1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Greene

Robert Greene
English dramatist and miscellaneous writer
(1560-92)




ROBERT GREENE, (1560-1592), dramatist and miscel-laneous writer, was born at Norwich about the year 1560. As an eastern counties man (to one of whose plays, Friar Bacon, the Norfolk and Suffolk borderland owes a lasting poetic commemoration) he naturally received his education at Cambridge, where he took his B.A. from St John's College in 1578, proceeding M.A. in 1583 from Clare Hall, where it is possible that he had expectations of a fellow-ship. In 1588 he was incorporated at Oxford, so that on some of his title-pages he styles himself " utriusque Academias in Artibus Magister," and Nash humorously refers to him as " utriusque Academiae Robertus Greene." Between the years 1578 and 1583 he had travelled abroad, according to his own account very extensively, visiting France, Germany, Poland, and Denmark, and learning at first hand to " hate the pride of Italie " and to know the taste of that poet's fruit, "Spanish mirabolanes." Whether on his return he took holy orders, the evidence on the sub-ject is insufficient to determine ; according to the title-page of a pamphlet published by him in 1585 he was then a "student in phisicke." Already, however, after taking his M.A. degree, he had according to his own account begun his London life, and engaged in pursuits more congenial to his tastes. He became " an author of playes and a penner of love-pamphlets, so that I soone grew famous in that qualitie, that who for that trade growne so ordinary about London as Robin Greene %" He rapidly sank into the worst debaucheries of the town, though not without being inspired by a passing impulse towards a better life, and' de-rided in consequence by his associates as a " Puritane and Presiziau." His marriage, which soon after this took place, failed to steady him; if Francesco, in Greene's pamphlet Never too late, is intended for the author himself, it had been a runaway match; but the fiction and the autobio-graphical sketch in the Repentance agree in their account of the unfaithfulness which followed on the part of the husband. He lived with his wife for a while ; " but for-asmuch as she would perswade me from my wilfull wickednes, after I had a child by her, I cast her off, having spent up the marriage-money which I obtained by her. Then left I her at six or seven, who went into Lincolnshire, and I to London," where his reputation as a playwright and writer of pamphlets " of love and vaine fantasyes " con-tinued to increase, and where his life was a feverish alter-nation of labour and debauchery. He tells us how in the end he was friendless " except it were in a fewe alehouses," where he was respected on account of the score he had run up. When the end came he was a dependant on the charity of the poor and the pitying love of the unfortunate. Henri Murger has drawn no picture more sickening and more pitiful than the story of Greene's death, as told by his Puritan adversary, Gabriel Harvey—a veracious though not an unprejudiced narrator. \Greene had stung his vanity by an allusion to his paternal origin in the prose-tract of A Quip for an Upstart Courtier.) After a banquet where the chief guest had been the dramatist Nash,—an old associate and perhaps a college friend of Greene's, any great intimacy with whom, however, he seems to have been anxious to disclaim,—Greene had fallen sick " of a surfeit of pickle herringe and Rennish wine." At the house of a poor shoemaker near Dowgate, deserted by all except his compassionate hosts and two women,—one of them the mother of his illegitimate son, Fortunatus Greene,—he died, September 2, 1592. Shortly before his death, he wrote under a bond for ten pounds which he had given to the good shoemaker, the following words addressed to his long-forsaken wife :—" Doll. I charge thee, by the loue of our youth and by my soules rest, that thou wilte see this man paide ; for if hee and his wife had not succoured me, I had died in the streetes.—ROBERT GREENE."

Shortly after Greene's death the dramatist Henry Chettle published a pamphlet from the hand of the unhappy man, entitled Greene's Groat 's-worth of 'Wit bought with a Million of Repentance. This ill-starred production may almost be said to have done more to excite the resentment of pos-terity against Greene's name than all the errors for which he so unctuously professed his (doubtless sincere) repent-ance. For in it he chose to point the fact of his own con-version by exhorting three of his quondam acquaintance to go and do likewise. Of these three Marlowe was one—to whom and to whose creation of "that Atheist Tamber-laine " (perhaps to both author and hero under the name of the latter) he had repeatedly alluded or referred in previous pamphlets. The second was Peele, the third pro-bably Nash. But the passage addressed to Peele contained a transparent allusion to a fourth dramatist, who was an actor likewise, and of whom Greene accordingly thought himself entitled to speak with insolent arrogance as of " an vpstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygres heart wrapt in a player's hyde supposes hee is as well able to bombast out a blanke-verse as the best of you ; and being an absolute Iohannes-fac-totum, is in his owne conceyt the onely shake-scene in a countrey." The phrase italicized parodies a passage occurring in The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke, &c, and retained in Part III. of Henry VI. If Greene (as many eminent critics have thought) had a hand in The True Tragedie, he must here have intended a charge of plagiarism against Shakespeare. But it seems more probable that, while (as Mr R. Simpson suggested) the upstart crow beautified with the feathers of the three dramatists is a sneering-description of the actor who declaimed their verse, the animus of the whole attack (as Dr Ingleby explains it) is revealed in its concluding phrases. This " shake-scene," i.e., this actor, h£d ventured to intrude upon the domain of the regular staff of play-wrights—their monopoly was in danger!





