Frying Bacon: An Analysis of a Classroom Performance of Scene 2 in Robert Greeneʼs Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Para1In November my group and I worked on designing a theatrical presentation for scene 2 of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay wherein Friar Bacon and his magic are first introduced to the audience. Although it would be difficult to argue that this scene is the most integral to the play, we did feel that it offered a unique opportunity to explore various aspects of comedy, integrate multimedia, and touch upon some of the fascinating subtleties of the work; namely, Friar Baconʼs connection to Dr. Faustus and the idea of nationalism. In this production I played the role of Burden, a character who creates tension and whose skepticism of magic serves to goad Bacon into revealing the extent of his magical abilities and pompousness. However, as much as Burden serves as a catalyst inducing Bacon to reveal the character flaws that will later lead to trouble, he himself is not a likable character. In this production of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay I portrayed Burden as a smug, young professor at Oxford, whose condescension and over-familiarity live up to his namesake: he is, indeed, a burden to not only Friar Bacon, but also to his less-confrontational, more bookish colleagues such as Mason and Clement. Yet, the ultimate goal, when looking retrospectively on this scene and the text is to have the audience reconsider Burden’s role. In most of the play, as Alexander Leggatt points out, the diabolical source of Bacon’s power [is] […] clear. [But it is] treated as a non-problem (Leggatt 37); in actuality magic is a massive problem, one which Burden is the first to caution against and the first to make any attempt to stop or dissuade Bacon from its use. This scene lays the groundwork for the audienceʼs later realizations, while in and of itself playing off Bacon as a superior among inferiors: the meek and lily-livered bookworms Clement and Mason (whom we have, in our production, combined into a single character), the overly eager and flamboyant Miles, and the overbearing and, most importantly, the ingratiating, reprehensible Burden.
Para2The process of bringing this scene to life began after tutorial one morning in early November. Myself, Alana, and Hailey were present that day and elected to use scene 2 of the play largely at first because of its ability to accommodate our acting abilities. Alana and Hailey, having never acted before, were apprehensive about having to perform in any capacity and did not want to take on larger roles. This scene seemed appropriate because it allowed us to showcase all our actors, but to put special emphasis on one actor in particular: Justin as Friar Bacon. We elected to give Justin this role since I, being familiar with his abilities as a performer and director, recommended him for it. Even though Justin was not there on the morning on which we decided to use this scene and made the tentative casting call, we were confident that he would take the role of Friar Bacon with the understanding that if he did not, I would. Of course, Justin did embrace his leading man role and ultimately this casting choice proved a great success.
Para3The decision to give myself Burden came about based on the fact that he seemed to be the other powerful figure in this scene. Having also had past experience acting on stage and directing, I knew I could portray the necessary confidence that Burden needed to exude to effectively bring out the humor in his awkward decline from smug confident academic giant to a disgraced fool whose very Englishness has been compromised and called into question. Indeed, as we looked further into Burden’s character we began to recognize the potential for expanding on this last point. With regards to Bacon’s later contest with the German magician Vandermast, E.M. Butler writes that the anti-German bias in the tale […] remains, and was even more strongly [with Vandermast] emphasized by Greene (Butler 156). Indeed, it is no secret that nationalism abounds in Greene’s text, and that it often aimed its distrust and animosity at Germany. Bacon is routinely in competition with German magicians such as Vandermast; German magic is invoked in a general sense through the unavoidable comparison to Faustus; Greeneʼs play anticipates German invasion (necessitating the wall of brass); and finally, if Burden could be linked to Germany as well, this list would include the threat of German influence and sympathies insidiously making their way into Oxford University.
Para4As a character whose nationalism is called into question, Burden pits himself against Bacon as the ultimate villain. Though Greeneʼs text does not explicitly establish this idea, our group decided to promote this notion to further Burden’s disgrace and make Bacon’s obsessive desire to protect England seem more warranted and absolutely critical to England’s safety. (Later, I will touch on the ultimate effect we intended as influencing the audience to favour this reading.) Suffice it to say for now: since German magic and nationalism were already apparent subjects in the text, we simply needed to expand and tailor them to suit Burden. Leggatt writes that The wealth and learning of Oxford seem an emanation of the richness of the land [England] itself (Leggatt 31) and with this established, the idea that such an institution would or could be compromised from the inside out presents an especially distasteful proposition. Indeed, in Burden there exists the perfect potential for sabotage since he is a man with suitable influence at Oxford and by essentially, sleeping with the enemy this high-ranking position may serve as a critical starting point from which German influence could seep into the academic sphere of Oxford. Furthermore, if we grant that Oxford acts as a microcosm for England, this fear becomes a matter of national security. Burden may be English by blood, but if there is a German tempter whose influence extends from behind closed doors Burden is not merely a nuisance, but an enemy of the state whose mocking of Bacon’s wall of brass is a direct affront to English solidarity.
