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Robert Greene’s

THE HONOURABLE HISTORY OF FRIAR BACON AND FRIAR BONGAY

 

 

We have seen that the circle of Sir Francis Bacon, which certainly included Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and the authors of many of the apocryphal plays – Will Shakspere among them, – was involved in a concerted and urgent, even desperate, effort to encrypt in a series of plays the fundamental tenets of Gnostic philosophy, and the dire threat posed to it by Roman Catholicism and the ascendant Protestant Puritan sect. Bacon saw clearly that the denial of this knowledge-based philosophy, which engages with the world – finally the atomic and subatomic dimensions, and the collective unconscious – which lies unseen below the surface of things, must inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization, as undermined from below, like the tower of Lear Inc. This notion of a hidden message is commonly dismissed as a childish delusion (see for example Norrie Epstein’s The Friendly Shakespeare pp.296-7); yet it is an historical fact that a mortal threat to a peoples or culture often stimulates a burgeoning in cryptography – witness for example the ‘atbash’ cipher of the captivity Jews, the Enigma machine of World War II, and the elaborate cryptography of the Cold War. Critics such as Epstein are simply not alive to the philosophical Zeitgeist of that era, or the urgent imperative of preserving the insights of the true philosophy from destruction by the flood, already gathering, frighteningly and ineluctably, like a tidal wave on the horizon.

One is struck, therefore, most forcibly by the name ‘Bacon’ in the title of Greene’s play. Could it describe the role of Sir Francis Bacon in the Elizabethan philosophical resistance? We will certainly need more concrete evidence than the nominal identity of Sir Francis and his earlier namesake Sir Roger. A piece of such evidence is forthcoming in the very first scene:

Prince Edward …Thou wouldst, with Tarquin, hazard Rome and all

                         To win the lovely maid of Fressingfield.

Ralph Sirrah Ned, wouldst fain have her?

Pri. Edw. Ay, Ralph.

This is as per a nineteenth century edition of the plays; but the original quarto tells a different story, with ‘I’ substituting for the expected ‘Ay’, so that the last line becomes ‘I, Ralph’. We have of course noted this technique time and time again in the First Folio and the other plays, where ‘I’ for ‘Ay’ always stands for the key principle in the Gnostic philosophy, namely the unseen world of nature, as expressed in the erect phallos (‘I’). This unseen world is also represented by the numerous Queens of Hell (underworld goddesses) of the plays, including Helen, Helena, Cordelia, Desdemona, Portia, and their kin. They are all also Grail Queens, for the Holy Grail is, in Bacon’s philosophical system, the wisdom to be gained from knowledge of the underworld dimension of nature. Also of their number is Queen Margaret of the Henry the Sixth trilogy; and Margaret is also, as it happens, the name here of the ‘lovely maid of Fressingfield’. The weight of scholarly opinion is that FBFB dates, intriguingly, to around 1589, when 1-3HVI was well under weigh, if not already completed. So that here we have Margaret identified as that figure of cardinal importance in the allegory, the Queen of Hell-Grail Queen. It is seems therefore that Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay may be yet another an allegory of psychic transformation, the ego question being represented by the hero, Prince Edward. He will not, however, come to marry Margaret, but rather Elinor. This again is entirely consistent with double-marriage plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, where the marriage of Petruccio and Kate precedes that of Lucentio and Bianca: the point being that the ego must first engage with the unseen world (Kate) before it can properly understand the seen or phenomenal world (Bianca (<It. ‘white’)). [‘Petruccio’ is formed from the name ‘Peter’, standing here for the Roman Catholic Church, and the Italian ucciso, ‘I kill’: for wisdom of the unseen world must destroy the jerry-built edifice of the Church. ‘Lucentio’ is from the Latin participle lucens, ‘shining’.]

Here is another instance in FBFB of ‘I’ for ‘Ay’:

Bacon What book studied you there on all night?

Burden I! none at all; I read not there a line.

