Chettle’s Apology

The outcry that followed the publication of A Groatsworth of Wit—which not only attacked actors but had accused three leading writers of scurrilous behaviour, including (dangerously in these times) atheism—led to Henry Chettle, who had shepherded the work into print ‘at his peril’, issuing an apology before the year was out.  Though his prologue to Kind-Heart’s Dream is still widely referred to as ‘Chettle’s apology to Shakespeare’, it is nothing of the sort; not even if you believe that Shakespeare is the upstart Crow.

Biographers are rather attached to the idea that the apology is aimed at Shakespeare, because in issuing the apology, Chettle says a number of pleasant things about one of the people he has upset: that he himself had ‘seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes’ and that

‘diverse of worship [i.e. several important people] have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art’.

There is so little we know about Shakespeare the man, so little personal testimony as to his character, that we are naturally hungry for that gap to be filled. So deep is the need that biographers unconsciously ignore basic logic in order to use Chettle’s words as some kind of biographical hardcore.


In 1998, Lukas Erne was the sixth scholar since 1874 to point out that Henry Chettle’s apology to one of the playwrights who took offence at the contents of Groatsworth of Wit cannot have been aimed at Shakespeare.[1] Chettle describes how the letter in Groatsworth, ‘written to diverse play-makers, is offensively by one or two of them taken’, and then apologises to one of these two, but not the other. Shakespeare cannot be the subject of his apology, since he is not among the group of playmakers, but (supposedly) one of the actors they are being warned about.

Scholars have argued that the two subjects of Chettle’s apology must be Marlowe and Shakespeare because neither George Peele nor Thomas Nashe would have reason to take offence at Groatsworth. Erne demonstrates this is not so: George Peele was a director of courtly pageants and an established poet with a reputation to defend, and it is unlikely he would have appreciated being called upon to ‘despise drunkenness’, ‘fly lust’, and ‘abhor those Epicures, whose loose life hath made religion loathsome to your ears’.

The second defence of Kind Heart’s Dream as an apology to Shakespeare relies upon the false premise that the word ‘quality’ in the phrase ‘the quality he professes’ refers specifically to acting.  Of the four instances the OED cites in the period 1590-1630 for ‘quality’ meaning ‘profession, occupation or business’, only one of them refers to acting, and when Shakespeare uses ‘quality’ to refer to a profession in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the ‘profession’ in question is outlawry.[2]


The commonly held belief that Chettle’s apology is to William Shakespeare is based on an implausible and illogical reading of the text, yet it continues to persist, despite the best efforts of Erne and others before him, for a reason Erne well understands: Shakespearean biography is so bereft of evidence of Shakespeare’s existence on the London literary scene that it cannot afford to abandon any apparent allusion to Shakespeare, even one that doesn’t bear scrutiny.

‘If we authenticate it,’ says Erne, ‘we have found a crucial milestone on Shakespeare’s artistic and social trajectory. If we don’t, a biographer writing his chapter on Shakespeare’s first years as an actor and dramatist is deprived of one of his most important narrative supports’.

Though prominent Shakespearean Brian Vickers has accepted that Chettle’s apology was not to Shakespeare, most Shakespearean biographers and scholars, desperately in need of meaningful content, have continued to pretend that it was.

In summary, Chettle’s apology is not to Shakespeare, and the upstart Crow is very likely not Shakespeare either, but with the accretion of time and authoritative repetition, both assumptions have hardened into accepted ‘facts’ and essential props of Shakespearean biography that cannot safely be removed lest the roof cave in.  Yet the continued reliance on these props by orthodox scholars, and the seeming unwillingness of most of them to question or re-evaluate the evidence, only emphasises the inherent weakness of the orthodox position.  The alternative is described by Lukas Erne:

‘Stripping bare our image of Shakespeare of four centuries of (mis-)interpretation is hermeneutically impossible. If it were possible, the results of a biographer might be less than rewarding, both aesthetically and economically. Some of the evidence which generations of Shakespeareans have hardened into fact would become ambiguous, riddled with difficulties. The figure we seem to know might take on shady contours and the character hidden behind it would become difficult to relate to.’ [3]

It sounds very much like the Shakespeare authorship question.

With Chettle’s apology removed, and the upstart Crow under a serious question-mark, it is time to start reviewing what evidence we have that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was known as a writer.


[1] Lukas Erne, ‘Biography and Mythography: Rereading Chettle’s Alleged Apology to Shakespeare’, English Studies Vol 79, 1998, p.435.

