Robert Greene

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According to the best, albeit sketchy, evidence, Robert Greene was born in Norwich, Norfolk, in 1558, of a saddler and his wife. It is certain that this ambitious son of bourgeois parents went on to St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1576 on a sizar’s appointment (a sort of work-study position by which scholars earned their keep, usually as valets for sons of aristocrats). Though Greene’s record at St. John’s appears to have been undistinguished, he did take his baccalaureate in 1580. Greene continued his studies at Cambridge and received his master of arts degree from there in 1583, the same year in which his first prose romance, Mamillia: A Mirror or Looking Glass for the Ladies of England, was published. A second master’s, from Oxford, came in 1588; this degree was more a formality than the result of further study. There is no evidence that after 1583 Greene intensely pursued any course other than the winning of a large, eager audience in London for his romances, plays, and pamphlets.

Concerning Greene’s no doubt adventurous life as a writer in London from 1583 until his death in 1592, there is much rumor and rancor but little solid fact. His publication record indicates that he was immensely popular; his title pages from 1588 onward include his name within the titles themselves, as in Greene’s Mourning Garment and Greene’s Never Too Late. His friend Thomas Nashe declared that printers felt “blest to pay him dear for the very dregs of his wit.” Nevertheless, since the London publishing industry, still in its infancy, provided large returns for printers but no royalties for authors, even great popularity guaranteed no security. Thus, Greene survived on the speed of his pen. Curiously, there is no indication that he seriously vied for the relative stability of noble patronage, nor does he seem to have written for the pay of either the Anglican Establishment or their Puritan opponents, as did many, including Nashe and Marlowe.

Perhaps more because of the persistent theme of repentance in his writings than because of his actual life, Greene at his death left a considerable reputation as a rakehell, albeit a penitent one. His vitriolic companion Nashe wrote that he cared only “to have a spell in his purse to conjure up a good cup of wine with the poet Gabriel”; Harvey, whom Greene had insulted in a pamphlet, called him “A rakehell, a makeshift, a scribbling fool/a famous Bayard in city and school.” Gentler wits, such as the critic Francis Meres, ignored the gossip and merely noted Greene’s achievement as one of the “best for comedy” among the playwrights.

Of Greene’s allegedly bitter feelings toward the acting companies that bought his plays, much has been echoed through four centuries. In the posthumous tract Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, there is a thinly veiled attack on the players, one “Shakescene”—no doubt Shakespeare—in particular. Careful studies, however, have concluded that another, most likely Henry Chettle, the author and printer, wrote these words and passed them off as Greene’s. That the playwright’s dealings with the actors were not always cordial is certain; Greene himself admits, for example, that he sold the same play, Orlando furioso, to rival companies. Nevertheless, that at least five of his plays were produced in London between 1588 and 1591 attests largely amicable relations between the author and his clients.


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Robert Greene keeps the reader so far off-balance about the actual facts of his life that one cannot begin to write a biography of him without putting faith in statements which might...

(This entire section contains 453 words.)

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otherwise be suspect. Most scholars, for example, accept that Greene was born in Norwich in 1558 and that his father was a saddler; the best evidence for this comes fromGreene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), which mentions that its main character, Roberto, was born in Norwich. This detail sent scholars to city records, where they discovered a Robert Greene born to a saddler and his wife in 1558, a likely year. The pamphlet, however, is a bad source since it appeared after Greene’s death, and scholars label its attribution to Greene himself probably spurious.

It may be said with more certainty that Greene was educated at Cambridge (B.A., St. John’s, 1580; M.A., Clare, 1583) because Cambridge records support the “Master of Arts” appended to Greene’s name on his title pages. From 1588 onward Greene proclaimed a second master’s degree from Oxford, and the records also support this claim. Moreover, no one, including his enemy Gabriel Harvey, has ever denied his academic accomplishments. That Greene was in 1585 a “student of physic,” as he claimed in Planetomachia, has never been verified. Other speculations—that he was a rural minister and a fencing master, for example—are based solely on the presence of the common name Robert Greene on lists from history turned up by scholars.

History should probably accept Greene’s description of himself as a drinking partner of thieves and scoundrels, a denizen of low inns, and a spendthrift. His friend Thomas Nashe corroborates Greene’s words: “Hee made no account of winning credite by his workes : his only care was to have a spel in his purse to conjure up a good cuppe of wine with at all times.” His self-cultivated reputation as a rakehell aside, there is no foundation for Harvey’s assertion that Greene had a whore as mistress (sister of a known killer) and by her a son, Fortunatus, who died in infancy.

That he died in poverty in September, 1592, after a month-long illness is virtually certain. Certain also is the flurry of pamphlets attributed to him, about him, or including him as a character, which appeared in the half dozen years following his death. Of his dealings with patrons it is known that he termed himself the “adopted son” of one Thomas Burnaby, to whom Greene dedicated several works. How much support Burnaby gave is not known, but Greene’s epistles to his middle-class readers show clearly that he knew them to be his main source of income and prestige.


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According to the most widely accepted speculation, Robert Greene was born to a saddler and his wife in Norwich, Norfolk, in 1558. There is no reliable evidence for this speculation, since the only mention of Norwich as his birthplace is found in the posthumous pamphlet Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, its attribution to Greene probably spurious. Nevertheless, since it is known that Greene took his B.A. from St. John’s (Cambridge) in 1580, the speculated birth date is a likely one. Moreover, since Greene held a sizar’s appointment at Cambridge—a type of work-study position in which middle-class students kept their places by serving students from noble houses—it is also likely that Greene came from the home of an artisan.

Nothing is known about Greene’s life before he entered Cambridge and little is known of it after he left. Cambridge records reveal his baccalaureate degree and his M.A. from Clare in 1583, but neither his contemporaries nor Greene himself has left an account of his life there, notwithstanding the great practical importance Greene attached to his degrees, particularly the master’s (and his second master’s, from Oxford, in 1588); the words “Master of Arts in Both Universities” are prominently displayed on his title pages. Who exactly Greene was or what he did besides write and publish is not known. Most of the available quasi-biographical remarks come from a friend, Thomas Nashe, a notorious exaggerator, from an enemy, Gabriel Harvey, even less trustworthy, and from pamphlets of spurious attribution, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance and The Repentance of Robert Greene. Of Greene’s appearance and character, Nashe wrote:. . . a iolly long red peake, like the spire of a steeple, he cherisht continually without cutting, whereat a man might hang a Iewall, it was so sharp and pendant.A good fellowe hee was . . . and in one yeare he pist as much against the walls as thou and thy brothers [speaking to Harvey] spent in three.He made no account of winning credite by his works . . . ; his only care was to haue a spel in his purse to coniure up a good cuppe of wine with at all times.

Harvey, incensed over an inferred insult in Greene’s last work, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592), vented his anger in the following exercise of his poetic talent: “a rakehell, a makeshift: a scribbling foole:/ a famous bayard, in City, and Schoole.” Harvey went on to say that Greene had had a whore as mistress and by her a son, Fortunatus, who died in infancy. Certainly, no corroborating evidence has been found. Nevertheless, the posthumous pamphlets, both in the repentance mode, stress the supposed degradation of Greene’s life by putting into the deceased writer’s mouth self-accusations similar to those made by Greene characters in several romances.

Mitigating somewhat these views are remarks by poet “R. B.” (probably Richard Barnfield), who wrote Greene’s Funeralls (1593): “For iudgment Ioue, for Learning deepe, he still Apollo seemde:/ For fluent tongue, for eloquence, men Mercury him deemde./ His life and manners though I would, I cannot half expresse.” Although this praise helps to balance the record, it provides no further fact. The only certain information about Greene’s later life is the month and year of his death, September, 1592, the cause of death being a protracted illness, probably not brought on, as Nashe claimed, by a banquet of rhenish wine and pickled herring.

This veil over Greene’s life is ironic in that he achieved great contemporary fame as a writer: Indeed, his popularity was so great that the titles of his works included his name. In fact, for ten years after his death, “Greene” continued to appear as a character in pamphlets and stories, his protean identity in these works reflecting the elusiveness of his actual biography.