Martina Zamparo, Alchemy, Paracelsianism, and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Martina Zamparo, Alchemy, Paracelsianism, and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). 377 pp. £89.99. hb. ISBN 978-3-031-05166-1

Zamparo’s study deserves recognition as an in-depth work on alchemy and, unusually, a single play. The book is meticulously researched with a wide variety of alchemical examples from both England and Europe, and is filled with an array of images which help to give a sense of the richness of alchemical literature.

The introduction is comprehensive and gives a sense of the wide variety of sources that form the foundation of this book. Of these sources, some are expected and recognisable, and some are less so. This range of sources establishes the validity of Zamparo’s project from the beginning and Zamparo provides solid evidence for the pervasiveness of alchemy in England and Europe during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Building on scholars like Margaret Healy and Mary Floyd-Wilson, she also acknowledges the figurative and poetic aspects of alchemy.

The book is divided into three parts, starting with a background to alchemy in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Chapter 2 looks specifically at Elizabethan England and provides context for the monarchical engagement with alchemy as far back as Henry VI. Zamparo notes the monarch’s ‘necessarily ambivalent’ attitude towards alchemical research as the production of precious metals via alchemy posed a threat as these metals could no longer be controlled, while on the other hand the monarch would be invested with significant power. Zamparo argues that Elizabeth was seen an ‘alchemically enlightened monarch’ (38) under whom alchemical learning flourished, in line with previous scholarship which inclines towards seeing the Elizabethan period as a golden age for this kind of scientific learning and practice. With a wealth of examples including John Dee, Adrian Gilbert, Francis Bacon, and Walter Ralegh, Zamparo establishes the importance of alchemy to the social, cultural, religious, and political development of the country under Elizabeth. James is often figured in opposite terms to Elizabeth in terms of his views on magic and related practices, but Chapter 3 provides a convincing repositioning of James as being sympathetic to Hermetic and Paracelsian philosophy: ‘The very king who attacked witches and magicians in the Daemonologie also espoused the medical and alchemical philosophy of Paracelsus and maintained close relations with several chemical and Hermetic doctors’ (90). This chapter is pivotal to the rest of the book which demonstrates the extensive and purposeful presence of alchemical and Paracelsian references in The Winter’s Tale. In this chapter, Zamparo examines James’s engagement with Hermetists and Paracelsians, which began as early as 1589 with a visit to the alchemical-astronomical laboratory of Tycho Brahe at Hveen. Zamparo shows James’s continued interest in these and notes that he was the first British monarch to appoint Paracelsian court physicians and that ‘Paracelsianism enabled James to present himself as an enlightened intellectual and also as a discerning physician, conversant with the latest debates that animated the English medical community’ (98). Far from being the opposite of Elizabeth, Zamparo shows that in many ways James continued the English alchemical tradition though the emphasis moved more towards the Paracelsian than the Hermetic.

Having established James as a monarch sympathetic to alchemical work, Zamparo moves to the second section of the book which is a detailed alchemical reading of The Winter’s Tale. The detail and range of sources continues throughout this section with an equally nuanced close reading of the play. Zamparo contends that the play echoes alchemical processes and explores these through varied contemporary examples and rigorous close reading. Chapter 4 involves a reading of Leontes as a character whose transformation echoes that of the transmutation of metals figured through the image of the chemical king in alchemical texts. Chapter 5 moves on to consider the play as an alchemical journey which ‘leads to a renewed condition and to the final coniunctio between the king and queen of Sicily’ (181), while Chapter 6 examines the relationship between art and nature in alchemical terms. Chapter 7 is the pinnacle of this section and explores the animation of statues as described in the Asclepius. Zamparo links the animation of Hermione’s statue to the Hermetic and alchemical culture of Jacobean England and the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick, Elector Palatine, arguing that ‘a statue magically coming to life by means of music was not only a celebration of Frederick’s and Elizabeth’s Hermetic interests, but also a glorification of man’s, in this case the monarch’s, ability to harness the most occult forces of nature, as one could see in the wondrous gardens of the Stuart family’ (275). This chapter is exemplary in its use of wider cultural contexts and examples and Zamparo expertly ties this information together with a convincing reading of reanimation of Hermione’s statue.

The final section, though much shorter, concludes this excellent study by considering the play in relation to James as patron of Shakespeare’s theatre company and his more personal response. Zamparo shows that the play, ‘in symbolically retracing the healing pattern of the rota alchemica and in emphasising the Hermetic principles of unity and concord, glorifies the monarch’s conciliatory attitude’ (315). This final section clinches the entire project and makes the meticulous arguments of the previous chapters come to fruition, for without linking James explicitly to the play, the former arguments would lose some of their purpose. Zamparo skilfully pulls everything together in this final section and concludes in the hope that her study will ‘prompt further research on the interrelation of early modern drama, literature, medicine, Hermetic philosophy, and the emerging science’ (336).

This book is engaging, thoroughly researched, and is an important contribution to the field. One minor criticism is that, while a fantastic range of sources are provided, the translations are not. Though they are usually contextualised or explained, the lack of full translations does inhibit the reader’s sense of these primary sources. Zamparo is unusual in that most studies of alchemy or related practices do not focus exclusively on one text. However, this book demonstrates that more studies of this type are needed to fully appreciate the extent to which writers were engaging with these ideas. I hope that this book prompts more research into specific texts and their scientific or philosophical contexts, and that Zamparo’s excellent study will serve as model for those which follow.

Rachel White, Durham University