The “Autobiography” of Robert Greene (2009)

Pamphleteer and dramatist Robert Greene was one of the most popular Elizabethan writers. He was certainly England’s first professional journalist. Greene was praised in prose and verse alike, almost as often, though without the hyperbole, as Shakespeare. He was colorful and controversial, notable for his close connection to the London underworld. Several of his works continued to be reprinted long after his death. Today, however, Greene is seldom read outside the university and his plays are rarely, if ever, performed.

It is ironic that of his works the most often scrutinized, his autobiographical prose tract A Groats-Worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), is not read for the light it sheds on Greene, but for its oft-quoted reference to Shakespeare. We will examine this reference in due course. From A Groats-Worth of wit and The Repentance of Robert Greene (1592), as well as the words of other writers of the period, we can piece together an account of Greene’s brief but fascinating, checkered, and dissipated life.

A Groats-Worth of Wit is written, for reasons known only to Greene, in two parts. In the first part, writing in the third person, Greene styles himself “Roberto.” In the second, Greene writes in the first person. In order to construct a coherent and reasonably chronological narrative, I quote from both sections at random (I have modernized these and other texts I quote along the way.)

“I need not make long discourse of my parents,” the narrative might begin, “who for their gravity and honest life is well known and esteemed amongst their neighbors; namely in the city of Norwich, where I was bred and born.” Greene was born in July, 1558. He was educated at Cambridge and took his A.B. degree at St. John’s College in 1578.

“For being at the University of Cambridge, I lit amongst wags as lewd as myself, with whom I consumed the flower of my youth; who drew me to travel in Italy and Spain, in which places I saw and practiced such villainy as is abominable to declare…” It would be most interesting to have an account of his abominations, but Greene unfortunately spares us the details.

“Thus by their counsel I sought to furnish myself with coin, which I procured by cunning sleights from my father and my friends; and my mother pampered me so long, and secretly helped me to the oil of angels [ten-shilling gold coins], that I grew thereby prone to all mischief. I was drowned in pride, whoredom was my daily exercise, and gluttony with drunkeness was my only delight.”

On at least one occasion Greene felt remorse for his behavior: “Yet, let me confess a truth, that even once, and yet but once, I felt a fear and horror in my conscience, and then the terror of God’s judgments did manifestly teach me that my life was bad, that by sin I deserved damnation, and that such was the greatness of my sin that I deserved no redemption. And this inward motion I received in Saint Andrew’s Church in the city of Norwich, at a lecture or sermon then preached by a godly learned man, whose doctrine and the manner of whose teaching I liked wonderful well; yea, in my conscience, such was his singleness of heart and zeal in his doctrine that he might have converted the worst monster of the world.

“At this sermon the terror of God’s judgments did manifestly teach me that my exercises were damnable, and that I should be wiped out of the book of life, if I did not speedily repent my looseness of life, and reform my misdemeanors. At this sermon the said learned man (who doubtless was the child of God) did beat down sin in such pithy and persuasive manner, that I began to call into mind the danger of my soul, and the prejudice that at length would befall me for those gross sins which with greediness I daily committed: in so much as sighing I said to myself, ‘Lord have mercy upon me, and send me grace to amend and become a new man!’

“But this good motion lasted not long in me; for no sooner had I met with my copesmates [companions], but seeing me in such solemn humor, they demanded the cause of my sadness: to whom when I had discovered that I sorrowed for my wickedness of life, and that the preacher’s words had taken a deep impression in my conscience, they fell upon me in jesting manner, calling me Puritan and Presizian [good and evil], and wished I might have a pulpit, with such other scoffing terms, that by their foolish persuasion the good of the wholesome lesson I had learned went quite out of my remembrance; so that I fell again with the dog to my old vomit, and put my wicked life in practice, and that so thoroughly as ever I did before.

