Many Oxfordians try to ignore Francis Bacon, probably out of rivalry for the Shakespeare crown, but there’s no way he can be dismissed. He was certainly a genius with words, as all of Europe but the English still recognize, and the second most famous English writer of the Reformation period, up there with Shakespeare on a pinnacle that far exceeds any others of their time. Given that the writing community was small, that they were cousins and neighbors in youth, only 11 years apart in age, Bacon is not only a big part of the story of the English Literary Renaissance, he’s got to be part of Oxford’s story too. The question is, how much and in what way?
As the first anti-Stratfordians, the Baconians did a lot of important preliminary work on the Authorship Question. They were the first to strip William’s biography of its fantasy trappings and the first to question the anomalies that have stumped orthodoxy ever since. They were wrong about Shakespeare (most of this research took place before Looney’s book on Oxford), but they were right about just about everything else, including Bacon’s authorship of at least two other canons that he, and only he, could possibly have written.
The 1910 book by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Bacon was Shake-speare, gives the major arguments both against Stratford and for Bacon. Durning-Lawrence provides a short list of the leading lights he knew of then who scorned the Stratford authorship, among them Prince Bismark, who found it unlikely that someone of William’s background would have known, as Bismark himself certainly knew––and as he could see that Shakespeare knew––what life was really like at the Court of a Prince, not something that anyone, genius or otherwise, could possibly pick up from books or conversations in pubs. Durning-Lawrence discusses the paltry evidence for William’s presence in London, the six signatures, the damning (to William) preface to the 1609 publication of Troilus and Cressida, and other key points in the anti-Stratfordian argument.
Some of the most obvious anomalies in the Stratford story Baconians could explain via Sir Francis. Unlike William, Bacon was a courtier and had every reason to hide his identity. Unlike William, he had the kind of education that explained the Bard’s erudition. They could explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of France by Bacon’s two years in Paris in his teens. He was responsible for the Court’s entertainment at Gray’s Inn in 1595 where a version of A Comedy of Errors was performed, as he was also responsible, all or in part, for several Court masques under King James. Certain intriguing manuscript documents have survived that connect him with Shakespeare, more directly through the Northumberland MSS, less directly though also intriguingly through his notebook, Promus. Most significant is his comment in a letter to poet John Davies, on his way north to connect with King James VI, soon to be King of England, in which Bacon hopes that James will be kind to “concealed poets.” (Stratfordians quibble over his intentions, but fail to explain why else he would bother with this in a letter that was obviously meant to promote himself.) Luckily there’s no need to prove wrong most of the arguments on either side.
One of the most obvious things about Francis Bacon is his intellectual energy. From 1596 on he turned out a cornucopia of written works, some in English, some in Latin, some published, many not. He seems determined to put England on the world map, not only of literature, but of jurisprudence, science and philosophy as well. To rest content with the idea that this intellectual dynamo spent his youth doing nothing of note is more absurd than anything the Stratfordians have ever conjured up about William. Most geniuses begin their careers in their youth, many in their childhood or teen years; most people are at their peak of energy in their twenties and thirties. What was Bacon doing between 18 when he arrived back in England and 35, when he finally got a Court position? Absence of information hardly means he was doing nothing! Not Francis Bacon!
Putting all the pieces together, both literary and historical dates, their shared high level of literary genius, their similar educations in Greek literature, English law and biblical studies, their family connection (Bacon was Oxford’s wife’s first cousin), their attitudes towards Essex and Southampton, Oxford’s passing reference to his “cousin Bacon” in a letter to Robert Cecil, plus a number of other clues from my own research that I intend to detail in later blogs and pages. Through these I hope to show how close they were at times, and how involved with each other’s lives and fates.
By combining Oxford’s data with Bacon’s, we hear, once again, the swish of Ockham’s razor, simplifying, simplifying, simplifying, leaving us with two cousins, one, the elder, the leader, the other, his student and amanuensis who began his own great career by trying his hand at every form of writing that was the great adventure of the reading class in his time, in poetry, plays, and pamphlets. This he did partly to impress his Court community, partly just for the fun of it and to extend his wings, but the forms used and the subjects chosen were chiefly to impress the “King of the Paper Stage.” During this process of learning and development, how could he help but adopt in any number of instances, the language of his brilliant older cousin?
I believe that we can see where Bacon enters into both the literary history of the time, though under assumed names, and also where he appears in the plays, put there, not by himself, but by his cousin. Most enlightening of all are the exhilarating exchanges published under cover of their adopted pamphlet identities in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a virtual feast of “Pickle Herring” that continued well into the mid-’90s, when finally, with Oxford silenced by his loss of credit and Bacon finally able to begin working his way into what he felt was his true calling, the retooling of the English legal system, their literary partnership came to an end.
