The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 24

Purloined Plume
Copyright 1972 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Summer 1972.

Yes trust them not: for there is an Upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.

DID Robert Greene, on his death-bed in 1592, accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism? A great deal hangs upon the answer to that question and it has been differently answered from time to time during the two centuries and more that have elapsed since the discovery of the famous allusion in Greenes Groatsworth of Wit. Today the generally accepted answer is No, but forty years ago it was Yes; and had been for a hundred and forty years before that; ever since the publication in 1790 of Edmund Malone’s Dissertation on the Three Parts of Henry VI.

Henry VI is the crux of the matter, for the answer to our question has been bound up with the answer to another: Which came first—that is to say, which were written and performed first—Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Parts 2 and 3), first published in the First Folio in 1623, or two very inferior plays on the same subject published anonymously in 1594 and 1595? These two plays, The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, not only cover the same ground as 2 and 3 Henry VI but contain numerous verbal parallels and even whole lines in common with them, so that “borrowing” on a colossal scale, one way or the other cannot be denied, and the only question is who borrowed from whom.

When the allusion was discovered by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1766, the question of a charge of plagiarism simply did not arise, for Dr. Johnson had just pronounced judgement on the other question. Shakespeare, he declared, was the sole author of the Henry VI trilogy, and the Contention and True Tragedie were reports, however inadequate, taken down at performances. In 1790 Edmund Malone reversed Johnson’s verdict. In his opinion, 2 and 3 Henry VI were not original work by Shakespeare but his revision of the Contention plays; and it was he who first put forward the theory that, in the upstart crow passage, Greene was accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism. The parody of a line from 3 Henry VI in “his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” had already been noted by Tyrwhitt, who took it as confirmation of Dr. Johnson’s belief that the play was in fact by Shakespeare, but it was left for Malone to point out that the identical line, “Oh Tygers hart wrapt in a woman’s hide”, also occurs in True Tragedie, thus providing an actual example of what Greene might have regarded as plagiarism. It was Malone’s theory that prevailed for a hundred and forty years, only to be superceded at last as the result of a book by Peter Alexander. [Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III, 1929.]

Alexander reverted to Johnson—with a difference. The Contention and True Tragedie were, after all, reports of 2 and 3 Henry VI, not as Johnson thought, taken down by spectators, but put together from memory for a provincial tour by some of the players who had acted in the originals. But what of Greene’s charge of plagiarism? It no longer fitted in, so Malone’s interpretation of the upstart crow passage had to be discarded with the rest of his theory. According to Alexander, Greene was merely jealous of a player who had the audacity to write plays himself, and as for the words “beautified with our feathers”, they meant no more than what he had just said of all the players: “those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouths.”

Among the first to accept Alexander’s theory was J. Dover Wilson, from whose article, “Malone and the Upstart Crow”, [Shakespeare Survey, No. 4, 1951.] I confess I have borrowed freely in the above summary of other men’s views. Reminiscing in that article, he wrote:

“The two principal props of Malone’s Dissertation seemed to have collapsed, and the crash was hailed as a turning point in our whole conception of Shakespeare’s apprentice years, ‘We must start afresh’, proclaimed Alfred Pollard; and I thought so too for eighteen years. Yet as my first enthusiasm began to cool a little, one or two doubts crossed my mind.”

From Alexander’s main argument—that the Contention plays were “memorial reconstructions” or “Bad Quartos” of 2 and 3 Henry VI—he never wavered, but in the process of editing Henry VI [Cambridge Shakespeare, 1951 and 1952.] himself he came to agree with Malone on two points that these plays were not entirely original work by Shakespeare and that Greene did accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism. But plagiarism of what? Not the Contention and True Tragedie, for Alexander had shown conclusively that these were later than Shakespeare’s versions and derived from them. There was no documentary evidence of any earlier play on Henry VI, so he was forced into a thorough examination of the background of the upstart crow passage.

The fable of the crow in borrowed feathers is not in the early versions of Æsop, but it was evidently quite well-known to the Elizabethans who, he found, attributed it to Æsop and associated it with literary theft, or plagiarism. He traced Green’s source to Horace’s third Epistle, where he warns his friend Celsus “not to pilfer from other writers any longer, lest those he has robbed should return one day to claim their feathers, when like the crow (cornicula) stripped of its stolen splendour (furtivus nudata coloribus), he would become a laughing-stock.” He gives examples of the same association of ideas in Elizabethan literature, including one from an earlier pamphlet of Greene’s:

“Your honor may thinke I play like Ezops Crowe, which deckt his selfe with others feathers, or like the proud poet Batyllus, which subscribed his name to Virgils verses, and yet presented them to Augustus. In the behalfe therefore of this my offence, I excuse my self with the answere that Varro made, when he offered Ennius workes to the Emperour: I give quoth he another man’s picture but freshlie flourished with mine owne colours.” [Mirror of Modesty, 1584. Cited by Dover Wilson in “Malone and the Upstart Crow”‘. Note 44; also in his Introduction to Henry VI, Part 2., p. xviii.]

And as an example of how Greene’s contemporaries interpreted his attack on the upstart crow, he quotes some lines, by a certain R. B. Gent.:

Greene, is the pleasing Object of an eie
Greene, pleasde the eies of all that lookt uppon him.
Greene, is the ground of everie Painters die:
Greene, gave the ground, to all that wrote upon him.
Nay more the men, that so Eclipst his fame:
Purloynde his Plumes, can they deny the same?
[Greenes Funerals, 1594. Ed. R. B. McKerrow (1911), p. 4.]

It was a good point for his argument, but Dover Wilson seems to have been embarrassed by the fact that R.B. took Greene’s part in the quarrel, for he rushes to Shakespeare’s defence:

“I have often asked myself why Greene harboured so much evident hatred for a man whom Chettle found of civil demeanour and all the world later agreed to speak of as ‘gentle’. That Shakespeare rewrote his plays and made, as he evidently realized, a much better job of them, no doubt angered him. But to call that stealing was of course ridiculous; and it is difficult to believe the charge could have been seriously entertained for a moment … Surely there was something else behind.”

Then he rakes up a well-known, but ill-supported piece of gossip against Greene and before he has finished is treating it as fact:

“According to a writer in the late April of 1592, Greene had sold his Orlando Furioso to two different acting companies in succession, and after the fraud was discovered had excused himself on the ground ‘that there was no more faith to be held with players than with them that valued faith at the price of a feather’, for they were ‘men that measured honesty by profit and that regarded their authors not by desert but by necessity of time’. We do not know, but is it not likely that this piece of sharp practice proved the final cause of Greene’s ruin?”

If the story were true, or equally if it were not, it might well have been the final cause of Greene’s ruin. But was it true? That is surely a relevant question in the case of Greene v. Shakespeare. Dover Wilson does not name the “writer” and, indeed, could not, for nobody knows his name, nor, for that matter, whether he wrote anything at all besides the pamphlet in which the story is to be found: The Defence of Coneycatching, by Cuthbert Coneycatcher (1592). [Ed. G. B. Harrison, Bodley Head Quartos X, 1924.]

Robert Greene’s famous coneycatching pamphlets were all written in 1591/92, within about nine months of his death. A coney is, of course, a rabbit—in this case a human rabbit—and the coneycatchers were the cardsharpers, cutpurses and confidence-tricksters of the Elizabethan underworld. Greene exposed their methods in pamphlet after pamphlet and the stories he told of them were very entertaining. How much was fact and how much fiction, it is impossible to say, but the pamphlets were best-sellers and Greene boasted that the coneycatchers were afraid of him, and on one occasion tried to kill him:

“They beleaguered me about in the St. John’s Head within Ludgate, being at supper. There were some fourteen or fifteen of them met, and thought to make that the fatal night of my overthrow, but that the courteous citizens and apprentices took my part, and so two or three of them were carried to the Counter . . . I cannot deny but that they begin to waste away about London, and Tyburn since the setting out of my book hath eaten up many of them: and I will plague them to the extremity. Let them do what they will with their Bilbao blades: I fear them not.”

He threatened to publish a Black Book of all the houses that were receivers of stolen goods and a catalogue of the names of all the foists, nips, lifts and priggers in and about London. “And although they say I dare not do it, yet I will shortly set it abroach, and whosoever I name or touch, if he think himself grieved, I will answer him before the Honourable Privy Council”. [Disputation Between a Hee Conny-catcher and a Shee Conny-catcher Ed. G. B. Harrison, Bodley Head Quartos III, p. 40-42.]

