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  • Title: Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay: Textual Essay
  • 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

    Textual Essay

    2. Date

    Friar Bacon was probably written between 1588 and 1591, but such evidence as there is for dating the play is circumstantial. F.G. Fleay founded an early and influential school of opinion by drawing attention to Prince Edward始s remark that “next Friday is S[aint] James[始s]” (TLN 137) and observing that the feast of Saint James fell on a Friday in the year 1589. Fleay surmised that Greene used an almanac to synchronize the play with the calendar of saints and dates the play accordingly to July of 1589 (264-65). Notwithstanding the cleverness of this solution, there is reason to doubt its veracity. What would account for the scrupulousness of such a reference when the text of Q1 makes no other pretenses to temporal specificity? In fact, the opposite is true: Greene始s pseudo-historical romance unfolds in a realm largely beyond historical time and space, and the reference to the feast day serves in this case simply to evoke a festive summer atmosphere for the play始s idealized countryside scenes. Cum hoc ergo prompter hoc—one suspects Greene was not as meticulous as Fleay imagines.

    Other commentators have read the play始s jingoistic tone as evidence that it was composed during the celebratory fervor that followed the destruction of the Spanish Armada in July 1588 (Seltzer ix). Patriotic enthusiasm can be felt, for instance, when Bacon始s expels Vandermast from Oxford and during the glorification of Queen Elizabeth as “Diana始s rose” in the final scene; such moments do appear consistent with an allayment of Protestant fear of the threat of foreign invasion. But again, skepticism is warranted. Bacon始s desire to “compass England with a wall of brass” (TLN 204) may have spoken more profoundly to audiences prior to the launch of the Armada. How one reads the magician始s “deep prescience” of a national peace on the horizon is also relevant: from his medieval vantage point, Bacon始s prophetic final speech invokes the future reign of Elizabeth as an era when “stormy threats of war shall cease / the horse shall stamp as careless of the pike,” and “drums shall be turned to timbrels of delight” (TLN 2129-31). It is a rather devious prognostication in that it may refer with proleptic irony to a post-Armada moment in which Greene始s audiences were enjoying a brief respite from their ongoing wars of religion; but if so, it is curious that the speech features no references to water, wind, or waves such as appear in other celebratory verses occasioned by the victory (Wilson 289-302; and compare especially with the address to Elizabeth that concludes the Queen始s Men始s True Tragedy of Richard III). On the other hand, it may also be read as a promiseof that future, a speech act assuring providential protection to playgoers still surrounded by the “stormy threats of war” whose situation remained dangerously uncertain. Such encouragement would have been within the Queen始s Men始s purview as they broadcast their message of nationalistic Protestantism along provincial touring circuits in the later 1580s. Does Bacon始s prophecy express genuine confidence arising from recent victory? Or does it voice the hope of a culture still gripped by a siege mentality? It is a crux that prevents us from anchoring the play with any certainty to the late summer and autumn of 1588.

    We are on no firmer ground when trying to date the play in relation to contemporary plays. Editors once considered it an “inference equivalent to moral certainty” that Greene wrote Friar Bacon in response to Marlowe始s necromantic spectacle Doctor Faustus (Churton Collins 2-3). Yet the occasion of Faustus始s composition is itself an unsettled matter, with dates of 1588 and 1592 conventionally proposed. This leaves Friar Bacon effectively unmoored regardless of whether Greene sought to capitalize on Marlowe始s success (Ward xxi-xxvi; Greg, Marlowe始s Doctor Faustus 7-10; Assarsson-Rizzi 14-15). And even the question of who inspired whom has deepened. No one would deny that echoes exist between Friar Bacon and Doctor Faustus, but imitation and pastiche were commonplace in the repertory theatre of the 1580s and 1590s; playwrights and players vigorously recycled plots, character types, and visual motifs to keep pace with audience demand. Claims for originality become hard to prove in this context, and often express only modern aesthetic preference. The effort to date Friar Bacon in relation to Fair Em, the Miller始s Daughter of Manchester (printed 1591) is a case in point. Both plays involve men of nobility who pursue the same woman: the triangular love intrigue between William the Conqueror, Lubeck, and Mariana in Fair Em bears more than passing resemblance to the dynamic between Prince Edward, Lacy, and Margaret. The women sought after are similar, too, emerging from humble circumstances and revealing, in respective ways, hidden qualities of inherent nobility. Because Greene happens to have ridiculed an unidentified writer for “underhand brokery” in a pamphlet printed the same year as Fair Em (Farewell to Folly A4v), some assume that the plagiarist must have been the ‘inferior始 anonymous writer of Fair Em, and on this basis date Friar Bacon to 1591 (Ward cxlvii-cxlviii; Churton Collins 4). But, of course, even if it could be proven that Fair Em was modeled on Friar Bacon and was newly acted the year it was printed, this would do nothing to fix the date of Greene始s play, which, given the nature of repertory theatre, may by then already have been onstage for months or even years. Further complicating the claim of influence is the fact that neither play was exhibiting originality in staging erotic triangles: the motif had already appeared prominently in Greene始s prose work Ciceronis Amor (printed 1589) and was a staple of stage romances throughout the 1580s and 1590s, featured in plays as diverse as John Lyly始s Campaspe, Shakespeare始s 1 Henry VI, and the anonymously-authored A Knack to Know a Knave (Dean 41-2; Heiatt 183-87).

