On Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit

On Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit

Richard Malim

1. Introduction

Biographers of William Shakespeare of Stratford Upon Avon rely heavily on one document to show that by 1592 the man had risen to the top flight of actors and dramatists notwithstanding the absence of any evidence in any cultural field whatever. The document, ‘Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance’ is in outline a plea to three dramatists not to give employment to actors and in particular to an ‘upstart crow’ with a ‘tiger’s heart’:  the phrases impress the ‘orthodox’  biographers are:

‘upstart crow’,

‘supposes he is well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’,

‘the only Shake-scene in a country’

and they conclude that these phrases all refer to their William Shakespeare and evidence his new-found pre-eminence as an actor.

As a result of the publication of Groatsworth in September 1592 (registered at Stationers’ Hall on 20th September), Henry Chettle caused the publication of his pamphlet ‘Kind Heart’s Dream in December 1592 (registered 8th December), tendering a fulsome apology to one of the dramatists alledgedly insulted in the earlier document.  ‘Orthodox’ biographers immediately suggest that this apology is to Shakespeare now as a playwright ignoring his previous incarnation in Groatsworth as merely an insulted actor. and for the most part ignoring also the clear non-sequitur.  Only Chambers realised this basic difficulty convicting Chettle (who at this time was a professional editor) of some ‘looseness of language’.

The possible solution to all these problems is down to Richard Malim and presents a logical framework.  Dr. Kathman however suggests that opponents of the ‘orthodox’ view are afflicted by literalness which may in fact be a useful attribute when the writings of the professional editor Chettle are examined.

First it may be helpful to consider the people involved:

Robert Greene: poet and dramatist who died on the 3rd September 1592 in abject poverty.  There is no reason to suppose that he wrote any version of Groatsworth as it was registered 17 days later – even the printer marked it  upon the peril of Henry Chettle’ – , because:-

1. Groatsworth is a prolix diatribe and scarcely reeks of deathbed repentance.  It may be contrasted with the genuine article in fact written by Greene.

2. Over thirty years ago computer tests established that both Groatsworth and Kind Heart’s Dream were by the same author, namely Chettle.

3. Peter Moore pointed out that the reference to Greene’s son Fortunatus as the son of his wife and himself is distorted.  Fortunatus is another woman’s son of whom Greene/Chettle writes,  ‘in whose face regard not the father so much as thy own perfections’, an insult to a childless widow by an ignorant author.  Greene’s genuine letter to his wife is a much more sensitive production and does not mention the child who was apparently in the care of his mother anyway.

4. Thomas Nashe (see below) denounced Groatsworth as a  ‘scald trivial lying pamphlet’  as he clearly agreed with the suggestion that Greene was not the author.

Henry Chettle: acceptance of his role as author of both Groatsworth and Kind Heart’s Dream is gaining ground. Apprenticed to a stationer, he became a partner in a printing firm in 1591,  Although he later became a prolific playwright usually in collaboration with other authors (and preservation of copyright considerations arise), these two pamphlets were apparently his first literary efforts.  His experience of the London dramatic and stage scene was  not extensive enough to avoid the mistakes in Groatsworth which made the apology in Kind Heart’s Dream necessary.

William Shakespeare: no record of any activity between 1585 and 1593 except for a mortgage action in 1589 relating to a local property in Stratford Upon Avon.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: the leading playwright by 1592 as well as actor and probably producer, using the nickname or pseudonym ‘Will Shakespeare’.  In 1588 his wife Anne daughter of Burleigh died and with the withdrawal of Burleigh’s protection and support causing the collapse of his finances, Oxford became something of a recluse.  These pamphlets may however mark his return nearly four years later to the cultural scene.  His social position would prevent his contemporaries from referring to him as a writer let alone as an actor.

Christopher Marlowe: generally accepted as the first playwright addressed by ‘Greene’.

Thomas Nashe: likewise the second playwright.

George Peele: some suggest him as the third playwright without particular evidence.

Other Playwrights: Kathman has suggested that because Kind Heart’s Dream refers to  ‘divers play-makers’  it is not necessarily an apology to one of the three principal playwrights principally addressed in Groatsworth.  The passage in Question in Groatsworth referring to other playwrights reads in Groatsworth:-

‘In this I might insert two more , who have written against these buckram gentlemen ; but let their own works serve to witness against their own wickedness, if they persevere to maintain any more such peasants.  For other newcomers, I leave them to the mercies 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 at them.  But now return I again to you three  ………..’