[2] The Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV.i.56.

[3] Lukas Erne, op cit, p.439.

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Greene Was Dying in Poverty

Context matters. Careful scholars, rather than unquestioningly adopting ‘facts’ established by men in powdered wigs, should consider the exact context in which Robert Greene wrote Groatsworth in 1592.


We have no evidence of William Shakespeare’s involvement in the London theatre scene at this time (the first evidence is dated two years later).  He was not, like Edward Alleyn, a leading tragedian of the scene-shaking variety. If he was acting before 1594, it must have been in very minor roles, since there are no reports of him. Nor is there any evidence he was known, even among playwrights, as a writer of plays. Two plays now thought to be his (the fore-runners of Henry VI Parts 1 and 3) were first mentioned in 1592, but as we’ve seen, their authorship has been disputed by orthodox scholars.  In 1594, two years after Groatsworth, the first plays of the Shakespeare canon were published, but not with his name on.

The earliest evidence of William Shakespeare’s involvement in theatre: a payment from December 1594 to shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain’s men.

No-one had mentioned Shakespeare before Robert Greene, and let’s not forget that Greene doesn’t mention Shakespeare either.  This is a possible allusion, not a factual reference. In the rest of Groatsworth, Green’s complaint against a certain actor (The Player) seems to be directed at Edward Alleyn.  In his earlier work Francesco’s Fortunes his complaint against actors is also directed at Alleyn, and compares him to the crow beautified with other’s feathers.  Is it really likely that the complaint against an actor comparing him to that same crow in the Groatsworth letter is about anyone other than Alleyn?


Greene has no documented link to Shakespeare, but has a documented relationship with Alleyn.  When he wrote Groatsworth, he knew he was dying, and dying in poverty.  By contrast, Edward Alleyn was wealthy and successful, thanks to the wit and words of Greene and his fellow playwrights.  The orthodox reading is that Greene, with his dying words, takes a jealous swipe at an up-and-coming playwright no-one has heard of, but this would hardly be a dying man’s concern.

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0, chief concern, which he could hardly make more obvious, is the disparity of wealth between successful actors (‘those puppets that spake from our mouths’) and the poverty-stricken gentleman scholars (chiefly himself) who ‘spend their wits making plays’, supplying the actors with the source of their riches and fame.  From its title (A Groatsworth of Wit, Bought With A Million of Repentance), through its main text, to its accompanying letters, the focus of Groatsworth is on money, and specifically on the comparatively low monetary value placed on the ‘wit’ of Greene and his fellow writers, despite the fact that it provides actors with their entire living.[1]

The fact that the most successful of these actors has begun to believe he can do without them, plagiarising ‘the best of [them]’ with a blank verse play of his own, is little more than an irritated footnote in Greene’s furious diatribe against injustice.


[1] The ‘groat’ of the title was a small coin worth four pence.

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Tiger’s Heart Wrapped in a Player’s Hide

So Robert Greene (who can be safely identified as the author of Groatsworth) had an existing beef with Edward Alleyn, had called him a Crow beautified with other’s feathers before, and through details in the main part of Groatsworth clearly identifies Alleyn (not least through the ownership of a windmill) as the wealthy Player who promised him riches but is now allowing him to die in poverty.  There are grammatical, typographical and etymological reasons why his ‘Shake-scene‘ means ‘actor’ not ‘Shakespeare’.

But what of the parodied line from the play that would later become the third part of Henry VI, originally referring to a ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide’?  Surely quoting a Shakespeare play means his finger is pointed at Shakespeare?


It’s time for a short quiz.   With whom do you associate the following lines?

  1. ‘I coulda been a contender.’
  2. ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’
  3. ‘Go ahead, make my day.’
  4. ‘Here’s looking at you, kid.’
  5. ‘I’ll be back.’

Arnie I'll be back memeMost people would answer Marlon Brando, Clark Gable, Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  We recall the actors who spoke the lines, not the writers who wrote them. Unless you’re a screenwriter yourself — and even if you are — it’s most unlikely that you thought of

  1. Budd Schulberg and Malcolm Johnson
  2. Sidney Howard
  3. Joseph Stinson
  4. Julius and Philip Epstein with Howard Koch
  5. James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd.

