Response to a Baconian

Recently Graeme Romans commented on my August blog, The Real Authorship Question, in which I explain why the AQ should be questioning, not just Shakespeare, but all the Elizabethan writers of imaginative literature.  As those readers are aware who’ve heard my lectures and read my articles on this blog and elsewhere, I see a handful of writers, six to be exact, providing most, perhaps all, of the important imaginative literature of this period.  The rest are mostly the names of proxies used by three or four of these writers to get their works into print.

I’ve gone into depth here a number of times on the reasons why they had to use this ruse, but the basic reason is simply the same one that writers have had to deal with, probably since writing first began, oppression by authority.  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, was little more than a gleam in the eye of 16th-century writers like Christopher Marlowe, and we know where that got him.

Why is this not evident in the history of the period?  Because the oppressors repressed not only the literature and those who created it, they also repressed the history of the period itself!  Having control of what paper survived to later generations of readers and historians, they determined what would remain to act as the framework for history and what would be “lost.”  This repression dealt largely with political matters, but in those days the world of entertainment WAS political, which is what Alec Wilder meant when he said, “Theater has always dared.  It has troubled princes and prelates alike.”  What Shakespeare dared was to satirize well known figures of the Court and government, something that could be hidden if his identity remained unknown.  What Marlowe dared was to confront the government, daring his fellow plebes to take matters into their own hands, something that could not be tolerated.

The collected works of Shakespeare, only the second collection of English plays ever published, was a carefully calculated move by a handful of literary patrons to overcome, or rather, sidestep, this repression, at least as regards the Shakespeare canon.  For that to occur, the suppression of the truth of its authorship had to continue.  We got the literature, some of the best of it anyway, but at the cost of its history.

As for the literary history of the period, there are efforts now among certain academics to look more deeply into the repression of the Catholic writers, one that promises to return writers like Robert Southwell to the mainstream where they belong.  This is a good thing that, we hope, will take hold and become part of the accepted history of the period.  But it will take a real revolutionary somewhere in the Academy to spread this kind of second sight to see though the repression of all the poets.  To crack the façade that protects what has become over time, the English Department’s holy of holies, that lifeless thing, the Stratford bio, will probably take some reckless young History post doc who sees value in placing Shakespeare where he belongs, at Elizabeth’s Court.

The super six

Among these six revolutionaries, the leading figure is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  He was the oldest, he was the great Renaissance genius of the imagination, it was he who took the first steps towards getting the English to write out of personal experience and feeling (not some Petrarchan formula) and who was also the major force in getting them to publish in print.  He was a moving force in creating the first fulltime commercial theaters in England; and he was also the major force in the creation of the commercial periodical press.  As the author of not only the Shakespeare canon, but the Robert Greene canon, the John Lyly novels, plus works attributed to George Gascoigne, George Pettie, and Barnabe Riche (among others), he also had the longest career.

The second most important figure in this group is Oxford’s cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, his junior by eleven years, whose contribution to the literature of this first breakout of the ELR (the English Literary Renaissance) was through the voices we know as Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe (and the John Lyly of the plays).  Bacon admired Oxford; he shared with him the dream of creating a great English language and literary tradition modelled on the French Pleiade; he worked for him and with him through the seminal years of the 1580s, writing plays for the children’s companies and pamphlets for the periodical press.  And although he assiduously created styles of his own as different from Oxford’s as possible, understandably he was unable to avoid adopting some of his mentor’s phrasing.  That the two writers went their separate ways in the ’90s is the age-old story of the gifted apprentice stepping out on his own.  So while Oxford continued into the late ’90s and early 17th century writing imaginative literature (i.e., plays), Bacon returned to his original dream, revolutionizing the English judicial system by becoming part of that system, and adopting its language in order to change it.

Taking Baconian Graeme Romans’s comment one sentence at a time:

Romans: These paragraphs [from my blogs on Bacon] suggest a respect for Bacon’s abilities that make it difficult to understand why you choose de Vere over Bacon in the Shakespeare stakes.

Me: I didn’t “choose” one or the other.  Oxford chose me; Bacon didn’t.  I have a great respect for Ernest Hemmingway, but that doesn’t lead me to suppose that, because they were working at the same time, he wrote the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald (or vice versa).  Like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Oxford and Bacon have very different voices.  Oxford’s was less a conscious effort than something that evolved over time as the language around him changed, while Bacon, from the first, delighted in creating styles as different as possible from his natural voice, as seen in the pseudo Chaucerian style of The Faerie Queene, then in the pseudo Mar-prelate style of Nashe.  Since this was a period when writers, Bacon among them, strove to create distinct voices (something playwrights do as a matter of course), we have to go beyond the styles to the basic beliefs and methods of particular authors, and here too, they differ in ways that style alone can’t determine.

