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  • Title: Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay: Critical Introduction
  • Author: Christopher Matusiak

  • Copyright Queen's Men Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Christopher Matusiak
    Peer Reviewed

    Critical Introduction

    2: Coherency or Incoherency

    Modern critical opinion of the play, until recently, has stood rather awkwardly at odds with Friar Bacon始s prominent place in Elizabethan popular culture. Early twentieth-century commentators admired the “recognizably real” quality of Greene始s characters, especially his sympathetic portraits of women, the inspiration for which has been traced to the playwright始s troubled relationship with his own “wronged and forgiving wife” (Robertson 104-5). Bradleyan appreciation could not wipe away the stigma of being a “secondary” Elizabethan dramatist, however. Many came to regard Greene as an envious imitator of more chic and supple-minded university writers, particularly Marlowe, thus framing Friar Bacon as a tactful, if uninspired, response to the artistically superior Doctor Faustus (Churton Collins 2:2-3). At his best, Greene could be said to have planted seeds from which more refined artistry would grow, with Friar Bacon notably the bud of a species of romantic comedy that would flower fully into Twelfth Night and The Winter始s Tale. In seeking to keep pace with his fellow university wits, Greene, in effect, eked out modest innovations that critics found useful when constructing a teleology focused on the emergence of Shakespeare. In G.E. Woodberry始s memorable phrase, Greene was a “flitting bat in the slow dawn of our golden poet” (388-89, 394).

    With the rise of New Criticism, Friar Bacon attracted fresh attention as a formal puzzle to be solved. Establishing the text始s unity proved a vexing enterprise however as the play plainly exhibits contradictions and delivers paradoxical effects. Ambiguous, ambivalent, uncertain, and conflicting would predictably become standard terms of critical description, especially in discussions of the play始s characters. Friar Bacon and Margaret of Fressingfield, the two most prominent roles, are exemplary in this respect. Is Bacon properly a benevolent wizard of romance, or a damnable Faustian sorcerer (McNeir 176-79; Towne 9-13; West 499-500; Traister 72)? The answer, evidently, is both. Without question, the English court and academic community at Oxford appreciate the prestige the brilliant friar bestows upon his nation and university. King Henry and the doctors Clement and Mason commend Bacon warmly as “frolic” and “jolly” (TLN 319, 328), a “brave scholar” (TLN 98) and “England始s only flower” (TLN 505) worthy of “a coronet of choicest gold” (TLN 510). Merlin-like, the magus directs his art towards the welfare of England: his “prospective glass,” which brings distant events immediately before one始s eyes, is “free for every honest man” to use (TLN 1812); and Bacon始s professed purpose in pursuing the brazen head始s “strange principles of philosophy” is to surround his country with fortifications more impervious than those of ancient empires:

    I will strengthen England by my skill,
    That if ten Caesars lived and reigned in Rome
    With all the legions Europe doth contain
    They should not touch a grass of English ground.
    The work that Ninus reared at Babylon,
    The brazen walls framed by Semiramis,
    Carved out like to the portal of the sun,
    Shall not be such as rings the English strand
    From Dover to the marketplace of Rye. (TLN 232-240)

