From Nigel Cockburn's Book

The Bacon-Shakespeare Question

Chapter 4


Bacon’s Reasons for Anonymity

Strangers to the Elizabethan scene often find it hard to accept that Bacon could have had any reason for writing plays and poetry under another man’s name. In fact, there were 5 reasons:

FIRST REASON Poetry Beneath Dignity

As A.L. Rowse observed in his William Shakespeare (1963), p. 65, “Anonymitywas of course common form with an aristocratic author”. The same applied to courtiers generally, of whatever rank, as is clear from the passages cited below. Bacon was at first a commoner, then only a knight, during the period when the Shake-Speare works were being written. But he was always a courtier, with free access to the Court.

It was socially acceptable for such people to write poetry and circulate it among their private friends, but to publish it under their own names was considered infra dig and déclassé (1). In 1586 William Webbe in his A Discourse of English Poetry wrote:

"I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble Lords and Gentlemen in her Majesty’s Court, which, in the rare devices of poetry, have been and yet are most skilful, among whom the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of most excellent among the rest."

The Art of English Poesy (1589), by an anonymous author generally thought to be George or Richard Puttenham, (and edited by Gladys Willcock and Alice Walker, 1936) has a Chapter 8 on Poets and Poesy with the heading

In what reputation Poesy and Poets were in old times with Princes and otherwise generally, and how they be now contemptible and for what causes .

After dealing with the old times, he continues:

But in these days (although some learned princes may take delight in them) yet universally it is not so. For as well poets as poesy are despised and the name become of honourable, infamous subject to scorn and derision, and rather a reproach than a praise to any that useth it; for commonly whoso is studious in the Art or shows himself excellent in it, they call him in disdain a fantastical; and a light-headed fantastical man (by conversion) they call a poet . . . the scorn and ordinary disgrace offered unto Poets at these days [is one cause] why so few gentlemen do delight in the Art . . . So it is hard to find in these days of noblemen or gentlemen any good mathematician or excellent musician or notable philosopher or cunning poet; because we find few great Princes much delighted in the same studies. Now also of such among the nobility or gentry as be very well seen in many laudable sciences, and especially in making (2) or Poesy, it is so come to pass that they have no courage to write and, if they have; yet are they loth to be known for their skill. So as I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court who have written commendably and suppressed it again, or suffered it to be published without their own names to it, as if it were a discredit for a gentleman to seem learned, and to show himself amorous of any good art.

“Without their own names to it” tends to imply that they used other people’s names, as opposed to no names at all.
The author then relates in Chapter 31 how a new company of courtly poets grew up at the end of the reign of Henry VIII, and continues:

And in her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of courtly makers, noblemen and gentlemen of her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford, Thomas Lord Buckhurst when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Edward Dyer, Master Fulke Greville, [George] Gascoigne, [Nicholas] Breton, [?] Tuberville, and a great many other learned gentlemen whose names I do not omit for envy but to avoid tediousness and who have deserved no little commendation.

Sir Philip Sidney in his The Defence of Poesy (1595) lamented that (pp. 18 & 62 of the 1966 edition by J. van Dorsten):

Poetry is fallen to be the laughing stock of children . . . idle England can scarce endure the pain of a pen.

John Selden in Table Talk (1689), p. 42, wrote:

‘Tis ridiculous for a lord to print verses; ‘tis well enough to make them to please himself but to make them public is foolish.

Turning now to drama, the public Theatre carried an even greater stigma than poetry; and for a nobleman or courtier to have written openly for it would have been almost unthinkable. An Act of Parliament of 1572 classified common players among “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars”, unless “belonging to any Baron of the realm”, i.e, unless they belonged to one of the private troupes of actors owned by individual noblemen. Likewise, a statute of 1597 declared strolling players to be rogues and vagabonds. About 1597 the Lord Mayor of London wrote to Lord Burleigh:

I understand that one Francis Langley intendeth to erect a new stage or theatre (as they call it) for the exercising of plays upon the Bankside . . . nothing else but unchaste fables, lascivious devices, shifts of cozenage, and matter of like sort . . . [which attracted] thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozenors, coney catching persons, practicers of treason, and such other like . . . to the detriment of, religion.

None of this did anything to lessen the public Theatre’s appeal, and aristocrats as well as the common herd flocked to it. But it is not surprising that noblemen and courtiers were reluctant to write for it openly. Thomas Lodge spoke of the vocation of the play-maker as sharing the odium attached to the actor.(3)

SECOND REASON Poetry an Impediment to High Office

The open writing of poetry and plays would have been likely to hinder Bacon’s pursuit of high office. In the manuscript play Sir Thomas More at 3.2.219 the Earl of Surrey says: “Poets were ever thought unfit for state”.

