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Greene, Robert (c. 1558–1592) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

greene’s nashe pamphlets chettle

Robert Greene was one of the earliest English writers to realize the potential of printed works as commodities; he was, as Theophilus Cibber said in 1753, “amongst the first of our poets who writ for bread” (in Crupi, 17). Greene even marketed future works, specifically his Conny-catching (confidence game) pamphlets, through prefatory “teasers” about information to be revealed in later works, presumably to entice prospective buyers. For the same reason, he went so far as to let stand a reputation, probably unmerited, that he had committed crimes similar to those he describes in the Conny-catching pamphlets. By using “probably,” we intend to indicate how few certainties there are surrounding Robert Greene’s life.

The sources we have for biographic data on Greene are his own works—the repentances and the semiautobiographical A Groatsworth of Wit —and the occasional mention of him in friends’ writings, most notably in Thomas Nashe* and in Gabriel Harvey’s* Four Letters . But the value of the autobiographical data is lessened somewhat because Greene always had an eye on the marketplace and because his publisher, Henry Chettle, may have written both Greene’s deathbed repentance and his A Groatsworth of Wit . Also, because the Four Letters is a castigation of Greene by a Harvey who was furious over insults aimed at himself and his family in Greene’s A Quip for an Upstart Courtier , Harvey’s descriptions of Greene’s lifestyle are suspect as well. With the preceding cautions in mind, we can present what is thought to be known about Robert Greene’s life.

Greene seems to have been torn between a desire for respectability and a lust for physical pleasure. While his reputation bespeaks a man in almost constant rebellion against conservative values, the many dedications of his works to members of the nobility hint at a wish for the traditional and respectable position of an author who has a patron. He was a flamboyantly dissolute character who produced copious works, perhaps as many as forty-one but certainly more than thirty-five and with a rapidity that astounded his friends. According to Nashe, “in a night & a day would he haue yarkt vp a Pamphlet as well as in seauen yeare” (1:287), and Nashe hardly exaggerates, considering Greene wrote all but one of his works between 1583 and 1592. But Nashe, in nearly his next breath, diminishes Greene’s achievements—and adds to the Greene myth—by implying Greene wrote only to maintain his licentious existence: “He made no account of winning credit by his workes…his only care was to have a spel in his purse to coniure vp a good cuppe of wine with at all times” (1:287).

Greene was born in Norwich, probably in 1558, and attended Saint John’s College as a sizar (a poor student who performed various tasks to pay his way). He was an undistinguished scholar yet received his M.A. from Clare Hall in Cambridge in 1583 and in 1588 an honorary M.A. from Oxford. During his college years, possibly under the influence of the wealthier students he served, Greene developed a taste for wild living. Also during his college period, perhaps as early as 1579, he married a Norwich gentleman’s daughter, who would bear him a son. Greene apparently stayed with his wife for about as long as it took him to spend her dowry; then he made for London. In his Repentance , Greene says he left her to escape her pleas that he abandon his profligate lifestyle. The date for this desertion, from a reference in the Repentance to a separation of six years, places it in 1586. But considering the number of works Greene published before 1586 (eight) and the unlikelihood of his wife’s dowry lasting more than a few years, it seems reasonable to place Greene in London by 1583, the year the second part of the romance Mamillia was entered with the stationer’s register.

Once in London, Greene engaged in a flurry of production. He developed the reputation of an incorrigible reveler but was never accused of any serious crime. He was, however, supposed to have had a friendship with a criminal named Cutting Ball, later hanged, and a relationship with Ball’s sister, a prostitute, which produced a son named Fortunatus (dubbed “Infortunatus” by Harvey). It is reasonable to surmise that Greene’s association with this segment of London society formed the basis for his Conny-catching pamphlets.

Greene’s death in 1592 at only thirty-four can be seen as a manifestation of the tensions of living in a small community of driven writers. Of the five other writers in Greene’s circle between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five in 1590—Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe,* Thomas Watson, George Peele,* and Thomas Lodge*—all were dead by 1595 except Nashe, who was also thirty-four when he died in 1601, and Lodge (d. 1625), who took up the full-time profession of medicine. This group of writers, with Nashe the most caustic and Greene a close second, lived hard and exacerbated the pressures upon themselves by both competing with each other and offending those in power. Greene’s attack on the social status of Gabriel Harvey’s family so incensed Harvey that he not only wrote the well-known Four Letters but continued to compose pamphlets vilifying Greene for years after Greene’s death, stopped only by an edict from the authorities forbidding him and Nashe (who defended Greene) from any further publications on the subject.

Despite his popularity as a writer, Greene died alone, in poverty, having been dependent on the good graces of a shoemaker’s wife, one Mrs. Isam, for a roof over his head. The story, from Harvey, is that Greene became ill with the sickness that would lead to his death from an excess of pickled herring and Rhenish wine during a revel with Nashe. Nashe would later deny being present. One of Greene’s last visitors (perhaps only visitor, for it seems that all Greene’s friends, including Nashe, abandoned him) was Cutting Ball’s prostitute sister, Greene’s mistress. If Chettle is to be believed, then Greene’s final act before death was to write a note to his long-estranged wife asking her forgiveness and requesting she pay the shoemaker “tenne pound, and but for him I had perished in the streetes” (32).


The level of Greene’s familiarity with the lifestyle he at once glamorizes and deplores in the pamphlets is, of course, a matter of debate as well, and Greene contributes to the enigma in no small way by inserting himself as a character in his work. Throughout these tracts, Greene posits himself as a collaborator-cum-informer, knowledgeable of highly detailed aspects of criminal life and willing to share just enough with his readers to ensure that they are “conned” into buying his next publication. Indeed, Greene tantalizes his audience, on one hand, with narrative definitions of the illicit vocabulary of thieves and, on the other, intrigues with promises to reveal names and dangerous techniques the next time around. Supposedly, in the Blacke Booke , which The Blacke Bookes Messenger promised would be out soon, Greene actually did give the names and addresses of some of the criminals, but after his death, according to Chettle, cony-catchers stole the manuscript. In The Second Part of Conny-Catching , Greene goes so far as to suggest that these villains had threatened to “cut off [his] right hand for penning downe their abhominable practises” (6), so it is possible the theft is not a fabrication.

To Henry Chettle, then, and Greene’s final two pamphlets we turn before closing. These two pamphlets are Greens Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance , the story of Roberto, a prodigal who leads his brother astray; and The Repentance of Robert Greene, Maister of Artes , wherein, as mentioned, Greene, on the verge of death, repents of his wasteful life. Groats-worth contains Greene’s apparent criticism of Shakespeare (for plagiarism?) and the famous “upstart Crow” remark, but as these remarks have been discussed at length, they need not be dealt with here.

In Groatsworth , Greene interrupts the work—“Here (Gentlemen) breake I off Robertoes speach; whose life in most parts agreeing with mine” (Carroll, 75)— to give another deathbed repentance. Both of these repentances provide much of the information included in biographies of Robert Greene, but it is likely neither was written by Greene. Henry Chettle, “a printer of limited means who occasionally turned his hand to writing” (1), published the pamphlets, and almost at once he was accused by Nashe and others of writing them. Chettle admitted to making a copy of Groatsworth because “it was il written, as sometimes Greenes hand was none of the best” (2), and the debate over authorship began. It has continued now for 400 years, for as late as 1994 D. Allen Carroll published a full-length book arguing that Chettle had a far greater hand in Groatsworth than has been thought. Whether or not Carroll is right, it somehow seems fitting that Robert Greene, a pioneer in self-promotion, should have his name used after death to increase the sales of a product.

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