Fingerprint of His Mind:


Bacon and the Idol

On the Title Page of the First Folio


Mather Walker

"And those who have true skill in the Works of
Lord Verulam, like great Masters in painting, can tell
by the design, the strength, the way of coloring,
whether he was the author of this or the other
piece,though his name be not to it."
--Archbishop Thomas Tenison in his "Baconiana"


Everyone knows a basic tenet of Bacon's thought deals with the idols of the human mind. What does this mean? Simply that the human mind should function in a mode in which its belief is suspended, and all new ideas are tested before accepting them as true. Unfortunately, the usual mode in which the human mind functions is an almost unconscious state. It not only accepts ideas that have not been proven, but then proceeds to build upon this erroneous foundation, elevating, and erecting these false ideas into revered objects of belief, or, as Bacon would say,-idols. Bacon gave great importance to destroying these idols. This, in turn, gave rise to a characteristic in his writings which could almost be called a fingerprint of his mind. What I am referring to is a continual process in his writing of training the mind to a suspension of judgement. If his writings are examined closely, one sees repeated, again and again, a dialectic by which he leads the mind of the reader through the process of accepting and erecting idols, and then leads it on through the process of destroying them. This practice may be seen, in its most compact form, in the rigidly controlled syntax of his essays. 

A prime example of this was noted by Stanley Fish of The University of California at Berkeley in his essay on "Georgics of the Mind: The Experience of Bacon's Essays." Fish points to a particular section in the 1625 essay,"Of Love": 

"You may observe, that amongst all the great and
worthy persons (whereof the memory remaineth,
either ancient or recent) there is not one that
hath been transported to the mad degree of love:
which shews that great spirits and great business
do keep out this weak passion. You must except
nevertheless Marcus Antonius, the half partner
of the empire of Rome, and Appius Claudius, the
decemvir and lawgiver; whereof the former was
indeed a voluptuous man, and inordinate, but
the latter was an austere and wise man: therefore
it seems (though rarely) that love can find
entrance not only into an open heart, but also
into a heart well fortified, if watch be not
well kept." 

The first sentence erects one of these idols. Everything about it serves to inspire confidence in its contents. Even before the reader reaches the main statement, he has been assured (by the parenthesis) that it is based on exhaustive research. The techtonics of the sentence are engineered so the whole weight rests on the "there is not one" clause, and nothing that follows in the sentence qualifies this absolute statement. Moreover, the form of the whole sentence is almost syllogistic, moving from a primary proposition-"all the great and worthy persons"-to the secondary proposition-"not one of them hath"-to the inevitable conclusions-"which shows that". In short the reader is led in every possible way to confer the status of a "truism" on the assertion this sentence makes.

But no sooner has the idol been erected in our minds than Bacon sets about destroying it. He begins this process by qualifying the sentence, and insofar, as we have accepted it, we participate in the act of qualification. We have no choice. For in contrast to the permissive "may" with which the first sentence began, Bacon begins the next with with a commanding "you must accept"; and as the exceptions are noted he chips away piece by piece at the idol we so readily allowed to be erected in our minds. As the exceptions are enumerated, the force of the original statement is felt less and less because we are so occuppied with the demands the prose is making on our minds. The sentence processes in fits. Each stage of it seems momentarily to be the final one. First Marcus Antonius and Appius are set apart from other "great men." This is a simple enough mental action, but then, these two are distinguished from from one another, and we are obliged to construct categories for them.

Both are "great" and subject to the passion of love; but while the weakness (voluptuous and inordinate) of one suggests an explanation for his subjugation- i.e. Marcus Antonius can be "handled" without disturbing the validity of the axiom-the qualities of the other (wise and austere) prevent us from raising this explanation to the level of a general truth. And meanwhile, the emphasis of the entire experience has shifted from the original assertion to the classification of its exceptions, so that it now seems that no great man is immune from the infection of love.  

At this point, the words "and therefore" promise relief from this rather strenuous mental activity. Presumably a new and more inclusive axiom will be forthcoming, one which takes into account the fact of Marcus Antonius and Appius Claudius. But unlike the first (and now discredited) axiom, this one is qualified even before it is offered. The firm conclusiveness of "therefore" gives way to the equivocation of "seems" and then to the near negativity of "though rarely." By the time we reach the actual statement, its status is so unclear that the question of record-whether or not great men and mad lovers constiture mutually exclusive classes-is only further muddled. The last tail-like phrase, "if watch be not well kept," introduces a new variable-the "vigilance factor"-which would seem to make it even more difficult to formulate a generally applicable rule. 

Bacon follows this same process in The Tempest. The first scene shows a ship in a tempest at sea. The ship is in the most urgent danger. The wind is driving it toward an island. It is in eminent danger of striking the rocks. Everything enhances the realism of the scene. The mariners, cheered on by the boatswain are working desperately to keep the ship from running aground. The king seeks to
exert his authority, and is put in his place by the boatswain, "what cares these roarers for the name of king!" We see the good natured old counselor urging patience upon the boatswain. The lords begin to curse him. We see the efforts to save the ship fail. The ship splits. All aboard are lost. Of course there is a "logical out". The scene is merely a stage-play, and is, therefore not real. Still, there is no reason to indulge in this quibble, and every likelihood of accepting the realism of the scene.

