Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
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 play is typical in this regard. Half of it is devoted to a presentation of Bacon’s prodigious powers, which his foolish servant Miles partially thwarts. In his first appearance, with the visiting group of doubtful scholars, Bacon boasts of his skills. This prideful display announces his later troubles, but the magician does prove himself by evoking the devil and transporting the host of a pub to his cell. Later, he strikes his rival Bungay mute (to prevent him from marrying Lacy and Margaret). Then Bacon joins with Bungay in a conjuring contest against foreigners and commands the spirit of Hercules to carry Vandermast back to Germany. Bacon’s one act of damnation is directed at Miles after the servant’s ineptness destroys the friar’s life work. When the devil comes for him, Miles, rather than being afraid, delights in the singular experience. The other half of the play revolves about the fair maid Margaret of Fressingfield, her multiple suitors, her loyalty to her love, and Prince Edward’s magnanimity.
Edward at the start of the play is lovesick for Margaret, but seduction, not marriage, is his aim. Inhibited by his royal position, he relies upon his fool, Ralph, and friend, Lacy, to advance his cause. When the plan fails, Edward denounces Lacy and Margaret but almost immediately reverses himself, recognizing his royal position and offering to give away Margaret in a wedding that will make her countess of Lincoln.
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is not as formless as it sometimes is said to be. The halves are linked by the presence of Bacon in both plots, but there are other, more important, parallels. The love story moves from joy through sadness to happiness, and the Bacon plot progresses from great heights to disaster and tragedy (the deaths of...
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the suitors and their fathers) but again to joy. Further, in both plots, exceptional gifts (Bacon’s magical abilities and Margaret’s outstanding beauty) lead to misery that causes each to renounce the gift (he forsakes his magic, and she joins a convent). The play is a comedy, however, so everyone eventually is reconciled, and the last scene celebrates a double marriage and restoration of the natural order.
The critical assessment that Margaret is the first realistically portrayed and thoroughly believable female character in English drama has been superseded by the judgment that she is little more than a patient Griselda type. As such, substantive development of her personality would have been superfluous. She remains an interesting character. Her father respects her judgment regarding Lacy, deferring to her when the rival suitors—Lambert and Serlsby—ask him for her hand in marriage. She buys time with the rivals but later acts quickly—deciding to become a nun—after receiving Lacy’s letter with news of his intention to marry another. When he comes to the convent, reveals that he only meant to test her, and asks her to marry, she renounces her vocation and agrees. Margaret’s impulsiveness and the prince’s sudden turnabout are not wholly credible, but these actions are in harmony with the rest of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, a romantic, not realistic, comedy.