“Well, at that time, whosoever was worst, I knew myself as bad as he; for being new-come from Italy… I ruffled out in my silks in the habit of a malcontent, and so discontent, that no place would please me to abide in, nor no vocation cause me to stay myself in: but after, I had by degrees proceeded Master of Arts.” Green took his A.M. at Clare Hall in 1583 and was incorporated at Oxford in 1588. On the title pages of some of his works he ostentatiously describes himself “Utriusque Academioe in Artibus Magister.”

The first part of Mamilia (1583), was written, if not published, before Greene left college. A second part, The Anatomie of Love’s Flatterie, probably written about the same time, was published after his death. During this same period, Greene likely wrote several more prose pieces: The Historie of Arhasto, King of Denmarke, The Mirror of Modesty, Morando and Gwydonius (1584), and Planetomachia (1585). On the title page of the latter work he styles himself “Student in Physicke,” perhaps indicating that he had a notion to pursue a career in medicine. Later works include Penelope’s Web (1587), and Greene’s Arcadia (1589). All told, about thirty-five prose works are attributed to Greene.

“I left the University and away to London; where (after I had continued some short time, and driven myself out of credit with sundry of my friends)…” Greene was out at pockets, evidently searching for a way to make a living from his education, when he attracted a sympathetic ear. “On the other side of the hedge sat one that heard his sorrow; who getting over, came towards him, and broke off his passion. When he approached, he saluted Roberto in this sort. ‘Gentleman,’ quoth he, ‘for so you seem, I have by chance heard you discourse some part of your grief, which appeareth to be more than you will discover or I can conceit. But if you vouchsafe such simple comfort as my ability will yield, assure yourself that I will endeavor to do the best that either may procure your profit or bring you pleasure; the rather, for that I suppose you art a scholar, and pity it is men of learning should live in lack.’

“Roberto wondering to hear such good words, for that this iron age affords few that esteem of virtue, returned him thankful gratulations, and, urged by necessity, uttered his present grief, beseeching his advice how he might be employed. ‘Why, easily,’ quoth he, ‘and greatly to your benefit; for men of my profession get by scholars their whole living.’ ‘What is your profession?’ said Roberto. ‘Truly, sir,’ said he, ‘I am a player.’ ‘A player!’ quoth Roberto; ‘I took you rather for a gentlemen of great living; for if by outward habit men should be censured [estimated], I tell you, you would be taken for a substantial man.’

‘So I am where I dwell,’ quoth the player, ‘reputedable at my proper cost to build a windmill. What though the world once went hard with me, when I was fain to carry my playing fardle [acting paraphernalia] a foot-back [in a hamper on his back]. Tempora mutantur, I know you know the meaning of it better then I, but I thus conster [interpret] it: It is otherwise now; for my very share in playing apparel will not be sold for two hundred pounds.’ ‘Truly,’ said Roberto, ‘it is strange that you should so prosper in that vain practice, for that it seems to me your voice is nothing gracious.’ ‘Nay, then,’ said the player, ‘I mislike your judgement: why I am as famous for Delphrygus and The King of Fairies as ever was any of my time; The Twelve Labors of Hercules have I terribly thundered on the stage, and played three scenes of the Devil in The Highway to Heaven.’

‘Have ye so?’ said Roberto; ‘then I pray you pardon me.’ ‘Nay, more,’ quoth the player, ‘I can serve to make a pretty speech, for I was a country author, passing at a Moral; for it was I penned The Moral of Man’s Wit, The Dialogue of Dives, and for seven years space was absolute interpreter of the puppets [actors]. But now my almanack is out of date: The people make no estimation / Of Morals, teaching education. Was this not pretty for a plain rhyme extempore? If you will, ye shall have more.’ [1]

‘Nay, it is enough,’ said Roberto; ‘but how mean you to use me?’ ‘Why, sir, in making plays, ‘said the other; ‘for which you shall be well paid, if you will take the pains.’ Roberto perceiving no remedy, thought it best to respect his present necessity, [and] to try his wit, went with him willingly; who lodged him at the town’s end in a house of retail. But here note, that though I knew how to get a friend, yet I had not the gift or reason how to keep a friend; for he that was my dearest friend, I would be sure so to behave myself towards him, that he should ever after profess to be my utter enemy, or else vow never after to come in my company.”

