COULD BACON HAVE COMMITTED THE "ERRORS" IN THE PLAYS?
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This is one of the oldest and most persistent shibboleths of the tribe of Stratford. It has been the subject of frequent articles in Baconiana and of correspondence in the Press.
It is suggested that Bacon "who took all knowledge to be his province" could not have committed the errors and anachronisms found in the plays; but it is overlooked that by the same line of argument those dramatists of the period who had taken their degrees at the Universities could not have written their plays. Chapman, the learned translator of Homer, took far more liberties with the canons of the classical drama (place, time and action) than Shakespeare, but it has not been suggested that he could not have been the author of both these widely contrasted works. I recommend a study of his translation of the Georgics of Heisod, followed by a reading his play, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. Here, the scene in Egypt in the time of the Ptolemics; but there are allusions to pistols, tobacco, and the English plants rosemary, thyme and rue. One of the characters is a Spanish gallant named "Bragadino." References to Osiris are followed by such oaths as "God knows!" and "Jesu!" Pego wears a velvet gown, and has a patch of buckram over his eye! The dramatists were not alone in playing havoc with the unities. A study of the poetical works of Spenser, Sidney and others reveals the same license. It is as unreasonable to allege ignorance on the part of the dramatists and poets as it would be to call W. S. Gilbert "half educated" because he makes his Mikado sing of amateur tenors, billiard sharps, and parliamentary trains, or makes English institutions of 1890 the objects of his satire in The Gondoliers (period 1750).
If Shakespeare is to be charged with ignorance because, for instance, he introduced cannon into the reign of King John, he is in good company of Bacon, "whose presence, like rich alchemy, will turn all to virtue and to worthiness." S. H. Reynolds says, in his Introduction to Bacon's essays, that
"for accuracy of detail Bacon had no care whatever, and this may be set down as part of his craft. Carelessness of detail is certainly one of the characteristics of Bacon's Essays."
I doubt whether there is, in the Shakespeare plays, a more glaring anachronism than that to be found in the Essay Of Friendship, where the poetical-philosopher's imagination runs riot like this :
"It was well said by Themistocles to the King of Persia that speech was like cloth of Arras, opened and put abroad whereby the imagery doth appear in figure;whereas in thoughts they lie but in packs."
If "the wisest of mankind" could make such a statement in a
serious work, we may pardon Shakespeare for giving prehistoric Athens
a Duke, and of creating Timon a lord, and equally Spenser for
furnishing the more ancient infernal regions with a "prince" of
In King Lear and Cymbeline, Shakespeare followed the custom of the Greeks in using native legend as a vehicle for presenting idealised, language.
What does it matter if in King Lear (who is supposed to have ruled over Britain a thousand years before the Roman conquest) we find a mixture of manners and customs extending from the Normans to Shakespeare's time? The titles of Duke and Earl; the putting of Kent in the stocks; the allusions to Bedlam, holy water, the pinfold, the curfew and bear-baiting are deliberate anachronisms and of great assistance to the effect of the drama. They add to the truth of the tragedy by bringing it from "the backward abysm of time."
Bacon was equally unconcerned about strict accuracy so long as his purpose in metaphor, simile or illustration was served. Thus we find him in The Advancement of Learning misquoting Aristotle where, like Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressidia (II,11), he makes Aristotle a teacher of moral instead of political philosophy. The error had its origin in the Familiar Colloquies of Erasmus, published in Latin in 1519, and not translated until sixty years after Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare might have repeated the mistake after reading it in Bacon, but that is less likely than it being a case of the same author repeating himself.
We have often been reminded that Shakespeare committed the "blunder" of introducing a striking clock into Julius Caesar, but why do we never get a reminder that he also inhabited the Forest of Arden with lions? Because it does not fit in with the Stratford point of view, and even presents an insuperable difficulty against the orthodox notion that the poet was recollecting the Warwickshire countryside!
