Shakespeare, Bacon and the Great Unknown, by Andrew Lang

Chapter vi

The Courtly Plays: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

We now come to consider another “miracle” discovered in the plays — a miracle if the actor be the author. The new portent is the courtliness and refinement (too often, alas! the noblest ladies make the coarsest jokes) and wit of the speeches of the noble gentlemen and ladies in the plays. To be sure the refinement in the jests is often conspicuously absent. How could the rude actor learn his quips and pretty phrases, and farfetched conceits? This question I have tried to answer already — the whole of these fashions abound in the literature of the day.

Here let us get rid of the assumption that a poet could not make the ladies and gentlemen of his plays converse as they do converse, whether in quips and airs and graces, or in loftier style, unless he himself frequented their society. Marlowe did not frequent the best society; HE was no courtier, but there is the high courtly style in the speeches of the great and noble in Edward II. Courtiers and kings never did speak in this manner, any more than they spoke in blank verse. The style is a poetical convention, while the quips and conceits, the airs and graces, ran riot through the literature of the age of Lyly and his Euphues and his comedies, the age of the Arcadia.

A cheap and probable source of Will’s courtliness is to be found in the courtly comedies of John Lyly, five of which were separately printed between 1584 and 1592. Lyly’s “real significance is that he was the first to bring together on the English stage the elements of high comedy, thereby preparing the way for Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It” (and Love’s Labour’s Lost, one may add). “Whoever knows his Shakespeare and his Lyly well can hardly miss the many evidences that Shakespeare had read Lyly’s plays almost as closely as Lyly had read Pliny’s Natural History. . . . One could hardly imagine Love’s Labour’s Lost as existent in the period from 1590 to 1600, had not Lyly’s work just preceded it.” 88

“It is to Lyly’s plays,” writes Dr. Landmann, “that Shakespeare owes so much in the liveliness of his dialogues, in smartness of expression, and especially in that predilection for witticisms, quibbles, and playing upon words which he shows in his comedies as well as in his tragedies.” There follows a dissertation on the affected styles of Guevara and Gongora, of the Pleiade in France, and generally of the artificial manner in Europe, till in England we reach Lyly, “in whose comedies,” says Dr. Furness, “I think we should look for motives which appeared later in Shakespeare.” 89

The Baconians who think that a poet could not derive from books and court plays his knowledge of fashions far more prevalent in literature than at Court, decide that the poet of Love’s Labour’s Lost was not Will, but the courtly “concealed poet.” No doubt Baconians may argue with Mr. R. M. Theobald 90 that “Bacon wrote Marlowe,” and, by parity of reasoning many urge, though Mr. Theobald does not, that Bacon wrote Lyly, pouring into Lyly’s comedies the grace and wit, the quips and conceits of his own courtly youth. “What for no?” The hypothesis is as good as the other hypotheses, “Bacon wrote Marlowe,” “Bacon wrote Shakespeare.”

The less impulsive Baconians and the Anti–Willians appear to ignore the well-known affected novels which were open to all the world, and are noted even in short educational histories of English literature. Shakespeare, in London, had only to look at the books on the stalls, to read or, if he had the chance, to see Lyly’s plays, and read the poems of the time. I am taking him not to be a dullard but a poet. It was not hard for him, if he were a poet of genius, not only to catch the manner of Lyly’s Court comedies, and “Marlowe’s mighty line” (Marlowe was not “brought up on the knees of Marchionesses”!), but to improve on them. People did not commonly talk in the poetical way, heaven knows; people did not write in the poetic convention. Certainly Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth talked and wrote, as a rule (we have abundance of their letters), like women of this world. There is a curious exception in Letter VIII of the Casket Letters from Mary to Bothwell. In this (we have a copy of the original French), Mary plunges into the affected and figured style already practised by Les Precieuses of her day; and expands into symbolisms in a fantastic jargon. If courtiers of both sexes conversed in the style of Euphues (which is improbable), they learned the trick of it from Euphues; not the author of Euphues from them. Lyly’s most popular prose was accessible to Shakespeare. The whole convention as to how the great should speak and bear themselves was accessible in poetry and the drama. A man of genius naturally made his ladies and courtiers more witty, more “conceited,” more eloquent, more gracious than any human beings ever were anywhere, in daily life.

It seems scarcely credible that one should be obliged to urge facts so obvious against the Baconian argument that only a Bacon, intimately familiar with the society of the great, could make the great speak as, in the plays, they do — and as in real life they probably did NOT!

We now look at Love’s Labour’s Lost, published in quarto, in 1598, as “corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere.” The date of composition is unknown, but the many varieties of versification, with some allusions, mark it as among the earliest of the dramas. Supposing that Shakespeare obtained his knowledge of fine manners and speech, and of the tedious quips and conceits which he satirises, from the contemporary poems, plays, and novels which abounded in them, and from precieux and precieuses who imitated them, as I suggest, even then Love’s Labour’s Lost is an extremely eccentric piece. I cannot imagine how a man who knew the foreign politics of his age as Bacon did, could have dreamed of writing anything so eccentric, that is, if it has any connection with foreign politics of the time.