    The Famous History of Friar Bacon, widely held to be Friar Bacon始s primary source, is no more reliable a recourse for dating the play. Characters and action common to both the prose work and the play indicate a definite relationship between the texts, but the only extant editions of The Famous History regrettably post-date the play by several decades. After being entered the Stationers始 Register on January 12, 1624, the earliest surviving editions of the chapbook were printed in 1627 and 1629, and so it is generally held that Greene must have encountered the work in a sixteenth-century manuscript since lost (Arber 4:110; Seltzer xii; Lavin xiv; Assarsson-Rizzzi 24-8). Although the Caroline chapbook offers an idea of what Greene始s putative source may have looked like, the loss of its source manuscript(s) prevents us from determining how extensively the prose texts that survive may have been altered by accretion or revision during the decades separating the 1580s and 1620s. In a most elaborate study of this dilemma, John Henry Jones has argued that a glimpse of Greene始s lost Elizabethan source remains available to us in a rare edition of The Famous Historie printed c. 1715 by Thomas Norris (British Library, catalogue mark 1077.g.32). The Norris text contains a few details not found in any extant Caroline edition, some of which accord closely with Greene始s play (e.g. Bacon始s explicit association with Brasenose, Hercules始s wearing of a lion始s skin). Jones interprets this to mean that Greene始s sixteenth-century source was preserved in more or less uncontaminated form by a line of manuscript transmission distinct from the extant Caroline editions printed as books (54-72). From this premise, he then argues that a topical allusion exclusive to the Norris text allows us to date Greene始s Friar Bacon quite precisely. All extant versions of The Famous History contain an episode in which Bacon humiliates an antagonist by magically summoning his disreputable sexual partner, a kitchen maid carrying a basting ladle. Norris始s edition is unique in describing this woman as having recently been “busy about dressing the dinner at Sir William Belton始s, a hundred mile distant.” Jones contends that this phrase can only have been meaningful to readers in the spring of 1590 when one Sir William Fleetwood, the Recorder of London—the alleged satiric target of the passage—played a role in sequestering a large store of illicit meat during Lent. Fleetwood始s reputation for eloquence, Jones claims, is the basis of a pun on ‘bel tone始 (‘Belton始) and the allusion to “Sir William Belton始s” should be read as a coded reference to Newgate Prison, where the confiscated meat was conveyed to feed prisoners rather than be allowed to spoil. Furthermore, Jones argues that Greene intended to satirize Fleetwood again when composing the second scene of Friar Bacon, in which the Hostess and her shoulder of mutton are conjured to humiliate Burden. Only in changing the meat始s origin from “Sir William Belton始s” to the “Bell at Henley,” we are told, the playwright was “playing safe,” deviating from the ‘bel tone始 pun in his source to avoid being sniffed out by the canny Fleetwood, who “would not have missed the allusion” (Jones, 65). Jones insists the link between “Sir William Belton” and Fleetwood始s bel tone is “very “secure” and that Friar Bacon must have been written shortly after the Lenten controversy of March 1590. While obviously a deeply resourceful argument, it seems far from probative. Apart from a Latin elegy that likens Fleetwood to Pericles, no evidence is cited to show that Fleetwood始s ‘bel tone始 was ever so widely acknowledged that audiences could make the linguistic leap necessary to identify him as “Belton” or, for that matter, bring him to mind using an even more oblique allusion to the “Bell at Henley.” The less convoluted explanation—that “Sir William Belton” was a person known to the public when Norris始s eighteenth-century text was printed—is simply dismissed by Jones without explanation as indefensible (62). Yet as Richard Levin has shown, the content of The Famous Historyunderwent demonstrable changes over time. An edition issued in 1683, for example, incorporates the names Margaret, Lacy, and Prince Edward from Greene始s play while adding to the text incidents drawn from John of Bordeaux (“Friar Bacon … and the 1683 Edition” passim). Any variations in post-Caroline editions of the chapbook—regardless of whether they seem to inform Greene始 play—stand a good chance, in fact, of being later interpolations and cannot safely be assumed to derive from a separate line of manuscripts tracing back to Greene始s era.