Likewise, most of Greene’s readership, reading the line ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide’, would think of the actor who played Richard Duke of York, not the writer, whose name in any case they were unlikely to know.

edward alleyn tiger's heartShakespeare was not publicly known as the author of this play for another 27 years.  Indeed, we have no evidence he was known as the author of any play (or poem) when Groatsworth was written; ‘William Shakespeare’ would not appear on the title page of a play for another six years.  The parody of the line from The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York turns out to be yet another piece of evidence pointing towards Edward Alleyn.  The True Tragedy at this time was being performed by Lord Strange’s Men (the company for whom Greene had been writing).  Edward Alleyn, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, was established with Lord Strange’s Men by 1592.[1] As the company’s leading actor, Alleyn was the man most likely to have taken the title role and spoken these words.  Though some have argued that he wouldn’t have played York, because he is killed in Act I, the part is clearly written so as to allow it to be doubled with the part of Clarence.

Whose words?

You might argue that Greene’s letter, even though it was published at his request, wasn’t addressed to the general populace. It was addressed to three playwrights who very likely would know who wrote the line ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide’.  But who was that, exactly?   The early versions of the plays that eventually became Henry VI are widely acknowledged to be co-authored, and are not universally acknowledged, even by orthodox scholars, to be by Shakespeare.

In fact Tom Merriam, who undertook a computer-based stylometric analysis of Henry VI, concluded that The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York was written by Christopher Marlowe.[2]  His opinion, shared by a number of well-respected scholars of the early twentieth century, was that Marlowe’s play was adopted and adapted by Shakespeare into the play we now know as Henry VI Part 3, a view that in 2016 was adopted, with considerable fanfare, by the editors of The New Oxford Shakespeare.

In this circumstance, Robert Greene, and ‘his quondam acquaintance, that spend their wits in making plays’ would not have associated the ‘tiger’s heart’ line with William Shakespeare but with Marlowe, the first of those people Greene warns against the ‘upstart Crow’.  If this is so, Green’s parodic reference would be even more satisfying, tying together both his target (Alleyn) and his chief addressee.


[1] S. P. Cerasano, ‘Alleyn, Edward (1566–1626)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 22 June 2017].
[2] T. Merriam, Tamburlaine Stalks in Henry VI’, Computers and the Humanities 30, 267–280, 1996.

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Perhaps, despite the strong evidence that identifies Edward Alleyn as Robert Greene’s ‘Player’ and ‘Crow’, you are nevertheless persuaded that the upstart Crow is Shakespeare because he thinks himself ‘in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country’?  Surely the similarity between ‘Shake-scene’ and ‘Shakespeare’ is too close to be a coincidence?

Shake-scene Groatsworth of Wit Shakespeare Greene

Yet the typography of the text counts against ‘Shake-scene’ meaning ‘Shakespeare’. Throughout Groatsworth, quotations, and most names, are printed in the much clearer italic lettering rather than blackletter, even the name ‘Johannes fac totum’. Epithets (such as ‘upstart Crow’) are not.  Shake-scene is not in italic print, suggesting it is not a name, but a common noun. Being preceded by an article — ‘the… Shake-scene’ — points in the same direction; proper nouns (names) don’t need to be prefaced with ‘a’ or ‘the’.


There was a similar word in use at the time: ‘shake-rag’, a term found in printed sources from 1571, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, for ‘a ragged disreputable person’.  ‘It is no marvel that shakerags [L. sordidos homines] (which have no regard of honesty) did … rail without shame’ wrote Arthur Golding in his translation of Calvin’s The Psalms of David.  Here are some more examples:

  • ‘You totter’d shake-rag’d rogues, what domineer you?’ — Anon, A Larum for London (1602).
  • ‘Pecunia, a name of one of the shake-rag goddesses in our fourth booke’ — St Augustine, tr. J.Healey, Of the City of God (1610).
  • ‘If you ask but a shake-rag who he is, he will answer, that (at the least) he is descended from the Goths, & that his bad fortune hath thus dejected him’ — Juan de Luna, The pursuit of the historie of Lazarillo de Tormez (1622).
  • ‘this shake-rag, this young impudent Rogue’ — Mateo Aleman, The Rogue (1623).
  • ‘Do you talk Shake-rag: Heart yond’s more of ‘em. I shall be Beggar-maul’d if I stay’ — Richard Brome, A Joviall Crew (1641).

By adapting ‘Shake-rag’ (beggar) into ‘Shake-scene’ (actor), Greene could not only refer to the physical vigour with which an actor such as Alleyn would stride around the stage, shaking the scenery, but also hint at a certain disreputable quality associated with the original term.


