Time, Nation, and Hubris in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Para1The second scene in Robert Greene’s The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is at first glance of relative unimportance when considering the play’s overall structure. The romantic plot concerning Prince Edward and Earl Lacy’s dual pursuit of Margaret of Fressingfield is unaddressed in the scene, and four of the six characters that deliver lines in the scene are very minor characters who do not figure into the overall story in any significant way, with some not being heard from again. Despite this, there are several key moments of action in this scene that elevate its importance; this scene serves as the audience’s introduction to the characters of Friar Bacon and Miles, and it is through their interaction with the other characters and each other that highlight key aspects of their respective characters and the overarching themes of the play. In performing this scene, I worked both individually in my role as the eponymous Friar Bacon, and collectively with the rest of my group in order to portray the friar as foolhardy and credulous, an individual who wields impressive power for ostensibly benevolent ends that are nevertheless corrupted by his lack of understanding of their nature and by his own hubris.
Para2When our group first gathered, preliminary readings of our selected scene brought us to the first two challenges in mounting a performance. We needed to address the issue of how to make an Elizabethan era stage play interesting and relatable to a modern audience, while still respecting the source material, as well as devise an engaging way of demonstrating the power Bacon wields in his conjurations. Our answers to these problems would become dramatic protocols that would influence our interpretation of the scene, as much as our later research would influence the way these protocols manifested in the performance. Our first attempt at addressing the problem of making an almost five hundred year-old play seem relevant was to modernize its content. This went so far as having one of our group members, Grant Winestock, re-write the entire scene using realistic contemporary dialogue. While an interesting exercise, we realized as we began our research that it was not the best way to proceed, as recontextualizing the characters and setting would undermine Greeneʼs efforts in fitting them into a specific time and place, and his reasons for doing so. We sought out recordings of other performances of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, both in a production by BBC Television Services as part of its An Elizabethan Evening broadcasting program, and in a production staged by the Shakespeare and the Queenʼs Men Project. The actors in both productions are wearing costumes that would have been fitting the traditional style of the original staging of the play. The videos allowed us to see the traditional style of clothing the actors would have worn and helped us make the decision to modernize the costumes for our play.
Para3Preliminary research suggested to us that Greene deliberately incorporated into Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay a significant amount of historical fact and references to historical figures. The romantic plot, which sees the son of King Henry III and Prince of Wales, Edward, marry the daughter of the King of Castile, Elinor. Notes on the dramatis personae that accompanied some editions of the play indicate that these are in fact historical figures, and that Edward did in fact marry Elinor. Friar Bacon himself is a clear reference to the medieval philosopher and scientist, Roger Bacon, who lived during Henry III’s reign. Beyond adopting the names of historical characters, Greene specifically writes his characters in a way that lets their historical acts illuminate issues contemporary to his time. In her essay, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and the Rhetoric of Temporality, Deanne Williams argues that Bacon in particular engages prevailing notions of the right and proper historical evolution from medieval to modern, from Catholic to Protestant (Williams 32). Bacon’s belief in magical thought and the basis of his powers in occult practices are characterized as a medieval mode of thought, opposed to which is reason and science, renaissance characteristics that Bacon ultimately converts to in his rejection of magic by the play’s end. Such an interpretation serves to highlight Bacon’s folly, and suggests the play is very specifically working with ideas of a specific time and place. We consequentially wanted to retain this aspect of the work, and so we abandoned the idea of a total modernization of the scene, electing instead to selectively modernize specific aspects of its performance in a way that highlighted Bacon being frozen in time as he clings to outmoded ways of belief in a humorous manner.
