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...
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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 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 from Greene’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...
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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...
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