“I became an author of plays, and a penner of love pamphlets, so that I soon grew famous in that quality, that who for that trade grown so ordinary [familiar] about London as Robin Greene?” He must have cut a flamboyant path through the streets of London. Henry Chettle (Kind Heart’s Dream) describes him as “a man of indifferent years, of face amiable, of body well-proportioned, his attire after the habit of a scholar-like gentleman, only his hair was somewhat long.” Not only was Greene’s hair long, he had a beard, according to his colleague, Thomas Nashe (Strange News), with “a jolly long red peak like the spire of a steeple he cherished continually without cutting, whereat a man might hang a jewel, it was so sharp and pendant.”

Greene continues: “After I had wholly betaken me to the penning of plays (which was my continual exercise), I was so far from calling upon God that I seldom thought on God, but took such delight in swearing and blaspheming the name of God that none could think otherwise of me than that I was the child of perdition. These vanities and other trifling pamphlets I penned of love and vain fantasies was my chiefest stay of living; and for those my vain discourses I was beloved of the more vainer sort of people, who being my continual companions [Marlowe, Peele and Nash], came still to my lodging, and there would continue quaffing, carousing, and surfeiting with me all the day long.

“Yet young in years, though old in wickedness, I began to resolve that there was nothing bad that was profitable: whereupon I grew so rooted in all mischief that I had as great a delight in wickedness as sundry hath in godliness, and as much felicity I took in villainy as others had in honesty.

“Roberto now famoused for an arch play-making poet, his purse, like the seas, sometime swelled, now like the same sea fell to a low ebb; yet seldom he wanted, his labors were so well esteemed. Marry, this rule he kept: whatever he fingered aforehand, was the certain means to unbind a bargain; and being asked why he so slightly dealt with them that did him good, ‘It becomes me,’ sayeth he, ‘to be contrary to the world; for commonly when vulgar men receive earnest [advance payment], they do perform; when I am paid for anything aforehand, I break my promise.’

“He had a shift of lodgings, where in every place his hostess writ up the woeful remembrance of him, his laundress, and his boy; for they were ever his inhousehold, besides retainers in sundry other places. His company were lightly the lewdest persons in the land, apt for pilfery, perjury, forgery, or any villainy. Of these he knew the cast to cog [cheat] at cards, cozen at dice; by these he learned the legerdemains of nips, foists, coney-catchers, cross-biters, lifts, high lawyers, and all the rabble of that unclean generation of vipers; and pithily could he paint out their whole courses of craft: so cunning he was in all crafts as nothing rested in him almost but craftiness.”

Greene’s craftiness may have included the sale of the same play to two different companies. In The Defence of Coney-Catching (anonymous, 1592), we are told “Master R. G. [Robert Greene], would it not make you blush – if you sold Orlando Furioso to the Queen’s players for twenty nobles, and when they were in the country, sold the same play to Lord Admiral’s men, for as much more? Was not this plain coney-catching, M. G. [Master Greene]?” While this statement is commonly accepted as fact, it is challenged by John Clark Jordan, a trustworthy authority on Greene. Jordan (Robert Greene) thinks there is a strong possibility that Defence was written by Greene himself.

“I married a gentleman’s daughter of good account, with whom I lived for a while: but forasmuch as she would persuade me from my willful wickedness, after I had a child by her, I cast her off, having spent up the marriage-money which I obtained by her.” Greene’s wife may have been one Elizabeth Taylor. If so, the wedding took place on February 16, 1586, according to a somewhat confused marriage entry in the register of St. Bartholomew the Less. That they had been strongly attached to each other is evident from the letter (quoted later) he wrote to her with his dying hand. He must have suffered much guilt over his ill treatment of his wife:

“How often the gentlewoman his wife labored vainly to recall him, is lamentable to note: but as one given over to all lewdness, he communicated her sorrowful lines among his loose sculls [base companions] that jested at her bootless [useless] laments.”

Gabriel Harvey, a Doctor of Laws, though now only remembered in literary history as the friend of Spenser and the antagonist of Nash, was a writer of considerable celebrity in his day. He was, according to Alexander Dyce (The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Robert Greene), a profound scholar and a fair composer of verses, though today we cannot admire his hobbling English hexameters of which he pompously proclaimed himself the inventor.

Harvey was vain, plumed himself on his intimacy with the great, and courted notoriety by the richness and peculiarity of his attire—he affected Venetian costume after a trip to Italy. Given his public image, he was at some pains to conceal one vexatious fact: his father had been a rope-maker. He had two brothers, Richard, a divine, and John, a physician, with whom he became a dabbler in astrology, and a prognosticator of earthquakes. The course of events, however, did not agree with their predictions, and as a consequence faced much ridicule. Richard Harvey, to make matters worse, slighted and insulted the fraternity of poets to which Greene belonged in one of his pamphlets.

Greene could not to allow this impertinence to go unpunished, and having reason to believe that Gabriel’s hand was in it, resolved to take vengeance on all three Harveys at once. Accordingly, in his Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592), Greene penned an invective against the whole generation of the rope-maker. Unfortunately, some lines, no doubt incorporated into the original edition of which no copies are extant, seem to have been subsequently deleted. We do get an idea of their caustic contents from allusions by Nash—to Richard, the divine, kissing his parishioners with “holy kisses,” and of Gabriel’s claim of inventing the hexameter.

Since Greene died shortly before the publication of Quip, Gabriel was prevented from seeking legal redress. Instead, he spat his venom on the poet’s grave in Four Letters, and certain Sonnets: Especially Touching Robert Greene: “I was altogether unacquainted with the man, and never once saluted him by name: but who in London hath not heard of his dissolute and licentious living; his fond disguising of a Master of Art with ruffianly hair, unseemly apparel, and more unseemly company; his vainglorious and Thrassonical braving; his piperly extemporizing and Tarletonizing; his apish counterfeiting of every ridiculous and absurd toy; his fine cozening of jugglers, and finer juggling of cozeners; his villainous cogging and foisting; his monstrous swearing and horrible forswearing; his impious profaning of sacred texts; his other scandalous and blasphemous raving; his riotous and outrageous surfeiting; his continual shifting of lodgings; his plausible mustering and banqueting of roisterly acquaintance at his first coming; his beggarly departing in every hostess’ debt; his infamous resorting to the Bankside, Shoreditch, Southwark [all theatre districts], and other filthy haunts; his obscure lurking in basest corners; his pawning of his sword, cloak, and what not, when money came short; his impudent pamphleting, phantastical interluding, and desperate libeling, when other cozening shifts failed…”

Harvey also informs us that Greene took up with the harlot sister (“a sorry, ragged quean”) of Cutting Ball, a notorious criminal who eventually suffered a gruesome execution at Tyburn. Greene occasionally employed Cutting Ball to gather a group of ruffians to protect him from being arrested. The woman bore him a son, Fortunatus (Harvey refers to the child derisively as “Infortunatus”). We have no record of the boy’s birth, but he survived his father by a year. He died at Holywell Street, Shoreditch, and was buried at St. Leonard’s on the same day, August 12, 1593.

