The Origins of Alchemy

Alchemy is not simply a science, but the oldest science, built on the deep wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks. Alchemy stood on the same level as astrology and medicine. It served as an impetus for the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Thus, alchemy is a specific area of natural philosophy, which was formed in the Hermetic tradition. It originated in ancient times but was reborn in the Middle Ages.

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During the medieval period, its mysterious metaphysical knowledge was almost lost; however, practical instructions and recipes remained and had to be carried out so that they could become a proof of its authenticity and efficacy. Therefore, in the Middle Ages, there was a huge number of experiments, with alchemists being able to achieve what seemed utopian – making gold. With regard to William Shakespeare, he was, as one would say, in tune with the times in which he lived. He caught up with what was “hip” and popular. During the period of the English Renaissance, many people used alchemy in their works. The artists mixing paint were considered alchemists, who put alchemy into their drawings. As different playwrights put alchemy in their works, Shakespeare also followed suit. In his Merchant of Venice, he expressed people’s greed and thoughts of themselves, which strongly resembled alchemy. This paper aims to discuss the essence and history of alchemy as well as the connection of William Shakespeare with the pre-scientific direction in chemistry.

The cradle of European alchemy was Alexandria. The new capital of Egypt quickly became a major commercial and cultural center of the ancient Mediterranean. At the same time, there already existed well-developed practical chemistry in Egypt, centered on the temple of the god of wisdom Thoth, where those closely linked to astrology as well as magic formulation and recipes were guarded. As a result, there was a unification of the ancient natural philosophy with a working knowledge of the Egyptians about the substances and their properties. The matter was that the ancient Egyptians wanted to preserve the dead, which gave them a chemical knowledge and a goal for immortality. They believed that everything consisted of two things: spirit and matter. In other words, anything that contained matter had spirit. Not surprisingly, the very name of “chemistry” came from the ancient name of Egypt, Khem or Chem.


The traditional symbolism of alchemy was formed in Alexandria: metals were claimed to correspond to the known planets. For example, gold and silver were compared to the Sun and the Moon, mercury to Mercury, iron to Mars, copper to Venus, tin to Jupiter, and lead to Saturn. Moreover, seven notes and seven days of the week were also tied to the planets and metals. One of the most important discoveries of that time was the phenomenon of amalgamation: when wetted with mercury, metals formed alloys, called amalgams. Gold-bearing material was treated with mercury, making the amalgam evaporate in the fire. The unique ability of mercury made it special, the primary material in the eyes of alchemists. It was facilitated by the unusual properties of the combination of mercury with sulfur, called cinnabar, which has different colors, from red to blue.

The Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus is believed to be the person, who first told the world about the philosopher’s stone. He is a legendary figure, a magician, called the son of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis, and even identified with the Egyptian god Thoth. Hermes Trismegistus was also called the first alchemist, who had the philosopher’s stone. According to the legend, the recipe for this magic substance was recorded in his books, and even on his tomb. Most of his books were burnt during the fire in the Library of Alexandria. Thus, the recipe of the philosopher’s stone is lost and has been searched by alchemists for many centuries.

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Alchemy in Europe

In the XII century, after the contacts with the Arab world during the Crusades, European scientists were able to get acquainted with the long-forgotten works of ancient authors. However, as the accusations of heresy were common at that time, the researchers had to encrypt their recordings of the secrets of the philosopher’s stone more thoroughly than their predecessors. Thus, the alchemists described the achieved results extremely unclearly. However, obtaining gold from lead and mercury could be a very profitable business, so the rulers were signing decrees against alchemy on the one hand; however, on the other hand, they were not against its adherents and alchemists. One of the first major alchemists of that time was a Dominican monk and later bishop of Regensburg, Albert von Bolshtedt. He studied and commented on the works of Aristotle, being well-educated, especially in physics and mechanics. His treatises in chemistry did not survive, but it is known that he was the first to isolate arsenic in its pure form and study its properties in detail.

Another well-known scientist of that time was Roger Bacon, the author of The Mirror of Alchemy. He described the metal in terms of mercury-sulfur theory. According to Bacon, nature strives to achieve perfection, which is gold, but due to various accidents that hamper its work, a variety of metals appear. In accordance with the purity of mercury and sulfur, perfect metals, gold or silver, appear, or imperfect ones: tin, lead, copper, and iron. Alchemy is the science that explains how to prepare some substance, elixir, which, being poured on metal or imperfect material, can make it perfect. The process of obtaining a special elixir out of the primary substance consisted of three stages: black or nigredo, white or albedo, and red or rubedo. Later, a gold stage was sometimes added; however, the magic number three took its toll, with the three-part process considered a classic. After a small step, a white elixir, which turned the substances into silver, emerged; after the next step, a red elixir, called magisterium, appeared.

