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Shakespeare and Bacon (by Dr. Gervinus )

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

William T. Smedley

The Mystery of Francis Bacon



Dr. G. G. Gervinus, the eminent German Historian and Professor Extraordinary at Heidelberg, published in 1849 his work, "Shakespeare Commentaries." This was years before any suggestion had been made that Bacon was in any way connected with the authorship of the Shakespearean dramas.


The book abounds with references to Bacon. From the Preface to the last chapter Gervinus appears to have Bacon continually suggested to him by the thoughts and words of Shakespeare. In the Preface, after speaking of the value accruing to German literature by naturalizing Shakespeare "even at the risk of casting our own poets still further in the shade," he says :

— "A similar benefit would it be to our intellectual life if his famed contemporary, Bacon, were revived in a suitable manner, in order to counterbalance the idealistic philosophy of Germany. For both these, the poet as well as the philosopher, having looked deeply into the history and politics of their people, stand upon the level ground of reality, notwithstanding the high art of the one and the speculative notions of the other. By the healthfulness of their own mind they influence the healthfulness of others, while in their most ideal and most abstract representations they aim at a preparation for life as it is — for that life which forms the exclusive subject of all political action."

In the chapter on "His Age," written prior to 1849, the Professor pours out the results of a profound study of the writings attributed to both men in the following remarkable sentences :

— "Judge then how natural it was that England, if not the birthplace of the drama, should be that of dramatic legislature. Yet even this instance of favourable concentration is not the last. Both in philosophy and poetry everything conspired, as it were, throughout this prosperous period, in favour of two great minds, Shakespeare and Bacon ; all competitors vanished from their side, and they could give forth laws for art and science which it is incumbent even upon present ages to fulfil. As the revived philosophy, which in the former century in Germany was divided among many, but in England at that time was the possession of a single man, so poetry also found one exclusive heir, compared with whom those later born could claim but little.

That Shakespeare's appearance upon a soil so admirably prepared was neither marvellous nor accidental is evidenced even by the corresponding appearance of such a contemporary as Bacon. Scarcely can anything be said of Shakespeare's position generally with regard to mediaeval poetry which does not also bear upon the position of the renovator Bacon with regard to mediaeval philosophy. Neither knew nor mentioned the other, although Bacon was almost called upon to have done so in his remarks upon the theatre of his day.

It may be presumed that Shakespeare liked Bacon but little, if he knew his writings and life ; that he liked not his ostentation, which, without on the whole interfering with his modesty, recurred too often in many instances ; that he liked not the fault-finding which his ill-health might have caused, nor the narrow-mindedness with which he pronounced the histrionic art to be infamous, although he allowed that the ancients regarded the drama as a school tor virtue ; nor the theoretic precepts of worldly wisdom which he gave forth ; nor, lastly, the practical career which he lived.

Before his mind, however, if he had fathomed it, he must have bent in reverence. For just as Shakespeare was an interpreter of the secrets of history and of human nature, Bacon was an interpreter of lifeless nature. Just as Shakespeare went from instance to instance in his judgment of moral actions, and never founded a law on single experience, so did Bacon in natural science avoid leaping from one experience of the senses to general principles ; he spoke of this with blame as anticipating nature ; and Shakespeare, in the same way, would have called the conventionalities in the poetry of the Southern races an anticipation of human nature. In the scholastic science of the middle ages, as in the chivalric poetry of the romantic period, approbation and not truth was sought for, and with one accord Shakespeare's poetry and Bacon's science were equally opposed to this.

As Shakespeare balanced the one-sided errors of the imagination by reason, reality, and nature, so Bacon led philosophy away from the one-sided errors of reason to experience ; both with one stroke, renovated the two branches of science and poetry by this renewed bond with nature ; both, disregarding all by-ways, staked everything upon this ' victory in the race between art and nature.'

Just as Bacon with his new philosophy is linked with the natural science of Greece and Rome, and then with the latter period of philosophy in western Europe, so Shakespeare's drama stands in relation to the comedies of Plautus and to the stage of his own day ; between the two there lay a vast wilderness of time, as unfruitful for the drama as for pliilosophy. But while they thus led back to nature, Bacon was yet as little of an empiric, in the common sense, as Shakespeare was a poet of nature.

