)

In Hughes’ poem, it is ‘The Boar’s Moons’ that are ‘mangling’ Lear’s ‘sainted flesh’ (‘sainted’ because he is an anointed King). In Shakespeare’s play, Gloucester refers to the evil portent of ‘the late eclipses of the sun and moon’( I ii 97); references to devils and fiends abound; and it is the Goddess’s poisonous herbs – ‘Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow / In our sustaining corn’(IV iv 5) that Lear is seen wearing before Cordelia finally meets him again.

Cordelia, for Hughes, demonstrates ‘total, unconditional love’, and she does, in the end, guide her father to an understanding of what Love truly is. Once they are re–united, his ‘great rage’ is ‘kill’d in him‘ and he becomes like a child again and begs her forgiveness:

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness:
(V ii 79; V iii 10–12)

At the end of Shakespeare’s play, both die and a new order is established; but in ‘An Alchemy’ Hughes ends this section of his poem with the single line ‘Lear Furens’ – Lear Raging.


The next eleven lines of Hughes’ poem form another complete alchemically cycle, dissolving Lear’s rage in an alchemical process in which he enters the Nigredo, the dissolution in Raven–like darkness.

He has ‘plucked out’ his ‘dog–hearted daughters’, ‘Regan’… and ‘boarish’ ‘Goneril’(IV iii 45; III vii 57). He has rejected the daughter he ‘loved most’, because she ‘could not heave [her] heart into her mouth’ (I i 89–90), so she who had been ‘his Joy’ ‘vanished’, until they are re–united and he recognises the truth worth of her love.

Ring dove

At this point in Shakespeare’s play, she dies, but the ‘warm body’ in Lear’s arms, in the linked lines of Hughes’ poem – becomes, alchemically, the warm body of the ‘Rock–dove of Aphrodite’, Goddess of Love – thus completing another alchemical cycle of death and rebirth. So, yet again, the alchemical bird of the Sprit flies from the darkness. It leaves ‘a feather only’, but this is a symbol of hope, and also a sign that more alchemical work still needs to be done.

A single line follows, which, although isolated by the pattern in which the lines before and after it are grouped, links Aphrodite’s feather – the germ of alchemical ‘Gold’ – first to ‘Timon’, then to ‘Coriolanus’, and then to others in the fifteen lies which follow it. In Shakespeare and the Goddess, Hughes brings together Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleoplatra, as he does in ‘An Alchemy’, calling them ‘the drama of a period of transitions’ in which the ‘Gnostic redemption of the hero and heroine together’ is foreshadowed (SGCB 283).

This alchemical ‘marriage’ of the male and female elements (the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’) of the increasingly purified Base Matter is a necessary stage in the alchemical work.

King and Queen

For Timon, in Timon of Athens, this is not possible. There is no female heroine in the play and Timon’s ‘unconditional love’ is for Athens and its citizens, until the treachery of those he had believed to be his friends enrages him and he abandons Athens to exist in a cave in the woods.

Hughes called Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens ‘a vision of the meaningless absurd appetites of despiritualized mankind’(SGCB 288). Timon, whose ‘need for social love of his friends’ induced him to lavish his gold (his money and, metaphorically, his Soul) on them, has no ‘spiritual passion’ – nothing the alchemical art can work on. His reliance on nature to support him in his cave does not redeem him, instea, he gives the gold he finds there to General Alcibides to make war on Athens and its people, with the words ‘There’s more gold: – / Do you damn others and let it damn you / And ditches grave you all’(IV iii 65). So, Aphrodite’s feather, like Timon himself (as the linkage of lines in ‘An Alchemy’ suggests), is ‘damned with gold’.

However, Shakespeare ends his play with recognition not only of Timon’s ‘soul bereft’ ‘latter spirits’ but also with a note of hope. Timon’s death, ‘entomb’d upon the very hem of the sea’ returns him, alchemically, to the mother waters of the alembic; and there is hope, too, in Alcibides’ change–of–heart and his vow to ‘Make war breed peace; make peace stint war, make each /Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech’(V iv 80–1).

Coriolanus, like Timon, focuses his love on a city (Rome) and its people until they reject him. He, too, turns violently against his former love but, as Hughes wrote in Shakespeare and the Goddess… : ‘Coriolanus’s Rome contains the essential nucleus that Timon’s Athens lacked: the female embodiment of the hero’s soul and love’: his wife, Virgilia, and his mother, Volumnia(SGCB 293). These women embody the female essence of alchemy and represent ‘unconditional love’. It is their love which stems Coriolanus’s rage and rouses enough love in him to turn him from his intended destruction of Rome. So, love brings a meeting between the female and male parts of Coriolanus’ own nature, and, although he dies, the germ of alchemical ‘Gold’ that ‘carried Coriolanus’ to this condition remains.

