Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bacon and Shakespeare - Sense of Humor 1

Opinions, attitudes and interests of Shake-Speare and Bacon.

Sense of Humor   Part 1 of 2

Much of Shake-Speare's situation comedy is quite good. Such old standbys as the shrewish wife and mistaken identity, seldom fail a dramatist completely. But when Shake-Speare is trying to think of a funny line, his mind turns at once to double (or even triple) meanings. His characters pun relentlessly, whether they be of high class or low, educated or illiterate, male or female, adult or child; and whatever the type of scene. His addiction to word play is so acute as to blind him to the woefulness of many of his puns. They have been well described as an "ineradicable weed" in his work.

The question one has to ask is whether this style of comic dialogue is more likely to have been perpetrated by Bacon or by Will Shakspere of Stratford. Both men had reputations for wit during their lifetimes. One contemporary, John Davies of Hereford, credited Shakspere with "a raging wit", though it is not clear whether this was a tribute to extempore wit of  William of Stratford or merely to the wit of the Shake-Speare works. No genuine example of his humour has come down to us. A few ascribed to him are almost certainly apocryphal.

Bacon never jokes in his prose works, except that his Apothegms is his collection of jokes by other people, with one or two of his own. But we know from Ben Jonson that Bacon was given to jesting in person:

"There happened in my time one noble speaker, who was full of gravity in his speaking. His language, where he could spare or pass by a jest, was nobly censorious. No man ever spoke more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough or look aside from him without loss. He commanded where he spoke and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end".--Ben Jonson, regarding Bacon's eloquence

He practiced wit, not only for its own sake, but also as an aid to persuasion. In his De Augmentis he wrote: "It is good in discourse ... to intermingle...jest with earnest"; in his private notebook, the Promus, he wrote "Good to be merry and wise". There are several contemporary or nearly contemporary tributes to his wit which seems to have been legendary in his day. Though in Elizabethan parlance "wit" had a meaning more akin to "cleverness", some of the tributes plainly refer to wit in our modern sense. Tobie Mathew in his The Conversion of Sir Tobie Mathew (1640), wrote of Bacon: "I passed my time with him in much gust; for there was no such company in the whole world". Thomas Campion in Book 1 of his Epigrams (1619), Epigram 190 addressed to Bacon, said "How well thou combinest merry wit with silent gravity!" James Howell in his letter of 1626 already referred to wrote: "He had a great wit". Arthur Wilson in his The History of Great Britain (1653) described him as "of a high-flying and lively wit, striving in some things to be rather admired than understood, yet so quick and easy where he would express himself...His wit was quick to the last". And David Lloyd in his The Statesmen and Favourites of England (1665), p. 600, wrote "so acute and ready his wit". Of the few of his witticisms which have come down to us, most are based on word play of one sort or another. One example is from January 1602 when the Queen made 11 new Sergeants-at-law. At the swearing in ceremony, as the name of one of them, Barker, was called out, Bacon quipped to a colleague: "Among so many biters, there should be one barker". Another example, comes from after his fall from being Lord Chancellor:

"... and his old friend, Lord Treasurer Mandeville, whose complaint that he was now being kicked upstairs to be President of the Council provoked the fallen Chancellor, an incurable punster, into exclaiming, 'Why, my Lord, they have made me an example and you a Precedent.'
Francis Bacon, The History of a Character Assassination by Nieves Mathews 1996

Word play is a penchant of the educated (or over-educated?). It might sound clever across the tables in Gray's Inn Hall, but it would surely be anathema to someone of Will Shakspere's upbringing. It is true that Shake-Speare had a precedent for it in the classical writers such as Aristophanes, Menander and Plautus, who likewise indulgent in word play. It is true also that it was common in Elizabethan drama. But was any other Elizabethan dramatist as obsessed with it as Shake-Speare is? Ben Jonson, who was perhaps closest to Shakspere in social background, bases much of the humor in his plays on satire about London life, not on sterile word play. One would have expected Shakspere too to find rich seams of living humor in his own social milieu.

end of part one

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