Friday, 19 February 2016

19 February, 1592 - Friar Bacon

Welcome to the first post in a day-by-day journey through the life of an Elizabethan theatre! In this blog, I'll be using the records preserved in Philip Henslowe's diary to post daily information on the plays performed at the Rose playhouse, 424 years ago. The aim is for you to experience a little of how it felt to be a playgoer or actor in Shakespeare's London by glimpsing the daily parade of plays performed at just one theatre. You can read more about the project here.

This blog is founded on a list of box office takings from the Rose playhouse, written by its owner, the businessman Philip Henslowe. His list begins on this very day, 19 February, in 1592. So, let's see what was performed at the Rose that day:

Henslowe writes: R at fryer bacvne the 19 febrary satterdaye ... xvijs iijd

In modern English: Received at Friar Bacon, 19th February (Saturday) ... 17 shillings and threepence.

Once we translate Henslowe's arcane spelling, we can see that on this day in 1592, the audience at the Rose was entertained with a play about Friar Bacon, a fantastical version of the real-life medieval scholar Roger Bacon, who was often portrayed as a wizard in popular culture.

Today's post will be more long-winded than most, because two plays about Friar Bacon have survived from the Elizabethan theatre and we don't know which was performed at the Rose on this day. Was it Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay or was it John of Bordeaux? I'll have to tell you about both...

If the play was Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay...

Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay portrays Bacon as an academic experimenting with magic. Bacon repeatedly demonstrates his skills by bamboozling sceptics and out-performing rival magicians, who include the eponymous Friar Bungay and a German named Vandermast. This results in a great deal of onstage spectacle, including a a magic mirror that can show far-off events, and the summoning of Hercules to pull down a golden tree. A romantic subplot tells of Bacon assisting Prince Edward in his wooing of a country girl named Margaret, but Edward eventually marries Eleanor of Castile.

From the title page of a prose tale of Friar Bacon, 1629,
which was re-used for the 1630 edition of the play.
In the play's most famous scene (depicted in the illustration on the right), Bacon makes a bronze head, which he hopes will give lectures in philosophy. He stays up all night but the head says nothing, so the sleepy Bacon orders his comic servant, Miles, to wake him if it speaks. Miles watches the head, which suddenly utters mysterious words ("Time is ... Time Was ... Time is Past"), but Miles doesn't wake Bacon in time, and the head self-destructs. The angry Bacon summons a demon who carries Miles to Hell on his back, with the fabulous stage direction "Exeunt, roaring".

The play ends with Bacon renouncing magic after two men die as a result of what they see in his magic mirror. Bacon's final act is to predict England's future: war followed by peace.The last lines of the play are spoken by King Henry III, who tells the King of Castile and the Emperor of Germany,
You shall have welcome, mighty potentates.
It rests to* furnish up this royal feast:
Only your hearts be frolic, for the time
Craves that we taste of naught but jouissance.
Thus glories England over all the West!
 *i.e. All that is left is for us to
Why am I quoting the last lines? I'll do this for all of the plays I describe, because their closing lines offer a glimpse of the imagery that would have rung in the audience's ears as they left the theatre. Here, as you can see, the climactic tone is one of joyous patriotism in the aftermath of Bacon's prophecy.

If you would like to read Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, there is an online, old-spelling edition produced by the Queen's Men Editions. For a more reader-friendly experience, track down the modern-spelling annotated editions published in the 1960s by New Mermaids or by Regents Renaissance Drama; alternatively, you can find it in anthologies such as English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology (2002).

It is even possible to watch a recording of the play in performance. In 2006, a team of scholars, actors, and directors created an experimental production of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay that attempts to reproduce as closely as possible some Elizabethan performance practices. The videos can be found at the Performing the Queen's Men website; here is a direct link to Friar Bacon, but the videos are password-protected, so you must first obtain the password by contacting the webmasters.

If the play was  John of Bordeaux...

This play is a sequel to Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. It is of unknown authorship and survives only in a manuscript now held at Alnwick Castle.The manuscript is untitled; most scholars call it John of Bordeaux, but others call it The Second Part of Friar Bacon or Friar Bacon and John of Bordeaux

In the play, Friar Bacon has returned to his study of magic, and gets involved with battles around the Italian city of Ravenna, which is being beseiged by the Turks and defended by the stalwart Sir John of Bordeaux. But Bacon's old enemy, the German magician Vandermast, is trying to discredit Sir John in order to aid the Emperor's son in his seduction of Sir John's wife. Magical adventures ensue, including demons and compulsive dancing. Far from relinquishing magic, Bacon this time uses it to save the day: after many reversals he proves to the Emperor his son's villainy using a magical show of the rape of Lucrece, and the play ends with Sir John of Bordeaux back in the Emperor's favour.

I wish I could tell you the last lines of the play, but unfortunately the final page of the manuscript is damaged. I will quote the fragments anyway, as they read like avant-garde poetry and make a rather groovy shape:

You will expect him
And since Sir John of B
Receive thy loyal subject
                    John to make
                                tre a
                             a leav
                         st not stale
                        come this way

If you would like to read John of Bordeaux, there is no modern-spelling edition available, so you'll need to struggle through the Malone Society's transcript of the damaged manuscript.

What we learn from this

One obvious thing we have learned here, at the beginning of our journey through Henslowe's Diary, is that Elizabethan audiences loved plays about magic: even if their magician hero virtuously renounces his spells in one play, he will be obliged to pick up his wand again in a sequel. No doubt they liked magic because these plays take every opportunity to use the special effects capabilities of English Renaissance theatres. Look at some of these examples:
 Bungay conjures, and the tree appears with the dragon shooting fire (from Friar Bacon, Scene 9)
Here the Head speaks, and a lightning flasheth forth, and a hand appears that breaketh down the Head with a hammer (from Friar Bacon, Scene 11)
Thunder and lightning; enter [the demons] Asteroth and Rabsack (from John of Bordeaux, fol. 12)
 Plays like these are contemporary with Christopher Marlowe's famous Dr Faustus and are full of the same imagery of devils and magic. The Harry Potter films are a good example of how this delight in magical special effects persists to the present day. And of course, duelling wizards are always popular:


What's next?

There will be no post tomorrow because 20 February was a Sunday in 1592 and the actors did not perform. So, the next post in Henslowe's Diary... as a Blog! will be on February 21. See you then.


Friar Bacon information

  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vols. 2 and 3 (Oxford University Press, 2012-13), entries 822 and 908.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 93-6.

Henslowe links



Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!


  1. The "special effect capabilities" of Renaissance Theatre: what would that actually look like?! Are there any accounts on how they would produce these effects?

    1. A great description is by Ben Jonson, who hated special effects and boasted that his new play contained none:

      "No creaking throne comes down the boys to please, / Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeared / The gentlewomen; nor rolled bullet heard / To say it thunders; nor tempestuous drum / Rumbles to tell you when the storm doth come."

      So, he describes winching thrones up and down, setting off small fireworks, and creating sound effects with drums and cannonballs. Sounds like fun to me!