Robert Greene Essay - Greene, Robert

Greene, Robert


Robert Greene 1558–1592

English playwright, author, and poet.

Although Greene was one of the most widely-read and prolific of the Elizabethan authors and was called "the Homer of women" by his friend Thomas Nashe, Greene is chiefly remembered today in relation to Shakespeare: his blank-verse romantic comedies are credited with paving the way for Shakespeare by helping to rid the popular play of didacticism. Greene's Pandosto (1588) was the foundation for The Winter's Tale, and there has been much debate over the extent of Greene's authorship of parts of Henry VI. In addition to his poetry (which exists only as part of his plays), Greene wrote some three dozen romances, plays, and pamphlets, some of which championed women. His plays The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay (written around 1591) and The Scottish Historie of James the fourth, Slaine at Fodden (written around 1590) are considered his best works. Greene varied his style throughout his career, writing initially in the elaborate euphuistic mode of John Lyly, turning later to romances, and eventually adopting a more realistic manner. One of the first great university playwrights, and one of a small group of professional writers (which also included Christopher Marlowe, Nashe, and Lyly) known as the "university wits," Greene wrote largely for the public rather than for the court. Between 1588 and 1592 Greene wrote the definitive works on the ways of criminals in the so-called conny-catching genre, and these works were widely plagiarized after his death. Greene's final works were partly autobiographical and marked by repentance for the carousing done earlier in his life.

Biographical Information

Born in Norwich, in Norfolk, England, the second child to Robert Greene, a saddler, and his wife, Mary, Greene was baptized in 1558. Little is known of his early life. He entered St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1575 on a scholarship, and received his degree in 1578. After a tour of the continent and time spent writing Mamillia, A mirrour or looking-glasse for the ladies of Englande (1580), Greene returned to the university. He received an M.A. in 1583 from Clare Hall, Cambridge. Greene married around 1585, but he abandoned his wife and newborn child in 1586 and went to London. There he became one of the earliest professional writers—that is, earning his living by writing for the public rather than by being sponsored by a benefactor. He received another degree from Oxford in 1588. Infamous for his carousing, Greene died, according to one account, in a drunken brawl in 1592.

Major Works

Greene's first work, Mamillia, owes a great debt to Lyly. Besides borrowing passages from him, Greene also copied Lyly's ornate euphustic style in this exploration of love. But Greene inverted the situation found in Lyly's Euphues: in Greene's Mamillia it is the women who are betrayed. Greene's sympathetic portrayal of women endeared him to many critics. Perimedes the Blacke-Smith (1588) contains a satirical reference to Tamburlaine the Great (a famous play by Greene's rival Marlowe). Menaphon. Camillas Alarum to Slumbering Euphues (1589) is a complex pastoral romance that focuses on nature and expounds Greene's moral concerns. This romance, considered Greene's masterpiece by some, contains one of his finest poems—sung by a woman to her child—with the repeated lines "Weep not, my wanton, smile upon my knee, / When thou art old there's grief enough for thee." A Notable Discouery of Coosnage: the Art of Conny-Catching (1591) was the first of Greene's several pamphlets on conny-catching (cheating or pilfering). Critics have long debated whether Greene knew of these practices first-hand (as he claims) and to what degree they should be regarded as nonfiction. Using the common speech of his intended readers, Greene's social commentary and exposé of such underworld criminals as card sharps, pickpockets, purse snatchers, and blackmailing prostitutes was enormously successful and soon followed by sequels. In A Dispvtation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher, and a Shee Conny-Catcher (1592) a prostitute wins a wager from a cutpurse over whether "whores or theeues" cause more damage to the Commonwealth. In The Defence of Connycatching (1592) one "Cuthbert Cony-Catcher" attacks Greene for cheating. Scholars have generally agreed that Greene himself wrote the work, enjoying a joke on himself and the public.

