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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

    4: “Three-formed Luna” and “Diana始s rose”: a Play for the Queen始s Men

    Friar Bacon was written to serve the commercial and ideological ends of a specific acting company, the Queen始s Men. Until recently, this all-star troupe was thought to have fallen casualty to professional resettlements in the early 1590s that enabled selected companies such as the Chamberlain始s and Admiral始s Men to thrive in London. But over the past two decades, in response to the seminal work of Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, theater historians have considerably revised this narrative. The profile of a stagnated company relegated to the outermost reaches of the county after failing to compete in the capital始s burgeoning theatrical marketplace has been replaced by an understanding of the Queen始s Men as a troupe purpose-built for commercial touring, one that from the time of its inception in 1583 to its last recorded performance in 1602/3 remained “quite simply, the best known and most widely travelled professional company in the kingdom” (McMillin and MacLean 67). And as the royal actors rode from venue to venue along established touring circuits, their engagement in commercial playing served to facilitate another, more complex objective. Two powerful sponsors of the company from the queen始s privy council, Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester (from whose earlier company several of queen始s players had been drawn) were united in their opposition to both Catholics and radical Puritans in the heated religious and political climate of the 1580s. The involvement of these two elites in the founding of the Queen始s Men suggests the company may have been mandated “to increase the prestige of their patron throughout the land, to harness the theatre in the service of moderate Protestant ideology, and to add a vivid group of travelers who might serve the council始s needs for secret information about recusants or foreign visitors” (McMillin and MacLean 24). Viewed in this light, any playbook commissioned by the company would need to appeal to diverse audiences across the kingdom, while at the same time enabling the players to fulfill their role as emissaries on behalf of Elizabeth I.

    Friar Bacon satisfies both criteria. The text as we have it appears deliberately tailored to the dramaturgical needs of touring actors. The play始s insistence on narrative variety rather than organic unity becomes less puzzling when we consider the practical need for touring performers to double their parts. By alternating character groups and settings onstage, players were given time to change their costumes and prepare any properties, effects, or music required in scenes to come. Greene始s interspersing of pastoral, academic, and courtly scenes, punctuated by space in which clowns could extemporize adheres closely to this pattern (McMillin and MacLean 97-120, 124-54). That Greene wrote with the theatrical economy of touring in mind is also evident in his habit of calling for costumes and properties used elsewhere in the Queen始s Men始s repertory. Some stage attire was obviously customary and easily repurposed: the crowns and regalia worn by King Henry and the European dignitaries, for example, are likely the same employed in The Famous Victories of Henry V, The Troublesome Reign of King John, The True Tragedy of Richard III and King Leir. Similarly, Bacon and Bungay始s mendicant habits probably to dress the raucous friars in The Troublesome Reign. Rustic attire, too, worn in scenes set in the Sussex countryside could have doubled as the disguises donned by Cordella and Gallia in Leir (after being acquired initially perhaps for the company始s lost pastoral Phyllida and Corin). Many weapons and other hand-held items—daggers, rapiers, halberds, books, bags of money, and so on—will have been reused in the same way. Even rarer properties appear to have been recycled: the lion始s skin used to dress the spirit of Hercules in Friar Bacon is presumably the same seized by the Bastard from Austria in The Troublesome Reign; and the brazen head itself was perhaps a modified version of the speaking head in the well from The Old Wives始 Tale and almost certainly the brass head featured in the Queen始s Men始s lost adaptation of the romance Orson and Valentine.

    Writing for the royal actors, Greene sought to entertain as broad a base of playgoers as possible. His emphasis on eye-catching emblematic spectacle has already been discussed, though it is worth noting how visual displays such as Bungay始s conjuration of the Hesperidian tree and dragon need not have been sacrificed when the play was staged on the road. Numerous proposals have been made for how the play may have worked within the structural conditions of London始s sixteenth-century amphitheaters: the tree and dragon are typically imagined, for instance, rising and disappearing through a trapdoor in the stage platform, while the delineation of Bacon始s study is said to have been achieved using a fixed traverse and curtain upstage. But the players were obviously capable of creative alternatives to these techniques. Stage directions such as “the tree appears with the dragon shooting fire” and “Exit the spirit with Vandermast and the tree” are sufficiently elastic to allow for major properties to be whisked about by hand or on wheels (TLN 1279-1280). A similar flexibility marks the staging of “curtains” (TLN 1561, 1600): several plays assigned to the repertory of the Queen始s Men explicitly call for their use (The Old Wives始 Tale, Selimus, A Looking Glass for London), which means the company may have traveled with a portable canopy, possibly large enough to house the bed in which Bacon falls asleep. But the versatility of the players suggests they may also have simply made do with the conditions encountered in their various venues, exploiting, for instance, the tapestries suspended in the entranceways to great halls to curtail drafts, or simply moving about the playing area to represent distinct locations (McMillin and MacLean 139-40).

