By James Freeman Clarke. This essay originally appeared in The North American Review, February, 1881.
The greatest of English poets is Shakespeare. The greatest prose writer in English literature is probably Bacon. Each of these writers, alone, is a marvel of intellectual grandeur. It is hard to understand how one man, in a few years, could have written all the masterpieces of Shakespeare,—thirty-six dramas, each a work of genius such as the world will never let die. It is a marvel that from one mind could proceed the tender charm of such poems as "Romeo and Juliet," "As You Like It," or "The Winter's Tale;" the wild romance of "The Tempest," or of "A Midsummer Night's Dream;" the awful tragedies of "Lear," "Macbeth," and "Othello;" the profound philosophy of "Hamlet;" the perfect fun of "Twelfth Night," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor;" and the reproductions of Roman and English history. It is another marvel that a man like Bacon, immersed nearly all his life in business, a successful lawyer, an ambitious statesman, a courtier cultivating the society of the sovereign and the favorites of the sovereign, should also be the founder of a new system of philosophy, which has been the source of many inventions and new sciences down to the present day; should have critically surveyed the whole domain of knowledge, and become a master of English literary style. Each of these phenomena is a marvel; but put them together, and assume that one man did it all, and you have, not a marvel, but a miracle. Yet, this is the result which the monistic tendency of modern thought has reached. Several critics of our time have attempted to show that Bacon, besides writing all the works usually attributed to him, was also the author of all of Shakespeare's plays and poems.
This theory was first publicly maintained by Miss Delia Bacon in 1857. It had been, before, in 1856, asserted by an Englishman, William Henry Smith, but only in a small volume printed for private circulation. This book made a distinguished convert in the person of Lord Palmerston, who openly declared his conviction that Bacon was the author of Shakespeare's plays. Two papers by Appleton Morgan, written in the same sense, appeared last year in "Appletons' Journal." But far the most elaborate and masterly work in support of this attempt to dethrone Shakespeare, and to give his seat on the summit of Parnassus to Lord Bacon, is the book by Judge Holmes, published in 1866. He has shown much ability, and brought forward every argument which has any plausibility connected with it.
Judge Holmes was, of course, obliged to admit the extreme antecedent improbability of his position. Certainly it is very difficult to believe that the author of such immortal works should have been willing, for any reason, permanently to conceal his authorship; or, if he could hide that fact, should have been willing to give the authorship to another; or, if willing, should have been able so effectually to conceal the substitution as to blind the eyes of all mankind down to the days of Miss Delia Bacon and Judge Holmes.
What, then, are the arguments used by Judge Holmes? The proofs he adduces are mainly these: (1st) That there are many coincidences and parallelisms of thought and expression between the works of Bacon and Shakespeare; (2d) that there is an amount of knowledge and learning in the plays, which Lord Bacon possessed, but which Shakespeare could hardly have had. Besides these principal proofs, there are many other reasons given which are of inferior weight,—a phrase in a letter of Sir Tobie Matthew; another sentence of Bacon himself, which might be possibly taken as an admission that he was the author of "Richard II.;" the fact that some plays which Shakespeare certainly did not write were first published with his name or his initials. But his chief argument is that Shakespeare had neither the learning nor the time to write the plays, both of which Lord Bacon possessed; and that there are curious coincidences between the plays and the prose works.
These arguments have all been answered, and the world still believes in Shakespeare as before. But I have thought it might be interesting to show how easily another argument could be made of an exactly opposite kind,—how easily all these proofs might be reversed. I am inclined to think that if we are to believe that one man was the author both of the plays and of the philosophy, it is much more probable that Shakespeare wrote the works of Bacon than that Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. For there is no evidence that Bacon was a poet as well as a philosopher; but there is ample evidence that Shakespeare was a philosopher as well as a poet. This, no doubt, assumes that Shakespeare actually wrote the plays; but this we have a right to assume, in the outset of the discussion, in order to stand on an equal ground with our opponents.
The Bacon vs. Shakespeare argument runs thus: "Assuming that Lord Bacon wrote the works commonly attributed to him, there is reason to believe that he also wrote the plays and poems commonly attributed to Shakespeare."
