A hundred years ago, the name Francis Bacon was inescapable. Throughout the 1890s, barely a month passed without some new contribution to the great debate about whether or not he was the true author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. You don't now meet many people who hold fast to the Baconian faith, but he is the one contender for the Shakespearean throne whose name is widely known. That is because he was unquestionably a true Renaissance man, at once scholar and courtier.
The Baconian argument boiled down to little more than a prejudice. The great plays must have been written by a great man, which the provincial Shakespeare wasn't and the well-bred Bacon was, so Bacon must have written them. Lisa Jardine, by contrast, is not someone to take greatness for granted. Her best book is an account of how Desiderius Erasmus fashioned his own reputation by means of that powerful new medium, the printing press, self-consciously creating the image of himself as the greatest "humanist" scholar of the Renaissance.
Jardine's Bacon is equally a man with a mission. His task: to follow in his father's footsteps into a great office of state. His method: to gain the patronage of the most powerful man at court. Failing to get far with his uncle, Lord Treasurer Burghley, he turned to the Earl of Essex. But when Essex fell from grace, Bacon turned against him, acting as a prosecutor in his trial for treason. During the reign of King James, he cosied up to Buckingham, and was duly rewarded with the offices of attorney- general, then Lord Keeper (his father's post), and finally - the glittering prize - Lord Chancellor. He fell as spectacularly as he had risen. Following accusations of both bribery and murky sexual practices, he was forced from office. Unlike most politicians, though, he had a second career, as nothing less than the leading thinker of his age. His speculations about the modernisation of investigative method and his proposals for new structures for the conduct of advanced research prepared the ground for the "scientific revolution" of the later 17th century. One of the many strengths of this new biography is its exploration of the links between Bacon's speculative writings and his angling for patronage. The authors point out that the title of his most famous work, The Advancement of Learning (1605), suggests not only the modernisation of intellectual life but also the need for the learned to gain "advancement" - preferment - at court. Again, there is a brilliant analysis of how in his Brief Discourse Touching the Happy Union of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, Bacon writes about how the right sort of "unions" in nature lead to "harmony". In so writing, he flatters both the scholarly ambitions and the political intentions of the new king who united the two nations. There is a lot less of this kind of close attention to literary detail than one might expect from a book written by two scholars who teach in English departments. …