Romans: Having acknowledged Bacon’s closeness to de Vere you acknowledge that much of your circumstantial evidence could be transposed into the case for Bacon.

Me: If what I said can be interpreted that way, I’m happy to be more plain.  What I meant was: first: that Baconians were the first to realize that the author of the Robert Greene canon was also the author of the Shakespeare canon; and second: that the author of the Spenser canon was Francis Bacon.  These are two separate insights.  Both are true (in my view), but not as evidence that Bacon was the author of the Shakespeare and Greene canons.

Romans: Yet Bacon is the more high-minded and the more likely to have sought to give the English a history of Kings, not to mention a common tongue enriched a thousand fold.

Me: Read what I’ve posted about Oxford’s education with Sir Thomas Smith, the number of history books in Smith’s library and the fact that so many of them are the accepted sources for Shakespeare’s history plays.  This is not to say that Bacon didn’t have access to these same books, he probably did, although we don’t have a record of it as we do with de Vere.  Bacon and Oxford’s educations were much alike since their tutors were members of the same Cambridge-based group whose own educations were based on the work of Erasmus, Luther and Calvin, a group that remained very much a lifelong community.

Apart from very differing personalities, another cause of their differing styles was the particular approach that their tutors would have taken.  Bacon’s mother (who had tutored King Edward VI ) would have started her son with Latin, the language in which most of the Reformation literature was written, with Greek coming later.  (Although the early Church fathers were often in Greek, to pious reformers like Anne Bacon, Greek was a dangerous language that could lead to knowledge of lascivious pagans like Ovid and Catullus.)  Smith, who was far more of a Renaissance humanist than a Reformation ideologue (and so could simply ignore what he didn’t like) was devoted to the Greek classics, and so probably followed Sir Thomas Elyot in starting little de Vere with Greek via Aesop and Apulius, then, as soon as possible, Homer.

Though Greek and Latin are closely related in many ways, there’s a considerable difference in what you might call the soul of the language.  I believe this difference is reflected in the nature of the voices that came from Oxford and from the work that Bacon finally began publishing in his thirties, beginning in 1596 with the Montaigne-like Essays.

As for “high-minded,” no one was more high-minded than Sir Thomas Smith, renowned for his erudition and his honesty.  Considering how long they were together, eight years, from de Vere’s age four to age twelve, Smith’s influence on Oxford would have been profound.  If the reason for your comment derives from the common notion that great writers are all noble humanitarians, I suggest you read the biographies of Rousseau, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, to name just four.  And however high-minded, Bacon, like most humans, had some very ignoble traits, something his promoters prefer to ignore.

Romans: I suspect you were an Oxfordian first and find it difficult to let go.

Me: No way.  My awareness of Bacon and my respect for him came long before I knew anything about Oxford or was convinced of his true career by the evidence offered by Looney, Ward, Ogburn, Miller, Clark, and Bowen.  Once I began to dig more deeply into the history of the period and saw how close they must have been––Oxford’s guardian William Cecil, his colleague Nicholas Bacon, Francis’s father, and his mother, Bacon’s wife and Cecil’s wife’s sister, having all been located within walking distance of each other on the Strand during the years Oxford lived with the Cecils––I realized there had to be some kind of relationship between these two budding young writers, the best in their time.  Birds of a feather, don’t you know.

That Bacon returned from France at age 18 just months before the Shepheard’s Calender was published with its erudite gloss by E.K., who could only have been Oxford, the basis for their relationship came clear: a passion for creating an English literature on the level of the French Pléiade and the ancients of Rome and Greece.  That Oxford was teasing Bacon as Francis the Drawer in Henry IV Part One fits so perfectly with Bacon’s situation as one who, due to his poverty, had to “draw” for clients and so was at their mercy, well, what else was there to think?

That Bacon was the author of  Nashe’s Jack Wilton, The Unfortunate Traveller, so obviously based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy under the name of his famous/infamous uncle, the Earl of Surrey; and that also as Nashe he was the author of the play performed for John Whitgift, his old Cambridge Master.  This, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, shows Bacon’s view of Oxford’s role in the life of the Court community: Ver, the Adonis-like lord of Nature, who dies (loses favor) only to be reborn (when the Queen needs good theater again).   (Read Summer’s Last Will; you’ll see he speaks of his “cousin Ned” in the first paragraph.  The whole first section about Ver (Spring) is about Oxford.)  Oxford’s view of Bacon comes through in his portraits of Puck and Ariel: the devoted page, assistant to the great magician in fairyland and the magical isle, both metaphors for the Stage.