                                                                 (Scene ii)

Again, this from the later edition, where Burden’s ‘I!’ is quite plausibly – though infelicitously – the pronoun. This would have been an unhappy piece of writing from Greene, and atypical of him. However, the quarto has not an exclamation mark but a comma, so that the line reads, ‘I, none at all…’ This would serve to identify the book rather with the unseen world. It would be, in other words, a broadly Gnostic text. It is evident that Greene is attempting in this scene an allegorical legerdemain of the type so common in the First Folio. Burden claims that in his nocturnal jaunt to Henley upon the Thames he read ‘not a line’ of the book. Bacon then insists that his magic would be worth nothing if he did not read it, and claims to be about to produce the book itself. He then, by magic, transports from the inn Henley a serving-wench accompanied by a devil, and it is evident that Burden has claimed correctly that he was occupied with her rather than a book. She is to be identified, of course, as a Queen of Hell. Yet Bacon continues to insist on his triumph. So that the overall purpose of the scene is to identify the unseen world with the written word. Oswald Spengler, in his Decline of the West, nominated the word as the prime Faustian medium; and the reading and writing of the written word was indeed the central plank in Bacon’s therapeutic regime vis-à-vis his patient Shakspere, as is celebrated so often in FF, for example in As You Like It, where Melancholy Jacques represents Shakspere as reader – a phase which lasted about two years, as we are told in Shakspere’s Mr. Arden of Feversham – and Orlando Shakspere as writer, the transition coming when he felt himself to be fully cured. The written word as the medium of psychic transformation appears again in scene x, where the messenger brings Margaret a letter from Lacy announcing that he will not marry her after all, and enclosing an hundred pound settlement, which she however refuses. There are countless instances in FF of letters representing the Gnostic written word; and this scene depicts Lacy as the ego-in-transformation engaging with the unseen world as described on the page, and being enriched by it.

Elinor, the second Goddess-figure of FBFB, also plays a prime role in 2HVI, almost certainly the first of the trilogy to have been written. In Act II she is portrayed riding through the streets cloaked in a white sheet, with papers pinned to her back, and holding a taper. The burning taper or torch represents always in FF the fire of the imagination, that faculty indispensable to transformation into Gnostic nobility. Eleanor bears the value, therefore, of the imagination acting on the given world as described in the written word. Her name neatly combines, like ‘Elinor’ in FBFB, the words ‘hell’ and ‘golden’ (<Fr. or, ‘gold’). They are both, in other words, incarnations of the lover of the Song of Solomon, that prime esoteric text, who describes herself as ‘black and fair’ (melaine eimi kai kale). This ‘black’ (or ‘foul’) and fair Goddess appears in the FF several times, for example in the witches’ famous incantation in Macbeth. Her value is of the unseen world, which is dark, yet appears fair to the Gnostic enquirer, who is in love with her. Elinor is indeed identified in FBFB with the unseen world of nature:

Ralph Sirrah Harry, shall Ned marry Nell?

King Henry I, Ralph…

                                   (Scene xii)

King of Castile But hearest thou, Ralph, art thou content to have Elinor to thy lady?

Ralph I, so she will promise me two things.

                                                                 (Scene xii)

So that Elinor does not in fact bear like Bianca the value of the visible or phenomenal world, but rather of the unseen world as described in the written word, and so synergises in this respect with Margaret. Fascinating also is the appearance of Joan as Margaret’s companion. Like her, she is a country lass:

Joan Margaret, a farmer’s daughter for a farmer’s son:

         I warrant you, the meanest of us both

         Shall have a mate to lead us from the church.

         But, Thomas, what’s the news? What, in a dump?

         Give me your hand, we are near a peddler’s shop;

         Out with your purse, we must have fairings now.

Thomas Faith, Joan, and shall...

                         All the while Lacy whispers Margaret in the ear

Joan is of course to be identified with Margaret; and we remember that as Joan of Arc she bears, in 1-3HVI, the allegoric value of the Queen of Hell-Grail Queen. Here also is another instance of an important FF allegorical technique, of identifying two couples by having one whispering in the background while the others converse out loud. The name ‘Thomas’ means 'twin', as derived from the Aramaic teoma, and it is in this sense that it is used of Thomas in the New Testament (Gardner L., Bloodline of the Holy Grail). This serves to reinforce the identity of Joan with Margaret. Money bears always in FF the allegoric value of the power of a principle, and Thomas’ enrichment of Joan means that the unseen world is swelling in importance in the mind of the subject.