Harvey provides us with our only account of Greene’s final hours: “My next business was to inquire after the famous author; who was reported to lie dangerously sick in a shoemaker’s house near Dowgate; not of the plague or the pox, as a gentleman said, but of a surfeit of pickled herring and Rhenish wine…. His hostess Isam, with tears in her eyes and sighs from a deeper fountain (for she loved him dearly), told me of his lamentable begging of a penny-pot of Malmsy [wine]; and, sir reverence, how lousy [infected with lice] he and the mother of Infortunatus were (I would her surgeon found her no worse than lousy!); and how he was fain, poor soul, to borrow her husband’s shirt, whiles his own was a-washing; and how his doublet and hose and sword were sold for three shillings; and beside the charges of his winding sheet, which was four shillings, and the charges of his burial yesterday in the New Churchyard near Bedlam, which was six shillings and four pence, how deeply he was indebted to her poor husband, as appeared by his own bond of ten pounds; which the good woman showed me, and beseeched me to read the writing beneath, which was a letter to his abandoned wife.”

Nash could not let Harvey’s statements go unchallenged: “I and one of my fellows…were in company with him, a month before he died, at that fatal banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herring (if thou wilt needs have it so); and then the inventory of his apparel came to more than three shillings (though thou said the contrary). I know a broker, in a spruce leather jerkin, with a great number of gold rings on his fingers, and a bunch of keys at his girdle, shall give you thirty shillings for the doublet alone, if you can help him to it. Hark in your ear; he had a very fair cloak with sleeves, of a grave goose-turd green; it would serve you as fine as may be.”

Harvey should consider himself fortunate, says Nash, for Greene, “Had he lived, Gabriel, and thou shouldst [have] so unartificially and odiously libeled against him as thou hast done, he would have made thee an example of ignominy to all ages that are to come, and driven thee to eat thy own book buttered, as I saw him make an apparitor [a process server] once in a tavern eat his citation, wax and all, very handsomely served twixt two dishes.”

Greene expired on September 3, 1592, and was buried on the following day. To the Groats-Worth of Wit was appended a letter written to his wife, found with the manuscript after his death: “The remembrance of many wrongs offered thee, and thy unreproved virtues, add greater sorrow to my miserable state then I can utter or thou conceive. Neither is it lessened by consideration of thy absence (though shame would let me hardly behold thy face), that thou mightest witness my inward woe at this instant, that have made thee a woeful wife for so long a time. But equal heaven hath denied that comfort, giving, at my last need, like succor as I have sought all my life: being in this extremety as void of help as thou hast been of hope. Reason would that, after so long waste, I should not send thee a child to bring thee greater charge: but consider he is the fruit of thy womb, in whose face regard not the father’s so much as thy own perfections. He is yet Greene, and may grow straight, if he be carefully tended: otherwise apt enough (I fear me) to follow his father’s folly. That I have offended thee highly, I know; that thou canst forget my injuries, I hardly believe: yet persuade I myself, if thou saw my wretched estate, thou couldst not but lament it; nay, certainly I know thou wouldst. All my wrongs muster themselves about me; every evil at once plagues me. For my contempt of God I am condemned of men; for my swearing and forswearing no man will believe me; for my gluttony I suffer hunger; for my drunkeness, thirst; for my adultery, ulcerous sores. Thus God hath cast me down, that I might be humbled, and punished me for example of others’ sin; and although he suffers me in this world to perish without succor, yet trust I in the world to come to find mercy, by the merits of my Savior, to whom I commend thee and commit my soul. Thy repentant husband, for his disloyalty, Robert Greene.” Harvey tells us that Greene’s hostess crowned his lifeless body with a garland of bay leaves, and that he had requested this honor might be paid to his remains, a ceremony contrasting ludicrously and mournfully with the squalid circumstances of his death.


Since the famous reference to Shakespeare is the first record of Shakespeare working in London, it would be well to revisit the relevant passages.

“To those gentlemen his quondam acquaintance, that spend their wits in making plays, R. G. [Robert Greene] wisheth a better exercise, and wisdom to prevent his extremities. If woeful experience may move you, gentlemen, to beware, or unheard-of wretchedness entreat you to take heed, I doubt not but you will look back with sorrow on your time past, and endeavor with repentance to spend that which is to come.” In the opening sentences, Greene exhorts his fellow playwrights to learn from his example, to forsake the stage, and to follow some other pursuit.