Para5The common English perception of Germany at the time in which Friar Bacon is set, about three hundred years before Greene penned the play, is, according to C.H. Herford, that of a land of magicians and conjurers (qtd. in Butler 153). For thirteenth-century England this perception of Germany may very well have been sufficient to make anyone wary of the dark continental giant, but by Greene’s time this view had changed significantly. This change did not so much exploit Germany seriously as a land of magicians and conjurers but rather places it as a land no longer considered a source of enemy action, but rather as a source of amusement. As superstitions made way for new scientific understandings in England, magic and by extension Germany became relegated to the category of childish, old fashioned quaintness. In many ways Burden exemplifies the common English view towards magic and Germany apparent in Greene’s time, having been transplanted three hundred years into the past into the time of Friar Bacon and King Henry III. Indeed, Burden is the modern man of science and rationality whose arrogant, smirking treatment of Bacon is really an arrogant, smirking treatment of medieval England.
Para6In my portrayal of Burden I was always conscious of Burden’s modernity. I chose to have him speak to Bacon in a condescending tone that one might use to humor a child, and wear more current clothes. Burden’s dress aesthetic reflects his disdain for old fashioned practices–quite literally he does not like things that are old fashioned up to and including fashion itself. He does not wear a tie and opts for black jeans instead of dress pants. Furthermore, over the course of the scene Burden removes his jacket and at the same time removes the shackles of useless tradition: he has no need for a blazer or vest since he is inside, not cold, and seeks comfort above all else in these moments. This stands in obvious contrast once again, to Bacon, the traditionalist, who wears his friar’s robe although he in all likelihood is not expected or required to.
Para7Our research was done largely on an independent basis. Coming together at rehearsal we would work anything we had found interesting into the piece if it fit. At some point Justin brought up an article entitled Coppernose: The Nature of Burdenʼs Disease in Robert Greeneʼs Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay in which the author Greg Bentley suggests that Burden is an alcoholic and suffers from syphilis. Unfortunately, none of us were able to find this article directly, but merely references to it made in other scholarsʼ writing’s on the play. The idea, despite not being concretely tracked down, stuck with us nonetheless and we decided that Burden should be played as a man who may be over-compensating for his insecurities and secrets with his confident demeanor. Indeed, Burden’s thinly veiled antagonism for Bacon and his power comes not simply from the fact that Burden is a man of science and Bacon a man of magic but also from Burden’s being a man of embarrassing secrets. In this way, Burden’s poking fun at Bacon is a deliberate ploy to discredit Bacon, for as Burden sees it, if Bacon can be compromised in the Oxford community then any secrets that he might expose will be regarded as mere foolery—fabrications to get a fame (Sc2 Sp20) and little more.
Para8While Burden’s aim is to discredit Bacon to the Oxford community, he has limited success in this matter. Leggatt writes that Bacon’s audiences, for the most part, simply enjoy his achievements (Leggatt 37) with the assumption being that these audiences also include fellow Oxford colleagues Mason and Clement. Mason and Clement, or in our scene, perhaps more aptly called Clason, are easily swayed and impressed by Bacon, and this serves to frustrate Burden all the more. At this point in the play, the fact that Bacon is dealing in dark arts and calling upon devils can be, and to a large extent is, overlooked by both the general audience as well as Mason and Clement. Indeed, all these parties are so suitably swept away with Bacon’s cabalism that they are in turn tempted to regard Burden as the spoiler of all this good fun and a grumpy father figure rather than a voice of reason. With his rigidness and rationality, Burden’s mode of conduct should move the audience to make this patriarchal comparison and induce them to thinking of their own childhood memories of teachers and parents introducing grown-up thought into their world of childish imagination and fantasy. To be sure, this comparison provokes the audience’s distaste for Burden: he is the invasive adult world breaking in on a world of imagination and magic, and when Burden throws down that symbol of the real world, the black and white truth of a newspaper, onto Bacon’s desk, his act is on par with telling a child that Santa Clause is mere foolishness.
Para9Within audiences, there seems a natural aversion to someone telling someone else that they cannot or should not believe as children believe. Perhaps a sign of our times, we often feel robbed of our childhood and swept up far too quickly by the adult world. Our natural sympathies, then, are more easily moved to embrace a man who seems to represent the imagination of childhood and to be suspicious of a man who represents a life and a way of thinking that, far too quickly, sent us off to school and out to get a job. To view Burden as the patriarchal figure intruding on Bacon’s world of childlike preoccupation is certainly the one which audiences will most readily gravitate towards, even though Bacon is for all intents and purposes dealing in the dark arts and pursuing magic that could have harmful consequences. The sympathetic reflex that equates Bacon with the world of magic and imagination, and thereby the associative world of children and child-like play, is then a particularly dangerous connective process. The process, for all its dubiousness, can, if exploited in the right way, act as an effective tool later on in the play. This effectiveness comes when the audience later realizes along with Bacon that not all is well their collective perception of things: they have both been duped into overlooking the decidedly wrong means to certain ends, because they have seemed innocent.
