Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

With a tentative composition date in 1589, this work by Robert Greene is one of the earliest plays I'm reading.

Like Romeo and Juliet, it begins with a lovesick young man being questioned by his companions as to his melancholy. Ned, the Prince of Wales is in love with Margaret of Fressingfield, a commoner, whose beauty he describes in glowing (but somewhat incongruous) terms involving Venus and cheese. His clever fool Rafe has an idea of how he will win Margaret to his bed (he doesn't want to marry her, and she will not give up her virginity for less than marriage). They disguise Lacy, one of Ned's noble friends, to become friends with Margaret and get her opinion of Ned, and then Ned goes to the famed Friar Bacon, a sorcerer, who will make Ned into a silk purse, which Margaret will put into her placket, and then hey-yo! He's in her skirt! Foolproof plan, no doubt. Lacy, of course, says that he will execute his charge "as if that Lacy were in love with her." Foreshadowing!

At the same time, Friar Bacon has this idea to make a brazen head that will "unfold strange doubts and aphorisms" and "compass England with a wall of brass." I think this is a magical item that will not only prophecy but will also protect England from invasion. Bacon makes a brave speech about his powers, much like the speech Prospero makes in The Tempest when he says he can "rift Jove's stout oak," etc. He makes people appear and disappear in a whirlwind like Faustus, and like Faustus, he seeks knowledge and to "strain out nigromancy to the deep."

So Margaret falls in love with Lacy, not with Ned. Ned finds out about this, and retaliates, through Friar Bacon's magic. He eventually realizes that they really love each other and gives her up to marry his royal bride, Eleanor of Castile. The delegation from Castile has brought a magician with them who has a magician duel with Friar Bungay, a friend of Bacon's. He bests Bungay, and then Bacon bests him without even trying. Lacy leaves Margaret who takes holy orders but then goes back to Lacy when he returns, saying that he was just testing her love (what is with all this love-testing?). Bacon's brazen head falls to pieces when Bacon's servant, Miles, does not wake him up in time to respond to its first words. Bacon renounces magic, and Miles decides quite cheerfully to go down to hell and become a tapster for the devils. He rides away on a devil's back, cracking jokes all the way. And Margaret and Lacy, and Ned and Eleanor, are married.

The obvious comparisons are between this play, Faustus, and The Tempest. All three magicians use their magic to spy on others, to create tricks and illusions to entertain others, and to manipulate others. All three get sunk so deep in study that they forget what is good for the world and those around them. All three experience a "come to Jesus" moment when they are called to renounce magic (and two do). Prospero doesn't deal with devils and his immortal soul is not at stake, but he lays down his staff and drowns his book all the same.

The comedy in this play is similar to the comedy in Faustus--merry servants trying to take on some of their master's reputation for themselves and failing. Even though Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are funny lower-class characters, their comedy seems more funny and more sophisticated. Am I saying that because it's $hakespeare? I'm honestly not sure. Caliban himself seems a more interesting "servant" character than Rafe and Faustus's clowns, because he has such antipathy for his master, because the audience is allowed such sympathy for him, and because he's not entirely human. The clown scenes in FBAFB and Faustus seem driven by a dialogue of one-up-man-ship, each character making their line a punchline. I guess the struggle and conspiracy of the three clowns in The Tempest seems more motivated, more real, and that makes it funnier to me.

Friar Bacon has to duel another magician, Jacques Vandermast. Do Faustus and Prospero ever have to duel? Prospero sees the old witch Sycorax as his enemy but she is dead and we aren't sure they ever came into contact.

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