Although it is usually remembered as the source of the first known attack on William Shakespeare in print, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance deserves to be read as a fascinating narrative and an experiment in multiple genres. Robert Greene—known in his own time for his productive publishing record and a dissipated lifestyle that resulted in his early death—published pamphlets in a number of different genres. According to critic Steve Mentz, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance can be read as a kind or recapitulation of Greene’s experiments in such diverse genres as “cony-catching” pamphlets, “prodigal son” narratives, and repentance tracts.
Critic Lori Humphrey Newcomb argues that the repentance tracts were written to challenge the authority of the oral sermon as the best means to inspire religious repentance, on the grounds that sinners are more likely to respond to the printed page than to the preacher in the pulpit. The authenticity of the repentance tracts published after Greene’s death has long been called into question, and Elizabethan playwright and printer Henry Chettle has been identified as a possible forger of the tracts by such critics as Mentz, Charles W. Crupi, and Meredith Skura. However, many of the elements that comprise Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance are within the range of Greene’s interests (except for the gratuitous attacks on Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare).
The narrative begins with the uncharitable decision of a wealthy moneylender to leave his fortune to his younger son and to disinherit his older son, who has criticized the father for his avaricious habits. To his older son, Gorinius sarcastically leaves only a groat, with which to purchase a “groatsworth of wit.” Thus, the main narrative is built around the Old Testament motif of the lucky younger son and the New Testament parables of the talents and the prodigal son. Critic Richard Helgerson has noted the frequency of the use of the prodigal son motif in Elizabethan prose fictions, but he has also noted Greene’s inversion of the happy resolution of the parable; the father in Greene’s version is miserly, ungrateful, and unforgiving.
In the manner of the “cony-catching” pamphlets, the older son Roberto quickly lures his younger brother Lucanio into a disastrous relationship with the courtesan Lamilia, who captivates the hapless brother by her beauty and her singing. The story of Lucanio’s entrapment is interrupted by two narratives. In the first, Lamilia tells the tale of the fox who murders a ewe but manages to shift the blame to a hapless badger: The allegory is an oblique...
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