To class Greene among the dramatists is rather a harsh measure for his reputation, although the arrangement is justified by his relations with the stage. When Shakespeare began to write, Marlowe and Greene were the most firmly established playwrights, and both himself and his friends, testify to the eagerness of rival managers to obtain the hastiest of Greene's performances. Yet Greene's plays are by no means the best fruits of his pen. He began his literary career as an author of love-tales or novels in prose interspersed with songs and lyrics: and as he had a most rich and vivid feeling for colour, and a fine ear for the music of verse, these occasional pieces are by far his best productions. If, therefore, we were to estimate him by quality rather than by quantity, we should place him rather among the love-poets than among the dramatists. As a dramatist he was a follower of Lyly and Marlowe: as a writer of pastoral lyrics he was Marlowe's predecessor and superior.
The earliest production of Greene's hitherto discovered is Mamillia, an imitation to a certain extent of Lyly's Euphues, published in 1583, while the author was in residence at Clare Hall, Cambridge, just before taking the degree of M.A. He had come up from Norwich to St. John's, and had graduated B.A. in 1578: after that, though his father would not seem to have been a rich man, he found means to travel in Spain, Italy, and other parts of the Continent. According to his own account, written in deathbed repentance, he had learnt in Italy luxurious, profligate, and abominable habits, and on his return soon exhausted both his money and his credit, and was at his wits' end for a suitable profession. After vacillating for a little between the Church and Physic, he finally gravitated to the last resort of such unsteady spirits — "became an author of plays and a penner of love-pamphlets." Mamillia was rapidly followed by a host of other love-pamphlets: Morando, Menaphon, Perimedes the Blacksmith, Pandosto, the Triumph of Time (reprinted by Mr. Collier as the foundation of the Winter's Tale), Philomela, the Lady Fitzwater's Nightingale" (reprinted along with Menaphon in Brydges' Archaica), and many others. These euphuistically-embellished tales were the fashionable reading of ladies on their first appearance, and afterwards went through many editions, to the delight of sentimental maids in humbler life. Greene's fertility is all the more amazing when we consider the debauched life that he led: we need not wonder at his early death when we see how he burnt the candle at both ends — hard work and immoderate dissipation. Five of his plays have come down to us: Orlando Furioso (published 1594); Looking-Glass for London and England (1594, written in conjunction with Lodge); Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1594); James the Fourth (1598); Alphonsus, King of Arragon (1599). George-a-Green, the Pinner of Wakefield (1599), is also attributed to him.
Greene saw a great deal of villanous company during his brief career in London. His own excuse for his choice of depraved associates was that he wished to paint their manners. It is not impossible that this was part of his motive for consorting with rogues and sharpers: it may even have been the apology that he offered to his own conscience. Yet with all allowances for his thus stooping to gain professional ends, we shall probably not be far wrong if we accept Mr. Dyce's conclusion, that of all "the Muse's sons whose vices have conducted them to shame and sorrow, none, perhaps, have sunk to deeper degradation and misery." We must not be prejudiced against Greene because he assailed the youthful Shakespeare so bitterly, nor must we take Gabriel Harvey's picture as accurate in every particular. But it seems indisputable that Greene reduced himself to extreme distress by extravagant profligacy; that he spent recklessly, and was not over-scrupulous in replenishing his coffers; and that in his struggle for the means of debauchery he was bitterly jealous and envious of all literary competitors. Marlowe as well as Shakespeare had been an object of attack when he began his career of playwright: he was seemingly attacked in Nash's preface to Greene's Menaphon, and afterwards his Tamburlaine and its blank verse were directly sneered at by Greene himself. Indeed, Greene confessed in his repentant fit that he could not keep a friend: he behaved to his friends in such a way as to turn them into utter enemies.
It seems possible to trace the reaction from this intemperate life of debauchery, hard work, and bitterness, in the passionate beauty of Greene's lyrics: one can understand with what a transport of relief he would throw himself out of his base surroundings into the dreams of a happy pastoral country and the music of sweet verse. There is nothing in his dramas to suggest the profligacy of the author. They are of the nature of comedies: they terminate happily, and in accordance with the strictest principles of morality. His heroines — Angelica, the fair maid of Fressingfield, Dorothea, Isabel — are models of moral no less than of physical beauty.