Forced into ever deeper cover, Oxford would continue to fulfill his own unique literary destiny via the London Stage, using it to create and disseminate a modernized English language while Bacon continued his climb to high office. Someday, further study may suggest one final “collaboration” in 1622-’23 when the Earl of Pembroke, following his mother Mary’s death and Bacon’s fall from grace, gave Francis the task of editing those remaining Shakespeare plays that required the master’s touch before they could be set in type. If in so doing the weary wordsmith tucked in a few subtle references to himself it was as much for love and reverence of their author as his own battered ego.
Keep in mind that this is my scenario only (though borrowing much from the Baconians), and that I make no claims for it, other than the same one I keep making, which is that, whether true or not, my version accounts for most of the anomalies in four arenas: Shakespeare, the Stratford biography, Bacon’s biography, and the Nashe Harvey pamphlet war, along with a myriad of lesser confusions in the general history of the times, both political and literary. Unfortunately, Oxford and Bacon are being portrayed today more as opponents in the struggle for the Shakespeare Crown than as the partners and teammates that they actually were in putting English at the forefront of world literatures.
5 thoughts on “Oxford and Bacon”
Stephanie, you make a truly important point: That we should not look at these “candidates” as rivals but as co-conspirators in a lterary revolution. On all fronts something seismic happened in El;izabethan England that led to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the emergence of modern constitutional monarchy/democracy in which literacy and the stage and writing were integral. The influence of Bacon was huge and obvious, and he does not need to have been “Shakespeare” to deserve his place along with that author as one of the great thinkers, writers and revolutionaries of the time. He and Sir Thomas More produced the first English science fiction (More “Utopia,” Bacon “The New Atlantis”) and he pretty much invented historical biography (“Henry VII”) which were nothing compared with his invention of modern experimental science. Add his forays into jurisprudence and you have a Rennaisance man so formidable that––as I think I said––he does not need to be Shakespeare.
And again you are so right. There was a fairly small elite of these remarkable men––often personal enemies but also deep friends and often relatives––who furthered the Erasmus project and the advance of modern humanism and science. Oxford and Lyly led the euphuistic wing (probably largely Oxford as you have shown) and changed the language and our perception beyond measure, but they were part of the whole movement and should be seen as such. Please keep on with your line of enquiry. I’ll send you separately a chapter from my next book which deals with Time and has a section on Bacon and the transformation of thought that links it to Totemism and Levi-Strauss on the savage mind. Just by way of saying there is something big here and you are on to it.
I hope this will encourage other people to get their heads above the “Shakespeare is everything” stance and look at the wider picture. Thank you for energising this debate.
Thanks for this, Robin. I like your phrase “the Erasmus project.” In the same way we might regard the American government as it was created in the late 18th century a “project” of Freemasonry, one that like the ELR was largely engendered underground.
As someone who found Bacon as Shakespeare before coming to the case for Oxford, can you imagine how galling it is to read that in Bacon “you have a Renaissance man so formidable that”….” he does not have to be Shakespeare.”?
Despite the hatchet job done on him by Macauley, contemporary opinion paints a picture of an exemplary life. Further, it raises him to a pinnacle of literary achievement – unsupported by the works attributed to him – as a man who had “fill’d all the numbers” [Jonson disclosing/praising his achievements as a poet] Please read the elegies written after his death.
Stephanie rightly points out his apparently unproductive early years when those close to him supported his scrivenery of “good pens” [Jonson was one of them later on]. What was this indefatigable man up to if not the furthering of his Great Instauration , perhaps by the production of historical ‘morality’ plays?
As I make clear, or try to anyway, in my essays on Bacon, he was very busy in his late teens and early twenties. Apart from writing policy papers and official letters for Court figures like Walsingham, I’m convinced he was the true author of the Spenser and Nashe canons. He also created theater, plays like Summer’s Last Will and Testament, and a number of masques, extravaganzas like that at Gray’s Inn in the winter of 1595, and later on a number of occasions at James’s Court. Others were involved in these, but he did the planning, and the writing of the various speeches. His career in the theater has been made a footnote by scholars more interested in his philosophical writings, but they’re in the record all right. As one scholar points out, no one has yet done a definitive overview of this aspect of his career.
As for his relationship to Shakespeare’s plays, I believe that it was he, who, as Nashe, promoted them, defended them in his pamphlets as teaching tools, and that he was later on very involved in editing and preparing the First Folio for publication. Like I said, he was Ariel to Oxford’s Prosper-O, and Puck to his O-Berowne. That kept him plenty busy.
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