A NEW LIGHT ON BACON AND BACONISM
Kingdom for a Stage: Magicians and Aristocrats in the Elizabethan Theater
Sutton Publishing, h.b.270 pp £20 or $29.95
Joy Hancox's previous book, The Byrom Collection, was about her mysterious introduction to a private collection of papers with diagrams and schemes of geometry, some of which seemed to relate to Shakespeare's Globe and other theatre buildings of this time. Kingdom for a Stage describes her further studies of this material and the remarkable discoveries she made about their origin and meaning. In the Science Museum she found a hoard of brass plates, prototypes of the Byrom figures and of other esoteric drawings in the Museum's Library.
The brass plates were reckoned to be about 400 years old, and the next stage was to investigate where they had come from. Joy Hancox is a thorough detective. She narrowed her search to an area of south Wales, one of the earliest centres of metal- working, and to a particular spot, the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey, next to which a brass workshop had been established in the Middle Ages.
This is where the story becomes exciting. Francis Bacon enters the scene, and with him are the leading characters and families in the esoteric, philosophical movement that gave birth to the writings of Shakespeare. Bacon had shares in the Tintern brassworks, and he was reputed to have owned the nearby estate, Mount St Albans. Also involved were the Herbert family, headed by the third Earl of Pembroke, together with the poets and idealists whose presiding genius at Wilton House was Pembroke's mother, Mary, sister of Sir Philip Sidney. Near Tintern, according to our author-detective, they founded a secret college for educating students in the mystical science professed by John Dee, Giordano Bruno and a chain of initiates culminating in Francis Bacon.
The "brotherhood to whom instruction was offered was a small, exclusive group, men not simply of intelligence and learning but of wisdom and imagination. The wisdom it imparted was in turn shared by Dr Dee, Sir William Herbert, Sir Francis Bacon and William, third Earl of Pembroke. All were, for want of a better word, 'adepts'. This brotherhood was foreshadowed in an embryonic form by Bacon's group, 'The Knights of the Helmet' - a group that took its name from the helmet of the goddess of wisdom."
Joy Hancox had no interest in the Authorship question until it was forced upon her by her researches. So she knew nothing about the Baconian significance of that stretch of the river Wye that flows by Tintern, or of the searches in that area previously conducted by Dr Orville Owen of Detroit. For fifteen years after 1909 Owen and his followers probed the bed and the banks of the Wye, looking for papers and relics of Bacon which they believed he had hidden there. Owen's clues, obtained through his own deciphering system, indicated a spot some miles down-river, at Chepstow. There he found nothing, but he might have done better had he followed the Hancox line of research. Perhaps she or someone else will one day find what he missed.
This is a rich book, with more highlights and insights that I can mention here. One of its themes is the Globe theatre and its dimensions, clearly displayed in the Byrom papers. Before its recent replication, Hancox did her best to interest the promoters in her evidence of the Globe's original plan. But the experts persisted in their own opinions, and the project went ahead regardless. The result is a theatre wrongly proportioned and orientated, with practical drawbacks that could have been avoided by reference to the Byrom plans.
Behind the planning of the Globe, and in its dimensions, Hancox sees a cosmological pattern, expressing the esoteric ideals of Dee and his circle The same ideals are displayed in Shakespeare, implying that the theatres and the plays were designed in harmony with each other and in accordance with the traditional world-image on which Solomon's Temple was built. By the use of numbers and ratios which are common to music, geometry, astronomy and the other natural sciences, the masonic architects of the Globe allowed Prospero's musing on the transient nature of 'the whole globe itself' to apply equally well to the theatre, its audience and the material universe.
Like the rest of us today. Joy Hancox is not deeply versed in the esoteric science. But she knows enough to understand how radically the revival of that science in England influenced the culture of Shakespeare's age. Like Frances Yates before her, she avoids the Authorship question (and who can blame them?) at the same time as she substantiates it. She looks again at the main characters in the Shakespeare mystery, the scholars, poets, philosophers, statesmen and noblemen who were both on stage and behind the scenes at the time. And she sees the connection between all these people - their common devotion to an ideal view of the world, based on a universal science, recently rediscovered and with the potential of transforming the world into a mythological paradise.
Beginning with Delia Bacon in 1857, many of the most fruitful approaches to the Shakespeare mystery have been made by woman scholars. Joy Hancox is a worthy addition to their ranks. As I implied at the beginning, she is not a great writer, but she is perceptive and persistent and, best of all, she is still actively pursuing the interesting lines of inquiry she has opened. I look forward keenly to her future discoveries, and I hope that one day she will confront the Authorship question head on.
John Michell is the author of several books on esoteric science, cosmography, number and measure, including 'The Dimensions of Paradise'. He has also written 'Eccentric Lives', with a chapter on Baconians explorations in the river Wye, and 'Who Wrote Shakespeare?', an overview of the Authorship question.