Category Archives: Francis Bacon

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.

Shakespeare’s search for silence

Writers are solitary creatures.  However gregarious some may be by nature, if anything is to come of their effort they’ll need long spells of unbroken solitude on a regular basis.  Unlike painters or sculptors, they need very little in the way of material things like studios or materials, what they chiefly need is privacy and time.  Writers need regular chunks of unbroken time, anywhere from two to six hours at a go, day after day, week after week, to effectively ply their craft.  Writers of fiction in particular need this if plots are to form and characters to take shape.  (With writers of modern television serials, something else maybe taking the place of time, cocaine perhaps.)

This is not the kind of thinking that can be done in bits and pieces.  It takes time to get “i’ th’ vein,” as they put it then and it also requires protection against interruption in order to stay in “the vein” (or “the zone” as it’s sometimes termed today) long enough for development to take place.  For a full-length novel or a play, these spells have to occur regularly enough over several days or more likely weeks for the process to continue until the story has acquired a life of its own.  A metaphor of giving birth was often used back then––literary gestation occurring in the darkness and silence of the womb of the mind.

It’s hard enough to find this kind of seclusion today, but apparently it was next to impossible in 16th-century England.  For as Lawrence Stone pointedly notes, there simply was no concept of privacy in 16th-century England:

This was a society where neither individual autonomy nor privacy were respected as desirable ideals. . . .  Privacy like individualism, was neither possible nor desired. . . .  Privacy was a rarity which the rich lacked because of the architectural layout of their houses and the prying ubiquity of their servants, and the poor lacked because of confinement in a one or two room hovel. . . .  The closest analogy to a sixteenth-century home is a bird’s nest” (4, 6, 7 Family).

His point about architecture is clear for anyone who has ventured into Hampton Palace, Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, or one of the great houses of the 16th century that remain in their original form, for the Elizabethans lived in houses where rooms circled a central meeting area, then, as the building grew, branched off in strings of rooms that opened directly each one into the next, so that to get to the last room on the chain it was necessary to go through every room in between.  With halls came privacy, but it seems that what we call a hall today (a hall to the Elizabethans was a room large enough to hold many people) was a thing of the future.  What privacy they got was achieved through the use of screens and the great curtained beds.  Nor did wealth and rank make privacy any more attainable, since the least private dwellings were those of the aristocracy, where they were also surrounded by herds of retainers, “bed partners” and “gentlemen of the bedchamber.”  This lack of privacy is one of the factors that made secrecy so important during this period.

In addition, the Elizabethans had not yet developed the respect for writing as an art that we have today.  Writers were not expected to produce literature; writers were scriveners, clerks, men trained to put into simple language the thoughts of their illiterate or busy employers.  The small percentage of Elizabethans who were lucky enough to be taught to read and write acquired respect for the poets of ancient times along with their studies, but these were perceived as immortals––the notion that there might be equally great writers among their own friends and family members was a concept born with the Italian Renaissance, one that, when Shakespeare and his colleagues first began had not yet made its way to Britain.   As for poetry, anyone who could read and write could scribble verses for particular occasions.  Some may have been seen as better than others, but rarely so much better as to be worth saving.  So where and how Shakespeare got the respect and privacy he needed to create the literature he gave the world should be a major issue for authorship researchers.

With this as with so much else, we can but “see through a glass darkly”––still, as with all truths, once we know what to look for chances are we’ll find clues.  For instance, it wasn’t until Philip Sidney, wounded by the way he was being treated at Court, deserted his habitual entourage for refuge with his sister Mary that he had the breakthrough that put him on the literary map for all time (“Fool! Look in thy heart and write!”).  As a writer herself,  respectful of her brother’s talent and aware of the struggle he was having to express himself, Mary understood that what he needed most was privacy.  And as a Countess she was also in a position to see to it that he got it.

From early in his career Francis Bacon sought refuge from the noise and interruptions of London at his brother’s estate on the Thames that was eventually bought for him by the Earl of Essex, who certainly knew from his own life what it meant to need privacy.  By buying this writer’s refuge for Francis, Essex was compensating for failing to talk the Queen into making him Attorney General.  In actuality, the gift of Twickenham Park was the greater, at least where posterity is concerned, for it enabled the great Francis Bacon to keep on writing, something he might not have had time for had he gotten the Court job he craved.

If seen through the lens of a writer’s search for privacy, much about the Earl of Oxford’s life and nature is explained.

Early in life he would have developed the habit of solitude, living as he did with the scholar Sir Thomas Smith, who would himself have required such spells of silence and privacy for his own writing.  Without, it seems, companions of his own age and rank, what could be more natural than for the solitary boy to adopt his mentor’s habits.  It was only when “exempt from public haunt” and on his own outdoors he heard, speaking from within his own mind, tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and “good in everything.”

Having been transferred at twelve to the hotel-like turmoil of Cecil House in London, an atmosphere more like that of a foreign embassy than a private residence, this habit of solitude must have been sorely tried.  Cecil’s penchant for spying on his associates is as good as any other explanation for Oxford stabbing the undercook, something that, if we take the events in Hamlet as reflections of events in his life, may have been a hot-headed teenager’s reaction to the realization that he and his fencing partner were being watched, not by Polonius himself of course, but by one of his household spies.

The need for privacy may well be a factor in the way he behaved when, upon arriving back in England after a year abroad, he ignored the welcoming party arranged by Cecil, and hurried off with one of his pals.  If properly interpreted, his beef with Cecil seems to have been less the rumors about Anne than Cecil’s inability to keep private family matters to himself––allowing them to become, as Oxford put it, “the fable of the world.”  It’s hard to deny that his need for privacy had more to do with the five-year break with the Cecils that followed than any suspicion he may have had about his wife’s fidelity.

Ensconsed in his own household at Fisher’s Folly, surrounded by secretaries, writers and composers––who of course understood that when milord was writing he was NOT TO BE DISTURBED!––he was finally able to achieve a life for himself where he could get this kind of privacy whenever he needed it––one reason why this period shines as the most likely source of so many early versions of his greatest plays.  That this ideal environment was lost to him when he lost Fisher’s Folly in 1588 may help to explain Bacon’s title for Nashe’s introduction to Menaphon the following year: “Camilla’s alarm to slumbering Euphues in his melancholy cell at Silexedra,” and his reference the following year in Spenser’s Tears of the Muses to the fact that “Our pleasant Willy, Ah! is dead of late, with whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded and in dolour drent.” (Ugh! That godawful style!)

By 1594, remarried and so established once again in a household that could provide him with clean linen and regular meals, he began rewriting his old plays for a new generation of audiences, both Courtly and public, but one wonders how much privacy he was able to squeeze for himself from the constant call upon him for favors, interviews, etc., that were the daily business of a peer of the realm.

The likelihood that his young wife and the staff she provided had more interest in running a functioning estate than in making it possible for Prosper-O to conjure up the magic on a regular basis suggests his 1595 return to begging the Queen for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham.  This in turn explains, to me at least, why the strange lack of evidence that he actually died in 1604 suggests that, with his mortality facing him, he simply took a card from his own “fantastical duke of dark corners” and “died to the world.”  Having acquired from a King who understood, as Elizabeth had not, his need for privacy, he finally achieved a setting that would allow him to leave the world the masterpieces of English literature that , in some cases, it had taken thirty years to polish to perfection.

A can of politic worms

One of the problems with getting academics to pay attention to authorship research is that it’s cross-disciplinary in ways that leave it outside the various boxes into which most universities put their studies.  Who has credentials in not just English Lit but European Renaissance History, plus the Psychology of Creativity, plus Linguistics?  The authorship question falls not just between two stools, but three or four.  As a result, no one department is properly constituted to take the issue seriously.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for all of these is the issue of falsification.  Academics can handle the idea that anomalies arise naturally in history, literature and science, but only through simple misunderstandings or misreadings arising out of ignorance.  They’re not trained to accept misunderstandings created on purpose.  English Lit profs are puzzled and annoyed by the problems created by the massive use of falsification in the works of the time, but like dedicated field workers deluged by rain, rather than turn their attention to the rain, they do their best to minimize or even ignore it.

The hiding of Shakespeare’s identity by his publishers is only one small example of the kind of shape-shifting that was not only not all that unusual, it was the norm during the era we study.  Most of the works that concern us were published with great care taken to blur some or all of the facts about when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, and if living persons were being addressed, who they were.  This was true, not only of the small percentage of published works that fall into the category of imaginative literature (plays, love poems, bawdy tales, novellas) but things like pro or anti-Catholic screeds and dissident polemics like those of Martin-Marprelate, while contemporary historians dealt with problems by simply ignoring the more sensitive issues.  All this to stay out of trouble with a government that was behaving more and more like Stalin’s or Hitler’s every day.  Authors, publishers, printers, later editors, all had very good reasons for hiding some or all of the facts we seek. Everything we study has to be examined keeping in mind the possibility of this kind of dissimulation.

Again and again the question in hand takes us back to the fact that the community we are discussing was so very, very small.  Where none of us today are likely to know personally the authors of the books that interest us, it was the opposite then.  For us today, when reading a book, even one by an author whose name we know, the thought never enters our mind that the name is a phony or that the front material has been created to distract us from the true authorship.

