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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

    3. Sources

    It is generally agreed that the play始s primary textual source is the peculiar hybrid of pseudo-biography, romance, and jestbook material known as The Famous History of Friar Bacon. As mentioned above, the earliest surviving editions of this prose work date to the 1620s, and Greene is commonly thought to have been familiar with an earlier manuscript of the text that has since been lost. Of The Famous History始s seventeen prose episodes, five closely resemble scenes in Greene始s play:

    • the failed attempt to engineer a brazen head and encircle England with a wall of brass (B4v-C4v)
    • the contest of magic between Bacon, Bungay, and Vandermast (D1v-D2v)
    • Bacon始s disruption of a marriage spied through a magical glass (F1r-F3v)
    • use of the magical glass to spy on feuding country gentlemen, prompting a fatal duel between their sons (G1v-G3v)
    • Bacon始s renunciation of magic (G2v-G3v)

    The points of similarity and difference between chapbook and play have been well documented (Assarsson-Rizzi 24-43). Less attention has been given to the question of why Greene may have gravitated toward this material in the first place. The commercial viability of plays dealing with necromancy, romance, and chronicle history is one straightforward answer; another may have to do with Greene始s intensive academic experience while in residence at Cambridge and Oxford between 1575 and 1588. During this scholastic period, he would refine the extensive cultural knowledge that informs Friar Bacon始s wide-ranging allusions, be they classical (e.g. to Aesop始s Fables, Ovid始s Metamorphoses), scriptural (the Vulgate Bible, Psalm 133), historical (Holinshed始s Chronicles), esoteric (the Corpus Hermeticum), or vernacular (Barclay始s translation of The Ship of Fools, Skelton始s Ware the Hawk). Considering his intellectual background, it is difficult to imagine Greene approaching any text, even The Famous History, as a mere stockpile of ready-made incidents for theatrical adaptation. On the contrary, his deliberate arrangement and amplification of selected episodes from the source text—the brazen head, the showdown with Vandermast, the telescopic glass, the romantic medieval setting—suggests an expectation that they would resonate in specific ways among commercial theatre audiences while also befitting the ideological agenda of the company that acted the play, the Queen始s Men.

    3.1 The Brazen Head

    The fifth episode of The Famous History (“How Friar Bacon made a brazen head to speak …”) concerns England始s vulnerability to foreign incursion and Bacon始s desire to fortify the nation with his magical power. With the help of Friar Bungay, “a great scholar and magician (but not to be compared to Friar Bacon),” Bacon fashions a head of brass, convinced that “if he could make this head to speak (and hear it when it speaks) then might he be able to wall all England about with brass.” A devil shows the friars the alchemical secret for animating the head, and after weeks of strenuous work they finally retire to rest, leaving Bacon始s servant Miles—said to be jovial but “none of the wisest” (B1v)—to wake them if the head should speak. Under Miles始s watch the brazen head speaks seven words—“Time is. Time was. Time is past.” There is “a terrible noise” and “strange flashes of fire” and in a cloud of smoke the head suddenly smashes to the floor. Recognizing his missed opportunity, Bacon is despondent and strikes Miles mute with a spell: “Thus that great work of the learned friars was overthrown (to their great griefs) by this simple fellow” (B4v-C3v).

    Stories of oracular statues date back to antiquity (Lagrandeur, “The Talking Brass Head” 408-10) and an inquisitive, eclectic reader like Greene stood to encounter brazen heads in occult texts such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa始s De Occulta Philosophia (first printed 1533 and widely dispersed in manuscript), in popular romances such as The Life of Virgilius and Orson and Valentine, and in technical works like William Bourne始s Inventions or Devices Very Necessary for all Generals and Captains or Leaders of Men (c. 1578, printed 1590). Greene始s first play Alphonsus (1587) notably features a brass idol in the shape of a head that speaks prophetically and spits fire, pointing perhaps to an abiding interest in the motif. Oxford, where the playwright earned his second M.A. degree by incorporation in July 1588, may have provided the first stimulus. There, at Brasenose College, a series of bulbous-nosed heads of brass carved into the hall and gate have been linked with local legends that connect a magical head with the celebrated Oxford alumnus Roger Bacon (LaGrandeur, “Brasenose College始s Brass Head” 48-50).