The next fourteen lines of this poem are difficult to interpret. Much later, when Hughes wrote his ‘Introduction’ to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, he was aware that, ‘for anyone who does not know the plays rather well… the whirl of names will sound like a betting shop in a basement of the Tower of Babel’(SGCB 35). There is a similar danger in ‘An Alchemy’, and, without recourse to the close examination of the plays that Hughes offered in Shakespeare and the Goddess…, it is hard to make sense of some of the lines in this poem. Hughes’ focus in Shakespeare and the Goddess… was on the themes of the Tragic Equation and The Rival Brothers, which he saw as a developing pattern in Shakespeare’s work. He also believed that Shakespeare’s ultimate goal was to create balance and harmony in his characters and, through the ‘idea of drama as a ritual for manipulating the soul’(SGCB 33), in his audience. This, too, is Hughes’ goal in ‘An Alchemy’.

Peacocks Tail

In this section of the poem, now that the cyclical repetition of ‘dissolve and coagulate’ is almost complete, Hughes brings together the feathers of hope that will form the alchemical Peacock’s Tail, the colours of which are ‘an emblem of the Great Work’14 signalling the near–achievement of the pure spiritual ‘Gold’.

And it is Aphrodite/Venus, Goddess of Love, who governs the alchemical stage in which the Peacock’s Tail appears. In the richly illustrated 16th Century alchemical treatise, Splendor Solis15, she rides in a golden chariot drawn by two doves, above the alchemical flask where the Peacock spreads its magnificent tail, and the flask is surrounded by loving couples in a verdant landscape16.

In the linked lines of Hughes’ poem, he now collects a feather of ‘gold’ which has been ‘crushed from Caesar’. Julius Caesar is not one of the plays Hughes deals with in Shakespeare and the Goddess…, but in that play Caesar’s nature seems fairly balanced: his love for his wife is clear, so too is his care for the Republic and for the people of Rome. Unlike Timon and Coriolanus he does not reject one for the other. He is killed by the conspirators, but his spirit remains intact. Before his assassination, Brutus urged care:

O! that we could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!
Let’s be sacrificers but not butchers…
(II i 166–70)

And after the deed was done:

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.
(V iii 94–6)

So, the ‘Gold’ of Caesar’s spirit, freed from bodily impurities, can be added to the Peacock’s plumes.

Another feather is gathered from Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is the ‘Old Nile Serpent’. Longing for Antony when he is away in Rome, she imagines him missing her: ‘He’s speaking now, / Or murmuring, ‘Where’s my serpent of the Nile’ / For so he calls me.’(I v 30). And she presents herself as the goddess, Isis, who is the tutelary god of her Egyptian realm, frequently called on by Shakespeare’s characters throughout the play. In Shakespeare and the Goddess… Hughes describes Cleopatra as ‘the avatar of Isis, as she presents herself and is understood to be’(SGCB 315) (cf.III vi 20–3). In all her ‘infinite variety’(II ii 277), she incorporates all aspects of ‘Moon–browed Isis / Bride and Mother’ – and also, in the eyes of the Romans, she is Queen of Hell – ‘Salt Cleopatra’(II i 26), a gypsy and a witch.

For Hughes, Antony and Cleopatra marked an important step in Shakespeare’s work. In it, Antony and Cleopatra ‘exist in a divine world in which the Goddess and her consort are united’(SGCB 301). Shakespeare ‘painfully destroys the Puritan ego’ which is Antony’s rational Roman character, ‘and unites both hero and Female on the transcendental plane of Divine Love’(SGCB 299). Antony ‘renounces his claim to any part of the tragic world of the Roman power struggles’(SGCB 308), and he accepts ‘all the failings (betrayals etc.) of the human Cleopatra… loves her, in spite of everything, with ‘total unconditional love’’’(SGCB 314).

Regardless of this union of Male and Female essences in the love of Antony and Cleopatra, there is no harmony in their world, nor can they achieve that. So, the alchemical process is still incomplete and, although a feather of hope may have been gathered, Antony and Cleopatra die. Thus, their essences are returned to the alchemical ‘egg’ to become, again, for Hughes and (as he believed) for Shakespeare, just one more step towards the final achievement of the alchemical ‘Gold’.