For the small percentage of the Elizabethan community who were capable of reading these books back then, the possibility was always in mind that, no matter what the name on the title page, it was probably written by someone they knew, if not intimately, then by sight and/or reputation.  In a city of under 200,000, a best seller was one that sold 1200 copies.  Imagine a publisher today being satisfied with such a number.  Where today we are awash with new titles every week in mega-bookstores with miles of shelves, there was a handful of bookstalls in St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, run mostly by the printers or their publishers, where weeks could go by without the appearance of something new.

Yet it’s the small size of this community that’s one of the major factors that makes it possible for us to sort out who wrote what and when.  Once we’ve identified the writers and come to know their dates, situations, attitudes, fears, goals and perspectives, we’ve got some real controls.  Styles are helpful, but only when we keep in mind that styles were changing rapidly throughout the entire period.  Some of the writers we study delighted in imitating each other; some hoped to hide their authorship by creating several completely different styles; in some a later editor may have cut or added lines for any one of a dozen reasons.  Stylistic crossovers may mean the same person wrote both works, but it may also mean that one was the other’s student at the time of writing, or that the two were working closely together at the time those works were being written.

In short, it’s absolutely necessary to know as much as possible about the men and women who were writing then, and their probable reasons for writing a particular work at a particular time.  This is where the Stratfordian dating has caused so much trouble, offsetting the origin of Shakespeare’s works by as much as two decades.  Shakespeare’s creation is so central to everything else, plays, poetry and novels, that the misdating of his works and misinterpretation of his purposes has created a mess that’s taken centuries just to begin to unravel.

We not only need to know the writers, we need to know how they related to each other.  Since they (or their descendants) left us next to nothing by which to judge, we have to rely on what is revealed by their recorded actions and by clues in their works.  We also need to know who were their enemies, who was out to stop them, whom they were praising or attacking in their works, whom they loved or hated and who loved or hated them.

To understand how individuals came to hate or depend on each other in that far off time  it’s necessary to understand the social and political forces in play.  Persons who shine as enemies in the histories were often in close contact with each other and so shared many moments of apparent good fellowship, a necessity for the dispense of business.  Underlying animosities might come to the fore and should be kept in mind, but not everything can be explained by them.  Shakespeare explores once such dichotomy in Coriolanus where the personal attraction between the Roman general and the Volscian Aufidius overwhelms their enmity as military adversaries.  Shakespeare revels in the attraction of opposites.  He is a past master of the romance of passion, something that thrives on opposition and the thirst for forbidden fruit.

On the level of the Court and the great gentry families, if you go back far enough, everyone was related to everyone else––so merely finding a family connection or an ancient family enmity says nothing about the potential relationship between two individuals.  It can add weight to more solid evidence, but by itself it means very little.  Brothers could become just as bitter enemies as two men who were taught to hate each others’ families in the nursery.  Lawrence Stone identifies the innate enmities between eldest and younger brothers created by the system of primogeniture, where boys grew up knowing that the oldest brother would inherit most of the wealth and all the titles.  He claims that the only family relationship that wasn’t stressed in any way was that of brother and sister (Family xx), but even they were often strangers to each other, having been separated early on and raised apart, sometimes at birth.

A number of forces worked to create enmities as well as alliances.  Common interests, beliefs, educations, sexual biases and the simple emotional response of true friendship, could play as much of a role as could ambition, jealousy, envy, and paranoia which, given the rigid traditions that bound them all, were certainly rife at the time.

The Real Authorship Question

The Authorship Question is a lot bigger than just who wrote the Shakespeare canon.  Bigger, wider, broader, and deeper.  The problem isn’t just who wrote the works of Shakespeare, it’s more like who wrote everything that qualifies as fiction during the English Literary Renaissance?  We have half a dozen genuine candidates for the role of Shakespeare, what about them?  They can’t all have been Shakespeare.

Forget about the group theory, that is, any idea that a group of writers worked together on the plays the way they do today on screenplays.  That’s nonsense.  No great and unique work of literature every got written that way.  That’s just as idiotic as the idea that Marlowe came back from the dead or that a 16th-century woman wrote Shakespeare.  Let’s be serious.

And what about the other writers who have biographies just as weak as William’s?  What about Robert Greene, whose later works sound so much like early Shakespeare, yet who has almost nothing in the way of a biography?  Why should we know so much about Ben Jonson and nothing about Greene, whose career was only a little shorter than Jonson’s?  What about Edmund Spenser who somehow managed to escape Marlowe’s fate despite his transparently anti-establishment beast fables?  Or Thomas Nashe, who simply vanished after the Isle of Dogs disaster, unlike his co-authors who both wound up in jail?