    Patriotic sentiment of this kind seems calculated to stir the hearts of Elizabethan Protestants, who by the later 1580s were alert to the subversive presence in England of seminary priests from Rheims, and awaited military invasion by Catholic Spain. But playgoers could hardly have overlooked the heretical means by which the friar pursues his patriotic ends. From the gloom of his study, Bacon claims to have “dived into hell / And sought the darkest palaces of fiends” (TLN 1570-1571), and poring over “dark Hecate始s principles” in forbidden books (TLN 1579), he has summoned the sulfurous agents Belcephon and Astaroth to do his bidding (TLN 230, 1259-1260, 1572). There can be no confusing such practices with ‘white始 or ‘natural始 magic: this is “necromancy” (TLN 228), the Greek and Latin roots of which (neckroi, ‘death始 / niger, ‘dark始) send disturbing shivers through the play始s otherwise festive proceedings. Bacon, moreover, is pathologically self-aggrandizing, claiming the right to “boast more than a man might boast” (TLN 1674). His Faustian habit of addressing himself in the third person betrays the fact that intellectual hubris motivates him as forcefully as altruism (Assarsson-Rizzi 38; Ettin 276-77). As in the case Faustus, too, Bacon始s nobly-expressed intentions tend to devolve into scenes of farce tinged with discontentment and malevolence; more than once, for instance, and with obvious self-satisfaction, he conjures horned and feathered devils to dispatch those who challenge or frustrate him (TLN 335-337, 807, 2072-2073). Moreover, an unmistakable hollowness characterizes even his greatest magical accomplishment, the alchemical enlivening of the brazen head. After weeks of patient labor and suspenseful anticipation, the head speaks nothing but a sparse epigram on worldly transience—“Time is … Time was … Time is past” (TLN 1616, 1626, 1638)—words (on their surface at least) anticlimactic for their obviousness (TLN 1582). Casting the darkest shadow over the friar is his failure to recognize, until it is too late, that magic “worketh many woes” (TLN 1861). Bacon始s enchanted glass proves especially dangerous, first in enabling Edward始s imperious schadenfreude at Bungay始s mute humiliation and the terrorization of Margaret and Lacy, and then in its facilitation of the violence that consumes the Lamberts and Serlsbys (TLN 1818). Scholars have read Bacon始s breaking of his glass as a redemptive and “educative” gesture—a sign that his descent into sin is only temporary and that his condition remains regenerative (Wertheim 274, 285). But the magnitude of his transgressions—which he confesses to be so foul and extensive that Christ始s wounds “oft did bleed afresh” (TLN 1888)—complicates attempts to impose a morality play pattern on the action and tends to dampen the comedy始s final articulation of optimism. “Sins have their salves” and “repentance can do much,” Bacon reassures himself (TLN 1885). But “the dew of mercy” remains very much in the balance as Bacon makes his final vow to “spend the remnant of my life / In pure devotion, praying to my God / That he would save what Bacon hath vainly lost” (TLN 1889, 1892-1894). Two opposing conceptions of magic are thus articulated. Neither may be factored out, nor are they reconcilable—the play simply holds them in tension (Assarsson-Rizzi 79-80; Crupi 119).

    After Bacon, Margaret speaks the most lines in the play, and she shares the friar始s Janus-faced quality. From one vantage point, she is a Sussex dairymaid who makes butter and cheese in her father始s lodge on a royal hunting ground; from another, she models a grand and ancient myth, embodying a second Helen of Troy whose suitors are driven to violent distraction by her rare beauty (Muir 49; Assarsson-Rizzi 72-3). The shifting register of Margaret始s speech neatly reflects this paradoxical nature. Among her rustic neighbors at Harleston Fair, she speaks unpretentiously, often with a passivity befitting her social status and gender in a conservative rural environment:

    When we have turned our butter to the salt
    And set our cheese safely upon the racks,
    Then let our fathers price it as they please.
    We country sluts of merry Fressingfield
    Come to buy needless naughts to make us fine,
    And look that young men should be frank this day
    And court us with such fairings as they can. (TLN 363-369)

    But upon encountering Lacy, the earl of Lincoln, Margaret始s rhetoric heightens, becoming more allusive and richer in its tropes:

    His words are witty, quickened with a smile,
    His courtesy gentle, smelling of the court;
    Facile and debonair in all his deeds,
    Proportioned as was Paris when in gray
    He courted Oenone in the vale by Troy.
    Great lords have come and pleaded for my love,
    Who but the Keeper始s lass of Fressingfield?
    And yet methinks this farmer始s jolly son
    Passeth the proudest that hath pleased mine eye. (TLN 420-428)

    Coercively pressured by Prince Edward to abandon her affection for Lacy, her classicism grows even more pronounced:

    Pardon, my lord. If Jove始s great royalty
    Sent me such presents as to Danae,
    If Phoebus, tired in Latona始s webs,
    Came courting from the beauty of his lodge,
    The dulcet tunes of frolic Mercury
    Nor all the wealth heaven始s treasury affords
    Should make me leave Lord Lacy or his love. (TLN 1013-1019)

    And amid the crisis of Lacy始s disavowal, Margaret speaks as though transplanted into a Senecan tragedy:

    Fond Atë, doomer of bad-boding fates,
    That wraps proud Fortune in thy snaky locks,
    Did始st thou enchant my birthday with such stars
    As lightened mischief from their infancy?
    If heavens had vowed, if stars had made decree,
    To show on me their froward influence,
    If Lacy had but loved, heavens, hell, and all
    Could not have wronged the patience of my mind. (TLN 1531-1538)

