1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Greene

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:168-69.



ROBERT GREENE, a more distinguished dramatist, is conjectured to have been a native of Norfolk, as he adds "Norfolciensis" to his name, in one of his productions. He was educated at Clare-Hall, Cainbridge, and in 1583 appeared as an author. He is supposed to have been in orders, and to have held the vicarage of Tollesbury, in Essex, as, in 1585, Robert Greene, the vicar, lost his preferment. The plays of Greene are the History of Orlando, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Alphonsus, King of Arragon, George-a-Green, the Pinner of Wakefield, James IV., and the Looking-glass for London and England: the latter was written in conjunction with Lodge. Greene died in September 1592, owing, it is said, to a surfeit of red herrings and Rhenish wine! Besides his plays, he wrote a number of tracts, one of which, Pandosto, the Triumph of Time, 1588, was the source from which Shakepeare derived the plot of his Winter's Tale. Some lines contained in this tale are very beautiful:—

Ah, were she pitiful as she is fair,
Or but as mild as she is seeming so,
Then were my hopes greater than my despair—
Then all the world were heaven, nothing woo.
Ah, were her heart relenting as her hand,
That seems to melt e'en with the mildest touch,
Then knew I where to seat me in a land
Under the wide heavens, but yet not such.
So as she shows, she seems the budding rose,
Yet sweeter far than is an earthly flower;
Sovereign of beauty, like the spray she grows,
Compass'd she is with thorns and canker'd flower;
Yet, were she willing to be pluck'd and worn,
She would be gather'd though she grew on thorn.

The blank verse of Greene approaches next to that of Marlow, though less energetic. His imagination was lively and discursive, fond of legendary lore, and filled with classical images and illustrations. In his Orlando, he thus apostrophises the evening star:—

Fair queen of love, thou mistress of delight,
Then gladsome lamp that wait'st on Phoebe's train,
Spreading thy kindness through the jarring orbs,
That in their union praise thy lasting powers
Thou that hast stay'd the fiery Phlegon's course,
And mad'st the coachman of the glorious wain
To droop in view of Daphne's excellence;
Fair pride of morn, sweet beauty of the even,
Look on Orlando languishing in love.
Sweet solitary groves, whereas the nymphs
With pleasance laugh to eve the satyrs play,
Witness Orlando's faith unto his love.
Tread she these lawns? — kind Flora, boast thy pride
Seek she for shades? — spread, cedars, for her sake.
Fair Flora, make her couch amidst thy flowers.
Sweet crystal springs,
Wash ye with roses when she longs to drink.
Ah thought, my heaven! Ah heaven, that knows my thought!
Smile, joy in her that my content hath wrought.

Passages like this prove that Greene succeeds well, as Hallam remarks, "in that florid and gay style, a little redundant in images, which Shakspeare frequently gives to his princes and courtiers, and which renders some unimpassioned scenes in the historic plays effective and brilliant." Professor Tieck gives him the high praise of possessing "a happy talent, a clear spirit, and a lively imagination." His comedies have a good deal of boisterous merriment and farcical humour. George-a-Green is a shrewd Yorkshireman, who meets with the kings of Scotland and England, Robin Hood, Maid Marian, &c., and who, after various tricks, receives the pardon of King Edward—

George-a-Green, give me thy hand: there is
None in England that shall do thee wrong.
Even from my court I came to see thyself,
And now I see that fame speaks nought but truth.

The following is a specimen of the simple humour and practical jokes in the play: it is in a scene between George and his servant:—

JENKIN.
This fellow comes to me,
And takes me by the bosom: you slave,
Said he, hold my horse, and look
He takes no cold in his feet.
No, marry, shall he, sir, quoth I;
I'll lay my cloak underneath him.
I took my cloak, spread it all along,
And his horse on the midst of it.

GEORGE.
Thou clown, did'st thou set his horse upon thy cloak?

JENKIN.
Ay, but mark how I served him.
Madge and he were no sooner gone down into the ditch,
But I plucked out my knife, cut four holes in my cloak,
And made his horse stand on the bare ground.

"Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay" is Greene's best comedy. His friars are conjurors, and the piece concludes with one of their pupils being carried off to hell on the back of one of Friar Bacon's devils. Mr. Collier thinks this was one of the latest instances of the devil being brought upon the stage in propria persona. The play was acted in 1591, but may have been produced a year or two earlier.

In some hour of repentance, when death was nigh at hand, Greene wrote a tract called A Groat's Worth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance, in which he deplores his fate more feelingly than Nash, and also gives ghostly advice to his acquaintances, "that spend their wit in making plays." Marlow he accuses of atheism: Lodge he designates "young Juvenal," and "a sweet boy;" Peele he considers too good for the stage; and he glances thus at Shakspeare: — "For there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapt 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 Johannes Fac-totum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shake-scene in a country." The punning allusion to Shakspeare is palpable: the expressions, "tiger's heart," &c. are a parody on the line in Henry VI., part third — "O tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide." The Winter's Tale is believed to be one of Shakspeare's late dramas, not written till long after Greene's death; consequently, if this be correct, the unhappy man could not allude to the plagiarism of the plot from his tale of Pandosto. Some forgotten play of Greene and his friends may have been alluded to; perhaps the old dramas on which Shakepeare constructed his Henry VI., for in one of these, the line, "O tiger's heart," &c., also occurs. These old plays, however, seem above the pitch of Greene in tragedy. The "Groat's Worth of Wit" was published after Greene's death by a brother dramatist, Henry Chettle, who, in the preface to a subsequent work, apologised indirectly for the allusion to Shakspeare. "I am as sorry," he says, "as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art." This is a valuable statement: full justice is done to Shakspeare's moral worth and civil deportment, and to his respectability as an actor and author. Chettle's apology or explanation was made in 1593.

The conclusion of Greene's "Groat's Worth of Wit" contains more pathos than all his plays: it is a harrowing picture of genius debased by vice, and sorrowing in repentance:—

"But now return I again to you three (Marlow, Lodge, and Peele), knowing my misery is to you no news: and let me heartily intreat you to be warned by my harms. Delight not, as I have done, in irreligious oaths, despise drunkenness, fly lust, abhor those epicures, whose loose life hath made religion loathsome to your ears; and when they soothe you with terms of mastership, remember Robert Greene (whom they have often flattered) perishes for want of comfort. Remember, gentlemen, your lives are like so many light-tapers that are with care delivered to all of you to maintain; these, with wind-puffed wrath, may be extinguished, with drunkenness put out, with negligence let fall. The fire of my light is now at the last snuff. My hand is tired, and I forced to leave where I would begin; desirous that you should live, though himself be dying — ROBERT GREENE."