    The historical Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c.1296) was an accomplished medieval logician, mathematician and theologian who eagerly probed the intellectual and natural boundaries of his time. It was precisely this erudite adventurousness that eventually wrapped him in colorful necromantic legend. His Oxonian contemporary Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (d. 1253) is similarly remembered for having forged a “head of brass … for to tell / Of such things as befell.” Grosseteste is said to have labored seven years on the project, but then “for lachness [sloth] / Of half a minute of an hour … He lost all that he had do” (Gower L4r). Another thirteenth-century brazen head (and indeed a whole body) was ascribed to Albertus Magnus of Cologne, the fate of which, as in Greene始s play, was to be smashed to pieces by a hammer (Molland 450). Notably, each of these legends are rooted in the aspiration for what Magnus would term “experimental knowledge” (Thorndike, “Roger Bacon and Experimental Method” 290). The birth of natural philosophy (what we would now call scientific study) required that nature be investigated directly and empirically. In the thirteenth century, however, the epistemological line demarcating the natural sciences from occult philosophy remained faint. Consequently, despite taking pains to deny that he could summon and control spirits, the historical Bacon inspired deep religious ambivalence for his experiments in alchemy, mathematics, and optics—not to mention his speculations about automated chariots, flying machines, and other wondrous contrivances (Epistola fratris Rogerii Baconus 521-51). Such practices were fertile ground for suspicions of sorcery and demonism to grow (Thorndike, “The True Roger Bacon II” 476-79; Power 658-64).

    By the mid-sixteenth century, an increasing number of scholars began to recognize Bacon始s endeavors for what they were, including the physician and mathematician Robert Record who wrote:

    it shall be plainly perceived that many things seem impossible to be done which by art may very well be wrought. And when they be wrought, and the reason thereof not understood, then say the vulgar people, that those things are done by necromancy. And hereof came it that Friar Bacon was accounted so great a necromancer, which never used that art (by any conjecture that I can find) but was in geometry and other mathematical sciences so expert that he could do by them such things as were wonderful in the sight of most people(tiiiv).

    Even so, the popular Tudor image of Bacon remained that of a praestigiator ac magus necromanticus—conjurer, magician, and necromancer. Manuscript books of spells (grimoires) with titles such as De necromanticis imaginibus (‘Of Magical Images始), Practica magiae (‘Practical Magic始), and De occultis operibus naturae (‘The Secret Works of Nature始) circulated under his name, written by authors eager to capitalize on his notoriety (Bale f. 114v-115r; Coxe [B1v]). One book of magic preserved at the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS V.b.26) shows that by the 1580s, Bacon始s very name had become a word by which spirits might be conjured (see the Supplemental Materials). The myth of Bacon as a harnesser of preternatural forces became so engrained in cultural memory that as late the mid-seventeenth century Sir Thomas Browne could report that “Every ear is filled with the story of Friar Bacon that made a brazen head to speak” (323).

    It is intriguing that the failure of the brazen head project and the disappointment Bacon experiences as a result seems most to have captured Greene始s imagination. Noticeably, the playwright shifts the head始s animation and destruction from its early position in The Famous History (episode 5) to a late, critical juncture in the play (scene 10); and where the chapbook apportions blame for the failed magical endeavor explicitly to Miles—“Thus that great work of the learned friars was overthrown (to their great griefs) by this simple fellow”—Greene opts instead to emphasize Bacon始s own culpability. The stage friar knows precisely which night the head will utter its “strange doubts and aphorisms” (TLN 200, 1593-95) but his fatigue prevents him from bearing witness. Reassigning responsibility in this way allows Greene to underscore the human limitations to which his more complex and hubristic character is ultimately subject. Furthermore, by shifting the episode nearer to the turning point in which Bacon始s use of the magic glass provokes tragic violence (scene 12), Greene tightens the causal relationship between necromancy, discontent, and spiritual peril. Agrippa may have provided a model for him in this respect; having achieved notoriety for De Occulta Philosophia, the famous scholar later published a pointed retraction:

    I being also a young man wrote of magical matters three books in a sufficient large volume, which I have entitled ‘Of Hidden Philosophy,始 in which books whatsoever was then done amiss thorough curious youth, now being more advised I will that it be recanted with this retraction; for I have in times past consumed very much time and substance in these vanities. At the length I got this profit thereby, that I know by what means I should discourage and dissuade others from this destruction. For all they that presume to divine and prophesy not in the truth, not in the virtue of God, but in the illusion of devils, according to the operation of wicked sprites, and exercising deceits of idolatry, and showing illusions and vain visions, the which suddenly ceasing they vaunt that they can make miracles by magical vanities, exorcisms, enchantments, drinks of love, agogimes, and other devilish works, all these with Jamnes and Mambres and Simon Magus shall be condemned to the pains of everlasting fire. (Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of Arts and Sciences 63)

    Not by accident perhaps, this sequence in which magic is at first alluring and promising but results ultimately in disappointment and the need for repentance is strikingly parallel to the reported experience of many Elizabethan scholars. During Greene始s years at Cambridge and Oxford, students and masters alike were enticed by questions at the heart of occult subjects such as the predictive power of astrology, alchemy, and catoptromancy (divination by glassy surfaces). Magical pursuits and their tenets were not officially sanctioned, but neither were they entirely disentangled from the disciplinary practices gradually evolving into modern sciences. Henry Briggs (1561-1630), for instance, was a distinguished mathematician who matriculated at Cambridge in 1577, two years after Greene. During his student years, he is said to have “thought it a fine thing to be of God始s counsel” and “to foreknow secrets,” and he “resolved to have that knowledge what labor soever it cost him.” Much like Bacon, however, Briggs reportedly “found his expectation frustrate”:

    when he had tired his body and wits in vain, he was much dejected with the frustration of his expectation. At last he repaired to a man in Cambridge famous for this art, and a practitioner in prognostications by it; to him he made his moan what pains he had taken to be an expert astrologer, and how the uncertainty of the rules in that art did now defeat his hopes. The astrologer始s reply was that the rules of that art were uncertain indeed, neither was there any cure for it: whereupon Mr. Brigs relinquished that study” (Geree 14-15)

    Another of Greene始s fellow students at Cambridge, the Puritan William Perkins (1558-1602), is said to have been “much addicted to the study of natural magic, digging so deep in nature始s mine to know the hidden causes and sacred qualities of things that some conceive that he bordered on hell itself in his curiosity … the blackness did not affright him but name of art lured him to admit himself as student thereof” (Fuller 432). Perkins wrote penitently in 1585: “I have long studied this art, and was never quiet until I had seen all the secrets of the same: but at the length, it pleased God to lay before me, the profaneness of it, nay, I dare boldly say, idolatry, although it be covered with fair and golden shows” (B1r). Among the most respected scholars during Greene始s time at Oxford was Thomas Allen (1540-1632), a mathematician and bibliophile whom contemporaries described as “a second Roger Bacon.” There were whispers that Allen had conjured spirits on behalf of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and his personal library contained the works of Grosseteste, Bacon, and more arcane treatises on occult philosophy (Feingold 84-5; Watson 291). Allen始s library was open to the academic community and may well be where Greene encountered many of the hermetic concepts he would later weave into Friar Bacon, most explicitly during Bungay始s showdown with the contending magician Vandermast.

