Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is a robust, multi-layered historical comedy that heralds many of Shakespeare’s problem comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure. The play begins with the Edward, Prince of Wales, bemoaning his affection for the Keeper of Fressingfield’s daughter, Margaret. Edward dispatches Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, to woo Margaret for him. In addition, Edward intends to use Friar Bacon’s magic to “enchain her love” (1.123). However, after Lacy and Margaret meet, Lacy quickly falls in love with her as well. Edward is momentarily outraged by this perceived slight, “Choler to see the traitors ’gree so well / Made me think the shadows substances” (6.129-130), but soon reconciles himself and marries Elinor, the daughter of the King of Castile.
Before Margaret and Lacey marry, she attempts to settle a dispute between two neighbors vying for her affection: Serlsby and Lambert. Margaret momentarily tempers the dispute, “Give me but ten days’ respite and I will reply, / Which or to whom myself affectionates. (10.77-78). However, Serlsby and Lambert ultimately kill one another in a duel (I discuss this point in more detail below). Later in the play, Margaret receives a letter from Lacy inexplicably denouncing his feelings. In response, Margaret decides to enter a nunnery. Before Margaret takes her vows, Lacy explains that the letter was simply a test to “try sweet Peggy’s constancy” (14.74). With little reluctance, Margaret accepts Lacy’s explanation and agrees to marry him.
Friar Bacon and his sorcery feature prominently as well. Throughout the play he completes remarkable feats of magical acumen. For example, in Scene 9 Bacon vanquishes a rival scholar, Jaques Vandermast, by instructing Hercules (Vandermast’s conjuring) to carry Vandermast back to Germany. Despite Bacon’s abilities, he is unable to complete, by his estimation, his great feat of sorcery: a Brazen Head to protect England. Bacon’s inability to remain awake in conjunction with Friar Bungay’s incompetence leads to the accidental destruction of the Brazen Head. Upon waking, Bacon realizes the destruction of the Brazen Head mirrors the destruction of his reputation, “But now the braves of Bacon hath an end; / Europe’s conceit of Bacon hath an end. (11.113-114). Later in the play, Bacon intervenes in Serlsby and Lambert’s disagreement. Through his magic glass, Bacon shows the two young men an aggressive duel between their fathers. In response the two young men fight and kill one another. Bacon feels responsibility, and pledges to discontinue the use of magic:
Bacon, thy magic doth effect this massacre.
This glass prospective worketh many woes,
And therefore, seeing these brave lusty brutes,
These friends youths, did perish by thine art,
End all thy magic and thine art at once. (13.76-80)
The play ends with a wedding ceremony—a conservative genre custom. But despite its seeming conventionality, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay ask a series of thought-provoking questions about the power of the self. Bacon is simultaneously celebrating and derided for his sorcery, further reflecting the play’s ambivalence toward hyper-inflated goals and aspirations. Unlike Faustus and Prospero, Bacon wills his sorcery toward national stability and security, which is arguably the most conservative piece of this multi-layered play.