Disknowledge: How Alchemy Transmitted Ignorance in Renaissance England

Disknowledge: How Alchemy Transmitted Ignorance in Renaissance England

Disknowledge: How Alchemy Transmitted Ignorance in Renaissance England

Disknowledge: How Alchemy Transmitted Ignorance in Renaissance England


"Disknowledge": knowing something isn't true, but believing it anyway. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded.

Eggert argues that English writers used alchemy to signal how to avoid or camouflage pressing but discomfiting topics in an age of rapid intellectual change. Disknowledge describes how John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey, Helkiah Crooke, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare used alchemical imagery, rhetoric, and habits of thought to shunt aside three difficult questions: how theories of matter shared their physics with Roman Catholic transubstantiation; how Christian Hermeticism depended on Jewish Kabbalah; and how new anatomical learning acknowledged women's role in human reproduction. Disknowledge further shows how Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Margaret Cavendish used the language of alchemy to castigate humanism for its blind spots and to invent a new, posthumanist mode of knowledge: writing fiction.

Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge--willfully adhering to something we know is wrong--resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era.


“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” says Hamlet to his friend, “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” On the face of it, this is a quite reasonable thing to say at this moment in the play. Occasioned by the Ghost’s appearance, which has rattled both men, Hamlet’s remark suggests that ghosts are not something that you can think about properly, not in the framework you have at hand. When Horatio calls the Ghost “wondrous strange,” Hamlet’s observation assures him that this apparition falls into the category of things not knowable (1.5.172).

The question then becomes, though, how you are to think at all. One option—one that may seem tempting at this point in Hamlet—is to leave off thinking altogether. Certainly thinking has gotten no one anywhere so far in act 1. the watch and Horatio alike have been utterly wrong about what the Ghost’s appearance portends, and Hamlet himself has already cast the political and familial complexities of the royal house hold in the half-light of his own highly idiosyncratic, and hence highly questionable, speculations and emotions. Now, after the Ghost’s revelation raises more questions than it answers, Hamlet recommends to the other men that they suppress any desire for knowledge they may have. “For your desire to know what is between us”— that is, between Hamlet and the Ghost—“O’ermaster it as you may” (1.5.145– 46). What a relief to be permitted to remain simply ignorant! If you never have to try to know anything, you never feel the shame of coming up with a theory that is manifestly wrong.

It is quite possible, however, that what Horatio calls “wondrous strange” is not the Ghost but Hamlet himself, whose “wild and whirling words” Horatio has already noted (1.5.139). and one of the most wondrously strange things Hamlet does in this sequence is put Horatio and the soldiers of the watch in . . .

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