If you want proof that ‘Shake-scene’ is not a proper noun, and does not stand for Shakespeare, try substituting one for the other: it makes no sense for Greene to accuse this actor of being ‘in his own conceit the only Shakespeare in a country’.   It is simply another way for Greene to say ‘actor’ without repeating the words he has already used, as a substitution demonstrates: the upstart Crow is ‘in his own conceit the only actor in a country’.

The perceived ‘punning allusion to Shakespeare’s name’ is not proven and may not be there at all.  As much as we might want Greene to be referring to Shakespeare, we should not leap upon the word Shake-scene for the mere fact that it begins with the same first syllable.  Wishful thinking will lead us to see connections that the author never intended, and to identify the ‘Shake-scene’ [actor] as Shakespeare, when the main text of Groatsworth, and Greene’s previous writings, implicate Edward Alleyn, is no more valid than the tendency of some Oxfordians to see every use of the common English word ‘ever’ as an anagram pinpointing their candidate, Edward de Vere.


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Edward Alleyn as Greene’s Crow

If Edward Alleyn was Robert Greene‘s target, it would certainly be topical, with Tambercam on stage in the months before Greene’s death. Assuming Tambercam was Edward Alleyn’s imitation of Tamburlaine that would also explain why Greene’s letter would address  Christopher Marlowe, ‘thou famous Gracer of Tragedians’, primarily (not only addressing him first, but writing more to him than to the other two playwrights), to warn him against the actor who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you’. Marlowe has been widely acknowledged as the best playwright of this era and was certainly ‘the best’ – and a master of blank verse – when set against Peele and Nashe. The hypothesis that Greene is referencing Tambercam also provides a context for Greene’s plea:

‘let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.’

We know that Greene (and all three of the people he is addressing) wrote plays for Alleyn; it is accepted, for example, that Alleyn played the lead role in Greene’s Orlando Furioso.  A large portion of Orlando is among the papers at Dulwich College with additions (early attempts at shaping his own part?) in Alleyn’s hand.

New Find: Alleyn’s Windmill

Edward Alleyns Dulwich windmillIn the main text of Groatsworth, Robert Greene describes the life of Roberto, whose experience, says Greene, has ‘most parts agreeing with mine’, inviting it to be read as a thinly-veiled autobiography.  Greene describes how Roberto met a successful actor, who offered him employment writing plays, with the promise he would be ‘well-paid’.  The Player is a wealthy man and Roberto is surprised to discover his profession:

‘I took you rather for a Gentleman of great living, for if by outward habit men should be censured, I tell you, you would be taken for a substantial man.’

The Player confirms his wealth and his share-holder status, saying that his share in playing apparel ‘will not be sold for two hundred pounds’ and that he is rich enough ‘to build a Windmill’.  Edward Alleyn’s windmill stood on Dulwich Common until 1814.[1]  There is no record of Shakespeare ever building a windmill. Had he ever done so, we would certainly know about it.

It is clear that the Player is not only a major shareholder but also the leading actor of his troupe, and he claims to be well-known (‘I am as famous for Delphrigus, & the King of Fairies, as ever was any of my time’). Edward Alleyn seems to have been a sharer in Worcester’s Men from the age of sixteen, and by 1592 (when he was twenty-five), had already become the manager of Lord Strange’s Men.

The Player is a good fit for Alleyn.  He is a poor fit for William Shakespeare, who does not appear in the records as a shareholder in any theatre company until after Greene’s death, and was never, as far as we can tell, cast in a leading role.

‘Men of my profession get by scholars their whole living’, Greene has the Player say.  That actors depend upon writers for their living, and are beholden to them is  a sentiment precisely echoed by Greene in the attached letter just ahead of the ‘upstart Crow’ passage, where he complains of being ‘forsaken’  by them:

‘Is it not strange, that I, to whom they all have been beholding: is it not like that you, to whom they all have been beholding, shall (were ye in that case as I am now)[2] be both at once of them forsaken? Yes trust them not…’

Greene feels ‘forsaken’ by the actors who have benefited from his writing skills and in particular by the ‘upstart Crow’.

Greene Had Already Called Alleyn ‘Crow’

Aesops CrowGreene had written against Edward Alleyn before, in his Francesco’s Fortunes (1590), and in terms very similar to those used in Groatsworth:

‘Why Roscius, art thou proud with Aesop’s crow, being pranked with the glory of others’ feathers?’

