Hughes: To see this as I see it you’ll have to agree to view the people and events that concern us through a particular frame of reference, one that literary studies ignore. Without a realistic frame of historical reference, it will be impossible to see these conclusions as anything but fantasy.
First it’s necessary to acknowledge the repression that forced the English Literary Renaissance underground. Second, it’s necessary to see as fully as possible how very small was the community of educated writers at that time. For the most part, all six of these writers are the very ones currently being promoted as alternative “candidates” for Shakespeare’s crown and sceptre.
It’s also necessary to understand how hard it was back then, long before newspapers, magazines, photography and broadcast media, to get information out to a wide audience, and conversely, how easy it was to hide where it was coming from and to control what got out, either before it could get read or published, or later, how easily books and caches of letters could be located and destroyed. For this small, closely-related community, “Big Brother” was more than a metaphor, it was a reality.
Finally, you have to understand why there was this repression, namely the fear of poetry and all imaginative literature. This was partly due to its perceived power to sway men’s minds, and partly to the ancient holiday tradition of mumming, wherein plays and comic routines were the traditional vehicle for reducing the power of authority through ridicule.
So long as these constraints, both to the production of literature and to the identification of those who were creating it, are not recognized, scenarios like mine will be seen as wanton fantasizing. Nevertheless, when it’s understood how the materials on which history is based have been removed and the void filled––“papered over” might be the better term––with a ridiculous cartoon, and why, maybe this “fantasy” won’t seem so fantastic.
How I arrived at this scenario
Having located Oxford as the budding Shakespeare (spurred by Looney and Ogburn, but also by connecting a mass of dates, locations, and points where his biography fits the plots, characters, and purposes of the plays), the question then became, what about the other undisputed writers of that time, Sidney, Bacon, Marlowe, and Mary Sidney? Where do they fit in? This question goes hand in hand with another: “what about the many names on title pages that lack the kind of writer’s reputation that these had?” It was undeniable: the anomalous biographies of these two groups fit together like ying and yang: writers with reputations and no works on the one hand, writers with works and no biograpies on the other. All that was necessary was to see where, when and how the strands connected.
Years are spent investigating the works in question, the plots, styles, tropes, point of view, dates of publication, etc. of all the leading works of the imagination from this early period (not just Shakespeare). Through as much as was possible to collect from solid documentation, connections were made between the genuine writers and the those that appear to be little more than names on title pages. With Oxford’s biography and probable early works fairly well determined, Bacon is certainly the next most important figure in this study, the one who, after Shakespeare, maintained a sterling reputation the longest.
Lo and behold, factwise, datewise, the two come together very neatly in The Shepherd’s Calender, published soon after Bacon’s arrival home from Paris in 1579. The pseudonym “Immerito,” meaning “without merit,” is easily seen as a reference to his anxiety over his status while the style of the gloss by “E.K.” is easily seen as another one of Oxford’s publishing ventures (without it the book would have been too slender, a mere twelve poems).
Historically challenged academics tend to forget that The Calender didn’t get attributed to Spenser until the 2nd edition a full decade later, at which point Spenser’s name became the cover for a number of other works by Bacon, most notably for our purposes here, Mother Hubberd’s Cupboard, a satirical beast fable that can easily be tied to his attitudes at that time. The success of the Calender prompted Bacon to show off his talents as a stylistic chameleon by continuing to entertain the Court with a series of pseudo-Chaucerian adventures of Knights and Ladies that, when he finally got around to publishing it, he named for the Queen for whom he had written it and the place where he had written most of it, his brother’s country estate near Richmond Palace, Ferie Meade.
The most glaring anomaly in Bacon’s orthodox biography is the fact that he seems to have done nothing from his return in 1579 until his appointment as Queen’s counsel in 1596. A diligent scholar, philosopher, and writer, one of the great stylists of his time, it’s hardly fantasy to suggest that he was writing; the question is, what? Keeping in mind the negative attitude of the Reformation towards the kind of writing that a young thinker with strong opinions about public policy might be writing, it makes sense that what he was writing was something that he didn’t dare publish (openly), for had he been able to do so we would certainly know about it.
Based on the kind of evidence that would be immediately accepted if literary historians were required to be as rigorous as mainstream historians, we can be certain that during the Reformation oppression of the arts, not only Catholics but writers of imaginative literature also published under false names, Oxford as his secretary Lyly, Mary Sidney as her coachmaker John Webster, etc., so it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that, during his long hiatus, Francis Bacon was doing the same.
With Oxford as the budding Shakespeare and Bacon as his brilliant younger cousin, the suggestion that both were equally dedicated to publishing in an English literary language and creating a literary canon to compete with those of France and Italy, a feat that they––Shakespeare and Bacon––clearly achieved, can hardly be called fantasizing. (It’s far more fantastic to suggest that these two had nothing to do with each other.) That they left so little evidence of how this came about should tell us more about the environment in which they functioned than it does about their careers. And that Bacon, whose lifelong relationship with his older brother, the poet Anthony Bacon, was strained by their physical separation (Anthony would remain in France for 13 years), and so adopted his older cousin as an admired and adored replacement, is simple human nature.
