Hamlet and Francis Bacon

excerpts from the book Francis Bacon Our Shakespeare, 1902

by Edwin Reed


Coincidence number 1

The tragedy of Hamlet was written in or about 1586, but not printed until 1603. In this first draft of the play we find a letter, written by the prince to Ophelia, in which she is told she may doubt any proposition whatever, no matter how certain it may be, but under no circumstances must she doubt the writers' love. From this letter, which is partly in verse, we quote:

"Doubt that in earth is fire,
Doubt that the stars do move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But do not doubt I love."--ii.2.

Among the certainties here specified, which Ophelia was at liberty to question before she could question the writers' love, is the doctrine of a central fire in the earth. "Doubt that in earth is fire." The belief in the existence of a mass of molten matter at the centre of the earth was then, as it is now, universal; but for some reason the author of he play changed his mind in regard to it within one year after the play was published. The second edition of Hamlet came from the press in 1604, and then the first line of the stanza, quoted above, was made to read as follows:

"Doubt that the stars are fire."

The doctrine of a central fire in the earth was thus taken out of the play some time between the appearance of the first edition in 1603 and that of the second in 1604. How can this be accounted for? was there another person known to fame in all the civilized world at that time, besides the author of Hamlet, who entertained a doubt as to the earth's interior? Yes, there was one, and perhaps one only. Francis Bacon wrote a tract, entitled Cogitationes de Natura Rerum , assigned to the latter part of 1603 or the early part of 1604. Mr. Spedding, the last and best editor of Bacon's works, thinks it was written before September, 1604. In this tract, evidently a fresh study of the subject, Bacon boldly took the ground that the earth is a cold body, cold to the core, the only cold body, as he afterwards affirmed, in the entire universe, all others, sun, planets, and stars, being of fire.

It appears, then, that Bacon adopted this new view of the earth's interior at precisely the same time that the author of Hamlet did; that is to say, according to the record, in the brief interval between the appearance of the first and that of the second editions of the drama, and, furthermore, against the otherwise unanimous opinion of the physicists throughout the world. Bacon writes:

"The heaven, from its pefect and entire heat and the extreme extension of matter, is most hot, lucid, rarefied, and moveable; whereas the earth, on the contrary, from its entire and unrefracted cold, and the extreme contraction of matter, is most cold, dark, and dense, completely immoveable.....The rigors of cold, which in winter time and in the coldest countries are exhaled into the air from the surface of the earth, are merely tepid airs and baths, compared with the nature of the primal cold shut up in the bowels thereof."--Bacon's De Principiis atque Originibus

Coincidence number 2

The second line of the stanza in this extraordinary love letter is also significant. In the first edition it runs as follows:

"Doubt that the stars do move." 1603.

In the second edition the change is merely verbal:

"Doubt that the sun doth more." 1604

(The change was made necessary in reforming the stanza by the promotion of the word stars to the first line.)

The doctrine that the earth is the centre of the universe around which the sun and stars daily revolve is thus retained. It has been retained in every succeeding edition of the play to the present time. How can this, also, be accounted for?

Copernicus published his heliocentric theory of the solar system in 1543, eighteen years before Bacon was born. Bruno taught it in Geneva in 1580; in Paris, in 1582; in London and Oxford, in 1583; in Germany, in 1584; in Switzerland, in 1588, in Venice, in 1590; and he was burned at the stake as a martyr to it in Rome in 1600; Kepler announced two of his great laws, governing planetary motions, in 1609; Galileo established the truth of the Copernican system beyond the shadow of a doubt by his discoveries of the phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter in 1610; Harriot saw the sun spots and proved the rotation of that luminary on its axis in 1611; Kepler proclaimed his third law in 1619; and yet, notwithstanding all these repeated and wonderful demonstrations and in opposition to the general current of contemporary thought,(we take no notice of the opinions of theologians, or of astronomers writing under the influence of the Church.), Bacon persistently and with ever increasing vehemence adhered to the old theory to the day of his death. The author of the Plays did the same. The two were agreed in holding to the cycles and epicycles of Ptolemy after all the rest of the scientific world had rejected them; and they were also agreed in rejecting the Copernican theory after all the rest of the scientific world had accepted it.

In 1622, Bacon admitted that the Copernican theory had become prevalent (quoe nunc quoque invaluit), but he thought that a compromise might be effected between the two opposing systems, evidently unable, on account of the mathematical principles involved, to comprehend either of them. At one time he seems to have deprecated both.

A slight circumstance throws some light upon the state of his mind on this subject. In the first edition of the Advancement of Learning (1605), he said that "the mathematicians cannot satisfy themselves, except they reduce the motions of the celestial bodies to perfect circles, rejecting spiral lines, and laboring to be discharged of eccentrics." In the second edition (1623) he omitted the reference to eccentrics. In the book William Shakespeare by Elze,p.390 he states," Shakespeare does not appear to have got beyond the Ptolemaic system of the universe."