    3.2 The Contest with Vandermast

    The seventh episode of The Famous History (“How Friar Bacon overcame the German conjurer Vandermast and made a spirit of his own carry him into Germany”) tells of a formidable sorcerer who is called upon to entertain an English court in a recently conquered French town. When Vandermast promises to conjure spectacles never before seen by human eyes, the king summons two English champions, Bacon and Bungay, to match him in the “art of magic.” Vandermast first conjures the spirit of Pompey the Great but is trumped when Bacon raises Julius Caesar to reenact the battle of Pharsalia. To prove his own skill, Bungay then conjures “the Hysperian Tree, which did bear golden apples …[and] a waking dragon that lay under the tree” only to watch helplessly as Vandermast calls upon Hercules to subdue the dragon and plunder the tree. The episode concludes when Bacon steps forward to reassert English dominance: “he bid Hercules carry [Vandermast] home into Germany” and “the devil obeyed him and took Vandermast on his back, and went away with him in all their sights” (D1v-D2v). Commentators have traced the genealogy of the magical contest to ancient narratives in scripture and romance (Ward xxvii; Levin “My Magic”201-07). It has also been observed that by ignoring the initial conjuration of Pompey and Caesar, Greene始s play places greater emphasis on Bacon始s final show of superior power, sacrificing a moment of spectacle to heighten the dramatic impact: just when it seems Vandermast has vanquished Bungay, the English champion Bacon arrives to seize a patriotic victory from the jaws of defeat (Assarsson-Rizzi 31-2).

    To this we may add that onto the magical contest Greene conspicuously maps the structure of sixteenth-century academic disputatio. Relocating the action from France to the “academic state” of Oxford, the play reimagines the first phase of the contest between Bungay and Vandermast as a logical “dispute” on the “the doubtful question” of “whether the spirits of pyromancy / or geomancy be most predominant in magic” (TLN 1133, 1135-37). Educated playgoers would recognize this as a formal disputation on a set topic (or quaestione), a practice at the heart of the university curriculum. Such debates were a species of drama in their own right, their verbal thrusts and parries appealing both to elite and public audiences (Shuger 313-20; Rodda 7-67). The occult terms that Bungay and Vandermast bandy about pretentiously do not appear in The Famous History; and while obscure now to a modern reader, there is reason to think they were less so to Elizabethan audiences. Between 1586 and 1594, convocation scholars at Oxford debated topics no less fanciful, inspired by questiones such as “an ulla sit vis incantationis?” (‘whether there may be power in magical incantations始), “an divinatio astrologica sit probanda” (‘whether divination by astrology may be approved始), and “an chymicus sit philosophus” (‘whether an alchemist may be considered a philosopher始), the latter seemingly concerned with the transmutation of metals by the putative power of the philosopher始s stone(Clarke 171-73). Academic argumentation could often be cautiously conservative, though as Mordechai Feingold notes, “some freedom for divergence was allowed and the respondents were not categorically ordered to refute the tenets of the occult sciences” (78-9). Perhaps the most controversial of these debates occurred at Oxford in 1583 when the infamous Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno defended heliocentrism and hermetic philosophy before a crowd of English doctors, “stripping up his sleeves like some juggler” as he lectured according to one witness (qtd in McNulty, 303). Bruno would remain in residence Oxford until 1585, and it has been suggested that Friar Bacon may glance satirically at his proud demeanor with its disputation scene (McCallum 212-17). Whether Greene witnessed the Italian dispute or not, the dramatic energy and performative nature of such heavy-weight contests was not lost on him. Indeed, Greene knew the pressure of disputatio first hand (being a requirement for his degrees), and as the Critical Essay elsewhere in this edition argues, the consistently dialectical way in which Friar Bacon represents characters and themes points to the practice始s important shaping influence on the play始s composition.

