False contender to the Shakespearean throne, or New Labour networker? Jonathan Bate reports; Hostage to Fortune: the troubled life of Francis Bacon 1561-1626 by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart Gollancz, pounds 25
A hundred years ago, the name Francis Bacon was inescapable. Throughout the 1890s, barely a month passed without some new contribution to the great debate about whether or not he was the true author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. You don't now meet many people who hold fast to the Baconian faith, but he is the one contender for the Shakespearean throne whose name is widely known. That is because he was unquestionably a true Renaissance man, at once scholar and courtier.

The Baconian argument boiled down to little more than a prejudice. The great plays must have been written by a great man, which the provincial Shakespeare wasn't and the well-bred Bacon was, so Bacon must have written them. Lisa Jardine, by contrast, is not someone to take greatness for granted. Her best book is an account of how Desiderius Erasmus fashioned his own reputation by means of that powerful new medium, the printing press, self-consciously creating the image of himself as the greatest "humanist" scholar of the Renaissance.

Jardine's Bacon is equally a man with a mission. His task: to follow in his father's footsteps into a great office of state. His method: to gain the patronage of the most powerful man at court. Failing to get far with his uncle, Lord Treasurer Burghley, he turned to the Earl of Essex. But when Essex fell from grace, Bacon turned against him, acting as a prosecutor in his trial for treason. During the reign of King James, he cosied up to Buckingham, and was duly rewarded with the offices of attorney- general, then Lord Keeper (his father's post), and finally - the glittering prize - Lord Chancellor.

He fell as spectacularly as he had risen. Following accusations of both bribery and murky sexual practices, he was forced from office. Unlike most politicians, though, he had a second career, as nothing less than the leading thinker of his age. His speculations about the modernisation of investigative method and his proposals for new structures for the conduct of advanced research prepared the ground for the "scientific revolution" of the later 17th century.

One of the many strengths of this new biography is its exploration of the links between Bacon's speculative writings and his angling for patronage. The authors point out that the title of his most famous work, The Advancement of Learning (1605), suggests not only the modernisation of intellectual life but also the need for the learned to gain "advancement" - preferment - at court.

Again, there is a brilliant analysis of how in his Brief Discourse Touching the Happy Union of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, Bacon writes about how the right sort of "unions" in nature lead to "harmony". In so writing, he flatters both the scholarly ambitions and the political intentions of the new king who united the two nations.

There is a lot less of this kind of close attention to literary detail than one might expect from a book written by two scholars who teach in English departments. The celebrated Essays, for instance, are passed over in a couple of pages. As far as their origins are concerned, we are merely told that they were "perhaps modelled in form on those of Montaigne". This will not be helpful to the many readers who have no idea what the essays of Montaigne are like. Nor, indeed, to the few who do: Bacon's crisp sentences and succinct assertions bear little resemblance to Montaigne's wonderfully digressive and sceptical musings.

The key influence on Bacon's style was not Montaigne but the Roman orator Cicero, whose name does not even appear in the index. The book turns its gaze away from Bacon's broad literary and intellectual inheritance because its aim is to show how deeply his whole project was embedded in the politics of his own time. Modernise, network, gain power: these are the watchwords of Jardine's Bacon. He is as much New Labour as New Learning.

Ultra-modern, too, is the dimension provided by her co-author. Alan Stewart is an expert on sodomy in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. This is, accordingly, the first biography to bring the Bacon out of the closet. Or rather the Bacons, for several chapters - contributed, I would guess, by Stewart - are entirely concerned with Francis's brother, Anthony. There is a great deal of original research here, by no means misspent, since Anthony was in his own right an interesting if minor Elizabethan figure.

Many of the book's most exciting pages are devoted to the diplomatic networks, letter-carrying operations and spying activities which made the courts of early modern Europe so full of intrigue. But one senses that Anthony is given such a lot of space in the book because the accusations of sodomy that he faced are a lot meatier than those involving his brother.

For the most part, the two authors complement each other's gifts most effectively, Jardine offering provocative speculation while Stewart works with tremendous assiduity in the archives. You could not ask for a more detailed account of the ins and outs of Bacon's life among the powerful. Sometimes there is so much intricacy that you almost lose the plot: "At James's command, Bacon wrote a letter to Coke to signify the King's pleasure that the day appointed for the judges to deliver their arguments (Saturday 27 April) should be put off until he had spoken with them, and delivered the letter during the evening of Thursday 25 April." The clumsiness here is accompanied by occasional stylistic glitches elsewhere. Some passages have the slick imagery one would expect from Jardine, an experienced broadcaster, while others sound as if written by an academic struggling to slum it linguistically. I cannot believe that one of our leading feminist intellectuals was responsible for that hoary cricketing metaphor, "a safe pair of hands".