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Updated: Aug 19, 2020

A Man of Extremes:

Robert Greene was influential and controversial in his own time. He was one of the most important and perhaps the most colorful of the Elizabethan play wrights. On the professional level, he penned the first widely successful romantic comedies for the public theaters; and these strongly influenced Shakespeare and others who later perfected this genre. On the private level, by contrast, Greene's influence was of a psychological and supportive nature, as he befriended some of the major dramatists of the London scene, including Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, and Christopher Marlowe.

What made Greene controversial, then and now was that he was a man of extremes. He had perhaps the shortest professional career of any Elizabethan playwright, for example, a mere four years or less (roughly 1587 to 1591); yet his output of both plays and prose stories was large and note worthy. Nashe, a frequent eyewitness to his friend’s working habits, left behind this description of the remarkable speed at which Greene produced material, much of it well written:

In a night and day would he [turn out] a pamphlet as well as [someone else could have done] in seven years, and glad was the printer that might be so blessed to pay him dear for the very dregs of his wit.

An even more dramatic contrast can be seen between the nature of Greene's private life and that of his writings. One of the first English autobiographers, he turned out numerous tracts describing his own life (usually through the actions of a fictional character), and these reveal a sordid existence characterized by excessive drinking, carousing, and association with prostitutes, thieves, and other elements of London's seamy underworld. Yet in theme and execution, his works are just the opposite. As the late noted literary scholar William Neilson put it:

In spite of the self-confessed wickedness of his ways, Greene was not a hardened criminal, and no themes are more frequent in his tracts than moral exhortation and repentance. It is further notable that his work is freer from grossness than that of most of his contemporary playwrights, and he is distinguished for the freshness and purity of his female creations. He seems also, to judge from his plays, to have retained a love for the country, where he often chose to lay his scenes; and he ranks high among the lyricists [intense, exuberant, colorful writers] of the time.

A Wild Youth:

Greene came into the world in early July 1558 in Norwich (located about ninety miles northeast of London). His parents were middle class and respectable, in his own later words serious and honest people to whose “wholesome advice” he regrettably turned a deaf ear. He probably attended the Norwich Free Grammar School. That institution awarded scholarships for Corpus Christi College, one of the subdivisions of nearby Cambridge University and the register of Corpus Christi lists Greene as entering that school in the spring of 1573, when he was about fifteen. The young man received his B.A. from Cambridge about 1579 and later acquired an M.A. at Oxford. Clearly, his extensive education rendered him eminently qualified to join the ranks of the London literary group that became known as the University wits.

Apparently Greene received more than an education at Cambridge. He also found himself exposed to the same kind of rule breakers, heavy drinkers, and troublemakers Peele had encountered at Oxford. However, if Peele merely dabbled in youthful vice, Greene became a master of it, and by his own admission. In one of his last works, Repentance, he sadly recalled that at Cambridge he fell in “amongst ways [young men] as lewd [indecent] as myself, with whom I consumed used up the flower of my youth.”

Greene and some of his cohorts eventually ran wild beyond the limits of Cambridge and even of England itself. During breaks from their classes, they traveled to Italy and Spain, where he later admitted, “I saw and practiced such villainy as is abominable [horrible] to declare.” To get the money for these trips, Greene approached and lied to his father, who evidently thought his son was using the funds for respectable purposes.

Romantic Adventures, Fictional and Real:

Increasingly, young Robert Greene became unhappy, aimless, restless, and unsure about the future. In his own words, “he seemed so discontent that no place would please me to abide in, nor no vocation cause me to stay myself in.” So after graduating from the University, he drifted to London, where he lived for a time by borrowing money from his former school friends. When they would no longer extend him credit, in desperation, he turned to the only way he could conceive of using his considerable literary talents to make money. This is how Greene began writing stories and eventually plays for popular consumption.

Sometime between 1580 and 1583, the young man wrote the first of a long series of what he termed "Love Pamphlets" because they dealt in one way or another with the subject of love and romance. These were not pamphlets in the modern sense (i.e., short informational tracts), but long prose stories. Mamillia, a Mirror or Looking Glass for the Ladies of England, in two parts, is set in Padua, a colorful Italian location which Greene had likely visited. It tells the story of a young man, Pharicles, who falls in love with Mamillia, the daughter of the local ruler. She returns his love. But then Pharicles meets and falls madly in love with another attractive young woman. The noble and forgiving Mamillia twice takes him back and even helps him escape from prison, where he had been confined after a relationship with a prostitute. Finally, Pharicles and Mamillia are married and achieve happiness.