Coincidence number 3


In the second edition of Hamlet, 1604, we find the tides of the ocean attributed, in acordance with popular opinion, to the influence of the moon.

"The moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse."--i. 1.

This was repeated in the third quarto, 1605; in the fourth, 1611; in the fifth or undated quarto; but in the first folio (1623), the lines were omitted. Why?

During the Christmas revels at Gray's Inn in 1594, Bacon contributed to the entertainment, among other things, a poem in blank verse, known as the Gray's Inn Masque. It is full of those references to natural philosophy in which the author took so much delight, and especially on this occasion when Queen Elizabeth was the subject, to the various forms of attraction exerted by one body upon another in the world. Of the influence of the moon, he says:

"Your rock claims kindred of the polar star,
Because it draws the needle to the north;
Yet even that star gives place to Cynthia's rays,
Whose drawing virtues govern and direct
The flots and re-flots of the Ocean."

(The masque is not in Bacon's name, but no one can read it and doubt its authorship. Bacon was the leading promoter of these revels.)

At this time, then, Bacon held to the common opinion that the moon controls the tides; but later in life, in or about 1616, he made an elaborate investigation into these phenomona, and in a treatise entitled De Fluxu et Refluxu Maris, definitely rejected the lunar theory.

" We dare not proceed so far as to assert that the motions of the sun or moon are the causes of the motions below, which correspond thereto; or that the sun and moon have a dominion or influence over these motions of the sea, though such kind of thoughts find an easy entrance into the minds of men by reason of the veneration they pay to the celesial bodies.

Whether the moon be in her increase or wane; whether she be above or under the earth; whether she be elevated higher or lower above the horizon; whether she be in the meridian or elsewhere; the ebb and flow of the sea have no correspondence with any of these phenomona."- Bacon's De Fluxu et Refluxu Maris


In every edition of Hamlet published previously to 1616, the theory is stated and approved; in every edition published after 1616, it is omitted.

The titles are attributed to the influence of the moon in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and the 'Winter's Tale'; but both these plays were written long before the date of Bacon's change of opinion on the subject. The former we know was not revised by the author for publication in the folio; and we have no reason to believe that the latter, then printed for the first time, underwent any revision after 1616.

The same theory is stated, also, in 'King Lear' and the 'First Part of Henry IV'; but the tragedy was in existence in 1606, and the historical play considerably earlier. The 'Tempest' was written in 1613.

It should be added, however, that the spring or monthly tides were ascribed by Bacon to the influence of the moon.

The passage from ' Hamlet' has been restored to the text by modern editors.


Coincidence number 4

In 'Hamlet', again, we have a singular doctrine in the sphere of moral philosophy, advanced by the author in his early years but subseqently withdrawn.

The prince, expostulating with his mother in the celebrated chamber-scene where Polinus was hidden behind the arras, says to her,--

"Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion." iii. 4 (1604).

The commentators can make nothing of these words. One of them suggests that for "motion" we substitute notion; another, emotion. Others still contend that the misprint is in the first part of the sentence; that "sense" must be understood to mean sensation or sensibility. Dr. Ingleby is certain that Hamlet refers to the Queen's wanton impulse. The difficulty is complicated, too, by the fact that the lines were omitted from the revised version of the play in the folio of 1623, concerning which, however, the most daring commentator has not ventured to offer a remark. But in Bacon's prose works we find not only an explanation of the passage in the quarto, but also the reason why it was excluded from the folio.

The 'Advancement of Learning' was published in 1605, one year after the quarto of ' Hamlet' containing the sentence in question appeared; but no repudiation of the old doctrine, that everything that has motion must have sense, is found in it. Indeed, Bacon seems to have had at that time a lingering opinion that the doctrine is true, even as applied to the planets, in the influence which these wanderers were then supposed to exert over the affairs of men. But in 1623 he published a new edition of the 'Advancement' in Latin, under the title of De Augmentis Scientiarum, and therein expressly declared that the doctrine is untrue; that there can be motion in inanimate bodies without sense, but with what he called a kind of perception. He said:

"Ignorance on this point drove some of the ancient philosophers to suppose that a soul is infused into all bodies without distinction; for they could not conceive how there can be motion without sense, or sense without a soul."

The Shake-speare folio with its revised version of Hamlet came out in the same year (1623); and the passage in question, having run through all previous editions of the play,-- i.e., in 1604, in 1605, in 1611, and in the undated quarto,--but now no longer harmonizing with the author's views, dropped out.

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