What about John Lyly, who despite the popularity of his plays and Euphues novels, never published or produced another thing for the last 18 years of his life?  Or Francis Bacon, who published nothing for the first 36 years of his life?  What about the playwright John Webster, who has absolutely nothing in his documented biography to suggest that he was anything but the son of a coachmaker?  What about George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, Thomas Kyd, and all the other authors with dodgy or nonexistent writer’s bios?  And this is only the merest glance at the true size and scope of a question in which Shakespeare’s role is only one small factor, however large it’s loomed over time.

Since it seems the English Lit folks won’t, or can’t, make sense of this, it’s time to have a go at it from the History side.  Fitting together personalities, biographies, dates and locations, I’ve pieced together a broad overview that explains this mess, one that fills in the gaping anomalies and creates a scenario that accounts for almost all the problems that the authorship scholars denote, be they Oxfordians, Stratfordians, Baconians, or Marlovians.

But first it’s necessary to understand why it happened the way it did.

The nature of the Reformation

It always boils down to terminology, to words.  Much as they avoided the truth about the 20 years of war that tore the English society apart in the 17th century by calling it, or part of it, The Interregum, English historians have sugar-coated what should be called the English Revolution by calling it the Reformation. Yes, it was the English version of the Reform movement that was sweeping northern Europe at that time, but it was also, perhaps even more so, a political revolution.  And although it didn’t reach the chaotic depths of the French or Russian Revolutions in later centuries, for those who were most at risk, it was just as devastating.

Hundreds of English families were torn apart, sons fled to the continent, parents imprisoned, their properties confiscated.  Hundreds were burnt at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, for the crime of wishing to pursue the religion of their fathers, or of attempting to create a new one with only minor differences from that chosen by the State, or for assisting friends and family members who were in trouble.

Church properties were given away, churches and other religious buildings were torn down, their stone used to build houses for the reformers and their friends.  Law were passed, taking away the rights and prerogatives of those who refused to join the revolution, penalizing them with heavy fines, rewarding those who turned them in to authorities, thus opening the way for blackguards to destroy their neighbors and take their properties through false accusations.  Where is there a difference here between what happened during the Elizabethan era and what happened in France and Russia and is still happening in places like Somalia, Burma, and East Timor?

What happens to important writers during times like these?  Consider the atmosphere in 1775 when the members of the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the witticisms that accompanied the signing of what many believed would be their death warrant.  Others who believed in the new nation refused to sign out of fear of British vengeance, of what it would do to their families were they to fail.  Consider the fates of writer Alexander Solzenitzen and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov during the Stalin years, of playwright Vaclav Hamel during the Russian attack on the Czech Republic, of Chinese writers under Chairman Mao.  Consider the fates of Rousseau, Ovid, Cicero, the list goes on.  Why would England during its great revolution be any different?

Revolutions make changes in many other arenas than politics or religion.  Consider how the French called each other “Citizen” during the Revolution, how the Russians called each other “Comrade”; how Stalin banned all art but the monumental worker style, or the Nazis burned the paintings of the “decadent” German expressionists, allowing only a cheap calendar style based on German folk sentiment; how they allowed only works by “Aryan” composers to be played at concerts.

When Oxford began writing, the atmosphere wasn’t all that different from the attitudes of the German “reformers” of the 1930s and ’40s towards anything but sentimental folk art.  Fear of self-expression is evident in the works of Reformation pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham.  The standards during Oxford’s youth were different, but they were equally low––C.S. Lewis calls it the “drab era.”  That Oxford used his status to create an opening for Renaissance ideals and ideas, not only for himself, but for other younger writers in whom he saw talent, is demonstrated in the prefaces he wrote for Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan.  He knew from early on that he would have to dissociate himself and his name from the works he published.  He simply had no choice.  And thank God he did, or the English we speak today would be a different language.

Oxford used an age-old trick, publishing his and others’ works (chiefly Bacon’s though perhaps others as well) as though by someone who was not in any position to know the persons they were satirizing or the issues they were addressing.  Those in a similar position who came after him used the same tactic, Bacon until the late 1590s and Mary Sidney until 1621.  There may have been others as well.  This continued for a relatively brief period, beginning with the earliest publications in the 1560s, and ending at about the time the First Folio was published.

Which is not to say that no one ever used this ruse again, or that no one during the period ever published under their own names.  However, once the pattern is revealed, it becomes clear that those writers who wrote creative, original fiction, poetry, plays, pamphlets, novellas, and who stood to suffer if their identities were known, used pseudonyms or the names of persons they paid to act as proxies.  Those who refused to conform, either to a style that the government would accept or to the use of phony names, were doomed to suffer, as witness Christopher Marlowe and to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson.

This, then, is the reason for the mares nest that is the literary history of the English Literary Renaissance, and nothing that the adherents of the Stratford story have to say will make a particle of sense until they begin to accept this as the background to the creation and publication of the works of Shakespeare, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and a dozen others with similar problems.

Oxford and Bacon

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!

My scenario

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.