Mind the Gap: Francis Bacon
and the Shakespeare History Plays
By Simon Miles
“Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers, and can call them all by their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.”
- Prince Henry (aka Harry); Henry IV Part 1 Act 2 Sc. 4
Shakespeare’s History plays form an unbroken sequence, except for two gaps. The “first tetralogy” (comprising Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), and the “second tetralogy”, (Henry VI Parts 1,2,3 and Richard III) create a continuous narrative tracing the history of the English crown through the reign of seven kings. However, the plays of King John and The Life of King Henry VIII are disconnected from this otherwise seamless progression. Consider the gaps. The first, spanning the reign of four sovereigns between King John and Richard II, happens to be covered by four non- Shakespearean plays1. If we bundle these plays together with those of Shakespeare, we have a sequence of works all appearing in the 1590s extending without interruption from King John to Richard III. These point to a co-ordinated program.
One gap remains, between Richard III and Henry VIII. Very curiously, it is filled by Francis Bacon’s prose work, The History of the Reign of Henry VII. Examine closely the splice: Richard III concludes at the battle of Bosworth Field. Bacon’s Henry VII commences at this same juncture: with the singing of the Te Deum on the battlefield to commemorate the ascent to the crown of the Earl of Richmond as Henry VII. Bacon’s Henry VII therefore completes an unbroken cycle of histories, from King John to Henry VIII. It is, incidentally, replete with terms relating to the theatre, acting and the staging of plays. Clearly, Francis Bacon was, at the very least, a party to the program of co-ordination, if not the lead conductor himself.
Certain clues invite further consideration of Bacon’s relationship to the History plays. Henry VIII
appears in print for the first time in the 1623 Folio, and contains a curious historical anomaly. Shakespeare names four figures as calling on Cardinal Wolsey to relieve him of the Great Seal. In fact, only two of these were present (the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk), while the remaining two appear to be a historical error (the Earl of Surrey, and the Lord Chamberlain). Yet, the deputation who arrived on Bacon’s doorstep in 1621 to retrieve the Great Seal from him numbered four men, including the Earl of Arundel, (who was also Earl of Surrey), and the Earl of Pembroke, (who was Lord Chamberlain). Thus, the Folio version of the play glances at the historical resonance between the loss of the Great Seal by Wolsey in 1529, and by Bacon in 1621.
Finally, in Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Prince Henry a variation on the commonplace phrase “Tom, Dick or Harry”, by substituting the final “Harry” with “Francis”. The playwright has left this link connecting the Prince to the name Francis. Why? A clue: Prince Henry was the Prince of Wales. Francis Bacon, the unacknowledged son of Queen Elizabeth, if he had been recognised, would have also been the Prince of Wales. Tug on these loose threads, and not only the the tapestry of Shakespeare’s History plays, but English history itself, might unravel.
- Hon. History of Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay; (first printed 1594) attr. R. Greene; on Henry III (1216-1272)
- Edward the First; (1593) attr. G. Peele; Edward I (1272-1307)
- Edward the Second; (1594) attr. C. Marlowe; Edward II (1307-1327)
- The Raigne of King Edward the third; (1596) Anonymous; Edward III (1327-1377)