Henry Chettle Essay - Critical Essays

Chettle, Henry


Henry Chettle c. 1564-c. 1606

English playwright, prose writer, and poet.

Although he collaborated on numerous dramatic productions with some of the leading playwrights of his day—including Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, and John Day—little remains of Chettle's once vast theatrical output. Of his extant dramas, there is little that has been of interest to scholars or theatergoers; the only extant play known to be written by him alone, The Tragedy of Hoffman (1602), is considered a second-rate work, and his better collaborations are still considered inferior to the many brilliant plays written by his contemporaries for the Elizabethan stage. Chettle is chiefly remembered today as a prose writer, whose Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship (1595) is a fine example of early English fiction. His hand in the pamphlet Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592), in which a young William Shakespeare is criticized, has also been the subject of discussion and speculation among scholars, although there is no agreement as to whether Chettle wrote or merely edited that piece.

Biographical Information

Very little is known of Chettle's personal life. He was born in London around 1564. His father was a dyer, and at the age of thirteen Chettle was apprenticed to a printer—or “stationer” as the profession was then known. In 1591 he entered into partnership with two other printers, William Hoskins and John Danter. The company printed a number of ballads, some of which Chettle may have written himself; numerous tracts and pamphlets; and some plays, including one by George Peele, one by Thomas Lodge, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and the disputed first quarto of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Chettle, it is speculated, had a hand in preparing the printer's copy from the pirated text of Romeo and Juliet, filling in missing stage directions and other information. In 1592 Danter, Hoskins, and Chettle printed Greene's Groatsworth of Wit and, later that year, Chettle's own pamphlet Kind-Heart's Dream. In 1597 the company's presses were confiscated for printing Jesu's Psalter without authority, which ended Chettle's career as a stationer. He then turned to the writing of plays for his livelihood. He began collaborating with a number of well-known playwrights, including Anthony Munday, Thomas Dekker, John Drayton, John Day, and Ben Jonson. However, very little of what he wrote or contributed has survived. He all but disappeared from the literary scene after the publication of his prose and verse pastoral England's Mourning Garment in Memory of Elizabeth (1603), and he died in poverty and obscurity around 1606 or 1607.

Major Works

In his work as a printer, Chettle came into contact with some of England's well-known writers and dramatists. In addition to working as a compositor, he often edited works and repaired incomplete texts. In 1592 Chettle's printing company brought out Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, a work by the dramatist Robert Greene purportedly written on his deathbed, which Chettle claimed to have edited. This “repentance pamphlet,” purportedly by the profligate Greene, includes attacks on the playwright Christopher Marlowe and refers to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” beautified with the feathers of Greene and his fellow professional dramatists. Shakespeare is called a Johannes Factotum (jack of all trades) and accused of being a plagiarist. It is clear that Chettle prepared the work for publication, but the extent of his involvement in the work is still under dispute. Chettle claims to have transcribed the work from Greene's scrawl, but many—including Shakespeare and Marlowe—accused him of writing the work himself. Chettle denied writing the pamphlet, but a number of critics to this day believe the work to be his, based largely on stylistic similarities to his other works. Shortly after Greene's Groatsworth of Wit was published, Chettle published Kind-Heart's Dream, a pamphlet in which he answers Shakespeare's and Marlowe's accusations. He insists that he did not write a word of Greene's Groatsworth, apologizing to Shakespeare and praising his talents. This and his other prose work, Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship, a pastoral narrative about a country fellow and his fortunes under a series of different masters, are considered Chettle's finest literary efforts. His prose and verse pastoral England's Mourning Garment in Memory of Elizabeth, written after the death of Queen Elizabeth, has been praised as a charming account of the queen's last days.

Chettle is thought to have had a hand in more than forty-nine plays, but it is often unclear what part he had in the composition of many of the works with which he is associated. He wrote thirteen plays himself, but of these only The Tragedy of Hoffman survives. This revenge tragedy is notable because it has many correspondences with Shakespeare's Hamlet; both involve a son's revenge of his father. Only a handful of Chettle's numerous collaborations remain. Most critics agree that the best of these are The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, both written with Anthony Munday in 1598. They center around the Earl of Huntingdon and the legend of Robin Hood. Other surviving collaborations include the comedy Patient Grissel (1600), written with Thomas Dekker and William Haughton, and the historical drama The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (1600), written with John Day. He was also one of the numerous collaborators on the first version of The Book of Sir Thomas More (c. 1593).

Critical Reception

Like many dramatists of Shakespeare's day, Chettle has all but faded from the literary landscape, his works regarded as little more than hack work in comparison to that of his brilliant contemporary. From all accounts, Chettle's plays were popular during their day, and he is referred to by some of his contemporaries as a accomplished writer of comedy. However, by the end of his life, he was no longer a well-recognized figure in theater circles and was plagued by debts. Chettle was largely neglected by literary critics until Harold Jenkins' 1934 biography of him. In the 1960s there was renewed interest in his role as author of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit after a computer-aided study suggested that the work had striking stylistic similarities with his known writings. Because Greene's Groatsworth contains some of the earliest known references to Shakespeare, Chettle's authorship of the work has been of interest to many scholars. Today, Chettle's reputation is as a minor dramatist, a footnote to the great names of his time. However, his prose work Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship is often reprinted in surveys of Elizabethan prose and thus Chettle is deemed significant historically as the author of an important early work of English fiction.

Principal Works

*Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance (pamphlet) 1592

Kind-Heart's Dream (pamphlet) 1592

Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship (fiction) 1595

The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon [with Anthony Munday] (play) 1598

The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon [with Munday] (play) 1598

Patient Grissel [with William Haughton and Thomas Dekker] (play) 1600

The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green [with John Day] (play) 1600

The Tragedy of Hoffman; or, A Revenge for a Father (play) 1602

England's Mourning Garment in Memory of Elizabeth (prose and verse) 1603

*Scholars disagree whether Chettle edited this work, purportedly by Robert Greene, or wrote it himself.