The Black Book was never published and unfortunately we do not know precisely when the threat was published, but sometime between February 1592, and the following August, when Greene was taken ill as a result, so Gabriel Harvey said, of “a surfeit of pickle herringe and rennish wine,” [Four Letters, 1592. Ed. G. B. Harrison, Bodley Head Quartos II (1922), P. 13.] from which he never recovered. He died in squalid lodgings on 3rd September, and the irresponsible, but not irrelevant question springs to mind: Did the coneycatchers get him in the end and then make a willing coney of Harvey, as someone seems to have done later about the death of Marlowe?

The Defence of Coneycatching was entered in the Stationers’ Register on 21st April and the author claimed to be, himself, the Prince of Coneycatchers, though, of course, we need not believe him. According to his own account, he had recently served a prison sentence for cardsharping, because he had the misfortune of trying to catch a coney who had read one of Greene’s pamphlets; and so caught him and had him arrested. His book sets out to prove that “there is no estate, trade, occupation, nor mystery, but lives by coneycatching, and that our shift at cards compared to the rest is the simplest of all.” He gives examples and it is interesting to find in this book, which Greene surely must have read within a few months of his death, an allusion to a Daw in other birds’ feathers:

“All these Novelties doth this pipried Braggart boast on, when his only travel hath been to look on a fair day from Dover Cliffs to Calais, never having stepped a foot out of England, but surveyed the Maps and heard others talk what they knew by experience. Thus decking himself like the Daw with the fair feathers of other birds and discoursing what he heard others report, he grew so plausible among young gentlemen that he got his Ordinary at the least and some gracious thanks for his labour.” (p. 35). [Ed. G. B. Harrison, Bodley Head Quartos X.]

And finally—to supplement Dover Wilson’s quotation—what he said about, or rather to, Robert Greene, was:

“But now, Sir … what if I prove you a Coneycatcher Master R.G., would it not make you blush at the matter? . . . Ask the Queen’s Players if you sold them not Orlando Furioso for twenty Nobles, and when they were in the country, sold the same Play to the Lord Admiral’s men for as much more. Was not this plain coneycatching Master R.G.?” (p. 37).

The two companies concerned, then, were the Queen’s and the Admiral’s, and presumably Cuthbert Coneycatcher got the story from the Queen’s. But what of the facts?

It is on record that a performance of Orlando [Henslowe’s Diary, Ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (1961), p. 16. The year is given as 1591, but this is “Old Style”.] was given at Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, the Rose, on 21st February, 1592, not by the Queen’s nor the Admiral’s, but Strange’s. At the same theatre on 3rd March, the same company gave the first recorded performance of a play called Harry VI, which was to have a record run for those days. [This is generally believed to have been Part I (the last to be written), but T. W. Baldwin makes a good case for a sequence of two, if not all three parts—Literary Genetics of Shakesperes’ Plays, p. 326-329.]

Orlando Furioso was published in 1594, the same year as the First Part of the Contention, and like the Contention in a Bad Quarto. At Dulwich College is preserved an actor’s part of the title-role, with cues, containing lines which are not in the printed version and also corrections in the hand of Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of the Admiral’s. Early in February 1592, most of the Admiral’s men left England for a foreign tour, but Alleyn, who married Henslowe’s daughter in the following October, remained behind and it seems that he, and he alone of the Admiral’s, was acting with Strange’s at the Rose at this time; [Literary Genetics of Shakesperes’ Plays, p. 250-251.] but Orlando may have been performed earlier by the Admiral’s as a whole, for Henslowe’s “Diary” begins only two days before this single recorded performance.

It seems, then, that Cuthbert Coneycatcher had some circumstantial evidence on his side, but we do not know how the Admiral’s came by the play, nor whether the Queen’s had in fact a prior claim to it. There is no evidence that Greene sold it to two different companies, but there is evidence that it was performed in two different versions, the second being a “memorial reconstruction”. We have, here, an exact parallel to the case of Henry VI and the Contention, except that no good version of Orlando was ever published. Now, if the bad version was performed in Green’s lifetime, though not published till two years after his death, he had a personal motive for a charge of plagiarism against someone, independently of all the conflicting theories about the relationship between Henry VI and the Contention, and his parody of a line common to 3 Henry VI and True Tragedie does not, by itself, imply that he wrote any play, or part of a play, on that subject. He did not profess to be the only victim of the upstart crow.

