Shakespeare’s Friend – Thomas Russell
One of William Shakspere’s (of Stratford) close friends, according to those that advocate he was also the author William Shakespeare (which name they say couldn’t have been used by someone else as a pen name), was Thomas Russell. Russell was one of the two overseers of William’s will, along with Francis Collins.
It turns out that this very same Thomas Russell had very close connections to Francis Bacon, according to the advocates of the Stratfordian authorship position. A family friend of Russell was Sir Tobie Matthew senior. And Russell himself was close friends with Tobie Matthew junior. Russell and the younger Matthew were both schooled at Oxford. Well, Tobie Matthew junior was likely Francis Bacon’s closest friend (knowing him from at least 1595). Bacon went so far as calling Tobie his “other myself” or “my alter ego”. Bacon was in the habit of sending Tobie his writings for review and comments.
So, considering this connection, and that Tobie Matthew would likely know of Russell’s friend William, since William was an actor and supposedly a famous playwright, and also since Tobie was an avid theater goer (and known to have gone to plays at the Blackfriar’s theater), it’s interesting that the close friend of William Shakspere’s close friend Thomas Russell would say this of Francis Bacon:
“It will go near to pose any other nation of Europe, to muster out in any age, four men, who in so many respects should excel four such as we are able to show them: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas Moore, Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Bacon. The fourth, was a creature of incomparable abilities of mind, of a sharp and catching apprehension, large and faithful memory, plentiful and sprouting invention, deep and solid judgment, for as such as might concern the understanding part. A man so rare in knowledge, of so many several kinds endued with the facility and felicity of expressing it in all so elegant, significant, so abundant, and yet so choice and ravishing a way of words, of metaphors and allusions, as, perhaps, the world hath not seen, since it was a world.”
Tobie Matthew, Preface to his Collection of Letters, 1660, in Tribute to his friend Francis Bacon. [Note, these letters were edited by another of Thomas Russell’s friends – the poet John Donne.]
Wow, it’s as if someone had been reading a lot of the Shake-Speare plays and poems, and was writing of him!
It is similar praise that Shakespeare First Folio promoter Ben Jonson said of his friend Francis Bacon, calling him “the mark and acme of our language”, and that after Bacon’s death “wits grow downward and eloquence grows backward.”
So, what else did Thomas Russell’s friend Tobie Matthew think and say of Francis Bacon?
“And truly I have known a great number whom I much value, many whom I admire, but none who hath so astonished me and, as it were, ravished my senses, to see so many and so great parts which in other men were wont to be incompatible, united, and in that eminent degree in one sole person. I know not whether this truth will find easy belief….The matter I report is so well understood in England, that every man knows and acknowledges as much, nay hath been an eye and ear witness whereof; nor if I should expatiate upon this subject, should I be held a flatterer, but rather a suffragan to truth…. Praise is not confined to the qualities of his intellect, but applies as well to those which are matters of the heart, the will and moral virtue; being a man both sweet in his ways and conversation, grave in his judgments, invariable in his fortunes, splendid in his expenses, a friend unalterable to his friends, an enemy to no man, a most indefatigable servant to the King, and a most earnest lover of the Public, having all the thoughts of that large heart of his set upon adorning the age in which he lives, and benefiting, as far as possible, the whole human race. And I can truly say (having had the honour to know him for many years as well when he was in his lesser fortunes as now he stands at the top and in the full flower of his greatness) that I never yet saw any trace in him of a vindictive mind, whatever injury was done to him, nor ever heard him utter a word to any man’s disadvantage which seemed to proceed from personal feelings against the man, but only (and that too very seldom) from judgment made of him in cold blood. It is not his greatness that I admire, but his virtue; it is not the favours I have received from him (infinite though they be) that have thus enthralled and enchained my heart, but his whole life and character; which are such that, if he were of an inferior condition I could not honour him the less, and if he were my enemy I should not the less love and endeavour to serve him.” Tobie Matthew in a Dedicatory Letter prefacing an Italian translation of Bacon’s Essays and Wisdom of Ancients (1617)
If only the Shake-Speare works could also “astonish” and “ravish the senses” and show a “large heart” and “moral virtues” and “adorn the age” as well as far as possible “the whole human race”. Was Tobie basing his admiration merely on Bacon’s Essays and his Wisdom of the Ancients? Or maybe his legal writings or his philosophical works?
Well, Bacon did refer to what he called “my other works” which may refer to those works he penned at his Twickenham Lodge which he called “merry tales” whatever they might have been. Maybe that is what Tobie was thinking of. In one of Bacon’s letters to Tobie, who was on the continent, he sent him some works to review saying “I have sent you some copies of The Advancement [of Learning] which you desired; and a little work of my recreation which you desired not [that he had not asked for]”. We recall that Tobie did write to Bacon (in a letter with an erased date) “I will not return you weight for weight but Measure for Measure”, which he may, like Bacon’s Essays, have also reviewed. And Bacon, writing to Tobie wrote “At that time methought, you were more willing to hear Julius Caesar than Elizabeth commended”, alluding to Bacon’s “Felicity of Elizabeth” which he seems to have sent to Tobie in 1608, but which wasn’t published until 25 years after Bacon’s death.
[Note1: the Shakespeare plays Measure for Measure and Julius Caesar were both first published with the First Folio of 1623]
[Note2: Russell’s friend mentioned earlier, John Donne, “…may still have been one of the group of young men whom Bacon met with at Twickenham to make verses. Donne would probably have come into contact with Bacon during Donne’s and Essex’s time at York House.]
And lastly, in a postscript in a letter to Bacon written by Tobie Matthew, again from the continent, likely in 1619, he wrote: “The most prodigious wit that I knew of my nation, and of this side of the sea, is of your Lordship’s name, though he be known by another.”
It’s possible that Bacon had sent Matthew a collection of 10 ‘Shakespeare’ plays “The Collection of 1619” printed by Thomas Pavier and William Jaggard. (Actually, only eight of them were truly Shake-Speare’s as the other two “A Yorkshire Tragedy and Sir John Oldcastle were just ascribed to Shakespeare).
It’s interesting that Matthew would say that Bacon’s most prodigious wit was known under another name. We recall, though, that Bacon himself wrote that he was a “concealed poet”.
These ‘hidden’ works (the “merry tales” of his recreation, perhaps) are further collaborated in one of the elegies written of Bacon after his death in 1626, which I quote in part:
“What man of greater achievements? Who of an eloquence richer?
Such versatility wondrous, lo! Is shown forth in his writings.
His works abound in profusion,
Part of them truly lie buried ….” By Robert Ashley
It really isn’t difficult to understand why a playwright, writing plays describing conspiracies against kings, and other controversial matters of state, may prefer to be ‘known under another name’. Even the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt in his Will in the World (p. 173), wondering as to why Shakespeare had been so elusive, asked “Why, in the huge, glorious body of his writing, is there no direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art? Why is everything he wrote—even in the sonnets—couched in a way that enables him to hide his face and his innermost thoughts?” and then speculates that “he may well have heeded their warning” of the heads on the pikes on the London bridge when ‘William’ first came to town (including the heads of his relatives).
And he (Shake-Speare) may have just been clever enough to have used a pen name which resembled the name of a living actor.
But back to William Shakspere’s close friend Thomas Russell. It turns out that the Russell and Bacon families were connected. Bacon’s aunt Elizabeth (married John Russell (of the same Russell family as Thomas) and who also appears to have been a patron of Francis Bacon’s father Nicholas. And Francis got his first seat in the House of Commons through the Russell family. Then, we are also told by the promoters of William as the playwright, that Thomas Russell was also a retainer for the Earl of Essex, this same Earl mentioned here several times as another of the closest friends of Francis Bacon. Like Bacon, Thomas Russell was a lawyer and so it’s reasonable that since they were both connected to the Earl of Essex (as well as having family connections) and probably at Essex’s house often at the same time, that they would talk to each other. Why Essex would even need Russell’s legal services, if he did, is one question, since Bacon was a pre-eminent lawyer with the most important contacts at the courts of Elizabeth and James I. In any case, this makes Thomas Russell, the principal overseer of the Shakespeare will (and one of his beneficiaries) a part of Bacon’s circle of acquaintances and, along with his connection to Tobie Matthews and John Donne, an easy channel to William Shakspere, if Bacon needed someone to pass along his ‘unblotted’ plays to the theater.
Bacon’s aunt Elizabeth (nee Cooke) was first married to Sir Thomas Hoby.
for Russell and Bacon family connections
William Shakspere friends
also of interest – Russell and Tobie Matthew Catholic connections
About Elizabethan retainers: