Francis Bacon & The Stage

by R. J. W. Gentry

from Baconiana


To summarize, all that has been attempted is to give some brief indication:

1. That Francis Bacon loved the stage in his youth as a delight to the mind and senses, and then, as an ally of his great educational purpose;
2. That he was knowledgeable and practiced in the production of plays, and was reputed to be the "main contriver" and author of certain pieces,
3. That, despite his suppressive concern during his lifetime, references and remains survive to substantiate this reputation.


In Nichols' Progresses..... of Queen Elizabeth we find an account of the revels at Gray's Inn, usually known as the Gesta Graiorum (1594-5). E.J.Castle maintains, that this was reproduced "from a pamphlet which, in its turn was printed from a MS. discovered by accident. Unfortunately the original MS. is not known to exist and there are few copies of the pamphlet--one is in the Gray's Inn Library. It was apparently written at the time, was preserved, and was printed for W. Canning at his shop in the Temple cloisters in the year 1688. Who was the author of this account? How came it to be preserved? How came it into the hands of the publisher? We have no direct evidence but I think there is enough to show that it was either written by Bacon himself--and thus is an illustration of his concealed authorship--or it was written by someone who had reason for not mentioning Bacon by name."

In this Masque, the Prince of Purpoole addresses his six consellors in a speech, and they reply in six long speeches, all in serious vein. Spedding says (Vol.I) that these Speeches of the Six Counsellors "were written by Bacon and by him alone," and that " no one who is at all familiar with his style, either or thought or expression, will for a moment doubt."

Let us examine briefly some of the statements of the Second Counsellor in his particular advice to the Prince. Remembering Bacon's remark in the Advancement (Bk.1): "We see how far the monuments of wit and learning are more durable than the monuments of power, or of the hands....", it is interesting to find the Counsellor shadowing forth the same idea, when he says "....I will commend to your Highness four principal works and monuments of yourself." He goes on to explain what these should be: "First, the collecting of a most perfect and general library, wherein whatsoever the wit of man hath hitherto committed to books of worth, be they ancient or modern, printed or manuscript, European or of other parts, of one or other language, may be made contributory to your wisdom. Next, a spacious, wonderful garden, wherein whatsoever plant the sun of diverse climates, out of the earth of diverse molds, either wild or by the culture of man, brought forth, may be, with that care that appertaineth to the good prospering thereof , set and cherished ; this garden to be built about with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds, with two lakes adjoining, the one of fresh water, the other of salt, for like variety of fishes. And so you may have in small compass a model of universal nature made private. The third, a goodly huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine hath made rare in stuff, form, or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept, shall be sorted and included. The fourth, such a still-house, so furnished with mills, instruments , furnaces, and vessels as may be a palace fit for a philosopher's stone. Thus, when your excellency shall have added depth of knowledge to the fineness of your spirits and greatness of your power, then indeed shall you be a Trismegistus, and then when all other miracles and wonders shall cease, by reason that you shall have discovered their natural causes, yourself shall be left the only miracle and wonder of the world."


Now let us turn to Bacon's New Atlantis. There, the Father of Solomon's house sets forth some principles and objectives that guide the education of his people. He says, among many things:

"The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible....We have twelve that sail into foreign countries, under the names of other nations, for our own we conceal, who bring us the books, and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts. These we call the Merchants of Light. We have three that collect the experiments which are all in books. These we call depredators... We have also large and various orchards and gardens, wherein we do not so much respect beauty, as variety of ground and soil, proper for divers trees and herbs... In these we praxes likewise all conclusions of grafting and inoculating, as well of wild trees as fruit trees, which product many effects.... We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials; that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man....We make them differ in color, shape, activity, many ways. We find means to make commixtures and copulations of divers kinds, which have produced many new kinds....We have great lakes, both salt and fresh, whereof we have use for the fish and fowl....We have two very long and fair galleries: in one of these we place patterns and samples and samples of all manner of the more rare and excellent inventions...We have also search houses and instruments for all sorts of motions...also perfume -houses...all manner of of exquisite distillations and separations....divers mechanical arts,...and stuffs made by them; as papers, linen, silks, tissues...excellent dyes and many others...We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made...also furnaces of great diversities. We have burials in several earths, where we put divers cements, as the Chinese do their porcelain... We have so many things truly natural, which induce admiration, could in a world of particulars deceive the senses, if we would disguise those things, and labor to make them seem more miraculous. But we do hate all impostures and lies...and draw the experiments into titles and tables, to give the better light for the drawing of observations an axioms out of them...the plain demonstration of causes...."

These few of the "riches of Solomon's' House" of the New Atlantis so closely parallel the ideal objectives of science envisaged by the Second Counsellor in the Gray's Inn Device that it is impossible not to ascribe the two works to the same intelligence. In the earlier are the germs of the later. And we know that such ideal were the lifelong and constant aims of Francis Bacon.

