The Shakespeare Circle



Peter Dawkins

Paper read at the Globe Theatre Authorship Conference,
July 2005


Standing at left: William Camden, Sackville (Earl of Dorset), John Fletcher.

Seated at left: Josuah Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Willy Shakspere.(since there never was a portrait made during his life we really don't know what he looks like, hence the white out)

Standing at right: Walter Raleigh, Henry Wriothesley (Third Earl of Southampton).

Seated at right: Robert Cotton, Thomas Dekker.


In Shakespeare's time collaboration of various kinds between playwrights was the norm rather than the exception. Besides direct collaboration, where two or more writers co-author a play, there were many forms of indirect collaboration, ranging from advice, inspiration, information and feed-back given to the principal author by fellow poets, friends and actors, to actual contributions in the invention of the story and writing of the script. Most of the poets knew each other and the acting companies who performed their plays, and in turn were known by their patrons.

Shakespeare Patronage

The patrons, many of whom formed literary circles of their own, were primarily the nobility, ministers and officials of the sovereign's government, with the sovereign being the supreme patron. The Elizabethan Act of Parliament licensing acting companies (on condition each was patronised by a nobleman) was primarily to provide the queen and her courtiers with professional first class entertainment, with the plays being performed at court. This arrangement was continued by James I. The most renowned literary group of patrons was the Walsingham-Sidney-Pembroke-Essex group, to whom the earl of Southampton belonged. The Shakespeare poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, were dedicated to Southampton, and the Shakespeare Folio of plays to William and Henry, sons of Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke and sister of Sir Philip Sidney.

Shakespeare Collaboration

Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated with at least nine other poets on his own plays, and with other poets on their plays. The collaborators so far identified or conjectured are John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, George Wilkins, John Day, Thomas Heywood, Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton and Robert Greene.

Bacon, the 'Shakespeare' Leader of Poets and Writers

Francis Bacon was reported as writing plays for the stage with his brother Anthony, and as using comedy and tragedy to rescue and renew Philosophy. He was referred to as a secret poet and the leader of the choir of Muses and their disciples, the writers and poets. He was a close friend of Essex and his circle, and was referred to as both Apollo and Pallas Athena, the 'Spear-Shaker' or 'Shake-Spear'. Together with his brother, he headed a literary studio of 'good pens' who included, amongst others, the poets Ben Jonson, John Lyly, John Florio, John Davies of Hereford, Sir John Davies, George Herbert and George Wither. Ben Jonson is considered to have been the primary person responsible for the introductory pages to the Shakespeare Folio.

The Northumberland Manuscript, a folio containing two Shakespeare plays (before the plays were first published) bound together with other plays, speeches and essays by Francis Bacon, was a production of Bacon's literary studio.

Shakespeare Collaboration

Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated with at least nine other poets on his own plays, and with other poets on their plays.

Henry VIII seems to have been composed very largely in partnership with John Fletcher.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably also composed in 1613, was written principally by John Fletcher, with Shakespeare contributing; and is not therefore counted as a Shakespeare play. The Two Noble Kinsmen was not published until 1634 and bore the names of both authors.

Some scholars believe that Philip Massinger was also involved in helping to write Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The History of Cardenio, the lost Shakespeare play, seems to have been written in collaboration with Fletcher, the publisher Humphrey Moseley claiming copyright on it in 1653 as an old play said to be by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

Many scholars consider that the collaborator with Shakespeare on Pericles Prince of Tyre, was probably the dramatist George Wilkins, who wrote an accompanying novel to the play entitled The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Being the True History of the Play of Pericles, published in 1608&emdash;although John Day and Thomas Heywood have also been suggested. In addition some scholars think that Wilkins may have contributed to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.

Besides Fletcher, Massinger, Wilkins, Day and Heywood, other collaborators in the Shakespeare plays have been identified or conjectured as being Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton and Robert Greene.

Christopher Marlowe. Although there appears to be a significant difference in style, breadth of knowledge and depth of meaning between the Marlowe and Shakespeare plays, some of the Marlowe plays show signs of 'Shakespeare' and some early Shakespeare plays show signs of 'Marlowe'.

George Peele has often been proposed as a possible part-author of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1, and Titus Andronicus, the latter being an expansion of a Peele work that survives chiefly in Act 1.