    Conviviality is an important feature of Friar Bacon, another notable sign of Greene始s intention to appeal to a broad audience. Although the play at times dances on the precipice of tragedy, it sustains its holiday tone through the repetition of words expressing happiness (“frolic”, “jolly”, “merry”) and cumulative images of commensality: “Butter and cheese, cream and fat venison” (TLN 440), “a lusty bottle of wine” (TLN 1105), “viands such as England始s wealth affords … ready set to furnish the boards” (TLN 2149). The world of the play is one of pastimes—the sportive pursuit of game, fairing, and reveling. No less than nine of the play始s scenes conclude with invitations to carouse or attend a feast (Lavin xxx-xxxi; Mortenson 197).

    Essential to the overall mood of merriment are the play始s clowns. Greene understood the need to fashion roles suitable for the Queen始s Men始s comic talents, especially perhaps its most beloved comedian Richard Tarlton, if indeed the production was underway before the actor始s death in September 1588 (see the Textual Introduction). The courtly fool Rafe Simnell and the academic delinquent Miles are creatures of enormous energy and appetite, not unlike other comic pairings in the company始s repertory, such as Derrick and John Cobbler in The Famous Victories. Rafe始s surname gestures toward Lambert Simnell, the notorious youth who posed as a Yorkist claimant to the Tudor crown a century earlier before being judged harmless enough to serve as a spit-turner in the king始s kitchen (Holinshed 765-67). Rafe, the licensed wit, is likewise a pretender, roistering in Plantagenet clothes and temporarily upending the decorum of the prince始s entourage. Miles, too, overturns formalities with ritualized irreverence, calling out the hypocrisies of his Oxford masters with an intellectual and verbal dexterity lacking in the prose-source namesake from which he is adapted. Much like Tarlton, the performer Greene may have envisioned in the part, Miles sings in different voices, shifting effortlessly from earthy, innuendo-laden prose to Skeltonics, the East Anglian verse form popularized by the courtly satirist John Skelton (1463-1529): “Salvete omnes reges, that govern your greges in Saxony and Spain, in England and in Almain; for all this frolic rabble must I cover table, with trenchers, salt, and cloth, and then look for your broth” (TLN 1326-1329). Essential to the appeal of these roles is their physicality, and Greene wisely assigns opportunities to each for comic improvisation. Rafe始s mock-haughtiness as he impersonates Edward (TLN 513-525) and public drunkenness in his “company of rufflers” (TLN 863); Miles始s tumbling when boxed about the ears (TLN 551,575) and his juggling of books, dishes, and weapons (TLN 172, 1325, 1563)—the eye may pass easily over such moments on the page, but an energetic performance renders them instantly and profoundly funny. The laughter generated by such moments does much to explain the Queen始s Men始s commercial success. Moreover, the pleasure seems to have been integral to the company始s larger ideological goal of strengthening communal bonds in a nation sorely divided by politics and religion.