Shakespeare Newsletter (essay date December 1970)

SOURCE: “Chettle's Forgery of the Groatsworth of Wit and the ‘Shake-scene’ Passage.” Shakespeare Newsletter 20, no. 6 (December 1970): 42.

[In the following essay, the anonymous critic analyzes the evidence that Greene's Groatsworth of Wit is a forgery perpetrated by Chettle.]

Last April 1969 what may turn out to be one of the three most significant contributions to Shakespearean scholarship in this century was published as Final Report: Project No. 7-0-036: Grant No. OEG-1-7-070036-4593 (U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, Bureau of Research, April, 1969) A Computer-Aided Technique for Stylistic...

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Warren B. Austin (essay date December 1970)

SOURCE: Austin, Warren B. “Technique of the Chettle-Greene Forgery: Supplementary Material on the Authorship of the Groatsworth of Wit.Shakespeare Newsletter 20, no. 6 (December 1970): 43.

[In the following essay, Austin offers linguistic evidence for the hypothesis that Chettle forged Greene's Groatsworth of Wit.]

Since completing the computer-aided linguistic analysis, I have succeeded in reconstructing Chettle's procedure in fabricating the Groatsworth of Wit. For the most part, he used Greene's genuine books of the same genre (prodigal son tales), patterning his forgery on episodes and passages in Greene's Mourning Garment, Never Too...

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John Jowett (essay date December 1993)

SOURCE: Jowett, John. “Johannes Factotum: Henry Chettle and Greene's Groatsworth of Wit.Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 87, no. 4 (December 1993): 453-86.

[In the following essay, Jowett examines the evidence for the claim that Chettle authored Greene's Groatsworth of Wit before establishing a context for his authorship and confronting those critics who reject the idea that he forged the work.]

Greene's Groatsworth of Wit and The Repentance of Robert Greene, both published shortly after Robert Greene's death in 1592, are two of the most important autobiographical and literary records of the period.1 The...

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John Jowett (essay date August 1994)

SOURCE: Jowett, John. “Notes on Henry Chettle.” Review of English Studies 45, no. 179 (August 1994): 384-88.

[In the following essay, Jowett collates and consolidates critical work done on Chettle after 1934 to present a sketch of the man and his work, discussing his early writings, his relationship with John Danter, his authorship of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, and his attack on bawdy ballads.]

It is now sixty years since Harold Jenkins published his Life and Work of Henry Chettle (1934), which remains the standard biography and an indispensable tool for students of Chettle. These notes are designed to collate, consolidate, and develop such...

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John Jowett (essay date November 1994)

SOURCE: Jowett, John. “Notes on Henry Chettle (Concluded).” Review of English Studies 45, no. 180 (November 1994): 517-22.

[In the following essay, Jowett discusses Chettle's contribution to the play Sir Thomas More, his involvement in Romeo and Juliet, the plays he wrote in collaboration with others, his work on The Tragedy of Hoffman, his debts, and his death.]


Chettle has confidently been identified as one of the revisers of the manuscript play Sir Thomas More. Tannenbaum's identification of the handwriting of so-called Hand A as that of Chettle has found general...

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Jeffrey Kahan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Kahan, Jeffrey. “Henry Chettle and the Unreliable Romeo: A Reassessment.” Upstart Crow 16 (1996): 92-100.

[In the following essay, Kahan disputes the claim made by other scholars that Chettle was the editor of the 1597 edition of Romeo and Juliet.]

According to Gary Taylor, the ultimate aim of a Shakespeare editor is the identification of “the nature or function of a lost manuscript which served as the printer's copy for an extant edition.”1 These extant editions range from reliable to very unreliable quartos, generally graded as either good or bad. In terms of those “stolne, and surrepititious copies,” the scholar's task is...

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Mark Thornton Burnett (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Burnett, Mark Thornton. “Henry Chettle's Piers Plainness: Seven Years' Prenticeship: Contexts and Consumers.” In Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, edited by Constance C. Relihan, pp. 169-86. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Burnett offers a detailed reading of Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Apprenticeship, arguing that the work has a densely allusive design, explores important topical questions about master-servant relations, and should be read in relation to an Elizabethan apprentice culture.]

For a variety of reasons, Henry Chettle's picaresque tale,...

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Lukas Erne (essay date September 1998)

SOURCE: Erne, Lukas. “Biography and Mythography: Rereading Chettle's Alleged Apology to Shakespeare.” English Studies 79, no. 5 (September 1998): 430-40.

[In the following essay, Erne denies claims that Chettle apologized to Shakespeare for Greene's attacks.]

Our image of Shakespeare at the beginning of his dramatic career in London is strongly shaped by the oft-quoted passages from Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592, entered in the Stationers' Register on 20 September 1592) and Chettle's ‘Epistle dedicatory’ prefacing his Kind-Harts Dreame (no date, Stationers' Register: 8 December 1592). Their importance can hardly be overstated. The former...

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Further Reading


Bronfman, Judith. “Griselda, Renaissance Woman.” In Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, pp. 211-23. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Includes a brief discussion of Patient Grissil, focusing on its exploration of the issues of class prejudice and sovereignty in marriage.

Carson, Neil. “Collaborative Playwriting: The Chettle, Dekker, Heywood Syndicate.” Theatre Research International 14, no. 1 (spring 1989): 13-23.

Analyzes the activities of Chettle, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Heywood and their casual...

(The entire section is 589 words.)