Lear (Bacon)

Anagram tales 7: Barcelona

guest post by Nicolas Robertson

While most of Nick’s anagram creations are based on a musical work or a composer, this is among several that feature places often visited by HIP ensembles. It adopts the unusual format of a play script, with line-by-line scholarly commentary.

Scene of many performances choral and orchestral, in several venues including the spectacular Palau de la Música Catalana: specifically in 1991, Mozart’s Requiem, with soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot Gardiner (also Philips recording and DVD).

Palau de la Música Catalana

An Introduction, a sequence of 79 anagrams constituting the brief ‘play’, and finally a rather longer commentary.

The following fragment came to light in a large city in Catalonia, in December 1991, as the sequel to some rummaging in a saffron tub near the Picasso Museum. Little has been established of its previous history, but it appears to be part of an Ur-text of what is known as Shakespeare’s King Lear, with elements, in equally embryonic form, of Macbeth, The Tempest, and Othello. The implication is that at an early stage the ideas which were finally to luxuriate into the individual dramas we know so well were encapsulated in one single play, as if, say, the writer (discouraged, let’s imagine, by a schoolmaster making fun of his limited grasp of the classical languages) had supposed there was ‘only one play in me’. How wrong he was!

The survival of the fragment may be due to its character as a tavern scene, replete with lords, commoners, bon viveurs and bores, drinkers in varying degrees of lucidity, saloon-bar philosophers, an old woman cackling ominously and a Moor sitting poetically and a little dementedly aside. One can imagine it enacted in a rowdy pub in Deptford, the scrawled page then stuffed into the braided pocket of a histrionic sea-dog’s waistcoat, whence it landed in Spain—filched perhaps along with the sailor’s other valuables—to line Angel Jobal’s millennial shelves in his spice shop in the Carrer de la Princesa, preserved from the moth by the disinfectant power of cinnamon and cloves before one day, just like any other, falling into the saffron bin below—serendipitously to be encountered by the editor of this edition (final touches to which had to await a subsequent visit to the city in early 1995).

One hardly needs to point out that, what with such vicissitudes of time and chance, the lack of corroboratory material and, by contrast, the plentifulness of red wine and garlic, the likelihood of a definitive (let alone coherent) account of this problematic out-folio is small. In the ‘Notes’ therefore I have confined myself to such elucidation of the often elliptical and archaic (though with surprisingly modern resonances) material as may help the reader make superficial sense of it, without venturing upon the wilder shores of ‘interpretation’ (for reputable versions of this latter, see Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, J.L. Borges, Pierre Mesnard, Author of ‘The Quixote’, Georges Perec, Petit Abécédaire Illustré, and Louis d’Antin van Rooten’s Mots d’Heures, Gousses, Rames). However, it would be only proper to refer, albeit glancingly, to the theory that this fragment originated in Barcelona, derives in fact wholly from Barcelona; in an even more extreme version, that this is the entire oeuvre, thus, all that there is to be found (in Barcelona). My own view is that alternative interpre-/permu-tations are by no means exhausted; but what is unequivocal is that this vestigial ‘Lear’ is signed, not ‘Shakespeare’, but ‘Bacon’.

Nicolas Robertson, February 1995

[1]         LEAR                                                     (Bacon)

[A lone bar, c/o brae clan]

ALEC O’BRAN: ’Lo! Ace barn, Norb! À la EC?
NORB: A… Alec! No lab care—loan brace?
[5] ALEC: No bar. (A clear nob, loner, a cab Lacan–bore,
                                 rob a clean crab alone
ARAB: Clone bean, coral orb, a clean banal core – ale cobra!
N. BARNACLE: O Arab! Noel? (can be Carol?) Crab, ale, no?
NOEL: Baa! RC bacon, real lace, baron, roan…
[10] CALEB (a clan bore): Be carnal, olá! Be a corncob, Lear, an able acorn –

BAAL CRONE: Bale acorn
                          Beacon, lar,
                          Blear Cona—a Nobel car

[15] ALEC: Bran, or ale? bacon??
LEAR: Bacon. Lance boar, Lara! Bonce, or balance a lance-orb –
CALEB: Or an –
CLARE:               – Oban acorn, a bel…

[20] BAAL CRONE: Bale acorn,
                               Canal bore,
                               Blean Cora, Alban core

LEAR: Banco! Clean arboreal cob, an Ebor canal – Abraca…
[25] LEN: O’er.
CAL O’BANOCBERN: Alac, o Lear! Ban, ban, Cal, or ’e.. .
CORNELBA: A cable, Nora, Aaron.
LEAR: A, B, C… No –
CORNELBA: Alec? No Arab be Al? A corn –

[30] BAAL CRONE: Bale acorn,
                                Lob can, ’ear
                                Bane carol: ‘No cab, Lear’

O … Clean bar


1. The title is in the original MS, as is the attribution.

2. The feudal nature of remote highland Scottish society is vividly laid bare in this rare stage direction.

3-4. An early reference to cross-border subsidies, as usual undermined by local deficiencies.

