from the book

Shakespeare Studies in Baconian Light


Robert Theobald


There is a phrase occurring in the opening of Bacon's Essay of "Truth"--the first in the immortal Volume--which may sound strange and only half intelligible when first read. This is the passage : --The Essayist is remarking on "the difficulty and labour which men take in finding out of truth," and the bondage which found it "imposeth upon men's thoughts," which leads men to prefer their own false ideas to the substitutes which knowledge supplies. Not only does this bring lies into favour, but there is "a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself." And then he proceeds :

"One of the latter school of the Grecians examinth this matter and is at a stand to think what should be in it, that men should love lies, where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets ; nor for advantage, as with the merchant ; but for the lies sake. But I cannot tell."

The Latin has Sed nescio quo modo.

This phrase, I cannot tell, at first staggers the reader. It is not that the puzzle baffles the writer, for he immediately proceeds to give a very beautiful and poetical solution of it, adding,

"This same truth is a naked and open daylight, that doth not show the masques, and mummeries and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candle lights."

A Poetic Fiction

Bacon's meaning is easily misunderstood : --the reader may say, what I have heard from the lips of a noble and accomplished lady, " I don't agree with Bacon : No one loves a lie for its own sake." The lies, or fictions to which Bacon refers are not vulgar fibs, but philosophical conceits, speculative inventions taking the place of Nature's facts and laws. And the expression, "I cannot tell," may be taken as an articulate sigh, a sort of Heigh-ho! Well-a-day! Oh dear, dear! in which the lanquid expression of defeat is more apparent than real. He does not quite mean what he says, there is in the exclamation a sort of poetic insincerity, as if he were himself in propria persona supplying an instance to illustrate his thesis. For he can tell , and does tell as we have seen in the next sentence. Let this be well noted : the collapse of judgment apparently expressed by the phrase, I cannot tell, is not real, it is assumed, a poetic fiction, a dramatic disguise, a closed door to be opened for suprise, a momentary affectation of helpless embarrassment, which makes the subsequent return to intellectual vigour, and sufficiency all the more striking. That this is the conscious, almost technical meaning of the phrase may be clearly shown by some Shakespearean instances, one shewing its use, others its abandonment. The mode of using the phrase is clearly explained by Scarus, Anthony's faithful friend, when his fortunes were lowest ; evil portents threaten him, and whose business is to interpret them, shrink from disclosing their import.

Swallows have built
In Cleopatra's sails their nest ; the augurers
Say they know not, they cannot tell ; look grimly
And dare not speak their knowledge.
(Ant. and Cleo., IV. xii. 4.)

Evidently, I cannot tell is the formula of evasion, or insincerity : the augurers cannot, only because they dare not.
The case of abandonment is to be found in the second part of the old play the Contention, i.e., The Truth Tragedy : in which the following passage occurs :

We at Saint Albons met,
Our battles ioinde, and both sides fiercelie fought.
But, whether twas the coldness of the King,
He lookt full gentlie on his warlike Queen,
That robde my souldiers of their heated spleene,Or whether twas report of his successe,
Or more than common feare of Clifford's rigor,Who thunders to his captaines bloud and death, I cannot tell.

(True Tragedy, II. i. 87.)


The same passage, with a few verbal alterations, (such as her success for his ; captives for captains) occurs in 3 Henry VI. II. i. 120. But instead of I cannot tell, we find I cannot judge. The reason is plain. For here the perplexity is not simulated, it is real ; the alternatives presented are all possible, all reasonable, and all cannot be true. The speaker has no means of selecting the true alternative, the suspense is genuine, accordingly the phrase which is only to be used for a mock perplexity is changed for one that expresses a real doubt.

The incorrect version was printed in the three quartos, 1595, 1600 and 1619. The amended version appeared first in 1623, seven years after the death of William Shakspere. A similar change was made in the 1623 Edition of the Merry Wives, as compared with the two quartos of 1602 and 1619.

