Henry Chettle Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Henry Chettle c. 1564-c. 1606

English playwright, prose writer, and poet.

Although he collaborated on numerous dramatic productions with some of the leading playwrights of his day—including Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, and John Day—little remains of Chettle's once vast theatrical output. Of his extant dramas, there is little that has been of interest to scholars or theatergoers; the only extant play known to be written by him alone, The Tragedy of Hoffman (1602), is considered a second-rate work, and his better collaborations are still considered inferior to the many brilliant plays written by his contemporaries for the Elizabethan stage. Chettle is chiefly remembered today as a prose writer, whose Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship (1595) is a fine example of early English fiction. His hand in the pamphlet Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592), in which a young William Shakespeare is criticized, has also been the subject of discussion and speculation among scholars, although there is no agreement as to whether Chettle wrote or merely edited that piece.

Biographical Information

Very little is known of Chettle's personal life. He was born in London around 1564. His father was a dyer, and at the age of thirteen Chettle was apprenticed to a printer—or “stationer” as the profession was then known. In 1591 he entered into partnership with two other printers, William Hoskins and John Danter. The company printed a number of ballads, some of which Chettle may have written himself; numerous tracts and pamphlets; and some plays, including one by George Peele, one by Thomas Lodge, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and the disputed first quarto of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Chettle, it is speculated, had a hand in preparing the printer's copy from the pirated text of Romeo and Juliet, filling in missing stage directions and other information. In 1592 Danter, Hoskins, and Chettle printed Greene's Groatsworth of Wit and, later that year, Chettle's own pamphlet Kind-Heart's Dream. In 1597 the company's presses were confiscated for printing Jesu's Psalter without authority, which ended Chettle's career as a stationer. He then turned to the writing of plays for his livelihood. He began collaborating with a number of well-known playwrights, including Anthony Munday, Thomas Dekker, John Drayton, John Day, and Ben Jonson. However, very little of what he wrote or contributed has survived. He all but disappeared from the literary scene after the publication of his prose and verse pastoral England's Mourning Garment in Memory of Elizabeth (1603), and he died in poverty and obscurity around 1606 or 1607.

Major Works

In his work as a printer, Chettle came into contact with some of England's well-known writers and dramatists. In addition to working as a compositor, he often edited works and repaired incomplete texts. In 1592 Chettle's printing company brought out Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, a work by the dramatist Robert Greene purportedly written on his deathbed, which Chettle claimed to have edited. This “repentance pamphlet,” purportedly by the profligate Greene, includes attacks on the playwright Christopher Marlowe and refers to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” beautified with the feathers of Greene and his fellow professional dramatists. Shakespeare is called a Johannes Factotum (jack of all trades) and accused of being a plagiarist. It is clear that Chettle prepared the work for publication, but the extent of his involvement in the work is still under dispute. Chettle claims to have transcribed the work from Greene's scrawl, but many—including Shakespeare and Marlowe—accused him of writing the work himself. Chettle denied writing the pamphlet, but a number of critics to this day believe the work to be his, based largely on stylistic similarities to his other works. Shortly after Greene's Groatsworth of Wit was published, Chettle published Kind-Heart's Dream, a pamphlet in which he answers Shakespeare's and Marlowe's accusations. He insists that he did not write a word of Greene's Groatsworth, apologizing to Shakespeare and praising his talents. This and his other prose work, Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship, a pastoral narrative about a country fellow and his fortunes under a series of different masters, are considered Chettle's finest literary efforts. His prose and verse pastoral England's Mourning Garment in Memory of Elizabeth, written after the death of Queen Elizabeth, has been praised as a charming account of the queen's last days.

Chettle is thought to have had a hand in more than forty-nine plays, but it is often unclear what part he had in the composition of many of the works with which he is associated. He wrote thirteen plays himself, but of these only The Tragedy of Hoffman survives. This revenge tragedy is notable because it has many correspondences with Shakespeare's Hamlet; both involve a son's revenge of his father. Only a handful of Chettle's numerous collaborations remain. Most critics agree that the best of these are The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, both written with Anthony Munday in 1598. They center around the Earl of Huntingdon and the legend of Robin Hood. Other surviving collaborations include the comedy Patient Grissel (1600), written with Thomas Dekker and William Haughton, and the historical drama The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (1600), written with John Day. He was also one of the numerous collaborators on the first version of The Book of Sir Thomas More (c. 1593).

Critical Reception

Like many dramatists of Shakespeare's day, Chettle has all but faded from the literary landscape, his works regarded as little more than hack work in comparison to that of his brilliant contemporary. From all accounts, Chettle's plays were popular during their day, and he is referred to by some of his contemporaries as a accomplished writer of comedy. However, by the end of his life, he was no longer a well-recognized figure in theater circles and was plagued by debts. Chettle was largely neglected by literary critics until Harold Jenkins' 1934 biography of him. In the 1960s there was renewed interest in his role as author of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit after a computer-aided study suggested that the work had striking stylistic similarities with his known writings. Because Greene's Groatsworth contains some of the earliest known references to Shakespeare, Chettle's authorship of the work has been of interest to many scholars. Today, Chettle's reputation is as a minor dramatist, a footnote to the great names of his time. However, his prose work Piers Plainness' Seven Years' Prenticeship is often reprinted in surveys of Elizabethan prose and thus Chettle is deemed significant historically as the author of an important early work of English fiction.