Critical Reception

Immensely popular for the last twelve years of his life, Greene's wrote prolifically—a situation which has led to claims that he wrote whatever he thought would sell. James Applegate has asserted that Greene boasted of his scholarship "to delude the gullible," and that he was "essentially a hack, trying to make a living from fast sales of ephemeral literature." Greene's varying styles are offered by critics as evidence that Greene chose whatever style he thought would be most popular at the time, and that he catered to the lowest level of his readers. These claims have been denied by others who assert that Greene at his best sometimes rivals Shakespeare. Morris Dickinson has written: "Without being original in structure or style Greene was individual in outlook and temper. He had a keener eye for the little things than any dramatist of his time, and he had also a better sympathy for the quick flashing moods and manifestations of human character." Charles W. Crupi has cited Greene's "rich and ambiguous treatments of human experience." Greene has also been praised for his narrative technique in his underworld tales, particularly in his quoting of criminals. By using their own words, or seeming to, Greene allows some sympathy for their condition and thereby partly implicates society for their crimes. Greene was famously vilified shortly after his death by rival poet Gabriel Harvey in Foure Letters and Certaine Sonnets and, although Greene was defended by Nashe, many of Harvey's remarks stuck with the public. Nevertheless, Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay and James the fourth are critically acclaimed as being among the best non-Shakespearean drama of their time.

Principal Works

Mamillia, A mirrour or looking-glasse for the ladies of Englande (prose) 1580

Mamillia II (prose) 1583

Arbasto. The Anatomie of Fortune (prose) 1584

Gwydonius, The Carde of Fancie (prose) 1584

Planetomachia (prose) 1585

Alphonsus, King of Aragon (drama) 1587

Euphues his Censure to Phiautus (prose) 1587

The Scottish Historie of James the fourth, Slaine at Fodden (drama) 1588–92

Alcida. Greenes Metamorphosis (prose) 1588

Perimedes the Blacke-Smith (prose) 1588

Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (prose) 1588

Philomela. The Lady Fitzwaters Nightingale (prose) 1588?

Ciceronis Amor, or Tullies Loue (prose) 1589

The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay (drama) 1589

Menaphon. Camillas Alarum to Slumbering Euphues (prose) 1589

Greenes Farewell To Follie (prose) 1591

Greenes Mourning Garment (prose) 1590

Greenes Neuer Too Late (prose) 1590

Greenes Orpharion (prose) 1590

A Notable Discouery of Coosnage: the Art of Conny-Catching (prose) 1591

Orlando Furioso (drama) 1591

The Second Part of Conny-Catching (prose) 1591

Greenes Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance (prose) 1592

The Blacke Bootes Messenger. Laying Open the Life and Death of Ned Browne (prose) 1592

The Defence of Connycatching (prose) 1592

A Dispvtation Betweene a Hee Conny-Catcher, and a Shee Conny-Catcher (prose) 1592

The Repentance of Robert Greene, Maister of Artes (prose) 1592

The Thirde and last Part of Conny-Catching (prose) 1592

The Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse. 15 vols. (prose and drama) 1964


Bayard Tuckerman (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: "The Age of Elizabeth," in A History of English Prose Fiction: From Sir Thomas Malory to George Eliot, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1882, pp. 60–101.

[In the following excerpt, Tuckerman provides a brief overview of Greene's life and a few of his major works.]

…The popularity of Euphues excited much imitation, and its influence is strongly marked in the works of Robert Greene. Born in Norfolk in 1560, Greene studied at Cambridge and received the degree of Master of Arts. After wasting his property in Italy and Spain, he returned to London to earn his bread by the pen. As a pamphleteer, as a poet, and especially as a dramatist, Greene achieved a considerable...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)

J. J. Jusserand (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: "Lyly's Legatees," in The English Novel In The Time of Shakespeare, translated by Elizabeth Lee, T. Fisher Unwin, 1908, pp. 145–216.

[In the essay below—first published in 1890 and reprinted in 1908, Jusserand compares and contrasts Greene's works to those of Lyly and discusses the plots of several of Greene's stories including Pandosto, which was used by Shakespeare in writing The Winter's Tale.]

… Greene's non-dramatic works are the largest contribution left by any Elizabethan writer to the novel literature of the day. They are of four sorts: his novels proper or romantic love stories, which he called his love pamphlets; his patriotic pamphlets;...

(The entire section is 6895 words.)

Frank Wadleigh Chandler (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: "Conny-Catching Pamphlets," in The Literature of Roguery, 1907. Reprint by Burt Franklin Reprints, 1958, pp. 93–110.

[In the following excerpt, Chandler examines Greene's "conny-catching" tales of the underworld and their influence on his fellow dramatists.]

Conny-Catching Pamphlets

… Greene the Bohemian is one of the few Englishmen of standing in letters who furthered the development of the romance of roguery prior to the eighteenth century. Yet until within two years of his death he had won fame in fiction only as a love-romancer in the tradition of Lyly. From such romantic stories as "Mamillia," "Arbasto," "Euphues, his Censure...