Slender.--Have you bears in your town, Mistress Anne, that your dogs bark so?
Anne- I cannot tell, Mr. Slender : I think there be. (I. i. 83)

This is plainly not an occasion for "I cannot tell :" it had slipped in accidently. Accordingly the Folio has,

Anne.--I think there are, Sir, I heard them talked of. ( I. i. 298)

If an authentic version of these plays existed in 1619, why was the incorrect passage then re-published, why wait till 1623 for the right version? Doubtless the change was made by the author after 1619.

In nearly all other cases the mental attitude of the Essay of "Truth" is reflected. Thus Richard, as Duke of Gloster, is reproached by the Queen of Edward IV., for his bitter aversion to herself and her family. Why does he hate them so ; and with a shrug of mock perplexity he replies, I cannot tell ; and the fantastic explanation follows, as in the Essay,

I cannot tell. The world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch :
Since every Jack became a Gentleman
There's many a gentle person made a Jack.
(Richard III., I. iii. 70)

This passage may be compared with two entries in Bacon's "Promus :

" Jack would be a gentleman if he could speak French" (No. 640);


"There is no good accord where every Jack would be a lord" (No. 968).


Formula of Farce And Melodrama

In Falstaff's exquisitely amusing cut and thrust encounter with the Lord Chief Justice, a similar use of I cannot tell helps his persiflage. His Lordship says,

" You follow the young prince up and down, like his evil angel."

The wicked old jester purposely mistaking the word angel for the coin of the same name, retorts,

"Not so, my lord, your ill angel is light ; but I hope he that looks upon me will take me without weighing. And yet, in some respects, I grant, I cannot go, "

(i.e., I cannot pass current for the good coin I really am). "I cannot tell. Virtue is of so little regard in these costermonger times that true valour is turned bear-herd," (i.e., I am the keeper of this young cub.) "Pregnancy {intelletual capacity} is made a tapster and hath his quick wit wasted in giving reckonings." (2 Hen. IV., ii. 185) The technical Baconian sense of , I cannot tell, requires here to be kept in mind ; for a very capable commentator paraphrases it as equivalent to, " I cannot pass-- in counting." But this already expressed by , "I cannot go." I cannot tell is the proper prelude to a farcical and hypocritical explanation which the speaker flings at his interlocuter.

Another case is found in Nym's speech referring to Pistol's marriage with Dame Quickly. Nym is very mortified,-- he is jilted, and vows in melodramatic inuendo all sorts of sanguinary vengeance, too dreadful to be described. He, too, is at a stand (like the Essayist), to know what special atrocity is impending ; he will not trust himself to say, it is a little past his control, and the formula of mock perplexity is required at both ends of his speech.

"I cannot tell : things must be as they may. Men may sleep; and they may have their throats about them at that time: and some say knives have edges. It must be as it may : though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod. There must be conclusions. Well, I cannot tell." (Henry V.II. i. 22)

Again, Benedict, who mocks at lovers, speculates whether he shall ever himself fall in love, and be as ridiculous as Claudio. He is evidently quite sure that such an absurdity can never happen ; yet he is willing to trifle with the idea : and accordingly he exclaims,

"May I be so converted, and see with these eyes? I cannot tell : I think not : I will not be sworn, but love may transform me to an oyster ; but I'll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me, he shall never make me such a fool." (Much Ado. II. iii. 23.)

The mockery is perfect , and its typical formula accurately used. So Shylock answers Antonio : They had been speaking of Jacob's manoeuvre to enrich himself at Laban's expense, and Antonio asks,

Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

Shylock shrugs his shoulders with effected embarrassment and replies,

cannot tell; I make it breed as fast.
(Merchant of Venice, I. iii. 95.)

Sometimes the expression occurs in serious discourse, but the feigning characteristic is always present ; there is some extravagance or fancy which the speaker is intellectually toying. Thus the wounded soldier who describes the heroism of Macbeth and Banquo in battle, says,

Except they meant to bathe in recking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha,
I cannot tell.
(Macbeth.I.iii. 39.)