The next line of ‘An Alchemy’ is difficult to interpret. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra were ‘Mourning a Rome’. Antony had given up his Roman self in his love of Cleopatra. He dies honourably, by suicide, ‘a Roman, by a Roman / Valiantly Vanquished’ (IV xv 60), but his concern even as he dies is for Cleopatra, not for Rome. Cleopatra, who is grief stricken, mourns Antony as ‘Noblest of men’, ‘Husband’17, but she does not mourn ‘a Rome’.

So, is it Isis / Aphrodite who is ‘Mourning a Rome’? Both are linked to this phrase by the unpunctuated lines of the poem and, alchemically, this would make sense. Julius Caesar’s Roman Republic died after his death. War and chaos ensued, as is clear in Antony and Cleopatra, and the chance of a Rome of balance and harmony was lost.

In the next line of Hughes’ poem, ‘Leontes banished’ may refer to Leontes in A Winter’s Tale, where harmony is restored at the end of the play, but it is Leontes Posthumus in Cymbeline who is banished ‘to Italy (i.e. back to Rome)’(SGCB 336) after marrying the British king’s daughter, Imogen, without the king’s consent.

In Cymbeline, Hughes saw reflections of the religious dissociation of England from Catholic Rome which was still the cause of persecution and death in Shakespeare’s world18. He suggested that Shakespeare’s reuniting of Imogen and Leontes Posthumus, ‘beyond their hope, and, as if beyond death’, represents the re–establishment of balance and harmony – a new reign of the ‘understanding of the heart’(SGCB 339), and a new version, for Shakespeare, of the expression of Aphrodite’s total and unconditional love. In this play, too, Hughes suggested that ‘the drama can be read as the alchemical transformation of a single soul’ – a ‘purgation and remaking’ – which ‘can be read as the sin and redemption of Posthumus’(SGCB 340).

The sudden reappearance of Lear in the poem as ‘Lear redivivus’, harks back to Lear’s rebirth and transformation when he rises phoenix–like from the tempests (literal and psychological) and is reunited with Cordelia, at which point, as Hughes wrote in Shakespeare and the Goddess…, Shakespeare showed Lear’s ‘true self reborn – reunited with his beloved who is also reborn’(SGCB 323). So, Lear and Posthumus, both re–made and reborn, add to the feathers in the alchemical Peacock’s Tail.

For Hughes, the full display of the Peacock’s Tail culminated in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, when Aphrodite literally ‘found breath in Marina’.

The virtuous Pericles, believing his chaste wife Thaisa to have died in childbirth while they are on his ship bound for Tyre, is forced by superstitious sailors to cast her body overboard in a chest. Thaisa is found and revived by the skills of Cerimon, a Lord of Ephesus, and enters the temple of Diana there as a votaress. Pericles leaves his new–born daughter, Marina, in the care of Cleon, Governor of Tharsus, but Cleon’s wife becomes jealous of her and arranges for her to be murdered. To avoid suspicion, Cleon and his wife arrange for a statue of Marina to be erected mourning her death and claiming that she had ‘wither’d in her spring of year’(IV iv 36). Marina, however, survives the attempted murder but is capture by pirates who sell her to a brothel, where, much to the dismay of the brothel owners, her prayers to Diana help her not only to retain her virginity but also to find the words to persuade brothel customers to abandon their dishonourable ways.

Marina, who has retained her strength and purity, and whose ‘breath’ is used in the art of persuasion, has prevailed over seemingly impossible odds. She is ultimately reunited with Pericles and Thaisa, both of whom have demonstrated their own pure souls in the play. Unlike other plays, all remain alive, and Pericles, for Hughes was one of the plays in which ‘the denouement is idealized, transcendent and lift into a music that does seem unearthly’(SGCB 331).

‘Redeemed’, in the next line of the poem, is a carefully chosen word. Its meaning encompasses the worldly and the spiritual. Marina redeemed the brothel customers by turning them away from sin. Aphrodite redeemed the fragments of pure love that existed in the souls of those chosen by Shakespeare as characters in his plays, where, as Hughes believed, Shakespeare changed and re–made (brought redemption to) his audience through the rituals of his drama. The alchemist redeems all these fragments in the process of creating the Peacock’s Tail; and the alchemical Peacock spreads its valuable tail–feathers to make a spectacular display before discarding them into the flask to precipitate the final redemption of the alchemical process.

George Ripley, in his 15th century alchemical scroll, identified the Peacock as ‘The Bird of Hermes’ and showed it shedding its feathers, a process he described as ‘eating’ them, in order to unite White (Queen/ Female essence) and Red (King/Male essence) and create the Philosophers’ Stone (the ‘Gold’) of spiritual rebirth19:

The Bird of Hermes is my name
Eating my wings to make me tame.