Altogether not less than thirty-five prose-tracts are as-cribed to Greene's prolific pen. To these, which are by no means all of a personal or even controversial character, he owed in his lifetime a great part of his celebrity. Nearly all of them are interspersed with verses ; in their themes they range from the " mistieall" wonders of the heavens to the familiar but " pernitious sleights " of the sharpers of Lon-don. But the most widely attractive of his prose publi-cations were no doubt those to which he more especially refers under the designation of " love-pamphlets," and which, as he tells us, brought upon him the outcry of Puritan censors. In these popular productions he appears very distinctly as a follower of the fashionable euphuistic style, indeed two of them are by their titles announced as a kind of sequel to the mother romance. But though Greene's style shows the same balanced oscillation to and fro, and his diction the same elaborate ornateness, as those of Lyly, he contrives tointerest by the matter as well as to attract attention by the manner of his narratives. It is known that on his Pandosto, the Triumph of Time (1588) Shake-speare founded his A Winter's Tale; in fact, the novel con-tains the entire plot of the comedy, though some of the subordinate characters in the latter (including the immortal Autolycus) were added by Shakespeare.

In Greene's Never too late, announced in its author's unctuous variety of the euphuistic manner as a "Powder of Experience : sent to all youthfull gentlemen " for their benefit, the hero of the Palmer's story is in all probability intended for Greene himself ; and this episodical narrative has a vivacity and truthfulness of manner which savour of an 18th century novel rather than of an Elizabethan tale concerning the days of " Palmerin, King of Great Britaine." The experiences of the Roberto of Greene's Groans-worth of Wit are even more palpably the experiences of the author himself, though they are possibly overdrawn—for a born rhetorician exaggerates everything, even his own sins. Much that might be enlarged upon in Greene's manner as a writer of prose fiction shows how already in the Eliza-bethan age there was a possibility of the English novel anticipating what proved the slow course of its actual de-velopment.

For us, however, Greene's name lives chiefly if not solely as that of a dramatist. Only four plays remain to us of which he was indisputably the sole author. The earliest of these seems to be The History of Orlando Furioso, one of the Tiuelve Peeres of France—which has (on unsatisfactory evidence) been dated as before 1586, and is known to have been acted on February 21, 1592. It is a free dramatic adaptation of Ariosto (who in one passage is textually quoted), and contains a large variety of characters and a superabundance of action. Fairly lucid in arrangement and fluent in style, it lacks in the treatment of its main situ-ation—the madness of Orlando—the tragic power to which in truth its author was a stranger. Greene's Orlando has been described as " a stepping stone to Lear and Hamlet," but its priority to Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (to which the author of this observation likewise refers) is not proved. Very few dramatists between Sophocles and Shakespeare have succeeded in subordinating the grotesque effect of madness to the tragic; and Greene (the close of whose play is tameness itself) is not among the number.

Of the Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Arragon, Henslowe's Diary contains no trace. But it can hardly have been first acted long after the production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, which had been brought on the stage at least three years before. For this play—which is oddly enough called " comical," though it contains not a single comic character, and is surely unintentionally humorous in the effect of some of its passages—was manifestly written in emulation of Marlowe's tragedy. While Greene cannot have thought himself capable of surpassing Marlowe as a tragic poet, he very probably wished to outdo him in "business," and to equal him in the rant which, since there has been an English theatre, has been sure to bring down at least part of the house. Alphonsus is accordingly not less sensational than Tamburlaine, and supplied its share of quotations to ancient Pistol. It is a history proper,—a dra-matized chronicle or narrative of warlike events,—and a very effective one of its kind. Its fame could never equal that of Marlowe's tragedy : but its composition showed that Greene could seek to rival the most popular drama of the day, without falling very far short of his model.