In the light of the circumstantial evidence I suggest that the words of Cuthbert Coneycatcher and R.B. read like two contradictory versions of the same real-life story; that R.B. was in fact replying to Cuthbert Coneycatcher. The latter accuses Greene of selling Orlando first to the Queen’s men and then to the Admiral’s, and calls the Queen’s to witness. Not so, says R.B.: “the men that so eclipsed his fame/purloined his plumes, can they deny the same?” It is at least an alternative explanation of what happened and, if correct, the allusion is to the theft of Orlando and not to any play by Robert Greene on the same subject as Henry VI. In any case, whether Cuthbert Coneycatcher was telling the truth or not, there can be no doubt that he defamed Greene. Now, the words, eclipsed his fame have generally been understood in the sense that Shakespeare surpassed Greene in fame as a dramatist, but as Warren B. Austin pointed out, [“A Supposed Contemporary Allusion to Shakespeare as a Plagiarist”, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 4, 1955.] they could mean in Elizabethan usage “cast a shadow over” his good name or reputation: “I take the meaning to be that even those who had written on Greene in malignant terms, those who sought so shamefully to blacken his reputation, had themselves taken advantage of, or borrowed from, his writings.” In this sense he applies the words to Gabriel Harvey, who was the first to cast a shadow over Greene’s reputation after his death; and to clinch the matter, he cites Harvey’s own words addressed to his dead enemy: “Thanke other for thy borrowed & filched plumes of some little Italianated bravery,” [Four Letters, Ed. G. B. Harrison, Bodley Head Quartos II, p. 37.] commenting “There, surely, is the phrase R.B. had in mind. His use of the word ‘purloynde’, the closest of synonyms for Harvey’s ‘borrowed & filched’, and, of course, of the word ‘plumes’, where the other similar passages speak of ‘feathers’, shows unmistakably that it was Harvey’s employment of this figure that he was recalling to make his point.” Well, let us grant a possible allusion to Harvey in plumes, but the word purloin itself, and no synonym, is used by Cuthbert Coneycatcher, not indeed in the same figure, but three times in one short pamphlet which also ‘contains the figure of a Daw in other birds’ feathers: purloyning of pelfe (p. 11); purloyning reprobates (p. 21); purloyne and steal (p. 39). If R.B. had wished to find a more characteristic word to point his allusion to Cuthbert Coneycatcher, and through him to the Queen’s men, he could not have done so. He exonerates Greene by contradicting Cuthbert and unequivocally accusing the players of theft.

Now, Greene’s charge of plagiarism has been, and still is, denied, in spite of Dover Wilson, on the grounds that the positive evidence of plagiarism (or something like it) has vanished; but it has not vanished, it has merely been transposed, and transposed by Alexander himself, to a place in the sequence of events where it would fit perfectly if William Shakespeare, or Shaksper as we call him, had not been the original author of the “Works of Shakespeare”, but the chief actor-pirate responsible for the memory-versions which got into print in the Bad Quartos and are still extant. There are quite a number of these and the number is growing, as one after another Shakespeare’s supposed source-plays are added to the list by reputable orthodox scholars. These, or so it is assumed, were the “stolen and surreptitious copies” referred to many years later by the editors of the First Folio. Some of them bear Shakespeare’s name on their title-pages, and though the Contention plays were first published anonymously, both parts were reprinted together in 1619 (Q3) as part of a motley collection attributed to Shakespeare. The new title was: “The Whole Contention between the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke . . . Divided into two Parts: And newly corrected and enlarged. Written by William Shakespeare, Gent.” There were a few corrections, but the text is substantially the same as that of the Bad Quartos of 1594 and 1595. The printer was William Jaggard, from whose press the First Folio appeared four years later. The addition of Shakespeare’s name as author in 1619 is generally regarded as the publisher’s attempt to pass off the bad text as good, but there may be another explanation.

It was once believed by most, if not all, anti-Stratfordians that William Shakespeare (Shaksper) stole the plays and passed them off as his own. This belief has long been out of fashion, among Oxfordians anyway, who regard him simply as the paid agent, or broker, of the Earl of Oxford. I suggest, however, that in the light of the modern orthodox theory of memory versions, put together by actors, it is time to think again. There were plenty of actors of course, but there is only one whose name (variously spelt) appears on the title-pages of Good and Bad Quartos alike, and eventually on that of the First Folio. The text was corrected but the name persisted. Had he, perhaps, established a kind of “squatter’s right”—as the publishers often did—to the good texts through the bad?

The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 25