The Life of Robert Greene

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 541.

ROBERT GREENE (c.1560-1592), English dramatist and miscellaneous writer, was born at Norwich about 1560. The identity of his father has been disputed, but there is every reason to believe that he belonged to the tradesmen's class and had small means. It is doubtful whether Robert Greene attended Norwich grammar school; but, as an eastern counties man (to one of whose plays, Friar Bacon, the Norfolk and Suffolk borderland owes a lasting poetic commemoration) he naturally found his way to Cambridge, where he entered St John's College as a sizar in 1575 and took his B.A. thence in 1579, proceeding M.A. in 1583 from Clare Hall. His life at the university was, according to his own account, spent "among wags as lewd as himself, with whom he consumed the flower of his youth." In 1588 he was incorporated at Oxford, so that on some of his titlepages he styles himself "utriusque Academiae in Artibus Magister"; and Nashe humorously refers to him as "utriusque Academiae Robertus Greene."

Between the years 157,8 and 1583 he had travelled abroad, according to his own account very extensively, visiting France, Germany, Poland and Denmark, besides learning at first-hand to "hate the pride of Italie" and to know the taste of that poet's fruit, "Spanish mirabolones." The grounds upon which it has been suggested that he took holy orders are quite insufficient; 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 his earliest extant literary production was in hand as early as 1580. He now became "an author of playes and a penner of lovepamphlets, so that I soone grew famous in that qualitie, that who for that trade growne so ordinary about London as Robin Greene ?"  "Glad was that printer," says Nashe, that might bee so blest to pay him deare for the very dregs of his wit."

By his own account he rapidly sank into the worst debaucheries of the town, though Nashe declares that he never knew him guilty of notorious crime. He was not without passing impulses towards a more righteous and sober life, and was derided in consequence by his associates as a "Puritane and Presizian." It is possible that he, as well as his bitter enemy, Gabriel Harvey, exaggerated the looseness of his conduct. His marriage, which took place in 1585 or 1586, failed to steady him; if Francesco, in Greene's pamphlet Never too late to mend (1590), is intended for the author himself, it had been a runaway match; but the fiction and the autobiographical sketch in the Repentance agree in their account of the unfaithfulness which followed on the part of the husband. He lived with his wife, whose name seems to have been Dorothy ("Doll"; and cf. Dorothea in James IV.), for a while; "but forasmuch as she would perswade me from my wilful 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" continued to increase, and where his life was a feverish alternation of labour and debauchery.

In his last years he took it upon himself to make war on the cutpurses and "conny-catchers" with whom he came into contact in the slums, and whose doings he fearlessly exposed in his writings. He tells us how at last 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 a far from unprejudiced narrator. Greene had taken up the cudgels provided by the Harvey brothers on their intervention in the Marprelate controversy, and made an attack (immediately suppressed) upon Gabriel's father and family in the prose-tract A Quip for an Upstart Courtier, or a Quaint Dispute between Velvet Breeches and Cloth Breeches (1592). After a banquet where the chief guest had been Thomas Nashe - 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 hostess (Mrs Isam) and two women - one of them the sister of a notorious thief named "Cutting Ball," and the mother of his illegitimate son, Fortunatus Greene - he died on the 3rd of September 1592. Shortly before his death he wrote under a bond for £10 which he had given to the good shoemaker, the following words addressed to his longforsaken 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."

Four Letters and Certain Sonnets, Harvey's attack on Greene, appeared almost immediately after his death, as to the circumstances of which his relentless adversary had taken care to inform himself personally. Nashe took up the defence of his dead friend and ridiculed Harvey in Strange News (1593) ; and the dispute continued for some years. But, before this, 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 (1592), containing the story of Roberto, who may be regarded, for practical purposes, as representing Greene himself. This ill-starred production may almost be said to have done more to excite the resentment of posterity against Greene's name than all the errors for which he professed his repentance. For in it he exhorted to repentance three of his quondam acquaintance. Of these three Marlowe was one - to whom and to whose creation of "that Atheist Tamberlaine" he had repeatedly alluded. The second was Peele, the third probably Nashe. But the passage addressed to Peele contained a transparent allusion to a fourth dramatist, who was an actor likewise, as "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 York, &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 while it seems more probable that (as the late 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 explained by Dr Ingleby) is revealed in its concluding phrases. This "shake-scene," i.e. this actor had ventured to intrude upon the domain of the regular staff of playwrights - their monopoly was in danger!