The counter argument would then be: "Assuming that Shakespeare wrote the plays, and poems commonly attributed to him, there is reason to believe that he also wrote the works commonly attributed to Bacon."
This is clearly the fair basis of the discussion. What is assumed on the one side on behalf of Bacon we have a right to assume on the other on behalf of Shakespeare. But before proceeding on this basis, I must reply to the only argument of Judge Holmes which has much apparent weight. He contends that it was impossible for Shakespeare, with the opportunities he possessed, to acquire the knowledge which we find in the plays. Genius, however great, cannot give the knowledge of medical and legal terms, nor of the ancient languages. Now, it has been shown that the plays afford evidence of a great knowledge of law and medicine; and of works in Latin and Greek, French and Italian. How could such information have been obtained by a boy who had no advantages of study except at a country grammar school, which he left at the age of fourteen, who went to London at twenty-three and became an actor, and who spent most of his life as actor, theatrical proprietor, and man of business?
This objection presents difficulties to us, and for our time, when boys sometimes spend years in the study of Latin grammar. We cannot understand the rapidity with which all sorts of knowledge were imbibed in the period of the Renaissance. Then every one studied everything. Then Greek and Latin books were read by prince and peasant, by queens and generals. Then all sciences and arts were learned by men and women, by young and old. Thus speaks Robert Burton—who was forty years old when Shakespeare died: "What a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader! In arithmetic, geometry, perspective, opticks, astronomy, architecture, sculptura, pictura, of which so many and elaborate treatises have lately been written; in mechanics and their mysteries, military matters, navigation, riding of horses, fencing, swimming, gardening, planting, great tomes of husbandry, cookery, faulconry, hunting, fishing, fowling; with exquisite pictures of all sports and games.... What vast tomes are extant in law, physic, and divinity, for profit, pleasure, practice.... Some take an infinite delight to study the very languages in which these books were written: Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Chaldee, Arabick, and the like." This was the fashion of that day, to study all languages, all subjects, all authors. A mind like that of Shakespeare could not have failed to share this universal desire for knowledge. After leaving the grammar school, he had nine years for such studies before he went to London. As soon as he began to write plays, he had new motives for study; for the subjects of the drama in vogue were often taken from classic story.
But Shakespeare had access to another source of knowledge besides the study of books. When he reached London, five or six play-houses were in full activity, and new plays were produced every year in vast numbers. New plays were then in constant demand, just as the new novel and new daily or weekly paper are called for now. The drama was the periodical literature of the time. Dramatic authors wrote with wonderful rapidity, borrowing their subjects from plays already on the stage, and from classic or recent history. Marlowe, Greene, Lyly, Peele, Kyd, Lodge, Nash, Chettle, Munday, Wilson, were all dramatic writers before Shakespeare. Philip Henslowe, a manager or proprietor of the theatres, bought two hundred and seventy plays in about ten years. Thomas Heywood wrote a part or the whole of two hundred and twenty plays during his dramatic career. Each acted play furnished material for some other. They were the property of the play-houses, not of the writers. One writer after another has accused Shakespeare of indifference to his reputation, because he did not publish a complete and revised edition of his works during his life. How could he do this, since they did not belong to him, but to the theatre? Yet every writer was at full liberty to make use of all he could remember of other plays, as he saw them acted; and Shakespeare was not slow to use this opportunity. No doubt he gained knowledge in this way, which he afterward employed much better than did the authors from whom he took it.
The first plays printed under Shakespeare's name did not appear till he had been connected with the stage eleven years. This gives time enough for him to have acquired all the knowledge to be found in his books. That he had read Latin and Greek books we are told by Ben Jonson; though that great scholar undervalued, as was natural, Shakespeare's attainments in those languages.