As in many other stories he penned, Greene injected into Mamillia what were almost certainly strong autobiographical elements. The frivolous, morally confused young Pharicles certainly closely resembles the young Robert Greene; and it is possible that one or more of the female characters are modeled on young women he met when he was in Italy. In any case, Mamillia is the first of Greene's strong, well developed female characters for, like Lyly, he was a pioneer in emphasizing the intrinsic worth of women. Lyly was the first to do it in plays, but in the same period Greene was blazing the trail in prose stories.

While turning out more prose romances, including Pandosto and Menaphon, Greene himself had a brush with real romance. Late in 1585 or early in 1586, he met and married a young woman named Dorothy, the daughter of a country gentleman. They had a son soon afterward. But Greene did not give up his drinking and carousing, and his irresponsible behavior rapidly ruined the marriage. “As much as she would [try to] persuade me from my willful wickedness,” he later wrote “after I had a child by her I cast her off, having spent up [all] the marriage money [dowry] which I [had] obtained by her [i.e., from her father]. Then I let her.” Some evidence shows that at the time Greene left Dorothy, he was carrying on with the sister of one of London's most notorious gangsters, a man known as “Cutting Ball.” The product of this affair has another son, this time born out of wedlock.

Greene’s Plays:

Among the other characters of questionable reputation with whom Greene mingled in London were playwrights, including Nashe, whom he had known since his Cambridge days. Perhaps influenced by them about 1587 Greene decided to try his hand at drama. His first effort, Alphonsus, King of Arogon (first produced in 1588), was consciously modeled on Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, produced the year before. In each case, the hero rises through the ranks to lofty power and ends up marrying the daughter of his enemy. The difference is that Marlowe's work is well conceived and well executed, while Greene's is but a weak and pale imitation. The next two plays by Greene, A Looking Glass for London and England (ca.1590) written with Thomas Lodge, and Orlando Furious (ca. 1591) were better than his first; but if these three plays had been his only theatrical works, his name would surely have become as obscure as those of the majority of the two-hundred-plus playwrights of the period.

Greene's deserved importance as an Elizabethan dramatist rests on his next two plays,The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (ca.1591) and The Scottish History of James IV, Slain at Flodden (ca. 1591). The first was perhaps the most skillfully written English stage comedy up to that time. It contains two cleverly interwoven plots. The first is a romantic tale about the love of Edward, a former Prince of Wales (and later King Edward I) for Margaret, a noble maiden. Edward is angry when he finds out that Margaret loves another man, Lord Lacy; but the prince eventually gives her up and blesses her union with Lacy. The other story that unfolds in the play concerns the larger-than-life thirteenth-century Oxford scholar Roger Bacon, whom legend claimed was a powerful magician. In Greene's romance, Bacon, aided by Friar Bungay, constructs a human head made of brass, and with the help of the Devil they endow it with speech. Bacon hopes to learn from the head how he might encircle England with a huge brass wall, making it safe from foreign invaders. The problem is that no one knows when the head will begin talking. Bacon watches it day and night for three weeks, but it remains silent. So he has his servant, Miles, watch it while he goes to sleep. The head then speaks two words “Time is” but Miles thinks this utterance too trivial to bother waking his master. The head speaks twice more, saying “Time was” and “Time is past,” then a flash of lightning appears and the brass artifact falls to the floor and shatters. Waking, Bacon learns what has happened and explodes at Miles:

Villain! Time is past! My life, my fame, my glory, all are past. Bacon, the turrets of your hope are ruined down. Your seven years [of] study lie in the dust! Your Brazen Head lies broken through [the negligence of] a slave that watched…..Villain, if you had called to Bacon then, if you had watched, and waked the sleepy friar……. the Brazen Head [would] have uttered aphorisms [great truths] and England would be circled round with brass.

Greene's other masterpiece, James IV, was the first full-length English tragic- comedy in that it skillfully blended a serious plot about courtly love, intrigue, betrayal, and attempted murder with elements of humor and pure fantasy. The story of James, who is married to English princess but loves a Scottish countess, is told as a sort of play within a play; in an imaginary setting. Oberon, king of the fairies, watches James's story performed by a group of fairy actors.

Most modern scholars accept that the style, tone, and characters of some of Greene's plays later influenced a number of Shakespeare's works. According to the late J.M. Brown, for instance, "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay" (with Marlowe's Faustus) preceded Shakespeare's use of the supernatural; the fairy framework of James IV is followed by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream [which also takes place in a fairy setting and features a fairy king named Oberon].