In the Sea withouten leese
Standeth the Bird of Hermes:
Eating his Wings variable,
And thereby maketh himself more stable;
When all his Fethers be agon,
He standeth still there as a stone;
Here is now both White and Red,
And also the Stone to quicken the dead.

Hughes’ line ‘Redeemed all Tempests’, however, requires the elucidation of the meaning of Shakespeare’s tempests that he provided in Shakespeare and the Goddess... . There, he discussed ‘the storm’ as ‘evolved through the action’ of Shakespeare’s plays (SGCB 382), and having not just a dramatic function but being also a worldly reflection of the Goddess’s anger and (as in King Lear) a physical manifestation of the psychological ‘shock–wave of death–rebirth’(SGCB 383).

Marina not only adds the final plume to the Peacock’s Tail, she also draws together, through the unpunctuated lines of Hughes’ poem, the feathers of ‘Gold’ Shakespeare found in the souls of Timon, Coriolanus, Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra, Lear, Leontes, and Posthumus. The spiritual/psychological deaths and rebirths of these characters redeem all tempests – assuaging the Goddess’s anger and healing each one who has redeemed his or her soul.

The storm in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, is different. It is summoned by the magician, Prospero, who controls all four elements – Air (Ariel), Earth (Caliban), Fire and Water (the lightning, thunder and rain of the storm). Before dealing with The Tempest, however, Hughes, in ‘An Alchemy’, brought together the Phoenix and the Turtle, the two creatures which in Shakespeare’s poem of that title represent pure, unconditional love20.

Shakespeare’s poem was first published in 1601 among other ‘Diverse poeticall essaies on the former subject; viz: the Turtle and Phoenix. Done by the best and chiefest of our modern writers’, which supplemented Robert Chester’s ‘Loves Martyr, or, Rosalins Complaint. Allegorically shadowing the truth of Love’21. Shakespeare’s poem is an ‘anthem’ for the death of these two creatures which, in Chester’s poem, are united in a pure Platonic love and die together so that the Phoenix may be reborn. As Shakespeare described them:

So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, Division none;
Number there in love was slaine.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seene
Twixt this Turtle and his Queene
But in them it were a wonder.
(lines 25–32)

Perhaps it was the Phoenix as the Bird of Hermes to which Hughes referred when he wrote that ‘His Kiss of Life / Stirred the Turtle’; or it could have been Shakespeare himself, whose alchemy Hughes was tracing here.

In any case, Hughes changed the gender of each of these lovers. His Phoenix, in ‘An Alchemy’, becomes male, like that of George Ripley, and his turtle (which is a male turtle–dove in Chester’s poem and in Shakespeare’s) becomes Aphrodite’s turtle–dove, which first shed its feather into this section of his poem. Aphrodite is the moon goddess whose powers control the cycles of menstruation. In ‘An Alchemy’, her dove now becomes the ‘Turtle / Of the waters of amnios’ – immersed in the amniotic fluid that surrounds the developing foetus in ‘The lunar cauldron’ of the alembic womb.

The next five lines of ‘An Alchemy’ remove the Queen of Hell in her darkest forms from ‘the Tree’: ‘black Venus / double tongued’ in her power to inspire love and to destroy her lovers, as in Venus and Adonis; the ‘swine uddered’, ‘foul witch’ ‘Sycorax’22, who is mother of Caliban in The Tempest; and ‘Lilith the night–crow’, the Hebrew owl–goddess, banished first wife of Adam, seducer of men and stealer of children, who is also the screech–owl – ‘The shrieking harbinger / Foul precursor of the fiend’(5–6) who is banned from the mourning ceremony in Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle.

All these ‘Slid from the Tree’ which, in alchemy, is ‘The Tree of Diana’(Aphrodite), the ‘Philosopher’s Tree’, a pure, moon–white, crystalline growth which fills the flask and signals the near completion of the alchemist’s Great Work.