In Ben Jonson’s Epicene or the Silent Woman (first acted in 1609) someone says (at 2.3.81) of the play’s Sir John Daw: “I wonder he is not called to the helm and made a councillor!” There then follows this dialogue (at 2.3.92-104) between Daw, Dauphine and Cleremont:

Dauph: How can you justify your own being of a poet, that so slights all the old poets?

Daw: Why, every man that writes in verse is not a poet; you have of the wits that write verses and yet are no poets; they are poets that live by it, the poor fellows that live by it.

Dauph: Why? Would you not live by your verses, Sir John?

Cle: No, ‘twere pity he should. A knight live by his verses? He did not make ‘em to that end, I hope.

Dauph: And yet noble Sidney lives by his, and the noble family not ashamed.

Cle: Aye, he professed himself; but Sir John Daw has more caution. He’ll not hinder his rising in the state so much ! (4)

But this hindrance must not be exaggerated. Queen Elizabeth and King James both wrote poetry themselves. And at least three Elizabethans who were known to write poetry achieved high office - Thomas Sackville, later Lord Buckhurst and Earl of Dorset, who became Lord Treasurer under Elizabeth and James; Sir John Davies (to whom, as we saw in Chapter 2, Bacon described himself as a concealed poet) who became Attorney-General for Ireland; and Sir Walter Raleigh whose poetry did not debar him from command of military and exploratory expeditions. Ben Jonson himself in his Discoveries, No. 63, made this comment:

Poetry in this latter age hath proved but a mean mistress, to such as have wholly addicted themselves to her; or given their names up to her family. They who have but saluted her on the by, and now and then tendered their visits, she hath done much for, and advanced in the way of their own professions (both the Law and the Gospel) beyond all they could have hoped, or done for themselves, without her favour.

The effect which flirtation with poetry would be likely to have on the promotion chances of a seeker after high office in the state would depend on the view which his Sovereign took of his personality. For example, Raleigh’s Muse was no impediment to advancement because his capacity for action was unquestioned. But with Bacon it would have been likely to be different. He saw the attainment of high legal office as his best means of rising in the State. But disclosure that he was writing poetry and plays on a large scale would have strengthened doubts about his commitment to legal learning. In a letter of May 1594 (Spedding 8.297) the Earl of Essex, reporting back to Bacon on his unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Queen to appoint Bacon Solicitor-General, wrote that she “did acknowledge that you had a great wit and excellent gifts of speech, and much other good learning. But in law she rather thought you could make show to the utmost of your knowledge than that you were deep”.

As to his fitness as a political adviser, it seems that the Queen once dubbed him a speculative man. This appears from a letter from Bacon to Robert Cecil in 1595 (Spedding 8.356) charging that a representative of Cecil had put the word “speculation” into the Queen’s mouth as descriptive of Bacon. It would not have helped him with her if it had been known that his head was full of poetry and play-making. A modest dalliance with non-dramatic poetry might be tolerated but association with the disreputable public theatre would have been thought to be going too far, and to be inconsistent with the dignity of high legal or political office.

THIRD REASON Writing Plays could be Risky

The publication of any literature could involve its author in criminal punishment if it was thought to be libellous, (5) licentious or politically offensive.

Bacon’s father Sir Nicholas had fallen foul of “politically offensive” on one occasion, though he was not prosecuted. In 1564 he wrote and published a booklet named A Declaration of the Crown Imperial of England advocating the claims of the House of Suffolk to the throne. He published it under the name of John Hales, Clerk to the Council, who possibly had collaborated in its writing. Sir Nicholas’s involvement was suspected and reported to the Queen, with the result that for some time he was forbidden the Court, excluded from the Privy Council and prevented from taking any part in public affairs.

So far as plays were concerned, during two periods (1586-93 and 1599) they were rigorously censored in advance, so that offensive matter was normally deleted before the author got into trouble over it. But for the rest of the time the risk was greater - as several playwrights discovered. A play called The Isle of Dogs (1597) had been started by Thomas Nashe but finished by the players themselves of whom

Ben Jonson was one. Apparently it contained libellous matter and the players, including Jonson were thrown into prison, though Nashe escaped that fate. As a collective punishment the authorities then closed all London theatres for two months.

