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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Robert Greene (1558–1592)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
GREENE was a true Elizabethan Englishman: impulsive, reckless, with a roving instinct that in many a life of that restless age found a safe vent in adventure on the sea. But with his gifts and failings, and the conditions in which his life was cast, the ruin that overwhelmed him was the fate of many poets of great mind and weak will. Yet with all his sin and weakness, there were struggles toward a better life and nobler work which should make our judgment lenient, remembering Burns’s lines:—
  “What’s done we partly may compute,
  But know not what’s resisted.”
  1
  Greene was born about 1560 in Norwich, and belonged to a family of good standing. That his father was a man of some wealth may be inferred from Greene’s tour to Italy and other countries,—a great expense in those days,—which he made after taking his B. A. degree at Cambridge in 1578. In his ‘Repentances’ he shows that he was affected by the vices of Italy, and became fixed in those dissolute habits that were his ruin. On his return he was engaged in literary work at Cambridge, and took his M. A. degree from both universities. He then went to London and became “an author of plays and penner of Love Pamphlets, so that I soone grew famous in that qualitie, that who for that trade growne so ordinary about London as Robin Greene.”  2
  In 1585 he married, and apparently lived for a time in Norwich. After the birth of a child he deserted his wife, because she tried to persuade him from his bad habits. From that time he lived permanently in London, where he seems to have had some influential patrons. Among those to whom his works are dedicated we find the names of Lord Derby, the Earl of Cumberland, Lady Talbot, and Lord Fitzwater. He tells us that “in shorte space I fell into favor with such as were of honorable and good calling.” Yet his restless temper made such society irksome to him; and as there was then no reputable literary Bohemia, such as arose later under Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he sank to the company of the lowest classes of London. In spite of his dissipated life he was constantly at work, and “his purse, like the sea, sometime sweld, anon like the same sea fell to a low ebbe; yet seldom he wanted, his labours were so well esteemed.”  3
  Not only did he write for the stage, but it is probable that he appeared at times as an actor. At one time, when a gust of repentance swept over him, he resolved to write no more love pamphlets, and to devote himself to more serious writings. He then published a series of tracts exposing the tricks of London swindlers, in “trust that those my discourses will doe great good and bee very beneficiall to the Common wealth of England.” His ‘Repentances’ were intended to warn young men by the unhappy example of his own life. His career was cut short in 1592 by an illness resulting from too much indulgence in Rhenish wine and pickled herrings. Deserted by his friends, he died in extreme poverty at the house of a poor shoemaker who had befriended him. Just before his death he wrote to his forsaken wife this touching letter:—

        Sweet Wife:
  As ever there was any good-will or friendship betweene thee and mee, see this bearer (my Host) satisfied of his debt: I owe him tenne pound, and but for him I had perished in the streetes. Forget and forgive my wrongs done unto thee, and Almighty God have mercie on my soule. Farewell till we meet in heaven, for on earth thou shalt never see me more.
  This 2 of September 1592.
  Written by thy dying husband
ROBERT GREENE.    
  4
 
  Gabriel Harvey soon after published in his ‘Foure Letters’ a virulent attack on Greene’s character. That and Greene’s confessions, in which like many another he no doubt exaggerated his sins, have given rise to a probably too harsh estimate of the poet’s failings.  5
  Of his numerous dramatic works but five have survived, all published after his death: ‘Orlando Furioso’; ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’; ‘James the Fourth’; ‘Alphonsus, King of Aragon’; and ‘George-a-Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield.’ ‘A Looking-Glass for London and England’ was the joint work of Thomas Lodge and Greene. Greene did for the romantic drama what Marlowe accomplished for tragedy, and his works form a noteworthy step in the development of the old English drama. His most popular drama was ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,’ in which he pictures Old English life at Fussingfield, with a touching love story. His ‘George-a-Greene’ has the best constructed plot of any of his plays; and in the Pinner, a popular English hero like Robin Hood, he portrays an ideal English yeoman, faithful, sturdy, and independent. Nash called Greene the Homer of women; and it is remarkable that, dissolute as he was, he has given the charm of modest womanhood to all his female characters.  6
  Besides Greene’s non-dramatic works there are four kinds: first, the romantic pamphlets; second, the semi-patriotic tracts; third, the Cony-Catching pamphlets; fourth, his ‘Repentances.’  7
  In his love pamphlets may be found traces of the beginnings of the English novel. Several of the ‘Repentances,’ the ‘Never Too Late’ and ‘A Groatsworth of Wit,’ are largely autobiographical. Scattered through his romances are the many charming lyrics on which his fame mainly rests. In several respects Greene was exceptionally in advance of his time: in the ‘Pinner’ he plainly acknowledges popular rights, and in the ‘Looking-Glass’ is found a forecast of coming disaster, resulting from the disorders of the times and the oppression of the poor. Greene’s peasants are portrayed with a sympathetic realism most unusual at that time. He gives the “wise humor of the low-born clown” as does none but Shakespeare, who was no doubt indebted to Greene for the material of several of his plays. ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is founded on ‘Pandosto’ in all points but Antigonus, Paulina, Autolycus, and the young shepherd. ‘Lear’ has a strong likeness to the ‘Looking-Glass’; ‘Orlando’ points to ‘Lear’ and ‘Hamlet,’ and the fairy framework of ‘James IV.’ suggests some features of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Greene and the university men of his set drew from the old chroniclers for their dramas; but Shakespeare took whatever was at hand. His ignoring of their rule, and his growing fame, were the probable cause of the bitter feeling Greene shows in the address to his fellow dramatists in the ‘Groatsworth of Wit,’ when he refers to Shakespeare as “an upstart Crow beautified with our Feathers, that with his Tygres heart, wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes hee is as well able to bombast out a Blank verse as the best of you, and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceyt the onely Shake-scene in the Countrey.”  8
  Alexander Dyce edited Greene’s plays and poems in 1831. Dr. Grosart edited ‘The Complete Works of Robert Greene’ (1881–6) in fifteen volumes, and A. W. Ward published ‘Friar Bacon’ in ‘Old English Drama’ (1892). Both earlier editions contain memoirs; and accounts are found in J. A. Symonds’s ‘Shakespeare’s Predecessors in English Drama,’ and Jusserand’s ‘English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare.’  9
  Greene’s writings give vivid pictures of life in the Elizabethan age, and at the same time form a most interesting autobiography of that “wrecked life.” Unlike Herrick, who could say that if his verse were impure his life was chaste, Greene’s writings show scarcely any of the uncleanness so prevalent in books of that period.  10
 
 
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