Roscius was a famous Roman actor. Scholars agree that Roscius in this passage stands for Edward Alleyn.[3]   Here, even though Greene associates Alleyn with Aesop’s crow, the accusation is not one of plagiarism.  It is that Edward Alleyn is using words supplied for him by the university wits to gain glory, fame – and importantly, wealth. In Groatsworth, contrasting the playwrights with the upstart Crow, Greene implies that the Crow is an usurer (one who lends at high interest) who has failed to provide for him in his sickness:

‘I know the best husband of you all will never prove an Usurer, and the kindest of them all [actors] will never prove a kind nurse.’

Actors are ‘as changeable in mind, as in many attires’ and as a result ‘Robert Greene, whom they have often so flattered, perishes now for want of comfort.’  His chief concern in Groatsworth is not plagiarism, but money.

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0, Greene might have expected Alleyn, his wealthy former employer, to come to his aid when he was ill and without other means of income, is not unreasonable. A letter from actor Richard Jones to Edward Alleyn in February of the same year reveals that Alleyn had provided financial assistance to Jones during a recent illness.  It opens with ‘thanks for your great bounty, bestowed upon me in my sickness, when I was in great want’.[4]   A fair explanation of both Greene’s bile against the upstart Crow, and his sense of being ‘forsaken’, is that Greene, following Richard Jones’s example, had asked Edward Alleyn for money, but unlike Jones, had been turned down.


[1] The London Encyclopaedia (3rd Edition, 2010) by Christopher Hibbert, Ben Weinreb, John Keay, Julia Keay, p.245. This important identifier of Alleyn as Greene’s Player has not been previously noted, to my knowledge.

[2] Greene was dying in poverty.

[3] Alexander 1964, p.68, Shoenbaum, 1987, p.152.

[4] Greg 1907, p.33.

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An Accusation of Plagiarism

The fable of the crow in borrowed feathers was well known to Elizabethans, who believed it to be by Aesop[1] and associated it with plagiarism; putting one’s name on something that is not your own work.  Greene had referred to it in this context in an earlier pamphlet, Mirror of Modesty (1584):

Your honor may think I play like Aesop’s Crow, which decked his self with others’ feathers, or like the proud poet Batillus, which subscribed his name to Virgil’s verses, and yet presented them to Augustus.

Here we see Batillus, again, as someone whose name is on the poetry of others. And he is linked to the Crow, ‘beautified with [others’] feathers’.

Green’s upstart Crow, this actor who has has the temerity to believe he’s ‘as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ is believed to be Shakespeare on two specific grounds.  Firstly, Greene tells us that the Crow thinks himself ‘the only Shake-scene in a country’; a neat nickname for a man whose name was frequently represented as ‘Shake-speare’.  Secondly, with his ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, Greene adapts a line from the play that would become Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3.  For most people, this is case closed.

An accusation of plagiarism fits neatly with Shakespeare’s early publication record, including the apocrypha. At this point, nothing with the name William Shakespeare upon it, nor any of the plays we would later know as his, had been published, but this is not to say he hadn’t begun adopting and adapting.  So you might wonder why I question the identification of the upstart Crow as Shakespeare when not only orthodox scholars, but also most non-Stratfordians, have taken it up with great relish.  The reason why I and some others question it is because there was someone for whom Greene had worked who is a much better fit.

A Plagiarising Actor

Edward Alleyn as Tamberlaine TamerlaneShakespeare wasn’t the only plagiarist in town. As we have seen, accusations of plagiarism were rife, because the practice of copying from better writers was inculcated into every Elizabethan schoolboy as a mainstay of their Humanist education.  Nor is William Shakespeare the only candidate for an actor of Greene’s acquaintance who believed, like a ‘Johannes fac totum’ (Jack of all trades), that he could bang out a play or two himself.  From April to June 1592, as Greene was falling ill, Lord Strange’s Men—for whom Greene had recently been writing—were playing a two part play called Tambercam.   Though the title sounds similar, this was not Marlowe’s hugely successful Tamberlaine, whose title role Edward Alleyn had made his own as leading actor of the Lord Admiral’s men some years earlier.  But its thrust was similar: it is thought to have been about another ruthless Asian warlord, Gheghis Khan. Its style was similar, too: Ben Jonson lumped these plays together when he complained about

‘the Tamerlames and Tamerchams of the late age, which had nothing in them but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant them’.