Of interest, also, is the fact that this same entertainment of 1594 was the occasion(according to Dr. Delius) of the Comedy of Errors first being alluded to. The elaborate burlesque in which the Prince of Purpoole received the advice of his six counsellors was a successful atonement, to the audience of statesmen and courtiers, for the fiasco of the first "grand night" of December 20th, at which overcrowding and boisterousness had caused a tumult and spoiled the evening. A conceit entitled A Comedy of Errors , like to Plantus his Menoechmus had been performed by professional actors, and gave the occasion the mocking titles of "the night of Errors."

Significant, too, is that the latest date of any sheet in Bacon's Promus is January 27th, 1595. The newly fashioned colloquial phrases collected together in that notebook point to some such use as dramatic composition would give rise to. Their employment in any other kind of work is hardly conceivable.

The foregoing may serve to indicate that Bacon, especially in his earlier years, had a devotion to the stage and a practical knowledge of play production. To demand that some actual manuscript in his writing and signed by his hand as author be forthcoming as the only reliable proof of his capability as playwright is to be unreasonable. In the very nature of the case, Bacon had to preserve his anonymity as a dramatic writer; whatever evidence lay within his power he suppressed. But he constantly betrays his interest in the theatre by his many metaphorical references to it. Mrs. Pott informs us that "nearly fifty metaphors and figures based upon stage-playing are to be found in his grave scientific works."

Let us, however, glance through one of his other works, the Henry VII . Here we find :" frame him and instruct him in the part he was to play"; "....none could hold the book so well to prompt and instruct this stage-play as she could"; "he thought good, after the manner of scenes in stage-plays and masks, to show it afar off; " whereas fortune commonly doth not bring in a comedy or farce after a tragedy", " this country of all others should be the stage, where a base counterfeit should play the part of a King of England", "...Perkin, not descending at all from his stage like greatness...."; ...."Therefore now, like the end of a play, a great number came upon the stage at once"; "But from his first appearance upon the stage, in his new person of a sycophant or juggler, instead of his former person of a prince...."; " It was one of the longest plays of that kind that hath been in memory, and might perhaps have had another end, if he had not met with a king wise, stout, and fortunate."

Mention of the stage or acting abounds in Bacon's other works, and so readily does he use the figures of the play for illustration that we can easily divine his active enthusiasm for the theatre. Take An Advertisement touching an Holy War : this is actually cast in the form of a dialogue. In the dedication to his friend, Bishop Andrews, he makes a remark of great insight, one that would come naturally from a writer of tragedies: "Amongst consultations, it is not the least to represent to a man's self like examples of calamity in others. For examples give a quicker impression than arguments; and besides they certify us, that which Scripture also tendereth for satisfaction; 'that no new thing is happened to us'. This they do the better, by how much the examples are licker in circumstances to our own case; and more especially if they fall upon persons that are greater and worthier than ourselves."

The discussion itself is carried on by five participants and is introduced thus: "There met at Paris, in the house of Eupolis, Eusebius, Zebedaeus, Gamaliel, Martius, all persons of eminent quality, but of several dispositions. Eupolis himself was also present; and while they were set in conference, Pollio came in to them from court; and as soon as he saw them, after his witty and pleasant manner he said:

Pollio . Here be four of you, I think, were able to make a good world, for you differing as the four elements, and yet you are friends. As for Eupolis, because he is temperate, and without passion, he may be the fifth essence.

Eupolis. If we five, Pollio, make the great world, you alone make the little; because you profess, and practice both, to refer all things to yourself.

Pollio. And what do they practice it, and profess it not?

Eupolis. They are the less hardy, and the more dangerous. But come and sit down with us, for we were speaking of the affairs of Christendom at this day; wherein we would be glad to have your opinion.

Pollio. My lords, I have journeyed this morning, and it is now the heat of the day; therefore your lordships' discourses discourses had need content my ears very well, to make them entreat mine eyes to keep open. But yet if you will give me leave to awake you, when I think your discourses do but sleep, I will keep watch the best I can.

Eupolis. You cannot do us a greater favor. Only I fear you will think our discourses to be but the better sort of dreams; for good wishes without power to effect, are not much more. But, sir, when you came in, Martius had both raised our attentions, and affected us with some speech he had begun; and it falleth out well, to shake off your drowsiness; for it seemed the trumpet of a war. And therefore, Martius, if please you, to begin again; for the speech was such, as deserveth to be heard twice; and assure you, your auditory is not a little amended by the presence of Pollio....."

Even this short extract will suffice to show that Bacon's was no unskillful hand at the imaginative presentment of talk at a high level.