But Ben Jonson himself furnishes the best reply to those who think that Shakespeare could not have gained much knowledge of science or literature because he did not go to Oxford or Cambridge. What opportunities had Ben Jonson? A bricklayer by trade, called back immediately from his studies to use the trowel; then running away and enlisting as a common soldier; fighting in the Low Countries; coming home at nineteen, and going on the stage; sent to prison for fighting a duel—what opportunities for study had he? He was of a strong animal nature, combative, in perpetual quarrels, fond of drink, in pecuniary troubles, married at twenty, with a wife and children to support. Yet Jonson was celebrated for his learning. He was master of Greek and Latin literature. He took his characters from Athenæus, Libanius, Philostratus. Somehow he had found time for all this study. "Greek and Latin thought," says Taine, "were incorporated with his own, and made a part of it. He knew alchemy, and was as familiar with alembics, retorts, crucibles, etc., as if he had passed his life in seeking the philosopher's stone. He seems to have had a specialty in every branch of knowledge. He had all the methods of Latin art,—possessed the brilliant conciseness of Seneca and Lucan." If Ben Jonson—a bricklayer, a soldier, a fighter, a drinker—could yet find time to acquire this vast knowledge, is there any reason why Shakespeare, with much more leisure, might not have done the like? He did not possess as much Greek and Latin lore as Ben Jonson, who, probably, had Shakespeare in his mind when he wrote the following passage in his "Poetaster:"
"His learning savors not the school-like gloss
That most consists in echoing words and terms,
And soonest wins a man an empty name;
Nor any long or far-fetched circumstance
Wrapt in the curious generalties of art—
But a direct and analytic sum
Of all the worth and first effects of art.
And for his poesy, ’tis so rammed with life,
That it shall gather strength of life with being,
And live hereafter more admired than now."
The only other serious proof offered in support of the proposition that Bacon wrote the immortal Shakespearean drama is that certain coincidences of thought and language are found in the works of the two writers. When we examine them, however, they seem very insignificant. Take, as an example, two or three, on which Judge Holmes relies, and which he thinks very striking.
Holmes says (page 48) that Bacon quotes Aristotle, who said that "young men were no fit hearers of moral philosophy," and Shakespeare says ("Troilus and Cressida"):—
"Unlike young men whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy."
But since Bacon's remark was published in 1605, and "Troilus and Cressida" did not appear until 1609, Shakespeare might have seen it there, and introduced it into his play from his recollection of the passage in the "Advancement of Learning."
Another coincidence mentioned by Holmes is that both writers use the word "thrust:" Bacon saying that a ship "thrust into Weymouth;" and Shakespeare, that "Milan was thrust from Milan." He also thinks it cannot be an accident that both frequently use the word "wilderness," though in very different ways. Both also compare Queen Elizabeth to a "star." Bacon makes Atlantis an island in mid-ocean; and the island of Prospero is also in mid-ocean. Both have a good deal to say about "mirrors," and "props," and like phrases.
Such reasoning as this has very little weight. You cannot prove two contemporaneous writings to have proceeded from one author by the same words and phrases being found in both; for these are in the vocabulary of the time, and are the common property of all who read and write.
My position is that if either of these writers wrote the works attributed to the other, it is much more likely that Shakespeare wrote the philosophical works of Bacon than that Bacon wrote the poetical works of Shakespeare. Assuming then, as we have a right to do in this argument, that Shakespeare wrote the plays, what reasons are there for believing that he also wrote the philosophy?
First, this assumption will explain at once that hitherto insoluble problem of the contradiction between Bacon's character and conduct and his works. How could he have been, at the same time, what Pope calls him,—
"The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind"?
He was, in his philosophy, the leader of his age, the reformer of old abuses, the friend of progress. In his conduct, he was, as Macaulay has shown, "far behind his age,—far behind Sir Edward Coke; clinging to exploded abuses, withstanding the progress of improvement, struggling to push back the human mind." In his writings, he was calm, dignified, noble. In his life, he was an office-seeker through long years, seeking place by cringing subservience to men in power, made wretched to the last degree when office was denied him, addressing servile supplications to noblemen and to the sovereign. To gain and keep office he would desert his friends, attack his benefactors, and make abject apologies for any manly word he might have incautiously uttered. His philosophy rose far above earth and time, and sailed supreme in the air of universal reason. But "his desires were set on things below. Wealth, precedence, titles, patronage, the mace, the seals, the coronet, large houses, fair gardens, rich manors, massy services of plate, gay hangings," were "objects for which he stooped to everything and endured everything." These words of Macaulay have been thought too severe. But we defy any admirer of Bacon to read his life, by Spedding, without admitting their essential truth. How was it possible for a man to spend half of his life in the meanest of pursuits, and the other half in the noblest?
