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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sir Francis Bacon’s 1625 anthology Essays is a collection of fifty-eight compositions that explore a diverse range of social, political, and philosophical issues. As Essays is an experimental exploration of ideas rather than a plot-driven story, there are no characters.

However, Francis Bacon was a highly educated man and used an array of allusions to historical and mythological figures in his writing. These allusions help Bacon illustrate or prove his points by providing examples and quotes that his audience would connect with and understand. In Essays, there are four major categories of people alluded to. Bacon alludes to biblical, historical, mythological, and contemporary characters, philosophers, and writers.

Biblical Figures

The Christian Bible was the single most important book in Bacon’s lifetime. The first English language Bible, the King James Bible, was edited and published under Bacon’s oversight in 1611. In Essays, Bacon uses several biblical characters to illustrate or introduce his ideas. For example, Bacon opens his famous essay, “Of Truth,” with a biblical allusion:

WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Bacon alludes to the Roman ruler who sentences Jesus to death in the Gospels because, like Pilate, many are too lazy to wrestle with the question of truth. Bacon also alludes to Adam, Solomon, Judas, and numerous other Biblical characters in his essay anthology, and he paraphrases scripture on several occasions.

Mythological Figures

Sir Francis Bacon uses a cast of gods, goddesses, heroes, and creatures from Greek and Roman mythology to great rhetorical effect in Essays. For example, in “Of Marriage and Single Life,” Bacon alludes to the story of Odysseus:

Grave natures, led by custom, and therefore constant, are commonly loving husbands, as was said of Ulysses, vetulam suam prætulit immortalitati [he preferred his old wife to immortality].

Bacon uses Odysseus as an example of how love and romantic relationships can interfere with productivity and even, in this case, immortality. A partial list of other mythological figures mentioned in Essays includes Apollo, Penelope, Kronos, Saturn, Calypso, Phaethon, and many others.

Historical Figures

Allusions to historical figures such as kings and generals are also frequent in Bacon’s Essays. For example, in “Of Friendship,” Bacon uses the famous assassination of Caesar to illustrate a point about the limits of trust:

With Julius Cæsar, Decimus Brutus had obtained that interest, as he set him down in his testament for heir in remainder after his nephew. And this was the man that had power with him to draw him forth to his death.

The effect of using Caesar and other familiar historical Romans—such as Pompey, Augustus, and Agrippa—is powerful. By alluding to historical figures, Bacon reminds his audience that his ideas have practical implications in the real world.

Bacon's Contemporaries

Francis Bacon occasionally alludes to his contemporaries in Essays, particularly the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne. Many lines from Essays are now viewed by scholars to be partial paraphrases of Montaigne’s work, which was written in French. Bacon’s use of Montaigne’s work shows that he was not writing Essays in an intellectual vacuum. Rather, he was actively engaging with the ideas spreading through Europe during the decades leading up to the Enlightenment.

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