Lord Bacon and the Theatre

by L. Biddulph

from Baconiana No.108, July 1943

see this page for meaning of image


"There is another use of Parabolical Poesy, opposite to the former, which tendeth to the folding up of those things the dignity whereof, deserves to be retired and distinguished, AS WITH A DRAWN CURTAIN. That is when the secrets and mysteries of Religion, Policy and Philosophy are,veiled and invested with fables and parables." --The Advancement of Learning, 1640

Following on Mr. R. L. Eagle's admirable article, "Lord Bacon was a Poet" (Baconiana, October, 1942) it may not be out of place here to note how often, frequently in most unexpected context, Francis of Verulam refers to, or uses, the theatre to illustrate in a most dramatic manner his writings on widely disimiliar subjects. A striking example of this is to be found in his "History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh," where allusions to the theatre are made over and over again.

How striking and imaginative is the opening of the narrative of the impersonation of Richard Duke of York by Perkin Warbeck! It is no doubt familiar to most Baconians, but it will bear repeating. It commences near the end of page112 (edition of 1622; page 104, Cambridge edition, 1881). Bacon writes (it should first be stated, however) that there is a double blank space between the end of preceeding paragraph and the commencement of the account of the impersonation by Perking Warbeck, which starts with a very large Capitol A, thus to attract the readers's attention.

" At that time the King began again to be haunted with Spirits by the Magicke and curious Arts of the Lady MARGARET, who raysed up the Ghost of RICHARD Duke of Yorke second son of King EDWARD the Fourth, to walk and vex the King. This was finer Countefeit Stone than LAMBERT SIMNELL better done and worne upon greater hands, ect."

This is an example of peculiarly imaginative and dramatic writing in a serious work. The Lady Margaret mentioned was Dutchess of Burgundy and a sister of Edward the Fourth. Furthur on Bacon says:--

"The Lady Margaret(whom the King's friend's called JUNO because she was to him as JUNO was AENEAS, stirring both Heaven and Hell to do him mischief) for the foundation of her particular practices against him did continually by all means possible nourish, maintain and divulge the flying opinion that RICHARD Duke of Yorke (second son to EDWARD the Fourth) was not murdered in the Tower, but saved alive."

Perking Warbeck is represented in this history as the great Imposter and counterfeit Prince who deceives the King of France and also that of Scotland. If Henry the Seventh had been dramatised, I think that there can be little doubt that the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck would have looked large in the plot of the Play.

The narrative ends up as follows, with the execution of Perkin, pp.194-5:---

"This was the end of that little cockatrice of a King that was able to destroy those that did not espie him first. It was one of the longest Plays of that kind that hath been in memory and might perhaps have had another end, if hee had not met with a King, both wise, stout and fortunate." Eighty-four pages out of a total of 248 are devoted to the action of what the author himself calls a "Play."

On referring to the narration of the preceding plot of Lambert Simnell, we find similiar allusions to the Stage and Plays. On page 20, referring to the prepartion of Lambert Simnell's plot, he says:--

"But here is that which hath no appearance; that this priest (one Richard Simon) being utterly unacquainted with the true Person according to whose Patterne he should shape his Counterfeit, should think it possible for him to instruct his Player ---either in gestures and fashions or in recounting matters of his past life and education." Again, on page 23, he writes:---"But yet (the priest) doubting that there would be too neare looking and too much Perspective into his Disguise if he should shew it here in England hee thought good (after the manner of Scenes in Stage- Plays & Maskes) to show it afarre off; etc."

Turning back again to 21, we read :

---"speaking of the Queen Dowager as having the personal grievances against Henry with regard to the treatment of her daughter, and none could hold the booke so well to prompt and instruct the Stage-Play, as she could."

Again, on page 36, we find another reference to the Theatre. Speaking of the collapse of Lambert Simnell's rebellion, he says:--

"For which cause he was taken into service in his court to a base office in his Kitchin , so that in a kind of Mattacina of human fortune he turned a Broach that had worne in a Crown; Whereas Fortune commonly doth bring in a Comedy or Farce after aTragedie."