This difficulty is removed if we suppose that Bacon, the courtier and lawyer, with his other ambitions, was desirous of the fame of a great philosopher; and that he induced Shakespeare, then in the prime of his powers, to help him write the prose essays and treatises which are his chief works. He has himself admitted that he did actually ask the aid of the dramatists of his time in writing his books. This remarkable fact is stated by Bacon in a letter to Tobie Matthew, written in June, 1623, in which he says that he is devoting himself to making his writings more perfect—instancing the "Essays" and the "Advancement of Learning"—"by the help of some good pens, which forsake me not." One of these pens was that of Ben Jonson, the other might easily have been that of Shakespeare. Certainly there was no better pen in England at that time than his.
When Shakespeare's plays were being produced, Lord Bacon was fully occupied in his law practice, his parliamentary duties, and his office-seeking. The largest part of the Shakespeare drama was put on the stage, as modern research renders probable, in the ten or twelve years beginning with 1590. In 1597 Shakespeare was rich enough to buy the new place at Stratford-on-Avon, and was also lending money. In 1604 he was part owner of the Globe Theatre, so that the majority of the plays which gained for him this fortune must have been produced before that time. Now, these were just the busiest years of Bacon's life. In 1584 he was elected to Parliament. About the same time, he wrote his famous letter to Queen Elizabeth. In 1585 he was already seeking office from Walsingham and Burleigh. In 1586 he sat in Parliament for Taunton, and was active in debate and on committees. He became a bencher in the same year, and began to plead in the courts of Westminster. In 1589 he became queen's counsel, and member of Parliament for Liverpool. After this he continued active, both in Parliament and at the bar. He sought, by the help of Essex, to become Attorney-General. From that period, as crown lawyer, his whole time and thought were required to trace and frustrate the conspiracies with which the kingdom was full. It was evident that during these years he had no time to compose fifteen or twenty of the greatest works in any literature.
But how was Shakespeare occupied when Bacon's philosophy appeared? The "Advancement of Learning" was published in 1605, after most of the plays had been written, as we learn from the fact of Shakespeare's purchase of houses and lands. The "Novum Organum" was published in 1620, after Shakespeare's death. But it had been written years before; revised, altered, and copied again and again—it is said twelve times. Bacon had been engaged upon it during thirty years, and it was at last published incomplete and in fragments. If Shakespeare assisted in the composition of this work, his death in 1616 would account, at once, for its being left unfinished. And Shakespeare would have had ample time to furnish the ideas of the "Organum" in the last years of his life, when he had left the theatre. In 1613 he bought a house in Black Friars, where Ben Jonson also lived. Might not this have been that they might more conveniently coöperate in assisting Bacon to write the "Novum Organum"?
When we ask whether it would have been easier for the author of the philosophy to have composed the drama, or the dramatic poet to have written the philosophy, the answer will depend on which is the greater work of the two. The greater includes the less, but the less cannot include the greater. Now, the universal testimony of modern criticism in England, Germany, and France declares that no larger, deeper, or ampler intellect has ever appeared than that which produced the Shakespeare drama. This "myriad-minded" poet was also philosopher, man of the world, acquainted with practical affairs, one of those who saw the present and foresaw the future. All the ideas of the Baconian philosophy might easily have had their home in this vast intelligence. Great as are the thoughts of the "Novum Organum," they are far inferior to that world of thought which is in the drama. We can easily conceive that Shakespeare, having produced in his prime the wonders and glories of the plays, should in his after leisure have developed the leading ideas of the Baconian philosophy. But it is difficult to imagine that Bacon, while devoting his main strength to politics, to law, and to philosophy, should as a mere pastime for his leisure, have produced in his idle moments the greatest intellectual work ever done on earth.
If the greater includes the less, the mind of Shakespeare includes that of Bacon, and not vice versa. This will appear more plainly if we consider the quality of intellect displayed respectively in the dramas and the philosophy. The one is synthetic, creative; the other analytic, critical. The one puts together, the other takes apart and examines. Now, the genius which can put together can also take apart; but it by no means follows that the power of taking apart implies that of putting together. A watch-maker, who can put a watch together, can easily take it to pieces; but many a child who has taken his watch to pieces has found it impossible to put it together again.
When we compare the Shakespeare plays and the Baconian philosophy, it is curious to see how the one is throughout a display of the synthetic intellect, and the other of the analytic. The plays are pure creation, the production of living wholes. They people our thought with a race of beings who are living persons, and not pale abstractions. These airy nothings take flesh and form, and have a name and local habitation forever on the earth. Hamlet, Desdemona, Othello, Miranda, are as real people as Queen Elizabeth or Mary of Scotland. But when we turn to the Baconian philosophy, this faculty is absent. We have entered the laboratory of a great chemist, and are surrounded by retorts and crucibles, tests and re-agents, where the work done is a careful analysis of all existing things, to find what are their constituents and their qualities. Poetry creates, philosophy takes to pieces and examines.
It is, I think, a historic fact, that while those authors whose primary quality is poetic genius have often been also, on a lower plane, eminent as philosophers, there is, perhaps, not a single instance of one whose primary distinction was philosophic analysis, who has also been, on a lower plane, eminent as a poet. Milton, Petrarch, Goethe, Lucretius, Voltaire, Coleridge, were primarily and eminently poets; but all excelled, too, in a less degree, as logicians, metaphysicians, men of science, and philosophers. But what instance have we of any man like Bacon, chiefly eminent as lawyer, statesman, and philosopher, who was also distinguished, though in a less degree, as a poet? Among great lawyers, is there one eminent also as a dramatic or lyric author? Cicero tried it, but his verses are only doggerel. In Lord Campbell's list of the lord chancellors and chief justices of England no such instance appears. If Bacon wrote the Shakespeare drama, he is the one exception to an otherwise universal rule. But if Shakespeare coöperated in the production of the Baconian philosophy, he belongs to a class of poets who have done the same. Coleridge was one of the most imaginative of poets. His "Christabel" and "Ancient Mariner" are pure creations. But in later life he originated a new system of philosophy in England, the influence of which has not ceased to be felt to our day. The case would be exactly similar if we suppose that Shakespeare, having ranged the realm of imaginative poetry in his youth, had in his later days of leisure coöperated with Bacon and Ben Jonson in producing the "Advancement of Learning" and the "Novum Organum." We can easily think of them as meeting, sometimes at the house of Ben Jonson, sometimes at that of Shakespeare in Black Friars, and sometimes guests at that private house built by Lord Bacon for purposes of study, near his splendid palace of Gorhambury. "A most ingeniously contrived house," says Basil Montagu, "where, in the society of his philosophical friends, he devoted himself to study and meditation." Aubrey tells us that he had the aid of Hobbes in writing down his thoughts. Lord Bacon appears to have possessed the happy gift of using other men's faculties in his service. Ben Jonson, who had been a thorough student of chemistry, alchemy, and science in all the forms then known, aided Bacon in his observations of nature. Hobbes aided him in giving clearness to his thoughts and his language. And from Shakespeare he may have derived the radical and central ideas of his philosophy. He used the help of Dr. Playfer to translate his philosophy into Latin. Tobie Matthew gives him the last argument of Galileo for the Copernican system. He sends his works to others, begging them to correct the thoughts and the style. It is evident, then, that he would have been glad of the concurrence of Shakespeare, and that could easily be had, through their common friend, Ben Jonson.
If Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare, it is difficult to give any satisfactory reason for his concealment of that authorship. He had much pride, not to say vanity, in being known as an author. He had his name attached to all his other works, and sent them as presents to the universities, and to individuals, with letters calling their attention to these books. Would he have been willing permanently to conceal the fact of his being the author of the best poetry of his time? The reasons assigned by Judge Holmes for this are not satisfactory. They are: his desire to rise in the profession of the law, the low reputation of a play-writer, his wish to write more freely under an incognito, and his wish to rest his reputation on his philosophical works. But if he were reluctant to be regarded as the author of "Lear" and "Hamlet," he was willing to be known as the writer of "Masques," and a play about "Arthur," exhibited by the students of Gray's Inn. It is an error to say that the reputation of a play-writer was low. Judge Holmes, himself, tells us that there was nothing remarkable in a barrister of the inns of court writing for the stage. Ford and Beaumont were both lawyers as well as eminent play-writers. Lord Backhurst, Lord Brooke, Sir Henry Wotton, all wrote plays. And we find nothing in the Shakespeare dramas which Bacon need have feared to say under his own name. It would have been ruin to Sir Philip Francis to have avowed himself the author of "Junius." But the Shakespeare plays satirized no one, and made no enemies. If there were any reasons for concealment, they certainly do not apply to the year 1623, when the first folio appeared, which was after the death of Shakespeare and the fall of Bacon. The acknowledgment of their authorship at that time could no longer interfere with Bacon's rise. And it would be very little to the credit of his intelligence to assume that he was not then aware of the value of such works, or that he did not desire the reputation of being their author. It would have been contrary to his very nature not to have wished for the credit of that authorship.
On the other hand, there would be nothing surprising in the fact of Shakespeare's laying no claim to credit for having assisted in the composition of the "Advancement of Learning." Shakespeare was by nature as reticent and modest as Bacon was egotistical and ostentatious. What a veil is drawn over the poet's personality in his sonnets! We read in them his inmost sentiments, but they tell us absolutely nothing of the events of his life, or the facts of his position. And if, as we assume, he was one among several who helped Lord Bacon, though he might have done the most, there was no special reason why he should proclaim that fact.
Gervinus has shown, in three striking pages, the fundamental harmony between the ideas and mental tendencies of Shakespeare and Bacon. Their philosophy of man and of life was the same. If, then, Bacon needed to be helped in thinking out his system, there was no one alive who would have given him such stimulus and encouragement as Shakespeare. This also may explain his not mentioning the name of Shakespeare in his works; for that might have called too much attention to the source from which he received this important aid.
Nevertheless, I regard the monistic theory as in the last degree improbable. We have two great authors, and not one only. But if we are compelled to accept the view which ascribes a common source to the Shakespeare drama and the Baconian philosophy, I think there are good reasons for preferring Shakespeare to Bacon as the author of both. When the plays appeared, Bacon was absorbed in pursuits and ambitions foreign to such work; his accepted writings show no sign of such creative power; he was the last man in the world not to take the credit of such a success, and had no motive to conceal his authorship. On the other hand, there was a period in Shakespeare's life when he had abundant leisure to coöperate in the literary plans of Bacon; his ample intellect was full of the ideas which took form in those works; and he was just the person neither to claim nor to desire any credit for lending such assistance.
There is, certainly, every reason to believe that, among his other ambitions, Bacon desired that of striking out a new path of discovery, and initiating a better method in the study of nature. But we know that, in doing this, he sought aid in all quarters, and especially among Shakespeare's friends and companions. It is highly probable, therefore, that he became acquainted with the great dramatist, and that Shakespeare knew of Bacon's designs and became interested in them. And if so, who could offer better suggestions than he; and who would more willingly accept them than the overworked statesman and lawyer, who wished to be also a philosopher?
Finally, we may refer those who believe that the shape of the brow and head indicates the quality of mental power to the portraits of the two men. The head of Shakespeare, according to all the busts and pictures which remain to us, belongs to the type which antiquity has transmitted to us in the portraits of Homer and Plato. In this vast dome of thought there was room for everything. The head of Bacon is also a grand one, but less ample, less complete—less
"Teres, totus atque rotundus."
These portraits therefore agree with all we know of the writings, in showing us which, and which only, of the two minds was capable of containing the other.
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