5-7. “No bar”—one of the earliest puns in Shakespeare, but as the following aside makes clear, one not pronounced with much goodwill towards Norb the barman, who in Alec’s eyes is an aristocratic, solipsistic, Sorbonne-educated greedy seafood-lover. But Alec’s own careless alliteration causes a dark huddle in the corner (an early appearance of the Moor in Shakespeare’s work, and lacking the humanity he would later bring to the character) to mutter imprecations to some ideal, or possibly dystopic, vision of Pythagorean genetic engineering, smooth, spiny, essentially pure (if boring) within, the fermenting grain serpent…!

8. Fortunately James Joyce’s wife, somehow present, is moved by the Moor, and recognizing the potential schism, while playing on Christmas onomatology revives the festive spirit with offers of food and drink.

9-10. Her friend, perhaps deterred by the exclusively marine diet hitherto mentioned, launches into a catalogue of red meat products, imitating a lamb, extolling kosher ham (on a doily), superior cuts of beef, and venison—which enables Caleb (the bar is filling up fast) to make another pun, on the dual usage of ‘carnal’, ‘fleshly’; employing a sombre wit which belies his parenthetical characterisation as one of that tedious band of tartan-spotters, more Papist than the Pope. Hinging on the very word ‘carnal’ , he turns the argument (with that breath-taking ease of transition from light to dark, ribald to deadly serious, which we know so well from the mature Shakespeare) directly towards Lear—it’ s not clear if the old man has been here all along—with astonishingly explicit phallic imagery, encouraging the already confused king to throw caution to the winds.

11-13. “Baal crone”—as will hardly need pointing out, a precursor of the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, but in this primitive version more tinged still with chthonic pagan magic, her prophetic doggerel resembling the ‘Triads’ of the Welsh and Irish Druids (cf. Robert Graves, The White Goddess, passim) which were still perhaps current in rural areas in the late 16th century (though it’s interesting to note that Bacon, as distinct from Shakespeare, is known to have been a Rosicrucian and thus inevitably acquainted with the undercurrents of esoteric lore suggestively bound up in the Baal Crone’s Gnostic pronouncements) and which even when ostensibly nonsensical have often a curiously modern ring.

14-17. After the Baal Crone’s first intervention, the tragedy is under way. Alec’s attempt to defuse the growing sense of horror (adumbrated in Annabel’s shocked exclamation) by offering, at random, more food and drink backfires as Lear, speaking for the first time, bursts into rhetoric foreshadowing the ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks’ of the mature play. And he is already living more dangerously than it might appear; as Shakespeare must have been aware, the eating of pork was discouraged in Scotland and actually forbidden at court, which had serious repercussions when James VI became James I of England on the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, and boar was banned at the English court (fortuitously finding a replacement as Christmas centrepiece in the turkey, newly brought from the Americas by Sir Walter Raleigh). Is Shakespeare/Bacon, in demanding the Adonis–sacrifice of the boar by Lara—more research is required to establish if this is a well-known blood-sportsman (we’re within an iota of finding ‘Brian’ in Barcelona) or a literary heroine borrowed from a novella recently in vogue after its importation from the exotic court of Peter the Great—protesting about the change in lifestyles sadly to be expected when national sovereignty is infringed, even, perhaps, sending a coded message to his Venus–Queen to beware not only of seductive alliances from Europe (‘lance-orb’ might well be a reference to the armillary sphere, chosen symbol of the Manueline kings of Portugal, whose throne had recently been usurped by Philip II of Spain—one should not forget the Armada was launched from Lisbon) but also of sterner dynastic absorption from the cold north of her own island?

18-22. A couple of rapid interjections (technically, stichomythia) which serve to heighten the dramatic tension, while at the same time, contrary no doubt to Clare’s innocent intention (she’s unaware of the trigger-word ‘acorn’ , associated with the oak–rituals of the sacred grove—see Frazer, The Golden Bough) let in the Baal Crone again, her words ever more threatening, culminating in a reference to Alban (= ‘white’, as in ‘Albion’, from the Latin albanus), the 4th-century Roman convert and first martyr of Britain; the Crone is telling Lear to arm himself for war in defence of a ‘pure’ concept of Englishness. Nor is this the only inference to be gleaned from ‘Alban’: for, as the legend tells, after the saint, who had sheltered a Christian priest and consented to change clothes with him to enable his escape, was killed (having refused to sacrifice to pagan gods), the eyes of his executioner fell out of his head. Aside from the reference to the Oedipus story (otherwise most graphically expressed in Tom Lehrer’s song, “When he saw what he had done, he tore his eyes out, one by one”), this macabre anecdote is a chilling anticipation of one of the most famous episodes in the fully-fledged King Lear, when Gloucester’s eyes are ripped out, on the brow of what is now Shakespeare Cliff in Dover, the bluff whose “high and bended head / Looks fearfully upon the confined deep”, and which of course is a landmark in the eastern stretch of the ‘white’ (‘alban’) cliffs which run almost without interruption along the bulwark of the south coast until they reach the parallel eminence of St Alban’s Head in Dorset (whose equal attribution to another saint, Aldhelm, merely reinforces the association, ‘Aldhelm’ meaning ‘old helmet’, another evocation of proud and warlike defence). This editor can testify to a more unlikely, though not for that less precious, survival of the Venus-as-Britannia / Albion myth we are sketching: the presence in hollows of the chalk cliffs above those shingle beaches of the most beautiful of blue butterflies, which has the colour of blue sky and pale blue English sea and a skimmer of white chalk dust: the ‘Adonis Blue’…