    3.3 The Glass Prospective

    Friar Bacon始s representation of a second magical device, the “glass prospective,” also shows signs of having been shaped by Greene始s intellectual milieu. The instrument appears in two episodes of The Famous History. The first (“How Friar Bacon did help a young man to his sweetheart …”) concerns the secretive effort by Bungay to marry an aggressive knight to a reluctant bride named Millisant. A second gentleman, who Millisant actually loves, appeals to Bacon for help and is shown “a glass wherein anyone might see anything done (within fifty miles space) that they desired.” At the sight of the ceremony unfolding at a distance, the beloved gentleman is heartbroken, so Bacon, pitying him, transports them both through the air to the chapel in an enchanted chair. Before Bungay can finalize the marriage ceremony, we are told that “Bacon spoiled his speech, for he struck him dumb so that he could not speak a word.” A mist is then raised to cover the young lovers始 escape and Bacon conjures a spectacular masque to celebrate their union (F1r-F3v). In the second episode (“How two young gentlemen came to Friar Bacon to know how their fathers did …”), it is revealed that Bacon始s magical device has “pleasured diverse kinds of people … so that from far they would come to see this wonderful glass.” When two young scholars request its use, they watch in horror as a dispute between their fathers in the provincial countryside boils over into murder. Enraged, the students violently assault each other: “presently [they] stabbed one the other with their daggers, and so fell down dead” (G1v-G2v).

    Greene cleverly fuses the two episodes to hiscentral erotic plot. Margaret replaces Millisant, while Prince Edward and Lacy take the place of the anonymous suitors vying for her in the first episode; the dueling fathers from the second episode are reimagined as Lambert and Serlsby, two more rivals for Margaret始s hand in marriage. Significantly, Greene follows the second episode closely by emphasizing Bacon始s remorse after the glass instigates homicide. As The Famous History puts it: “This made him to grieve exceedingly … [and] judging that [the students] had received the cause of their deaths by this … he broke his rare and wonderful glass.” The prose source offers no indication of what the glass may look like, raising the question of what sort of property Greene had in mind as he adapted these episodes. All references to the “prospective glass” in the play are themselves imprecise. It is said to be (or to contain) a “crystal” (TLN 1868) and deictic cues offer only vague hints as to how it functions, as when Bacon instructs Edward to “Stand there and look directly in the glass” or to “Sit still and keep the crystal in your eye” (TLN 643, 649).

    Greene will have understood something of Roger Bacon始s fascination with perspectiva—the study of light, vision, and optical phenomena—a theoretical and practical science with ancient Greco-Arabic roots for which the medieval friar collected an array of lenses, mirrors, liquid flasks, and even a crystal sphere, which he later gifted to the Pope (Lindberg xx-xxv; Molland 453-54). As Greene may also have known, the narrative of the university students who request Bacon始s help to spy on events at home germinated in Bacon始s own lifetime. According to the chronicler Peter of Trau in 1385:

    [Bacon] was so complete a master of optics that from love of experiment he neglected teaching and writing and made two mirrors in the University of Oxford: by one of them you could light a candle at any hour, day or night; in the other you could see what people were doing in any part of the world. By experimenting with the first, students spent more time in lighting candles than studying books; and seeing, in the second, their relatives dying or ill or otherwise in trouble, they got into the habit of going down, to the ruin of the University, so by common council of the University both mirrors were broken (qtd in Power 660)

    The second “mirror,” with its power to magnify objects great distances away, receives further explication in Bacon始s major treatise on optics, the fifth part of his Opera Majus, entitled Perspectiva:

    For we can … arrange [lenses and mirrors] in such a way with respect to our sight and objects of vision, that the rays will be refracted and bent in any direction we desire, and under any angle we wish we shall see the object near or at a distance. Thus, from an incredible distance we might read the smallest letters and number grains of dust and sand owing to the magnitude of the angle under which we viewed them, and very large bodies close to us we might scarcely see because of the smallness of the angle under which we saw them … Thus a small army might appear very large, and situated at a distance might appear close at hand, and the reverse. So also we might cause the sun, moon, and stars in appearance to descend here below, and similarly to appear above the heads of our enemies, and we might cause many similar phenomena, so that the mind of a man ignorant of the truth could not endure them (qtd in Van Heldon 28)