This is his way of picturing a bravery almost incredible, apparently impossible. Desdemona also, maddened by Othello's reproaches; yet tries to find some excuse for his unnatural cruelty; accordingly she invents an excuse which she does not believe, but which is as good as any other; she affects to think his treatment of her a sort of mistaken nursery discipline:--

I cannot tell : those that do teach young babes,
Do it with gentle means and easy taks,
He might have chid me so.
(Othello, IV., ii. 111.)

The poet seems to think the phrase a little compromising, too likely to betray his incognito, and accordingly varies it in some passage. The substituted phrases are less forcible. I wot not what is to be found in Richard II.,II.i. 250, and still more rugged is the substitute, I stagger in (Measure for Measure, I.ii.169.)

In Bacon's prose the same trick of speech occurs repeatedly. In one case there is a plain indication that there is more of the will not than the can not in the import of it. Thus in the Essex Apology, he speaks of rumours which arose when Essex was committed to the custody of the Lord Keeper. Bacon at that time had frequent occasions for conference with the Queen, "about the causes of her revenue and law business," and these interviews were misconstrued.

"It was given out that I was one of them that incensed the Queen against my Lord of Essex. These speeches I cannot tell, nor will I not think, that they grew from the Queen herself."

In this sentence, I cannot tell--as equivalent to I will not think,-- is precisely similar to the passage quoted from Antony and Cleopatra, in which, I cannot tell, I know not, is represented as equivalent to, I dare not speak. Invariably the note of insincerity or reserve, or non-committal, is to be found. He evidently thinks "these speeches" did come from the Queen, but refuses to say so distinctly, and affects a perplexity which he does not entirely feel. As to other rumours, he uses similar language: he had heard,

“that while my Lord was in Ireland, I revealed some matter against him, or I cannot tell what.

In these cases a certain contempt is expressed.So it is in some other cases, for in narrating his altercation with Lord Coke, he relates how,

“With this he spake neither I nor himself could tell what, as if he had been born Attorney General" ;

and at a later period, when Bacon was Lord Chancellor, and Coke as Lord Chief Justice was trying to make his own Court supreme and penalize all appeals against its decisions, Bacon with quiet scorn says,

“Wherein your Lordship may have heard a great rattle, and a noise of praenunire and I cannot tell what.”

In Bacon’s speeches the phrase often occurs. In that referring to the naturalization of Scotch subjects, he discourses on the strength to be gained by union, and on the greater security to be found in the bravery of men, than in such stores of wealth as Spain had hoarded

“If I should speak to you mine own heart, methinks we should a little disdain that the nation of Spain should dream of a Monarchy in the West . . . only because they have ravished from some wild and unarmed people, mines and store of gold: and on the other hand, that this Isle of Britanny, seated and manned as it is, and that hath, I make no question, the best iron in the world, that is, the best soldiers in the world, should think of nothing but reckonings, and audits, and meum and tisum, and I cannot tell what.”

He brushes aside all these un-worthy notions of security by scornfully ignoring them, and affecting ignorance of them.

Bacon’s charge touching Duels reflects the same noble scorn of the ceremonies and technicalities attending these deadly quarrels, as we find in Romeo and Juliet, in As You Likc it, and other plays; and here also Bacon’s formula of scornful incredulity is found.

“Hut I say the compounding of quarrels which is otherwise used by private noblemen and gentlemen it is so punctual,” (i.e., so full of punctilios), and hath such reference and respect unto received conceits - what’s beforehand, and what’s behind, and I cannot tell what, as without all question doth in a fashion countenance and authorize the practice of duels, as if it had in it something of right.”

Justice Shallow talks about duels in much the same way,-

"In these times you stand on distance, your passes, stoccadoes, and I know not what.” (Merry Wives II. i. 233).

The same use of the phrase, I cannot tell, is to be found in Bacon’s letter to the king about cloth monopolies. (“ Life,” V. 258). his “Observations on a Libel,” I. 198; his “Charge against Talbot “ V. 6, in that against Oliver St. John V. 145, &C.