Robert Greene has been suggested as partly responsible for some of Titus Andronicus and Henry VI, Parts 1 & 2, as also contributing to The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1590-1) has a number of elements pointing to his and Shakespeare's collaboration on the play, and his Pandosto (1588) was the source for the plot of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale.

Thomas Middleton is considered to have been a collaborator on Shakespeare's Timon of Athens and Macbeth. For instance, there are signs of the Hecate scenes in Macbeth having been written by Middleton, and two songs are included which are also to be found in Middleton's play, The Witch (c 1610-20).

It is noteworthy that all the collaborators with Shakespeare were university men (with the possible exception of George Wilkins, about whom little is known).

In addition, there are strong influences showing in the Shakespeare plays from many other poets.

Contemporary influences come from dramatists such as Kyd, Marlowe and Daniel (history and tragedy), and Lyly, Greene and Peele (comedy), and from epic poets such as Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.

In his early plays Shakespeare was particularly influenced by the University Wits (Lyly, Lodge, Peele, Greene, Kyd, Watson and Nashe), and most of the half-dozen or so plays that he had produced by 1594 resemble the work of these predecessors of his.

It also seems to have worked the other way as well. For instance, Shakespeare is perceived to have collaborated with others on the anonymous history plays Edward III and Sir Thomas More, and he may have been involved with Robert Greene in writing Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Sir Thomas More is attributed nowadays to Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, with alterations by Chettle, Dekker, Heywood and Shakespeare.

Bacon, the 'Shakespeare' Leader of Poets and Writers

Francis Bacon is known to have worked with many poets and writers, with many of them forming his literary studio of 'good pens', including the poets Ben Jonson, John Lyly, John Florio, John Davies of Hereford, Sir John Davies, George Herbert and George Wither.

In his own words, Francis Bacon 'rang the bell that called the wits together', and a group of poets, writers, philosophers and other talented people soon began gathering around him. At Gray's Inn he started writing masques and plays, and speeches for pageants and entertainments, as an important part of his great scheme (which he later came to call 'The Great Instauration').

Both Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony were referred to as secret poets. They ran the literary studio.

Bacon's literary studio produced The Northumberland Manuscript, a collection that once contained two Shakespeare plays (Richard II and Richard III) as well as a play by Nashe (The Ile of Dogs) and an unknown play, Asmund and Cornelia, all bound with Bacon's known writings, and a cover that links Bacon with Shakespeare.

In tributes published after his death Francis Bacon is referred to as having used comedy and tragedy to rescue and renew Philosophy:-

'So did Philosophy, entangled in the subtleties of Schoolmen seek Bacon as a deliverer… He renewed her, walking humbly in the socks of Comedy. After that, more elaborately he rises on the loftier buskin of Tragedy…'3

In the tribute by John Williams, Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, chaplain to James I and Bishop of Lincoln, who became Lord Keeper of the Great Seal after Francis Bacon and later Archbishop of York, Williams likens Francis Bacon to Apollo, the rarest glory of the Muses, and refers to Bacon as the chief inspirer of a group who are 'disciples of the Muses':-

'How is it happened to us, the disciples of the Muses, that Apollo, the leader of our choir, should die?'4

In two other tributes, Bacon is likened to Pallas Athena, the Tenth Muse and 'Spear-Shaker', who elsewhere is referred to as the Muse of Bacon as also of Shakespeare:-

'Ah, the tenth Muse and glory of the choir has perished. Ah, never before has Apollo himself been truly unhappy!'5

'Bacon… a muse more rare than the nine Muses.'6

The Bacon brothers belonged to the Essex-Pembroke circle of aristocrats, who were both their friends and patrons. After Anthony's and Essex's death in 1601, it was the Pembrokes who remained steady friends with Francis. Southampton, a member of the circle, fell out with Francis over his role in the Essex affair, when Essex was tried for treason and executed in 1601. The Pembrokes, however, remained steady friends and supporters of Francis, even during the last years of his life when he suffered impeachment and disgrace on trumped-up charges. It was during these latter years that the 1623 Shakespeare Folio of Comedies, Histories & Tragedies was produced, dedicated to the Pembroke brothers, William and Philip, whilst the earlier Shakespeare poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, had been dedicated to Southampton.

The Bacon Brothers

From 1579, after his return from France, Francis Bacon lived at Gray's Inn, involving himself with legal studies, philosophical pursuits, poetry, speech-writing, play-writing and the design of masques.

