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

by Robert Greene
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121

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 warning to Lucanio about his brother’s plan. The second narrative, Roberto’s tale, depicts a hapless bridegroom who is deceived into sleeping with another woman, while his intended bride is snatched away by the gentleman who planned this elaborate deception. Again, the gullible younger brother pays no heed to the obvious lesson. The courtesan refuses to share any of the wealth she obtains from Lucanio with Roberto; he, too, has failed to heed his own tale about the hapless suitor. Greene thus complements his pessimistic spin on the prodigal son and lucky younger son motifs with his apparently misogynistic treatment of women as either schemers or passive sufferers.

Each brother becomes an unredeemable prodigal son. Lucanio becomes a pander, having squandered his inheritance. Roberto’s fortunes seem to rise when he meets a player who, because he is dressed well in his actor’s costume, is mistaken for a “gentleman of great living.” Roberto’s recruitment by the actor to write play scripts is improbable; as a prominent playwright, he learns the criminal skills of the “lewdest persons of the land,” but he falls into bad company, dissipates his fortune, and loses his health. Greene was in fact the successful author of the early romantic comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (pr. c. 1589, pb. 1594) and the influential history play James IV (pr. c. 1591, pb. 1598), but the narrative of Roberto’s sudden rise to fame and equally prompt decline is unpersuasive.

In a remarkable intrusion of Greene’s authorial voice into the narrative, he announces that he himself is Roberto: “Heereafter suppose me the saide Roberto, and I will goe on with that he promised.” In the manner of the repentance tract, he claims to be filled with remorse for his sinful life (“black is the remembrance of my black works”), and, in a kind of personal decalogue, he offers ten rules for his readers to live by. Greene’s famous admonitions to three of his fellow playwrights are oddly gratuitous. He says that Marlowe deserved his violent death, while an unidentified satirist (whom Green calls the “young Juvenal”) is urged to renounce his “bitter words.” He advises Shakespeare, who is derided as “that upstart Crow” and “the onely Shake-scene,” to make better use of his talents. Greene describes himself as a lit candle now down to its “last snuff,” and the bitterness of the admonitions to the competing playwrights has sealed Greene’s reputation as an unforgiving failed writer.

The final beast fable, in which Greene identifies himself as the idle grasshopper, is another authorial self-rebuke—although, as a writer, Greene had been anything but idle. In a final section, Greene inserts a letter to his wife, supposedly found only after his death, in which he explains that God has punished him as an example to sinners. (The inclusion of this letter, if it was in fact found after the author’s death, suggests that an alternate author or editor such as Chettle had a strong hand in the creation of the whole project.)

Apparently a confusing scramble of poorly related narrative fragments, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance upon inspection can be read positively as a unified work. It can be read as an innovative form of autobiography—a form that, as Skura has shown, was first invented in its modern form in the sixteenth century. While it can also be read as a parody of the narrative of religious repentance, the story provides proof that a printed repentance tract could compete with a preacher’s sermon as an equally compelling performance. Critics such as Mentz have urged appreciation of Greene’s skill in combining a number of genres in a fluid narrative—including the Greek romance, the Elizabethan prodigal son narrative, the cony-catching pamphlet, the repentance tract, and the antitheatrical satire. Greene’s vivid prose voice and his skill in energizing a number of genres deserve greater appreciation; the ill-tempered attack on Shakespeare is only a small part of an oddly compelling narrative that is both penitential and unforgiving.

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