Two other prose pamphlets of an autobiographical nature were issued posthumously. Of these, The Repentance of Robert Greene, Master of Arts (1592), must originally have been written by him on his death-bed, under the influence, as he says, "of Father Parsons's Booke of Resolution" (The Christian Directorie, appertayning to Resolution, 1582, republished in an enlarged form, which became very popular, in 1585) ; but it bears traces of having been improved from the original; while Greene's Vision was certainly not, as the title-page avers, written during his last illness.

Altogether not less than thirty-five prose-tracts are ascribed to Greene's prolific pen. Nearly all of them are interspersed with verses; in their themes they range from the "misticall" wonders of the heavens to the familiar but "pernitious sleights" of the sharpers of London. But the most widely attractive of his prose publications were his "love-pamphlets," which brought upon him the outcry of Puritan censors. The earliest of his novels, as they may be called, Mamillia, was licensed in 1583. This interesting story may be said to have accompanied Greene through life; for even part II., of which, though probably completed several years earlier, the earliest extant edition bears the date 1593, had a sequel, The Anatomie of Love's Flatteries, which contains a review of suitors recalling Portia's in The Merchant of Venice. The Myrrour of Modestie (the story of Susanna) (1584); The Historie of Arhasto, King of Denmarke (1584); Morando, the Tritameron of Love (a rather tedious imitation of the Decameron (1584); Planetomachia (1585) (a contention in storytelling between Venus and Saturn); Penelope's Web (1587) (another string of stories); Alcida, Greene's Metamorphosis (1588), and others, followed.

In these popular productions he appears very distinctly as a follower of John Lyly; indeed, the first part of Mamillia was entered in the Stationers' Registers in the year of the appearance of Euphues, and two of Greene's novels are by their titles announced as a kind of sequel to the parent romance: Euphues his Censure to Philautus (1587), Menaphon. Camilla's Alarum to Slumbering Euphues (1589), named in some later editions Greene's Arcadia. This pastoral romance, written in direct emulation of Sidney's, with a heroine called Samila, contains St Sephestia's charming lullaby, with its refrain "Father's sorowe, father's joy." But, though Greene's style copies the balanced oscillation, and his diction the ornateness (including the proverbial philosophy) of Lyly, he contrives to interest by the matter as well as to attract attention by the manner of his narratives. Of his highly moral intentions he leaves the reader in no doubt, since they are exposed on the title-pages. The full title of the Myrrour of Modestie for instance continues: " wherein appeareth as in a perfect glasse how the Lord delivereth the innocent from all imminent perils, and plagueth the blood-thirsty hypocrites with deserved punishments," &c. On his Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (1588) Shakespeare founded A Winter's Tale; in fact, the novel contains the entire plot of the comedy, except the device of the living statue; though some of the subordinate characters in the play, including Autolycus, were added by Shakespeare, together with the pastoral fragrance of one of its episodes.

In Greene's Never too Late (1590), announced as a "Powder of Experience: sent to all youthfull gentlemen" for their benefit, the hero, Francesco, is in all probability intended for Greene himself, the sequel or second part is, however, pure fiction. 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 Britain." Philador, the prodigal of The Mourning Garment (1590), is obviously also in some respects a portrait of the writer. The experiences of the Roberto of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592) 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. Besides these and the posthumous pamphlets on his repentance, Greene left realistic pictures of the very disreputable society to which he finally descended, in his pamphlets on "connycatching":  A Notable Discovery of Coosnage (1591), The Blacke Bookes Messenger. Laying open the Life and Death of Ned Browne, one of the most Notable Cutpurses, Crossbiters, and Conny-catchers that ever lived in England (1592). Much in Greene's manner, both in his romances and in his pictures of low life, anticipated what proved the slow course of the actual development of the English novel; and it is probable that his true métier, and that which best suited the bright fancy, ingenuity and wit of which his genius was compounded, was pamphletspinning and story-telling rather than dramatic composition. It should be added that, euphuist as Greene was, few of his contemporaries in their lyrics warbled wood-notes which like his resemble Shakespeare's in their native freshness.