On the whole, Greene seems to have been a clever ready-witted fellow, with a gift of sweet song, and unbounded facility in the use of words: bold, shameless, somewhat cynical and bitter: prepared to write to the utmost of his ability in any vein that would sell: a boisterous reveller, incapable of foregoing a rough joke even at the expense of his dearest friend. This was the man as he appeared to his fellows. But he would seem to have had an inner life of remorseful fits, abject in proportion to the intemperate height of his orgies. If indeed we had no authority beyond his Repentance, and his Groat's Worth of Wit we might easily believe these to have been written for the sole purpose of replenishing his purse. But there are trustworthy accounts of his deathbed behaviour, when his "jolly long red peak" and "well-proportioned body" were finally prostrated; and these accounts lead us to believe that his repentance was unfeigned. And, indeed, the tone of his plays, and his delight in the imagination of beauty, innocence, and country joys, are indications of a better nature that lay hid under poor Robert's outer profligacy.
Greene has no claim to high rank as a dramatist, and yet he deserves considerable study as a precursor of Shakespeare. Although his blank verse is somewhat monotonous, yet there is incisive and vivid energy in his language: and he had probably more influence than Marlowe in forming or enriching Shakespeare's diction. Take at random, as an illustration, the induction to Act ii. of Alphonsus:—
Thus from the pit of pilgrim's poverty
Alphonsus 'gins by step and step to climb
Unto the top of friendly Fortune's wheel.
From banished state, as you have plainly seen,
He is transform'd into a soldier's life,
And marcheth in the ensign of the King
Of worthy Naples, which Belinus hight;
Not for because that he doth love him so,
But that he may revenge him on his foe.
Now on the top of lusty barbed steed
He mounted is, in glittering armour clad,
Seeking about the troops of Arragon,
For to encounter with his traitorous niece.
How he doth speed and what doth him befall,
Mark this our act, for it doth show it all.
The versification of this is exceedingly flat, but here and there are touches of vivid expression. The opening of this Act is energetic, reminding us of Gloucester's "Down, down to hell, and say I sent thee thither." Alphonsus kills Flaminius, and exclaims—
Go, pack thee hence unto the Stygian lake,
And make report unto thy traitorous sire
How well thou hast enjoyed the diadem
Which he by treason set upon thy head;
And if he ask thee who did send thee down,
Alphonsus say, who now must wear thy crown.
Greene is sometimes accused of ranting. The chief basis for this accusation is the character of Rasni, King of Nineveh, in The Looking-Glass for London and England. This "Imperial swaggerer," as Campbell calls him, is puffed up with immeasurable pride till the prophet Jonah lets the wind out of him; and glories in a strain somewhat like Tamburlaine, but more like the conventional Herod of the Mysteries:—
Great Jewry's God, that foiled stout Benhadad,
Could not rebate the strength that Rasni brought;
For be he God in heaven, yet, viceroys, know,
Rasni is god on earth and none but he.
It should be remarked, however, that this play was written by Greene in conjunction with Lodge, and that Greene's portion of the work was probably the delineation of the extortion, roguery, and debauchery of Nineveh, which was to say, of London. The particulars of the sumptuous wedding, indeed, are quite in Greene's style; he was at home in the exercise of accumulating gorgeous particulars. But there is nothing to approach the extravagant inflation of Rasni in any play of Greene's sole workmanship. He essayed a counterpart to Tamburlaine in his Alphonsus, and there had ample opportunity for unbounded rant; but Alphonsus bears his exploits lightly, and indulges but sparingly in the swelling utterance of aspiration and triumph. Greene was too cynical to have command of language for a character of sustained pride; he could pump up expression for a good many emotions, but his nature was dry in that region. He is, indeed, a standing refutation of the plausible idea that rant belongs to the infancy of the drama. Rant goes rather with the nature of the individual; and Greene, with all his roughness and recklessness, was fitted to be the pupil of Lyly more than of Marlowe.
