Robert Greene Short Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1607 words.)