But it is not only in highly dramatic scenes such as ther foregoing that Bacon introduces mention of the theatre and the stage; even in his philosophical works the theatre seems ever to be in the background of his mind ready to peep out as a figurative allusion to illustrate some thought and present it to the reader's mind like some vivid picture. Take the doctrine of Idols in the "Novum Organum":---

"Four kinds of Idols," says Bacon, "beset the human mind." He calls them Idols (not errors nor false ideas or conceptions) representing them as real objects. They are Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Den, Idols of the Market Place, and finally Idols of the Theatre. The theatre and the stage is still before his mind's eye, even when discussing Philosophical errors. He cannot keep away from his theatre.

Now let us turn to the translation of the 90th Psalm, lines 3 and 4:

" O Lord , thou art our home to whom we fly,
And so hast always been from age to age.
Before the hills did intercept the Eye,
Or that the Frame was up of earthly Stage
One God thou wert, and art, and still shall be
The Line of Time, it doth not measure Thee."


By which he clearly likens the world to a Stage just as Shakespeare did. But if we turn to the 1611 version of the Bible we do not find any reference to the Stage there. We read---

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, ect.

Here, then, there is no reference to a Stage, but Bacon could not refrain from bringing in a simile to it in his metrical version; the idea is in the back of his mind all the time.

Now let us look at the Essays. Take the first Essay on Love. Here he plunges straight away into his favourite subject:--


"The Stage is more beholding to Love than the life of man. For as to the Stage Love is ever matter of Comedies and now and then of Tragedies."

Now take his Essay " Of Great Place," No.11, where he writes

"..... conscience of the same (merit and good works) is the accomplishment of man's rest. For if a man can be partaker of God's Theater, he shall likewise be partaker of God's rest."

The essay on Masques and Triumphs is unaturally allusive to the theatre and the reader may consult if for himself.

In the essay of Truth, he writes:---

"This same truth is a Naked and open daylight that doth not show the Masques and Mummeries half so stately and daintily as candle lights."


"".....leave other men their turn to speak. Nay, if there be any that would raigne, and take up all the time, let him find meanes to take them off & bring others on." (Essay No. 32 on Discourse)

"I have given the rule, where a man cannot fitly play his own part, if he have not a friend, let him quit the Stage." (Essay on Friendship)

"Books will speak plain when Councillors blanch, therefore it is good to be conversant in them; especially the Books of such as themselves have been upon the Stage." (Essay of Counsel)

The above quotations are by no means exhaustive, but are taken at random. A complete concordance of Bacon's works would yield some most astonishing results, and open the eyes of scholars as to the enormous range and variety of the imagery of Bacon's mind.

Let us now turn to one of his charges as Attorney against Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, for the poisonng of Sir Thomas Overbury:-

"For this his Majesty's virtue of Justice, God hath of late raised an occasion and erected as it were a Stage or Theatre, much to his honour for him to show it and act it." (Spedding, Life, V, 214.)

"Wherein Mr. Lumsden plays him part." (Ibid, 219.)

"Then was the time to execute the last Act of the Tragedy." (Ibid, p. 316.)

" There must be time for the Tragedy to be acted." (Ibid, p.319.)

"Acts preparatory to the middle acts, they are in eight several points of the Compass as I may term it." (Ibid, p.319.)

On page 232 Spedding, in his narration of events, seems to have been stage- bitten by Bacon's allusions, for he (Spedding) says:--

".....the prosecution for the murder was postponed, and the stage was left clear for the other business (urgent State affairs).

In his correspondence, which was extensive, Bacon makes the frequent allusions to the Stage and the Theatre, but it is not proposed to touch on these in the present article. In his Promus notes (that most invaluable storehouse of things new and old) there are peculiar references to the stage and one is tempted to suspect that some of the Shake-Speare plays themselves are hinted at, such as:---

"One and one other are sufficient for the largest Stage.
Tragedies & Comedies are made of one Alphabet."

All is well that endes well,--and " Of a good begyning comes a good ending."

The Promus notes might well have described as an Alphabet for the construction of Comedies and Tragedies, for they are the seed bed of many thoughts in the Great Folio of 1623.

Besides the above references given, there are others to be found in the Advancement of Learning, the De Augmentis, and other of his philosophical treatises, to which reference will be made in a furthur number.

























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