Alchemy: Base Matter into Gold

Jonathan Hughes discovers the humanity of Thomas Charnock, a forgotten Elizabethan alchemist in search of the philosopher’s stone.

During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance the image of the alchemist entered popular imagination as a magus, a man whose knowledge of nature was so profound that he could summon and control the occult powers found within the motions of the planets and inside metals and plants and perform feats of transmutation with metals and in medicine. The significance of the alchemist was such that Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson all wrote plays – Dr Faustus (1604), The Tempest (1610) and The Alchemist (1610) – illustrating his art. Faustus’s attempts to control nature take him into forbidden areas of black magic; Prospero is a practitioner of a spiritual, ceremonial form of alchemy concerned with a responsible use of power and self knowledge; Jonson’s Subtle, on the other hand, although well versed in the theory and terminology of alchemy, uses his learning to dupe naive clients visiting London in search of wealth.

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