Robert Greene Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3115

The most obvious common feature of Robert Greene’s two best-known plays, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV , is the love plot, the romantic battle of strong male and female personalities. The women in both plays are particularly striking; it is no wonder that critics have focused much...

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The most obvious common feature of Robert Greene’s two best-known plays, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV, is the love plot, the romantic battle of strong male and female personalities. The women in both plays are particularly striking; it is no wonder that critics have focused much attention on them and that they see Greene’s principal dramatic impulse as romantic. Nevertheless, what joins all five of Greene’s known plays is not the love interest but rather the playwright’s exploration of the individual’s role within society; in those plays in which it is central, the love plot is merely one overt vehicle by which Greene asks his characters to choose between the desire to dominate others and the desire to live in harmony.

Orlando furioso

Greene found a locus for his first known dramatic handling of this theme within Ludovico Ariosto’s long narrative epic, Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532). Greene’s play of the same title centers on the affection of the epic hero for Angelica, daughter of the King of Africa. In the play, Orlando, a warrior but not a king, contends with monarchs for the heroine. When he wins her, it is the victory that means everything to him; Angelica herself means nearly nothing to him. So little does he know or trust her that he eagerly believes the lies of Sacrapant, here a minor court attendant, that she has betrayed him with one Medoro. Orlando goes mad with jealousy; he runs wild through a stage forest, killing and dismembering. Symbolic of his ignorance of Angelica is his failure to recognize her when they meet in the forest; rather, he speaks his rage to a dummy (or a clown) made up to look somewhat like his beloved. Only after a woodland priestess, Melissa, is brought in to heal his madness can Orlando understand his fault and beg Angelica’s forgiveness.

In Orlando furioso, Greene paints with bold and none too careful strokes his typical portrait of the proud hero who slights his lover, suffers disasters, and comes to repentance. The audience cannot take the ranting Orlando seriously, though he might be more likable than the unbearably pompous kings who are his rivals; before the final scene, Orlando does virtually nothing to win the audience’s hearts, nor does the audience sympathize with the slighted Angelica, who (albeit in the fragmentary version of the play that has survived) shows none of the depth of Greene’s later heroines. Greene’s heavy hand is deliberate here, however, for Orlando furioso is an out-and-out parody of Marlowe’s hero, Tamburlaine, the second part of whose history had appeared a few months earlier than Greene’s play. Greene had attacked Marlowe’s thumping verse and arrogant hero in the preface to his romance Perimedes the Blacksmith (1588), and here he burlesques Tamburlaine’s megalomania as mere insanity. Critics have misjudged the play as Greene’s failed attempt to match Marlowe as a bombastic tragedian; since Greene throughout his prose and verse shows consistent antipathy to the conqueror type, there is no reason to see Orlando furioso as anything other than satire.

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

If Orlando furioso is misjudged as a serious but inept attempt at what might be called tragicomedy, then it is difficult indeed to account for the skill and sensitivity apparent in Greene’s next play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, produced most likely in 1589. This play is still only beginning to be appreciated for its plotting, its use of verse and prose structures, and its study of ideas, though scholars have long recognized it as the prototype of English romantic comedy.

As in Orlando furioso, the love story is the primary vehicle for Greene’s exploration of the individual’s relationship to society. Here, the love intrigue has social consequences that every member of Greene’s audience could easily appreciate, particularly in the year following the invasion of the Spanish Armada. Greene sets his play within the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) and focuses his plot on the prince of Wales, Edward, who must choose between honoring an arranged marriage with Eleanor, princess of Castile, and pursuing the affections of the beautiful Margaret, an English country maid. The first third of the play is devoted to Edward’s strategems for securing the maid as a mistress, including his hiring the great English scientist (popularly considered a magician) Roger Bacon to use the “art” to win Margaret. When Edward fails to appear at court, his father and the royal Habsburg visitors grow nervous and set out to find him. When the prince is stymied in his illicit suit by Margaret’s falling in love with Edward’s best friend, Lacy, earl of Lincoln, the tension almost provokes bloodshed. Finally, however, the deep, honest love of Margaret and Lacy cures Edward’s fury. He heads back to court, once again knowing his duty to king, nation, and conscience.

Nevertheless, the play is only half over. The second half beautifully juxtaposes two stories. One is Bacon’s attempt to rise at court, at first by overmatching the Habsburg magician in a test of powers, then by conjuring a wall of brass to surround England and thus ward off potential invaders (the audience would have immediately thought of Spain). The other story is Lacy’s attempt to assure himself of Margaret’s constancy to him despite her being ceaselessly flattered and bribed by rich suitors. Both Bacon’s and Lacy’s attempts are proved shameful. Not only would Bacon’s wall destroy the harmony of nations promised in the marriage of Edward and Eleanor, but also, as Bacon comes to see, the conjuring requires the aid of evil powers. On Lacy’s part, his test of Margaret gravely insults her; moreover, his hesitancy to ask her hand leaves her at the mercy of two boorish suitors, Lambert and Serlsby, who grow so incensed at her refusal to choose between them that they fall to swords; both are killed. The tragedy is compounded—and the two plots brought strategically together—when the sons of the combatants, both scholars at Bacon’s college in Oxford, witness their fathers’ duel through one of Bacon’s conjurations, a “perspective glass.” The sons turn enemies, and they, too, wound each other mortally. By juxtaposing these plots, Greene allows his audience to see that both Bacon and Lacy have been blinded by their desire for control, Bacon’s over the power of magic, Lacy’s over the power of Margaret’s beauty.

