Queen始sMen Editions

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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

    1: First Impressions: Strangeness and Wonder

    Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay始s buoyant mixture of spectacular magic, erotic intrigue, royal pageantry, and anarchic clowning generated considerable enthusiasm when the play debuted circa 1588. The studiousness with which Greene assembles well-rubbed character types and tropes from popular genres such as medieval romance, chronicle history, and the homiletic interlude explains in part this positive reception (McNier 171-79; Hieatt, “A New Source” 182-86; Cartwright 222-23). But for all its familiar aspects, there is an undeniable strangeness to Friar Bacon that appears to have resonated strongly as well. Indeed, the word “strange” is uttered with conspicuous frequency in the play (thirteen times). In early modern usage, the term commonly referred, as it does today, to the enigmatic quality of things experienced as alien or inexplicable. But it carried more nuanced connotations, too, notably evoking the moral disorientation brought about by unorthodox or ungodly behavior, and characterizing events deemed providential and therefore tantalizingly beyond the grasp of human reason (OEDadj; Walsham 32-51, 167-224). Much of the strangeness of Greene始s most famous play may be traced to the playwright始s abiding fascination with the human desire for knowledge, its circumscribed nature, and the potentially dire consequences of its acquisition. The eponymous Bacon is an Oxford scholar turned legendary sorcerer, already renowned as the play opens for having performed “strange and uncouth miracles” (TLN 1790) and determined to complete his magnum opus, a prodigious head of brass whose speech promises to illuminate “strange doubts and aphorisms” (TLN 220, 229, 349, 1582, 1647). For his part, Friar Bungay squares off in a “strange dispute” with the continental magician Vandermast, exhilarating onlookers with his own “strange necromantic spells” (TLN 1160, 1235). Gradually, the friars始 uncanny marvels give way to the more profound mystery at the heart of the play—what Providence holds in store for England—a question brought into focus by the Plantagenet King Henry III, who muses, “what strange event shall happen to this land?” (TLN 2119)

    In response to such moments, characters exhibit “wonder,” another key word in the play始s verbal texture. Bacon has risen from humble origins to be reputed “the wonder of the world,” dazzling both friends and enemies alike with “wonders” that “pass the common sense of man” (TLN 212, 249). But when his occult power inevitably slips its harness and threatens to harm those in the friar始s orbit, shock and estrangement are revealed to be dimensions of wonder as well (TLN 1116): “O strange stratagem,” cries Bungay in horror, as the events of scene 11 take their grievous turn (TLN 1858). Deep-set Elizabethan anxieties surrounding religious transgression and its punishment were never wholly separable from the excited conception of magic as an instrument capable of penetrating nature始s secrets. The frisson that Friar Bacon始s earliest audiences seem to have experienced therefore encompasses at least two powerfully “strange” sensations: awed amazement at the apparent wondrousness of occult power; and the profound uneasiness of bearing witness to heresy.

    By the late 1580s, the prose romance The Famous History of Friar Bacon had familiarized the reading public with the magician始s legendary exploits, while stories of the real-life Franciscan circulated vividly in academic circles (see the Textual Essay for more on this background). Greene始s dramatization, however, seems to have most firmly seized the early modern imagination. The theater entrepreneur Philip Henslowe recorded respectable crowds visiting his Rose playhouse in Southwark to see Lord Strange始s Men perform “fryer bacone” in 1592 and 1593 (Foakes 16-20). This was for many years assumed to be Greene始s play, though it may also have been a sequel that survives today in the manuscript known as John of Bordeaux (Alnwick Castle MS. 507; Manley and MacLean 93-6). In any event, the existence of multiple productions featuring the character reflects strong cultural interest—indeed, perhaps, a cultural phenomenon. There is evidence the play remained a touchstone for decades to come: casual allusions to Bacon始s brazen head crop up regularly in the work of popular playwrights such as Jonson, Middleton, and Shirley (Ward clxiv-clxvi); countless friar pairings paraded across Jacobean and Caroline stages in conspicuous imitation (Matusiak 209-10, 224 n9); and well into the eighteenth century, audiences flocked to booth stages to see child-sized puppets (or ‘motions始) act out scenes adapted from Greene始s well-known play (Rosenfeld 12-3).

    Greene始s literary notoriety is likely to have stoked curiosity about Friar Bacon. Having stablished himself as an “Author of Plays and a penner of Love Pamphlets” by the later 1580s, Greene reportedly grew so “famous in that quality” that he mused: “who for that trade [had] grown so ordinary about London as Robin Greene” (The Repentance of Robert Greene C1v)? The best evidence for Friar Bacon始s contemporary appeal however remains its first appearance in quarto in 1594, the title-page of which identifies it as having been “played by her Majesty始s servants.” The Queen始s Men were the most beloved touring company of the late Elizabethan era and the ways in which Greene始s commercial and ideological designs were bound up with its actors and their royal sponsor will be explored in detail below; let it suffice for the moment to observe that while commentators have traditionally discussed the play as having been written for a purpose-built amphitheater in London (Seltzer 98-100; Lavin xvi-xxi; Leggatt 30-31), it is equally important to situate it in the context of late-Tudor theatrical touring. Londoners certainly knew the play: Henslowe始s accounts confirm that the Queen始s Men acted it on the Bankside during the Easter season of 1594 (Foakes 21); it was probably performed as well at city innyards such as the Bull in Bishopsgate Street and the Bell Savage near Ludgate (Kathman 68-75). But as recent scholarship has persuasively shown, the greater part of the royal company始s career was spent on the road, and dramatic scripts were necessarily adapted to the physical and social conditions of guildhalls, fairgrounds, and noble households in locales as distant from one other as Bristol, Norwich, York, and Dover (McMillin and MacLean 55-82). Friar Bacon may well have been exhibited more frequently beyond London than within, and was certainly a more dramaturgically flexible and multivalent play—a stranger one, we might say—than has previously been assumed.