Background on Robert Greene

 The following is written by A. W. Ward and is from English Prose, Vol., pp. 551-554, edited by H. Craik. (Macmillan and Co., New York: 1893.


ROBERT GREENE

[Robert Greene was born at Norwich about 1560, and educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1578. After travelling abroad he returned to Cambridge in 1580, and graduated M.A. from Clare Hall in 1583. In the same year he came up to London and published his first book. In 1585, when he was incorporated M.A. at Oxford, he also describes himself as a student of medicine; but this pursuit was not carried far by him. About the close of 1585 he married the daughter of a Lincolushire squire, but aher living with her in Norfolk for more than a year, he abandoned wife and child and returned to London. Here his celebrity as a playwright, in which capacity he was during the greater part of his career regularly employed by the Queen's players, and as a writer of novels and other prose tracts, rose very high. But his unbridled pen involved him in many quarrels, even after about 1590 it had taken a repentant turn. He died 3rd September I592, in abject poverty.]

WHEN in the year 1580 Greene returned to Cambridge from his travels in Italy, Spain, and other foreign lands, he found that a great literary event had taken place in his absence. Euphues was out, and in the blaze of its first fashionable popularity. Greene, in whose literary life the spirit of zealous emulation was a predominant motive, at once started in quest of similar laurels for himself. He was, he tells us, already satiated with the dissipations in which he and other "wags " had "consumed the flower of their youth." But Elizabethan poco-curanteism rarely extended itself to recklessness of literary fame or (as again in Greene's case, who never forgot that he was "utriusque academiae in artibus magister" ) even of the most ordinary academical distinctions. Thus in 1583 there appeared the First Part of "Mamillia, a Mirror or Looking-Glass for the Ladies of England, by Robert Greene, a Graduate of Cambridge," with a preface, appropriately or not, addressed to the author's gentlemen readers. In title as in most other respects it is a fair type of the long show of successors which it was to draw after it. Greene proved by his first narrative essay that while clever enough to reproduce any vein betokening originality, he was also himself original enough not to depend altogether upon the whim or fashion of a season. Of course, although the imitative faculties of youth are vigorous, the tricks of such a defiance of the ordinary laws of style as is involved in Euphuism are not learnt of a sudden; and Mamillia, by no means to its disadvantage, is less copiously studded with unnatural "natural " similes than some at least of the author's later prose works. On the other hand, it scintillates with proverbs and proverbial phrases "as thick as motes in a sunbeam." But although this love-pamphlet appealed to the "precious" of both sexes, its success was no doubt largely due to the fact that in the Romance countries, or of his own mother-wit, Greene had caught the art of putting something of interest into a story as a story. Indeed, this particular fiction interested even the author himself, so that, not content with reproducing its general features in from thirty to forty later tracts, he composed not only a second part to Mamillia, but also a supplement to this second part, not known to have been published till after his death.

After this début, Greene, during the brief years of activity allowed to him by his evil and crapulous genius, cultivated the still rambling and undetermined field of prose fiction with more diligence and with more success than any of his contemporaries; and when he passed away, it soon began to lie fallow again. Whether or not he kept in his locker the twin hoods to which he could lay claim as "utriusque academiae in artibus magister," he rapidly acquired such fame as an author of plays and as a penner of love pamphlets, "that who for that trade grown so ordinary about London as Robin Greene. Young yet in years, though old in wickedness, I began to resolve that there was nothing that was profitable," and in short, being in Vanity Fair, strove to flaunt it with the worst of them.

The utterances of Robin, Robert, or "Roberto" over the husks on which in the last period of his career he was prone enough to moralise, must from a biographical point of view be taken for what they are worth. But the want of tone which they attest is observable in his earlier, even more than in his later, writings; for until he becomes sorry for himself, he has, in point of fact, nothing very particular to say. Thus, in his prose belonging to the years 1582-5, taken as a whole, the dialectical element overpowers all others, and Euphuism seems about to surpass itself in its most ingenious disciple-or "ape," in Gabriel Harvey's ungainly phrase.