    An earlier, and arguably more reliable, terminus ad quem for composition may be established by beginning instead with a premise from theatre history. Assuming Greene did not intend to sell Friar Bacon to more than one company (as he allegedly did Orlando Furioso), we can expect him to have had specific actors in mind as he drafted his script. There are two prominent comic roles in Friar Bacon—those of Miles and Rafe—which is consistent with what we find elsewhere in the Queen始s Men始s repertory (for example, Derrick and John Cobbler in The Famous Victories of Henry V). Several actors in the company were known for their comic talent, including John Adams (fl. 1576-1588), Robert Wilson (d. 1600), and John Singer (d. 1609). But unquestionably the player most lauded for moving audiences to laughter was Richard Tarlton (d. 1588). A playwright hired during Tarlton始s tenure with the company would need to furnish the actor with a suitable part, and as Richard Levin has shown, there are intriguing resemblances between the crab-faced, mustachioed image of Miles in the woodcut adorning The Famous History(1629) and Q2 Friar Bacon (1630) and depictions of Tarlton such as appear in John Scottowe始s Alphabet Book (British Library Harleian MS 3885, f. 19: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=21899). The Famous History始s woodcut likely does not purport to represent an actual moment of performance in a theatrical space. At least one discrepancy stands out immediately: only in the chapbook does Miles play a tabor and pipe, dance, and sing while watching over the brazen head (C1v-C3); Greene始s character, by contrast, stuffs his arms with a “brown bill,” pistols, and other weapons (TLN 1563, 1567-69). Acknowledging this, Levin proposes more specifically that both the Caroline chapbook and its woodcut may have been “Tarltonized”—which is to say, conceived or revised in such a way as to call to mind the stage persona of the clown, whose signature extemporizing, witty versification, and musicianship remained famous years after his death. The woodcut might be evidence, then, of an affinity in the popular imagination between the character of Miles and the enduringly popular actor, a creative misremembering, years after the fact, of Tarlton始s participation in the play (“Tarlton” 85-9).

    There are further hints that Greene may have tailored the part to Tarlton. One of the performer始s hallmarks was his ability to make a memorable entrance, thrusting an outlandish face through a curtain, for instance, to announce his presence to the audience. Over the course of Friar Bacon, Miles enters three times overburdened with stage properties (books, dishes, weapons), enabling the actor in each case to generate excited laughter by threatening to let them fall farcically to the floor (TLN 172-73, 1325, 1563). His inept juggling of weapons in scene 10 would have been especially rich with comic irony for audiences aware that Tarlton had been made a Master of Fence in 1587 and possessed great skill with a blade. Peter Cockett has drawn attention to a similar moment that potentially connects the player to the role. Before exiting on the back of the devil in scene 14, Miles expresses a sardonic desire to work as a tapster in the dry heat of hell (TLN 2043-54). For those familiar with the clown始s public ethos, the moment may have resonated self-reflexively again as Tarlton belonged to the Vintner始s Company and was owner of both the Saba Tavern on Gracechurch Street and an ordinary on Paternoster Row (“The Ghost of Dick Tarlton”).

    Co-sanguinity between dramatist and player might furthermore be suggested by scoffs on the part of Gabriel Harvey, one of Greene始s antagonists in print. Harvey sneered at what he took to be the dramatist始s “fond disguising of a Master of Art with a ruffianly hair, unseemly apparel, and more unseemly company,” and he leveled particular scorn at Greene始s “vainglorious and thrasonical braving, his piperly extemporizing and Tarletonizing” (B2r). The playwright certainly had ample opportunity to observe and later socialize with the iconic actor. Tarlton visited Greene始s native Norwich as a member of Sussex始s Men in 1574, shortly before the sixteen-year old was to leave for Cambridge (REED: Norwich 57, 375). The actor also toured extensively with the Queen始s Men in the vicinity of both universities during Greene始s student years (REED: Norwich 65-76, 84; REED: Cambridge 1:311, 313, 319; REED: Oxford 1:203). Greene had ventured into the London theatre world by 1587, writing Alphonsus, King of Aragon (possibly for the Queen始s Men) at a time when Tarlton始s company was performing at city inn-yards like the Bull in Bishopsgate Street and the Bell Savage near Ludgate (Kathman 68-75). Taken together, circumstantial evidence of this kind lends weight to the hypothesis that Greene intended to give scope to Tarlton始s comic ability when writing Friar Bacon—and if so, he had to have done so before September 3, 1588 when the popular clown was buried in the parish of St Leonard始s Shoreditch.