A decade after Groatsworth was published, Edward Alleyn began selling playbooks to his company, the Lord Admiral’s Men.  In October 1602, his father-in-law Philip Henslowe, who acted as a kind of banker for the company, noted in his account book that he paid 40 shillings (£2) ‘unto my son E Alleyn at the appointment of the company for his Book of Tambercam.’  The entry is repeated (with the same date) eleven pages later.[2]  In both cases, Henslowe uses the possessive pronoun relative to his son-in-law: Tambercam is ‘his book’.  Elsewhere he pays Alleyn for ‘a book’ or ‘the book’.  Only in the case of Tambercam is the book referred to as ‘his’.

Different rules for Shakespeare scholarship?

In every other instance where Henslowe uses the possessive pronoun in his account book, scholars accept that he is paying a playwright for their own creation.  Just above the second entry paying Alleyn 40 shillings for ‘his Book of Tambercam’, the company made a part-payment of the same amount for ‘a tragedy called the Two Brothers’, and ten days later there is a second entry of 40 shillings ‘unto Mr Smith’ for ‘his Book called the 2 Brothers Tragedy’.  The Two Brothers (sometimes know as The Three Brothers) is an acknowledged work of Wentworth Smith on this evidence.  In July of 1602, Thomas Dekker received a part-payment of 40 shillings for ‘his comedy called Medicine for a Curst Wife’; Thomas Middleton, John Day and Henry Chettle all receive payments for ‘his play’,  or ‘his book’ or ‘his tragedy’ and all cases, scholars have accordingly accepted their authorship of the items named.

Why should an exception be made in the case of Edward Alleyn?  Other actors turned their hand to writing with greater or lesser degrees of success, including Ben Jonson, Robert Armin and Edward Juby.  Is it not possible that Tambercam was Edward Alleyn’s attempt to create for himself, this time from his own pen, another role as powerful as Tamberlaine?  Could Edward Alleyn, rather than William Shakespeare, be the target of Greene’s complaint?[3]


[1] It was in fact, from Horace’s third Epistle, where he warns his friend Celsus ‘not to pilfer from other writers any longer, lest those he has robbed should return one day to claim their feathers, when like the crow stripped of its stolen splendour, he would become a laughing stock.’  J.Dover Wilson traced the source of Greene’s reference, and many other examples of Elizabethans using ‘Aesop’s’ crow to indicate plagiarism, in his article ‘Malone and the Upstart Crow’, Shakespeare Survey Vol 4 (1951), pp 56-68.

[2] Whether the duplicate entry was a mistake, a genuine double payment, or an act of ‘creative accounting’ is unclear.

[3] That the subject of Greene’s rant might not be Shakespeare was first advanced by A.D.Wraight (1993) and recently developed by Daryl Pinksen (2009).

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6. The ‘Upstart Crow’ – Allusion or Illusion?

Aesops CrowBase minded men all three of you, if by my miserie you be not warned: for unto none of you (like me) sought those burrs to cleave: those Puppets (I mean) that spake from our mouths, those Anticks garnished in our colours… Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tigers heart wrapped in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, 1592

The first sighting of Shakespeare in London is an allusion. Or is it an illusion? If you know your Hamlets from your Hamnets, you’ll know that the ‘upstart Crow’ in this passage is believed to be Shakespeare.  Beliefs have a way of morphing into facts, and thus nearly everyone (orthodox scholars and non-Stratfordians alike) works from the premise that the upstart Crow is Shakespeare, only differing in their interpretation of what Groatsworth’s author is saying about him.  I’m going to float the possibility that the upstart Crow isn’t Shakespeare at all; that this ‘first certain allusion to Shakespeare in London’ (as it is so often called) incorrectly developed the status of an indisputable fact before it was properly interrogated.   But you’ll need to bear with me. Since the identification of the upstart Crow as Shakespeare has been regarded as a fact since 1787, it might prove sticky to dislodge.[1]

Wishful thinking can create whole biographies.  After 2 February 1585, when his twins Hamnet and Judith were baptised, the historical record goes quiet on the subject of William Shakespeare, launching the seven year gap known as The Lost Years. Despite the romantic name, a gap of this length is not at all unusual for someone of humble social origins like Shakespeare. Without fame, a married person of yeoman stock (as he was) would only leave traces in the church and legal records, and only if they had another child, died, or appeared in court.  Shakespeare wasn’t lost; we just don’t have a clue where he was or what he was doing.