Para4Bacon’s use of magic in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, though he claims innocent and nationalistic goals, frequently ends in failure and tragedy. Throughout the play, Bacon insists on the idea of raising a brass wall around England, going so far as to suggest that the walls he plans to erect would not be unlike The work that Ninus reared at Babylon, / The brazen walls framed by Semiramis (Sc2 Sp14). By defining his works in the context of those lost works of antiquity, Bacon inadvertently suggests that as walls are collapsible and empires eventually overrun, so too are his works bound by temporality. Bacon’s depiction as a buffoonish medieval magician is further reinforced when one looks further at the works he actually performs within the text of the play. The sensational brazen head, which Bacon reveres as his most important work, goes unheeded and self-destructs after the negligent Bacon decides to sleep even as the moment approaches when he expects the brazen head to speak (Sc10 Sp5). His use of his magical glass prospective to reveal to the sons of Lambert and Serlsby the nature of their father’s quarrel results in the sons murdering each other in his cell (Sc12 Sp34) Throughout the play, the power that Bacon wields is demonstrated as being faulty, ridiculous, and dangerous.
Para5The dismal consequences of his magical endeavours make no difference to Bacon’s ego, however, which borders on excessive. Even when limiting evidence of this strictly to what’s found within the performed scene, Bacon’s arrogance is one of the clearest aspects of his character. One might suspect otherwise, given his initial reaction in welcoming Burden, Mason, and Clement into his cell, as he greets them as masters of our academic state, suggesting they are above him in the hierarchy of the university’s administration—Bacon qualifies this by following with a statement that he is only newly stalled in his position (Sc2 Sp5). But as Burden begins to rattle off the rumours of how deeply learned in arcane magic arts Bacon is, the friar’s only response is a quick-tempered, what of all this? (Sc2 Sp7). The slightest suggestion that there are mysterious powers the friar ought not to dabble in is unfathomable to Bacon. When Burden further expresses his doubts in Bacon’s capabilities, Bacon angrily exclaims that the college called Brazennose / Is under him, and he the master there (Sc2 Sp54). As he allows his emotions to get the better of him, he reveals his true feelings, upending the hierarchy of academia to place him at its peak. Coupled with his earlier reference to the university as an academic state, he positions himself as the ruler of an independent kingdom of knowledge, where he defines its laws and limits. This places him at odds with the actual kingdom of England, in service of which he claims to be working. Ultimately, Bacon is in service of his own hubris.
Para6The nationalistic claims Bacon frequently employs to explain his motives are another topic of research our group focused on. Bacon gives a passionate display of national integrity when questioned about his brazen head, exclaiming that its power would be put to such use that if ten Caesar’s lived and reigned in Rome, / With all the legions that Europe doth contain, / They should not touch a grass of English ground (Sc2 Sp14). His national pride manifests most particularly in his feud with the German magician, Vandermast. After defeating Vandermast in a display of magical feats, Bacon sees his victory not only as a triumph of English skill over a novice German, but also as an excuse to transport the inept German back to Hapsburg (Sc8 Sp44). In doing so, Bacon actively attempts to expunge foreign influence from England, and notably in this case, German influence. This is especially ironic given the frequency to which literary critics suggest parallels between Friar Bacon and the distinctly German magician/scholar Faustus. Aside from their both being eminent scholars who dabble in magic, both share goals: Marloweʼs Doctor Faustus plans to wall all Germany with brass (Marlowe 85–92), a goal nearly identical to Bacon’s plan for England. Further, both Bacon and Faustus are accompanied by bumbling assistants, Miles and Wagner, respectively. Where some scholars suggest that the two characters differ in that Faustus’s powers are sourced from a distinctly German and angst-driven black magic, but Bacon’s originate in an English, rural, white magic that does not carry the consequence of spiritual damnation (Towne 9). Our group doubted heavily such claims, observing that while Bacon does not expressly make a contract with the devil, he still conjures and commands devils to carry out his bidding. This is clearly witnessed in the scene we selected, where Bacon conjured forth a devil with the command: Per omnes deos infernales, Belcephon! (Sc2 Sp34). Bacon is clearly a practitioner of the occult, and in fact finds himself to be in exactly the same dilemma as Faustus, though Bacon is wise enough to see a way out of it. After witnessing two students slaughter each other as a direct result of his magic, Bacon renounces his powers, stating them to be instances that Bacon must be damned / for using (Sc12 Sp36). He hereafter announces that he will spend the rest of his life in repentance in order to earn God’s mercy, a task Faustus was unable to take on. Bacon unwittingly places himself in the same spiritually threatening circumstances as Faustus, and though he has the resolve to overcome it, to believe otherwise is to ignore the play’s rationale.
Para7Having come to an understanding of the issues at work within the scene, we next turned to exploring methods of making those issues evident in performance. I approached my performance of the Friar Bacon character with an aim of displaying his foolish arrogance. I decided that I would revel exaggeratedly in the comments made by the other characters regarding my magical abilities. It was not hard to find opportunities for this display in the play’s second scene, as literally every character delivers a line about Bacon’s magic. Even Burden, the scene’s sceptic whose antagonism drives much of the scene’s drama, first enters the room to report his concerns that all of England is buzzing with rumours of Bacon’s plans. I decided that my reaction would be to ignore Burden’s concerns entirely; rather, I would be flattered by exactly that which worries Burden—that I’m the talk of the entire country. But even beyond the lines themselves, there is ample opportunity for character to realize itself. I decided to interpret Bacon’s welcoming of the visiting scholars with the word now as to suggest that he has recently concluded other business and is now ready to address the scholars. Thus, a comic bit was worked into the entrance of the scholars where I keep them waiting excessively as I pore over my magic tomes. The tension that arises from wondering how long I keep the scholars waiting not only serves to draw the audience into the scene early on, but also demonstrates my arrogance, in that I believe myself and my pursuits to be more important than the people around me.
Para8Miles, Bacon’s scholarly assistant, also proved invaluable as a source for realizing Bacon as a hubristic buffoon. Working with Jamilla Wilson, the group member who performed Miles, was especially fun, as many of her lines have her readily jumping to my defence or aggrandizing my abilities. Based on this, we agreed that Miles should fawn over Bacon excessively. A good deal of improvisation went on in rehearsals as Jamilla found new and different ways in which to demonstrate this aspect of her character, and I would respond to it by revelling in her attention as Bacon, effectively feeding off of each other’s creative impulses and pushing each other further in our respective characters. In fact, the moment during the performance when she massaged me as I delivered the last lines of my monologue was a novel improvisation that had never occurred during rehearsal.
Para9Aside from Miles, the other character with whom Bacon interacts most extensively in the scene is Burden. Burden drives the dramatic action of the scene, as he levels accusations against Bacon, action which spurs Bacon to level accusations of his own, and conjure proof of them in response. We wanted to highlight the tension between Bacon and Burden in the scene, and our choice informed much of the scene’s blocking. Grant Winestock, the group member performing Burden, and I took care to position ourselves at opposite ends of the stage whenever possible. If Burden was positioned down-stage left, I would typically be up-stage right; we essentially saw our characters as the opposing poles of action around which stage movement rotated. To further heighten the tension, we strove to give greater potential to Burden as a legitimate rival; we wanted Burden to be potentially threatening in order to make the payoff of his exposure via Bacon’s magic that much more engaging to the audience. Towards this end, we recast the characters of Clement and Mason, in our performance combined into one amalgamated character as a result of our small cast, as being an assistant to Burden in order to parallel Bacon and Miles’ relationship. While this relationship is not in the text, in fact, Clement and Mason caution Burden not to upset Bacon; specific cues in costume and performance makes such choices appear immediately obvious and natural. The Clement/Mason character in our performance was played by Alana Malachowski, and her costume, most significantly the presence of taped eyeglasses, and carrying a notepad, immediately subordinated her to Burden, and with the