Next, in another reference to The Tempest, ‘the Rainbow / Breasted dove’ is released with ‘a leaf of light’, and linked to Prospero’s virginal daughter, Miranda, who falls instantly in love with Ferdinand, the first man she has ever seen who is not her father or the monstrous Caliban. At first, she thinks Ferdinand is ‘a spirit’(I ii 488), which seems like ‘a thing divine’(I ii 498), or, in Hughes’s words, an ‘Adam / Adonis’; and Ferdinand thinks she is ‘most sure the goddess / On whom these airs attend’ (I ii 505). The ‘miracle’, may be intended to refer to Miranda’s meeting with Ferdinand or to the appearance of the benign, Heavenly goddesses who are summoned by Prospero in Shakespeare’s Masque: or to both. Hughes, in Shakespeare and the Goddess…, wrote of the reaction of the young couple as mutual ‘love at first sight’ which ‘becomes mutual adoration and promise of eternal love’(SGCB 437); and he described their first words to each other as ‘exchanges taking place on the transcendental plane’(SGCB 415). He called the Masque, which unites the Heavenly and the Earth–bound, an ‘alchemical vision’(SGCB 444)’, ‘The sacred nuptial ceremony’(SGCB 441), and ‘an incantatory magic spell, a Hermetic ritual in the active mode’(SGCB 442).

The Masque in The Tempest brings together Juno,‘the queen o’ th’ sky’ (whose ‘peacock’s fly amain’ as she approaches); Iris, who calls herself Juno’s ‘watery arch and messenger’; and ‘rich Ceres’,‘Bounteous lady’ Earth–Mother and goddess of fertility. Juno bids them join her to

Bless this twain, that they may prosperous be
And honoured in their issue
(IV i 57–72).

In ‘An Alchemy’ Hughes placed Iris’s rainbow on the breast of one of Venus/Aphrodite’s doves, which, in the Masque, Juno describes as drawing Venus’s chariot across the sky after he son, Cupid, has worked ‘some wanton charm upon this man and maid’(IV i 101).

Hughes’ alchemy, here, was different to that of Shakespeare but for both the blessing of the chaste union of Miranda and Ferdinand by the gods was necessary for the creation of the new, harmonious world which Prospero sought to create. The chastity, too, which Prospero imposed on them until they all return to Naples and ‘see the nuptial \ Of these dear–beloved solemnized’(V 367), ensures that the alchemical ‘Gold’ of their union is free from bodily impurities.

Dianas Tree

A woodcut from the alchemical text Uraltes Chymische Werke, attributed to Abraham Eliazar, 1735, illustrates the union which Hughes and Shakespeare describe. A double Uroborus forming a completed circle in front of Diana’s Tree is titled, ‘Unite Them’, and shows the union of the Universal Divine Spirit (the winged snake), with the Earth–bound prima materia (humankind)23.

In Shakespeare and the Goddess… , Hughes wrote that The Tempest ‘gives the impression of being the final product of a long alchemical labour’(SGCB 447)24. He went on to develop a complex (and questionable) myth–based explanation for the rebirth which traditionally follows the creation of the ‘Gold’ (the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’) that he believed happened with ‘the alchemical marriage’(SGCB 451) of Miranda and Ferdinand. Shakespeare, however, allows Prospero to postpone the actual marriage until after the play has ended and all but he have returned to Naples. Before this occurs, Prospero will ‘abjure’ the ‘rough magic’ he has been performing; chase away ‘the ignorant fumes that mantle’ the ‘pure reason’ of those who had plotted to kill him; pardon all who had conspired against him, including Caliban; and free Ariel. Then, he vows,

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the Earth,
And deeper than ever did plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.v (V i 60–6).

In ‘An Alchemy’, Hughes, too, avoids the rebirth. Instead, in lines that step down the page, to mimic the action he describes, he returns everything to the alchemical ‘crucible’ of ‘Tiamat’, the most ancient scaly monster of the waters of Chaos from whom, in Babylonian myth, our world was created:

          The Mother
The Scales
The Coil
Of the Matter

And he sinks it ‘With Prospero’s bones / And the sounding Book’, into her fathomless deeps.

Prospero, in his final speeches, anticipates his own death, having given up his magic:

‘What strength I have’s my own / Which is most faint’
(V 3–4).

‘I will retire me to my Milan,
Where every third thought shall be my grave’
(V 68–9.)

Borrowing the nautical imagery of depth–sounding, used so precisely by Shakespeare in Prospero’s speech, Hughes’ final lines suggest that Shakespeare, as that ‘the supreme alchemist Prospero/, Shakespeare’(SGCB 431), shares this ending, and that the ‘sounding Book’ may well be Shakespeare’s own works, in which he plumbed the depths of alchemy.

Hughes’ poem, ‘An Alchemy’, is a remarkable work but its complexities make it impossible to understand unless the reader has as broad an understanding of Shakespeare’s works as Hughes did. Nor does it comply with what Hughes called the simple, direct, honest speech, which he later admired in the vacanas of the Siva–worshipping mystics of Southern Indian25. Rather, it is as he described Shakespeare’s language to Ekbert Faas– ‘full of knotted up complexities and piled up obscurities’ which are, in fact, ‘utterly direct and utterly simple’ that by ‘hitting one nail on the head it makes fifty others jump in of their own accord’26.

