Sir FRANCIS BACON, Lord Verulam, Viscount St Albans: scholar, writer, lawyer, politician, utopian, Rosicrucian initiate, alchemist, pioneer of empirical science.
This man is a towering presence in the intellectual landscape of Shakespeare’s time, one of the prophets and initiators of the English Renaissance. Bacon was an associate of Sir John Dee, the Queen’s astrologer, mathematician, sorcerer and spymaster, and a powerful royal adviser during the first thirty years of Elizabeth’s reign. Bacon was a nobleman, but not born into ceremonial office. Working his way up through the system, Bacon studied at Cambridge before training as a lawyer at Gray’s Inn and moving into government positions. He held diplomatic posts in France and became a government prosecutor, heavily involved in the failed effort to contain the rebellious Earl of Essex, which ended with the Earl’s sentencing and execution, in which Bacon was prominently involved. It took Bacon almost his whole career to get to the pinnacle of power as Lord Chancellor, but his reputation is based more on the deep and lasting cultural and intellectual influence he exerted far beyond the power afforded by his government posts.
Bacon’s literary output was considerable, and as a government minister he probably used aliases, especially as a pamphleteer, and quite possibly in other works. Bacon was widely proposed as the real author of the Shakespeare oeuvre in the nineteenth century, with dozens of books published on the subject. His name has been found encoded in more than one place in the plays.
However there are serious obstacles to believing that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. For a start, it might be asking too much to expect one man to be be the founder of both modern science and modern literature! His life does not particularly fit the personality of the writer known as Shakespeare. His style was much admired, but for quite different reasons than Shakespeare’s. Bacon was an essayist who wrote superb prose, a satirist, a rivetting speaker, but his greatest gift is said to have been his conciseness, his terse precision. Shakespeare’s was expansion.
In many ways Bacon was the epitome of the ‘new man’ of the era, post-Reformation man, protestant, meritocratic, and in Bacon’s case, scientific. Bacon invented the inductive method in science. He was the first empiricist of note, and even died in the course of a scientific experiment. He didn’t just found the Royal Society of Science, he founded modern science.
Shakespeare, by contrast with Bacon, had aristocratic and Catholic sympathies. As Walt Whitman put it, the works had to have been ‘conceived in the full heat and pulse of feudalism by one of the wolfish earls who are so plentiful in Shakespeare’s plays’.
Bacon was a classical utopian, who wanted to liberate mankind from need and bring back the golden age of Atlantis. He was the driving forces behind the English colonization of the New World, a key step in liberating humanity from the oppression of the mind. It was necessary for humanity to progress not just in knowledge and technological power but in language and literature, music and art.
This belief in mankind’s ability to reverse the Fall of Man and bring back paradise on earth put Bacon quite definitively outside the Christian doctrine, and so he had to work secretly through his Rosicrucian society, but his aims were at the same time in line with the Crown’s immediate aims, which were to strengthen the national identity of her country through the unification, refinement and expansion of the language, and the establishment of theatre as a mass medium for propaganda purposes.
These projects were achieved with staggering success during Bacon’s lifetime. Bacon was working for longer term goals than his government or monarchs; he was an idealist. He wanted to help bring about a New Atlantis. He is rated by many as equal in importance to Sir Isaac Newton in ushering in the Enlightenment and laying the foundations of the modern world.
Bacon, like his mentor Sir John Dee, had magical as well as scientific beliefs and practices, and wrote privately about his experience of meeting the goddess Athena in a vision. Pallas Athena was the divine protector of Athens, goddess of wisdom, wearer of the helmet of invisibility, shaker of a spear of light at the dragon of ignorance. The goddess told Bacon, he writes, to eschew public esteem and work behind the scenes to achieve his goals.
Bacon’s secret society, the Order of the Knights of the Helmet, was dedicated to Athena and Apollo. Its logo, if that’s the right word – a visual motif used by Bacon, at least, in elaborate head pieces and title pages in printing – was a double A, for Apollo and Athena, with one of them shaded dark. These motifs are found prominently in the First Folio and the first edition of the Sonnets. Bacon ran private printing presses, and maintained a stable of writers, some paid, some initiates of the Knights of the Helmet. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great contemporary, was a member of this writer’s studio or scriptorium. Jonson, let it be remembered, is the writer who ascribes the First Folio cryptically to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon, after apparently mocking him as an imposter when he was alive. (See his poem ‘On Poet-Ape’)
Whether or not Shakespeare was part of Bacon’s scriptorium is not known, but the connections between the writer and the Bacon milieu cannot be ignored. Bacon and his society certainly had a lot to do with the printing of the plays snd sonnets. And here’s the fascinating thing: the action of shaking a spear had powerful symbolic connotations in Bacon’s mythology: both Apollo and Athena were known as the great spear-shakers, the spear symbolizing light, brandished in face of ignorance. Jonson alludes to this in his eulogy in the First Folio:
In each of which [i.e. his lines], he seems to shake a Lance,
As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance…
By tradition rather than record, Shakespeare is said to have been born and to have died on the same date: April 23rd – St George’s Day. St George was the legendary Maltese Knight who killed a dragon with a spear. The name of the playwright was often printed with the hyphen – Shake-speare – which emphasises the literal action of brandishing a spear, and seems to suggest that this is a nom de plume or even nom de guerre.
Whatever the exact connection between Bacon and Shakespeare, there is something going on here. There are cryptic hints made by the satirists Marston and Hall which suggest that they identified Shakespeare with Bacon. And get this – among Bacon’s papers is a manuscript where Bacon has written the name ‘William Shakespeare’ over and over again, as if practicing a signature.