A True and Impartial Account of the Bickerstaff Affair by Thomas Cole
This Play is the copyright of the Author and must NOT be Performed without the Author's PRIOR consent
Set: Five chairs or stools for the performers to sit on when not speaking,
Place and Time: London in 1708.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is time for us to perform for you A True and Impartial Account of the Bickerstaff Affair.
It was about the year 1678 that a shoemaker by trade, or as people said in those days, a cobbler, by the name of John Partridge, journeyed to London and changed his profession to astrologer. He published an almanac entitled Merlinus Liberatus, which became a best seller. This Almanac provided very little information of practical value to the public. It contained vague predictions about public figures and scurrilous attacks on the Churches of England and Rome. John Partridge also delighted in taunting his rival astrologers and almanac makers. Isn’t that correct, Mr. Partridge?
That it may be made plain and clear to the World, who have Principles they dare rely on, and who have not, I do friendly and fairly invite and challenge my Adversaries, who value themselves as Master of the Art of Astrology, to pitch upon five or ten Nativities of noteworthy persons, and like an Artist to tell the World in print when those persons will Dye, and the Astrologic reasons thereof. Ha!
In matters or religion Partridge was an ardent Nonconformist who derided the Church of England.
High Church! The common Curse, the Nation’s Shame.
‘Tis only Pop’ry by another Name.
In 1707 he had this to say about a Bill on conformity.
‘Twas such a Bill, it’s like was never seen,
To Squeeze the Subjects, and Embroil the Queen.
Thank you, Mr. Partridge.
Partridge did a thriving business in providing advice to the lovelorn and recovering stolen goods. He claimed to heal the sick, and he was awarded the honorary title “physician royal” in exchange for bearing false witness. Several of the wits in London were annoyed by Partridge and attacked him in the press for years. Most notably, Tom Brown and Ned Ward ridiculed him in articles published between 1690 and 1707. In spite of these attacks, John Partridge, astrologer and physician, maintained his popularity and increased his wealth.
In the year 1707 Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland journeyed to England to attend to Church business and visit friends. At this time the Dean was forty years old. Eighteen years later his greatest work, Gulliver’s Travels, would be published. When Swift arrived in London he observed the controversy surrounding Partridge. Swift read Merlinus Liberatus and found it replete with examples of Partridge’s dishonesty, arrogance, fanaticism and stupidity. Perhaps Swift also read the remarks of one of Partridge’s rivals, George Parker, who in 1707 called for “some able polite pen of the Church of England” to teach Partridge a lesson. Partridge’s attacks on the clergy annoyed Swift, so he Swiftly counterattacked. In order to confront and confound John Partridge, a false astrologer and almanac maker, Swift invented someone he called Isaac Bickerstaff, whom Swift presented as a genuine astrologer and almanac maker. Swift had seen the name “Isaac Bickerstaff” on the shop-board of a cobbler, and he adopted the name for his imaginary astrologer. Since Partridge had once been a cobbler himself, the name was fitting, so to speak. It was a shoe in.
In mid-February of the year 1708 an almanac in the form of a pamphlet was published entitled Predictions for the year 1708. In 1708 England was still under the Old Style Calendar, so New Year’s Day occurred on the 25th of March instead of the First of January. This fact helps explain why the Predictions for the year 1708 was published in February instead of the previous December. The pamphlet caused a sensation and was avidly read by the London public. The author of this pamphlet, one Isaac Bickerstaff, was, as noted, a fictitious character, an invention of Jonathan Swift, that took up residence in the imagination of the public at large and John Partridge in particular. We are honored and delighted to have with us this evening Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire, who will favor us with his Predictions for the year 1708.
[End of Extract]