For his Sejanus (1603) Jonson was summoned to the Privy Council to answer for the treason and popery alleged to be in it. Early in 1605 Jonson, George Chapman (and perhaps John Marston) went to prison for a short while as joint authors of Eastwood Ho (and were thought to be in danger of having their ears and noses cut off) over a line sarcastic of the Scots (King James was a Scot). Jonson wrote to the Earl of Salisbury from the prison:

I am here most honoured Lord, unexamined and unheard, committed to a vile prison, and with me a gentleman (whose name may perhaps have come to your Lordship) one Mr. George Chapman, a learned and honest man. The cause (would I could name some worthier, though I wish we had known none worthy our imprisonment) is (the words irk me that our fortune hath necessitated us to so despised a course) a play, my Lord.

Hence many authors wrote anonymously “to assume a little more liberty and freedom of speech” (to use the words of the Preface to the First Edition (1621) of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy).

The Shake-Speare plays, as it happened, were largely innocuous. But there was a spot of bother over Falstaff in 1 Henry IV. He was originally named in the play Sir John Oldcastle after a real historical character. But that worthy’s descendants objected to the ridicule of him and the character had to be renamed Sir John Falstaff. There could have been a great deal of bother over Richard II since it contained a scene of the deposition of Richard by Henry Bolingbroke which was offensive to the Queen. The scene was probably acted on the stage from the start, though it was wisely omitted from the published Quartos till after the Queen’s death. On the eve of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601 his supporters persuaded Shakspere’s company to stage the play in the hope that it would incite the populace to rebellion (see Chapter 13). If Bacon had been discovered to be the author of the play, the consequences for him could have been most uncomfortable.

FOURTH REASON Bacon Secretive by Nature

Bacon had an innate taste for secrecy which must have underlined his more practical reasons for anonymity. In his Essay on Simulation and Dissimulation (Spedding 6(2).387) he wrote:

There be three degrees of this hiding and veiling of man’s self. The first closeness, reservation and secrecy; when a man leaveth himself without observation, or without hold to be taken, what he is. The second dissimulation, in the negative; when a man lets fall signs and arguments that he is not that he is. And the third simulation, in the affirmative; when a man industriously and expressly feigns and pretends to be that he is not.

He goes on to say that he approves of the first two but not normally the third. Later he adds:

No man can be secret, except he give himself a little scope for dissimulation which is, as it were, but the skirts or train of secrecy.

In Bacon’s case the skirts of secrecy tended to be somewhat tight. And in his De Augmentis (Spedding 5.69) he tightens them perhaps further:

Depth of secrecy and concealment of designs, and that manner of action which effects everything by dark acts and methods (or menées sourdes as the French call them) be both useful and admirable.

Bacon was a secret poet, as we saw in Chapter 2. And he did secret prose writing too. He sometimes drafted letters for the Earl of Essex which went out under the Earl’s name. And on at least one occasion (and probably on one other) he wrote a Device for the Earl to present before the Queen as his own (see Chapter 3). He wrote a speech for the Earl of Sussex to deliver at a tilt. And anonymously he did much at least of the writing of the Gray’s Inn Christmas Revels of 1594-5. In 1589 at the age of about 28 he drafted in French an important letter to a French officer of State, apparently at the request of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Secretary of State, under whose name the letter was sent out. In my view he probably drafted a letter from the young Earl of Arundel to the Queen, to explain why Arundel was absconding abroad. For details of three of these incidents, which are probably the tip of the iceberg, see Chapter 13.

Of wider import is the fact that (to use Spedding’s words, 3.173) “at one time he seems to have thought of bringing his [philosophical] work out under a fanciful name, probably with some fanciful story to explain it; as we see in the mysterious title Valerius Terminus etc with the Annotations of Hermes Stella.(6) This is a reference to a preliminary manuscript fragment (1603 ?) of part of his eventual Valerius Terminus or The Interpretation of Nature (Spedding 3.201). The fragment is headed:

Valerius Terminus of

The Interpretation of Nature

with the

Annotations of Hermes Stella

On this outer sheet are some astronomical and astrological symbols which defy interpretation but may perhaps indicate date. Bacon thought that some of his teaching should be obscure, so as to reach only intelligent readers. This work is evidently one such. As to why he chose these pseudonyms, see the footnote (7).

We know of three occasions when Bacon was secretive in sending unspecified writings abroad to his friend Tobie Mathew. In an undated letter (Spedding 11.9) written when Bacon was a knight, Bacon said: “I send my desire to you in this letter that you will take care not to leave the writing which I left with you last with any man so long that he may be able to take a copy of it”. In another letter .to Mathew of 10 October 1609 (Spedding 11.137) he said:

“You conceive aright that in this and the other, you have commission to impart and communicate them to others according to your discretion; other matters I write not of”.