additional direction of having her record obsessively Burden’s actions, the secretarial relationship was established. Costuming and props for Burden were other ways of heightening the tension between his character and Bacon. Grant decided that he would gradually disrobe costume elements—his suit jacket and vest, in order to suggest Burden’s own arrogant attempt at marking his territory by casually tossing them about Bacon’s secret cell. This extended itself to a smoking pipe, which Burden lights up early in the scene—notably without first asking permission of Bacon. Over the course of the scene, the pipe is set down, pocketed by myself (ideally, unnoticed by the audience), before being returned to Burden as a final snub as he attempts to flee, humiliated. This sleight-of-hand trick was something that did not go as smoothly as we would have liked in the actual performance, but was still effective in being a microcosm of the scene’s action—Burden insults Bacon, and Bacon uses his magic to retaliate and humiliate Burden.
Para10Our group also attempted to work the patriotic elements of Bacon’s character into the scene, which added another important element to the Bacon/Burden dynamic. When Bacon conjures the Hostess, our group decided that the Hostess should appear as a stereotypical German barmaid. Hailey Leonard, who performed the Hostress, was dressed to reflect this, in a short skirt, apron, short balloon sleeves, and carrying a German beer stein. This added weight to Bacon’s accusations, suggesting not only that Burden was sleeping with a barmaid, but a German barmaid. Germany, of course, being the origin of rival magician Vandermast, is not at all appreciated by the nationalistic Bacon, and his actions against Burden now convey this contempt in our performance. The beer stein in particular became an important prop, as we also wanted to highlight comparisons between Friar Bacon and the German Faustus. At the end of the scene, I drink heavily from the stein as a dramatic gesture immediately after promising to encircle England with a wall of brass. The irony of imbibing from something distinctly foreign even as I promise to eliminate foreign influence in England is deliberate. It serves to show the faultiness of my goals, and suggest that I can never truly achieve them so long as I enlist the services of powers strange and uncouth (Sc2 Sp54). Bacon desires to get rid of foreign entities challenging England, without realizing that the origins of his powers are foreign themselves.
Para11We emphasized this idea even further in our multimedia effects meant to accompany Bacon’s conjuration. We decided to utilize the projection screen available to us and create a video collage to illustrate the brazen head and the summoning of the devil. The specific videos were carefully selected to enhance the meaning of the scene: The majority of the clips came from either the 1927 Fritz Lang film, Metropolis, or the 1926 F.W. Murnau film, Faust. We selected no film more recent than 1930. The aim was multifold: naturally, the use of Faust highlights the parallels between the two eponymous characters, but beyond that, all of the films used are German productions. The national connection aligns Bacon and Faust via their magic, affirming that there is no difference in their spiritually endangering qualities for the wielder, and exposing Bacon’s short sightedness in his attempts to eliminate the foreign-interest tainted Burden, when he is no less tainted himself by the magic he commands.
Para12Second, the age of the videos Bacon presents, relative to the audience watching, affirms Bacon as one who clings to outmoded ways of belief. Bacon cannot present anything more recent—not even anything with colour. Props and costumes further reflect this performance choice. My many heavy necromantic tomes and ostentatiously large feather quill contrast with the modern efficiency of Mason/Clement’s notepad. The heavy black robe I wear contrasts with the neat informal modern dress of the other scholars. Bacon is unready to accept the changes to his medieval worldview that is rapidly fading into history.
Para13Overall, I believe the choices we made in the course of the production of our scene performance resulted in an effective and engaging interpretation of the scene. Small details not readily apparent in the script were carefully examined and embellished to push the dramatic interest of the scene to its fullest. The relation of video effects to the onstage action and the relationships between characters highlight our interpretation of the scene. Friar Bacon, though a powerful magician, is ultimately one who allows his hubris to get the better of him, as he dabbles in forces he does not fully understand—forces the rest of the world is preparing to move beyond, and forces that can bring mortal consequences to himself and those around him.


