Robert Greene Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607

Robert Greene’s writing should be understood as the work of a man trying always to put forward an image of both himself and his characters to his readers. That image, elucidated in his prefaces, was one of a socially conscious writer using his God-given talents for the good of his...

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Robert Greene’s writing should be understood as the work of a man trying always to put forward an image of both himself and his characters to his readers. That image, elucidated in his prefaces, was one of a socially conscious writer using his God-given talents for the good of his countrymen. Specifically, Greene wished his readers to become better citizens and more adept judges of language and personality through exposure to his loyal, learned, patriotic, and humble heroines and penitent heroes.

In the Christian universe of Greene’s romances, men and women suffer, and their communities with them, through perversion of virtue into greed, lust, arrogance, and self-pity. All such suffering, however, is seen by Greene as an opportunity for humility and a subsequent return to charity. The Greene romance plot usually moves through fragmentation of both spirit and society to unity and community. The harmonious monarchies which emerge are always based on mutual respect by all social classes; patriotism includes respect and charity toward foreigners, particularly the exiles and prodigals who move through all Greene stories. Rarely does an important character fail to follow the perversion-regeneration path, so that Greene’s stories are peopled by the falling and the rising, not by villains and heroes. Ironically, Greene’s best-known romance, Pandosto (best known because Shakespeare used it for the plot of The Winter’s Tale, 1610-1611), ends with the suicide of the title character; thus, modern readers who know only this work have misjudged Greene’s muse.


No work better displays the usual Greene pattern than Menaphon, his popular attempt to write a brief, uncynical Arcadia (1590). In the romance, Arcadia’s King Democles, insecure and suspicious because of a Delphic oracle which seems to portend his ruin, discovers that his daughter Sephestia has married a low noble, Maximius, and borne him a son, Pleusidippus. The enraged Democles threatens Maximius’s murder and the young man flees at his wife’s urging. Soon she, too, escapes, but is shipwrecked with her infant along the Arcadian coast. Fearing discovery, she pretends to be a shepherdess, Samela, and soon is accepted by the pastoral Arcadians as a poor widow. Her new anonymity, however, makes her prey to the arrogant courtship of Menaphon, the king’s chief herdsman, who proceeds from love lyrics to bribes to threats of force in order to win her. Meanwhile, Pleusidippus grows up brilliant, but ungoverned. Then, one day, he is carried off by pirates to Thessaly, where he charms the royal court and is further indulged.

Years pass. Menaphon continues to ply his suit, although Samela has fallen in love with another shepherd, Melicertus, who shyly returns her interest. Melicertus, it is learned, is the disguised Maximius; but neither recognizes the other because both are convinced that his/her spouse is long dead—a symbol for Greene of how the fragmented spirit misperceives reality.

The scene shifts to Thessaly. Pleusidippus, now a prince, hears reports of a paragon of shepherdesses in Arcadia, and, inflamed with lust, he sails away to possess her. Back in Arcadia, King Democles, grown even more tyrannical, hears a similar report, and he, too, enters the country to claim the rustic beauty. Thus, father, son, and husband of Sephestia become rivals, and no man recognizes another because time has disguised them all. When they meet, harsh words grow to combat, and combat to warfare, with thousands of Arcadians falling before the army of their own king. Then, just as Democles is about to execute Samela and Melicertus, an old prophetess steps forth proclaiming that the king is about to murder his daughter. Suddenly, truth springs forth out of all the disguises and all realize how close to disaster their perversions and fears had brought them. Democles sees that their adventures have paralleled the oracle, and suddenly humble, he resigns his kingship to his regal grandson. Sephestia and Maximius return to honor. Menaphon, meanwhile, gives up his courtly wooing, returns to his sheep, and marries his rustic sweetheart.

While a plot summary demonstrates the typical movement of the Greene romance from chaos to harmony, distortion to clarity, Greene is more interested in the mental steps by which each character determines and justifies his actions. Greene’s characters come to be known through their soliloquies, which always strike one by their logical order, so that the reader often ignores how distorted the character’s perspective is until the decisions that arise lead to disaster. Because Greene so fully presents his characters’ motives and thought processes, he rarely creates a character with whom the reader cannot to some degree sympathize. In Menaphon, for example, the tyrant Democles seems, as a result, more pitiable than odious, even though Greene details his slaughters. It is this sympathy, this feeling which causes the reader to believe that, as fearful and selfish as these figures may be, they are capable of a charity and trust, that keeps the ending’s sudden harmony from seeming contrived.

A Notable Discovery of Cozenage

Greene set himself a more difficult task when he tried to show that the whores and thieves of his connycatching pamphlets were deserving of the sympathy of his bourgeois, puritanical readers. He increased the potential for his success by putting himself forward in the first pamphlet, A Notable Discovery of Cozenage, as an avowed foe of “those pernitious sleights that have brought many ignorant men to confusion.” Once having won his readers’ confidence that he was on their side, however, he began to discriminate gradually between the lesser evils of nipping purses and prostitution and the greater evils of judicial bribes and merchant fraud. As the connycatching series proceeded, Greene’s nips, foists, and whores become more lively personalities, often speaking directly to the reader not so much to defend their trades but to attack what could be called “white-collar” crime. In these monologues, the rogues come across as witty, practical, and satiric while their victims appear to be greedy, fat upstarts trying to pass themselves off as gentlemen. A willing reader might find himself identifying with the thief against the merchant, and that seems to be Greene’s purpose, although he continued throughout the six works to call himself the rogues’ foe.

A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher

A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher, the fifth pamphlet in the series, takes the reader most deeply into the underworld and into the minds of the rogues by making the reader an eavesdropper on an alehouse debate between “Laurence, a foyst, and Nan, a traffique.” Authenticity and intimacy are provided by the slangy, joking speech of the pair and by their reference by name to others of their professions. The subject of the dispute—that of which of them more endangers the commonwealth—seems set up by Greene to allow the reader to indulge his self-righteous anger at the evils of the criminal world; but not far into the dialogue Laurence and Nan take aim at their victims. Nan credits her success as a prostitute to the insatiable lust of her clients; this appetite, she continues, also supports the respectable commercial world:the Hospitall would want patients, and Surgians much worke, the Apothecaries would haue surphaling water and Potato roots lye deade on theyr handes, the Paynters could not dispatche and make way theyr Vermiglion , why Laurence, [the taverns] would be moord if we of the Trade were not to supply [their] wants.

She spits her choicest venom at the “good auncient Matron” who sets her “faire wench her daughter out to sale in her youth” to draw on “sundrie to bee suters.” To Nan and Laurence the underworld has no limits.

This blackening of all humanity by the connycatching pair recalls the similar process in Greene’s romances, whereby each character perverts love in some way and thus endangers society. The rising action of the romances, wherein souls and society are reformed, has its parallel in the sequel to Laurence and Nan’s dialogue, “The Conversion of an English Courtizan,” which makes up the second half of A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher. Greene presents this as the true story of a country girl, made vain and greedy by her doting, ambitious bourgeois parents, who never learns humility or loyalty and thus takes to crime. Having gone from bad to worse, she eventually meets a young merchant who differs from all other Londoners she has met by neither buying her nor scorning her; this quiet fellow respects her, wins her confidence, promises his loyalty, and marries her. The community of the story is harmonized, at least for the time being.

“The Conversion of an English Courtizan”

Not until “The Conversion of an English Courtizan” has Greene suggested in the pamphlet series that his rogues have the potential for reform—in fact, he explicity denies it in the first pamphlet. As in the romances, Greene will not allow the rebuilding of his fictional society until all parties have acknowledged their share in the earlier destruction. Since the connycatching series begins as an indictment of one element of the city, Greene will not depict repentance by that element until the entire society has been implicated in the evil, as it is most vehemently in A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher. In Greene’s Christian vision, repentance can be accepted only by a penitent, whose forgiving includes the desire to be forgiven. For Greene, “The Conversion of an English Courtizan” cannot succeed as a story unless the reader understands that the courtesan represents each segment of society, not merely the stereotyped criminal.

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