In other words, there were other matters Mathew was not at liberty to communicate. In a third letter to Mathew, which must have been written between 1605 and 1609 , (Spedding 11.134), Bacon wrote:

“I have sent you some copies of my book of The Advancement which you desired, and a little work of my recreation (8) which you desired not. My Instauratio I reserve for our conference; it sleeps not. Those works of the Alphabet (8a) are in my opinion of less use to you where you now are [Spain or Italy?] than at Paris; and therefore I conceived that you had sent me a kind of tacit countermand of your former request. But in regard that some friends of yours have still insisted here, I send them to you, and for my part I value your own reading more than your publishing them to others”.

The Baconians have always maintained that Bacon was a founder member of the Rosicrucians, a secret society for the propagation of learning. This is perfectly possible, but I have not examined it since the ways of that Order are not revealed to me. Rosicrucian or not, Bacon at times moved in mysterious ways. For example, in 1600 he concocted two letters (Spedding 10.157), one as from his brother Anthony to the Earl of Essex, the other as from the Earl in reply to Anthony. The second letter proclaims the Earl’s loyalty to the Queen. Bacon was then to devise some means by which both letters would come “accidentally” to the knowledge of the Queen, who by this deception would be convinced of the Earl’s allegiance.

It cannot be said of Bacon, as Ben Jonson said of Shakspere, that “he was of an open and free nature”. Iago in Othello speaks of “A man so loose of soul / That in his sleep he mutters his affairs”. Bacon was never loose of soul. And probably he got a kick out of secrecy. One could imagine him listening with a twinkle in his eye to discussion of his poetry and plays by people who were not in the secret.

FIFTH REASON Bacon’s Puritan Mother

Bacon’s mother would have been horrified to learn that her boy Francis was writing plays, especially for the public Theatre. As a strict puritan blue stocking she regarded all things theatrical as the machinations of the Devil. In 1594 when Anthony moved to accommodation in Bishopsgate near the Bull Inn in whose courtyard plays and interludes were wont to be performed, she wrote to him expostulating that the Inn’s proximity might corrupt his servants (see E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, 381). Later in the same year when the Gray’s Inn Christmas Revels were imminent, she wrote to Anthony on 5 December:

“I trust they will not mum [perform dumb shows or pageants] nor mask nor sinfully revel at Gray’s Inn” (Spedding 8.326; E.K. Chambers, op.cit., 4.56)

Her attitude to the Theatre would have been more than enough reason by itself, till her death in August 1610 (Spedding 11.217), for Francis’s playwriting anonymity.


It was not uncommon for classical poets and playwrights to issue their work anonymously. Aristophanes, for example, did not at first produce his plays in his own name. And the Roman playwright Terence, a liberated Carthaginian slave, was widely believed to be a front for two aristocratic authors. Perhaps Ben Jonson had these and other classical precedents in mind in his The Poetaster (1601). One of the characters in the play is Ovid Junior who writes plays and poems in secret. His father Ovid Senior warns him that he will be “scorned and contemned in the eyes and ears of the best and gravest Romans”. This dialogue occurs:


Ovid Senior: Ovid, whom I thought to see the pleader [lawyer], become Ovid the play-maker? [In real life Ovid was originally intended for the law but is known to have written a play Medea]

Ovid Junior: No Sir.

Ovid Senior: Yes Sir, I hear of a tragedy of yours coming forth for the common players there, called Medea. 2.2.52-9

Ovid Junior: They wrong me Sir, and do abuse you more
That blow your ears with these untrue reports.
I am not known upon the open stage,
Nor do I traffic in their theatres.

Up to this point, the Baconians are on impregnable ground in their assertion that Bacon, if Shake-Speare, would have wished to conceal his true identity.

Responsible Stratfordian scholars concede that anonymity was the norm for courtly poets. But some aspects of what now follows may be more controversial.


An Elizabethan wishing to conceal his authorship of any literature could do it in several different ways. George Connes wrote in The Shakespeare Mystery (1927),

p. 61:
It was indifferent to these writers whether they used their own names (9) , wrote anonymously, under pseudonyms, or under each others’ names, or if they used any sort of initials no matter what. This fact greatly increases the difficulties of the historian of literature. There is no doubt that some of them lent their names at times for a money consideration to gentlemen about the Court (10).

Thus a writer could (1) publish his work with no author’s name attached to it; or (2) invent a name which sounded like that of a real person; or (3) invent a name which was a palpable pen name; or (4) publish under his initials only or under any invented initials; or (5) use the name of a real person other than himself.

The 1st, 3rd and 4th of these alternatives would challenge curiosity and speculation as to the true authorship. The 2nd might not do so initially, but would sooner or later when no real person could be produced to answer to the name chosen. The 5th alternative would not arouse curiosity unless the secret leaked out.