Para10Deanne Williams writes that the ideal of national integrity along with magic both […] [seemed to be] medieval creations (Williams 42) and, pitted against the slick and contemporary Burden, both concepts seem like under-dogs. We addressed the popular appeal of magic for its childlike associative qualities, but national security is another one of these issues that audiences are naturally inclined to see as noble and, up against Burden’s intimidating modernity, an under-dog worthy of rooting for. Bacon’s aim in creating a brass wall around England is tied to a conservative form of patriotism and contrasts Burden’s perceived liberal recklessness. We chose to portray Burden as, quite literally, sleeping with the enemy in an effort to encourage the audience to see ulterior motives in his goading Bacon over the wall of brass. Ultimately, however, while Burden may indeed be sleeping with a German woman (the Bavarian Hostess in our scene), he is hardly an enemy of the state. For all his own misgivings and his ingratiating demeanor, he at least serves to represent a form of liberal, culturally progressive thought. While Bacon strives at what Deanne Williams calls pointless projects (Williams 42) Burden engages with the world around him and reads from life’s most important book: the book of real life experience.
Para11In the play Burden represents a time that has, for Greene, perceivably come of age and grown up. Greene uses Burden as a representative of his age transplanted into thirteenth century England, and yet even in this portrayal of King Henry III’s time, Bacon stands in contrast to the general tone of cultural acceptance. Henry III, after all, amicably entertains and holds court with foreign dignitaries of all sorts while Bacon stows away in his office at Oxford contriving to seal England off from any and all outside influences. In essence, by having Burden hold court of his own with the German hostess at Henley, the idea of a country which values her neighbors and is, if nothing else, not afraid of interacting with them, is brought into play in Bacon’s office from our first immediate meeting of the character of Bacon.
Para12Greene’s play is set is during the lifetime of the actual Roger Bacon, on whom the Friar Bacon character is very inaccurately based. This era was, according to Williams, between (I2I4-c. I292) […] during the reign of King Henry III (Williams 31). Despite the fact that the play takes place in this era and indeed, so much as includes King Henry III, Bacon exists as one of the only characters to truly represent this historical period from any sort of encompassing perspective. All other characters, up to and including King Henry III himself, seem in some way to embody Burden’s modern, enlightened spirit more than Bacon’s medieval one. In this sense Bacon serves as a naive artifact left over from a time that hasn’t even passed yet. Although Bacon is older than Burden in our scene in terms of actual years, his heart and mind reflect a conceptually younger time and Burden’s antagonizing chuckles are a deliberate commentary on Bacon’s naivety. Bacon, whom we saw as a child, receives extra attention through his partnership with Miles, the clownish poor scholar. In our production we opted to have Jamilla play Miles with all the enthusiasm of a little boy, scurrying about and attending on Bacon’s every whim. The fact stands that Bacon, while he does express annoyance at Miles occasionally, is quite content to keep Miles in his employ and we worked to foster the sense within the scene that Bacon is never truly or legitimately opposed to this constant, childish presence in his office. Leggatt remarks on William Empson’s idea that Miles’ role [is meant to] exemplify […] the importance of involving the common people in magic (Leggatt 36) but our reading is one that quite simply sees Miles as a mere reflection of Bacon’s inner-child, embodied in the flesh and set loose about the office.
Para13To call upon Miles to act as the embodiment of Bacon’s young and naive spirit, we felt, was a good interpretation, especially seeing as how Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay seems to be a play where characters are destined to be doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in representation. Williams notes that there is even the doubling of doubling and recalls Friar Bacon’s encounters with his German doppelganger […] Vandermast, a figure who [himself] recalls Marloweʼs Doctor Faustus. Williams goes on to add: Friar Bacon [even] has a further double in Friar Bungay (Williams 47). To promote Miles as this inner child we had Jamilla dress in a frilly shirt, vest, and pointy boots. The idea behind this costuming choice was to create a Peter Pan quality for the character so as to represent the side of Bacon that never grows up and will eternally cling to childish whimsy instead of adult rationality. The fact that Miles acts in such an infantile manner hints at the idea that while thinking and acting as a child may be a nice thought, it is not something that may actually serve as practical or healthy. If, indeed, Miles is Bacon’s inner self set loose, he is surely a foreshadowing of trouble to come. While Bacon may be able to temporarily win us over, his shadow Miles clearly alerts us that before long childish behavior and beliefs will lead to trouble and when we think back on Burden’s current humiliation, we will wish we had looked past it and heeded some of his warnings.