For Hughes and Shakespeare, and for alchemists like George Ripley, Abraham Eliazar and others how wrote and sometimes illustrated their alchemical texts, their alchemy was performed through the ritual manipulation of words, images, symbols and, above all, poetry. But alchemical texts, full as they usually are of paradoxes, riddles and allegories, are notoriously difficult to interpret and are often described as a labyrinth.

16th century alchemist, doctor and philosopher, Paracelsus, seemed to suggest the difficulties when he subtitled his Coelum Philosophorum (The Book of Vexations), although he may have been referring to the chemical disturbances brought to the prima materia in an alchemist’s laboratory. Artephius, a 12th century philosopher puts the warning more clearly27:

He that takes the words of the hermetic philosophers literally, he even already, having lost the thread of Ariadne, wanders in the midst of the labyrinth, multiplies errors, and casts away his money for naught.

Hughes’ poem, ‘An Alchemy’, fits well into this labyrinthine pattern but it is not an alchemical text outlining a method of obtaining gold. Instead it charts the alchemy process he discerned in of Shakespeare’s work, and, at the same time, it embodies Hughe’ own poetic ritual of alchemical transmutation.

Addendum: Shakespeare, Hermetic Occult Neoplatonism and Alchemy.

In his ‘Introduction’ in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Hughes wrote of ‘ the pervasive influence’ of Hermetic Occult Neoplatonism on ‘the intellectual life of England’ at the time when Shakespeare was creating his poetry and plays, and he ‘picked out’ what he believed to be ‘the salient features of the movement as it which came within the orbit of Shakespeare’s known social and political world.’ and as it ‘can be seen to relate to his imaginative life’(SGCB 18–19).

To do this, he relied strongly on the work of Dame Frances Yates, who, in her book, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, wrote that ’the occult philosophy of the Elizabethan age was no minor concern of a few adepts. It was the main philosophy of the age, stemming from John Dee and his movement’28.

Yates traced the development of Occult Neoplatonism and Christian Cabbala from its origins to the high point of its influence in Renaissance Italy, and from there to its influence in Elizabethan and Jamesian England, where it initially flourished but later became associated in the popular mind with dark magic, trickery, witches and ghosts.

Fundamental to the transmission of this learning from Italy to England, were Giordano Bruno, John Dee and the eldest son of the Earl of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney.

Bruno, was an Italian Dominican Friar whose poetic re–interpretation of Hermetic Occult Neoplatonism and Hebrew Cabbala in Christian terms taught that we and the world are a reflection of the Divine, as in the Hermetic principle ‘As above So below’. Since, ‘All is One’, we are able, by the use of memory techniques and imagination, to cleanse our souls and rise from the darkness of the world to the Divine Source. In 1583, whilst in England, Bruno presented three notoriously badly received lectures to doctors of philosophy at Oxford University, which focussed on Copernican theory in the context of the astral magic of the Neoplatonic Hermeticist, Marsilio Ficino29. He published a number of books based on hermetic philosophy and morality, including the series of mystical love poems, De gli Eroici Furori (On the Heroic Frenzies), which he dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, with whom he had become close. This dedication includes extensive notes about the furor of passionate love, and the power of Mystical Love to make the soul divine and heroic.

Sidney’s own closely argued essay, ‘In Defence of Poesie’, links true poetry (that made by Poets (not ‘versifiers that neede never aunswere to the name of Poets’30) to Platonic ‘divine frenzy’, and ‘Planet–like Music’31. Poetry, he wrote, through the alchemy of inspiration, memory and imagination can ‘hold children from play, and old men from the chimney corner. And pretending no more, doth intende the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue’32. He and his circle of friends which included the poets Gabriel Harvey, Edward Dyer and Edmund Spencer, were studying the works of John Dee, and they had dedicated themselves to the reformation of English poetry33. They called their group, ‘The Areopagus’, after the aristocratic Athenian council in Ancient Greece34.

It is believed, and it is very likely, that Bruno also met Dr John Dee, who was Sidney’s tutor and patron. Dee was a brilliant and learned mathematician and astronomer who became astrologer–in–chief to Queen Elizabeth I35. He was also a practicing cabbalist and, through his ‘medium’, Edmund Kelly, he consulted angelic guides who dictated to him the work which he published as Monas Heiroglyphica. This highly symbolic and difficult text would, he claimed, revealed the secret mysteries of nature and would revolutionise current knowledge.