In the early 1590s, however, the silence of the historical record needs to be broken.   Plays argued to belong to this early period include King John, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus.[2]  The Henry VI trilogy had certainly been completed and performed by 1592.   By this stage in the author’s career, one feels there would logically be evidence that a talented new playwright was present in London and having a profound impact on his peers.  Enter Robert Greene, with his warning to three gentleman playwrights (thought to be Christopher Marlowe, George Peele and Thomas Nashe) of the ‘upstart Crow beautified with our feathers’ who earns the epithet ‘Shake-scene’ and who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’.

But before we interrogate the Crow we need to clear up the minor authorship question concerning Groatsworth itself.

Read the first section, and continue through the chapter by using the links at the bottom of each post. Sections are summarised below.

  • Was Groatsworth Greene’s? A stylometric study of 1969 ascribing Groatsworth to Henry Chettle was deeply flawed and should be set aside: all the evidence points to Robert Greene as the author of Groatsworth of Wit.
  • An Accusation of Plagiarism Shakespeare wasn’t the only plagiarist in town. An examination of some key evidence that leading actor Edward Alleyne may have been Robert Greene’s target.
  • Edward Alleyn as Greene’s Crow A look at the evidence that supports Edward Alleyn rather than Shakespeare as Robert Greene’s ‘upstart Crow’ including a new find.
  • Shake-Scene Though nearly everyone is persuaded of Greene’s intended target when he wrote that the upstart Crow thought himself ‘the only Shake-scene in a country’, there are grammatical, typographical, and etymological arguments against ‘Shake-scene’ being a punning allusion to Shakespeare.
  • Tiger’s Heart Wrapped in a Player’s Hide Basic psychology, and recent research by orthodox scholars, supports the argument that Greene’s reference to Henry VI’s ‘tiger’s heart’ fingers Edward Alleyn (and Marlowe) rather than Shakespeare.
  • Greene Was Dying in Poverty The context in which Robert Greene wrote A Groatsworth of Wit is critical. He was dying in poverty, and his chief concern — not rivalry, but money and betrayal — again points to Edward Alleyn.
  • Chettle’s Apology It has been repeatedly shown that Henry Chettle’s apology (about Groatsworth of Wit) could not logically be to Shakespeare. So why does the myth persist?

[1] First noticed by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1778, since its subsequent adoption by Edmund Malone in 1787, it is routinely taken as  the ‘first certain allusion’ to Shakespeare in London.

[2] It is not clear exactly when any of these plays were written and performed; the dating of much of Shakespeare’s canon is ‘best guess’ territory.


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The Case for Sixteenth Century Doubt of Shakespeare’s Authorship

When the ‘Labeo’ material first came to light, some orthodox scholars accepted it as evidence that Hall and Marston had doubts about Shakespeare’s identity, but concluded they were simply mistaken.  H.N.Gibson, who vigorously defends the traditional attribution of Shakespeare’s works, nevertheless says ‘We may agree that Hall is patting himself on the back because he thinks he has guessed the identity of an author writing under a pseudonym and collaborating with an inferior poet’.

_case-for-shakespeare-end-authorship-question-scott-mccrea-paperback-cover-art-1322141729The more common position now is to deny that Hall and Marston are referring to Shakespeare’s poems.  Scott McCrea in The Case for Shakespeare refutes the idea that the works Hall and Marston are referencing are Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. ‘Probably Hall had Samuel Daniel or Michael Drayton in mind,’ he says, without providing any evidence that their poetry had the specific features which Hall mentions. ‘In any case,’ he asserts ‘it wasn’t the Author [Shakespeare]’.  This is his belief, but he has hardly proved it.  McCrae only deals with those parts of the evidence that are easy to demolish, such as the idea that Marston’s ‘mediocria firma’ is a reference to Francis Bacon.  He entirely ignores the critical passage about the ‘crafty cuttle’ who uses ‘another’s name’.