    The Perspectiva was widely read and lectured upon in the centuries after Bacon始s death. In the 1550s, for instance, the mathematician and astrologer John Dee (1527-1608) acquired a copy in manuscript and housed it in his extensive library at Mortlake (Friar Bacon His Discovery19-22). Some considered Dee a magus in his own right; his collection of esoteric artifacts at Mortlake included an obsidian ‘scrying stone始—a carved disc of volcanic glass polished to mirror smoothness, now at the British Museum (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/d/dr_dees_mirror.aspx). Shadowy spirits, it was believed, might be summoned to the surface of such stones and secret knowledge of the past, present, and future divined. According to Dee始s memoranda, Queen Elizabeth became fascinated by his scrying stone and visited his house to inspect it in 1575. “The Queens Majesty … willed me to fetch my glass so famous,” Dee writes, “and to show unto her some of the properties of it, which I did; her Majesty being taken down from her horse … did see some of the properties of that glass, to her Majesty's great contentment and delight” (Autobiographical Tracts 17). Modern scholars most often envision Friar Bacon始s “glass prospective” as a “magic mirror” resembling a hand-held vanity, and sometimes as a more generic “crystal ball” (Seltzer 30; Lavin xvi-xvii, 32, 80), yet the notoriety of Dee始s “glass so famous” suggests that a scrying stone may have been Greene始s original model for the stage property.

    Bearing in mind Greene始s exposure to intellectual communities familiar with Bacon始s Perspectiva, another possible model for the “prospective glass” is worth considering. The adjective “prospective” in early modern usage usually meant ‘forward-looking始 (as at TLN 1792-1793) and in this sense would be accurately applied to a property such as Dee始s obsidian “glass so famous,” with its supposed power to glimpse the future. However, by the later sixteenth century “prospective” was also used interchangeably with “perspective,” a word that refers both to the distortion of sight, and to its magnification (OED adj.2). “Perspective glass” was a phrase used in the 1580s to describe the experimental arrangement of concave mirrors and convex lenses—the revolutionary technology known as the reflecting telescope (OED n.2a). In a book published in 1579, the mathematician Thomas Digges (c.1546–1595) gives an account of experiments conducted by his father Leonard Digges (c.1515–c.1559) in which “perspective glasses duly situate upon convenient angles” were used “to discover every particularity in a country round about, wheresoever the sun beams might pierce.” Digges states that:

    (Bacon only excepted), I have not read of any in action ever able by means natural to perform the like; which partly grew by the aid he had by one old written book of the same, Bacon始s Experiments, that by strange adventure, or rather destiny, came to his hands, though chiefly by conjoining continual laborious practice with his mathematical studies (Stratioticos 189-90)

    He further reports that his father had:

    not only discovered things far off, read letters, numbered pieces of money with the very coin and superscription thereof cast by some of his friends of purpose upon downs in open fields, but also seven miles off declared what hath been done at that instant in private places. … But marvelous are the conclusions that may be performed … you may not only set out the proportion of an whole region, yea represent before your eye the lively image of every town, village, &c. … but also augment and dilate any parcel thereof … so that you shall discern any trifle, or read any letter lying there open, especially if the sun beams may come unto it, as plainly as if you were corporally present, although it be distant from you as far as eye can descry (PantometriaAiijv, Giv-Giir)

    Before his death in 1559, the elder Digges arranged for his son to study under John Dee, making it probable that the Bacon manuscript that informed these experiments was Dee始s own copy. The degree to which these Elizabethan experiments with proto-telescopes became common knowledge cannot be told, but informal word of mouth or plain curiosity about scientific matters may well have recommended Digges and his books to Greene.

    It is worth observing again the parallel between actual Elizabethan scholars and Greene始s representation of his necromantic protagonist. Onstage, Bacon (as in The Famous History) is an enthusiastic patriot determined to discharge his magical skill in the service of his country:

    … 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. (TLN 232-235)

