Robert Greene

Robert Greene, certainly the most picturesque and one of the most important of the University Wits, was born in Norwich in 1558. He took his B.A. in 1578 and his M.A. in 1583 at Cambridge, and became an M.A. of Oxford in 1588. By 1583 he had begun his literary career with the publication of a long euphuistic romance, Mamillia, licensed in 1580, and he continued to produce romances written in a highly wrought style under such different influences as Euphues, novella collections, and pastoral and Greek romance, reaching his highest level in Pandosto (1588) and Menaphon (1589). Short poems and songs incorporated in some of the romances gave him high rank as a lyric poet also. By rapid production of such works Greene became one of the first authors in England to support himself, however precariously, with his pen. He soon began to capitalize on the bohemian existence which he had led from youth, writing his "repentance" pamphlets from 1590 to 1592, with many facts of his own life thinly veiled as fiction. He pictures his early riotous living, his marriage and desertion of his wife and child for the sister of a notorious character of the London underworld, a meeting with players, and his success in the production of plays for them. During this same period he was writing other journalistic and realistic prose, particularly a series of cony-catching pamphlets portraying the life of London rogues. He died September 3, 1592, from what Nashe called a "banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herring," having written on his death bed his famous Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance and having dispatched a letter to his wife asking her to forgive him and to settle his debts.

The earliest of Greene's plays is perhaps The Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon, printed in 1599, which mentions "mighty Tamburlaine," and seems clearly modeled on Marlowe's conqueror play. Besides The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Greene's other known plays are The History of Orlando Furioso, drawn from Aristo; The Scottish History of James the Fourth, with a plot of a novella type; and A Looking-Glass for London and England, written with Thomas Lodge, which pictures the wickedness of Nineveh as a warning to London. All of these plays were printed in 1594 or later, apparently from playhouse manuscripts, and give evidence of more or less corruption or even mutilation. It is probable that Greene wrote other plays. Of the several ascribed to him by different scholars, George a Greene perhaps has the best claim to be considered.

Nashe, in Have with You to Saffron Walden, calls Greene the master of his craft in the plotting of plays. His best work shows also effective characterization, especially in his romantic heroines, and a genuinely poetic style. His limitation is indicated by the charge, which he resents in the preface to Perimedes the Blacksmith, that he could not make his verses "jet upon the stage in tragical buskins." Greene defended his style by appeal to his prose romances and by bitter denunciation of players and playwrights for their "bumbast." While the type of sentimental and romantic comedy which represents his best work had to yield around 1590 to the turgid and passionate tragedy in vogue, by the end of the century it was carried to its zenith by Shakespeare, who had been the apparent object of Greene's bitterest attack on actors and dramatists in the Groatsworth of Wit.

The first record of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is Henslowe's note of a performance of it as an old play in 1592. Like Alphonsus, the play is supposed to have been written in emulation of Marlowe, and is usually assigned to about 1589 as a rival to Doctor Faustus. If, however, as some scholars suggest, the proper date of Marlowe's play is 1592, then the relationship between the two must be reversed. Except for similar treatment of the marvelous powers of magicians, common in such stories, there is little kinship between the two plays. Greene drew his plot from The Famous History of Friar Bacon, a tale first known in the form of a chapbook, himself adding the romantic story of Margaret from a very slight hint of the romance. The text is apparently corrupt in several passages, and one or more whole scenes may have been omitted as a result of stage adaptation. In 1594 Henslowe has a second record of performance of the play, and it was entered in the Stationers' Register and printed in that year.

A Pleasant Conceited Comedy of George a Greene was acted for Henslowe as an old play in 1593. It was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1595, but the earliest extant edition is dated 1599. There is no indication of the authorship, but a copy of this edition, formerly in the Chatsworth Collection, has on the title-page the following two notes in an early seventeenth century script: "Written by ......... a minister, who ac[ted] the pinners part in it himself. Teste W. Shakespea[re]," and "Ed. Juby saith that the play was made by Ro. Gree[ne]." Opinion, long divided, is represented at the present by Tannenbaum's claim that the entries are forgeries of Collier, and by Greg's that they are in the hand of Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels from 1608 to 1622. If they are Buc's, the second, perhaps correcting the first or perhaps adding to it, furnishes reliable contemporary evidence, since Juby, as an actor prominent from 1594 to 1618, would have known playhouse traditions. On the internal evidence of verse and style, the play is generally ascribed to Greene. He is supposed to have written it before 1590, basing it on an early version, now lost, of the prose tale The Famous History of George a Greene.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. pp. 247-248.

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Robert Greene

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