If Bacon is Shake-Speare, he opted for the 5th course. I know of no Elizabethan precedent for an author publishing his work under the name of another real person on a regular basis, using the same person as a front each time. But there is evidence that another’s name was sometimes used for individual works, and there seems to be no reason why it should not have been used for the whole of an author’s output. Robert Greene in his Farewell to Folly (1591) speaks of bad poets:

Others . . . if they come to write or publish anything in print, it is either distilled out of ballets [ballads] or borrowed of theological poets which for their calling and gravity being loth to have any prophane pamphlets pass under their hand, get some other Batillus to set his name to their verses. Thus is the ass made proud by this underhand brokery.

Batillus was a minor poet in the reign of Augustus Caesar. The Baconians see Shakspere as an ass made proud by the underhand brokery he performed for Bacon.

If clerical poets could use stooges in this way, either on a casual or regular basis and for either poetry or plays, so presumably could others.

Greene probably instanced clerical poets as an a striking example. If one looks for other evidence of a real person being used as a front, one faces the difficulty that, though some Elizabethan plays and a great many poems seem to be published under the wrong names, one can never be sure whether this was done on the instigation of the true authors.

For Bacon to choose an actor as his mask would have two advantages. The first, which concerns the plays only, is that Bacon would no doubt want them staged. Shakspere as an actor and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later renamed the King’s Men) would be an ideal tool for that purpose. In his Essay on Negotiating (Spedding 6(2).493) Bacon wrote:

“In choice of instruments it is better to use men of a plainer sort . . . Use such persons as effect the business wherein they are employed, for that quickeneth much”.

Shakspere would be in a good position to persuade the company to accept the plays, and he could oversee them through all stages of production. In return, he would enjoy the fruits, material and otherwise, of being thought by most people to be the real author.

The second benefit to Bacon would be that he would be likely to be attracted by “Shakespeare” as a pen name since in its metaphorical form - Shake-Speare - it symbolised Pallas, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, who was reputed to shake a spear. Wisdom, of course, was Bacon’s aspiration. I discuss this more fully in.

However, Stratfordians have argued that for the plays the use of Shakspere’s name would, to Bacon’s knowledge, imperil his cover since the actor would constantly be embarrassed by requests from his colleagues for elucidation etc of the text, and to rewrite parts of it on the spot. I deal with this argument in Chapter 37 where I accept the probability that some members of the company at least would sooner or later have realised that Shakspere was not the true author. But would they have betrayed their friend and colleague by blabbing the secret to others? Bacon would have balanced that risk against the advantages to him, mentioned above, of using Shakspere as his front man. In any event, even if the world learnt that Shakspere was only a front man, they might still be ignorant of the author’s true identity. Bacon would then be in no worse position than if he had challenged speculation from the start by using no name or an invented name or initials. His first line of defence would have been breached but he could hope that his second would hold firm.

But Stratfordians have suggested that Bacon’s safest mask would have been to use the name of some minor playwright who, not being an actor in the company, would not be embarrassed by calls to elucidate or rewrite parts of the text on the spot. But it is said that Elizabethan playwrights were expected to work closely with the actors. Further, any difference in quality between the minor playwright’s own work and Shake-Speare’s might arouse suspicion. And Bacon would be denied the advantages of using Shakspere’s name.

Some Actors Wrote Plays

It would not have been thought odd that the plays purported to be written by an actor. Till about 1587 most plays or interludes were written by actors. There then emerged a group of university playwrights. But still some actors wrote plays.

Robert Wilson, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, Nathan Field, Samuel Rowley, Robert Armin and Anthony Munday, all of whom wrote plays, all did some acting at least at some point in their careers. (see A Chronicle History of the London Stage 1559-1642 (1890) , pp. 72 & 167, by Frederick Gard Fleay).

Some Actors Posed as (or were falsely reputed) Playwrights

Some actors, then, wrote plays. But some others received credit for plays not written by them. At least, we can name two Elizabethan actors who were credited with plays which are not thought to have been theirs. One was the comic actor William Kemp. In the Cambridge University play Return from Parnassus, Part 2 (1601 or 1602), 4.4.1796-7, Philomusus says to Kemp, who is introduced into the play,

“Indeed, Mr. Kemp, you are very famous, but that is as well for works in print as your part in cue [acting]”. On this the Rev. Alexander Dyce in the Introduction,p. xvii, to his Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder (1840), commented:

“When . . . Kemp is said to be `famous for works in print’, I understand the ironical compliment as an allusion to his Nine Days Wonder [ 1600] only; for I feel assured that all the other pieces which I now proceed to notice, have been erroneously attributed to his pen”.