“Wonder not (for with thee will I first begin), thou famous gracer of tragedians, that Greene, who hath said with thee, like the fool in his heart, ‘There is no God,’ should now give glory unto his greatness; for penetrating is his power, his hand lies heavy upon me, he hath spoken unto me with a voice of thunder, and I have felt that he is a God that can punish enemies. Why should thy excellent wit, his gift, be so blinded that thou shouldest give no glory to the giver? Is it pestilent Machiavellian policy that thou hast studied? O peevish folly! What are his rules but mere confused mockeries, able to extirpate in small time the generation of mankind?….The broacher of this diabolical atheism is dead, and in his life had never the felicity he aimed at, but, as he began in craft, lived in fear, and ended in despair.”

The “famous gracer of tragedians” is Christopher Marlowe. That Marlowe was an atheist we have confirmations by Greene. Likewise, the playwright Thomas Kyd provided a grocery list of “Marlowe’s monstrous opinions” (Boas, Works of Kyd). According to Kyd, Marlowe would “jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoke or writ by prophets; that St. Paul was a “juggler;” and, among other charges, that Marlowe “would report St. John to be Saviour Christ’ Alexis [homosexual bedfellow].” Greene thus entreats Marlowe to forsake Machiavelli and atheism, while darkly warning “for little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” His words were prophetic as Marlowe was murdered in 1593, the following year.

Greene continues, “With thee I join young Juvenal, that biting satirist, that lastly with me together writ a comedy. Sweet boy, might I advise thee, be advised, and get not many enemies by bitter words: inveigh against vain men, for thou canst do it, no man better, no man so well; thou hast a liberty to reproove all and name none; for one being spoken to, all are offended—none being blamed, no man is injured. Stop shallow water still running, it will rage; tread on a worm, and it will turn; then blame not scholars who are vexed with sharp and bitter lines, if they reproove thy too much liberty of reproof.”

There were initially two schools of thought as to the identity of “young Juvenal”. It was Dr. Farmer who first identified this man as Nash. Edmond Malone (Life of Shakespeare) preferred Lodge. Malone pointed to the fact that Greene and Lodge collaborated on A Looking Glass for London, and that there was no evidence of Greene and Nash collaborating on a play. Be this as it may, Dr. Farmer is right and Malone is wrong. Lodge was a year older than Greene and it would be absurd of Greene to address his elder as “sweet boy.” Nash, on the other hand, was Greene’s junior by nine years. Young Juvenal can only have been Nash. It would be interesting to know what play Greene and Nash wrote together. It may be one of the many unfathered works still extant.

“And thou,” Greene addresses the third party, “no less deserving than the other two, in some things rarer, in nothing inferior, driven, as myself, to extreme shifts, a little have I to say to thee; and, were it not an idolatrous oath, I would swear by St. George, thou art unworthy better hap, since thou dependest on so mean a stay [lowly means of livelihood].” The third party is widely accepted as the dissolute George Peele, known to have been driven, like Greene, “to extreme shifts,” and who was one of Greene’s companions. Peele is said to have died of the pox.

“Base-minded men all three of you, if by my misery ye be not warned; for unto none of you, like me, sought those burrs to cleave; those puppets, I mean, that speak from our mouths, those anticks garnished in our colors. Is it not strange that I to whom they all have been beholding, is it not like that you to whom they all have been beholding, shall, were ye in that case that I am now, be both of them at once forsaken?” Greene is exhorting his confreres to break off relations with the actors, a path he has evidently trod, since the actors left him forsaken in his hour of need.

“Yes, trust them not; for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Joannes-factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” This individual, “Shake-scene,” is commonly accepted to be Shakespeare. “Upstart crow” refers to this actor who has suddenly become a dramatist, a “Johannes-factotum,” or Johnny-do-it-all. “Beautified with our feathers” refers to the fact that this actor is, in accordance with the widespread practice of the day (Henslowe’s Diary provides many examples), revising plays written by the very individuals Greene is addressing, and perhaps plays written by Greene himself.