Sidney’s younger sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, was also very influential. She was a respected poet, and, as John Aubrey wrote of her – ‘She was the greatest patronesse of witt and learning of any lady in her time. She was a great chymist and spent yearly a great deale in that study. She kept for her laborator in the house Adrian Gilbert (vulgarly called Dr. Gilbert), halfe brother to Sir Walter Ralegh, who was a great chymist in those dayes’36. Most importantly, she founded a literary group known as ‘The Wilton Circle’ which met regularly at her home, Wilton House. A number of prominent poets benefited from meetings with this group and from her patronage, including Edmund Spencer (who dedicated his poem, ‘The Ruins of Time'’ to her and addressed a sonnet to her which he prefixed to The Faerie Queen), Gabriel Harvey, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, John Aubrey and Ben Jonson. Through these poets, and particularly through the work of Spencer and Jonson, the philosophies of Neoplatonism and the art and magic of Alchemy became widely known, not just among the literati but to the English people in general.

Spencer’s Hymnes, which ‘abound in references to Plato and to Platonic philosophy’37, express the Platonic and Cabbalistic importance of transformative Love. This and the Platonic and Cabbalistic ideas which fostered creativity in the Italian Renaissance – ideas of universal harmony and the Hermetic/alchemical transmission of divine emanations to our world through planetary influence – is fundamental in his poem, The Faerie Queen, which was widely read in England. Alchemy, as an alleged means of transforming lead into gold in a laboratory, was familiar to most people, and Christopher Marlow drew on it in this debased form to create Doctor Faustus. Ben Jonson also made fun of it in his popular play, The Alchemist.

The spiritual purpose of Alchemy, which like that of Christian Cabbala works to purify and transform the Spirit of human individuals, was less widely known but was very familiar to the poets of the Areopagus and the Wilton Circle. Sir Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was the husband of Mary Sidney. He shared Mary’s interest in the arts, and in 1591 he became the patron of a group of actors and playwrights known as ‘The Earl Of Pembroke’s Men’. Between 1591 and 1593, William Shakespeare was a member of this group and among the plays performed by them were several of his works. When the London theatres closed due to plague, Pembroke’s Men toured the country, but, as Peter Ackroyd notes: ‘[they] were not simply a group of travelling players. They were invited to perform before the queen during the Christmas season, a signal honour for a group so recently established’38.

In London’s relatively small circle of aristocratic patrons, intellectuals, poets, playwrights and actors, William Shakespeare, as Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Ackroyd have both shown in their biographies, knew, lived, and often worked closely alongside many of these men. He was also, as Frances Yates has shown, and as Ted Hughes attests in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, very familiar with the theory and practice of all the occult arts.

Yates wrote that ‘Though Shakespeare never wielded a wand, nor thought of himself as a magus, he is a magician, master of the spell–binding use of words and poetry as magic. This was an art in which he was supreme’39.

Shakespeare’s wand was his pen, and Hughes and many other writers have divined occult purpose in his poems and plays. For Hughes, Shakespeare’s whole opus had an overall alchemical and cabbalistic pattern, and in his own poem, ‘An Alchemy’, he created an alchemical text which he structured to demonstrate this.


1. The name of Helena’s father, Gerard de Narbon, would have reminded many in Shakespeare’s audience of the popular Herbal published in 1597 by John Gerard.

2. ‘I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live / Into your guidance’ (III 99–101).

3. ‘Now Dian, from thy altar do I fly / And to imperial Love, that god most high / Do my sighs stream’ ( III 71–3).

4. Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1952, p. 202.

5. This stage direction occurs in the 1790 Nicholas Rowe edition. Rowe depended on the 4th Folio (1685) but, being an actor, he added some helpful stage directions.

6. There is much scholarly debate about the identity of the ‘long purples, / That liberal shepherds give a grosser name / But our cold maids do dead man’s fingers call them’.(IV vii 193–5). The most likely plant is Orchis mascula, an early flowering common orchid with long spikes of purple flowers, sometimes called ‘Dog’s bollocks’ or ‘Fool’s bollocks’, because of the shape of the buds. Its root is two testicle–sized white tubers with fine white rootlets, and it has long been used as a medicine for fertility and for sexual disorders. (http://www.sussexflora.org.uk/2020/04/orchis-mascula-early-purple-orchid).

7. Circe had a riverside cemetery planted with willows and dedicated to Hecate. Willow trees frequently overhang water–courses and are commonly called ‘weeping willows’. The medicinal ingredient in the bark of the tree, acetylsalicylic acid, is the active ingredient in the anti–inflammatory pain–killer, Asprin.

