Shakespeare, Bacon and the Great Unknown, by Andrew Lang

Chapter xiii

The Preoccupations of Bacon

Let us now examine a miracle and mystery in which the Baconians find nothing strange; nothing that is not perfectly normal. Bacon was the author of the Shakespearean plays, they tell us. Let us look rapidly at his biography, after which we may ask, does not his poetic supremacy, and imaginative fertility, border on the miraculous, when we consider his occupations and his ruling passion?

Bacon, born in 1561, had a prodigious genius, was well aware of it, and had his own ideal as to the task which he was born to do. While still at Cambridge, and therefore before he was fifteen, he was utterly dissatisfied, as he himself informed Dr. Rawley, with the scientific doctrines of the Schools. In the study of nature they reasoned from certain accepted ideas, a priori principles, not from what he came to call “interrogation of Nature.” There were, indeed, and had long been experimental philosophers, but the school doctors went not beyond Aristotle; and discovered nothing. As Mr. Spedding puts it, the boy Bacon asked himself, “If our study of nature be thus barren, our method of study must be wrong; might not a better method be found? . . . Upon the conviction ‘This may be done,’ followed at once the question, HOW may it be done? Upon that question answered followed the resolution to try and do it.”

This was, in religious phrase, the Conversion of Bacon, “the event which had a greater influence than any other upon his character and future course. From that moment he had a vocation which employed and stimulated him . . . an object to live for as wide as humanity, as immortal as the human race; an idea to live in vast and lofty enough to fill the soul for ever with religious and heroic aspirations.” 232 The vocation, the idea, the object, were not poetical.

In addition to this ceaseless scientific preoccupation, Bacon was much concerned with the cause of reformed religion (then at stake in France, and supposed to be in danger at home), and with the good government of his native country. He could only aid that cause by the favour of Elizabeth and James; by his services in Parliament, where, despite his desire for advancement, he conscientiously opposed the Queen. He was obliged to work at such tasks of various sorts, legal and polemical literature, as were set him by people in power. With these three great objects filling his heart, inspiring his ambition, and occupying his energies and time, we cannot easily believe, without direct external evidence, that he, or any mortal, could have leisure and detachment from his main objects (to which we may add his own advancement) sufficient to enable him to compose the works ascribed to Shakespeare.

Thus, at the age of twenty-two (1583), when, if ever, he might have penned sonnets to his mistress’s eyebrow, he reports that he wrote “his first essay on the Instauration of Philosophy, which he called Temporis Partus Maximus, ‘The Greatest Birth of Time,’” and “we need not doubt that between Law and Philosophy he found enough to do.” 233 For the Baconians take Bacon to have been a very great lawyer (of which I am no judge), and Law is a hard mistress, rapacious of a man’s hours. In 1584 he entered Parliament, but we do not hear anything very important of his occupations before 1589, when he wrote a long pamphlet, “Touching the Controversies of the Church of England.” 234 He had then leisure enough; that he was not anonymously supplying the stage with plays I can neither prove nor disprove: but there is no proof that he wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost! By 1591–2, we learn much of him from his letter to Cecil, who never would give him a place wherein he could meditate his philosophy. He was apparently hard at scientific work. “I account my ordinary course of study and meditation to be more painful than most parts of action are.” He adds, “The contemplative planet carries me away wholly,” and by contemplation I conceive him to mean what he calls “vast contemplative ends.” These he proceeds to describe: he does NOT mean the writing of Venus and Adonis (1593), nor of Lucrece (1594), nor of comedies! “I have taken all knowledge to be my province,” and he recurs to his protest against the pseudo-science of his period. “If I could purge knowledge of two sorts of rovers whereof the one, with frivolous disputations, confutations, and verbosities; the other with blind experiments, and auricular traditions and impostures, hath committed so many spoils, I hope I should bring in industrious observations, grounded conclusions, and profitable inventions and discoveries . . . This, whether it be curiosity, or vainglory, or nature, or (if one take it favourably) philanthropy, is so fixed in my mind that it cannot be removed.” If Cecil cannot help him to a post, if he cannot serve the truth, he will reduce himself, like Anaxagoras, to voluntary poverty, “ . . . and become some sorry bookmaker, or a true pioneer in that mine of truth . . . “ 235 Really, from first to last he was the prince of begging-letter writers, endlessly asking for place, pensions, reversions, money, and more money.

