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Robert Greene

Posted in English Literature, Literature on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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Robert Greene (c.1558 – 1592) was one of London society’s great characters in the 1580s and 1590s, and perhaps the first truly professional writer to live by his pen. It must be acknowledged that he was certainly more acquainted with low life than high life, but therein lay his charm, and some historians think that he may have been a model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He went up to St John’s College, Cambridge and after taking his MA at Oxford made his way to London to start his remarkably prolific career.

Greene, picture, image, illustration

The title page for A Quip for an Upstart Courtier by Robert Greene

He is best remembered for a handful of miscellaneous publications and one brilliant and immensely successful play, as well as for making the first mention of Shakespeare in any contemporaneous literature, albeit for plagiarism and pretension. Like Thomas Nashe, he was an energetic pamphleteer and cultivated the enmity of the Harvey brothers assiduously, with lively language and relentless satirical jibes. He fell so out of sorts with friends and debtors that for a time his survival depended entirely on a handful of alehouses and tolerant landlords. His numerous prose romances were popular successes and provided his most reliable source of income, but the Coney-Catching pamphlets are more genuine productions, being loosely autobiographical sketches of an all too familiar rascal’s life, duping respectable people and drinking and wenching. There are vivid portraits of theatrical folk, players and backstage business, which give an invaluable picture of the Elizabethan theatre. Greene is thought to have contributed to several well known plays, and some even see his hand in Titus Andronicus. Whatever the truth of such assertions, he is the indisputable author of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, a play whose only equal for depicting the wit, merriment and social comedy of everyday Elizabethan life is The Merry Wives of Windsor by one William Shakespeare. Greene has an unruly tendency to dress up his language with classical decoration, and this detracts from the quintessential breeziness and easy flow of his characters’ voices. But characters they are, and although none is so memorable as to have entered the popular imagination, such people are drawn from reality by one who knew intimately many of the most colourful rogues of London’s seamier side. That rascally fellow Thomas Nashe wrote that he died from “a banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herring”, but not before he had written Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit in which that first ever mention of Shakespeare is made.

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