Bacon’s works


Bacon's Essays: Of Masques and Triumphs

Masques were a very popular form of entertainment at court in the Jacobethan period (James + Elizabeth. Bacon pretends to think little of them, but he wrote several and must seen many. By our standards, they sound fairly static, pompous, heavy-handed on the morality front, although apparently often including half-naked noblewomen.

Wikipedia has a clear definition: “A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron.”

Great state and pleasure

Oceania, design by Inigo Jones, for Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness, 1605.

Bacon begins by apologizing for including such a trivial topic in his collection of essays, which are generally about weightier matters. “But yet, since princes will have such things, it is better they should be graced with elegancy, than daubed with cost.” If you must do it, do it right.

Then he seems to contradict himself, and I can’t resolve it. Whately’s no help here. First Bacon says, “Dancing to song, is a thing of great state and pleasure.” Then, after specifying some features, like singing in quire (chorus), he says, “Acting in song, especially in dialogues, hath an extreme good grace; I say acting, not dancing (for that is a mean and vulgar thing).”

So which is it, Frank? State and pleasure, or mean and vulgar? We’re standing here with our foot lifted, ready to trip it feetly.

A little farther on, he says, “Turning dances into figure, is a childish curiosity.” Here I think he means pantomime, a widely-shared opinion.

Bit of a digression: Inigo Jones, whose lovely designs for costumes have survived, was mostly an architect. He was appointed Surveyor-General of the King’s Works (King James I) in 1615. This was an age of tremendous building of fantastically lavish prestige houses, as they’re called — many of which you can go and visit today. Jones participated in the design of masques because everyone who could contribute, did so, to gain the favour of King and court. Francis Bacon was a philosopher and a great legal scholar, for pity’s sake, and he wrote the silly things.

Petty wonderment

That’s almost an oxymoron for me, but not for Bacon. I think he means things that are flashy or too obvious. “[T]hose things which I here set down, are such as do naturally take the sense”; not things that force your attention.

daughterofniger“Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied.” I think masques were usually performed indoors, at night, so light would indeed be a part of the spectacle that could be designed. I don’t know for sure, but colored light can be produced by putting a candle or torch behind a piece of thin colored silk. “The colors that show best by candle-light are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory.” Os and spangs must be spangles – bits of reflective material.

“Let the gongs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed.” We don’t want mealy-mouthed music. Let it ring out!

On the costume front: “As for rich embroidery, it is lost and not discerned.” That’s good cost-saving advice there. Don’t embellish to no effect! “Let the suits of the masquers be graceful, and such as become the person, when the vizors are off.” Vizor is a mask. Certainly your want your costumes to flatter the wearer, especially when the wearer is someone like Queen Anne.

He considers the olfactory sense as well – Jacobean sensurround. “Some sweet odors suddenly coming forth, without any drops falling, are, in such a company as there is steam and heat, things of great pleasure and refreshment.”

“But all is nothing except the room be kept clear and neat.” Yes, indeed.

The antimasque

An antimasque (also spelled antemasque) is a comic or grotesque dance presented before or Tempest-masque-1between the acts of a masque, a type of dramatic composition. It’s usually a spectacle of disorder, to contrast with the performance of divine order in the masque proper. You need to know that for Bacon’s advice to make sense.

“Let anti-masques not be long; they have been commonly of fools, satyrs, baboons, wild-men, antics, beasts, sprites, witches, Ethiops, pigmies, turquets, nymphs, rustics, Cupids, statuas moving, and the like. As for angels, it is not comical enough, to put them in anti-masques; and anything that is hideous, as devils, giants, is on the other side as unfit.”

Bacon was raised by a strict Calvinist, remember. He doesn’t approve of putting angels in a scene of discord.

A brief word about Triumphs

These are grand public displays, most likely processions of some kind. The Columbus Day Parade in New York is a sort of Triumph, with floats representing this organization or that tradition.

“For justs, and tourneys, and barriers; the glories of them are chiefly in the chariots, wherein the challengers make their entry; especially if they be drawn with strange beasts: as lions, bears, camels, and the like; or in the devices of their entrance; or in the bravery of their liveries; or in the goodly furniture of their horses and armor. But enough of these toys.”

This float with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is so Jacobean, it’s absolutely perfect. No strange beasts, but it’s big and colorful and an expression of the government’s military might.


An example

A tiny taste of the sort of thing that went on in a masque, from Ben Jonson’s 1605 The Masque of Beauty, found at Luminarium. They’re usually mythological in nature, and might have a moral — or not so much. They will usually include a fair amount of thinly-veiled flattery for the monarch, his queen, and any other major patrons who might be around.

B O R E A S.


 Hich, among these is AlbionNeptunes Sonne? 
  I A N V A R I V S.


 Hat ignorance dares make that question? 
Would any aske, who Mars were in the wars? 
Or, which is Hesperus, among the starres? 
Of the bright Planets, which is Sol? Or can 
A doubt arise, ‘mong creatures, which is man? 
Behold, whose eyes do dart Promethian fire 
Throughout this all; whose precepts do inspire 
The rest with duty; yet commanding, cheare: 
And are obeyed, more with loue, then feare.

Bacon's essays: Of Ambition

Of Ambition was published in 1612, so Bacon probably wrote it before King James fell in love with his extremely ambitious favorite, George Villiers. George was 21 in 1614 when he caught the king’s eye. He rose and rose and rose some more, to become the 1st Duke of Buckingham.