    McMillin and MacLean have argued that each surviving Queen始s Men play centers on an “image of the queen or themes of the queen始s political interests” (166). One example of such thematic foregrounding—the staging of iconoclasm in a manner consistent with the crown始s moderate brand of Protestantism—has already been discussed. But the play始s multivalence becomes apparent if we consider the telescopic powers of Bacon始s prospective glass in the context of a holiday performance at the queen始s court, where concerns about political and religious subversion by foreign and domestic adversaries were especially acute. In the two decades after Elizabeth始s excommunication by Rome, members of the queen始s inner circle tasked with protecting her brought to light numerous plots intending her harm, some real, others imagined. Courtiers such as Walsingham and William Cecil aimed to neutralize the danger by cultivating networks of “spialls,” or intelligence gatherers, throughout the realm and abroad, a practice that fueled the growth of modern espionage. The belongings of strangers were searched at ports, private correspondence was intercepted, houses were ransacked, and anyone suspected of disaffection was at risk of being violently interrogated (Alford passim). The impact of the state始s growing surveillance apparatus is frequently reflected in the arts of the period, vividly for instance in the so-called Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Elizabeth_I_Rainbow_Portrait.jpg) which depicts the queen cloaked protectively in a bright orange mantle embroidered with human eyes and ears—emblems of the vigilant watchfulness she depended upon to maintain sovereignty (Strong 195 n65; Dedijer 12-15, 20-8, 42-3). It has been suggested the Queen始s Men themselves participated in the Elizabethan trade in secrets, reporting observations to the crown about the people and events they encountered while on tour (McMillin and MacLean 22-9).

    Bacon始s glass, with its panoptic capacity to detect the perceived disloyalty of unsuspecting subjects, may have raised the eyebrows of those engaged in this shadowy activity, and perhaps those of the queen herself. Whether staged as a fantastical mirror, a crystal, or a no less wondrous prototype of the telescope (see the Textual Introduction), the glass raises challenging questions about the desirability of a technology that exercises so much power. Greene始s recourse to the dialectic between “comedy” and “tragedy” when describing the glass始s use for spying is telling (TLN 683, 1818). A courtly intelligencer accustomed to intruding upon the private lives of others might presumably see the glass as a fabulous tool with which to root out dissidents, and his or her response to its condemnation and destruction might reasonably then involve a measure of regret. But quite a different response can be imagined on the part of playgoers watching Friar Bacon at a local guildhall or pleasure fair: for the great majority of the public, the pervasive culture of Elizabethan surveillance was shadowy and frightening for its capacity to ensnare the innocent. Particularly when the Queen始s Men brought the play to communities more heavily populated by recusants, where the atmosphere might be headier with distrust and fear, a spy glass directed suspiciously toward the private lives of subjects was liable to interpreted as an instrument of tyrannical governance. Indeed, would it not seem the more menacing because the information it provides is incomplete and easily misinterpreted? Topcliffean pain was administered to the innocent as freely as to those guilty of conspiracy, as subject mistakenly suspected of treason knew only too well. The interpretation of the glass, then—whether as pragmatically useful spy-tool begrudgingly relinquished, or an implement of authoritarianism reassuringly broken—was significantly dependent on where, and for whom, the play was performed. Rather like an anamorphic painting, composed of distinct and incompatible images visible only when the viewer shifts her vantage point, the representation of the glass indulges a fantasy of political surveillance in a moment of perceived existential threat while, at the same time, insinuating that no such power can be tolerated because of the social division it brings about.

    When Margaret suddenly reverses her decision to enter a convent in the play始s final scene, we sense another moment seemingly calculated to appeal to different constituencies of the Queen始s Men始s audience. After exchanging her red woolen dress for the pale habit of a nun, she causes her father and friends distress by asking: “Is not heaven始s joy before earth始s fading bliss, / And life above sweeter than life in love?” (TLN 1972-1973) Presumably, a minority of those originally attending the play would have approved of her intention to retire from the world to the cloisters of an institution officially suppressed a generation earlier. But the moment is not without complexity: Greene is meticulous in providing some justification for Margaret始s contemptus mundi posture, having already shown us her intense emotional suffering in response to Lacy始s broken affiance and then underscoring the callousness of his premarital ‘test始 of her loyalty by depicting him as surprisingly blunt and impatient when he returns “booted and spurred” with his chauvinistic clique of aristocratic friends:


    Why then Margaret will be shorn a nun?


    Margaret hath made a vow which may not be revoked.


    We cannot stay, my lord, an if she be so strict;
    Our leisure grants us not to woo afresh.


    Choose you, fair damsel. Yet the choice is yours:
    Either a solemn nunnery or the court,
    God or Lord Lacy. Which contents you best?
    To be a nun, or else Lord Lacy始s wife?


