“He, who hath filled up all numbers and performed that in our tongue which may be compared, or preferred, either to insolent Greece or haughty Rome… So that he may be named, and stand as the mark and acme of our language.”
Ben Jonson: Tribute to Francis Bacon, Explorata, or Discoveries – 1641
With these words quoted above, the poet Ben Jonson gives Francis Bacon the highest praise possible as a poet, employing the word "numbers" in the same well-known sense in which Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Ovid all used its Latin original, referring not only to the arts and sciences but also to poetry and drama. It is this latter sense of "numbers" that was used in the Shakespeare works and which was the most common use of the word from the 16th-century onwards. In giving this tribute, Jonson is using the same comparison, borrowed from Seneca, as he used in his eulogy "To my beloved, The AVTHOR Mr William Shakespeare" in the 1623 Shakespeare Folio ("First Folio") of plays:-
............. Or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all, that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. (1)
Jonson was a meticulous and critical poet: he always chose his words, descriptions and analogies carefully. The same comparison he uses for both Bacon and Shakespeare is such that it can only apply to one person, which is further confirmed by what Jonson continues to say in his tribute to Bacon: "I have and do reverence him for the greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration that has ever been in many ages."(2)
As one might reasonably expect, this is by no means the only clue to the identification of Bacon with Shakespeare in terms of the authorship of the poetic works ascribed to Shakespeare. Other carefully placed clues are given in the 1623 Shakespeare Folio ("First Folio") of plays and the contemporaneous Shakespeare Monument erected in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as elsewhere.
For instance, the inscription on the Shakespeare Monument describes the author Shakespeare as "a Pylus in judgement, a Socrates in genius, a Maro in art"—a description supported by the internal evidence of the poems and plays. It is a near-perfect analogous description of Francis Bacon, but not of Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon. The inscription and whole Monument furthermore provide the information that there were two 'Shakespeares' working together in a Gemini-type partnership or Hermetic relationship, one being the 'mortal' actor and pupil, and the other being the 'immortal' author and teacher. (See 'Shakespeare Authorship'.)
The Shakespeare Folio and the Shakespeare Monument confirm what had already been revealed by the poet John Marston and satirist Joseph Hall twenty-five years previously, when, in a two-year exchange of satires (1597-8), they pointed to Francis Bacon as being the author of the Shakespeare poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and as using the name of another living person, a "swain"(3), to mask his authorship. Moreover, they link the author of the poems with one or two of the Shakespeare plays that had by then been performed (but not published under the Shakespeare name).
The cryptic revelations given by Hall and Marston, Ben Jonson, and the Shakespeare Folio and Monument, certainly help to explain some of the elegiac tributes given to Francis Bacon that were published as a collection, the Manes Verulamiani, immediately after his death. These elegies refer to Bacon as being not only a great philosopher but also a concealed poet and playwright, the "precious gem of concealed literature" and "golden stream of eloquence", who immortalised the Muses, filled the world with his writings, and both rescued and renewed Philosophy through the use of stage plays.
So did Philosophy, entangled in the subtleties of Schoolmen seek Bacon as a deliverer… He renewed her, walking humbly in the socks of Comedy. After that, more elaborately he rises on the loftier buskin of Tragedy...(4)
However, Bacon was not just involved in writing the Shakespeare poems and plays, assisted by his “good pens”, intelligencers and aristocratic friends; he was also involved with writing for, and eventually also (from 1594 onwards) devising, organising, producing and directing, masques for Gray’s Inn and the Royal Court, and devices for high-ranking courtiers to present before the sovereign on the Accession Day Tournaments (17 November for Queen Elizabeth I; 24 March for King James I).
The Accession Day Tournaments were elaborate affairs that combined theatrical elements with jousting, in which each knight competed to outdo each other not just in tilting but also in poetry and pageantry that involved speeches by allegorical characters and combats by armed men on foot and horseback, allegorical armour and costume, horses, pageant cars, stage props and scenery, and a team of squires, servants and sometimes professional actors.
Masques were also elaborate entertainments that included stage plays, dancing, music, orations, and other creative delights and surprises. The ones designed for Gray’s Inn (known as revels), as for other Inns of Court, had the double purpose of entertainment and education, training young noblemen and gentlemen in the various courtly arts of the Muses and Graces. In this, Gray’s Inn excelled. Moreover, like some of the other Inns of Court, Gray’s Inn had its own in-house company of players composed of student-lawyers that enacted their own plays. One outstanding example of this was the extra-special 1594/5 Gray’s Inn Christmas Revels that continued over the Twelve Days of Christmas, for which Bacon, as a co-Treasurer of the Inn specially elected to restore the good name of the Inn in respect of the revels, was responsible for organising, contriving, overseeing and directing, as well as part-writing. The revels were called The Prince of Purpoole and the Order of The Knights of the Helmet, and during it the first known performance of the Shakespeare play, The Comedy of Errors, was staged, its story being an integral part of the theme of the revels.
Both masques and tournaments required many talented people to contribute their skills. No one person ever wrote or performed a complete masque or revel entirely on his own, but there was usually a principal writer and a revel-master responsible for the overall concept and production (they could be the same person). Echoing this complexity, masques, dumb-shows and plays within plays are introduced into several Shakespeare plays: e.g. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Henry the Eighth.
Francis Bacon assembled a team of “good pens” that included at various times many reputable poets and writers, thereby establishing the equivalent of a Renaissance master artist’s studio. He also, together with his brother Anthony, headed an intelligence group and network that gathered detailed knowledge of all manner of things from various countries of Europe, especially France, Italy and Spain. Bacon’s stated aim was to take all knowledge as his province.
Over the centuries Francis Bacon has been acclaimed as a great philosopher, lawyer and statesman, but the fact that he was also a poet—a writer and producer of masques and stage plays—has been largely ignored and is hardly known about by most people. Yet, although he remained a secret poet to the general public, to those in the know Bacon was revered as the greatest poet of them all and likened to Apollo, the Day-star and leader of the choir of Muses, with all the other poets and artists being but the disciples of the Muses.(5)