    The mosaic of Margaret始s speech habits might generously be interpreted as expressive of her changing emotional condition and a near-heroic struggle to shore up an integrity of self under various kinds of pressure. But her stylistic disjointedness has been criticized for muddying the play始s otherwise clear depiction of social distinctions and for confusing the audience始s sense of who she is and where she belongs (Muir 49). Compounding the issue is a degree of unpredictability in Margaret始s behavior, which can range from quiet and withdrawn humility to bold self-assertiveness. Her patience when Lacy abandons her, for instance, has been likened to that of Griselda, the implication being that it is through suffering that Margaret becomes entitled to the social eminence granted her by the comic finale (Seltzer xvi; Lavin xxiii-xxv; Mortenson 201). Others find the Griselda analogy strained, noting that Margaret has an active hand in orchestrating events and is “uncommonly articulate” when speaking out against the impositions placed upon her; from this perspective, she resembles more a dignified “lady in disguise” than an overtly deferential subject of patriarchy (Assarsson-Rizzi 71-3; Cartwright 235-41). It has even been suggested, with less generosity, that beneath the surface of her pastoral heroism lies a hard core of proud self-regard not unlike Bacon始s own. “Great lords have come and pleaded for my love, / Who but the Keeper始s lass of Fressingfield?” she muses in the aside quoted above, cognizant that she is considered Suffolk始s paramount beauty, and possibly gratified by the fact:

    Shall I be Helen in my froward fates,
    As I am Helen in my matchless hue,
    And set rich Suffolk with my face afire? (TLN 1483-1485)

    The challenge of reconciling Margaret始s inclination both towards diffident self-abnegation and proud self-determination has prompted conclusions that border on cynicism: does she knowingly exploit her “matchless hue” in the interest of upward social and political mobility? How calculated is her final breach of decorum when she advantageously marries a lord above her station (Hieatt 22)?

    In the face of such “strange” contradictions, there have emerged two broadly distinguishable strategies of critical explanation. The first understands the play始s contrarieties to be a consequence of incompatible personal or aesthetic investments on the part of the dramatist. Calling attention to details in Greene始s putative biography, David Bevington proposes, for instance, that the playwright始s disappointed social aspirations and dissolute lifestyle prevented him from depicting romantic comedy始s upward social mobility in an uncomplicated way. Sensing hints of mockery and caricature in Margaret始s remarkable rise from the low estate of a dairymaid to aristocratic luxury, Bevington asks: “Did Greene really warm to his task in creating Margaret, or did he cater to a pipe dream that he then passed off as faintly ludicrous and ineffably bourgeois? … One senses not that Greene was consciously cynical of his popular themes and morality, but that he concocted an unstable vision of goodness he yearned for and then mistrusted because it eluded him” (Tudor Drama 224). Kenneth Muir accounts for the same inconsistencies by arguing that Greene assembled his source materials recklessly. To compose Friar Bacon, Greene pressed together a remarkable array of stock characters and narrative elements from the genres of romance, chronicle history, and the moral interlude. Given the diverse nature of these sources, constituent components cannot be expected to align neatly in every instance, nor should we be surprised if they sometimes resist the artificial logic of professional stage comedy to resolve matters harmoniously. It is the uneven architecture of Friar Bacon始s underlying structure, Muir argues, and not any modern principle of psychological coherence that ultimately determines the nature and fate of its characters. Contradictions, on this view, are the result of “character sacrificed to plot” and merely require our “willing suspension of disbelief” (48-9).

