Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Deep Prescience": Succession and the Politics of Prophecy in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Deep Prescience": Succession and the Politics of Prophecy in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Article excerpt

In a well-known episode from the Faerie Queene (1590), the seer Merlin delivers a political prophecy to Britomart which predicts the ascension of a "royall virgin" to the throne of England. It is an instance of what Marjorie Garber calls "hindsight masquerading as foresight," as Spenser ascribes to a figure of the deep past the ability to foresee the reign of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps associating her rule with providential design. (1) The prophecy takes a strange turn almost immediately, though. This vision of the Elizabethan era that begins gloriously stops abruptly, as the future becomes ominously oblique. Spenser ends the prophecy with a startling phrase to describe what Merlin sees, but will not name, beyond Elizabeth: a "ghastly spectacle" by which he is "dismayd." (2) Merlin's refusal to continue is represented as his unwillingness to report what he sees. But in fact it is an acknowledgment of authorial limits. Spenser had appropriated a fabled, potent wizard to use in this scene, but he could not endow him with the power to see any more of the future than the poet himself could apprehend while writing in the late sixteenth century. Although by the end of the 1580s James VI of Scotland had emerged as Elizabeth's most likely heir, this was by no means certain, nor was the smooth accomplishing of such a theoretical transition something that could be confidently expected. (3) Critics of the poem have long recognized that when readers of the Faerie Queene are shut out of a vision of life beyond Elizabeth with such alarming language, Spenser's homage to his monarch is tinctured with disquietude over her failure to produce an heir. The moment, albeit indirectly, highlights fear of a succession crisis as a topic of literary speculation in the last decades of the sixteenth century, even among those ostensibly dedicated to praising the Queen.

A similar moment occurs in a near-contemporaneous work, Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (ca. 1589), performed by the Queen's Men. At the close of this play, set in thirteenth-century England, Friar Bacon delivers a vision of the future to King Henry III and his court that culminates in the ascension of "Diana's rose" and the peace and plenty her reign will bring. (4) While this speech does not contain the foreboding tone of Merlin's in the Faerie Queene, it likewise cannot purport to see any hint of stability beyond the last Tudor monarch. As in Spenser's case, Greene's attempt to ascribe a sense of the future to the past is perforce limited by the state of his own knowledge in the present in which he lives. While critics have written at length about the political implications of Merlin's prophecy in the Faerie Queene, and the ways it complicates our sense of Spenser's political and theological commitments, the parallel moment in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay has not been closely studied in these terms. (5) It is largely taken for granted that Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is a patriotic celebration of England and Elizabeth, and that this speech is the ecstatic climax of its praise. (6) Closer examination of Bacon's prophetic speech and the play as a whole expands this narrow picture. The speech notes the nation's dependence on Elizabeth for peace and prosperity, but also implicitly suggests that England has no future beyond her, a backhanded compliment to the Queen that recognizes her impressive tenure and points out her inability to secure long-term stability for her people.

I will demonstrate the validity of this premise in the first section of this essay. Yet, I do not want here simply to reverse the critical orthodoxy and claim that Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay undermines rather than lauds Elizabeth. In the second section, then, I will explore how we can acknowledge that reading and still arrive at a more nuanced assessment of how the play reflects on monarchical authority in the past and present, and on its prospects for the future. The dramatic context of this work is crucial to understanding its potential effect on audience perception of Elizabeth, especially the effect of Bacon's resounding prophecy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.