    Polymaths such as Dee and Digges similarly directed their scientific ambitions toward the benefit of the state. Optical knowledge was in part considered valuable because of its projected naval and military applications; at a time rife with Protestant anxiety about the threat of Catholic conspiracy and invasion, “perspective glasses” held enormous potential as a means of surveilling foreign and domestic enemies—a notion implicit when Digges speaks of their capacity to disclose “what hath been done at that instant in private places.” About a decade before Friar Bacon debuted on stage, the Gravesend mariner William Bourne (fl. 1570s-80s) drew up a Treatise on the Properties and Qualities of Glasses for Optical Purposes at the behest of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the queen始s principal secretary. The document illustrates the government始s growing curiosity about the concept of the telescope, and also the aura of the genuinely marvelous that surrounded the technology. Bourne writes:

    there is diverse in this land that can say and doth know much more in these causes then I, and especially Mr. Dee and also Mr. Thomas Digges … yet I am assured that the glass that is ground, being of very clear stuff and of a good largeness, and placed so that the beam doth come through, and so received into a very large concave lookinge glass, that it will show the thing of a marvelous largeness in manner incredible to be believed of the common people (British Library MS Lansdowne 121, item 13, qtd in Van Helden 34)

    There were still refinements to be made by master lens crafters in the Netherlands, and the more advanced apparatus that Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilee would point toward the starry sky remained on the horizon. Whether a crude prototype of the telescope would even be recognized as such by Elizabethan playgoers remains unclear, but the concept was undoubtedly in the air for the intellectually adventurous to seize upon. When Bacon instructs Prince Edward to “Sit still and keep the crystal in your eye” (TLN 649) were early audiences introduced to a stage property meant to evoke this nascent technology? If so, it may have seemed to many (in Bourne始s words) “incredible to be believed,” the reflecting telescope being a technology so new and awe-inspiring as to be indistinct from magic itself.

    3.4 Chronicle History

    Into the magical, romantic, and comic churn of Friar Bacon, Greene also introduces the flavor of the medieval past. While ostensibly set in the thirteenth century, the proseFamous History is populated largely with unnamed and generic characters. Greene opts to replace many of them with historical surrogates drawn from the work of Tudor chroniclers such as Raphael Holinshed and John Stow (Round 20-23). That he understood the Plantagenet dynasty始s place in English history is plainly evident, however fidelity to the past is rarely his priority; biographical and chronological information is typically warped or sacrificed altogether in the interest of maintaining the play始s romantic flavor. Consider, for instance, Edward Plantagenet (1239-1307), heir to the throne of Henry III and one of the play始s central roles. Sixteenth-century chronicles provide a comprehensive portrait of this controversial figure: they tell of the prince始s tall and slender physique, which earned him the moniker ‘Longshanks始; that in youth he was wayward and brutal, once ordering a man始s ear severed and eye gouged out for only a slight offence; and that he rose to be a proud and cunning courtier, hailed in medieval songs as fierce like a lion but also changeable like the leopard. He loved chivalric tournaments, fought bloody battles against noble factions opposing his father, and embarked on a crusade to the Middle East. Upon being crowned Edward I, he was deemed an eloquent and pious ruler but also a bellicose and ruthless one for his dispossession and banishment of Jews from the country, and for his punishing military campaigns against France, Wales, and Scotland—the intensity of which, in the last instance, earned him the cognomen Scottorum malleus (‘hammer of the Scots始).

    Greene jettisons virtually all of this information and subordinates what remains to the generic requirements of comic romance. He certainly understood, for example, the young Edward始s reputation for being volatile and mercurial, and these characteristics are retained insofar as they serve a dramatic purpose. In the play始s first scene, Edward enters in the midst of a transformation—the “frolic” venison hunter has grown suddenly melancholy, “like to a troubled sky” ready to storm (TLN 1-15). Greene始s representation does not ignore the psychological credibility of melancholia, but realism is subsidiary: Edward has been transposed from the pages of Holinshed and Stow primarily because he fits neatly into position as an imposing blocking figure in the romantic emplotment borrowed from The Famous History, and perhaps too from Lyly始s Campaspe (1584) and his own Ciceronis Amor (1589). Edward will spontaneously change once again during a moment of crisis in scene 7, mastering his indecorous desire for Margaret and devoting himself instead to the princess Eleanor of Castile. Again, although Greene gives the impression of historicism, the character始s metamorphosis is primarily a function of the comic romance that structures the action: history demands that Edward marry Eleanor, but Greene始s greater concern is the dramatic tension that the arranged marriage creates between the prince始s illicit private desire and the more impersonal claims of honor and royal duty. Much the same can be said of other historical personages in the play, whose postures and motivations are casually beholden to their chronicle origins but more deeply conditioned by the intertextual frameworks Greene has pre-fashioned for them. We might reasonably ask, then: why include the trappings of chronicle at all?