King James must have had favorites between his accession to the English throne in 1603 and the appearance of the “most beautiful man in the world,” but I haven’t gotten around to reading a biography of James yet, so I don’t know who they might have been. Not Francis, alas; he was never anyone’s favorite, although both James and Elizabeth valued his advice and kept him close.

Elizabeth famously had her favorites too. I think Sir Walter Raleigh was twice as beautiful as George Villiers. Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, was no slouch either, apart from that straggly beard. Y’all judge for your own selves.

Sir Walter Raleigh
George Villiers
Earl of Essex


Becometh thou not adust

“Ambition is like choler; which is an humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous.”

“Adust” is technical jargon, from the obsolete science of humoral medicine. The OED gives us this for the primary meaning: “Med. Designating any of the humours of the body when considered to be abnormally concentrated and dark in colour, and associated with a pathological state of hotness and dryness of the body.”

The four temperaments, Charles Le Brun-Grande Commande, 1674. That’s Choleric on the left, ready to go out and get adusty. Melancholy is reading a book all by his lonesome, Sanguine is playing the flute (la la la la la) and Phlegmatic is just standing there looking like, “Meh.”

Bacon’s using a secondary meaning: “Originally: affected with, or having a temperament determined by, adust humours (see sense 1a). In later use: having a melancholy character or appearance; gloomy; sallow.”

One of the supporting quotes is from my old pal Anthony Munday: “1605   A. Munday tr. G. Affinati Dumbe Diuine Speaker 228   Whereon it happeneth, that cholericke men (being adust and fierie by nature) when they are in heate, they cannot pronounce perfectly.”

I’m evidently feeling digressive. The meaning of the top quote there is clear enough: Ambition is great if the ambition person can keep moving forward. It motivates them. But if they’re thwarted, they turn sour, even dangerous. Bacon advises princes (which term always included queens in his day) not to take up ambitious men unless necessary; but sometimes it’s necessary.

“Good commanders in the wars must be taken, be they never so ambitious; for the use of their service, dispenseth with the rest; and to take a soldier without ambition, is to pull off his spurs.”

I would not attempt to pull off a good soldier’s spurs, not without my rose-trimming gloves on!

Screens to princes

“There is also great use of ambitious men, in being screens to princes in matters of danger and envy; for no man will take that part, except he be like a seeled dove, that mounts and mounts, because he cannot see about him.”


A seeled dove has had its eyes sewn shut as part of its training. They used to do that with falcons, when teaching them to hunt and return with their prey. Sounds horrible to us, but it was just the way things were for Bacon. The point here is that your ambitious man is so focused on rising that he doesn’t see the danger he’s in, but draws it away from the prince. At least I think that’s what this means. 

“There is use also of ambitious men, in pulling down the greatness of any subject that over-tops; as Tiberius used Marco, in the pulling down of Sejanus.” Roman politics is too complicated to explain concisely. You can read about Tiberius and Sejanus at Wikipedia if you’re into it.

The real problem is how to control the ambitious persons you bring in to protect yourself from the other ambitious persons on the next level down. “There is less danger of them, if they be of mean birth, than if they be noble; and if they be rather harsh of nature, than gracious and popular: and if they be rather new raised, than grown cunning, and fortified, in their greatness.” Sounds like Sir Walter Ralegh.

In all those cases, they’re dependent on the prince for favor, they can’t win it on their own from the people or even their peers.

Favorites have their uses

“It is counted by some, a weakness in princes, to have favorites; but it is, of all others, the best remedy against ambitious great-ones. For when the way of pleasuring, and displeasuring, lieth by the favorite, it is impossible any other should be overgreat.”

Rolling ship

They deflect petitioners from the prince. James I used Buckingham in this way. You had to get George’s approval before the king would even listen.

“Another means to curb them, is to balance them by others, as proud as they. But then there must be some middle counsellors, to keep things steady; for without that ballast, the ship will roll too much.”

Elizabeth used this method, balancing Raleigh and Essex with the steady Cecils (father, Lord Burghley; son, Robert Cecil.) Bacon tried to stay in the middle, but was effectively pushed toward Essex by the frosty, unhelpful Cecils.

“As for the having of them obnoxious to ruin; if they be of fearful natures, it may do well; but if they be stout and daring, it may precipitate their designs, and prove dangerous.” By ‘obnoxious,’ he means ‘liable to.’ Bacon had terrible personal experience of a favorite who was stout and daring: the Earl of Essex, who responded to Elizabeth’s attempts to curb him by revolting, thereby getting his curly, earl-ly head cut off.

Three aims of ambition

“He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men, hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public. But he, that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers, is the decay of a whole age.”

This is an interesting observation that applies to more than courtiers. If you have lots of internet service providers, for example, they compete with one another to excel, thus raising the quality of service for everyone. But if you only have one or two divvying up the field so that each owns its own exclusive territory, they can do what they want: raise rates arbitrarily, refuse to extend service into unprofitable communities, etc. (Unless they were publicly owned, of course, in which case they would serve their citizen-owners.)

“Honor hath three things in it: the vantage ground to do good; the approach to kings and principal persons; and the raising of a man’s own fortunes. He that hath the best of these intentions, when he aspireth, is an honest man; and that prince, that can discern of these intentions in another that aspireth, is a wise prince.”

Diogenes in search of an honest man