The pieces in question were jigs, which means a ludicrous metrical composition spoken or sung at the end of a play by the clown or several actors (At least three jigs are entered in the Stationer’s Register). Dyce comments at p. xxi:

“My belief is that the jigs in question were composed by regular dramatists, and that they were called Kemp’s merely because he had rendered them popular by his acting and probably by flashes of extemporal wit”.

Likewise, the D.N.B. opines:

“It is probable his jigs were not written by himself, but by the authors employed by the company to which he was attached”.

In Nine Days Wonder Kemp himself writes as if at least some of the ballads about his exploits were falsely attributed to him.

The other actor was William Fennor, who boasted of his histrionic talent, and was engaged in a rhyming controversy with John Taylor, the water poet. The latter in his A Cast over the Water (1615) (11) upbraided Fennor:

Thou brag’st what fame thou got’st upon the stage
Upon St. George’s Day last, Sir, you gave
To eight Knights of the Garter (like a knave)
Eight manuscripts (or books) all fairly writ
Informing them they were your mother wit,
And you compiled them; then were you regarded,
And for another’s wit was well rewarded.
All this is true, and this I dare maintain,
The matter came from out a learned brain.

First, by those books thou stol’st a good report
And wast accounted a rare man in Court,
Next, thou did much abuse these noblemen
And killed their bounty from a poet’s pen.
And thirdly thou a poet didst beguile
To make thyself the author of his style.

I take the 8 manuscripts (a book was the name given to a play script) to mean 8 manuscript fair copies of a certain play which Fennor falsely claimed to be of his own composition. The line commencing

“And killed” presumably means that Fennor diverted the noblemen’s bounty from the true author. The Baconians say of course that Shakspere likewise made himself the author of another’s style (though at his request) and the plays in truth “came from out a learned brain”.

It is interesting to note in this connection that in 1637 one Edward Ravenscroft in the Address to his adaptation of Shake-Speare’s Titus Andronicus wrote that he had “been told by some anciently conversant with the stage, that it [the play] was not originally his, but brought by a private author to be acted, and he only gave some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters”. Ravenscroft added that he was inclined to believe this because

“ ‘tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his works; it seems rather a heap of rubbish than a structure”.

Unfortunately for the Baconians, Ravenscroft’s hearsay evidence cannot be regarded as reliable in view of the lapse of time. One suspects that the story originated as an attempt to explain the supposedly poor quality of the play. But I believe it to have stumbled on the truth by accident, except as to Shakspere’s alleged master touches; a truth which is only one instance of the wider proposition submitted in this book that Bacon wrote all the Shake-Speare plays unaided. In any event, a writer at the end of the 17th century saw nothing odd in supposing that Shakspere presented as his own a play brought to him by a private author to which he had only given “some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters”.

Can one not suppose that Shakspere might equally have been prepared to present as his own a play he had not touched at all? It would be a small step from one to the other.

For the above reasons, the Stratfordian cavil that Bacon would never have chosen an actor as his mask is unsustainable.

The Financial Arrangement

Perhaps a thought should be given here to another matter: If Bacon was Shake-Speare, what financial arrangement, if any, would he have made with Shakspere? Alas, it is impossible to know. The plays would be produced by Shakspere’s company but (whether or not the company was in the secret) Bacon might either part with his ownership of the plays or retain it, allowing the company only a license to produce. Of course, a playwright normally sold his work, but it by no means follows that a concealed playwright of high birth would do so. I suggest in Chapter 15 that Bacon may have retained, for example, the ownership of Troilus And Cressida.

If however the plays were sold to the company, one cannot know whether Bacon would have demanded from Shakspere all or part of the fee. Bacon was in chronic financial difficulties till his appointment as Solicitor-General in 1607. But a playwright’s pittance around 1600 seems seldom to have exceeded £6 per play (12) which would have done little to ease Bacon’s problems, having regard to the standard of living someone in his social position was expected to maintain. Against this, we find him borrowing from his brother Anthony in 1592 sums as small as £1 and £5. But might he not have thought it infra dig to demand small sums from an actor? It is even possible that he would have to pay Shakspere for acting as his agent. More probably, no money would pass either way, Bacon’s reward being the satisfaction of seeing his plays produced, and Shakspere’s the fees received for the plays and the kudos of being thought their author.

If the Earl of Southampton made any large payments to Shakspere on the assumption that he was the true author of the poems or the plays, Bacon might or might not have required a cut from Shakspere.

If Bacon retained the ownership of a play, and it was later sold to a publisher, he might or might not have required the whole or part of the proceeds.


