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The Tragedy of Anne Boleyn by Sir Francis Bacon, decoded by Elizabeth Wells Gallup (1901)

June 30, 2012

This play was not, in fact, written by Sir Francis Bacon, nor was it decoded by Mrs. Gallup — it was the product of the nineteenth-century craze for ciphers, when Bacon was considered the prime candidate for Shakespearean authorship and Oxford remained a somewhat embarrassing random member of the nobility. Mrs. Gallup was one of the leading cipherers, who, using a system understood fully only by herself, “decoded” a staggering number of works, including not only this play but a number of essays and some philosophical treatises, all of them supposed to have been hidden in “Shakespeare’s” plays by a Bacon who, even under a pseudonym, was too wary of publishing such material at the time.

Mrs. Gallup believed fervently in the “bi-lateral cipher” and dedicated a tremendous part of her life to decoding it; unfortunately, as Samuel Schoenbaum put it in Shakespeare’s Lives, “Mrs. Gallup simply did not understand the conditions of Elizabethan printing … what she had discovered was not a bilateral cipher but a bilateral Rorschach blot.” In many ways Mrs. Gallup resembled the devotees of facilitated communication: she believed, genuinely and fervently, that she was decoding communications originally made by someone else, but unfortunately, any system she found had its origins in her own mind and nobody else’s, least of all Bacon’s or Shakespeare’s. An intelligent and ambitious woman, she was not equal to impersonating one of history’s great minds when she was not simply rearranging quotes from the plays. In the introduction, which is supposed to have been written by Bacon himself as an introduction to the bi-lateral cipher, we can see the sad result when Mrs. Wells is given a little more imaginative rope.

Seeke it out by carefull attentio’ to the simple rules which pointe your course: directions shewe each part of the worke so fully … indeed you may write meerelie as the hired assista’t whose worke is that of a man’s hand, or penne, not of his thought, braine, or minde … There is a play in some of my prose works, in Cypher, of great worth, entitl’d The White Rose o’ Britain.

The Tragedy of Anne Boleyn consists entirely of selections from other Shakespeare plays, adapted and altered slightly, mostly by substitution of names, and jammed together uncomfortably. If you think that the words being Shakespeare’s would make it easier to read than the faux-Elizabethan of the cipher, you are about to be disappointed. The result is painfully unreadable; a long early scene is spent on a masque with dialogue taken straight from the pages of Romeo and Juliet, (“Saints have hands that pilgrim’s hands do touch”) but although you’d think this would be the perfect place to introduce a musician, Mark Smeaton never makes an appearance here, or anywhere for that matter – he’s eliminated from the story completely. The middle sections, after Anne’s coronation (which is taken from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, with a generous supplement of Antony and Cleopatra – “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne”) are fairly consistent for a while because Wells has the actual Shakespeare play about Anne and Henry to draw on, but the problem here is that Shakespeare’s version ends with the birth of Elizabeth. In Shakespeare’s version, Henry wants a boy initially (“Is the queen delivered? / Say Ay, and of a boy.”) but is quickly reconciled to the baby’s being a girl by a prophecy that she will be a great queen. Wells makes this scene considerably rougher by chopping it up with an appearance by the Nun of Kent prophesying Henry’s downfall, with dialogue lifted from Joan of Arc in Henry V. After this the Nun disappears, never to be heard from again. For all that, she’s still more important than Catherine of Aragon, who is referred to but never makes an actual appearance.

Political considerations aside, it seems unfair of Shakespeare to end the story just as events really start to get going, a bit like ending Hamlet after that bit about “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.” It’s especially unfair to Gallup, who now has to scramble around for outside material for Anne’s downfall. She finds it, not completely surprisingly, in Othello. A scene or two after Elizabeth’s birth, Henry meets Jane Seymour and courts her via letter in a scene lifted from Two Gentlemen of Verona (“I will not look upon your master’s lines” says Jane, “I know they’re stuft with protestations, / And full of new-found oaths which he will break / As easily as I do tear this paper.” In this instance, the transplanted dialogue works pretty well) She sends the messenger back to tell Henry that she could only be his wife if Anne dies. Hmmm ….

And with that, Henry suddenly goes full Othello, with the Duke of Norfolk cast as Iago and Henry Norris as Cassio, with the handkerchief subplot reproduced down to the letter. Anne’s faithful maid, Emilia protests that Anne is innocent, but is not believed. Henry confronts her with accusations of incest with her brother (Lady Rochford is a character, but doesn’t get to have an accusation scene, alas – it’s all offstage). Anne is condemned in a trial in which everyone suddenly switches to prose, and some searching has found that this is material actually taken from Bacon’s letters, albeit not on the subject of Anne. However, most of Anne’s replies are in poetry and I believe that Wells was being a bit more free here in terms of altering quotations; her speeches are very similar to Catherine of Aragon’s speeches at the ecclesiastical trial in Henry VIII (compare “I appeal to the conscience of the king to do me right” with “Sir, I do desire you do me right and justice.” It goes on from there). So, how does this oddity stack up against the usual Anne Boleyn retellings?