Many of Shakespeare's alleged "errors" are transported from the sources whence he derived the outlines for his plots. Among these mention must be made of tenacious Sea-coast of Bohemia, lifted from Greene's Dorastus and Fawnia on which The Winter's Tale is based. It is improbable that either Greene, though "Master of Arts of both Universities", or Shakespeare knew tht in the 13th Century Bohemia did extend from the Adriatic to the Baltic, but as this was the case it is ignorance on the part of the critic to quote it as evidence of the poet's lack of geography. The Stratford rustic should, however, have known better than to make Perdita in this play parade her knowledge of classical mythology in her talk about scientific gardening, especially as she had been brought up from infancy by a couple of rustic "clowns."
The insistence upon accurate detail in the writing and presentation of dramatic works is of quite recent origin. As late as the 18th century Shakespeare's Plays were presented in the wigs and customes of current fashion: no matter what the scene might be, or the period of the action. In painting, as in poetry and drama, the old masters gave to subjects applying to biblical incidents the setting and costume of their own times and countries. Thus the picture "Moses Saved", by Paul Veronese, has an Italian landscape for the banks of the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter and her ladies are dressed in the style of Louis XIV, while a guard of royal halberdiers waits by her coach! It is as reasonable to accuse Shakespeare of ignorance on account of his liberites with time and place as it would to accuse Saint-Saens because he scored his opera Samson and Deliah for modern instruments instead of sackbuts, psalteries,ect.
Dr. Johnson observed that Shakespeare
" had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation without scuple the customs, institutions and opinions of another at the expense not only of likelihood, but of possibility. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle when we see the loves of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies. Shakespeare, indeed, was not only the only violator of chronology for, in the same age, Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has in his Arcadia confounded the pastoral with the feudal times."
"I undertake," says Schlegel, "to prove that Shakespeare's anachronisms are for the most part committed purposely and after great consideration. It was frequently of importance to him to bring the subject exhibited from the background of time quite near to us."
It was Shakespeare's purpose to gain access to the minds of people of average intelligence, but who had not the means of acquiring learning in the difficult paths of scholarship. To carry out this subject, it was necessary to make the subject attractive even at the sacrifice of strict accuracy.
The Poet who appears in the first scene of Timon of Athens, is careful to point out that his art is not restrained :
My free drift
Halts not particularly, but moves itself
In a wide sea of wax.
In view of what Bacon has to say about Poesy in the Advancement of Learning , it would be an argument, and a very powerful one, against his authorship of the Plays if Shakespeare had observed the unities. In the De Augmentis, II, xiii, published in Latin in the same year as the First Folio, Bacon writes :
"Poesy is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the imagination; which, not being tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things."
He then proceeds to quote to the effect that Poets and Painters
have always been allowed to take what liberites they would, and
mentions how the poets have feigned history into "events greater and
more heroical" and into actions " more agreeable to the merits of
virute and vice."
One of the ablest literary critics, Lessing, pointed out that dramatic art should represent not what men have done, but what under given circumstances, without regard to actual occurrences, men would do; not historical truth, but the laws and principles of human nature. To G.E. Lessing belongs the honour of having been first in the world to appreciate and expound the true genius of Shakespeare. Lessing was a German of the mid- 18th century who, as a critic, was far in advance of his time. It is distressing to have to admit that few of the men of letters of Shakespeare's own country have, two hundred years later, reached his standard of judgment.
Of all the objections whch have been brought against Bacon's authorship of the Shakespeare works, that raised by the alleged "errors" is not only unfounded but actually redounds to the favour of Bacon, in whose acknowledged works it is less excusable to find, for instance, in the Essay Of Revenge a faked quotation from Solomon, and another from Tacitus in the Essay Of Tradition. In Bacon's Apothegmns there are many misquotations and statements put into the mouths of persons who never uttered them. Several of these blunders are pointed out in Devey's notes in Bohn's Standard Edition of Bacon's Works. Dr. Edwin A. Abbott observed that Bacon "was eminently inattentive to details", for, as Taine mentioned (long before the shadow of the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy had dimmed the honesty and perception of literary critics),
"he thought in the manner of artists and poets, and spake in the manner of prophets and seers."