Curiously enough, as Mr Churton Collins has pointed out, Greene, except in the two pamphlets written just before his death, never refers to his having written plays; and before 1592 his contemporaries are equally silent as to his labours as a playwright. Only four plays remain to us of which he was indisputably the sole author. The earliest of these seems to have been the Comicall History of Alphonsus, King of Arragon, of which Henslowe's Diary contains no trace. But it can hardly have been first acted long after the production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, which had, in all probability, been brought on the stage in 1587. For this play, "comical" only in the negative sense of having a happy ending, was manifestly written in emulation as well as in direct imitation 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 was sure to bring down at least part of the house. Alphonsus is a history proper - a dramatized chronicle or narrative of warlike events. 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 probably written in 1589) Greene once more attempted to emulate Marlowe; and he succeeded in producing a masterpiece of his own. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which doubtless suggested the composition of Greene's comedy, reveals the mighty tragic genius of its author; but Greene 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's love for the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, he produced a comedy brimful of amusing action and genial fun. Friar Bacon remains a dramatic picture of English Elizabethan life with which The Merry Wives alone can vie; and not even the ultraclassicism in the similes of its diction can destroy the naturalness which constitutes its perennial charm. The History of Orlando Furioso, one of the Twelve Peeres of France has on unsatisfactory evidence been dated as before 1586, and is known to have been acted on the 21st of February 1592. It is a free dramatic adaptation of Ariosto, Harington's translation of whom appeared in 1591, and who in one passage is textually quoted; and it contains a large variety of characters and a superabundance of action. Fairly lucid in arrangement and fluent in style, the treatment of the madness of Orlando lacks tragic power. Very few dramatists from Sophocles to Shakespeare have succeeded in subordinating the grotesque effect of madness to the tragic; and Greene is not to be included in the list.

In The Scottish Historie of James IV. (acted 1592, licensed for publication 1594) Greene seems to have reached the climax of his dramatic powers. The "historical" character of this play is pure pretence. The story is taken from one of Giraldi Cinthio's tales. 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 brings about a reconciliation between them. Not only is this well-constructed story effectively worked out, but the characters are vigorously drawn, and in Ateukin there is a touch of Iago. The fooling by Slipper, the clown of the piece, is unexceptionable; and, lest even so the play should hang heavy on the audience, its action is carried off by a "pleasant comedic" — i.e. a prelude and some dances between the acts — "presented by Oboram, King of Fayeries," who is, however, a very different person from the Oberon of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

George-a-Greene the Pinner of Wakefield (acted 1593,1593, printed 1 599), a delightful picture of English life fully worthy of the author of Friar Bungay, has been attributed to him; but the external evidence is very slight, and the internal unconvincing. Of the comedy of Fair Em, which resembles Friar Bacon in more than one point, Greene cannot have been the author; the question as to the priority between the two plays is not so easily solved. The conjecture 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 curious drama called A Looking Glasse for London and England (acted in 1592 and printed in 1594) - a dramatic apologue conveying to the living generation of Englishmen the warning of Nineveh's corruption and prophesied doom. The lesson was frequently repeated in the streets of London by the "Ninevitical 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 intensity of Marlowe's tragic muse; nor perhaps does he ever equal Peele at his best. On the other hand, his dramatic poetry is occasionally animated with the breezy freshness which no artifice can simulate. He had considerable constructive skill, but 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 had the gift of light and graceful dialogue. His diction is overloaded with classical ornament, but his versification is easy and fluent, and its cadence is at times singularly sweet. He creates his best effects by the simplest means; and he is indisputably one of the most attractive of early English dramatic authors.

Greene's dramatic works and poems were edited by Alexander Dyce in 1831 with a life of the author. This edition was reissued in one volume in 1858. His complete works were edited for the Huth Library by A. B. Grosart. This issue (1881-1886) contains a translation of Nicholas Storojhenko's monograph on Greene (Moscow, 1878). Greene's plays and poems were edited with introductions and notes by J. Churton Collins in 2 vols. (Oxford, 1905) ; the general introduction to this edition has superseded previous accounts of Greene and his dramatic and lyrical writings. An account of his pamphlets is to be found in J. J. Jusserand's English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare (Eng. trans., 1890). See also W. Bernhardi, Robert Greenes Leben and Schriften (1874) ; F. M. Bodenstedt, in Shakespeare's Zeitgenossen and ihre Werke (1858) ; and an introduction by A. W. Ward to Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (Oxford, 1886, 4th ed., 1901).

(A. W. Ward)

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 541.

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