Granted that there would have been reasons for anonymity during Bacon’s lifetime, why did he not leave instructions for the secret of his authorship to be revealed after his death? One answer is that the etiquette against open publication transcended death; it would have been bad form to have breached it even from the grave. I know of no anonymous poet who arranged for the posthumous publication of his work under his own name. In several instances - as with Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Fulke Greville - such publication took place but by the will of others (And in the case of one of Sidney’s works, his Arcadia, a prose romance with verse interludes, against his dying command that the manuscript should be burnt). Bacon himself did nothing to ensure the posthumous publication of the poetry which we saw in Chapter 2 that he wrote (The Psalm paraphrases were published in his lifetime).

Even more importantly, he would not have wanted posterity to know of his dalliance with poetry lest it damaged his standing as a philosopher and scientist. As we have seen from De Augmentis, he never lost his love of poetry, but he had always thought philosophy and science more important. In his final years especially he staked his reputation with posterity on his philosophical and scientific works.

And he must have known that to let poetical skeletons out of his cupboard would have jeopardised his chances of being taken seriously as a philosopher and scientist.

Even his legal attainments seem to have had that effect in the mind of one person at least, William Harvey (1578-1657) who discovered the circulation of the blood.

John Aubrey in his Minutes of Lives writes of Harvey:

“He had been physician to Lord Chancellor Bacon whom he esteemed much for his wit and style but would not allow him to be a great philospher (13) . Said to me: ‘He Writes Philosophy like a Lord Chancellor’, speaking in derision ‘I have cured him’” (Harvey presumably meant in jest that he had cured Bacon of writing philosophy like a Lord Chancellor).

Bacon might not in any event have rated very highly the chances of his poetic work surviving. His powerful rhyme might not after all outlive marble and the gilded monuments of princes. As for plays, they were regarded as ephemeral pulp literature. And none of his poems or plays were even in Latin. He believed that the Latin tongue would prove more durable than the English. As he wrote to Tobie Mathew on 17 June 1623 (Spedding 14.429): “These modern languages will at one time or other play the bankrupt with books”. Another advantage of Latin was that it could be read by scholars on the Continent (often unversed in English) whom he came to see as the principal audience for his serious works.(14) He had already used Latin for some of his works and in his last years he had his Essays, The Advancement and The History of Henry VII translated into Latin. When sending De Augmentis to Prince Charles, he wrote (Spedding 14.436):

“It is a book, I think, will live and be a citizen of the world, as English books are not”. Likewise, when dedicating the Latin version of the Essays to the Duke of Buckingham: “For I do conceive that the Latin version of them, being in the universal language, may last as long as books last”.

Of course if Bacon had foreseen that posterity would find his poems and plays (even in English) more rewarding than his philosophy, he would no doubt have acknowledged them, while being puzzled by the frivolity of posterity’s preference.


1. Bacon’s mother even withheld her full name from some English translations she published of Latin and Italian religious literature.

John Chamberlain in one of his letters (see The Letters of John Chamberlain, 1939, No.471, edited by Norman Egbert McClure) wrote of the poet John Donne after the latter became Dean of St. Pauls; “I could wish a man of his years and place to give over versifying”.

2. “Maker” was another name for “poet”.

3. Lodge’s Scilla’s Metamorphosis Enterfaced with the unfortunate love of Glaucus (1590) ends:

At last he left me where at first he found me,
Willing me let the world and ladies know
Of Scilla’s pride, and then by oath he bound me
To write no more, of whence shame doth grow
Or tie my pen to Penny-knaves delight,
But live with fame, and so see fame to right.

Penny-knaves were the groundlings who paid only a penny for standing room in the theatres.

4. I refer to this whole passage again, and expand it, in Chapter 18 where I suggest (for reasons there explained) that it probably has Bacon in mind. Sidney died in 1586. He did not allow any of his poetry to be published in his lifetime. He only professed himself in the sense that he made little attempt to conceal that he was a poet. “Sidney lives by his” must mean that he has achieved immortality through his poetry; or else it makes the fictional supposition that he was still alive.

5. Ben Jonson in his Epigram No.54 says “Cheverill cries out my verses libels are / And threatens the Star Chamber and the Bar.”

6. Spedding continues:

“At another [time] he presents the same argument in a dramatic form; as in the Ridargutio Philosophiarum, where great part of what became afterwards the 1st book of Novum Organum is given as a report of a speech addressed to an assembly of philosophers at Paris”.