Janelle Jenstad

Janelle Jenstad is a Professor of English at the University of Victoria, Director of The Map of Early Modern London, and Director of Linked Early Modern Drama Online. With Jennifer Roberts-Smith and Mark Kaethler, she co-edited Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media: Old Words, New Tools (Routledge). She has edited John Stow’s A Survey of London (1598 text) for MoEML and is currently editing The Merchant of Venice (with Stephen Wittek) and Heywood’s 2 If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody for DRE. Her articles have appeared in Digital Humanities Quarterly, Elizabethan Theatre, Early Modern Literary Studies, Shakespeare Bulletin, Renaissance and Reformation, and The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. She contributed chapters to Approaches to Teaching Othello (MLA); Teaching Early Modern Literature from the Archives (MLA); Institutional Culture in Early Modern England (Brill); Shakespeare, Language, and the Stage (Arden); Performing Maternity in Early Modern England (Ashgate); New Directions in the Geohumanities (Routledge); Early Modern Studies and the Digital Turn (Iter); Placing Names: Enriching and Integrating Gazetteers (Indiana); Making Things and Drawing Boundaries (Minnesota); Rethinking Shakespeare Source Study: Audiences, Authors, and Digital Technologies (Routledge); and Civic Performance: Pageantry and Entertainments in Early Modern London (Routledge). For more details, see janellejenstad.com.

Justin Nusca

Kate LeBere

Project Manager, 2020–2021. Assistant Project Manager, 2019–2020. Textual Remediator and Encoder, 2019–2021. Kate LeBere completed her BA (Hons.) in History and English at the University of Victoria in 2020. During her degree she published papers in The Corvette (2018), The Albatross (2019), and PLVS VLTRA (2020) and presented at the English Undergraduate Conference (2019), Qualicum History Conference (2020), and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute’s Project Management in the Humanities Conference (2021). While her primary research focus was sixteenth and seventeenth century England, she completed her honours thesis on Soviet ballet during the Russian Cultural Revolution. She is currently a student at the University of British Columbia’s iSchool, working on her masters in library and information science.

Martin Holmes

Martin Holmes has worked as a developer in the UVicʼs Humanities Computing and Media Centre for over two decades, and has been involved with dozens of Digital Humanities projects. He has served on the TEI Technical Council and as Managing Editor of the Journal of the TEI. He took over from Joey Takeda as lead developer on LEMDO in 2020. He is a collaborator on the SSHRC Partnership Grant led by Janelle Jenstad.

Navarra Houldin

Project manager 2022-present. Textual remediator 2021-present. Navarra Houldin (they/them) completed their BA in History and Spanish at the University of Victoria in 2022. During their degree, they worked as a teaching assistant with the University of Victoriaʼs Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies. Their primary research was on gender and sexuality in early modern Europe and Latin America.

Peter Cockett

Peter Cockett is an associate professor in the Theatre and Film Studies at McMaster University. He is the general editor (performance), and technical co-ordinating editor of Queen’s Men Editions. He was the stage director for the Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men project (SQM), directing King Leir, The Famous Victories of Henry V, and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (2006) and he is the performance editor for our editions of those plays. The process behind those productions is documented in depth on his website Performing the Queen’s Men. Also featured on this site are his PAR productions of Clyomon and Clamydes (2009) and Three Ladies of London (2014). For the PLS, the University of Toronto’s Medieval and Renaissance Players, he has directed the Digby Mary Magdalene (2003) and the double bill of George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale and the Chester Antichrist (2004). He also directed An Experiment in Elizabethan Comedy (2005) for the SQM project and Inside Out: The Persistence of Allegory (2008) in collaboration with Alan Dessen. Peter is a professional actor and director with numerous stage and screen credits. He can be contacted at cockett@mcmaster.ca.

Scott Matthews


Marlowe, Christopher. The tragicall history of D. Faustus. London: Valentine Simmes, 1604. STC 17429. ESTC S120173. DEEP 369.
Towne, Frank. White Magic in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay?. Modern Language Notes 67.1 (1952): 9–13.
Williams, Deanne. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and the Rhetoric of Temporality. Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England. Ed. Gordon McMullan and David Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. WSB aau522. 31–48.



The LEMDO Team is based at the University of Victoria and normally comprises the project director, the lead developer, project manager, junior developers(s), remediators, encoders, and remediating editors.

Queenʼs Men Editions (QME1)

The Queen’s Men Editions anthology is led by Helen Ostovich, General Editor; Peter Cockett, General Editor (Performance); and Andrew Griffin, General Editor (Text).