Again this would not appear to have much additional point or to make any difference to the position in logic.

2. The Pamphlets Considered

The heading of the relevant portion of Groatsworth is:-

“To those gentlemen, his quondam acquaintance, that spend their time making plays R.G. wishes a better exercise and wisdom to prevent his extremities”

The phrase  “his quondam acquaintance” is considered below.  Next three playwrights are addressed –  first, Marlowe:

“Wonder not (for with thee I will first begin), thou famous gracer of tragedians, that Greene, who 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….”  etc.

The address continues at length  with a naive attempt to convert the sophisticated atheist Marlowe.  Secondly,  Nashe:

“With thee  (i.e. Marlowe)  I join young Juvenal, that biting satirist that lastly with me together writ a comedy …”

Chettle is probably wrong again here – no trace or reference to a joint work by Greene and Nashe can be found.

“Sweet boy, might I advise thee, be advised ; and get not many enemies by bitter words …” etc.

Nashe is advised to choose his targets carefully and not to be outspoken.  Thirdly,  as will be shown, Oxford:-

“And thou, no less deserving than the other two, in some things rarer, in nothing inferior; driven (as myself) to extreme shifts: a little I have to say to thee.  And were it not an idolatrous oath, I would swear by sweet Saint George thou art unworthy better hap, sith thou dependest on so mean a stay “

The writer appears not to know very much about this dramatist notwithstanding his/Greene’s  “quondam acquaintance”.

“Base-minded men , all three of you, if by my misery, ye be not warned…” continues Chettle, but at this stage the nature of any offence committed against the playwrights by these descriptions must be considered.

Marlowe’s atheism was common knowledge and attempts to convert him could hardly be offensive.  Chettle even has the cheek to suggest that he did edit ‘Greene’s ‘ remarks about Marlowe in Kind Heart’s Dream (see below) and should have done the same to the references to the other playwrights. Later in the pamphlet he repeats his claim of defective editing, which only draws further attention to his problem.

Of Nashe there is nothing objectionable, and nothing to ‘edit’.

Of the third playwright, apart from a reference to financial insecurity, and an apparent ignorant comparison, there is nothing.  The Shakespearian adjective  “base-minded”  is conditionally applied only if the ‘advice’ is ignored.

No apology of any substance to any of the dramatists let alone any thing to ‘edit’ appears on the face of it to be necessary.  Nevertheless Chettle writes in Kind Heart’s Dream:-

“About three months since died M. Robert Greene leaving many papers in sundry book sellers hands , among other his ‘Groatsworth of Wit’ and which a letter a letter written to divers play-makers, is offensively by one or two of them taken: and because of the dead they cannot be avenged, they wilfully forge in their conceits a living author….”

who has written nothing previously published which survives –

“and after tossing it to and fro no remedy, but it must light on me. ….. With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted….” – so much for ‘Greene’s  “quondam acquaintance”:

This is a confession of earlier ignorance about the complaining playwrights.

“.,. and with one of them I care not if I never be..”

This could be Nashe whose description of Groatsworth (point 4 of the ascription reasons above) may well have hurt Chettle.

“.. the other whom I did not so much spare, as since I wish I had for 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 sorry as if the original fault had been my fault. “

This approaches an admission and provides certainly internal evidence (because of the absence of the need to edit) that Chettle did write Groatsworth  and what he wrote was offensive to the playwright, even though the offensive bit is not specifically linked to the playwright.  The playwright was sufficiently important and powerful to be apologised to in fulsome terms – contrast the position of William of Stratford Upon Avon.