It is interesting to note that Greene parodies the line, “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,” from 3 Henry VI, with “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.” The original line must have been fairly fresh in Greene’s mind. Since Greene died in September, 1592, it must not have been too long since he had seen the play performed, the only way he could have known it.

Greene attributes the above line to Shakespeare, which is proof that Greene was not the author, or part author as some have suggested, of the Henry VI plays. As it happens, 3 Henry VI is, scene for scene, character for character (though not line for line), the same play as The Second Part of the Contention Between the Houses of Lancaster and York, afterwards known as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York. Greene, evidently, was not aware that “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” was in the pre-Shakespearean play, which means that Shakespeare cannot have written the line.

A comparison of The True Tragedy with 3 Henry VI shows that Shakespeare took the play one step further by regularizing the prosody and adding fine touches of character while retaining much of the original. It is thus easy to understand what Greene meant when he stated that the “upstart crow” was “beautified with our feathers.”  [See my “Death of the Reporter”]

Completing his invective against the players, Greene advises his fellow dramatists to seek better masters: “for it is a pity men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasures of such rude grooms….For other new-comers, I leave them to the mercy of these painted monsters, who, I doubt not, will drive the best-minded to despise them: for the rest, it skills not though they make a jest of them.”

From Henry Chettle we learn that “one or two” of the persons mentioned were offended by the allusions to them, and suspected that they were forgeries of Greene’s editor. Chettle, in Kind Hart’s Dream, published after Groats-Worth, was quick to absolve himself of that charge: “I had only this share in the copy; it was ill written, as sometime Greene’s handwriting was none of the best; licensed it must be, ere it could be printed, which could never be if might not be read: to be brief, I writ it over, and, as near as I could, followed the copy, only in that letter [to his fellow playwrights] I put something out, but in the whole book not a word in; for I protest it was all Greene’s, not mine, nor Master Nashe’s, as some unjustly have affirmed.”

It is widely held that in the following passage Chettle is speaking of Marlowe and Shakespeare: “With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them [Marlowe] I care not if I never be: the other [Shakespeare], whom at that time I did not so much as spare as since I wish I had, for that as I have moderated the heat of living writers, and might have used my own discretion (especially in such a case) the author being dead, that I did not, I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality [line of work, i.e., acting and writing] he professes; besides, divers of worship [the earl of Southampton likely being one] have reported his uprightness of dealing which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approoves his art. For the first, whose learning I reverence, and at perusing of Greene’s book, stroke out what then in conscience I thought he in some displeasure writ, or, had it been true, yet to publish it was intolerable, him I would wish to use me no worse than I deserve.”

Greene’s additional prose works, among the 35 previously noted, include: Perimedes the Blacksmith and Pandosto (1588), The Spanish Masquerado and Menaphon (1589), The Royal Exchange, Never Too Late and Greene’s Mourning Garment (1590), Greene’ Farewell to Folly and A Notable Discovery of Cozenage, 3 parts (1591), and A Disputation (1592).

Greene is credited by Dyce with six unsigned plays. Churton Collins gives Greene the same six plays but does not include George a Greene in his edition. Alphonsus, King of Arragon, probably inspired by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, should be dated 1587. He perhaps followed that with A Looking Glass for London with Lodge early in 1588. Next came Orlando Furioso which was being performed in December of that year. Since Marlowe next composed Doctor Faustus, Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, can be dated 1589. Next were George a Greene, and James IV, 1590.

A study of these plays suggests that Greene’s function as a dramatist was mainly that of a reviser. Of the plays attributed to him, only Alphonsus is written in a homogenous versification and style. The remainder of his plays are patently composite works containing much material by other writers. We know from Henslowe’s Diary, for example, that Samuel Rowley was hired to make additions to Orlando Furioso. If Rowley’s contribution to Doctor Faustus is a guide, it was he who wrote the clowning of Tom and Ralph in Orlando.

