Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, a comical history play, is Robert Greene’s most enduring work. It combines the romanticism and realism that are his hallmarks. The precise date of the play is unknown, so the play’s relationship with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (c. 1588) is unclear. Was Greene or Marlowe the borrower who drew upon the recent success of a fellow dramatist’s conjuring play? Whichever came first, both works cater to the Elizabethans’ curiosity about magic and sorcery, delight in theatrical horseplay, and pleasure in seeing ordinary people rise to power and influence. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, like Doctor Faustus, was frequently revived in the 1590’s, two of many conjuring plays of the period.
Greene’s main source was a mid-sixteenth century anonymous prose romance. The events in his drama of thirteenth century England are fictional, but there actually was a Roger Bacon at that time who allegedly practiced black magic at Oxford University (Greene’s alma mater) and around whom legends developed. Despite Bacon’s title, Bacon does not function as a churchman in the play, but is more like Merlin, the patriotic Arthurian sorcerer. Bacon’s repentance speech late in the play reflects prevailing Elizabethan beliefs. Bacon’s dalliances, however, unlike those of Faustus, are not frightening and do not lead to damnation, although they do cause deaths.
Noteworthy about Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is how it brings together royalty, nobility, and commoners, preserving some traditional class barriers but breaking through others. Greene’s idealistic portrait of a benevolently democratic aristocracy may reflect the outburst of patriotism in England following the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. Indicative also of this nationalistic theme are Bacon’s plan to build a protective brass wall around England and his humiliation of the German emperor’s necromancer Jaques Vandermast.
Multiple plots are commonplace in Elizabethan comedies, and Greene’s...
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