Back to Groatsworth: there follows ‘Greene’s’ warning about actors:-

“…for unto none of you (like me) sought those burrs to cleave: those Puppets (I mean) that spake from our mouths ,  those Antics garnished in our colours.  Is it not strange that I, to whom they have all been beholding; is it not like that you, to who they have all been beholding , shall (were ye in that case as I am now) be both at once of them forsaken? Yes , trust them not…” 

Now comes the offensive passage:  

“for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger’s heart…”

Objection may be taken to the identification of Oxford with the “upstart crow”  actor as he had been acting much earlier.  However because of his retirement in 1588 (see above) his re-appearance might seem to an apparent late-comer to the theatrical scene like Chettle then to be that of an “upstart”.  Also, if an “upstart crow” really is an upstart crow, he would be flattered to be characterised as having a tiger’s heart.  As the metaphorical converse seems to be applicable, he would be mightily offended.

“…with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide…”

The famous parody from HenryVI Part 3: it would be ludicrous to a suggest that a knowing writer (unlike Chettle) would parody the words of the play’s author to denounce that same author as an actor who thinks he can write plays  This is further evidence of Chettle’s ignorance of the true circumstances.  Clearly he thought that the actor and the dramatist were two different people: he apologises to one person, ostensibly on the face of it one of the dramatists.

“supposes that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you” 

This ( and particularly the word “supposes”)  would be very offensive if the actor were as good a dramatist as the three addressed in Groatsworth.  Oxford was the only actor at the time who was also writing plays, save perhaps for Marlowe.

“and, being an absolute Johannes fac tiotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shake – scene in a country…”

He thinks himself, not only a class playwright, but able to play all parts and the only first rank actor about ( as well as producer ?) – which was of course accurate, but in the way expressed and joined with the earlier suggestions must have been highly obnoxious.  “Shake-scene” is probably a cut at someone called or known as Shakespeare, but who is meant ? Certainly not William Shakespeare of Stratford Upon Avon, of whom there is no trace in the period 1586-93 in London or anywhere else, let alone any public record as an actor and/or dramatist, to attract such an attack.  The probability is that  here Oxford is being attacked under his pseudonym.

Groatsworth finishes with a plea to the playwrights not to write any more and to let the actoras act only in old plays which would cut off the playwrights’  income at the same time.

What does Chettle in his apology Kind Heart’s Dream say to the actor ?  On the face of it, not a word.  Still addressing the playwright, he writes a full, well-mannered and ingratiating apology:-

“I am sorry as if  the original fault had been my fault, because my self hath seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes: besides divers of worthship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his facetious grace  in writing…”

The use of the word facetious is interesting, as it means urbane, laid-back in an upper class manner, applicable it is suggested only to ‘Shakespeare’  in contemporary literature  –  “that approves his art” i.e. that justifies, puts the seal of approval on the dramatist’s own art of acting – a vocation that certainly would not otherwise receive such approval.  The phrase,  “excellent in the quality he professes”  is a slightly concealed reference to acting perhaps designed to mollify further the actor/writer.  The playwright being apologised to in such elegant terms has to be the actor who has been insulted for his acting and his playwriting.  In effect, Chettle is again confessing that when he wrote Groatsworth, he was not in the ‘know’.

Oxfordians have sufficient independent evidence, 1 for the  playwriting, 2 for the acting, and 3 for Oxford’s own exalted view of acting as shown in his earlier plays.  It must be emphasised that as Oxford was the only actor with a playwriting track-record at the time (except perhaps Marlowe, and he would not merit the apology), he must be Chettle’s third playwright and the actor.  Stratfordians have no contemporary evidence of either activity for William of Stratford Upon Avon.  Before 1593 nothing had been published under the name of William Shakespeare.  Had he been the dramatist, there would have been no reason to omit identification of him as there was no need to conceal his authorship, and, of course, no question of apologising to a person of his social status in the terms used by Chettle.  Thus there is no realistic candidate for the identification except Oxford ; he alone provides a reason for requiring anonymity/pseudonomity , namely his high social position.

3. Conclusion

It is therefore possible to reconcile the existing historical stage-scene with Greene’s Groatsworth and Kind Heart’s Dream and to take in all the facts known in such reconciliation without ignoring or twisting any element of the evidence in the manner which ‘orthodox’ biographies have to.

Since Groatsworth and Kind Heart’s Dream cannot in logic be considered as evidence for William Shakespeare’s careers as actor and /ar dramatist, all the biographical superstructure in his favour eected by  ‘orthodox’  biographers on the basis of the two pamphlets lacks any actual foundation and should now be discarded.


Note: Richard Malim will supply references on request.