    J.A. Lavin始s influential New Mermaids edition of Friar Bacon conceives the play at cross purposes in yet another sense. Greene始s predilection for eye-pleasing spectacle, Lavin argues, contradicted his effort to impose on the action a pattern of orthodox morality condemning necromancy (xxvii-xxix). Few would dispute the first premise: Greene was unquestionably adventurous when devising visual displays for the stage. In Alphonsus, he indulged spectators始 eyes with a canopy topped with the severed heads of vanquished kings (G2v); in Orlando Furioso, his hero crosses the stage “with a leg” over his shoulder, grotesquely mistaken for Hercules始s club (D4v); Remilia is incinerated by lightning in A Looking Glass for London (C2v); and Jonah in the same play is “cast out of the Whale始s belly upon the stage” (F3v). Of a piece with arresting moments such as these is scene 8 of Friar Bacon, in which Bungay conjures the mythical tree of Hesperides and a “dragon shooting fire” (TLN 1198). As Greene was no doubt aware, the dragon had long been a hallmark of Tudor pageantry, a serpentine property fitted with tubes through which ignited powder was conducted to produce a shower of sparks from the mouth (Butterworth, Theatre of Fire 39, 86). Before the smoke from this spectacle clears, Vandermast summons a “fiend appearing like great Hercules,” complete with “his lion始s skin,” to tear the branches from the tree (TLN 1208, 1216). Bacon overmasters Vandermast in turn, ordering Hercules to spirit away both the tree and the necromantic challenger (TLN 1279-1280). Perhaps more impressive still is the spectacle then called for in scene 10. Indeed, Bacon始s talking brass head has become one of the most iconic moments in English Renaissance drama. Players appear to have adopted an existing technique of conveying sound through statuary of this kind; the head was probably brought to life by piping an actor始s voice into the property from offstage (Butterworth, Magic on the Early English Stage 98-112; and see the Supplementary Materials). Greene始s Alphonsus features a similar pyrotechnic head, as do others plays in the Queen始s Men始s repertory (e.g. The Old Wives Tale, the lost Orson and Valentine), and it seems likely the same property was employed across productions (Dahlquist 67). Yet by juxtaposing its version of the head with the comic improvisation of the actor playing Miles, Friar Bacon presented Elizabethan audiences with something original, a theatrical tour de force whose effects include ‘jump scares始 (each time the head makes its “great noise”), tense laughter at Miles始s comic fright, and wondrous awe as “a lightning flasheth forth” (likely an emission of flame from the head始s mouth, as in Alphonsus) and a mysterious hand suddenly appears to “breaketh down the head” (TLN 1614, 1633, 1635). Friar Bacon始s technical wizardry may well have been among its chiefest pleasures, but to Lavin it constitutes a case of “incomplete artistic integration”; to be absorbed and delighted by magical spectacle, he argues, is to remain oblivious to Greene始s point that necromancy is grounds for damnation; thus the “gleeful parade of magical tricks does not square with his didactic conclusion” (xxix).

    A second, distinct group of critics diverges from the arguments above by taking as its starting point Thomas Nashe始s well-known assertion that Greene was his “craft始s master” when it came to “plotting plays” (Have with You V3r). Rather than offering explanations for Friar Bacon始s apparent contrarieties, this second critical movement has sought to resolve ambiguities by identifying ways to unify the text at the levels of character, theme, and structure. In his seminal reading of the evidence, William Empson posits connections “insinuated powerfully and unobtrusively” between distinct plots involving Margaret and Bacon, each of whom shapes the action by exercising analogous powers—in Empson始s famous formulation, “the power of beauty is like the power of magic” (27-34). The dairymaid and the necromancer each stand to benefit socially from their respective influence, but to the extent their powers are “individualist, dangerous, and outside the social order” they also trouble the universe of comedy, an idea seemingly reinforced by scene 12 when Margaret始s physical attractiveness and Bacon始s magical glass conspire to erase two generations of Lamberts and Serlsbys. Empson始s insight would shape the discourse of critics for a generation, paving the way for further debate as to whether Bacon and Margaret—“England始s only flower” and “the flower of all towns” (TLN 505, 1424)—ought to be regarded as analogous, or as embodying a polarity of competing influences on those they encounter (Seltzer xvi; Mortenson 196-97). The power of Margaret始s ‘magic始 remains particularly controversial. In response to her exquisite beauty, distinctly male communities of courtly noblemen and provincial neighbors lose faith in each other and fall into conditions of violent sexual obsession. But should Margaret be held responsible for the behavior of men who react to her in these ways (Senn 547; Hieatt, “Multiple Plotting” 22-6)? Is restraint not precisely the responsibility of those thus affected (McAdam 37)?