To those who adhere to the single genius theory, that only one individual wrote all the important works of the period––whether Oxford or Bacon or Marlowe––I can only point out, once again, that no revolution was ever accomplished by the efforts of one person alone.  Like the Jacobins who revolutionized the government of France in the 18th century, or the Impressionists who revolutionized painting in the 19th, or the American jazz musicians who did the same for popular music in the 20th, it takes a whole village of revolutionaries to raise a culture’s consciousness.  In the small tight-knit community of 16th-century London readers and writers, it took six: Oxford, Bacon, the Sidneys, Raleigh, and Marlowe.  And, not least, their patrons, printers, actors, and stagehands.

Romans: I would like to hear what you would write about Bacon’s scrivenery and its likely output.

Me: I’m not sure what you mean by “scrivenry,” but I do have a great deal more to post about Bacon, and will at some point.  Meanwhile, I suggest that you read Spenser’s Mother Hubberd and Nashe’s Jack Wilton or Piers Penniless.  Of course I assume that you’ve already read a good deal of Bacon’s writing under his own name.  His Essays are a good place to begin.  They at least reveal a little hint of the humor that’s so completely suppressed in the works he published later under his own name, and that’s so wildly and delightfully rampant in “Nashe,” written in his wild youth when he was one of the lads at Fisher’s Folly.

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4 responses to “Response to a Baconian

  1. Interesting. About ten years ago I invested considerable time in studying Spenser and Sidney on the theory that Oxford was hiding behind both names. The initial evidence that pointed in that direction didn’t hold up, but I came away surprised at the lack of credible evidence supporting the authorship of either individual. I found it particularly amazing that scholars were citing the Spenser-Harvey Letters as though they (or the identity of the authors) should be taken at face-value when they are obviously highly satirical. And then, of course, there were the early problems of attribution of Spenser’s works. The only credible evidence of Sidney’s authorship that I found was his reference to his “toy book” in his letter to his brother. The most solid evidence of Spencer’s authorship is found, I believe, in comments by Harvey. I spent some time with George Harman’s The Impersonations of Edmund Spenser, which reinforced my suspicions. I pretty much ignored the premised connection to Bacon. I put the matter aside, but remained convinced that Oxford was involved in both cases. I hadn’t thought of an Oxford-Bacon connection. In any case, I like your theory and I think we should be very open-minded about such possibilities. Regarding the problem of “repression”, perhaps you are familiar with Curtis Breight’s Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era? I highly recommend it.

  2. I’ve gone the same route with most of the writers from this period. Sidney’s identity is solid for a number of reasons, but Spenser’s makes no sense at all. Running that one to ground will give some literary bloodhound a run for his/her money someday.

    I love the way academics and their followers repeat how Spenser came to London (before his final trip), or to Court and how the Queen gave him a pension (because they want to believe it), when the evidence falls apart as soon as you look at it. I’d appreciate knowing what letter you’re referring to from Sidney to his brother; more particularly the date.

    As for Harvey, I don’t think he actually wrote any of the pamphlets attributed to him. He was in trouble at Cambridge at the time, and was hardly likely to get into a pamphlet war with two such powerful courtiers, which of course they knew or they wouldn’t have used him like they did.

    Yes, I have the Breight book. Wonderful how the historians ignore it.

  3. 1.Bacon admired Oxford;
    2.he worked for him and with him through the seminal years of the 1580s,
    3.writing plays for the children’s companies and pamphlets for the periodical press.
    4. And although he assiduously created styles of his own as different from Oxford’s as possible, understandably he was unable to avoid adopting some of his mentor’s phrasing.
    *******
    Please tell where the sources of these 4 points of information are from, unless this is just pure speculation.

  4. It’s all “speculation,” of course, though I wouldn’t call it “pure.” Had the writers, their patrons, and the cleansers of the record who were determined to leave no trace behind of any connection between these writers and their works been less thorough, we wouldn’t still be struggling with these attributions. What’s certainly not “true” is that there was no connection between these writers, which is where you’re left if you follow the traditional scenarios.

    1) If Bacon’s cousin Oxford was the writer who later took the name Shakespeare, of course Bacon admired him, adored might be a better word. Once you hear his voice in Spenser and Nashe you see clearly this admiration in a dozen different places.

    2) With the English Literary Renaissance blossoming all around him, what else would the young genius be doing ? And no, he couldn’t have been writing Shakespeare, since that was done by someone a good deal older, someone whose life story fits every play, as Bacon’s does not.

    3) If you read a lot of Bacon you get a feeling for his personality that transcends the styles he created out of youthful joie d’esprit and the fun of being part of something as exciting as the English Literary Renaissance. In his satires, Spenser is saying the very same thing that we hear later from Nashe, and, with one or two interesting exceptions, both express all the same opinions that Bacon held to throughout his life. There are other stylistic similarities as well, the kind that writers find it hard to shed.

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