Other Literary Forms

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Although Robert Greene is perhaps most respected today for his contribution to English drama, it was as a writer of prose fiction that he was best known to his contemporaries. His novellas made him England’s most popular writer of fiction in the 1580’s. Among his early works, showing the influence...

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Although Robert Greene is perhaps most respected today for his contribution to English drama, it was as a writer of prose fiction that he was best known to his contemporaries. His novellas made him England’s most popular writer of fiction in the 1580’s. Among his early works, showing the influence of Italian writers, are Mamillia: A Mirror or Looking Glass for the Ladies of England (part 1, 1583; part 2, 1593), Morando: The Tritameron of Love (part 1, 1584; part 2, 1587), Arbasto: The Anatomy of Fortune (1584), and Planetomachia (1585). Turning to the pastoral romance in 1588, Greene published such novellas as Alcida: Greene’s Metamorphosis (1588), Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588), Ciceronis Amor (1589; also known as Tullies Love), and Menaphon (1589). Pastorals featuring repentance as a major theme include Greene’s Never Too Late (1590), Francesco’s Fortunes (1590), Greene’s Mourning Garment (1590), and Greene’s Farewell to Folly (1591).

Greene created still another literary fashion in the last two years of his brief life, as he cultivated another form, the rogue, or “connycatching,” pamphlet. His A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591), A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher (1592), and The Black Book’s Messenger (1592), as well as other small books in the series, combined London street argot with satire of middle-class greed to produce a form that appealed to all levels of society.

Greene’s untimely death in 1592 sparked the publication of two alleged “deathbed” pamphlets, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592) and The Repentance of Robert Greene (1592), both usually attributed to him but neither closely resembling his style and thus probably spurious. The one surely authentic posthumous work, Greene’s Vision (1592), follows the pastoral penitent style of 1590 and was probably written during that most fruitful year of his career.

Achievements

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Robert Greene’s accomplishments as a playwright have always been greatly overshadowed by those of his younger contemporary, William Shakespeare. Still, it is accurate to say that Greene created in comedy the form on which Shakespeare worked his greater miracles, just as Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe led the way for Shakespeare in tragedy. The form Greene developed, the English romantic comedy , as demonstrated most clearly in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, and the fragmentary John of Bordeaux, is strikingly different from its predecessors. Departing from the morality tradition still current on the London stage, Greene chose as his principal theme romantic love between princely men and beautiful women. The popularity of this approach was greatly enhanced by Greene’s ability to weave the love plot into a tapestry of affairs of state—usually events from English history—and to convey in dialogue the varied atmospheres of court, city, and countryside.

Greene’s most immediate influences were his own prose romances, in which his heroes and heroines become embroiled in the wars of love through their pride, only to be chastened by the disasters they occasion and thus eventually brought to repentance and reconciliation. These romances, in their lengthy, intense monologues and conversations between lovers, created in the 1580’s a drama of character, as it were, well before Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great lit up the stage in 1587. The vision of Greene’s romances and plays differed from, even opposed, Marlowe’s vision of the individual will able to dominate society and bend morality to its own consciousness. Through his thoroughly comic perspective, Greene saw individual attempts to conquer or dominate as ineluctably limited by an inherent human need to form communities and by the ideals of peace and the orderly succession of generations.

The few contemporary assessments of his work that have survived praise Greene as a “plotter of plays.” Certainly, his ability to move characters across a stage and from scene to scene is unmatched before Shakespeare, who no doubt profited from Greene’s example. Indeed, Shakespeare learned more from Greene than plotting: Greene was also the first English playwright to vary verse and prose significantly in order to imply differences in rank or tone; he also varied rhyme and blank verse for tonal effects. Moreover, Greene was the first to create memorable female characters in English drama (the women in his romances are usually more interesting and important characters than his men). Greene’s Margaret, Dorothea, and Ida worthily precede Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Viola. Perhaps Greene best prepared the way for Shakespeare by peopling his plays with individuals who could also represent the various levels within a society. In this way, Greene could create for the spectators the illusion that they were witnessing the reactions of an entire nation to critical events.

Though not a satiric dramatist, Greene also influenced the comedy of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton through his connycatching pamphlets of London life. These works created a tremendous vogue for tales of the exploits of thieves and confidence men. In these dramatic narratives, Greene brought such figures to life through dialogue rich with the patois of the city. Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Autolycus, as well as the rogues of London comedy after 1600, take much of their inspiration from Greene’s connycatchers.

Other Literary Forms

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To please, and to some extent to form the taste of, the London middle class in the 1580’s, Robert Greene mixed and invented literary types. Mamillia, his first published work, is a two-part romance presented as moral and rhetorical instruction; Morando: The Tritameron of Love is romance via Courtier-like conversation; Planetomachia sets forth tragic tales within a framework of Olympian conversation and adds a philosophical dispute in Latin. The rogue pamphlets of his last two years are collections of tales passed off as actual events.

More conventional forms used by Greene include the dream vision (for example, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier), the poetic eulogy (A Maiden’s Dream, 1591), the political diatribe (The Spanish Masquerado, 1589), and the book of proverbs (The Royal Exchange, 1590). In drama, Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bongay (c. 1589) has been called the first English romantic comedy, but Greene composed at least four other plays, including the bitterly satiric A Looking Glass for London and England (c. 1588-1589; in collaboration with Thomas Lodge).

Achievements

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Robert Greene was a contemporary of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. He lived during one of England’s most important literary periods—the English Renaissance. Greene was both an academic and a well-traveled student of life. He earned a B.A. from St. John’s College at Cambridge. When he was not in school, Greene journeyed to Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, and Denmark. His education served him well, for it was from the early Greek romances and works of other writers that Greene borrowed elements of characterization, form, diction, and plot. Greene, however, achieved more in his works than only an elaboration of previous literary forms; he was innovative and creative. His works appealed to the imaginations of the Elizabethans.

From 1582 to 1592, Greene wrote constantly. His works were well received and widely read in England. His writings included pamphlets exposing London’s social ills, prose romances, and plays. His most notable drama, Friar Bacon and Friar Bongay, reflects a sixteenth century fascination with magic, along with an optimistic view of English life. Greene’s works are also concerned with the question of an individual’s role and identity within society and the capacity of human beings to satisfy their desires yet not exceed their human limits.

Other literary forms

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Robert Greene is known primarily for his comedies, prose romances, and pamphlets of London rogue life. Four plays are definitely his: Orlando Furioso (pr. c. 1588), Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (pr. c. 1589), James IV (pr. c. 1591), and A Looking Glass for London and England (pr. c. 1588-1589; with Thomas Lodge). A fifth, John of Bordeaux (pr. c. 1590-1591), has been attributed to Greene because of its close similarity to his known work in theme, diction, and structure. Alphonsus, King of Aragon (pr. c. 1587), a Tamburlaine-type tragedy, has also been attributed to him, but it bears little resemblance to his known plays.

Greene’s romances made him England’s most popular writer of prose fiction in the 1580’s. Early works, showing Italian influence, include, among others, Mamillia: A Mirror or Looking Glass for the Ladies of England (1583, 1593), Morando: The Tritameron of Love (1584, 1587), Planetomachia (1585), and Penelope’s Web (1587). His pastoral romances, including Ciceronis Amor (1589, also known as Tullies Love), Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588), and Menaphon (1589), developed themes and forms popularized by Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590, 1593, 1598). Mantuanesque pastoral, with repentance as a major theme, predominates in later works, among them Greene’s Never Too Late (1590), Francesco’s Fortunes (1590), and Greene’s Mourning Garment (1590).

In his last two years, Greene turned to another form, the rogue, or “connycatching,” pamphlet, thereby creating a literary fashion. His A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591), A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher (1592), The Black Book’s Messenger (1592), and other small books in this series combined London street argot with satire of middle-class greed to produce a form that appealed to all levels of society.

Greene’s death in 1592 sparked the publication of two alleged “deathbed” pamphlets, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance and The Repentance of Robert Greene, both usually attributed to him, but neither closely resembling his known prose, and thus probably spurious. The one surely authentic posthumous work, Greene’s Vision (1592), follows the pastoral-penitent style of 1590 and was therefore likely written in that most fruitful year of his brief career.

Achievements

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The works for which Robert Greene is best known, his romances and his comedies, are largely poetic achievements, as well as milestones in the development of English prose and drama. What sets even his early fictions apart from those of his contemporaries (mainly translations of Continental stories) is his concern for the carefully crafted, rhythmic sentence, its meaning conveyed through striking images and comparisons. Though following English writer John Lyly to some extent in the development of this “euphuistic” style (after Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, 1579), Greene quickly learned to vary his forms, changing pace and tone to suit the demands of scene and character. By 1584, four years after the appearance of his first work, Greene was experimenting with other poetic modifications of his prose; he began to insert songs and emblematic poems to heighten description and further illuminate his characters. The songs, in particular, became a trademark of Greene’s romances, achieving a remarkable variety of verse forms and moods in such works as Ciceronis Amor, Menaphon, and Greene’s Never Too Late. These and other later romances by Greene are so dense with verse, especially love songs, poetic love letters, and introspective lyrics, that it can be said that here Greene’s primary vehicle of story development is poetry. This style made Greene England’s most popular prose writer in the years 1588 to 1592, the year of his death.

To make his verse achieve both illumination and individuation of his characters, Greene was more or less forced to break ground untouched by any previous English poet. Particularly vivid in this regard are two poems from Menaphon: “Sephestia’s Song to Her Child” and “Doron’s Eclogue Joined with Carmela’s.” The first, a lullaby about the forced separation of a noble family, and the second, a humorous love poem, are written in low style, their images drawn from English domestic life; both violate poetic conventions of the time by achieving a pastoral mood in deliberate avoidance of the conceits and heightened atmosphere of works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) or the eclogues of Arcadia.

Greene’s great influence on English dramatic comedy is principally owing to this same originality, this same enlivening and varying of mood through poetic device. Although his contemporaries appear to have thought most highly of him as a “maker of plots,” Greene’s plays immediately impress the modern reader by their verse. His best-known comedies, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV, gain their power from that varying of image and verse form from character to character, scene to scene, that marks the romances. The same serious use of English rural imagery that Greene used in his later prose to create pastoral tones pervades his comedies as well and gives them those qualities that critics have called distinctly “festive” and “romantic.” These qualities make Greene’s plays as important in the development of comedy as are Christopher Marlowe’s in the growth of tragedy.

Though poetry is a vital element throughout Greene’s work, his influence as a poet has been far less great than his influence on the other genres, primarily because almost all his poems are incidental to his romances. In his time, several pieces were anthologized in collections of pastoral verse, but no scholar has detected in other poets’ work the kind of influence that Greene’s comedies exerted on William Shakespeare or his pamphlets on Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker. This influence notwithstanding, the fact is that some of his poems, such as “Doron’s Description of Samela” (also from Menaphon) and “Sephestia’s Song to Her Child,” are now recognized as being the best of their type from the period.

It may be that Greene’s poetic influence has merely been overlooked: Little systematic study of his poetry has been made; Greene’s complete verse was not collected and published until 1977. Nevertheless, his influence was significant. It is clear that in taking comedic lessons from Greene, Shakespeare followed his practice of varying structure (using rhyme, blank verse, prose, or song) to suit a speaker’s rank or the tonal demands of a scene. The matching of verse to sense that is found in As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600) or The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611) is an idea first embodied in English comedy in the plays of Greene. Likewise, Greene’s poetic experiments with rural vernacular in his romances led to his cultivation of street talk in the conny-catching pamphlets, their popularity inspiring the city-based works of Jonson, Dekker, and all those who followed them.

Bibliography

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Carroll, D. Allen. “The Player-Patron in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.” Studies in Philology 91 (Summer, 1994): 301-312. Discusses the character and identity of the anonymous actor who recruits Greene’s persona to be a playwright; suggests he may be a fictional character rather than based on William Shakespeare or someone else.

Chandler, David. “‘Upstart Crow’: Provenance and Meaning.” Notes and Queries 42 (September, 1995): 291-294. Discussion of the “upstart Crow” reference to Shakespeare in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit; suggests that the reference may refer to a clash between Shakespeare and Greene in more dramatic terms than was previously suspected.

Crupi, Charles W. Robert Greene. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Crupi’s publication addresses Greene’s life based on relevant biographical and historical research printed since 1960. Crupi includes two comprehensive chapters dealing with Greene’s prose works and plays. The work also contains extensive notes and references, a chronology, and a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Davis, Walter R. Idea and Act in Elizabethan Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. This work devotes one chapter to Greene’s works and the elements of Greek romance inherent in the works. Davis divides Greene’s career into four periods—the euphuistic mode, the short tales or novellas, the pastoral romances, and the pamphlets of repentance, roguery, and other nonfiction. The works are discussed in terms of plot and Greene’s development among genres.

Hoster, Jay. Tiger’s Heart: What Really Happened in the Groat’s-Worth of Wit Controversy of 1592. Columbus, Ohio: Ravine Books, 1993. Attempts to separate fact from fiction as to the authorship of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Jordan, John Clark. Robert Greene. New York: Octagon Books, 1965. Jordan’s book is considered a main source for critics concerned with Greene’s work. He presents Greene as a man of letters, who was an expert at narrative. The text includes a discussion of Greene’s poetry, plays, and nondramatic work. A bibliography and appendices are included. The appendices contain a framework for Greene’s tales, misconceptions about Greene’s life and career, as well as accounts of early allusions to Greene.

Sanders, Norman. “The Comedy of Greene and Shakespeare.” In Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961. Sanders traces Greene’s development as a writer, particularly his move from imitation to invention and creativity. He discusses the love plots contained in Greene’s romantic comedies as compared to those of William Shakespeare. While he mentions the similarities in development of both playwrights, Sanders does not set out to prove that Greene influenced Shakespeare’s works.

Simpson, Richard, ed. The School of Shakespeare. Vol. 2. New York: J. W. Bouton, 1878. Simpson’s work is a nineteenth century account of Greene’s life and work. He explores the relationship between William Shakespeare and Greene as contemporaries and rivals. The volume also contains plot information and a discussion of themes in Greene’s plays and other fiction.

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