8. Burckhardt, T. Alchemy, Alement Books, 1987. pp. 149–51.

9. The full version of A Form and Method of Perfecting Bases Metals by Janus Lacinius Therapus the Calabrian, which is thought to be a copy of an originally treatise by 14th century alchemist Petrus Bonus, can be found of the Alchemy Website at https://www.alchemywebsite.com/petrus_bonus.html.

10. Sagar, K. (ed.) The Letters of Ted Hughes & Keith Sagar, The British Library, 2102, pp.10, 181, 212.

11. Saint Withhol is Saint Swithin, an Anglo–Saxon saint whose association with meteorological disturbances is still part of local folk–superstitions: if it rains of Saint Swithin’s day it is said that it will continue to rain for 40 days.

12. White, A.E. (ed) The Hermetic Museum Vol II, ‘An Open Entrance to the Palace of the King, by an anonymous sage and lover of the truth’, 1893, p.194.

13. Splendor Solis is attributed to Salomon Trismosin (probably a pseudonym). Images from an 1582 manuscript can be seen on the British Library webpage at https://www.bl.uk/a-history-of-magic/collection-items/splendor-solis. A full version with larger images is available at http://www.chymist.com/Splendor%20solis.pdf.

14. This image is in the public domain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splendor_Solis :Kupferstichkabinett Berlin.

15. Antony and Cleopatra: (IV xv 69) ; ‘Husband, I come. / Now to that name my courage prove my title’ (V ii 335).

16. In his ‘Note’ to A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, Hughes wrote of the effects of the ‘historical forces’ – the ‘national trauma’ – of the suppression of ‘the old Catholic and the new Puritan’ which he believed influenced Shakespeare’s life and his work. (pp.165–6). He expanded on this in Shakespeare and the Goddess… (pp.74–78). Using alchemical symbolism, he wrote that ‘Since Shakespeare was born, lived and died within the crucible, his art evolved as a kind of salamander. It had time to develop the means to thrive and to deal with the conditions and forces that shaped him’(p.78).

17. Ashmole, Elias (ed.) Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, 1562. ‘Verses Belonging to an Emblematic Scrowle: Supposed to be invented by Geo: Ripley’.( p.376). A digital reproduction is available on the Internet Archive website at https://archive.org.

18. Hughes chose, ‘The Phoenix and theTurtle’ as the final poem for A Choice Shakespeare’s Verse, Faber, 1971 pp.161–163.

19. A digitised version of this book, including Shakespeare’s ‘essaie’ (pp.182–4), can be found on the Internet Archive website at https://archive.org.

20. The Tempest(I ii 308). In Shakespeare and the Goddess…, Hughes wrote of Sycorax as ‘the African witch Sycorax (swine–crow)’(SGCB 471). Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, p.123., called her ‘Pig Raven’.

21. Skea, A. Image drawn from Eliazar, Utrales Chymische Werke – various sources.

22. One section of Hughes’ discussion of the play is also headed ‘The Tempest as a keyboard to the Complete Works’(SGCB 462).

23. Skea, A. Ted Hughes’ Vacanas. https://ann.skea.com/THVacanas.html.

24. Faas, E. The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. p.203.

25. An adaptation from various sources of Artephius’s Liber Secretus, including: Lapidus (Skinner), In Pursuit of Gold; Spearman, 1976 on Internet Archive (https://archive.org.); and Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism, Taschen, 1997, p. 36, ref. Bibl. des Philosphes Chimique, Paris. Some versions end: ‘he will never find the way out’.

26. Yates, F. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge, 1999, p.191.

27. Yates, F. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp.207–210.

28 Elizabeth Porges Watson (ed), Defence of Poesie, Astrophil and Stella and other writings. Sir Philip Sidney. Dent, London, 1997. p.91.

29. Sidney, Defence of Poesie, p.199.

30. Sidney, Defence of Poesie, p.101.

31. Yates, F. Giordano Bruno and the Hemetic Tradition, p.187.

32. Gabriel Harvey referred to this title in a letter to Edmund Spencer at a time when they were both part of Sidney’s circle. See Yates, F. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge, 1999. p.112.

33. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hemetic Tradition, pp.187–8.

34. ‘Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1555–1621)’ in Clarke, A. (ed.),Brief Lives, Vol.1. by John Aubrey, Clarendon Press, 1898, p. 1165–6. Digital copy at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/47787.

35. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, p.113.

36. Ackroyd, P. Shakespeare: The Biography, Chatto & Windus, London, 2005. p.176.

37. Yates,The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, p. 190.

© Ann Skea 2023. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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