The character Jacques van der Mast is a German magician who comes to England to compete with Friar Bacon. His surname is formed from the German Mast, ‘pole’, pylon’, ‘mast’. We remember that the character William de la Pole in 2HVI represents the ‘I’ principle; and so here does van der Mast, with Bacon’s besting of him representing the Gnostic initiate’s victory over the ‘I’ principle as blind will, or the raw passions, as in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I, reproduced in Ugly Dick, where the skeletal, half-starved dog bears the esoteric value of just this vanquished libido. Further, his first name ‘Jacques’ strongly suggests the ‘Shakes-‘ of ‘Shakespeare’, as first observed by Ted Hughes in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (pp.101-3). Melancholy Jacques does indeed represent Will Shakspere, as I have shown. Just so does the first name of William de la Pole suggest him. We recall the fundamental moment when Shakspere presented himself to Bacon having suffered a severe nervous breakdown in Stratford, whenas the blind libido reasserted itself in a classic Freudian rebound against the ego, so long in the grip of Puritanism, which had thought to have killed it off. The characters of de la Pole and van der Mast therefore most plausibly represent Shakspere himself, as still in the vice-like hold of the will-to-eros..

The sword or dagger or knife is always in FF equivalent to the ‘I’ principle, either as will or idea; and just so is it in FBFB. In scene vi, Prince Edward is looking into Bacon’s crystal ball, and watching Lacy woo his beloved Margaret in Fressingham. He draws his ’long poniard’ to stab them, when Bacon reminds him that they are only ‘shadows’ not ‘substances’; whereupon he shame-facedly sheaths it again. To those familiar with the techniques discussed in Ugly Dick, this is an easy one. The ego-in-transformation is imagining (‘shadows’) the unseen world, perhaps as in the vividly portrayed seduction of Lucius by Fotis in Apuleius’ magical masterpiece The Golden Ass, which evidently drove Will Shakspere to an act of auto-erotism, and complete psychic collapse, on that fateful day Western culture in 1587. Likewise would it of old have driven the subject here to surrender to eros; but through the magical offices of Sir Roger (sc. Francis) Bacon he now attains control over his raw libido, and is able to engage with the text in its higher, esoteric aspect. Bungay exits on the back of a devil sent by Bacon to carry him off as he is about to perform the marriage ceremony of Lacy and Margaret. This identifies Bungay with the raw libido (‘devil’); and the significance of the play’s title is now made plain: namely, that it is an illustration of that fundamental principle of Gnostic psychic transformation, as celebrated in the rituals of the twenty eight degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, with which Sir Francis Bacon was certainly thoroughly familiar: ‘Ye who have not the power to subdue passion, fly from this place of truth.’ (Knight C. and Lomas R., The Second Messiah; Buhagiar M., ibid.).

The sword-as-blind will emblem is employed again in scene xii, where the sons of Lambert and Serlsby, who have been wooing Margaret, draw swords and kill each other in Bacon’s cell, as they watch in the crystal ball their fathers do exactly the same in Fressingfield.

Lambert [to Serlsby] Thou know’st what words did pass at Fressingfield,

               Such shameless braves as manhood cannot brook:

               I, for I scorn to bear such piercing taunts…

                                                                                (Scene xiii)

This represents therefore the final vanquishing of the blind will through the Gnostic ministry of Sir Francis Bacon, whose magian aspect will come to be so memorably celebrated in The Tempest. The transformation has been effected; and so Bacon smashes his glass. Concurrent with this is his offsider Miles’ falling asleep while watching over the brazen head, and so letting slip down his master with regard to his magical powers. The names ‘Miles’ is from the Latin for ‘soldier’, ‘footsoldier’. He is always by Bacon’s side, evidently responsible for his intellectual conquests. It would be utterly consistent if he were to bear the value of the visual imagination, that first tool of the gnostically reasoning ego, which plays such a vitally prominent role in FF, in the shapes of the numerous watches, flares and torches, and the character of Michael. And this indeed seems to be the case:

Bacon Draw close the curtains, Miles: now, for thy life,

           Be watchful…

                                 (Scene xi)

Finally, a devil comes to take Miles off to hell on his back, where he has hopes of becoming a tapster. This reminds us of drunkenness in FF, which bears always the value of possession by the blind libido.

Miles But I pray you, sir, do you come lately from hell?

Devil I, marry: how then?

Miles Faith, ‘tis a place I have desired long to see. Have you not good tippling-houses there? May not a man have a lusty fire there, a pot of good ale, a pair of cards, a swingeing piece of chalk, and a brown toast that will clap a white waistcoat on a cup of good drink?

                                                                                                                        (Scene xv)

That is to say, let the imagination die, and the blind will, the Queen of Hell in catabolic mode, must inevitably reassert itself to the degradation and destruction of all. This was the message which Bacon and his circle where so desperately trying to assert as the tsunami of reality-denying Puritanism gathered so frighteningly, for all who had eyes to see, on the horizon.

 

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