 But no sooner has this realism been firmly established, and this idol set up in our mind, then Bacon begins to chip away at the idea. The realism begins to be qualified, and the more hooked we are by the realism, the more we participate in the act of qualification. Indeed, there is no choice, for in contrast to the tacit "stage-play out" which came as an implicit to the initial scene we are led to believe that the tempest is not a natural one, but was produced by the magical art of Prospero. Next we are told definitely that the people aboard the ship were not lost. A little more of the idol has been chipped away. We know that at least some of what we saw was unreal and illusionary. Now, not only is the disaster which seemed so definite completely reversed, but even the tempest itself is put in doubt. Ariel says:

 I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flam'd amazement: sometime I'd divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
O' th' dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sigh-outrunning were not: the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.

If all of this just SEEMED, was the entire tempest an illusion? We do not know. The idol has been demolished. All stands in doubt, and there is the beginning of an awareness of the unresolved complexities of what has been seen. And, this posits a valid attitude for approaching all human experience. There are always unresolved complexities which require all that we can bring to bear in regards to a suspension of judgement, and a testing of the experience. 

Bearing in mind this characteristic of Bacon's thought, it is very interesting to examine certain features related to the title page of the First Folio of the Plays. These features have been noted very ably by Leah S. Marcus in her book, "Puzzling Shakespeare", although she does not seem to be aware of their implications as regards the thought of Francis Bacon.

 If you should happen to be one of the fortunate ones who possess a facsimile of the First Folio I invite you to open it to the title page. The first thing that strikes your eye is the huge, engraved portrait by Martin Droeshout. Photographic reductions give a very poor idea of its impact.

By comparison with portraits on other title pages of the time, it is extremely large. It is stark and unadorned. Unlike other portraits on title pages of the time it has no frame. No ornamental borders. It practically jumps off the page. 

The First Folio was an expensive book. It was printed on the best Crown page, and sold for one pound. It is odd that the title page doesn't include the allegorical figures and devices that might be expected to surround the engraved image of the author in a volume of such size and costliness. They are found in other English folio volumes of the period,- volumes with which the First Folio had to compete for the buyers' attention in the London bookstalls. 

The outsized portrait of the author was designed to strike the eye and seize the mind of the reader with an unusual impact. On first sight it says in unmistakable tones, look! Here is the author right before you. Furthermore the First Folio portrait of Shakespeare appears on the title page itself instead of the facing page, a position that adds to its special prominence. Everything about it inspires confidence. It offers no particularizing details. The viewer is led by the raw directness of the image to confer the status of a "truism" on the impact it makes. It says no artifice is necessary: this is the Man Himself. But no sooner has this idol been established in our mind than a number of subtle discordant features began to erode the initial confidence with which we viewed it. 

We first notice there is something wrong with the body of the portrait. It resembles a tailor's dummy, and seems to have two left armpits. The LEFT shoulder is too large, it stretches out well beyond the distance it should from the body. And, as we notice these peculiar features, the idol we so readily allowed to be erected in our minds is eroded bit by bit. We notice the left ear on the portrait. No one ever had an ear that looks like that. It looks like the ear on a mask, and, in fact, on closer examination it does look as if the face on the portrait is actually a mask. We notice these discrepancies one by one. Each seems momentarily to be the last, and each one continues to chip away at the initial impression created by the portrait. The hair is lopsided. The nose is displaced, the middle of the upper lip seems to be under the left nostril. Both eyes seem to be right eyes instead of the normal right and left. The head seems to be a little too high, almost giving the impression that it is floating in the air and does not belong to the body.  

These discordant features have an effect, either consciously, or unconsciously, whether the viewer is aware of them or not, and tend to shunt the eye of the viewer away from the portrait, moving the attention to the verse on the facing page. This too seems designed to continue a process of eroding the initial impression that this is the "Man Himself." Shakespeare, the verses tell us, is not to be found after all in the image on the opposite page. The poem continues the processs of undermining the visual power of the portrait by insisting on it as something constructed and "put" there. It is a "Figure" cut "for" Shakespeare in which the engraver had a "strife/with Nature, to out-doo the life." "Outdoing" life suggests exceeding the original in some way rather than merely reproducing it, and the following lines seem to argue that the reader can only "hit" Shakespeare by going beyond his "face" to his "wit": 

O, could he but haue drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face, the Print would then surpasse
All, that was euer writ in brasse. 

This is a sentiment found in other Renaissance books. What makes the idea peculiarly destablizing in the First Folio is its juxtaposition with the large, compelling image, and also the fact that "hit" was commonly used for "hid" recalling again the impression of a mask on the features opposite. Ben Jonson's poem is, in a precise sense of the term, iconoclastic, shattering the power of the visual image in order to locate Shakespeare's identity elsewhere, in "wit." The poem tells the reader to not look at the picture at all, but instead to look at "his booke." In fact, Jonson's poem sets the reader off on a treasure hunt for the author: where is the "real" Shakespeare to be found? In "his Booke." It is there, in language rather than physical presence, the verse assures us, that we locate the Man Himself. It is there too that we will discover the felicitous intricacy missing from the uncomely frontispiece, for indeed the folio's inside is more embellished than its outside. At a time when English were asserting unprecedented autonomy and mastery over their own works through allegorical frontispieces, admonitory prefaces, overt and covert declarations of intent, Jonson's poem abolishes Shakespeare as an entity apart from his writings. What the author may have intended becomes void as a category because there is no space at all between the man and his work. Andrewes and other authors may gesture toward their books, but Shakespeare is the book.

 But what are those writings that constitute Shakespeare? Our attention is shunted again, this time back to the title page and we see that they are specified as

"Mr. William
Histories, &
Published according to the True Originall Copies."

This declaration appears to reinforce the message of Ben Jonson's verses "To the Reader" by claiming a kind of truth for the writings inside. We are led through a heightening of expectation.

They are "True", the expectation builds. They are "Originall." The expectation builds up even more. They are Copies??!!! The rug is suddenly snatched from under our feet and we are left holding what? How can something be both a "True Originall,-and a copy? The phrase "True Originall Copies" operates within itself in the same way that the transition from portrait to verses does, seeming at first to set forth something direct and immediately apprehensible, then undermining the authenticity of what it presents.

 Moreover, the title-page announcement of "True Originall Copies: undoes the certainty offered by Jonson's poem just opposite. Is Shakespeare to be found "in his Booke," as the poem suggests, or is the book itself a copy, a mere reproduction, as the portrait has turned out to be? Even contemporary readers, for whom the issue of textual authority was probably far less pressing than it is for us,
might have been uncertain about what was being offered them. The various elements blend together to create a broad discomfort arising out of the endlessly circulating
interplay among all the elements of the title page-the portrait, the words above, the poem. The First Folio opened with an implicit promise to communicate an authorial identity, which is instead repeatedly displaced: Shakespeare is somehow there, but nowhere definitely there. Where is He? We have a hint in the indications that the artist was quite good, and those discordant elements in the portrait were created both skillfully and intentionally. In fact, William Blake, an engraver himself, pronounced the portrait VERY good.
The author is, in fact, in the fingerprint of the mind which is evident in the consciously contrived iconoclastic elements of the title page. Because what is obvious from the title page is that Bacon has followed his customary practice of erecting an idol, and then systematically demolishing it.  

But what has happened? Has Bacon miscalculated? The process has, so far, put a great burden on both the attention and capacity of the reader. The "conceal" and "reveal" policy carries, of necessity, within itself a limiting factor. And it has certainly not found a resting place in the myriads of minds which have examined the title page of the First Folio. On the other hand Bacon candidly avowed his intention of designing a transmission of knowledge which would select it followers. He says:

"That the discretion anciently observed, though by
the precedent of many vain persons and deceivers
disgraced, of publishing part, and reserving
part to a private succession, and of publishing
nor taste of all, but shall as it were single and
adopt his reader, is not to be laid aside, both
for the avoiding of abuse in the excluded, and
the strengthening of affection in the admitted."  

It is obvious Bacon intended only a select few should be able to discern the fingerprint of his mind in the presentation at the beginning of the First Folio, and intended it would fly over the head of the remainder.

In 1679, in his "Baconiana", Archbishop Thomas Tenison said:

"And those who have true skill in the Works of
Lord Verulam, like great Masters in painting, can tell
by the design, the strength, the way of coloring,
whether he was the author of this or the other piece,
though his name be not to it."

So it was designed that a few would discern the fingerprint of his mind, but the rest would remain oblivious. 

To the Reader

  This Figure, that thou here seest put,
        It was for gentle Shakefpeare cut
W herein the Grauer had a ftrife 
        with Nature, to out-doo the life:
O,could he but haue drawne his wit
       As well in braffe, as he hath hit
  His face; the Print would then furpaffe
       All, that vvas euer vvrit in braffe.
 But fince he cannot, Reader, looke
       Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

TWO, His face; But, Not on his Picture

Therefore, the portrait on The Title Page has carried the day, so far, and still remains enshrined in the minds of the masses. It is The fifth idol: The Idol of The Title Page. But this was part of the plan, and will someday constitute the greatest iconoclastic denouncement of them all. Just imagine the effect this will have on persuadingthe entire human race toward a future suspension of judgement when the time finally comes that the Idol of The Title Page is demolished, and it is public knowledge once and for all, that Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays which were accredited to William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon for hundreds upon hundreds of years?



For more on the concept of Bacon's Four Idols