Like most of his predecessors, from Chaucer downwards, Greene makes frequent use of the goddesses and celebrated beauties of Grecian mythology for purposes of comparison. But he does more than merely repeat the names, saying that a heroine is as fair as Helen or as faithful as Penelope: he evidently exerted his imagination to conceive them in a certain visual semblance of beauty. We are not, of course, to suppose that he had any notion of conceiving classical beauty as different from English beauty: when he spoke of the port of Juno and the foot of Thetis, he probably had in his mind's eye a gait and an instep that had charmed him in the neighbourhood of St. Paul's. Still, he had the notion of giving life to dead names. He had also the notion of conceiving these antique paragons at supreme moments in their history when their charms were at full height. Semele, Chloris, Daphne, Thetis, and others, are taken at the moment when their beauty proved irresistible even to the gods: Venus at the moment of her highest triumph. Amurack exclaims of his wife Fausta—
Behold the gem and jewel of mine age
See where she comes, whose heavenly majesty
Doth far surpass the brave and gorgeous pace
Which Cytherea, daughter unto Jove,
Did put in ure whenas she had obtained
The golden apple at the shepherd's hands.
This vein of classical allusion is one of the outcomes of Greene's passion for beautiful forms and colours. It is carried out to a weakness in his dramas, rendering him peculiarly open to the charge made at the time against University poets generally — he "smacks too much of Ovid." He sadly violates dramatic propriety by ascribing an acquaintance with the Roman poet to all his characters indiscriminately. Even lovely Peggy, the keeper's daughter at Fressingfield, can discourse of Phoebus courting lovely Semele, of the matchless hue of Helen, of the scrolls that Jove sent to Danae; she puts up an appeal to "fond Ate, doomer of bad-boding fates;" and says with enthusiasm that Lacy is
Proportioned as was Paris when, in gray,
He courted Oenon in the vale of Troy.
If, however, we wish to see Greene at his best, we must go to the occasional songs in his prose tales. We might, indeed, compile from his plays a florilegium, of pretty lines, such as
Thou gladsome lamp that wait'st on Phoebus' train,
Spreading thy kindness through the jarring orbs,
That in their union praise thy lasting powers;
Fair pride of morn, sweet beauty of the even!
Sleep like the smiling purity of heaven,
When mildest wind is loath to blend the peace.
But a collection of his lyrics — songs, roundelays, jigs, sonettos, madrigals, ditties, and odes — is really like his own Cuba, a region enriched "With favours sparkling from the smiling heavens." Very often he rounds off in a few lines a perfect subject for the painter, as in the burden of Sephestia's song to her child—
Weep not, my wanton, smile upon my knee;
When thou art old there's grief enough for thee.
Or the opening lines of Menaphon's roundelay—
When tender ewes, brought home with evening sun,
Wend to their folds,
And to their holds
The shepherds trudge when light of day is done.
In the tales these verses come in as if the author's thoughts were tired of their prose vehicle, and spontaneously and, irresistibly blossomed into song. His excellence in short verses, or in a capricious mixture of short verses with long, is a curious contrast to the baldness and monotony of his blank verse: it surprises us as when an indifferent walker proves a light and graceful runner. There is nothing in any of his plays to suggest a possibility of such as the following:—
Ah, what is love? It is a pretty thing,
As sweet unto a shepherd as a king;
And sweeter too,
For kings have cares that wait upon a crown,
And cares can make the sweetest love to frown:
Ah then, ah then,
If country loves such sweet desires do gain,
What lady would not love a shepherd swain?
His flocks are folded, he comes home at night,
As merry as a king in his delight;
And merrier too,
For kings bethink them what the state require,
Where shepherds careless carol by the fire:
Ah then, ah then,
If country loves such sweet desires do gain,
What lady would not love a shepherd swain?
In more regular and even measures, Greene is comparatively stiff and restrained. One of his longest poems, which contains passages equal to his best, is printed in the Phoenix Nest, with the title A most Rare and Excellent Dream, learnedly set own by a worthy gentleman, a brave scholar, and M. of Arts in both universities. It has not been identified as Greene's by Mr. Dyce or Mr. Bell; but the title, taken in conjunction with the style, may be considered conclusive evidence. The measure is the seven-line stave of Troilus verse.