Though his years were thirty-one, Bacon was as young at heart as Shelley at eighteen, when he wrote thus to Cecil, “my Lord Treasurer Burghley.” What did Cecil care for his youngish kinsman’s philanthropy, and “vast speculative ends” (how MODERN it all is!), and the rest of it? But just because Bacon, at thirty-one, IS so extremely “green,” going to “take all knowledge for his province (if some one will only subsidise him, and endow his research), I conceive that he was in earnest about his reformation of science. Surely no Baconian will deny it! Being so deeply in earnest, taking his “study and meditation” so hard, I cannot see him as the author of Venus and Adonis, and whatever plays of the period — say, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry VI, Part I— are attributed to him, about this time, by Baconians. Of course my view is merely personal or “subjective.” The Baconians’ view is also “subjective.” I regard Bacon, in 1591, and later, as intellectually preoccupied by his vast speculative aims:— what he says that he desires to do, in science, is what he DID, as far as he was able. His other desires, his personal advancement, money, a share in the conduct of affairs, he also hotly pursued, not much to his own or the public profit. There seems to be no room left, no inclination left, for competition in their own line with Marlowe, Greene, Nash, and half a dozen other professed playwrights: no room for plays done under the absurd pseudonym of an ignorant actor.

You see these things as the Baconians do, or as I do. Argument is unavailing. I take Bacon to have been sincere in his effusive letter to Cecil. Not so the Baconians; he concealed, they think, a vast LITERARY aim. They must take his alternative — to be “some sorry bookmaker, OR a pioneer in that mine of truth,” as meaning that he would either be the literary hack of a company of players, OR the founder of a regenerating philosophy. But, at that date, playwrights could not well be called “bookmakers,” for the owners of the plays did their best to keep them from appearing as printed books. If Bacon by “bookmaker” meant “playwright,” he put a modest value on his poetical work!

Meanwhile (1591–2), Bacon attached himself to the young, beautiful, and famous Essex, on the way to be a Favourite, and gave him much excellent advice, as he always did, and, as always, his advice was not taken. It is not a novel suggestion, that Essex is the young man to whom Bacon is so passionately attached in the Sonnets traditionally attributed to Shakespeare. “I applied myself to him” (that is, to Essex), says Bacon, “in a manner which, I think, happeneth rarely among men.” The poet of the Sonnets applies himself to the Beloved Youth, in a manner which (luckily) “happeneth rarely among men.”

It is difficult to fit the Sonnets into Bacon’s life. But, if you pursue the context of what Bacon says concerning Essex, you find that he does not speak OPENLY of a tenderly passionate attachment to that young man; not more than THIS, “I did nothing but advise and ruminate with myself, to the best of my understanding, propositions and memorials of anything that might concern his Lordship’s honour, fortune, or service.” 236 As Bacon did nothing but these things (1591–2), he had no great leisure for writing poetry and plays. Moreover, speaking as a poet, in the Sonnets, he might poetically exaggerate his intense amatory devotion to Essex into the symbolism of his passionate verse. WAS ESSEX THEN A MARRIED MAN? If so, the Sonneteer’s insistence on his marrying must be symbolical of — anything else you please.

We know that Bacon, at this period, “did nothing” but “ruminate” about Essex. The words are his own! (1604). No plays, no Venus and Adonis, nothing but enthusiastic service of Essex and the Sonnets. Mr. Spedding, indeed, thinks that, to adorn some pageant of Essex (November 17, 1592), Bacon kindly contributed such matter as “Mr. Bacon in Praise of Knowledge” (containing his usual views about regenerating science), and “Mr. Bacon’s Discourse in Praise of his Sovereign.” 237 Both are excellent, though, for a Court festival, not very gay.

He also, very early in 1593, wrote an answer to Father Parson’s (?) famous indictment of Elizabeth’s Government, in Observations on a Libel. 238 What with ruminating on Essex, and this essay, he was not solely devoted to Venus and Adonis and to furbishing-up old plays, though, no doubt, he MAY have unpacked his bosom in the Sonnets, and indulged his luscious imaginations in Venus and Adonis. I would not limit the potentialities of his genius. But, certainly, this amazing man was busy in quite other matters than poetry; not to mention his severe “study and meditation” on science.