    A good motion.-- Peggy, your answer must be short. (TLN 1974-1982)

    “God or Lord Lacy. Which contents you best?” Charles Crupi calls this “perhaps the most remarkable question in all of Elizabethan drama” (128). In a play brimming with questiones customized to generate debate, it is certainly the most provocative. How to interpret the tone of Margaret始s response?

    The flesh is frail. My Lord doth know it well
    That when he comes with his enchanting face,
    Whate始er betide I cannot say him nay. (TLN 1983-1985)

    Does she deliver her proverbial answer immediately and with exuberance while casting her nun始s attire to the ground? Or is she more deliberative, pausing and weighing the stakes before selecting the option she considers less imperfect? Different dramatic effects seem possible, and we cannot help but anticipate that natural shocks will be endured in the future.

    Placing the moment in the Protestant context of marriage resolves some, though not all, of its tension. According to Mary Beth Rose, the sixteenth century saw the cultural ideals of virginity and celibacy gradually displaced by a new respect for sexual love and companionship in marriage. There was growing conviction that conjugal affection and loyalty strengthened marital bonds, thereby solidifying society始s foundation. The ideals proved so transformative, in fact, that they helped to erode traditional delineations of social rank (4, 32-40). Rose reads Margaret始s decision to shed her nun始s apparel and marry a man to whom she is physically attracted as “a final farewell to the medieval ideas of love and sexuality” (33-4). This is certainly consistent with the Queen始s Men始s mandate to endorse their Protestant patrons in government, and those harboring strong anti-Catholic prejudices presumably took comfort in Margaret始s casting aside her nun始s attire. And yet, as mentioned above, a feeling of tension lingers. In having Margaret declare her intention to lead a life of perpetual virginity, Greene depicts her reasons for doing as perfectly comprehensible. He also makes plain what would be sacrificed in pursuing that ideal to the end. We might wonder how such a scene played out before the monarch herself at court. Queen Elizabeth was interested in securing for herself an emotionally satisfying marriage, as her pained verse concerning the Duc of Anjou始s leave-taking in 1582, “On Monsieur始s Departure,” makes clear. But when no suitable negotiation could be arranged, the effort was made instead to enshrine her in the public eye as a deified and virginal queen (Strong 16; Hackett, Virgin Mother 73, 95, 201). By suggesting that Margaret始s decision is a difficult one emotionally, Greene may have been offering a subtle gesture of respect to a patron whose experience was ostensibly similar, though it resulted in a radically different outcome.

    Friar Bacon始s concluding scene exhibits an even more unconcealed effort to shape a positive image of Elizabeth. By this point in the action, Greene has established a consistent pattern of allusions to powerful classical goddesses that poets of the 1580s had assembled into a coded vocabulary for praising the queen. Identifying Elizabeth with deities of the ancient world, Helen Hackett explains, “helped to negotiate the challenge of asserting that she was God始s anointed and his earthly agent to advance the true faith, while avoiding forms of praise of her sacredness that might smack of idolatry and the Catholic cult of saints” (“A New Image” 240). A prominent figure in this discourse of political mythography was Hecate, the diva triformis, or triple-bodied goddess who incorporated aspects of Selene (or her Roman equivalent Luna), Artemis (or Diana), the Erinys (or Furies), and Pallas (or Minerva). The powerful “three-formed Luna,” as Greene calls her (TLN 1575), wove together traditions of veneration for feminine wisdom, chastity, and self-sufficiency against male violence and unfaithfulness. Importantly, she was endowed with powers of enchantment. There can be little doubt that Greene meant learned audiences to recognize Elizabeth when alluding to this figure (and especially to the constituent deities Luna and Diana). In so doing, he quietly articulates an argument about the efficacy of the queen始s own political magic. For much of the play, Bacon始s “strange” necromantic powers are said to be limitless. But late in the action, he boasts of once having so torn the skies of the earth that:

    … three-formed Luna hid her silver looks,
    Trembling upon her concave continent,
    When Bacon read upon his magic book. (TLN 1575-1577)

    Literally, Bacon is saying he obscured the moon with darkness, but the provocatively ironic nature of the statement was not likely lost on its original audience: metaphorically, Bacon claims that his masculine powers were so terrible as to fright the queen herself. The friar notably utters the lines in a moment of shame, humility, and repentance, for, as Greene carefully implies, there is in fact no basis for comparison. Bacon始s magic has been exposed as dangerous and dis-unifying, not the patriotic and protective force initially promised. And it is precisely at this moment that Greene refocuses attention on the queen始s more substantial power to defend the English nation.