Para14In our scene we evoked a great many subtleties to help bolster many of these ideas, notably the continued use of non-English, German elements. Not only did we dress Hailey as a traditional German bierfrau, but also used the song Heirate mich by German metal band Rammstein, and drew from three silent films, two of which were made in Weimar, Germany, for our multimedia. We had, from the beginning, intended to use a projected devil of some sort but weren’t sure from where or what exactly this would look like. Using the one from F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film Faust was something I suggested to Justin when we began developing a multimedia concept in mid-November. I thought the film was fitting for a number of reasons: the first and most obvious of these being that it would give us an effective devil, but additionally because the film was German in origin and focused on the Faust character, who has particular relevance to Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Drawing from the Murnau film, we considered other Weimar era German films that we could incorporate into the multimedia. Justin immediately suggested a close up of the machine-woman from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis be used as the brazen head that Bacon is so proud of, and which he makes reference to as being present in his office. Justin, who is in the multimedia program, did an outstanding job of piecing together this footage along with other scenes from the Danish film Haxan: A History of Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, that, though not German, had special appropriateness in its own right/rite, and being made in the 1922 fit the aesthetic we were trying to achieve with the multimedia portion of our scene.
Para15Overall, I am very pleased with how things turned out with our scene presentation and enjoyed working with my group members. Jamilla was absent from the initial rehearsals and we did not have a clear line of communication with her until mid-November. This initially caused some concern, but when she did begin contributing she proved invaluable and her strong acting and comic timing served to greatly enhance the scene. I feel very good about this project as a group effort, but do acknowledge the mistake of allowing Alana to keep her script on her clipboard during the actual running of the scene. This problem developed, initially out of what would have otherwise been a good idea: Alana had suggested Clason carry a clipboard to help suggest this characters diminutive status next to the academic giant Burden. Further, she felt that Clason’s taking notes would help establish him as one who is merely taking things at face value, recording by rote rather than thinking critically. I particularly liked this idea since it indirectly implicated the audience in these going-ons as Clason-like characters themselves whom Bacon will easily win over. Although Alana said she would only consult the script on her clipboard in the direst of emergencies, as someone with directing experience I perhaps should have known better: a nervous actor will almost always read from the lines if the lines are in view and can be read.
Para16The final prop to make its way into our scene was the Bacon’s crucifix necklace. This small wooden cross appeals greatly to the fact that Bacon is, after all, a friar stationed within a Christian institution at Oxford. Bacon himself goes about his work, for the most part, naively ignoring the fact that he is practising dark art. Bacon has not forsworn Christianity, as much as he has absentmindedly forgotten about certain important aspects of it. In turn, Bacon wears his cross simply because he has never had the presence of mind to remove it for any conscientious reason. Leggatt writes that Bacon has used his magic to toy with the Crucifixion; but because of that Crucifixion even this blasphemy can be forgiven (Leggatt 38) and indeed, this is also represented by Bacon’s costuming: his robe may be as black as the arts he has become absorbed in, but he has never removed his cross, merely forgotten its importance, and will therefore always have it within grasp, to reclaim when that which has been irrelevant through most of the play, [again] seems [to be] the only power that matters (Leggatt 38).
Para17This project was far more enjoyable than I had anticipated it would be. I feel lucky to have had such enthusiastic, reliable partners and was very pleased with the way we were able to produce such an entertaining and, ultimately, thoughtful scene. Because of our good communication and rapport with one another, ideas were able to flow freely and easily. This camaraderie was bolstered additionally by the fact that none of us was particularly good at being punctual for rehearsal. Our tardiness turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it forced those present to sit down and share ideas before having to dive into the running of scenes. From our ability to brainstorm together and openly circulate and discuss ideas and things we had drawn from our research on the play we were able to ultimately create a deep understanding of Greene’s characters in this scene, and help further certain ideas of our own. In my portrayal of Burden I attempted to demonstrate how easy it is to disagree with someone who is not immediately likable. Despite the fact that Burden is ingratiating and antagonizing he represents reason in the face of a paranoid, obsessive child. My aim with this scene was to encourage Bacon to reveal himself as a pompous and flawed man, but to simultaneously have him be the sympathetic character when placed next to Burden. Burden also serves as proof that audiences, just like the character Clason, are naturally inclined to sympathize and be enamored with someone who appeals to childhood rather than someone who appeals to adulthood. If I could do this, through Burden, the condescending, smug father figure, then I knew that there would be greater potential later in the play for Bacon’s terrifying repentance.


Grant Winestock

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

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

Scott Matthews


Butler, E.M. The Myth of the Magus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.
Leggatt, Alexander. Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999. WSB aaa426.
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.

QME Editorial Board (QMEB1)

The QME Editorial Board consists of Helen Ostovich, General Editor; Peter Cockett, General Editor (Performance); and Andrew Griffin, General Editor (Text), with the support of an Advisory Board.