In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle travels to Elizabethan England for Robert Greene’s comedy
Robert Greene is probably best-known, in the British popular consciousness at least, for two things. The first is for penning what was perhaps the first, and one of the most memorable, philippics against William Shakespeare: as he lay dying, Greene attacked the Stratford playwright as an ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.’ The second is for being played (in a comical tour de force) by Mark Heap in the BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, in which David Mitchell plays the up-and-coming Bard and the lovely Liza Tarbuck plays Anne Hathaway. (I feel I must give Liza a mention, as she once called me ‘bouncy’ on national radio and the compliment has always stuck with me. But that’s another story…)
In Upstart Crow, which takes its title, of course, from Greene’s broadside, Greene is clearly Shakespeare’s senior, viewing the Bard of Avon as a young interloper threatening Greene’s pre-eminence in the theatre world. The running joke – one of several, in fact – revolves around Greene’s attempts to get rid of Shakespeare from the theatres, at any cost. One would hardly guess that in real life, Greene was only six years older than Shakespeare. But Ben Elton, the show’s writer, does have plenty of fun with the title of Greene’s most famous and enduring play for the London stage, the comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.
In summary, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is set in the thirteenth century, and focuses on Prince Edward’s attempts to woo a maid, Margaret. (Edward will later become King Edward I.) Leaving his friend Lacy to woo Margaret in his absence, Edward goes to Oxford to ask Friar Bacon, a noted philosopher and magician, to help him. Also at Oxford, King Henry III plans to have his son betrothed to Eleanor of Castile. With the help of Friar Bacon’s magic glass, Edward learns that Margaret has fallen in love with Lacy, who was supposed to be wooing her for the prince, and that the aged Friar Bungay has agreed to marry them. Bacon uses his magic to prevent the wedding from going ahead, before facing off against Vandermast, a German necromancer travelling in the retinue of the Emperor of Germany, who has accompanied King Henry to Oxford. Bacon wins the battle of the magicians, but the brazen head, which he’s been working on for seven years, breaks. Edward, who had initially intended to kill his treacherous friend, encourages a match between Lacy and Margaret, while allowing himself to be betrothed to Eleanor of Castile.
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay contains a fair bit of magic, which must have presented quite a spectacle to original Elizabethan audiences, much like Marlowe’s Dr Faustus; indeed, it’s likely that Greene was following Marlowe’s lead by writing a play containing so many magical elements. The play also introduced me to a charming piece of false etymology. In the play, Friar Bacon (based on the real figure of Roger Bacon) is working on a magical ‘brazen head’ which will help to protect England against enemy invaders. (Tellingly, the play may have been written in 1589, the year after the Spanish Armada.) The brass head appears to have been suggested by the fact that Bacon is at the Oxford college of ‘Brazen-nose’, i.e. Brasenose. The name actually derives from brazen-huis, because the college was founded on the site of an old brewhouse.
I own Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay in a wonderful 1960s pocket anthology of minor Elizabethan comedies, although the earliest of them in this collection, Ralph Roister Doister, predates Elizabeth’s reign by a number of years. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, with its clown figures, romantic plot, and stock figures, is a classic example of the Elizabethan comedy and worth reading for the liminal position in English literary history which it occupies. It shows English comedy developing for the new Elizabethan stage, with its spectacle, disguises, mix-ups, and romantic plot. The play’s ingredients are treated rather more crudely than in Shakespeare’s comedies, but then Greene was blazing a trail for Shakespeare, Jonson, and others who came afterwards.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.