After the era of rationalistic approaches, alchemy became magic again. The rituals, spells, calculation of proper days, when the processes would be under the auspices of a planet, played a significant role in this respect. For the alchemists of that period, the connection with astrology was more important than the facts. For example, antimony and bismuth had no place among the metals, because they had no corresponding planets. One of the most illustrious alchemists of that time was Raymond Lull. This Spanish priest was believed to be able to penetrate into the innermost secrets. He was thought to have created the philosopher’s stone and become immortal, but then, with the help of prayers, could still die. In his writings, he boasted that he could turn an ocean of mercury into gold.

The Essence of Alchemy

At the heart of alchemists’ dream of receiving gold was a well-designed theory. During the Middle Ages, people believed in the teachings of Aristotle. Thus, this theory rose from the Aristotelian doctrine of the four beginnings, fire, water, earth, and air, which formed the basis of all matter. Consequently, to get one material from another, an alchemist needed to change the balance of the elements, which, in general, was a matter of technique. As gold contains more moisture than silver, it is more malleable. Gold is yellow, and silver is white because the first contains more heat while the second—colder. Copper is drier than silver or gold, and its color is more beautiful because it is warmer. Tin, as well as lead, is wetter than silver or gold, which also explains why they are so easy to melt in the heat. As mercury is the most humid, it evaporates on the fire like water. As for iron, it is earthy and drier than other metals, so it does not melt. Thus, it was assumed that with the right combination of each element, people would be able to create anything they wished.

Alchemy functioned on two levels: mundane and spiritual. On the mundane level, alchemists converted the base into what they wanted, such as lead into gold, whereas on the spiritual level, they eliminated the base and achieved enlightenment. At that time, they believed in magic and used it as an explanation for the unexplainable. They did whatever they could to have a better life; they wore charms, made from herbs, relics, and so on. They could buy most of these things from people, who specialized in charms; most of them were midwives. They made love potions, which were extremely popular during that period. Similar to alchemists of other periods, they wanted to turn useless into the most valuable, in addition to attempting to brew potions, called panacea, which would cure all diseases, prolong life, and restore youth. They had great power; however, others also feared them as witches. Furthermore, they used astrology to explain things. Alchemists used symbols and loved their secrecy, which caused suspicion in the churches. In the early 1300s, the church took a step into alchemy. They believed that alchemy and magic were witchcraft; thus, many people were accused of being witches or demons. The Pope forbade monks to practice alchemy. People were brought to trial for witchcraft, and, eventually, hunted.

The Goals of Alchemy

First, alchemists sought the ways of obtaining gold from less noble metals, in order to enrich and eventually gain power. Another goal was the achievement of immortality. There were many strange rumors about alchemists, people, who devoted their lives to alchemical studies. Among other things, it was said that they had found the formula for physical immortality. The third goal of alchemy was the pursuit of happiness. The philosopher’s stone was the main of all the goals pursued by alchemists; it was considered the beginning of all beginnings, a mythical substance that could give its owner immortality, eternal youth, wisdom, wealth, happiness, and the ability to turn any metal into gold. However, most medieval alchemists were charlatans because the true alchemists did not seek to obtain gold, which was simply a tool. Their real purpose was to receive the philosopher’s stone, which meant spiritual liberation, glorification, and absolute freedom. It should be noted that the stone was often presented as a powder or powder solution, the very elixir of life.

The mystics of the XIII century constituted a new list of alchemy purposes. To the search for the philosopher’s stone, other goals were added, such as creating a homunculus, a creature, similar to a man, that could be obtained by artificial means, an alkahest, a universal solvent, as well as palingenesis, or rebirth of plants from the ashes. The most important was obtaining spiritus mundi, a magical substance, which was able to dissolve gold; then, the quintessence was extracted, and liquid gold, the perfect remedy, was prepared.

Cardinal Giovanni Fidanza, known as Bonaventura, soon achieved one of these goals. He obtained a mixture of ammonia and nitric acid, which dissolved gold, a king of metal. Therefore, Bonaventura called this mixture Aqua Regis. However, his hopes for an alkahest were not justified: Aqua Regis did not dissolve glass or many other substances. The doctor of the French King Louis XIII, an alchemist David Campi, recommended his “elixir of longevity,” a colloidal gold solution in water.

Alchemy and Chemistry

Alchemy, also known as the base and precursor of modern chemistry, is what leads people to believe they could play with what they had and create new substances. Antoine Lavoisier, the creator of modern-day chemistry, found out that hydrogen and oxygen created water. At that time, people did not distinguish between chemistry and alchemy. However, Antoine Lavoisier created a new nomenclature, which introduced greater simplicity and clarity in the chemical language, ridding it of the complex and confusing terms that were bequeathed to alchemy. Both alchemy and chemistry are similar in the fact that they do the same thing, creating something. However, they differ in that they were used at different times: alchemy appeared in the medieval period, while chemistry emerged in more or less modern times.

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In alchemy, people always expected to receive more than what they had originally put into the creation. They wanted to use the power to gain riches, immortality, and many other things that one would desire; so they spent a great amount of time and resources, looking for the philosopher’s stone, which did not exist. Chemistry, on the contrary, postulates the law of equivalent exchange according to which people cannot obtain more than they originally had.

