Greene's Groats-Worth of Witte Bought with a Million of Repentance

by Robert Greene
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

Gorinius, an old usurer who lives in a city with strong resemblances to London, addresses his sons from his deathbed. He counsels his younger son Lucanio, his heir, to follow his example and “heap treasure upon treasure” in every way possible, moral or immoral. He advises the boy above all to disregard conscience where profit is involved. He disinherits his older son Roberto, who has dared to condemn his father and others of his profession for their unscrupulous dealings. Gorinius leaves Roberto with only an old groat . . . wherewith I wish him to buy a groats-worth of wit: for he in my life hath reprooud my manner of life, and therefore at my death, shall not be contaminated with corrupt gaine.

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Roberto forsakes the path of right when he observes his brother’s good fortune, and thereafter he devotes all his energies to securing Lucanio’s wealth. He gives up his studies and plots with a courtesan, Lamilia, to ensnare his innocent, malleable brother. According to the plan, Roberto is to induce Lucanio to wed Lamilia in return for half the wealth she will gain in the alliance.

Lamilia entertains Lucanio with a seductive song of pleasure and thus quickly makes him her ardent suitor. When the three settle down to dinner, Roberto proposes to tell a tale about the hazards of love, but Lamilia interrupts him with a fable about a crafty fox who makes a match between a badger and a ewe. On the eve of the wedding, the fox kills the ewe and escapes, leaving the badger to the mercy of passing shepherds who believe he is guilty of the sheep’s death. Lamilia concludes by telling Roberto, “go forward with your tale, seek not by sly insinuation to turne our mirth to sorrow.”

Roberto launches into a complicated story about the daughter of an old squire who chooses from all her suitors a farmer’s son. A young gentleman, who wants her for himself, schemes to betray the couple. With the help of an old country woman named Mother Gunby and her daughter Marian, the gentleman makes the farmer inadvertently unfaithful to his bride on their wedding night and wins her for himself. The moral of this tale, he explains, is “the effects of sodaine love.”

Afterward, Lamilia and Lucanio settle down to play cards. The unsuspecting Lucanio loses large sums to the courtesan, but his ardor is not dampened. Roberto is the first to suffer, for Lamilia simply laughs at him when he asks for half the value of the diamond that Lucanio had given to her. She tells Lucanio enough of their plot to make him cut all ties with Roberto but not enough to spoil her plans for their marriage.

Now penniless, Roberto denounces Lamilia and curses false women. A passing actor overhears him bemoan his fate, and Roberto mistakes him for a “gentleman of great living” because of the theatrical costume he is wearing. The actor invites Roberto to join his company as a playwright.

As Roberto takes up his new career, Lucanio’s fortunes plummet. When Lamilia takes his money and property, Lucanio turns to vice and becomes “a notorious Pandar.” Roberto, in turn, keeps company with the “lewdest persons of the land” and learns the skills of “cony-catchers”; he is deaf to his wife’s efforts to reform him. At last, he finds himself despised by his acquaintances, “hardened in wickedness,” and desperately ill. He addresses the single groat left him by his father: “O now it is too late, too late to buy witte with thee: and therefore will I see if I can sell to careless youth what I negligently forgot to buy.”

The author now intrudes in the narrative by admitting that he is the Roberto of the story. In his repentance, he offers ten rules and offers stern advice to three of his playwriting colleagues; he explains that Christopher Marlowe deserved his miserable death and urges Shakespeare, that “upstart Crow,” to become engaged “in more profitable courses.” He tells the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, admitting that he is the idle grasshopper who failed to gather food for winter. In a final letter to his wife, he laments that God has punished him as an example to sinners.

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