This phrase is specially adapted to the ceremonious and polite style of fictitious self-depreciation characteristic of the time. Such is the language proper to dedications, where it is to be found more than once. Thus the dedication of the Novun Organum to the king begins as follows:

“Your Majesty may perhaps accuse me of larceny, having stolen from your affairs so much time as is required for this work. I cannot tell, non habeo quod dicam : but, as usual, the self vindication is ample and triumphant."

The dedication of “The Wisdom of the Ancients” to the University of Cambridge supplies another instance. Bacon professes to give back what he has already received,

“that with a natural motion it may return to the place whence it came. And yet-I cannot tell, -there are few footprints pointing hack towards you, among the infinite number that have gone forth from you.”

The Latin here is, “Et tamen, nescio quo modo,” the same phrase which is employed in the Latin version of the Essay of “Truth.” He proceeds to explain how the results of University study do really return to their source, and add to the credit and power of the teacher from whom they were derived. And, singularly enough, the same trick of speech or fashion of complimentary self-abasement is seen in the dedication of Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southampton. The same hand that dedicated the Novum Organum to the king that he might "make this age famous to posterity," may surely be seen in the words addressed to the patron of the youthful poet :

"Right Honourable, I know not how {Latinized, it might be 'nescio quo modo?'} I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden;"

but he seems to have a notion that his work will

"always answer your own wish and the world's hopeful expectation."

The feigned unworthiness of the "unpolished lines," only covers a proud consciousness that his poem is destined to be immortal.

Here, then, is a very remarkable trick of speech, quite as remarkable as any other personal feature, such as the tone of voice which identifies a speaker on th doorstep before he has entered the house, or the limping gait which helps recognition across the street. And I am strongly disposed to look upon it as a family feature inherited by Bacon from his mother. Readers of Bacon's biography will remember how his mother was troubled by his habits of studious seclusion, late hours, secret musings "Nescio quod," as she puts it--studying I cannot tell what.

The substitued phrase which we find in Richard III., I wot not wot, is employed in one of her scornful moods, "Life," I. 115) and I cannot tell, is found several times in her letters. ("Life,"I. 114. Dixon's "Personal History," pp.311, 317, 331).

A Promus Note (1060) has "Nescio quid meditans nugarum, totus in illis; musing on trifles, I know not what, and quite absorbed in them." ("Horace Sat. I. ix. 2). This points to a classic origin for Lady Bacon's style of making her complaint. It shows where the expression circulating in the family came from.

Lights and Shadows In One Picture

I may refer to another side light on this curious little phrase. The word tell , associated with the auxiliary can, can tell, seems to be the selected phraseology for a mocking usage ; and in the slang of rustic jargon it becomes, "Ah , when! can'st tell?" a taunting challenge equivalent to some such phrase as don't you wish you may get it? This is the reply of the carter when requested for a loan of his lantern (1 Henry IV., i. 43), and of the servant Luce, who refuses to open the door in reply to the knockings outside. (Comedy of Errors III. i. 53). Precisely the same phrase found in Marlowe's Edward II., II.v. 57, and in the revised edition of "Faustus," published 1616, twenty-three years after the reputed author's death (Sc. ix.).
There can be no reasonable doubt that Bacon was the writer of all these passages. The commentators speak of the phrase as a current colloquial vulgarism, but I know of no proof that it was used by any speaker outside these dramas.
Looking at the phrase as connected with the special characteristics of Bacon's mind, it seems to reflect his fondness for putting his ideas into a sort of masquerade, marshalling them in contending or contrasting ranks. The same mental tendency is seen in his habit of drawing up a series of "Antitheta," showing the pros and contras of a subject, allowing his mind to play with both sides, balancing the affirmative and negative arguments, and pleasing his poetical fancies with varying cross-lights. It is interesting to watch the same mental attributes grandly philosophizing in the stately meditations of the "De Augmentis," and toying with Falstaffian fancies in East-cheap. The same nimbleness of intellect, the same exuberance of fancy and brilliancy of wit is shown in both cases. It recalls his own axiom of sunshine everywhere--lighting up cloacae, cottages, and castles with identical beams.


 Shakespeare Studies in Baconian Light