How then does it come about, if all but one of the plays attributed to Greene are composite works, that Greene is credited with their authorship? I believe, as in the case of an untold number of composite Tudor and Stuart plays, the man who applied the final revision was often considered the author.

I have conducted a more careful study of James IV. This work bears the marks of three distinct authors. James IV was an old play when Greene got hold of it. Scattered throughout the text are patches of rhyming verse. The manner in which the rhymes are distributed suggests that the play was, in its original form, written entirely in rhyming verse. The play, author unknown, probably dates to the 1560’s or early 1570’s. It was a moral play, its tone typified by the final couplet: “Thus wars have end, and, after dreadful hate,/ Men learn at last to know their good estate.”

But James IV also contains a substantial amount of blank verse. A comparison of the blank verse in this play with the verse of George Peele’s signed plays (principally Edward I and David and Bersabe), leaves no doubt that the reviser was Peele. In James IV we find Peele’s characteristic versification and style: heavily trochaic, mixed lines of four, five, six and seven feet; frequent trisyllabic feet, which are as good as a signature for Peele; lines beginning with the first foot truncated; frequent use of the archaic “for to” with an infinitive; and numerous other Peele signposts.

This revision was probably carried out during the early 1580’s when Peele became active in London. And the reason is not far to seek: the language of the old, once successful rhyming verse play no longer suited the tastes of the day. The situation is analogous to that of Tancred and Gismund, a rhymed verse play performed in 1566, later recast with blank verse, and retitled Gismond of Salerne, “Newly revived and polished according to the decorum of these daies.” In the late 1580’s Greene was hired to give James IV another revision, and I believe that his work is mainly limited to the prose found in the play.

The canon of Greene’s dramatic writing (as in the case of Peele’s) is far from established. Did he dramatize his prose Pandosto, which lies behind Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale? This idea gains credence in light of Ben Jonson’s reference to that “mouldy Tale,” suggesting, as some have done, that The Winter’s Tale was an  old play revised by Shakespeare. Finally, something I have discovered, that the character Jacques in the prose parts of James IV, is exactly the same character as Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This suggests that Greene was involved with that play at some point in its stage history. Was this play The Jealous Comedy, which early critics such as T. W. Baldwin and Dover Wilson conjectured to be the foundation play behind Merry Wives?


  1. A. L. Rowse, in Shakespeare the Man, and elsewhere, attempts to persuade us that Greene’s interlocuter was none other than Shakespeare. Rowse baits us: “…who was the player with a provincial accent who gave himself the airs of a gentleman?” Greene does not say that the player has a provincial accent, that is Rowse’s idea. Greene is saying that, in his opinion, the player does not have the well-developed voice that he would expect of an actor. But this is a minor point. What matters, as Rowse himself so frequently points out, is the concurrence of dating. The above episode obviously took place long before 1592, the year of Greene’s death. In 1592 Shakespeare was impecunious, and forging the poet-patron relationship he would soon establish with Southampton. Prior to 1592 and for some years after that, Shakespeare could not have financed a windmill. The old actor/dramatist who interviewed Greene was not Shakespeare.
  2. Greene’s interlocuter was from the same era as Robert Wilson, Richard Tarlton and Thomas Preston. He had advanced from poverty to substantial wealth, and was much older than Greene. He wrote plays in rhyming verse, which became old-fashioned when Marlowe’s mighty line thundered from the stage. He was famous for his moral plays, but by the player’s own admission, “My almanack is out of date. People make no estimation/ Of Morals teaching education.” The player’s day as a dramatist had clearly passed. Who was he? We would know his name if we knew the name of the author of any of the plays he mentions to Greene. But we do not. A most titilating question: Was The King of the Fairies the foundation play behind A Midsummer Night’s Dream?