SEX OR POLITICS? Politics, definitely, though not surprisingly the political material drops sharply once we pass the point where Shakespeare’s Henry VIII ends. Cromwell’s concern with religious reform is dropped unceremoniously in favor of legal wrangling about Anne’s trial. Sex is limited to a lot of bits from Romeo and Juliet, and not even the post-nuptial ones.

WHEN BORN? Never specified, for any of the characters.

THE EARLY LOVE: Just Percy, Butler doesn’t make even an oblique appearance. Percy and Anne have a tender scene scraped together from bits of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso (I’m not going to even try and figure that one out), exchange promises and a kiss, and then ends with a solo Percy inexplicably concluding that “Anne Boleyn doth love none but the king.” In the next scene, Anne tells Lady Rochford that she’s explicitly rejecting the king because she doesn’t want to be his mistress, but then the annulment process gets underway and that’s the end of that. Percy, in the manner of most of the minor characters in this production, then disappears and is never mentioned again. Even Wolsey’s downfall is brought about solely by Henry, on the strength of Wolsey’s decrying Anne as a “spleeny Lutheran.”

THE QUEEN’S BEES: None to speak of, except Jane Seymour and Lady Rochford – but again, presumably due to lack of source material, the latter just disappears from the stage after the coronation. Her famous accusation of her husband for incest with his sister is all related second-hand – as indeed it was in real life in the trial (albeit without Lady Rochford’s name attached, and she may never have made the accusation at all, but that’s for another time) but a scene with her and Cromwell might have been nice. “Show, Don’t Tell” is pretty much a bleeding wreck by the time this play is done.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Emilia, brought to you straight from the pages of Othello. She only acquires a name once the betrayal subplot starts – before then, Anne is attended merely a number of anonymous “Ladies”. If anyone were for some inexplicable reason to stage this, it would be easy enough to make Emilia into one of the “Ladies” but in the script she’s just another of the many jack-in-the-boxes who appear in a scene or two and then vanish. By the time the execution rolls around she too has disappeared, presumably because the original had very little to say once Iago stabbed her to death, and Anne is attended to the tower only by some anonymous “Ladies” and her death witnessed and described only by some equally anonymous “Gentlemen.”

THE PROPHECY: Several, including a rare instance of a prophecy which gets it wrong. In Henry VIII, Henry is told of a prophecy by Cranmer that Elizabeth will be a great queen, thus providing a nice triumphal note to end on. Wells, oddly, has it over Shakespeare here for historical accuracy. She introduces Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, who gives her own background (strikingly similar to Joan of Arc) and then prophecies, as the Nun really did, that Henry “must embrace the fate of death’s dark hour: / Yet he shall lose his crown ere that day come.” She then falls into a trance and prophecies Henry’s early death and Anne and Elizabeth left behind, stricken and helpless. Cromwell puts her out. Granted, the real Nun made her prophecies before Elizabeth’s birth, but still, it’s an interesting device for showing how the mood is starting to shift against Anne. Too bad that, again, the Nun is never seen or heard from again after this.

IT’S A GIRL! Shakespeare wrote this one, albeit more concisely. Henry is disappointed but quickly reconciled thanks to a prophecy that she’ll be a great queen. This scene has been handled in myriad ways, and of course we can never be sure what really happened, but of all the potential reactions which Henry could have had, I think we can safely assume that this one wasn’t it.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No mention of it, but honesty compels me to admit that I did not read every. Single. Word. Of the trial scene and may have missed something, however I have no intention of going back to check.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Nonexistent. Mary Boleyn never comes up, and George exists mostly to be accused of incest and unjustly executed. If he had any lines, I don’t remember them.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, not hinted at until the trial.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Well, since Shakespeare wrote 95% of it, nothing especially terrible.

ERRATA: I’m going to put this one down as “Not Applicable.”

RECOMMENDED? I have to say, no, unless you’re interested in it as an oddity, which it certainly is. It did prompt me to reread Two Gentlemen of Verona though, which is something — who knows, if you pick it up, it may prove to be a gateway to better things. It is a definite gateway to a headache, though, so beware.

From → Book Overviews

  1. therebelprince permalink

    This is a fantastic piece; thankyou so much for writing this. I am about to record a podcast episode on the Shakespeare authorship wackiness, and Mrs. Gallup is very intriguing. I have read so many ludicrous code-breaking books from the era that I simply didn’t have the strength to read “The Tragedy of Anne Boleyn”. Thankyou for your concise and witty synopsis!

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! If you could link to your podcast once you’ve done it I’d definitely be interested in hearing it.

      • therebelprince permalink

        Woo! Have just published episode, thanks for your interest. It’s actually absurdly long, but turns out there are a lot of fascinating stories once you dig into the authorship question. I gave your blog a shout-out and listed you in my shownotes also. (Not that I have many listeners, but you never know!).

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  1. Episode 006: Who wrote Shakespeare? The Authorship Question – Podcast Shakespeare

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