Greene's Attack on Shakespeare:

In fact, Shakespeare's borrowings from Greene and other contemporary play wrights may have been the basis for the latter's open dislike for Shakespeare. It was not unusual in those days for one writer to take the plots, ideas, and characters of others and rework them in various ways in his own plays. There was (and remains) a rather fine line between artistic influence and out-and-out plagiarism;and Greene appears to have felt that Shakespeare had somehow crossed that line. One of Greene's principle modern biographers, the late Russian scholar Nicholas Storojenko,wrote:

Nearly every one of Shakespeare's juvenile [early] productions…..[was based on an original] in the dramatic literature of the [mid-to-late 1580s], So long as he was content with writing for his own company……Greene and his friends, who wrote for other companies…..[cared little]. But when….. he began to widen his sphere of action and to offer his services to other companies, when he [threatened] to flood the theaters of London with his productions, then all Greene's clique were up in arms against him, with Greene himself at their head…..Greene saw in Shakespeare, not only a successful rival, but an enemy who beat the established dramatists with their own weapons, which he had stolen from them.

Greene's indignation bubbled to the surface in a 1592 pamphlet titled Groatsworth of Wit,Bought with a Million of Repentance. The attack on Shakespeare reads in part:

"Based-minded men [are] all three of you [Nash, Peele, and Marlowe], if by my misery you be not warned…… For there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feather [made famous by stealing our material], that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes that he is as well able to bombast out [i.e., write] a blank verse as[well as] the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum [jack of all trades, in this case an actor and playwright for different companies], in his own conceit the only Shake-scene [a parody of Shakespeare's name] in the country. O that I might entreat [beg] your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses [i.e., choose some other profession] and let those apes [actors who speak Shakespeare's lines] imitate your past excellence... for it is [a] pity [that]such rare wits [as you are], should be subject to the pleasures [whims] of such rude grooms [another jab at what he sees as thankless actors]."

(The charge that Shakespeare had a "Tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide" is a parody of "O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide," a line from act 1, scene 4 of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1, produced in London earlier that same year.)

After considerable study of all the available evidence, modern scholars are convinced that Greene's inference that Shakespeare has plagiarized other dramatists was overblown. Shakespeare, Brown pointed out,

was doing just what other playwrights did, what Greene himself did... Greene and the other university men dramatized from the old chroniclers-as Shakespeare often did too—and from Italian, Latin, and Greek authors. Shakespeare generally preferred to take what was readiest at hand.

It is more likely that Greene's attack was motivated out of a combination of jealousy for a rival who was clearly a better writer and Greene's bitterness over his own past mistakes.

A Moral Conversion:

That bitterness was probably a bus product of the major moral conversion Greene had undergone in the months leading up to Groatsworth of Wit. The pamphlet was only one of a series of tracts he published describing the dangers and wastefulness of the kind of life he had lived for many years. Two others were Farewell to Folly (1591) and Repentance, penned on his deathbed in August 1592. Greene hoped these writings would steer other young men toward more positive and constructive behaviors than his own. He also attempted to do society a service by exposing many of the tricks and schemes used by London thieves and swindlers against unwary residents and visitors. The vehicle was another series of pamphlets, which appeared in late 1591 and early 1592, among them A Notable Discovery of Cozenage, The Black Books Messenger, and The Second Part of Cony-Catching. (A cony was a ‘rabbit’, or the gullible victim of a thief or conman;today such a victim would be called a ‘mark’). In response to this courageous campaign, some underworld figures threatened to cut off the playwright's hand and even tried to kill him.

The attempt on Greene's life failed. But within months he was dead anyway, largely because years of heavy drinking and other bad habits, compounded by overwork, had taken a terrible toll on his system. He became ill in early August 1592 after consuming too much wine and pickled herring at a party. Poverty-stricken and bedridden in a rented room owned by a shoemaker, the writer grew steadily weaker over the course of the month and only his mistress (Cutting Ball's sister) and landlord and landlady took the time to comfort him in his final days. On September 2, he hastily scribbled a note to Dorothy, the wife he had abandoned a few years before. After begging her to pay his landlords the back rent he owed them, he implored, “Forget and forgive my wrongs done to you, and Almighty God have mercy on my soul. Farewell till we meet in heaven, for on earth you will never see me more.”

Robert Greene died the following day. The thoughtful manner of his departure, along with his recent efforts to make amends for his past mistakes, stood in stark contrast to the callous way he had earlier treated both himself and others. But this was fitting, for he was ever a man at war within himself. Indeed, he had long been host to relentless battle between his baser impulses and the moral ideals expressed in his writings in the end, to his credit, his good side won.


Great Elizabethan Playwright- Don Nardo

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