    There appears to have been a vogue for plays featuring Edward Plantagent around the time Friar Bacon was written. The character fascinated theatre audiences as a uniquely English embodiment of physical and political might. He plays a prominent role in Peele始s The Chronicle History of Edward I (printed in 1593), and the Admiral始s Men evidently performed a lost play known as “longe shancke” at the Rose in 1595 starring the imposing actor Edward Alleyn (Foakes 30-6, 47-8). It was opportune for Greene, then, that the Plantagenet icon happened to be a contemporary of Roger Bacon. As the playwright must also have recognized, plays on English dynastic history were a central and innovative part of the Queen始s Men始s repertory, stemming from the company始s agenda to propagandize in the name of its patron while touring the nation始s provinces (McMillin and MacLean 166-67). Greene始s inclusion of chronicle material in Friar Bacon was probably therefore symptomatic of his commission to add to this repertory; however, in bringing his chronicle matter in line with the company始s mandate, Greene faced the stubborn fact that the Plantagenet story unfolds in ways antithetical to the Queen始s Men始s core ideological message. Elizabethans remembered Henry III (1207-1272) for his piety and desire to harmonize his court, but they also knew that his royal authority had been threatened by economic and political instability. Taxation had alienated his subjects, compelling the king to cede power to a strengthened parliament; he was forced to resign English claims to Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou, bringing to an end the Angevin empire; and factionalism at his court culminated in armed revolt by his barons against him. The Queen始s Men, by contrast, sought to articulate a vision of the nation in which a Tudor dynasty would reign over a unified and stable Protestant kingdom nestled in a larger providential order (McMillin and MacLean 26-7, 166-67). Rather than wrestle into comic form historical troubles that lent themselves far more readily to a tragic perspective, Greene appears simply to have effaced them, strategically whitewashing in particular the internecine violence of the thirteenth century, covering it over with a poetic vision of a cohesive English state devoted to common ideals (Round 23; Dean 46; Bergeron 100-109). Friar Bacon始s King Henry ultimately resembles an idealized Tudor monarch more than a historical Plantagenet one: he radiates magnificence; he is a patron of learning and the arts; and he presides over a nation secure in its sovereignty and powerful in relation to international adversaries: “Albion is another little world,” Henry boasts to foreign dignitaries (TLN 452), a paradise “like that wealthy isle / Circled with Gihon and Euphrates” (TLN 2144-2145)—“Thus glories England over all the west” (TLN 2155).

    The enduring popularity of Friar Bacon owes much to the seamlessness with which Greene weaves together its distinct threads of pseudo-history, necromancy, erotic intrigue, and academic satire. The play exemplifies what McMillin and MacLean characterize as the Queen始s Men始s “medley style,” trading heavily in social and moral stereotypes (princes, scholars, gentry, farmers, fools) that bring into focus “the interplay between the lowly and the powerful” (124-27, 135-36). Like other plays from the repertory for which it was written, Friar Bacon dramatizes an English panoply, mingling the courtly and the bucolic, the magical and the melodramatic, the frightening and the risible. Its host of iconographic stage types—the sorcerer who abjures occult power to save his soul, the country maid whose patience tames the predatory aristocrat, the unregenerate clown roaring into hell on the back of the devil—join to form a coherent, pluri-theatrical whole that is exuberantly aware of its own conventions. With its lattice of appeals to the cultural and intertextual competencies of sixteenth-century playgoers, Greene始s pastiche rises at times to the aesthetic and affective sublimity of the best early modern plays. “Two clich茅s make us laugh, but a hundred clich茅s move us,” as Umberto Eco has written of Casablanca, another deceptively simple icon of popular entertainment: “When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudi始s Sagrada Familia: the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius” (202).