The Alchemical Anchorite has been, in the three centuries since its discovery in a trunk in a Cavalier stronghold by an invading Roundhead who’d expected the trunk to contain Charles the First, a more than usually fertile field for wild academic speculation. Its anonymous authorship and unknown date of publication add layers of mystery unavailable even to scholars of Shakespeare. It is thought to be based on The Hermetick Romance, or, The Chymical Wedding (1616), a text important to the Rosicrucians.
In The Chymical Wedding, a man is given a wedding invitation by an angel covered in eyes. Accordingly, he sets off on a journey to the castle where the wedding is to take place. He has mystically-significant encounters on his way, and he has more of them when he arrives. The whole thing is soaked in alchemical significance.
Why anyone would write a bawdy and broadly comic play based on this text is not known. Indeed, whether this work is indeed meant for comedy is itself a matter of conjecture. Hermes, the hero of the play, has more lines than Hamlet, as he has to carry all the lines of the second act entirely on his own. This is the famous Labyrinth Act, which occurs when Hermes, arriving at Cobbler Castle (Cobbler is thought to be either a corruption of or a play on Kabbalah), is shown into a room and left alone in it. He promptly finds a secret passage, enters it, and finds himself in absolute blackness. Absolute blackness is indicated by the groping movements of Hermes’ hands, his hesitant steps, and a certain staring look on the face of the actor (this last only if he is a fairly good actor). Either because he is a juggins or because he is so soaked in symbolism that he has no choice, Hermes begins to explore. He is, apparently, soon joined by several invisible demons, whom he addresses by name, and whom he seems to know quite well. The scene, if not mercifully abridged, lasts about an hour, during which our hero continues to stagger around the stage and talk to monsters who are not there.
About ten minutes before the end of this fever-dream, the Anchorite slips quietly onto the stage. She stands perfectly still, and, if the stage is properly crepuscular, the audience becomes aware of her slowly. A rustle goes through the theater as this awareness spreads like contagion. Standing there, she is a figure of awe, of obscure terror. And the hero, though unaware of her, is getting closer to her every minute. There is a sudden chill. Hermes is no longer ridiculous; he is a poor human fool, moving towards some inevitable destiny.
The Anchorite has been interpreted as a seed, a mandrake root, Christ, essential procreative energy, the hero’s feminine side, bimetallism (this is probably not possible, date-wise, but scholars will be scholars), the oracle of Delphi, the philosopher’s stone, death, the Devil, several different classic Goddesses, the god Hermes, and probably several other things as well. One thing no-one could possibly mistake her for is an Anchorite. She is generally played as a provocative and bewitching little minx. This, after the strangeness of her entrance, is a disappointment.
When finally Hermes (the hero, not the God- unless, of course, he is) finds the Anchorite, they have a conversation which is thought, by many, to be terribly alchemical. Others think it is terribly bawdy.
Hermes: Who are you?
Anchorite: The eighth of seven.
Hermes: Ah, so you are eight together.
Anchorite: Nay, sir. Zero. Seven plus one returns us to the beginning, which is void.
Hermes: What, nothing?
Hermes: A very full and pleasing nothing.
Hermes: A sweet nothing, indeed.
They do some more lunatic math and then the Anchorite invites Hermes back to her cell. He accepts, and they begin to exit stage right- when a bell sounds seven times. Apparently, the wedding is to start at seven, and Hermes flies into a pitiable state of panic. The Anchorite tries to calm him, but he starts back through the labyrinth, sprinting around wildly and getting lost. She chases him. Her panic is now worse than his. Finally, he runs smack into the bride and bridegroom and the rest of the wedding party, who are solemnly processing On, because it is the sort of play where people get married in labyrinths. The bride, seeing Hermes, wraps her long white veil around him, covering him completely. The Anchorite, seeing this encounter, gives a single wild cry, falls to the ground and, apparently, dies. The play is then over. Not much happens in it, but an aura of mystery will cover a multitude of sins.