Bacon’s essays on revenge, envy and deformity


This celebrated collection of essays on diverse moral and social themes was written by the great philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626). The Essays are often considered his biggest literary achievement, expanded and refined in theme and style over 28 years. The works on ‘Revenge’ and ‘Envy’– which are digitised here – appeared in the third edition, printed in 1625 (and re-issued in this 1696 version); the essay on ‘Deformity’ first appeared in 1612 and was revised in 1625. In their themes, these essays raise questions relevant to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III.

Bacon’s Essayes

Francis Bacon first published ten Essayes in 1597 on aspects of public life such as ‘Honour and Reputation’, ‘Ceremonies’ and ‘Studies’, with a second edition of 38 essays appearing in 1612. The final set of 58 essays (1625) explores wide-ranging facets of civil life – ‘Custom and Education’, ‘Marriage and Single Life’, ‘Empire’, ‘Unity in Religion’. But it also tackles the ways in which private individuals are affected by ‘Beauty’, ‘Deformity’, ‘Envy’, ‘Riches’ and desire for ‘Revenge’. Like the French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, Bacon explores each topic from several different angles rather than defending a single idea.

The authorship controversy: Francis Bacon as Shakespeare?

As well as writing essays and influential works on the philosophy of science, Bacon was an ambitious lawyer, rewarded with the title of Baron Verulam and a position as the Lord Chancellor (1618), but dismissed from office three years later for taking bribes.

Notoriously, some have also claimed that Bacon wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. Particularly in the 19th century, people saw Shakespeare’s biography as incompatible with his ‘genius’. Writers such as Delia Bacon argued that the texts were too refined to have been written by a humble Warwickshire actor. This is part of the ongoing ‘authorship controversy’ in which writers including Edward de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford), the playwright Christopher Marlowe and the translator John Florio are proposed and dismissed as the authors of the works credited to Shakespeare.

‘Of Revenge’ (pp. 9–10): Hamlet and revenge tragedy

In this essay, Bacon questions whether revenge is legally or morally defensible. Instead he presents a humanist view more in line with the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5. 39–41) or leaving vengeance in the hands of God (‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay saith the Lord’, Romans 12. 19). Bacon makes a clear distinction between vengeance and the law, saying ‘Revenge is a kind of wild Justice; which the more Man’s nature runs to, the more ought the Law to weed it out’ (p. 9). He argues that ‘In taking Revenge, a Man is but even with his Enemy; but in passing it over he is superiour: for it is a Princes part to pardon’ (pp. 9–10).

As a distinctive genre, revenge drama focuses on a central male character seeking retribution for a murder, which is often revealed by a ghost. The protagonist attempts to restore justice and reassert male honour outside the framework of the law, but often suffers death for it. This pattern is evident in the ancient Roman works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. In England, it first emerges in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedie (c. 1590), closely followed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.

The revenge motif becomes central to Hamlet when the Ghost commands that his son should ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther’ (1.5.25) and when Laertes, in his turn, vows that he’ll be ‘reveng’d /Most throughly’ (4.5.136–37) for the murder of his father Polonius. Critics have noted the contrast between Laertes’ action and Hamlet’s delay in taking his ‘dull revenge’ (4.4.33). They debate whether this arises from Hamlet’s ‘godlike reason’ and ‘thinking too precisely’ (4.4.38, 41). Does Hamlet ultimately conform to the conventions of revenge tragedy? Or might he anticipate the more humanist perspective expressed by Francis Bacon?

‘Of Envy’ (pp. 1823): views of ‘bastards’ in King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing

According to Francis Bacon, the ‘evil eye’ of envy is, like love, an all-consuming passion (pp. 18–19). In particular, it afflicts those without virtue or good fortune, who take ‘a kind of play-pleasure in looking upon the fortunes of others’ and ‘depressing’ their fortune (p. 19). More specifically, he claims that ‘Deformed persons, and Eunuchs [men who have been castrated], and old Men, and Bastards are envious’ because those who can’t improve their own position will do what they can to ‘impair anothers’ (p. 20). Not only are they thought to be defined by their very nature as social outsiders; they are also seen as prone to cruelty.

This idea of ‘bastards’ – children conceived outside marriage – as villains and malcontents is repeated widely in early modern plays. It is reflected in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Edmund ‘the bastard son to Gloucester’ in King Lear and Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. Condemned by their illegitimacy to a marginal social role, they are scheming and subversive figures. Born outside the patriarchal family with its clear lines of descent from father to son, they are also living proof of uncontrolled female desire. The ‘melancholy’ Don John defines himself as a ‘plain-dealing villain’ (1.3.32) who seeks any chance to ‘build mischief’ (1.3.46–47) and thwart Count Claudio’s marriage. Edmund is ruthless in his ambition to take land from his brother ‘Legitimate Edgar’ (1.2.16) and the title of earl from his father. He resists the customs which deny him the right to inheritance, demanding, ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ (1.2.22).

‘Of Deformity’ (pp. 117–18): disability and impairment in Richard III

Bacon suggests a relationship between deformity and poor character, claiming that ‘Deformed persons’ take revenge on Nature for their impairments, by being void of ‘Natural Affection’ (p. 117). He also asserts that ‘there is a consent between the body and the mind’ (ibid.), which suggests a belief in physiognomy – the idea that one’s features are a readable sign of one’s character. However, Bacon goes on to consider the difference between ‘Election’ (i.e. choice or free will) in the mind and ‘necessity’ in the body, and decides that ‘it is good to consider of Deformity, not as a Sign which is more deceivable, but as a Cause which seldom faileth of the Effect’ (pp. 117–18), i.e. Bacon believes that impairments are not necessarily a sign of poor character but are often a cause of it. He also says that as well as inducing contempt, a deformity has the potential to spur the affected person on to prove themselves unworthy of scorn, and that therefore some ‘deformed persons’ can be excellent people, again emphasising free will and choice. While still prejudicial, Bacon’s essay reflects an emerging approach to disability in the early modern period that is more secularised and less willing to see impairment as a punishment from God and automatic sign of evil.

There is a variety of attitudes to the Duke of Gloucester’s impairments in Richard III. Most of the characters fixate on his body, using a cruel rhetoric of deformity and monstrosity, as if it were proof or sign of his evil character. Richard also uses this sort of language to describe his own body, but he combines it with assertions of his will to do evil. Like Bacon, Shakespeare seems to suggest that while there is a relationship between Richard’s body and mind, there is some ambivalence as to the exact dynamic of cause and effect.

Full title:
The Essays, or Councils, civil and moral of Sir Francis Bacon ... With a Table of the Colours of Good and Evil. And a Discourse of the Wisdom of the Ancients (done into English by Sir Arthur Gorges). To this edition is added the Character of Queen Elizabeth; never before printed in English
Book / Quarto
Francis Bacon
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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