23. Lear is patently unprepared for the Baal Crone’s implied challenge, which he attempts to flee by joking, suggesting ecological undertakings in York—but which at last topples him over into mental disorder, as he stammers the first syllables of a magic invocation, as if hoping that somehow someone would wave a wand and we’d all be out of this confusion…

But before his vain attempt at self-delusion, Lear has called for help, one last time; called the name of his daughter, the only one who has the independence and purity of spirit to save him (one is reminded of Wotan and Brünnhilde). At this stage of development of the character who was to become ‘Cordelia’ in King Lear, Shakespeare calls her ‘Cornelba’, a name which reveals much of her role, as well as of the playwright’s preoccupations at this time. Unlike the ‘soft–and–low’-speaking Cordelia, whose early death is the final straw in breaking Lear, this Cornelba is strong, and will survive him (Shakespeare undoubtedly came to see this as a weakness in the construction, which required the focus to fall ultimately upon Lear himself). She is not yet ‘Cordelia’; ‘cord’ may refer to the knotted rope of the Franciscan cordeliers, with its implications of self-chastisement, but also cordonnier, ‘shoemaker’, i.e. ‘Schuhmacher’, author of a treatise much talked about at this time, ‘Klein ist schön’, in praise of psychoanalytic methods admittedly then in their infancy but copied with almost textbook clarity by Shakespeare in his tragedy Hamlet (see also the note referring to his acknowledgement of the Oedipus story, l.22), where Cord/elia becomes Oph/elia, the prefixes exchanging wholesome artisanry (and ‘heart’) for the snake, symbol of sexuality and death (the suffix ‘elia’ could be a simple feminine enclitic, but it is also the Greek for ‘olive tree’, a vital resource: Sparta was understood to have gone beyond the bounds of humanity when it cut down Athens’ olive groves…) Cornelba is, rather, Ruth, standing strong and alone amidst the alien corn, in this case the metaphorical corn of Elba, not coincidentally the place of another exile, equally small, strong, and sequestrated.

At the same time ‘Ruth’ summons up the image of an earlier Biblical queen, also an exile, but one who made her dislocated place her own: the Queen of Sheba, or Saba, hence the cry of Napoléon, know ing himself balanced on the axis where the mirror of destiny interrupts historical fact: Sabala blé d’Elba là-bas! (an unappeasable nostalgia, backward-looking, found also in the English jingle, ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’); a promise of ever-renewing seasonal richness which the Emperor could never now share, only look upon from an unbridgeable distance, while the humble Ruth could, finally, participate, belonged to the future…

25-26. The dénouement is close, indeed Leonard, the bar manager (perhaps), sadly announces that it’s already time. A tantalizing foretaste of The Tempest is now introduced, in the form of Cal of Bannockburn (to modernize the spelling), evidently one of the Celtic chiefs who helped to gain the famous victory over the English in 1314, and who reveals the cry of the malformed creature Caliban to have been perhaps an enshrinement of the age-old Scottish–English rivalry, and the very deformity to be an inability to escape from the rhythms of the past and realistically confront the modern changed world… Lear is being torn, it seems, between the conflicting claims of England and Scotland, one might say between savagery and civilization (or so, at least, the English would say), or between nature and the exploitation of it—and its fellow habitants (as would say the Scots). In fact, what we have here is a paradigm of the expulsion from Paradise, and Lear cannot take the fearful weight of awareness heaped upon him by the possibility of deciding his own fate…

27. Cornelba, remaining practical, attempts to stem the damage by summoning various helpers, explaining (perhaps optimistically) that things could be solved by filleting the opposition, undermining the authority of the highlanders’

28. spokesman… but it’s too late, Lear is now clearly mad, can only de-Lear-iate in children’s rhymes (strangely preminiscent of Ophelia’s madness), while it is left to Cornelba to try to salvage what little she can, and even she is overcome by an

29. understandable moment of weakness, is led to doubt Alec’s true allegiance, and

30-32. so again wretchedly cues the Baal Crone and her final chilling dicta: amidst the bacchanal, there is to be no safe home-coming for the king. There follows, no doubt, the usual Revengers’ Tragedy mayhem.

The text ends with a surprise equal to any found in this revelatory fragment, the

33. laconic stage direction “clean bar”, underscored, and prefaced by an exclamatory “o” in the appalled hand of a scribe, shaky, perhaps, at the spectacle of the carnage which has to be cleared up, or, who knows, in the aftermath of just one too many the night before


Barcelona, St Valentine’s Day 1995

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