    If Empson始s equation of magic and beauty usefully enables such questions, other critics have found it too reductive and so sought to bring additional aspects of the play始s internal logic into focus. Similarities have been detected, for instance, between Bacon and Edward: both men are proud and ambitious; both maintain irreverent servants (Miles and Rafe) who undercut their pretentions; and both must struggle to exert self-control after abusing extraordinary powers in self-serving ways (Senn 551-53; Dessen 32-5). At the same time, a contrast between Bacon and Bungay is implicitly drawn, grounded in each friar始s magical and moral efficacy: Bungay seeks to solemnize the union between Margaret and Lacy, but Bacon hinders it; Bungay is bettered in his showdown with Vandermast, but Bacon prevails; thir respective reactions to the outwardly rippling effects of the magical head and prospective glass are furthermore marked by differences (Cartwright 241). Empson始s double plot was thus gradually replaced by a conception of multiple threads of action, raveled carefully into sequential movements. A tone of festive misrule dominates the play始s first movement. Social and political norms are upended, for instance, when Edward and Rafe exchange clothes in scene 5. This sartorial switch provides Edward with a disguise in which to act upon his erotic desire for Margaret, while Rafe—one of the professional stage始s first court-licensed, or ‘artificial始, fools—enjoys the freedom to “prince it out” in silk with reveling courtiers above his station. The carnivalesque inversion is funny, but Greene uses the material trappings of costume to reinforce thematic meaning as well: putting on the fool始s motley signals Edward始s symbolic entrance into a condition of folly (i.e. his disruptive pursuit of Margaret), which must be relinquished by the play始s final movement. His return to the stage in princely attire in scene 8 figures a willingness to set the world aright, to re-establish social and political order by redirecting his erotic energy into an uxorious (and diplomatic) union with Eleanor of Castile (Mortenson 195-97; Hieatt, “Multiple Plotting” 19-21).

    While advocates of “rough unity” have done much to improve Friar Bacon始s critical reputation, it must be conceded that certain elements in the play stubbornly refuse to coalesce (Muir 48). Consider, for instance, its dualistic conception of academic life. Greene was awarded degrees by both Cambridge and Oxford, and he proudly broadcast his credentials on the title pages of his publications. In Friar Bacon, he praises his alma mater as a fount of intelligence and wealth, sustained by a fertile provincial landscape:

    … these Oxford schools
    Are richly seated near the river side,
    The mountains full of fat and fallow deer,
    The battling pastures laid with kine and flocks,
    The town gorgeous with high-built colleges,
    And scholars seemly in their grave attire,
    Learn茅d in searching principles of art. (TLN 1114-1120)

    Bacon boasts to Vandermast that the institution surpasses any in Europe: “None read so deep as Oxenford contains. / There are within our academic state / Men that may lecture it in Germany / To all the doctors of your Belgic schools” (TLN 1127-1130). The university is also a magnet for monarchs. In the manner of Tudor visitations such as those Greene likely experienced as a student, King Henry directs his entourage and foreign guests to “progress straight to Oxford” to “hear dispute among the learnèd men” (TLN 483, 501), endowing the university with the prestige of the royal court (Shuger 313-14; Knight 355, 358).

    Yet juxtaposed with this laudatory perspective is one more decidedly caustic, suggesting Greene was as intent to satirize the “academic state” as to celebrate it. While Bacon始s formal, book-bound scholarship leads him into the narrow and melancholy back alleys of necromancy, characters such as Lacy and Margaret are depicted reaping healthier rewards from the trial and error of experiential learning and intuition (Cartwright 224). The insular atmosphere of the university often appears to breed only tenuous happiness and success shot through with pride and envy. Peeling back the outward bravado of the all-male world of the doctors, Greene exposes a thin tissue of masculinity. Glory is routinely gained at others始 expense in the zero-sum game of academic reputation (McAdam 37-40). When Burden sniffs incredulously, for instance, at a proposal to commemorate Bacon “in characters of brass / And statues such as were built up in Rome” (TLN 215-216), Bacon puffs up his chest and subjects his colleague to brutal social humiliation. Magically summoning a tavern Hostess with a suggestively skewered piece of mutton in hand, he reveals her to be the extracurricular “book” with whom Burden secretly spends his nights “in alchemy” (TLN 266-294). By crude insinuation, we are to understand that his antagonist始s nocturnal experiments (drinking and mingling fluids with a prostitute) have left him ‘burdened始 with venereal infection.