His brother, Anthony Bacon, meanwhile, travelled on the continent as an intelligencer for Walsingham, Burleigh and the Queen. Anthony, who left England in September 1579 for a 'tour' of the continent, sent back to his brother a constant stream of intelligence as well as a supply of books and manuscripts to support their literary work. He also helped to set up Francis' special twelve-month journey (1581-2) to France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Denmark to observe people, places, culture and religion.

When Anthony returned in 1592 from twelve years abroad as an intelligencer to aid Francis, a private scrivenery was established, funded mainly by Anthony's modest inherited wealth together with a lot of borrowing. Francis referred to these helpers as his 'good pens'.

These 'good pens' included scholars, lawyers, university wits and poets who acted as secretaries, writers, translators, copyists and cryptographers, dealing with correspondence, translations, copying, ciphers, essays, books, plays and masques. Whether they were all employed by Francis and Anthony, or simply collaborated voluntarily on certain projects, we don't know, but some of them certainly were directly employed.

There were others also who assisted from time to time. These included friends abroad, such as Sir Henry Wotton, Sir Anthony Standen and Nicholas Faunt, who sent Francis and Anthony Bacon up-to-date information regarding people, places, politics and culture.

Anthony Bacon's foreign contacts were widespread, and he enjoyed friendship in many high places. His contacts in France and friendship with Henri of Navarre, later Henri IV of France, appear to have been incorporated into the Shakespeare play, Love's Labour's Lost, as also the experience of his close association with Antonio Perez, the King of Spain's Secretary of State. Perez, who defected and came to England in 1593, supported financially by Anthony Bacon, is the person upon whom the character of Don Adriana de Armado is based.

Anthony's extensive correspondence with princes, statesmen, ambassadors, poets and writers across Europe seems to fit remarkably well as a resource for the plays, as well as his twelve years of experience abroad as the Queen's intelligencer.

It was about the time that Anthony returned home that Francis Bacon started that part of his Promus of Formularies and Elegancies which has survived&emdash;a 'storehouse' or notebook containing nearly two thousand observations and expressions in several languages, many of which were incorporated into the Shakespeare plays.

From 1592 onwards the two brothers saw each other regularly and both planned and wrote together, with the help of their good pens. Anthony lived with Francis in their shared chambers at Gray's Inn until April 1594, when Anthony took up residence in a house in Bishopsgate, near the theatres.

Francis continued to live at Gray's Inn but in addition had a country residence at Twickenham Lodge, where some of his literary activity took place. This seems to have been a mixture of intelligence work and play-writing. For instance, in Francis' Promus (1594-5) he mentions:-

'Ye law at Twick'nam for merrie tales'2

In a lengthy letter to Anthony, 'from my lodging at Twickenham Park this 25th January, 1594 [1595],' Francis writes:-

'I have here an idle pen or two specially one that was cozened, thinking to have got some money this term. I pray you send me somewhat else for them to write out beside your Irish collection which is almost done. There is a collection of Dr James [Dean of Christchurch] of foreign states largeliest of Flanders, which though it be no great matter, yet I would be glad to have it.'

It was during this time (1594) that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a friend of the Bacon brothers, complained to the Queen, saying that Francis and Anthony 'print me and make me speak to the world, and shortly they will play me in what form they list upon the stage,' thereby showing that during this time the two brothers wrote plays together, and that at least one of their characters was intended to be based upon Essex himself.

It is possible that Essex was a model for the fiery, gallant Hotspur in Shakespeare's Henry IV, as some people have proposed, but more certainly the Shakespeare character of Prince Hal, later Henry V, was directly associated with Essex, as declared in the chorus to the fifth act of Henry V.

When in 1595 Anthony moved into Leicester House, next door to the Middle Temple Inn of Court, as a voluntary 'Secretary of State' to Essex, the house (renamed Essex House) became the centre of a further secretariat dealing with political intelligence, cryptography, translations of correspondence and books in foreign languages and the classics, invention of new words, and literature generally.

Besides Anthony's own secretariat, Essex also had four secretaries working at Essex House, including Henry Cuffe, a Greek scholar, and Henry Wotton, the friend and cousin of the Bacon brothers who in later years (1651) published his memoirs, Reliquiae Wottonianae.

Anthony Bacon died in 1601, shortly after the execution of Essex, and thereafter Francis Bacon led the 'wits' alone. From 1607 onwards, as Francis was appointed to increasingly higher positions of state by King James, the production of the Shakespeare plays became increasingly less, until in 1613, when he became Attorney-General, they ceased altogether.