The essay 0f Masques and Triumphs strikes an authentic note of experience in the putting on of such entertainments as "do naturally take the sense." It is true Bacon refers to such things as "toys" but he obviously must have had an active interest in them, and no doubt often graced them with elegancy." It is contended that the stage was merely the idle delight of his youth; that he turned from it in his maturity to the serious studies of science and philosophy. But he was over thirty when Lady Anne Bacon was still writing severely, and trusting that he and Anthony "will not mum nor mask nor sinfully revel at Gray's Inn." (Lambeth MSS.650,222). Evidently reports had reached her concerning Francis, and Anthony had suspiciously transferred his lodgings, at that time, to a place near the Bull Theatre, where some of the Shakespeare Plays were acted. In 1607, Sir Thomas Bodley also upbraided Bacon, presumably for having written plays, which were not then regarded as worthy to be considered literature. On receiving a copy of Cogitata et Visa from Bacon, he congratulates him on having at last hit upon a worthy subject, natural philosophy, "which course," he says, " would to God -- to whisper as much in your ear --you had followed at the first, when, you fell to the study of such a study as was not worthy of such a student." He would be meaning Bacon's earlier works for the stage which he would find repugnant to his taste as a high minded man of strict outlook.

In 1597 Bacon writes from Gray's Inn to the Earl of Shrewsbury requesting the loan of a horse and armour for a public show. And later in 1613, a letter of Chamberlain's giving the news of the day, reports that Sir Francis Bacon "prepares a masque" forth the marriage celebrations of the daughter of the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Suffolk, which masque "will stand him in above 2000"{Pounds}. The same correspondent had also written, some little time before, "On Tuesday, it came to Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple's turn to come with their masque, whereof Sir Francis Bacon was the chief contriver."

In March, 1617, Bacon was installed as Lord Chancellor, and Spedding relates that among the crowds that came to do him honor, as he rode in state to Westminster Hall, conspicuous were the players from Bankside.

He realized early what a valuable adjunct to this great scheme of educating his countrymen could be found in the stage, if this were rightly handled. We find him in The Masculine Birth of Time, deploring the ignorance and intolerance of the age and calling for a new process "by which to insinuate ourselves into minds so entirely obstructed....So men generally taste well knowledges that are drenched in flesh and blood, civil history, morality, policy, about which men's affections, praises, fortunes do turn, and are conversant."

Bompas (The Problem of the Shakespeare Plays) reminds us that Bacon in the second book of the Latin Advancement, urges that "the art of acting(actio theatricalis) should be made a part of the education of youth--for though it be of ill repute as a profession, yet as a part of discipline it is of excellent use." And Mrs. Pott says " the latest as it is the greatest tribute openly paid by Bacon to the value of the theatre as a means of popular education is the passage which he omitted from the Advancement of Learning in it's early form, but inserted in the De Augmentis in 1623, when that work, the crowning glory of his scientific and philosophical labours, appeared simultaneously with the first collected edition of the Shakespeare Plays. The passage was not intended to be read by the 'profane vulgar', who might have despised the Chancellor for praising the much-despised stage. It was therefore, reserved for the Latin, and thus rendered, for the time, accessible only to the learned--for the most part,Bacon's friends. Bacon states:

' "Dramatic poesy, which has the theatre for its world, would be of excellent use if well directed. For the stage is capable of no small influence, both of discipline and of corruption. Now, of corruptions in this kind we have enough; but the discipline has, in our times, been plainly neglected. And though in modern states play-acting is esteemed but a toy, except when it is too satirical or biting, yet amongst the ancients it was used as a means of educating men's minds to virtue. Nay, it has been regarded by learned men and philosophers as a kind of musician's bow, by which men's minds may be played upon. And certainly it is most true, and one of the greatest secrets of nature, that the minds of men are more open to impressions and affections when many are gathered together, than when they are alone.' " (Francis Bacon and His Secret Society)

It is strange that the Shakespeare Plays actually realize Bacon's ideal, yet he never makes any reference to them. In fact, by 1623, the year which saw the publication of the Great Folio and also his De Augmentis Scientiarum, he has still omitted any mention of them as filling any deficiency in our literature.

To summarize, all that has been attempted is to give some brief indication:

1. that Francis Bacon loved the stage in his youth as a delight to the mind and senses, and then, as an ally of his great educational purpose;

2, that he was knowledgeable and practiced in the production of plays, and was reputed to be the "main contriver" and author of certain pieces,

3. that, despite his suppressive concern during his lifetime, references and remains survive to substantiate this reputation.

The objection based on the "impossibility" of Bacon's having produced the Shakespeare Plays through his lack of experience in stage-craft has been fairly met. And that he achieved the the highest peaks of the world's literary art comes not as a suprise to those who remember his own words (De Augmentis, VII) :

"I often advisedly and deliberately throw aside the dignity of my name (if such thing be) in my endeavor to advance human interests." Who would not agree that he has "though in a despised weed...procured the good of all men?'












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