Shakespeare and Alchemy

Alchemy had a longstanding relationship with the art, which can be equally seen in alchemical texts and traditional entertainment. Alchemy manifests itself through the history of English literature from Shakespeare to the contemporary authors writing fantasy. The characters and the plot structure follow the alchemical magnum opus. In the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer set the fashion for the alchemical satire, the traces of which can still be found in the works of contemporary authors, such as Terry Pratchett. The artists had a similar relationship with alchemy. When some of them used it as a source of satire, the others took part in the work of alchemists, weaving alchemical ideas or symbols in their work.

As for Shakespeare, the scholars argue that the comedy Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, is imbued with folk cosmology while Love’s Labour’s Lost contains the Orphic concept of love, in other words, love must go through the test. The play The Merchant of Venice unfolds Pythagorean ideas whereas Winter’s Tale is based on the theory of alchemy, full of relevant characters. The tragicomedy The Tempest is the most alchemically inspired Shakespeare’s work, immersed in alchemical imagery: Ariel is depicted as a spirit of Mercury, with Prospero being an archetypal magician.

William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice mentions three boxes, each crafted from a different material: lead, silver, and gold. The gold box had the best option for people; the silver one was the second-best, and the lead box was the worst option. The greed in people caused most of them to wish gold; silver was for those, who were not so much greedy; and lead was for those, who had no desires. At the same time, if one placed alchemy, the lead box would turn into gold. By the way, Shakespeare often alludes to alchemists, without naming them directly. For example, in The Merchant of Venice, Moroccan Prince reads in the book that wisdom says that all that glitters is not gold.

In his allegorical poem Phoenix and the Turtle, Shakespeare consistently refers to several birds: an eagle, a swan, a raven, a phoenix, and a dove. The eagle, swan, and raven are invited by some unknown bird to honor the death of the phoenix and dove in the fire of love, which merged those two into one, making them united. The alchemists of the XVI-XVII centuries used similar epithets to determine the philosopher’s stone, which was perceived as an ideal perfection and unity. In the alchemical texts, the search for the philosopher’s stone was described as the search for phoenix. In Shakespeare’s poem, a man and a woman have to unite to become one whole. This connection is necessary in order to achieve royal dignity for the philosopher’s stone. Shakespeare’s poem also mentions two images of the phoenix; the second bird came after the connection of the masculinity of the dove with the femininity of the phoenix and has bisexual nature. The philosopher’s stone was always defined as the double nature, created by the union of the Sun and the Moon, or male and female. Moreover, all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s poem were related to alchemy.

On the pages of his works, Shakespeare demonstrated his knowledge of the four elements or beginnings, as the ancient natural philosophers argued that the world was composed of earth, water, air, and fire. In the Twelfth Night, Sir Toby said that life is made up of four elements. In Henry the Fifth, Dauphin describes Perseus’ horse as having air and fire in him, saying that the heavy elements, earth, and water, were manifested in him only when he patiently stood, ready to take the rider’s seat. The hints at the alchemy are also seen in Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra tells Aleksas, who came from Mark Antony, that the latter transformed lead into gold. Therefore, the theme of alchemy was very popular in the times of Shakespeare. For example, a friend of Shakespeare, an English playwright Benjamin Johnson, wrote a comedy titled The Alchemist.


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To evaluate the contribution of Shakespeare in science, it is necessary to adapt to the scientific meaning of his expressions to particular historical conditions. It is also important to bear in mind that an entirely unified approach to the artistic and scientific thinking patterns of Shakespeare’s characters does not allow us to reconstruct the real image of Shakespeare. It is believed that, in his time, Shakespeare was unknown. In addition, according to the vision of Shakespeare as an association of thousands of poets, he is not known until the end even today. Thus, Shakespeare is often considered immortal.


Alchemy involves changes in humans based on the metaphor of chemical transformations and the use of chemicals, as well as the attempts to obtain precious metals, elixirs, the philosopher’s stone, the universal solvent, drinking gold, and other substances that seem to have amazing properties. Alchemy endows people or substances with individual components such as mind, spirit, soul, body, or energy, attributing to them specific physical and chemical properties. In the history of science, alchemy has been used not only as an early form of chemistry or the study of nature but also as an early philosophical discipline. Although alchemy appeared in ancient times, it became a phenomenon of medieval culture, which intertwined the original natural sciences view of the world with the idea of humans and society characteristic of the medieval culture. The main goal of alchemists was to search for the so-called philosopher’s stone, the great elixir, great magisterium, or red tincture, which was able to turn imperfect metals into gold. Moreover, the magic philosopher’s stone was meant to ensure eternal youth, the cure of all diseases, wealth, and happiness. The alchemists’ actions proved that the latter likened themselves to God. That is why, in the Middle Ages, alchemy was considered heresy, and those people, who practiced it, were being hunted. However, alchemical themes became very popular at the beginning of the Renaissance period. Shakespeare is an example of a writer, whose works are full of implicit or explicit hints at the alchemical processes and the idea of turning other metals into gold, which was quite popular during that period.


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