    The final scene opens with members of the growing English court marching in pomp across the stage, showing off a variety of emblematic properties—“a pointless sword” (mercy), a “globe” (earthly political power), and “a rod of gold with a dove” (equity, peace, the holy spirit) (TLN 2074-2079). Processions of this kind were a signature aspect of the Queen始s Men始s aesthetic (McMillin and Maclean 140), a direct response to their royal patron始s delight in pageantry and the intellectual game of decoding allegory. King Henry invites Bacon to demonstrate his “deep prescience” by sharing a glimpse of what the future holds in store for England: “what strange event shall happen to this land?” (TLN 2219) The friar始s vision of things to come remains partial, his goal of God-like omniscience having by now been proven illusory. But in a cryptic revelation he succeeds in gleaning a “royal garden” destined to be disturbed by “stormy threats of war” before “peace from heaven shall harbor in these leaves.” He proceeds to catalogue an array of magnificent flowers, each embodying a deity of the past—“Venus始s hyacinth”, the “gillyflowers” of Juno, “Pallas始s bay”—harbingers all to the growth of a singular “matchless flower”—“Diana始s rose”—beneath which all must “stoop and wonder” (TLN 2124-2141). From the vantage point of the play始s thirteenth-century characters, Bacon始s prophecy is incomprehensibly “mystical,” but for Greene始s audience “Diana始s rose” was instantly intelligible.

    The rose of the Tudor dynasty had become a poetical commonplace, familiar to courtly consumers of culture in literary works such as Edmund Spenser始s The Shepheard始s Calender, which figures its “mayden Queene” as “the flowre of Virgins” whom “No morall blemish may … blotte” (C4v). In Bacon始s prophecy, then, Elizabeth was encouraged to recognize herself. Greene始s relation of a floral pageant featuring Venus, Juno, and Pallas participates also notably participates in the contemporary fashion among panegyrists of incorporating Elizabeth into narratives of the mythological Judgment of Paris (Hackett, “A New Image” 225-30, 254). When Paris was tasked with awarding a golden apple to whoever among Venus, Juno, and Pallas Athena he judged to be the fairest, he selected Venus because she promised him the affection of the world始s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta. The consequences of the decision proved disastrous, setting in motion the death and destruction of the Trojan War. Greene始s version of the contest is distinct in that it judges Diana/Elizabeth to be superior to all three contestant goddesses in beauty, authority, and wisdom. In this respect, it constitutes blatant flattery. But it also cleverly alters the outcome of what was conventionally understood to be tragic narrative, thereby reinforcing the association that Bacon始s prophecy makes between the English queen and a state of peace.

    In its rich final conceit, the play figures Elizabeth as a self-sacrificing protector of the realm. In addition to praising her enchanting beauty, Greene始s calculated allusion to Diana ascribes to the queen an otherworldly constancy; like Diana, she remains unmarried, an icon of chastity and virginity, concepts that her shrewd propagandists had crafted into a political narrative insisting she had restrained all personal passion to become the mystical spouse of her nation (Wilson 134-35, 213-19). Imbricated, too, among these potential meanings, and perhaps most impressively, is the assertion that Elizabeth occupies a privileged place in an unfolding providential history, an topic of central concern in other history plays acted by the Queen始s Men, such as The True Tragedy of Richard III and The Troublesome Reign of King John. Wars may blight the garden of England始s past and present, Bacon始s speech insists, but the “fair bud” of the house of Tudor—Eliza Triumphans—holds the promise of peace to come. Greene thus endows the queen with protective magic that is at once stranger than Bacon始s and more powerful for its connection to the mysterious authority of Providence. Although more carefully coded than the encomia articulated in The True Tragedyand The Troublesome Reign, Friar Bacon始s implicit message about Queen Elizabeth始s sanctity must have been perfectly comprehensible to both players and playgoers as they joined in collective prayer for her health after each performance. The beauty of Margaret (“the flower of all towns”) may be splendid and the power of Friar Bacon (“England始s only flower”) awesome; no one however was to be understood as richer in beauty or power than Diana始s strange and wondrous “rose.”