(The entire section is 6610 words.)

Frank Aydelotte (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: "The Rogue Pamphlets," in Oxford Historical and Literary Studies, Vol. 1, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1913, pp. 114–139.

[In the following excerpt, Aydelotte offers an overview of Greene's "conny-catching" pamphlets and discusses whether they should be regarded as fact or as fiction.]

… Robert Greene was as good an authority on London sharpers and conny-catchers as was Thomas Harman on wandering beggars. He wrote five pamphlets describing their tricks…. He had lived among the conny-catchers and perhaps practised their tricks himself in his wild days following his travels in France and Italy. The pamphlets exposing them he wrote during the violently...

(The entire section is 1306 words.)

Robert Naylor Whiteford (essay date 1918)

SOURCE: "From Sir Thomas Malory to Sir Francis Bacon," in Motives In English Fiction, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1918, pp. 1–51.

[In the following excerpt, Whiteford examines several of Greene's euphuistic novels and finds an increasing emphasis on autobiographical elements from one to the next.]

… When in her chamber Mamillia, debating as to whether she will be true to her father or to her lover Pharicles, soliloquizes, "no misling mists of misery, no drenching showers of disasterous fortune, nor terrible tempests of adversity shall abate my love or wrack my fancy against the slippery rocks of inconstancy: yea if my lands will buy his ransom or my life purchase his...

(The entire section is 2405 words.)

J. S. Dean, Jr. (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Robert Greene's Romantic Heroines: Caught Up in Knowledge and Power?" in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 3–12.

[In the following essay Dean examines Greene's portrayals of heroines in his works and responds to various criticisms tegarding their characterization.]

Robert Greene (1558–1592) has been known as an adept plotter of plays, the developer of the double plot, a fast writer of prose narratives, and to some, a "Homer of women,"1 one who created subtle, delicate moods to envelop his chaste heroines. Greene's dramatic heroines have traditionally been praised for their fresh realistic portrayal, but recently...

(The entire section is 5222 words.)

Charles H. Larson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Robert Greene's Ciceronis Amor: Fictional Biography in the Romance Genre," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1974, pp. 256–67.

[Below, Larson examines Ciceronis Amor: Tullies Love, surveying its literary context, early popularity, and emphasis on friendship.]

There are, at present, strong signs of renewed interest in the prose fiction of Robert Greene. New editions of Pandosto and A Notable Discovery of Cozenage in a widely-used college text, a lengthy chapter on the prose in a recent commentary on Elizabethan fiction, a spate of doctoral dissertations on Greene, and a proposed new edition of his complete works all testify to...

(The entire section is 5444 words.)

Richard Helgerson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Greene," in The Elizabethan Prodigals, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 79–104.

[In the following excerpt, Helgerson describes the conflicting forces found in Greene's fiction and examines the progression of his writings from prodigality to repentance.]

No one will be surprised to find prodigality linked with the name of Robert Greene. Who can forget Harvey's account of his riotous life and miserable death, the penury, the loneliness, the pitiful plea for a cup of Malmsey wine?1 Even the printer of Greene's last work saw him as a prodigal. "And forasmuch as the purest glass is the most brickie, the finest lawn the soonest stained, the...

(The entire section is 9177 words.)

Constance C. Relihan (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Narrative Strategies of Robert Greene's Cony-Catching Pamphlets," in Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 37, April, 1990, pp. 9–16.

[In the following essay, Relihan discusses the significance of the complex narrative approach of The Defence of Conny-Catching.]

In 1591 and 1592, Robert Greene published a series of pamphlets which purported to expose criminal life in London. These cony-catching pamphlets have long been considered an interesting source of information about London life both by critics who stress Greene's familiarity with the kind of life the pamphlets describe, and by those critics who stress the tradition of criminal and rogue literature which...

(The entire section is 3754 words.)

Further Reading


Dickinson, Thomas H. Introduction to Robert Greene. In Robert Greene, edited with introduction and notes by Thomas H. Dickinson, pp. ix–lxvii. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.

Considers four classes of sources for knowledge on Greene's life: records, autobiographical pamphlets and allusions, contemporary references, and legends; contends that Greene "represents the Elizabethan age at its best and its worst"; and explores the dates of creation of Greene's plays.


Applegate, James. "The Classical Learning of Robert Greene." Bibliotheque D'Humanisme et...

(The entire section is 464 words.)