Cultural Capital 06: Bacon’s Essays

Not, repeat NOT, Shakespeare in disguise, thanks very much …

BH bacon.jpg
[part of a monthly series aimed at my Sixth Formers, and the texts they are currently studying]

First things first – we need to be clear which Francis Bacon we are talking about!

Perhaps reluctantly, we need to steer clear of the 20th Century Irish Existentialist artist whose ‘screaming popes’*, amongst other works, are so disturbingly brilliant.  That Francis is part of our ‘cultural capital’ too, but less useful for your studies.

Instead, let’s turn to the man perhaps best known as the ‘father of the scientific method’.  In other, crazier, circles, it’s also muttered that he was, in fact, the ‘real’ William Shakespeare.  Try to avoid those people – they also tend to wear tin foil hats, believe that the world is flat, and that climate change is a myth … 

Bacon simply doesn’t need daft conspiracy theories – his life was remarkable enough.  MP; the first ever QC; patronee (a mixed blessing) of Elizabeth I’s favourite –  Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex – whom he then had to indict for treason; enthusiastic advocate of torture; and, finally, a broken man, imprisoned when his enemies were able to make numerous corruption charges against him stick.  It’s almost a Shakespearean tragedy in itself …

Figure 1 will help you place his life and work amongst the texts and authors you have studied.  The first edition of his Essays is nicely placed in the final decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, and the third would have been in circulation for almost half a century by the time Milton turned to Paradise Lost.

BH Bacon timeline
Figure 1:  placing Bacon’s Essays in context

We probably also need to talk about the craft of the ‘essay’, too.  The word comes from the French, meaning to ‘attempt’ something, and it was (I’d say still is), an important literary form.  There are two major essayists of the time that you’d benefit from familiarising yourself with – the first, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) writes in a more reflective, subjective style.  His stated purpose in writing was to learn about himself.  He has the disadvantage – for the insular English – of being French.  Bacon, on the other hand was satisfyingly English, and his writing is very different:  he is more didactic (instructive), far more certain in his opinions, and fortunately for us, intensely aphoristic (quotable).  Hamlet students might draw a parallel between Bacon and Polonius … The Essays are structured as a few dozen short pieces, with helpful titles such as ‘Of Friendship’, or ‘Of Love’ – don’t try to read them all at once: instead think of them as a treasure trove that you can dip in and out of, according to your interests and the question you are considering.  Read them slowly, and chew them over …

Bacon’s Essays are not renowned for their controversy, but they’ve endured.  Why?  And why should you bother with them?

I’d suggest that what they offer us, instead, is a priceless insight into the zeitgeist (defining mood or spirit) of their age, gender, and class.  Remember that with your Marxist and/or Feminist head on, his views are those of the patriarchal ruling class at the time they were written (AO5). And that aphoristic style makes them an absolute gift in adding value to our responses to ‘theme’ questions (AO1), and our ability to contextualise (AO3) our arguments.  We might go even further and consider how much or how little has changed in the 400-odd years since Bacon made these pronouncements …

Let’s take ‘Of Revenge’, arguably Bacon’s most famous essay, as a working example.

Revenge’, Bacon tells us, ‘is a kind of wild justice’.  Easily quotable, right?  He continues: 

which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.

Stop and think for a moment.  Here we have a man from the ruling classes advising the authorities to clamp down hard on revenge, and simultaneously implying that those who do not take revenge are somehow better people.  Why would the authorities want to dissuade revenge?

Does Bacon have a vested interest in this?  What would happen if the law was indeed ‘put out of office’, or ignored?  How does this relate to modern society’s views on revenge – on the sports pitch, or in relationships, or at work?  Who in your texts is motivated by revenge?  Do they achieve it?  What is the personal consequence for them?

I’m going to suggest that these questions, Bacon’s aphorisms, can be part of essays on all your Renaissance texts – plus the modern ones too.  Revenge, and the idea of being in control of ‘justice’ surely, is a part of On Chesil Beach, or ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, or most if not all of the dystopian texts you study?

Here are a few pointers / suggestions for you, according to the texts you have studied, but go and find your own, too – and let me know which ones are useful, and why:

Richard III:  Of Envy; Of Cunning; Of Deformity; Of Prophecies

Hamlet:  Of Parents and Children; Of Superstition;

A Streetcar Named Desire:  Of Beauty; Of Youth and Age; Of Nature In Men;

Edward II: Of Ambition; Of Nobility; Of Marriage and Single Life

BH francis bacon
* because I KNEW you were intrigued by the whole ‘screaming pope’ thing …


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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