    King Henry始s visit ironically brings about a further deflation of scholarly dignity. Burden, Mason, and Clement plan in advance of the court始s arrival “to welcome all the western potentates” with “stately tragedies / Strange comic shows such as proud Roscius / Vaunted before the Roman emperors” (TLN 833-836). Late sixteenth-century university scholars commonly staged Latin plays before courtly visitors, regarding it as an opportunity to praise and impart political wisdom especially to royal patrons. Yet when Henry arrives, he is not at all interested in the doctors始 “stately” exhibitions. The king demands instead feats of magical showmanship—spectacular sensation rather than intellectual stimulation. The luxurious banquet that Bacon promises after the magical competition is of a piece with this eagerness for spectacle:

    The basest waiter that attends thy cups
    Shall be in honors greater than thyself.
    And for thy cates rich Alexandria drugs,
    Fetched by carvels from Egypt始s richest straits,
    Found in the wealthy strand of Africa,
    Shall royalize the table of my king.
    Wines richer than the Gyptian courtesan
    Quaffed to Augustus始s kingly countermatch
    Shall be caroused in English Henry始s feasts.
    Candy shall yield the richest of her canes;
    Persia, down her Volga by canoes
    Send down the secrets of her spicery;
    The Afric dates, myrobalans of Spain,
    Conserves and suckets from Tiberias,
    Cates from Judea, choicer than the lamp
    That fired Rome with sparks of gluttony,
    Shall beautify the board for Frederick;
    And therefore grudge not at a friar始s feast. (TLN 1370-1387)

    The scholars始 idealized relationship to the court is effectively nullified, their political relevance downgraded. They occupy a position curiously like that of professional stage-players, whom Greene seemingly viewed with ambivalence, and with whom he may have worked only reluctantly (Shenk 21; Knight 359).

    If it was felt to be demeaning to subsume the gravitas of learning into sensational courtly entertainment, consignment to the commercial milieu of the public theater would seem to border on abjection. Rafe expresses this idea when he arrives at Oxford to revel and brawl in his mock-role as the prince. Likening the scholars始 “doting nightcaps” to his fool始s coxcomb, the jester threatens to exile the entire intellectual community in “a ship that shall hold all your colleges, and so carry away the Niniversity with a fair wind to the Bankside in Southwark” (TLN 893-897). The nonce concept of a “Niniversity”—which reduces the whole rarefied academy to a condition of humiliating folly—is then echoed in the scene of Miles始s damnation. Castigated as the “greatest blockhead in all of Oxford” (TLN 540), Miles is at once a figure deserving of ridicule and a scapegoat who elicits a degree of pathos. When Bacon expels him from his position as a student-servant, Miles initially is content to “roam and range about the world” with his book, gown, and cap in hand, confident that his learning will secure him “promotion” (TLN 1683-1690). But dim economic prospects beyond the university soon disabuse him of optimism. “I would I had been made a bottle-maker when I was made a scholar,” he says, “for I can get neither to be a deacon, reader, nor schoolmaster; no, not the clerk of a parish” (TLN 2024-2026). Lacking even the modest “pottage and broth” served for sustenance at Oxford (TLN 1339), he leaps at the opportunity to work as a “tapster” in the “dry heat” of hell (TLN 2049-2054). In spurred boots, atop the devil始s back, he exits roaring like the Vice, or the damned everyman of a moral interlude. The message delivered by Greene始s pastiche is secular, however, and bitterly ironic: Miles始 willing descent into hell for “a lusty fire … a pot of good ale, a pair of cards, a swingeing piece of chalk, and a brown toast” (TLN 2044-2046) emblematizes the self-deluding and self-corrupting condition of a scholarly underclass compelled to pursue professional work to avoid impoverishment. In effect, Miles is a dramatic re-iteration of the hapless public persona Greene developed in his prose pamphlets—that of the delinquent intellect given over to cravings of the flesh, selling his talent to publishers and actors, and taking small consolation in the fact that he is not the sole reprobate from the Niniversity to have tumbled into a modern urban inferno: Hell, quoth I, what talk you of hell to me? I know if I once come there I shall have the company of better men than myself; I shall also meet with some mad knaves in that place, and so long as I shall not sit there alone my care is the less” (The Repentance of Robert GreeneB2r).