All these activities of Bacon, in the year of Venus and Adonis, do not exhaust his exercises. Bacon, living laborious days, plunged into the debate in the Commons on Supply and fell into Elizabeth’s disgrace, and vainly competed with Coke for the Attorney–Generalship, and went on to write a pamphlet on the conspiracy of Lopez, and to try to gain the office of Solicitor–General, to manage Essex’s affairs, to plead at the Bar, to do Crown work as a lawyer, to urge his suit for the Solicitorship; to trifle with the composition of “Formularies and Elegancies” (January 1595), to write his Essays, to try for the Mastership of the Rolls, to struggle with the affairs of the doomed Essex (1600–1), while always “labouring in secret” at that vast aim of the reorganisation of natural science, which ever preoccupied him, he says, and distracted his attention from his practice and from affairs of State. 239 Of these State affairs the projected Union with Scotland was the most onerous. He was also writing The Advancement of Learning (1605). “I do confess,” he wrote to Sir Thomas Bodley, “since I was of any understanding, my mind hath in effect been absent from that I have done.” 240 His mind was with his beloved Reformation of Learning: this came between him and his legal, his political labours, his pamphlet-writing, and his private schemes and suits. To this burden of Atlas the Baconians add the vamping-up of old plays for Shakespeare’s company, and the inditing of new plays, poems, and the Sonnets. Even without this considerable addition to his tasks, Bacon is wonderful enough, but with it — he needs the sturdy faith of the Rationalist to accept him and his plot — to write plays under the pseudonym of “William Shakespeare.”

Talk of miracles as things which do not happen! The activities of Bacon from 1591 to 1605; the strain on that man’s mind and heart — especially his heart, when we remember that he had to prosecute his passionately adored Essex to the death; all this makes it seem, to me, improbable that, as Mrs. Pott and her school of Baconians hold, he lived to be at least a hundred and six, if not much older. No wonder that he turned to tragedy, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and saw life en noir: man delighted him not, nor woman either.

The occupations, and, even more, the scientific preoccupation of Bacon, do not make his authorship of the plays a physical impossibility. But they make it an intellectual miracle. Perhaps I may be allowed to set off this marvel against that other portent, Will Shakspere’s knowledge and frequent use of terms of Law. 241 I do not pretend to understand how Will came to have them at the tip of his pen. Thus it may be argued that the Sonnets are by Bacon and no other man, because the Law is so familiar to the author, and his legal terms are always used with so nice an accuracy, that only Bacon can have been capable of these mysterious productions. (But why was Bacon so wofully inaccurate in points of scholarship and history?)

By precisely the same argument Lord Penzance proves that Bacon (not Ben, as Mr. Greenwood holds) wrote for the players the Dedication of the Folio. 242 “If it should be the case that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, he would, probably, afterwards have written the Dedication of the Folio, and the style of it” (stuffed with terms of law) “would be accounted for.” Mr. Greenwood thinks that Jonson wrote the Dedication; so Ben, too, was fond of using legal terms in literature. “Legal terms abounded in all plays and poems of the period,” says Sir Sidney Lee, and Mr. Greenwood pounces on the word “all.” 243 However he says, “We must admit that this use of legal jargon is frequently found in lay-writers, poets, and others of the Elizabethan period — in sonnets for example, where it seems to us intolerable.” Examples are given from Barnabe Barnes. 244 The lawyers all agree, however, that Shakespeare does the legal style “more natural,” and more accurately than the rest. And yet I cannot even argue that, if he did use legal terms at all, he would be sure to do it pretty well.

For on this point of Will’s use of legal phraseology I frankly profess myself entirely at a loss. To use it in poetry was part of the worse side of taste at that period. The lawyers with one voice declare that Will’s use of it is copious and correct, and that their “mystery” is difficult, their jargon hard to master; “there is nothing so dangerous,” wrote Lord Campbell, “as for one not of the craft to tamper with our freemasonry.” I have not tampered with it. Perhaps a man of genius who found it interesting might have learned the technical terms more readily than lawyers deem possible. But Will, so accurate in his legal terms, is so inaccurate on many other points; for example, in civil and natural history, and in classic lore. Mr. Greenwood proves him to be totally at sea as a naturalist. On the habits of bees, for example, “his natural history of the insect is as limited as it is inaccurate.” 245 Virgil, though not a Lord Avebury, was a great entomologist, compared with Will. About the cuckoo Will was recklessly misinformed. His Natural History was folklore, or was taken from that great mediaeval storehouse of absurdities, the popular work of Pliny. “He went to contemporary error or antiquated fancy for his facts, not to nature,” says a critic quoted by Mr. Greenwood. 246 Was that worthy of Bacon?

All these charges against le vieux Williams (as Theophile Gautier calls our Will) I admit. But Will was no Bacon; Will had not “taken all knowledge for his province.” Bacon, I hope, had not neglected Bees! Thus the problem, why is Will accurate in his legal terminology, and reckless of accuracy in quantity, in history, in classic matters, is not by me to be solved. I can only surmise that from curiosity, or for some other unknown reason, he had read law~books, or drawn information from Templars about the meaning of their jargon, and that, for once, he was technically accurate.

We have now passed in review the chief Baconian and Anti–Willian arguments against Will Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and poems. Their chief argument for Bacon is aut Diabolus, aut Franciscus, which, freely interpreted, means, “If Bacon is not the author, who the devil is?”

We reply, that man is the author (in the main) to whom the works are attributed by every voice of his own generation which mentions them, namely, the only William Shakespeare that, from 1593 to the early years of the second decade of the following century, held a prominent place in the world of the drama. His authorship is explicitly vouched for by his fellow-players, Heminge and Condell, to whom he left bequests in his will; and by his sometime rival, later friend, and always critic, Ben Jonson; Heywood, player and playwright and pamphleteer, who had been one of Henslowe’s “hands,” and lived into the Great Rebellion, knew the stage and authors for the stage from within, and HIS “mellifluous Shakespeare” is “Will,” as his Beaumont was “Frank,” his Marlowe “Kit,” his Fletcher, “Jack.” The author of Daiphantus (1604), mentioning the popularity of Hamlet, styles it “one of friendly Shakespeare’s tragedies.” Shakespeare, to him, was our Will clearly, a man of known and friendly character. The other authors of allusions did not need to say WHO their “Shakespeare” was, any more than they needed to say WHO Marlowe or any other poet was. We have examined the possibly unprecedented argument which demands that they who mention Shakespeare as the poet must, if they would enlighten us, add explicitly that he is also the actor.

“But all may have been deceived” by the long conspiracy of the astute Bacon, or the Nameless One. To believe this possible, considering the eager and suspicious jealousy and volubility of rival playwrights, is to be credulous indeed. The Baconians, representing Will almost as incapable of the use of pen and ink as “the old hermit of Prague,” destroy their own case. A Will who had to make his mark, like his father, could not pose as an author even to the call-boy of his company. Mr. Greenwood’s bookless Will, with some crumbs of Latin, and some power of “bumbasting out a blank verse,” is a rather less impossible pretender, indeed; but why and when did the speaker of patois, the bookless one, write blank verse, from 1592 onwards, and where are his blank verses? Where are the “works” of Poet–Ape? As to the man, even Will by tradition, whatever it may be worth, he was “a handsome, well-shaped man; very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant, smooth wit.” To his fellow-actors he was “so worthy a friend and fellow” (associate). To Jonson, “he was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed so freely that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.” If Jonson here refers, as I suppose he does, to his conversation, it had that extraordinary affluence of thoughts, each mating itself with as remarkable originality of richly figured expressions, which is so characteristic of the style of Shakespeare’s plays. In this prodigality he was remote indeed from the style of the Greeks; “panting Time toils after him in vain,” and even the reader, much more the listener, might say, sufflaminandus est; “he needs to have the brake put on.” 247

Such, according to unimpeachable evidence, was Will. Only despair can venture the sad suggestion that, under the name of Shakespeare, Ben is here speaking of Bacon, as “falling into those things which could not escape laughter . . . which were ridiculous.” But to this last poor shift and fantastic guess were the Anti–Willians and Baconians reduced.

Such was Shakespeare, according to a rival.

But it is “impossible” that a man should have known so much, especially of classical literature and courtly ways, and foreign manners and phrases, if he had no more, at most, than four or five years at a Latin school, and five or six years in that forcing-house of faculty, the London of the stage, in the flush of the triumph over the Armada.

“With innumerable sorts of English books and infinite fardles of printed pamphlets this country is pestered, all shops stuffed, and every study furnished,” says a contemporary. 248 If a doubter will look at the cheap and common books of that day (a play in quarto, and the Sonnets of Shakespeare, when new, were sold for fippence) in any great collection; he will not marvel that to a lover of books, poor as he might be, many were accessible. Such a man cannot be kept from books.

If the reader will look into “the translations and imitations of the classics which poured from the press . . . the poems and love~pamphlets and plays of the University wits” (when these chanced to be printed), “the tracts and dialogues in the prevailing taste,” 249 he will understand the literary soil in which the genius of Shakespeare blossomed as rapidly as the flowers in “Adonis’ garden.” The whole literature was, to an extent which we find tedious, saturated with classical myths, anecdotes, philosophic dicta — a world of knowledge of a kind then “in widest commonalty spread,” but now so much forgotten that, to Baconians and the public, such lore seems recondite learning.

The gallants who haunted the stage, and such University wits as could get the money, or had talent (like Crichton) to “dispute their way through Europe,” made the Italian tour, and, notoriously, were “Italianate.” They would not be chary of reminiscences of Florence, Venice, and Rome. Actors visited Denmark and Germany. No man at home was far to seek for knowledge of Elsinore, the mysterious Venetian “tranect or common ferry,” the gondolas, and the Rialto. There was no lack of soldiers fresh and voluble from the foreign wars. Only dullards, or the unthinking, can be surprised by the ease with which a quick-witted man, having some knowledge of Latin, can learn to read a novel in French, Italian, or Spanish. That Shakespeare was the very reverse of a dullard, of the clod of Baconian fancy, is proved by the fact that he was thought capable of his works. For courtly manners he had the literary convention and Lyly’s Court Comedies, with what he saw when playing at the Court and in the houses of the great. As to untaught nobility of manners, there came to the Court of France in 1429, from a small pig-breeding village on the marches of Lorraine, one whose manners were deemed of exquisite grace, propriety, and charm, by all who saw and heard her: of her manners and swift wit and repartee, the official record of her trial bears concordant evidence. Other untaught gifts she possessed, and the historic record is unimpeached as regards that child of genius, Jeanne d’Arc.

“Ne me dites jamais cette bete de mot, impossible,” said Napoleon: it is indeed a stupid word where genius is concerned.

If intellectual “miracles” were impossible to genius, even Bacon could not have been and done all that he was and did, and also the author of the Shakespearean plays and poems; even Ben could not have been the scholar that he was. For the rest, I need not return on my tracks and explain once more such shallow mysteries as the “Silence of Philip Henslowe,” and the lack of literary anecdotage about Shakespeare in a stupendously illiterate country town. Had Will, not Ben, visited Drummond of Hawthornden, we should have matter enough of the kind desired.

“We have the epics of Homer,” people say, “what matters it whether they be by a Man, or by a Syndicate that was in business through seven centuries? We have the plays of Shakespeare, what matters it whether he, or Bacon, or X. were, in the main, the author?”

It matters to us, if we hold such doubts to be fantastic pedantries, such guesses contrary to the nature of things; while we wish to give love and praise and gratitude where they are due; to that Achaean “Father of the rest”; and to “friendly Shakespeare.”

232 Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding, vol. i. p. 4 (1861).

233 Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding, vol. i. p. 31.

234 Ibid., vol. i. pp. 74–95.

235 Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding, vol. i. pp. 108–109.

236 Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding, vol. i. p. 106.

237 Ibid., vol. i. pp. 121–143.

238 Sixty pages in Spedding’s Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, vol. i. pp. 146–208.

239 See his statement (1603), Spedding, iii. pp. 84–87.

240 Ibid., iii. p. 253.

241 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, pp. 371–406.

242 The Bacon–Shakespeare Controversy, p. 198.

243 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 391.

244 Ibid., pp. 408–410.

245 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 425.

246 Ibid., p. 431.

247 Sufflamen is the “drag” or “brake.” Ben’s, “it was necessary he should be STOPPED,” is an incorrect translation.

248 Quoted by Sir Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare, p. 65.

249 Ibid., p. 65.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03