Bacon prophesied that if hereafter his commendation of experience should prevail, great danger to science would arise from the other extreme, and Shakespeare even in his own day could perceive the same with respect to his poetry ; Bacon, therefore, insisted on the closest union between experience and reason, just as Shakespeare effected that between reality and imagination. While they thus bid adieu to the formalities of ancient art and science, Shakespeare to conceits and taffeta-phrases, Bacon to logic and syllogisms, yet at times it occurred that the one fell back into the subtleties of the old school, and the other into the constrained wit of the Italian style.

Bacon felt himself quite an original in that which was his peculiar merit, and so was Shakespeare ; the one in the method of science he had laid down, and in his suggestions for its execution, the other in the poetical works he had executed, and in the suggestions of their new law. Bacon, looking back to the waymarks he had left for others, said with pride that his words required a century for their demonstration and several for their execution ; and so too it has demanded two centuries to understand Shakespeare, but very little has ever been executed in his sense. And at the same time we have mentioned what deep modesty was interwoven in both with their self-reliance, so that the words which Bacon liked to quote hold good for the two works : "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation."

Both reached this height from the one starting point, that Shakespeare despised the million, and Bacon feared with Phocion the applause of the multitude. Both are alike in the rare impartiality with which they avoided everything one-sided in Bacon we find, indeed, youthful exercises in which he endeavoured in severe contrasts to contemplate a series of things from two points of view.

Both, therefore, have an equal hatred of sects and parties ; Bacon of sophists and dogmatic philosophers, Shakespeare of Puritans and zealots. Both, therefore, are equally free from prejudices, and from astrological superstition in dreams and omens. Bacon says of the alchemists and magicians in natural science that they stand in similar relation to true knowledge as the deeds of Amadis to those of Caesar, and so does Shakespeare's true poetry stand in relation to the fantastic romance of Amadis.

Just as Bacon banished religion from science, so did Shakespeare from Art ; and when the former complained that the teachers of religion were against natural philosophy, they were equally against the stage. From Bacon's example it seems clear that Shakespeare left religious matters unnoticed on the same grounds as himself, and took the path of morality in worldly things ; in both this has been equally misconstrued, and Le Maistre has proved Bacon's lack of Christianity, as Birch has done that of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare would, perhaps, have looked down just as contemptuously on the ancients and their arts as Bacon did on their philosophy and natural science, and both on the same grounds ; they boasted of the greater age of the world, of more enlarged knowledge of heaven, earth, and mankind. Neither stooped before authorities, and an injustice similar to that which Bacon committed against Aristotle, Shakespeare perhaps has done to Homer. In both a similar combination of different mental powers was at work ; and as Shakespeare was often involuntarily philosophical in his profoundness. Bacon ivas not seldom surprised into the imagination of the poet.

Just as Bacon, although he declared knowledge in itself to be much more valuable than the use of invention, insisted throughout generally and dispassionately upon the practical use of philosophy, so Shakespeare's poetry, independent as was his sense of art, aimed throughout at bearing upon the moral life. Bacon himself was of the same opinion ; he was not far from declaring history to be the best teacher of politics, and poetry the best instructor in morals.

Both were alike deeply moved by the picture of a ruling Nemesis, whom they saw, grand and powerful, striding through history and life, dragging the mightiest and most prosperous as a sacrifice to her altar, as the victims of their own inward nature and destiny. In Bacon's works we find a multitude of moral sayings and maxims of experience, from which the most striking mottoes might be drawn for every Shakespearian play, aye, for every one of his principal characters (we have already brought forward not a few proofs of this), testifying to a remarkable harmony in their mutual comprehension of human nature.

Both, in their systems of morality rendering homage to Aristotle, whose ethics Shakespeare, from a passage in Troilus, may have read, arrived at the same end as he did — that virtue lies in a just medium between two extremes. Shakespeare would also have agreed with him in this, that Bacon declared excess to be 'the fault of youth, as defect is of age' ; he accounted 'defect the worst, because excess contains some sparks of magnanimity, and, like a bird, claims kindred of the heavens, while defect, only like a base worm, crawls upon the earth'.

In these maxims lie at once, as it were, the whole theory of Shakespeare's dramatic forms and of his moral philosophy."

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