The scene is the Court of Ferdinand, King of Navarre. In 1589–93, the eyes of England were fixed on the Court of her ally, Henri of Navarre, in his struggle with the League and the Guises; the War of Religion. But the poet calls the King “Ferdinand,” taking perhaps from some story this non-existent son of Charles III of Navarre (died 1425): to whom, according to Monstrelet, the Burgundian chronicler of that time, the French king owed 200,000 ducats of gold. This is a transaction of the early fifteenth century, and leads to the presence of the princess of France as an envoy at the Court of Navarre in the play; the whole thing is quite unhistorical, and has the air of being borrowed from some lost story or brief novel. Bacon’s brother, Anthony, was English minister at the Court of Navarre. What could tempt Bacon to pick out a non-historical King Ferdinand of Navarre, plant him in the distant days of Jeanne d’Arc, and make him, at that period, found an Academe for three years of austere study and absence of women? But, if Bacon did this, what could induce him to give to the non-existent Ferdinand, as companions, the Marechal de Biron with de Longueville (both of them, in 1589–93, the chief adherents of Henri of Navarre), and add to them “Dumain,” that is, the Duc de Mayenne, one of the Guises, the deadly foes of Henri and of the Huguenots? Even in the unhistorically minded Shakespeare, the freak is of the most eccentric — but in Bacon this friskiness is indeed strange. I cannot, like Mr. Greenwood, 91 find any “allusions to the Civil War of France.” France and Navarre, in the play, are in full peace.

The actual date of the fabulous King Ferdinand would have been about 1430. By introducing Biron, Longueville, and the Duc de Mayenne, and Bankes’s celebrated educated horse, the author shifts the date to 1591. But the Navarre of the play is a region “out of space, out of time,” a fairy world of projected Academes (like that of the four young men in de la Primaudaye’s L’Academie Francaise, Englished in 1586) and of peace, while the actual King of Navarre of 1591 was engaged in a struggle for life and faith; and in his ceaseless amours.

Many of Shakespeare’s anachronisms are easily intelligible. He takes a novel or story about any remote period, or he chooses, as for the Midsummer Night’s Dream, a period earlier than that of the Trojan war. He gives to the Athens contemporary with the “Late Minoan III” period (1600 B.C.?) a Duke, and his personages live like English nobles and rustics of his own day, among the fairies of English folk~lore. It is the manner of Chaucer and of the poets and painters of any age before the end of the eighteenth century. The resulting anachronisms are natural and intelligible. We do not expect war~chariots in Troilus and Cressida; it is when the author makes the bronze-clad Achaeans familiar with Plato and Aristotle that we are surprised. In Love’s Labour’s Lost we do not expect the author to introduce the manners of the early fifteenth century, the date of the affair of the 200,000 ducats. Let the play reflect the men and manners of 1589–93 — but why place Mayenne, a fanatical Catholic foe of Navarre, among the courtiers of the Huguenot King of Navarre?

As for de Mayenne (under the English spelling of the day Dumain) appearing as a courtier of his hated adversary Henri, Bacon, of all men, could not have made that absurd error. It was Shakespeare who took but an absent-minded interest in foreign politics. If Bacon is building his play on an affair, the ducats, of 1425–35 (roughly speaking), he should not bring in a performing horse, trained by Bankes, a Staffordshire man, which was performing its tricks at Shrewsbury — in 1591. 92 Thus early we find that great scholar mixing up chronology in a way which, in Shakespeare even, surprises; but, in Bacon, seems quite out of keeping.

Shakespeare, as Sir Sidney Lee says, gives Mayenne as “Dumain,”— Mayenne, “whose name was so frequently mentioned in popular accounts of French affairs in connection with Navarre’s movements that Shakespeare was led to number him also among his supporters.” Bacon would not have been so led! As Mayenne and Henri fought against each other at Ivry, in 1590, this was carrying nonsense far, even for Will, but for the earnestly instructive Bacon!

“The habits of the author could not have been more scholastic,” so Judge Webb is quoted, “if he had, like Bacon, spent three years in the University of Cambridge . . . “ Bacon, or whoever corrected the play in 1598, might have corrected “primater” into “pia mater,” unless Bacon intended the blunder for a malapropism of “Nathaniel, a Curate.” Either Will or Bacon, either in fun or ignorance, makes Nathaniel turn a common Italian proverb on Venice into gibberish. It was familiar in Florio’s Second Frutes (1591), and First Frutes (1578), with the English translation. The books were as accessible to Shakspere as to Bacon. Either author might also draw from James Sandford’s Garden of Pleasure, done out of the Italian in 1573–6.