Bacon's Good Pens

Besides Gray's Inn lawyers, we know from a number of sources, including the Bacon brothers' correspondence, Rawley's biography of Francis Bacon and Aubrey's diary, that these 'good pens' included, at different times, people such as:-


Nicholas Faunt, a good friend of Anthony's who had been secretary and foreign emissary to Sir Francis Walsingham when the latter was the Queen's Secretary of State; Anthony Standen, who was first Walsingham's then Anthony's secret foreign agent; Tom Lawson, Anthony's personal secretary and courier; Jaques Petit, Anthony's page and courier.

There were also lesser-known assistants, such as William Philippes and Edward Jones, all of whom were mainly working with Anthony Bacon on intelligence matters.


John Lyly, Ben Jonson, John Florio, John Davies of Hereford, Sir John Davies, George Herbert and George Wither.

Lyly, who was Oxford's secretary from 1580 onwards, became one of Anthony Bacon's 'good pens' at Essex House.Ben Jonson was known to Francis Bacon as 'my man John'.
George Wither, the poet, satirist and emblem writer, is reputed to have written the anonymous satirical poem published in 1645, entitled The Great Assizes holden in Parnassus by Apollo and his Assessours, in which the whole mystery and aim of Francis Bacon and his society is alluded to and almost revealed.


Dr Lancelot Andrewes, multi-linguist theologian and scholar, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, who became Dean of Westminster in 1601, then later Bishop of Chichester, Ely and Winchester respectively, who co-directed the translation of the Bible and who was not only a good friend of long-standing but also Francis' 'inquisitor' during the writing of his Advancement of Learning.

Timothy Bright, a clergyman and physician, who published Characterie (1588), the first book on shorthand, and A Treatise on Melancholy (1586);

William Camden, the Clarenceux King-of-Arms, who had granted John Shakespeare a coat of arms.

Tobie Mathew (1577-1655), eldest son of Dr Tobie Mathew, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, later Bishop of Durham and ultimately Archbishop of York. Francis Bacon refers to Tobie and his brother Anthony Bacon as as his closest friends and confidants.

Sir Thomas Meautys, together with a Mr Young, were Francis Bacon's chief secretaries when he was Lord Chancellor. Meautys became a personal friend of Francis and married the granddaughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Francis' half-brother.

Dr William Rawley, a close friend of Francis Bacon, was Bacon's private chaplain as well as a secretary. Francis bequeathed most of his manuscripts to Rawley upon his death.

Dr William Harvey, another close friend of Francis Bacon, announced the discovery of the blood system to the world, was Francis' private physician.

Thomas Hobbes, a secretary, was a particular favourite when Francis was Lord Chancellor, and he would regularly walk with Francis in the gardens and woods of Gorhambury whilst Francis reflected on nature and dictated his thoughts to him. Hobbes was later to become famous as the author of the work of political theory, Leviathan.

Peter Böener was in Francis' service both as an apothecary and a secretary for many years until the beginning of 1623. Böener later published a translation in Dutch of Bacon's Essays, Wisdom of Ancients and Religious Meditations (Leyden, 1646), grouped in one volume, and prefixed the collection with a 'Life of Bacon'. Böener considered Francis Bacon to be 'a phoenix without equal'. Böener concludes his testimony to Bacon with a wish that 'a statue in honour of him may be erected in his country as a memorable example to all of virtue, kindness, peacefulness and patience'.

Thomas Bushell served Francis Bacon from 1608 (when aged fifteen) as a gentleman usher, seal-bearer and amanuensis, and stayed with Bacon until Bacon's impeachment, in which, as he later revealed, he was one of the causes of his master being accused of corruption. Francis forgave him, however, and Bushel returned to serve his master until Bacon's death, after which he became a mining engineer in Somerset and Cardigan. He acknowledged that his own knowledge was based on Francis Bacon's knowledge of minerals and mining, for Francis had taken especial care to make Bushell 'the heir to his knowledge in mineral philosophy' and a few other inventions as well.13

There were clearly many more, but who they might have been is not certain. Francis Bacon's reference to 'Ye law at Twick'nam for merrie tales' obviously suggests that other lawyers from Gray's Inn and possibly other Inns of Court made up this writers' group, at least in the earlier days and maybe throughout the Shakespeare period. Letters show that Gray's Inn men were still assisting Francis in the last years of his life, when he was trying to complete the writings that he had planned for the Great Instauration.


After his impeachment, Francis was deserted by some of his helpers and friends, partly because he could no longer pay them. But there were some whom Francis described as the 'good pens who forsake me not', and they included the poets Ben Jonson and George Herbert, together with Thomas Hobbes, Peter Böener, Dr. William Rawley and Sir Thomas Meautys.

During the post-impeachment years Francis produced the final versions of most of his philosophical works and translated as many of them as he could into Latin, it being the international language. Although Francis himself was well able to write fluently in Latin, French and Italian, he had the assistance of Doctor Hacket, Bishop of Lichfield, together with Ben Jonson and George Herbert, in translating the final versions of his Essays, Advancement of Learning and other works into Latin. Tobie Mathew helped in translating Bacon's Essays into both Italian and Latin. (Ben Jonson also contributed to and probably helped oversee the production of the Shakespeare Folio.)

Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam, Viscount St Alban, died on Easter Day, 9 April 1626. He left copious manuscripts and letters, a library of books and a generous will&emdash;although the debts that continued from the time of his misfortune were so great that the benefits of his will could not be fully realised. Some of his letters and manuscripts were given into the care of his principal secretary and friend, Sir Thomas Meautys, others to his chaplain Dr William Rawley, and some to be looked after by his brother-in-law Sir John Constable and his literary friend Sir William Boswell, the English Ambassador at The Hague. Francis left them instructions to publish some and reserve others to a 'private succession' of literary 'sons'. His extensive library he bequeathed to Constable, but it seems that the books had to be sold because of the insolvency of his estate when he died.

The Northumberland Manuscript

A fascinating collection of manuscripts remains to us direct from Francis Bacon's scrivenery of the 1590's. The collection, which is in the form of an unbound volume, is referred to as the Northumberland Manuscript. It was discovered in 1867 among some papers at Northumberland House, Charing Cross, and is now kept at Alnwick Castle in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland. A contents sheet, much scribbled-over, prefaces the collection and makes clear that some of the original contents were at some point removed.

The original contents included not only philosophical and poetic writings clearly known to be by Francis Bacon, such as his Essays and speeches for the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Sussex (presented at the Queen's Accession Day Tournaments of 1595 and 1596 respectively), but also manuscript copies of two Shakespeare plays, Richard II and Richard III, a Nashe play, The Ile of Dogs, and what sounds like an unknown play, Asmund and Cornelia.

Written on the contents sheet is the famous long word used in Love's Labour's Lost, slightly shortened as 'Honorificabiletunine'. (Love's Labour's Lost was acted at Christmas 1597 and printed in a quarto edition dated 1598. The play derived some of its story and the names of its characters from people known to Anthony Bacon.)

Adjacent to the entries for the Shakespeare plays there is written a line from Lucrece ('revealing day through every crany peepes'), but using 'peepes' instead of the word 'spies' that was printed in the quarto of 1594.

Moreover, the names 'William Shakespeare' and 'Shakespeare' are repeated several times, in various spellings, in the area of the Shakespeare plays and at the end of the contents list, as also are the names 'Francis Bacon', 'Bacon' and 'Baco'. Not only is Francis Bacon's name closely associated with the name of William Shakespeare on this private manuscript from Bacon's scrivenery, but also the association of the Shakespeare name with plays as well as poems occurs on this manuscript before it was used in print on the plays. (The first use of the name 'William Shakespeare' on a printed play was in 1598.)

Regrettably these plays and Bacon's Essays are amongst the manuscripts that were removed, the reason for their removal almost certainly being because these works were published in printed form in 1597, thereby making the manuscripts obsolete. The dating of the collection is no later than spring 1597, although it cannot be ascertained with certainty exactly when the collection was made. Some of the works go back as far as 1584 (e.g. Leicester's Commonwealth).

The manuscripts are copies made by several different hands, or scribes. Most of the writing on the contents sheet, which is also its front cover sheet, has been recognised as that of John Davies of Hereford, one of Bacon's 'good pens', who besides being a poet was a professional scrivener and the most skilful penman of his time. His profession was to copy documents for his various employers and also to give instruction in the art of penmanship. One of his sonnets is addressed to 'the royall, ingenious and all-learned Knight, Sr. Francis Bacon', praising Bacon as a lawyer-cum-poet.


(See the author's book, The Shakespeare Enigma)























 - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning