Francis Bacon’s interest in history, and how this interest can be viewed relative to the Shakespeare history plays has been examined closely by Barry R. Clarke in his The Shakespeare Puzzle, 2009. Following in this and the next post are several extracts from his work especially relating to the play of Henry VIII.
[Following Bacon’s fall from power in 1621] For the first time since 1613, Sir Francis Bacon had the leisure time to resume his work and by October 1621 he had finished a History of the Reign of Henry VII. Bacon had compiled a list of 100 history titles, the third part of his Great Instauration, and had decided to write up these two examples himself. In was in this leisure period that Shake-speare’s First Folio (1623) collection of 36 plays was published with its many amendments to the earlier published quartos.
Bacon had a passionate interest in political history and expressed an interest in writing a history of Britain from Henry VII to James I. His Memorial of Elizabeth and History of Henry the VII amply demonstrate this interest and we examine the testimony that they were written in the style of a dramatist.
Shake-speare’s Henry VIII is an interesting case as far as the authorship question is concerned. Bacon and Shake-speare somehow managed to avoid covering each other’s historical ground while between them spanning the period from 1377-1603. The wide range of political ideas constituting his political systems explored by Shake-speare suggest a motive of completeness consistent with Bacon’s intention of having a complete survey of political ideas constituting his political Histories to which his inductive method could be applied.
By 1605, the date of publication of The Advancement of Learning, Shake-speare’s history plays had already covered the period 1377-1485 involving Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV (in Henry VI), Edward V (in Richard III), and Richard III. Henry, Earl of Richmond, later to become Henry VII, appears only at the start of his reign at the end of Richard III. Eight years later, Shake-speare’s Henry VIII appeared at the Globe theatre.
On 2 April 1605, Sir Francis Bacon wrote to King James from Gray’s Inn suggesting that:
… it would be an honour for his Majesty, and a work very memorable, if this island of Great Britain, as it is now joined in monarchy for the ages to come, so were joined in History for the times past, and that one just and complete History were compiled of both nations [England and Scotland].
When The Advancement of Learning was published that year dedicated to King James, it became clear that the period of history Bacon had in mind was 1485AD to the reign of King James, a period not yet covered by the Shake-speare plays.
[after a lengthy quote from Bacon, Clarke continues]: We note that Bacon proposed to begin his treatise at the very point in history that Shake-speare had reached by 1605 and that a history of the reign of Henry VIII evidently was part of his project. It is clear that Bacon was hoping to get financial support for this work and later evidence shows that he intended to write it himself.
[quoting Bacon again]: … the reason why I presumed to think of the oblation was because, whatsoever my disability be, yet I shall have that advantage which almost no writer of history hath had, in that I shall write of times not only since I could remember, but since I could observe.
It was a clear statement that he intended to write these civil histories. Sir Walter Raleigh thought that Sir Francis Bacon also understood their nature. In his History of the World (which excluded contemporary history) complied while in the Tower (1603-1618) he wrote in his Preface that the laws and kinds of history:
“… had been taught by many, but by no man better and with greater brevity than by that learned gentleman Sir Francis Bacon.”