When Lacy eventually gives up the stupid test and comes to claim her, Margaret forgives him heartily, even though he fails to see how much he has hurt her. Then, in the final scene, which celebrates the double wedding of Edward and Eleanor, Lacy and Margaret, this country lass, now Eleanor’s attendant, offers to all the royalty present an example of humility and thanksgiving. By stating her thanks to “Jove” rather than to the favor of the court, she implicitly reawakens the awareness of all, especially Edward and Lacy, to the dangers which have providentially been averted. She places the emphasis of the closing scene where it belongs, on the sanctity of marriage rather than on the euphoria occasioned by a successful political match. Friar Bacon, now penitent, is also on hand to lend further solemnity to the celebration.

The final impact of the play is intensified by what might be called the delicate power of Greene’s verse. His ability to evoke in diction and line the flavor of the English countryside has been amply noted by critics, but the varying of this accent with the equally accurate rendering of the courtly and academic atmospheres is perhaps just as remarkable. The play affirms the power of language to embody the spirit of place and person. That Greene’s style shifts easily from blank verse to Skeltonics to prose, and from images of “butter and cheese, cream and fat venison” to those of “cates, rich Alexandria drugs” helps to create an environment as magical as Bacon’s spells or Margaret’s beauty. In such an atmosphere, rich with promise, one easily believes in the magic of love to soften hearts and heal wounds of the spirit.

A Looking Glass for London and England

Written in collaboration with the playwright and romance writer Thomas Lodge, A Looking Glass for London and England explores England’s relations with other countries in a form quite different from the romantic comedy. Neither tragedy nor comedy, A Looking Glass for London and England is a dramatic sermon, Greene and Lodge’s quite faithful retelling of the biblical story of Jonah and the Ninevites. An enduringly popular play in printed form and on the stage, it was one of the last and best of the religious dramas of the 1570’s and 1580’s that had developed out of the morality and mystery play traditions. Like Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, A Looking Glass for London and England urges the audience to consider ethically its attitudes and actions toward foreign neighbors. The particular focus of the play is on the moral state of nations basking in victory over foreign foes. Though the censure is only implied in the parable of Nineveh, Greene and Lodge judged England to be on the verge of losing its ethical perspective in the wake of its defeat of the “invincible” Armada. Reminiscent of Orlando furioso, the play’s opening scenes ring with pompous speeches by vainglorious nobility; these court scenes are juxtaposed to scenes of the merchant and laboring classes lost in greed, drunkenness, and adultery.

One of Greene’s presumed contributions to the play (it is impossible to determine each author’s influence exactly) is the light touch with which much of the dissipation among the commons is handled. Greene’s romances of these years show his increasing skill in creating clowns and cityfolk with whom his audience could identify, and this talent is used here to draw characters who can lull an audience into feeling that all of these dangerous excesses are mere jests and good fun. Having trapped the audience, however, Greene suddenly turns the plot so that dire consequences result; the most dramatic incident of this kind is the jovial drinking bout that leads to a brawl—which in turn leads to murder. Greene uses these scenes not only to prove the prophet Jonas’s point about the perils into which the society can fall, but also to compare the typical evils of the populace with the even more dangerous behavior of the nobles, who are expected to lead society.

James IV

James IV, probably written shortly after A Looking Glass for London and England, retains some of the former play’s sermonizing tone while replacing the parabolic structure with that of a masquelike fairy tale. One of Elizabethan drama’s most imaginative spectacles, James IV combines authentic British history with materials adapted from Italian romance and then invests the story with sweetness and light by means of fairies, clowns, and balladlike verse. As in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Greene here uses the pleasing form to move his audience gently toward accepting a controversial political stance, in this case the rightful succession of the Scots king, James VI, to the English throne.

Greene sets his play a century back in history, to the reign of James IV, another Scots monarch who had roused English ire. With the aid of a romance on the same theme by the Italian writer Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio, he twists the chronicle to create another love story in which the hero’s injury to his beloved leads his nation to the brink of disaster. James, married to Dorothea, daughter of the English king, falls in love with a young gentlewoman, Ida, a peerless beauty. Urged on in his adultery by Ateukin, a Machiavellian adviser who secretly desires the King’s overthrow, James banishes Dorothea, whom Ateukin accused of plotting against her husband. When news of the banishment reaches England, King Henry leads an army against James, whose demoralized forces wither before the English. Thousands of soldiers die and many towns fall; then, just as the climactic battle is about to commence, Dorothea, who has lived like a hunted animal, appears on the battleground. She begs her husband and father to throw down their arms. James, at last overcome by his injustice, implores her forgiveness. She replies with renewed vows of obedience to him. Again, the Greene heroine sets the example of humble love.

As in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, the fairy tale works because several poetic and structural devices conspire to create a magical atmosphere. One key element is the subplot involving Ida and an English officer, Eustace, whose courtship occasions the most tender wooing scene in Greene’s dramatic canon. Their love makes all the more painful the estrangement of James and Dorothea, and it also sustains the audience’s faith in the potential of romantic relationships to engender love and fidelity. Also vitally important to the fairy-tale magic is Greene’s poetry, particularly the frequent alternation between blank verse and ballad stanzas. The rhyme provides minstrel-like distance between the harsh events being portrayed and their poetic evocation by Greene. Particularly in the dialogue between the banished Dorothea and her trusty servant, Nano, the rhyme enhances the poignancy of the situation. Greene’s technique is put to a purpose far different from that in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, in which rhyme forms had been used satirically by Miles, the clown.

In A Looking Glass for London and England, Greene and Lodge had used another plotting device, the frame, as a means of relating the Ninevite parable to contemporary England. In the frame plot, a second prophet, Oseas, comments on the action. In James IV, Greene again turns to the frame plot to focus the audience’s attention on a key issue in the play. Here, two antithetical types, a dour Scots cynic, Bohan, and an immortal optimist, Oberon, king of the fairies, observe the historical pageant as a test of their opposing views of human nature. Though for them the play will merely confirm or deny a point of view, these objective onlookers become more and more emotionally involved as the action proceeds. The intent is obvious: Greene again wants to move the audience to understand how the power of compassion can affect even the most resistant spirits. If even the cynic and the fairy king can feel for these characters, the audience is supposed to ask, how can love not prevail?

Though Greene provides many devices to heighten the artifice of this pseudohistory, the patriotic appeal in James IV is even more obvious than that of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, with its direct references to England’s defenses. The marriage of James and Dorothea would have immediately reminded the spectators of the recent marriage of James IV to Anne of Denmark, while the English-Scottish alliance in the play directly foreshadows the likely advance of James VI to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth. Greene’s presentation of James’s character indicates the author’s sympathy for the fears of the English public toward the current king’s suspected reliance on untrustworthy ministers. The romantic ambience of the play, however, and the happy resolution of the plot are meant to ease the fears of the audience. Moreover, the horrors of war depicted in the play are intended to keep spectators aware of the inevitable outcome of opposition to the succession. Thus, the political presentation is balanced, not partisan. Greene’s interest, as in his earlier plays, is to encourage in the theatergoing public the same faith in the power of love that his romances tried to evoke in his readers.

Possible Greene Plays

Scholars have attributed to Greene various plays otherwise anonymous because these plays bear some distinguishing marks of Greene’s style. Long thought a Greene play is Alphonsus, King of Aragon (pr. c. 1587, pb. 1599), which bears the name “R. Green” on its 1599 edition, the only extant; the play itself, however, is little like anything Greene is known to have written, so the attribution is doubtful. A more plausible case can be made for the bitterly satiric A Knack to Know a Knave (pr. 1592, pb. 1594), which emphasizes a Greene-like concern for the moral health of the different levels of society and which vividly portrays some of the tricks of characters doubtless drawn from Greene’s connycatching pamphlets. A Knack to Know a Knave gradually degenerates, however, into a brutally vengeful depiction of the punishments of wrongdoers. Certainly antithetical to Greene’s philosophy of forgiveness, this play, as it exists, may be a revision by another writer, perhaps the violent-tempered Nashe, of a work left unfinished by Greene at his death.

John of Bordeaux

The only anonymously produced play definitely of Greene’s authorship is John of Bordeaux, a sure sequel to Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Loosely based on the chivalric romance Duke Huon of Bordeaux, this play features Roger Bacon, who had renounced his magic in the earlier play, here using his powers to free beggars from prison, relieve their suffering, and confound their enemies. The play seems a perfect vehicle to rehabilitate this popular character from his relative ignominy at the close of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. As one might expect, the friar shares center stage with a chaste and loyal woman, Rossalin, the wife of Bordeaux. Her warrior husband gone and feared dead, the constant Rossalin is wooed by a tyrant, then banished, penniless, when she rejects him. Eventually, her endurance, Bacon’s magic, and Bordeaux’s return win a happy ending.

The appeal of this play is more social than political. Rather than supporting a particular view of a specific national situation, it attempts to move the audience to identify with the poor folk portrayed onstage. In the most affecting scene of the play, Rossalin and her children beg from passersby, who probably resemble members of the audience; they scorn her pleas as the ruses of a begging thief or give her the cold comfort of pious warnings about the wages of sin. That chance can reverse the places of rich and poor is one message of the play, a message that Greene hoped to insinuate through his characteristic appeal to the finer emotions of his audience. John of Bordeaux illustrates once again that Greene’s way in drama, as in prose, is not to threaten or lecture his audience on their duties to one another, but to create characters of sympathy and courage, humility and humor, who might win their hearts and set examples to follow.

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