Was Francis Bacon The Real Shakespeare?

After Edward, Earl of Oxford, there is another well-supported contender for the title of the ‘Real William Shakespeare’ – Francis Bacon.  According to the arguments, Bacon was the son of Elizabeth I, by Robert Dudley, the Queen’s lifelong love and court favourite. (To recap, The Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, is portrayed by his adherents as both the son, AND the lover, of Queen Elizabeth).

In this Anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theory, Elizabeth and Dudley were secretly married in 1561. Thus Bacon was not an illegitimate son. He was the heir to the throne, and one of two, the other being Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The latter was, as a matter of historical fact, executed on the Queen’s orders very near the end of her reign. Why would she kill her own son? She is on record as having stated that one of her reasons for never wanting to marry or have children was because the children of a monarch seek to kill their regal parent, in order to accede. There is, however, no explanation as to why Bacon was never acknowledged as heir, nor executed.

One contemporary source alleges that Dudley actually fathered five children on the Queen ‘and she never goes on progress but to be delivered….’

The thought of all that secret sex with ‘The Gypsy’ is quite exhilarating. However, there is no record anywhere of the identity or fate of the other three offspring.

Francis, according to his supporters, was brought up as a ‘ward’ in the family of the Queen’s second-most important official, Sir Nicholas Bacon. Bacon’s wife was one of the most educated women in England, after the Queen. Not surprisingly, Francis became a lawyer and polymath. Numerous references to his life appear in official documents and a huge body of his written work remains to testify to his learning and character. This explains why his adherents believe he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, because these display wide learning and detailed knowledge of the law.

Another plank in the argument is that Francis wrote a prose history of the life of Henry VII. This is seen as filling the gap left by Shakespeare, who wrote a continuous sequence of history plays starting with Richard II and ending with Henry VIII. Continuous, except for the omission of Henry VII. The fact that Bacon wrote this in prose, not as a drama, is not addressed.

Bacon’s notebooks, http://www.sirbacon.org/links/notebook.html are leaned on heavily as direct evidence of the fact that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and comparisons are quoted extensively. Bacon’s editor, however, in The Oxford World Classics edition, gives a detailed explanation of the common quotations. Bacon was an exponent of the ‘Notebook Culture’ of the time, and listed over 1,600 items as a mental exercise. Of these, many were already common, including ‘255 from Erasmus, 110 from Virgil, 107 from the Bible, 46 from Ovid, a huge collection (443) of proverbs in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian ….’ So they could equally well have been drawn upon by a different man, a playwright.

 

Most of the arguments in favour of Bacon can be found here, http://www.sirbacon.org/links/evidence.htm where conspiracy theorists can have a field day.

As with the Earl of Oxford’s case, however, one only has to go to Bacon’s own uncontested writings to destroy all the falsely alluring half-truths and allusions spread throughout the website quoted above.

Bacon’s prose covers many different subjects and sprinkles aphorisms and nuggets of wisdom throughout his essays – such as the following:

‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’ (From the essay, ‘Of Studies’)

Quite a nice metaphor. However, just to make sure that all is understood, Bacon then immediately repeats the whole in clearer terms:

‘That is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but cursorily; and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.’

Shakespeare didn’t see any need to explain his metaphors. Even in the character of Polonius, who is widely seen as the epitome of a plodding old bore and lecturer, his instructions to his son fly:

‘Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for shame!

The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,

And you are stay’d for. There- my blessing with thee!

And these few precepts in thy memory

Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,

Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

And they in France of the best rank and station

Are most select and generous, chief in that.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all- to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.’

Bacon’s essay advising young men on how to profit from travel, states that it is most important to seek ‘acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors, for in so travelling in one country he shall suck the experience of many.’

Bacon’s essay ‘Of Honour and Reputation’ begins thus:

‘The winning of Honour is but the revealing of a man’s virtue and worth without disadvantage.’

Shakespeare says on the subject:

‘Can honour set to a leg? no: or

an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.

Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is

honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what

is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?

he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.

Doth he hear it? no. ‘ Tis insensible, then. Yea,

to the dead. But will it not live with the living?

Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore

I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so

ends my catechism.’

It’s witty, ironic, subversive, and employs multiple metaphors. This is the fat rogue Falstaff talking, of course, so you have to take it as tongue in cheek, but there is a truth under the jovial surface. Falstaff, the drunken coward, survives the battle-field to die in bed.

Harry Hotspur, on the other hand, declares:

‘By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,

To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,

Or dive into the bottom of the deep,

Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,

And pluck up drowned honour by the locks …’

Hotspur’s language, more noble, more high-flown, puts active honour high in his priorities, and imagines himself doing fine deeds. This character dies in battle.

So, to take two random Bacon essays and look into the language, and compare with that of Shakespeare, whoever he was, gives a clear contrast.

Fascinating though it is, to follow these meticulously worked out conspiracy theories, I am totally unconvinced, and always by the words themselves.

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