Accepting that it was common practise to roast one’s friends and satirize one’s enemies in stories and plays, we hardly fantasize when we seek through early Shakespeare for evidence of Oxford’s fellow writers, most notably Sidney as Silence in Merry Wives and Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, Ben Jonson as Caliban in The Tempest, and Mary Sidney as Olivia in a later version of Twelfth Night. With Bacon early on as Francis the Drawer in Henry IV Part One, then as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Ariel in The Tempest, both restless in their servitude, we see Oxford’s view of their relationship during the 80s.
Eleven years Oxford’s junior, in need of the kind of support, both moral and financial, that he couldn’t count on from his own family, lacking any title (he was finally knighted by James in 1603), throughout the ’80s, Bacon in his twenties would have been well-suited to function as his cousin’s literary supernumerary, one who, should occasion require, could do things his master could not, such as fetch “dew” from the back alleys of the slum known as the Bermoothes not far from his quarters at Gray’s Inn and perhaps, if asked, also belladonna, “the little western flower.”
As the ’80s inched into the ’90s, Bacon, approaching his 30s, began feeling his power. He joined Oxford in blasting Marlowe in Greene’s Menaphon, then, as a favor to his old Cambridge tutor, Archbishop John Whitgift, used fire to fight fire by adopting Martin Marprelate’s slangy style to attack him through the infant press. While Oxford, aware that trouble was heading his way, ended his decade as Robert Greene, Bacon, revelling in his newfound authorial freedom, was not about to give it up after a single blast. Borrowing the name of a former sizar at Cambridge, he took off on his own, assailing all those things about society and humanity that annoyed him in the brilliant Pierce Pennilesse while continuing his career as the Merry Andrew of the commercial press by publishing whatever he thought worthy of saving. He annoyed Mary Sidney by publishing her brother’s sonnet cycle of the ’80s in the unauthorized (and recalled) first edition of 1591, while he and Oxford continued to enjoy the phony pamphlet duel in which they tormented Gabriel Harvey by tossing his name around like schoolboys playing keepaway.
This new voice seems to have promoted, or at least accompanied, a surge of dangerous self-assurance in the early ’90s that had Francis threatening his uncle Burghley with becoming a “sorry book maker” if he didn’t get a paying job at Court and getting into serious trouble with the Queen for speaking out against her subsidy in Parliament. Part of this may have been his brother Anthony’s return from France in 1592, part of it the rising strength of Anthony’s new master, the young Earl of Essex, whose patronage relieved him of his worst “terrors of the night,” arrest for debt. Momentarily frightened by the assassination of Marlowe into publishing the morose Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem, Bacon rebounded quickly with his comic version of Oxford’s continental tour in The Unfortunate Traveller.
Oxford and Bacon part company
With Oxford’s fall from power, their relationship had to change. No longer able to help Francis, or anyone, even himself, Bacon gives us touching portraits of the noble “coxcomb,” down on his uppers, as Nashe’s Apis Lapis, and as Spenser’s Willy in Tears of the Muses.
In 1595, Oxford, determined to retire, passes the Court Stage over to his new son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with nothing but old material. With the holiday season of 1595-96 approaching and nothing new to offer, Bacon steps into the breach with the kind of old-fashioned mumming at Gray’s Inn that he knows will please the Queen, combining it with a production of another old favorite, Oxford’s Comedy of Errors.
By this time, Bacon was clearly feeling his way to a place within the Establishment, always his preferred goal, so when he finally got a real Court job he began cutting ties to the literary underground. In 1596, following Mary Sidney’s lead (she’d followed his unauthorized version of her brother’s poetry with her own version in late 1591, and that of John Harington Jr, who had dared to publish his translation of Orlando Furioso under his own name in 1592) Bacon published his own Montaigne-like essays under his real name, the first and last time he would publish something in his natural voice under his own name. In what looks like a clean up operation, he finally got into print all the books of the interminable and never-to-be-finished Faerie Queene, along with several other things he’d written over the previous years, most attributed to Spenser.
Following one last blast as Nashe in 1599 (for which he apologized, blaming it on “the company”), it’s unlikely that Bacon ever again published anything under one of his pseudonyms. The real Spenser having died shortly after his return to London in 1599, the elaborate funeral provided by Essex was, for the writing establishment, as much a farewell to Bacon’s youthful “toys” as a tribute to the colonizer who had no other claim to immortality than that he had let the great man use his name. From then on Bacon was up to his ears in Elizabethan realpolitik and had no time, nor probably any inclination, for the literary antics of his twenties, though he did continue to provide the kind of “masques” that the Jacobean Court preferred.
This doesn’t mean that Bacon didn’t continue to love and protect his aging cousin. While some decried Oxford as outdated, there was (of course) an inner core of patrons, friends, and sophisticated readers and theatergoers who delighted in his work and grasped its importance. Led by the Herbert brothers, they let King James in on the secret of his authorship and how important it was to protect him from his enemies. Under James, Francis was finally able (once his cousin, Robert Cecil, was gone) to rise to the level he’d always seen as rightfully his, Lord Keeper. When, through the wicked politics of the Jacobean Court, he found himself once again out of favor, he stepped into the breach following the death of Mary Sidney, to finish editing the First Folio.