Robert Greene Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Greene Drama Analysis

The most obvious common feature of Robert Greene’s two best-known plays, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV, is the love plot, the romantic battle of strong male and female personalities. The women in both plays are particularly striking; it is no wonder that critics have focused much attention on them and that they see Greene’s principal dramatic impulse as romantic. Nevertheless, what joins all five of Greene’s known plays is not the love interest but rather the playwright’s exploration of the individual’s role within society; in those plays in which it is central, the love plot is merely one overt vehicle by which Greene asks his characters to choose between the desire to dominate others and the desire to live in harmony.

Orlando furioso

Greene found a locus for his first known dramatic handling of this theme within Ludovico Ariosto’s long narrative epic, Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532). Greene’s play of the same title centers on the affection of the epic hero for Angelica, daughter of the King of Africa. In the play, Orlando, a warrior but not a king, contends with monarchs for the heroine. When he wins her, it is the victory that means everything to him; Angelica herself means nearly nothing to him. So little does he know or trust her that he eagerly believes the lies of Sacrapant, here a minor court attendant, that she has betrayed him with one Medoro. Orlando goes mad with jealousy; he runs wild through a stage forest, killing and dismembering. Symbolic of his ignorance of Angelica is his failure to recognize her when they meet in the forest; rather, he speaks his rage to a dummy (or a clown) made up to look somewhat like his beloved. Only after a woodland priestess, Melissa, is brought in to heal his madness can Orlando understand his fault and beg Angelica’s forgiveness.

In Orlando furioso, Greene paints with bold and none too careful strokes his typical portrait of the proud hero who slights his lover, suffers disasters, and comes to repentance. The audience cannot take the ranting Orlando seriously, though he might be more likable than the unbearably pompous kings who are his rivals; before the final scene, Orlando does virtually nothing to win the audience’s hearts, nor does the audience sympathize with the slighted Angelica, who (albeit in the fragmentary version of the play that has survived) shows none of the depth of Greene’s later heroines. Greene’s heavy hand is deliberate here, however, for Orlando furioso is an out-and-out parody of Marlowe’s hero, Tamburlaine, the second part of whose history had appeared a few months earlier than Greene’s play. Greene had attacked Marlowe’s thumping verse and arrogant hero in the preface to his romance Perimedes the Blacksmith (1588), and here he burlesques Tamburlaine’s megalomania as mere insanity. Critics have misjudged the play as Greene’s failed attempt to match Marlowe as a bombastic tragedian; since Greene throughout his prose and verse shows consistent antipathy to the conqueror type, there is no reason to see Orlando furioso as anything other than satire.

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

If Orlando furioso is misjudged as a serious but inept attempt at what might be called tragicomedy, then it is difficult indeed to account for the skill and sensitivity apparent in Greene’s next play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, produced most likely in 1589. This play is still only beginning to be appreciated for its plotting, its use of verse and prose structures, and its study of ideas, though scholars have long recognized it as the prototype of English romantic comedy.

As in Orlando furioso, the love story is the primary vehicle for Greene’s exploration of the individual’s relationship to society. Here, the love intrigue has social consequences that every member of Greene’s audience could easily appreciate, particularly in the year following the invasion of the Spanish Armada. Greene sets his play within the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) and focuses his plot on the prince of Wales, Edward, who must choose between honoring an arranged marriage with Eleanor, princess of Castile, and pursuing the affections of the beautiful Margaret, an English country maid. The first third of the play is devoted to Edward’s strategems for securing the maid as a mistress, including his hiring the great English scientist (popularly considered a magician) Roger Bacon to use the “art” to win Margaret. When Edward fails to appear at court, his father and the royal Habsburg visitors grow nervous and set out to find him. When the prince is stymied in his illicit suit by Margaret’s falling in love with Edward’s best friend, Lacy, earl of Lincoln, the tension almost provokes bloodshed. Finally, however, the deep, honest love of Margaret and Lacy cures Edward’s fury. He heads back to court, once again knowing his duty to king, nation, and conscience.

Nevertheless, the play is only half over. The second half beautifully juxtaposes two stories. One is Bacon’s attempt to rise at court, at first by overmatching the Habsburg magician in a test of powers, then by conjuring a wall of brass to surround England and thus ward off potential invaders (the audience would have immediately thought of Spain). The other story is Lacy’s attempt to assure himself of Margaret’s constancy to him despite her being ceaselessly flattered and bribed by rich suitors. Both Bacon’s and Lacy’s attempts are proved shameful. Not only would Bacon’s wall destroy the harmony of nations promised in the marriage of Edward and Eleanor, but also, as Bacon comes to see, the conjuring requires the aid of evil powers. On Lacy’s part, his test of Margaret gravely insults her; moreover, his hesitancy to ask her hand leaves her at the mercy of two boorish suitors, Lambert and Serlsby, who grow so incensed at her refusal to choose between them that they fall to swords; both are killed. The tragedy is compounded—and the two plots brought strategically together—when the sons of the combatants, both scholars at Bacon’s college in Oxford, witness their fathers’ duel through one of Bacon’s conjurations, a “perspective glass.” The sons turn enemies, and they, too, wound each other mortally. By juxtaposing these plots, Greene allows his audience to see that both Bacon and Lacy have been blinded by their desire for control, Bacon’s over the power of magic, Lacy’s over the power of Margaret’s beauty.

When Lacy eventually gives up the stupid test and comes to claim her, Margaret forgives him heartily, even though he fails to see how much he has hurt her. Then, in the final scene, which celebrates the double wedding of Edward and Eleanor, Lacy and Margaret, this country lass, now Eleanor’s attendant, offers to all the royalty present an example of humility and thanksgiving. By stating her thanks to “Jove” rather than to the favor of the court, she implicitly reawakens the awareness of all, especially Edward and Lacy, to the dangers which have providentially been averted. She places the emphasis of the closing scene where it belongs, on the sanctity of marriage rather than on the euphoria occasioned by a successful political match. Friar Bacon, now penitent, is also on hand to lend further solemnity to the celebration.

The final impact of the play is intensified by what might be called the delicate power of Greene’s verse. His ability to evoke in diction and line the flavor of the English countryside has been amply noted by critics, but the varying of this...

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