But in the second period of Greene's literary career, from his return to London about 1587 till near the close of his career, the high pressure under which he wrote was manifestly not to his disadvantage as an author. Although he worked from hand to mouth, what he turned out were not journeyman's articles. Nash afterwards averred of Greene that in a night and a day he could produce a prose piece such as would cost another man seven years, "and glad was that printer that might be blest to pay him dear for the very dregs of his wit." Nor can it be denied that, apart from dramatic literature, in which he holds a place proper to himself among Shakespeare's contemporaries, his versatile genius enabled him to rival the two most popular prose writers of the day, Lyly and Sidney, in their own respective fields; to blend their several fascinations; and to superadd inimitable touches of his own in his suggestions of country-side scenery and of women suited to such sweet surroundings. These fabrics of light texture and variegated hue his fertile fancy flung upon the market in quick succession, setting them forth with the aid of a fluent though not profound scholarship, greatly approving itself to contemporary taste.

Among these, Penelope's Web, an ingenious collection of tales illustrative of the chief feminine virtues, including silence, was rapidly succeeded by Euphues' Censure to Philautus, in title pretending to a direct connexion with Lyly's book, but in fact a kind of Trentamerone between Greek and Trojan lords and ladies, and chiefly notable as having furnished Shakespeare, whose observant eye Greene's anathema failed to ward off, with a hint or so for Troilus and Cressida. But neither on this, nor on Perimedes the Blacksmith, to the pleasant framework of which Peele, when he wrote The Old Wives' Tale, may have been no stranger, is it possible to dwell in preference to Pandosto, The Triumph of Time, otherwise known as The History of Dorastus and Fawnia. Shakespeare set his nets with no uncertain instinct when he went out poaching in the daylight; and this story of Greene's, while comparatively free from the usual rhetorical paraphernalia, breathes the true pastoral fragrance which survived even in Coleridge's later adaptation, and in its chief female character reaches the height of the gamut on which it was given to Greene to play,-the note of motherhood. For Greene's books are full of charming women, a sisterhood in whom, as Mr. Symonds happily says, "the innocence of country life, unselfish love, and maternity, are touched with delicate and feeling tenderness."

Menaphon, although equipped with a sub-title fathering this book also upon Euphues, was in truth a direct challenge to the popularity of Sidney's Arcadia, published about a year earlier. Although not his first, it proved Greene's most sustained and successful attempt to clothe chivalrous sentiment in the fashionable shepherd's weeds, trimmed with the inevitable Euphuistic garniture. A curtailed specimen of an Arcadian wit-combat in which Samela (whose name is of course intended to recall Sidney's Pamela) plays the chief part, is given below; there is no room for the full context of love-making. This in its turn is too copious to be wholly artificial, and is wound up at the close with the conscientiousness of one of Miss Burney's best tea-table romances. Moreover, Greene had a sureness of tact which not unfrequently accompanies rapidity of workmanship; and thus while in his eagerness to please his public he followed his exemplars with facile flexibility, he was also too quickwitted to fall into the favourite fault of an imitator and exaggerate their peculiarities. While celebrated as a raffineur de l'Anglais by the side of Lyly himself, he is fain to subordinate the airs and graces of his speech to the common human interests concerned in his discourse, and, in comparison with the author of the English Arcadia, strains the simple machinery rather less than more perceptibly to its artificial uses. It was this elasticity which enabled him to write so easily and so much, and which, indeed, enabled him to go straight enough to his point, when he had a definite purpose in view, such as that of writing down the Pope and the King of Spain, or exposing in a long series of tracts the wiles of London "cony-catchers of both sexes." The same effective directness of manner marks the last series of his productions, which, whatever may be the precise historical value of their details, are autobiographical in intention, and of which the best known is the notorious Groatsworth of Wit, published after his death by a loyal but indiscreet friend. Its budget of personalities addressed, partly in sorrow to his associates not yet snatched from the burning, partly in anger to the chief rival of his unregenerate labours, has, unfortunately, helped to cloud his fame. After its brief heyday had passed, it never extended beyond a limited circle; so that, as Ben Jonson says, it became a safe thing to steal from Greene's works, which had certainly not been the case in his lifetime. Now that, thanks to the editor of the Huth Library, Greene is once more read as a prose-writer, the fact is revealed that, during the last half-dozen years of his life, the English novel to all intents and purposes maintained an active existence, which after his death was soon overwhelmed by another literary growth of superior strength and luxuriance. A. W. WARD.


Copyright © 1997-2003 by Mark Alexander. All Rights Reserved.
Text on this entire web site may be downloaded for personal and educational use only.