In the Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (not known to have been acted before February 1592, but very possibly written by 1588) Greene once more attempted to emulate Marlowe ; but on this occasion, while producing something very different from the play with which he placed his own in competition, he succeeded in producing a masterpiece of his own. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which there is every reason to believe suggested the composition of Greene's comedy, is a work which, even in the form in which it has come down to us, reveals the mighty tragic genius of its author ; and it was fortunate for Greene's fame that he resolved on an altogether distinct treatment of a cognate theme. Interweaving with the popular tale of Friar Bacon and his wondrous doings a charming idyl (so far as we know, of his own invention), the story of Prince Edward (I.)'s love for the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, he produced a comedy brimful of amusing action and genial fun, and at the same time containing a dramatic love-story of unsurpassed freshness and brightness. Friar Bacon remains a dramatic picture of English life with which The Merry Wives alone can vie; and not even the ultra-classicism in the similes of its diction can destroy the naturalness which constitutes its perennial charm.





In The Scottish Historic of James IV. (not printed till 1598, acted by 1592) Greene seems to have reached the climax of his dramatic powers. The " historical" character of this play is pure pretence, so that one wonders how a Tudor dramatist could have dared to invent a fictitious name aud unreal experiences (of a painful kind) for King Henry VII.'s daughter. Its theme is the illicit passion of King James for the chaste lady Ida, to obtain whose hand he endeavours, at the suggestion of a villain called Ateukin, to make away with his own wife. She escapes in doublet and hose, attended by her faithful dwarf ; but on her father's making war upon her husband to avenge her wrongs, she effects a reconciliation between them. Not only is this well-constructed story effectively worked out, but the char-acters are vigorously drawn, and in Ateukin there is a touch of lago. The fooling by Slipper, the clown of the piece, is unexceptionable; aud lest even so the play should hang heavy on the audience, its action is carried off by a "pleasant comedie"—i.e., a prelude and some dances be-tween the acts—"presented by Oboram, King of Fayeries" —the Oberon of A Midsummer Night's Dream (probably later in date than Greene's play).

It is hard to have to abandon the belief that George-a-Greene the Pinner of Wakefield (printed 1599), a delightful picture of English life fully worthy of the author of Friar Bungay, has been rightly attributed to him. Of the comedy of Fair Em, which resembles Friar Bacon in more than one point, it is most improbable that Greene was the author The disputed question as to his supposed share in the plays on which the Second and Third Parts of Henry VI. are founded has been already referred to. He was certainly joint author with Thomas Lodge of the curi-ous drama called A Looking Glasse for London and England (printed 1594)—a dramatic apologue conveying to the living generation of Englishmen the warning of Nineveh's corruption and prophesied doom. The lesson was fre-quently repeated in the streets of London by the " Nine-vitical motions " of the puppets; but there are both fire and wealth of language in Greene and Lodge's oratory. The comic element is not absent; being supplied in abundance by Adam, the clown of the piece, who belongs to the family of Slipper and of Friar Bacon's servant, Miles.

Greene's dramatic genius has nothing in it of the inten-sity of Marlowe's tragic muse ; nor perhaps are there any passages in his poetry equalling certain of Peele's when at his best. On the other hand, of none of Shakespeare's pre-decessors or contemporaries can it be said, as of Greene, that his dramatic poetry is occasionally animated with the breezy freshness which no artifice can simulate, but which nothing but obtuseness can mistake. He can construct neatly and with facility, though of course belonging to a period of our dramatic literature when the art of construc-tion was still in its infancy. He has created no character of commanding power—unless Ateukin be excepted ; but his personages are living men and women, and marked out from, one another with a vigorous but far from rude hand. His comic humour is undeniable, and he unites a spirit of true farcical fun with a capacity for light and graceful dia-logue. His diction is overloaded with classical ornament; but even this he frequently employs with pleasing aptness. His versification is easy and fluent; and its cadence is at times singularly sweet. He creates his best effects, like a true artist, by the simplest means; and he is indisputably one of the most gifted and one of the most pleasing among our early dramatic authors.

The best account of Greene and his writings (including a list of all his prose tracts) is that by the late Mr Dyce, prefixed to his edition of The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Itobert Greene, 1 vol., 1861; the 2 vol. edition was published in 1831. It contains copious extracts from Pandosto, and from other prose-writings by Greene. Greene's Groat's-worlh of Wit is printed in part i. of Dr Ingleby s Slmkespearc Allusion-Books (New Shakespeare Society's Publications, 1874). Dr Inglcby's general introduction, and a sup- plement by the late Mr Richaid Simpson, as well as the observa- tions in Mr Simpson's School of Shakespeare, will be of great value to readers of Greene. W. Bernhardi's Robert Greene's Leben una Schriften (Leipsic, 1874) is an essay full of useful research; and Prof. J. M. Brown of Christchurch, New Zealand, has contiibuted a spirited, but at the same time judicious, criticism of Greene to the New Zealand Magazine for April 1877. A Russian mono- graph on him by N. I. Storozhenlto (Moscow, 1878) is described as perhaps the fullest hitherto published. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay has been edited, together with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for the Oxford Clarendon Press (1878). (A. W. W.)




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