7. A preface to the fragment written by Spedding’s collaborator Ellis (but presumably with Spedding’s concurrence) says (Spedding 3.201):

“It is impossible to ascertain the motive which determined Bacon to give the supposed author the name of Valerius Terminus; or to his commentator, of whose annotations we have no remains, that of Hermes Stella. It may be conjectured that by the name Terminus he intended to intimate that the new philosophy would put an end to the wandering of mankind in search of truth that it would be the terminus ad quem in which, when it was once attained, the mind would finally acquiesce”.

Ellis was of course right as to “terminus”. But it seems remarkable that neither he nor Spedding could explain “Valerius”. The explanation is simple. There was a Roman historian with a philosophical bent called Valerius Maximus and Bacon wrote of him in De Augmentis Book 4, Chapter 1 (Spedding 4.375): “The miracle of human nature, and its highest powers and virtue both in mind and body, should be collected into a volume which should serve for a register of the Triumphs of Man. In which work I approve the design of Valerius Maximus and C. Pliny, and wish for their diligence and judgment”. Bacon no doubt chose “Valerius Terminus” to go one better than “Valerius Maximus” - his philosophy would be the last word, not just the maximum word. “Hermes Stella”, the supposed annotator, can also be explained. Hermes was the Greek God of science and many of the arts of life, and interpreter of the Gods. Hermes Trismegistus was the name given by devotees of mysticism and alchemy to the Egyptian God Thoth, who was regarded as more or less identified with the Grecian Hermes, and as the author of all mysterious doctrine. Thus Hermes would have been a fit annotator of the mysterious doctrine of Bacon’s work. As to “Stella”, Hermes was identified by the Romans with Mercury. Mercury is of course a planet. The Latin word for planet or star is stella. There is thus a link between Hermes and Stella and Bacon probably meant Hermes Stella for a brilliant star who would illuminate the text. See also Spedding 3.208 footnote.

8. Spedding makes no comment on the “little work of my recreation”, and one cannot identify it; it may have been either prose or verse. Even more mysterious are the

8a“works of the Alphabet”. Three suggestions have been made: (1) Spedding said he could not guess but possibly they were ciphers with two alphabets; (2) Baconians have suggested that they were manuscripts of Shake-Speare plays. They point out that in his private notebook the Promus, Bacon entered (as entry No.219 in Mrs. Henry Pott’s edition - see Chapter 33) an aphorism from Erasmus’s Adagia, namely, “Tragedy and Comedies are made of one alphabet”; (3)Another Baconian, Nathaniel Holmes, op.cit, p. 740, suggested that they refer to a class of topics which Bacon denoted by Greek letters under The Alphabet of Nature - metaphysical categories of universalbeing.

Each of these explanations poses difficulties and questions. As to (1), one asks: (a) Why should ciphers have been of less use to Mathew where he now was? Because he was gathering less intelligence to send back to England?; (b) Surely he would not have sent a cipher scheme with two alphabets through the post, so that anyone intercepting the letter would have the secrets of the cipher?; (c) It would surely have been superfluous to ask Mathew not to publish ciphers to others?; (d) Why should Mathew’s private friends be so interested in private ciphers between Bacon and Mathew as to insist that Bacon sent them? So that Mathew could write to his friends too in the same cipher?

As to (2), one asks why manuscripts of a play or plays should be of less use to Mathew where he now was? Because he was now in a country where he would be preoccupied in gathering intelligence and so have less time for recreational reading? As to (3), one asks: (a) Why should such works be of less use to him where he now was? For the reason just given under (2)?; (b) Why should Bacon caution against the publication of such philosophical works to others? Because he did not want others to know them before their publication?;

(c) Why should Mathew’s friends be so interested in such works? The interest of Mathew’s friends would fit works of popular appeal such as plays. But each of the three alternatives has its difficulties and it is therefore better to treat the letter as evidence of nothing more than Bacon’s secrecy.

9. Authors only withheld their own names if they wished to conceal their identity.

10. I know of no specific evidence of a money consideration, but it is not impossible. More probably perhaps, their reward was the kudos they enjoyed through being thought the author.

11. This can be found in The Works of John Taylor (1630), p. 157 ff. The relevant lines are at p. 159, L.19; at p. 162, L.17. See also E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 3.500-2.

12. See E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 1.373. Chambers points out that there are some traces of the system, used at a later date, by which the author was also entitled to a “benefit” night shortly after the production of a new play.

13. In like vein Bacon’s great rival, the lawyer Sir Edward Coke, scribbled on a copy of Bacon’s Novum Organum “It deserves not to be read in schools but freighted in the Ship of Fools”. See Spedding 14.567.

14. Continental scholars held Bacon’s work in the highest regard. When Marquis Fiatt met Bacon his first compliment to him was

“That he reverenced him as he did the angels, whom he read of in books but never saw” (Spedding 7.183).







 - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning