Think of Robert Greene, whose 456th birthday would be tomorrow, and his supposed deathbed repentance.
I mean, as far as hundredth sheep go, his (supposed) last bleat sounds remarkably bilious, doesn’t it? After living a life that was wild even by Elizabethan standards, he took ill, and turned very pious and very censorious. If printer Henry Chettle is to be trusted, while sick and ailing (from an indigestion of pickled herrings, of all things) Greene found the energy not only to repent his recklessness, but to rant venomously against quite a few fellow writers.
Actually, we can’t be sure Chettle is to be trusted at all, for he was quite a shady character, with the moral stature of a railway sleeper – far from above writing the Groatsworth of Wit himself, to publish it under dead Greene’s name for selling value… Anyway, whoever wrote the pamphlet had it in for two men in particular: a famous gracer of Tragedian – undoubtedly Kit Marlowe – and the Upstart Crow.
To Marlowe he preached about his sinful ways – either oblivious or not caring a button that to call someone an atheist in print might very well send this someone off to the gallows. Instead, with the Crow it was not a matter of religion: him Greene loathed because he had the gall to write plays in spite of being an unlettered player – a combination clearly synonymous with “cockroach” to Robert Greene, MA.
While there is no doubt where Marlowe is concerned, t is generally but not universally accepted that the Crow was Shakespeare, the grammar-schoolboy who strutted on a stage and presumed to write. The alternative theory that it might have been actor Edward Alleyn makes some measure of sense when you consider that in 1592 Shakespeare was perhaps not yet as famous as Greene seems to imply of the Crow, and that Greene, while despising all players, despised young Ned Alleyn most of all.
Whatever the case, it is little wonder that two of the Groatsworth’s targets didn’t take it too well, and complained with enough vehemence to force apologies – which, Greene being dead, Chettle provided in the preface to a later book. Maddeningly enough, he made no names, but went to some pains to point out that one of the two he had come to know in the meantime and was sorry to have offended, while with the other he did not care to be acquainted.
Again, it is generally assumed that the nice one was Shakespeare (or at least the Crow), while to Marlowe one gave a wide berth… I don’t know. Once more, was Shakespeare the Crow? And even if he was, who was likelier to command the more sugared apology – the provincial player and part-time writer, or the famous poet out of Cambridge with friends in high places? On the other hand, one might well want to distance oneself from such a taint as suspected atheism. On the other hand again, I wouldn discount the chance of some sarcasm, either – with Chettle waxing extravagant in his forced apology… After all, insincere adulation is hard to call to task without risking some ridicule…
Ah well – it might be one of those things we’ll never know. Things we’ve lost, because they were written – both the Groatsworth and the apology – for an audience of contemporaries, who woul know how to read between the lines, and not for us, four centuries and a half later.
I can’t help thinking, though, that Robin Greene, mischief-maker that he was, would have relished in the notion of these people of the future puzzling cluelessly about his Crow, and who was madder, worse, and more dangerous to know: Shakespeare or Marlowe – or maybe Alleyn?