Where the scholastic habits of Bacon at Cambridge are to be discovered in this play, I know not, unless it be in Biron’s witty speech against study. If the wit implies in the author a Cambridge education, Costard and Dull and Holofernes imply familiarity with rustics and country schoolmasters. Where the author proves that he “could not have been more familiar with French politics if, like Bacon, he had spent three years in the train of an Ambassador to France,” I cannot conjecture. THERE ARE NO FRENCH POLITICS IN THE PIECE, any more than there are “mysteries of fashionable life,” such as Bacon might have heard of from Essex and Southampton. There is no “familiarity with all the gossip of the Court”; there is no greater knowledge of foreign proverbs than could be got from common English books. There is abundance, indeed overabundance of ridicule of affected styles, and quips, with which the literature of the day was crammed: call it Gongorism, Euphuism, or what you please. One does not understand how or where Judge Webb (in extreme old age) made all these discoveries, sympathetically quoted by Mr. Greenwood. 93 “Like Bacon, the author of the play must have had a large command of books; he must have had his “Horace,” his “Ovidius Naso,” and his “good old ‘Mantuan.’” What a prodigious “command of books”! Country schoolmasters confessedly had these books on the school desks. It was not even necessary for the author to “have access to the Chronicles of Monstrelet.” It is not known, we have said, whether or not such plot as the play possesses, with King Ferdinand and the 100,000 ducats, or 200,000 ducats (needed to bring the Princess and the mythical King Ferdinand of Navarre together), were not adapted by the poet from an undiscovered conte, partly based on a passage in Monstrelet.

Perhaps it will be conceded that Love’s Labour’s Lost is not a play which can easily be attributed to Bacon. We do not know how much of the play existed before Shakespeare “augmented” it in 1598. We do not know whether what he then corrected and augmented was an early work of his own or from another hand, though probably it was his own. Moliere certainly corrected and augmented and transfigured, in his illustrious career in Paris, several of the brief early sketches which he had written when he was the chief of a strolling troupe in Southern France.

Mr. Greenwood does not attribute the wit (such as it is), the quips, the conceits, the affectations satirised in Love’s Labour’s Lost, to Will’s knowledge of the artificial style then prevalent in all the literatures of Western Europe, and in England most pleasingly used in Lyly’s comedies. No, “the author must have been not only a man of high intellectual culture, but one who was intimately acquainted with the ways of the Court, and the fashionable society of his time, as also with contemporary foreign politics.” 94

I search the play once more for the faintest hint of knowledge of foreign politics. The embassy of the daughter of the King of France (who, by the date of the affair of the ducats, should be Charles VII) has been compared to a diplomatic sally of the mother of the childless actual King of France (Henri III), in 1586, when Catherine de Medici was no chicken. I do not see in the embassy of the Princess of the story any “intimate acquaintance with contemporary foreign politics” about 1591–3. The introduction of Mayenne as an adherent of the King of Navarre, shows either a most confused ignorance of foreign politics on the part of the author, or a freakish contempt for his public. I am not aware that the author shows any “intimate acquaintance with the ways” of Elizabeth’s Court, or of any other fashionable society, except the Courts which Fancy held in plays.

Mr. Greenwood 95 appears to be repeating “the case as to this very remarkable play” as “well summed up by the late Judge Webb in his Mystery of William Shakespeare” (p. 44). In that paralysing judicial summary, as we have seen, “the author could not have been more familiar with French politics if, like Bacon, he had spent three years in the train of an Ambassador to France.” The French politics, in the play, are to send the daughter of a King of France (the contemporary King Henri III was childless) to conduct a negotiation about 200,000 ducats, at the Court, steeped in peace, of a King of Navarre, a scholar who would fain be a recluse from women, in an Academe of his own device. Such was not the Navarre of Henri in his war with the Guises, and Henri did not shun the sex!

Such are the “contemporary foreign politics,” the “French politics” which the author knows — as intimately as Bacon might have known them. They are not foreign politics, they are not French politics, they are politics of fairy-land: with which Will was at least as familiar as Bacon.

These, then, are the arguments in favour of Bacon, or the Great Unknown, which are offered with perfect solemnity of assurance: and the Baconians repeat them in their little books of popularisation and propaganda. Quantula sapientia!

88 Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. v. p. 126. Prof. G. P. Baker.

89 Furness, Love’s Labour’s Lost, pp. xiii., 348–350: cf. pp. 348, 349, for the four distinct styles of linguistic affectation of the period, at least as they are represented in literature.

90 Shakespeare Studies in Baconian Light, Appendix on Marlowe.

91 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 516.

92 Act i. Scene 2. Furness, Love’s Labour’s Lost, p. 45, note.

93 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, pp. 67, 68.

94 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 66.

95 Ibid., p. 67.

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