Other orthodox responses have been as inadequate as McCrea’s. It has been argued that Labeo is Marston himself but this ignores both the specific qualities of the verse identified by Hall, and also the awkward fact that Marston writes about Labeo too (and not in a self-referencing manner).  Others have suggested that Labeo is simply Hall’s term for any bad poet.  But the reference to ‘this bawdy Poggies ghost’ is surely far too specific to stand for an archetype, and Marston put the words of Venus and Adonis directly into Labeo’s mouth.

new place sketch by george vertue 1737The reason why orthodox scholars now deny that Hall and Marston are doubting Shakespeare’s identity (when some once accepted that they were) is because the very existence of sixteenth century doubt about the authorship of works published under the name William Shakespeare legitimises the authorship question. It also raises some significant and difficult questions.  If William Shakespeare was as active and present on the London theatre scene at this time as is generally believed, why would his authorship be doubted?  When Pygmalion and Virgidemiarum were published in 1598, Marston was establishing himself as a playwright and both Marston and Hall could presumably have confirmed the author’s identity for themselves were Shakespeare – as orthodox scholars assume – physically present and well-known on the London literary scene.  What is more, Marston was from Warwickshire, Shakespeare’s home county. Indeed, Marston’s father was appointed counsel to the city of Coventry, and was lawyer to Thomas Green, solicitor to the corporation of Stratford-on-Avon, who has been described by orthodox Shakespearean scholar Dave Kathman as ‘one of Shakespeare’s closest friends in Stratford’. Green, who was a lodger in the Shakespeare household from 1603 to 1611, and who refers in his diary to ‘cousin Shakespeare’, was sponsored to enter the Middle Temple by John Marston and his father in 1595.

John Marston therefore had solid Warwickshire and Stratford-on-Avon connections, and stood surety for ‘one of William Shakespeare’s closest friends’ three years before he published his satirical comment about Labeo. Of course, Kathman’s label for Thomas Green isn’t necessarily correct.  And even if it were true by 1611/2 when Green first used the term ‘cousin’, the term was used somewhat loosely in the era, and we have no idea whether Green knew Shakespeare as early as 1598.  Nevertheless one can’t help feeling that if the talented author of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece was the Stratford man, John Marston would have been well-placed to know. It is no wonder, in the circumstances, that orthodox scholars find it difficult to look closely at this evidence or give the argument more than a dismissive wave of the hand.


Collier's_1921_Hog_Wild_BoarLet us summarise the evidence. Hall undoubtedly testifies that he suspects a contemporary author of using a front. The ‘crafty cuttle’ who uses ink as a defensive disguise, who likes to ‘complain of wronged faith or fame’, fame which he may shift onto ‘another’s name’, is surely too explicit a reference to deny. Marston paraphrases two lines from Venus and Adonis and alludes to Hall as a hunter of a famous boar – the poem’s motif. Hall’s critical assessment of Labeo’s poetry has seven points of specific correspondence with Shakespeare’s two poems that no other poet published in the years before 1597 can match:

  1. ‘Heroic poesy’ – both Venus and Lucrece fall into this category.
  2. ‘Big But Ohs’ – both Venus and Lucrece have many lines starting But and Oh.
  3. Hyphenated epithets – common in both Venus and Lucrece.
  4. The poet implores Phoebus/Apollo to guide his enterprise (Venus and Adonis)
  5. The poet steals ‘whole pages’ from Petrarch (The Rape of Lucrece)
  6. The poems are sexual in nature (both Venus and Lucrece)
  7. ‘bawdy Poggies ghost’ – the poems are in Marlowe’s style (both Venus and Lucrece)

We can accept that Hall doubts the authorship of Shakespeare’s earliest published works without accepting that he was correct to do so. Whether Marston doubts Shakespeare’s authorship is less clear, since his reference to a ‘strange… metamorphosis’ is too ambiguous for us to be certain, but he doesn’t challenge Hall’s ‘crafty cuttle’ passage, and says nothing that would link Labeo to William Shakespeare of Stratford, despite being from the same county.

By 1598, when Marston’s The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image was published, orthodox scholars believe that William Shakespeare was the leading playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s men, as well as being a shareholder and (at least occasionally) an actor. Most scholars think that by this time Titus Andronicus, all three parts of Henry VI, Richard II, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labours Lost, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and The Merry Wives of Windsor had all been written and staged.  But if the authorship doubts of Marston and Hall are accepted as valid (and I have seen no convincing rebuttal), they surely cast some serious doubt on either Shakespeare’s visibility (in a physical sense) on the London literary scene in 1598, or his ability to convincingly pass as the author of these two narrative poems.

straw-230112_640This is the year in which William Shakespeare bought a load of stone in Stratford in January, and in the same month, was said to be interested in buying some local tithes. His Stratford grain-holding was assessed in February, and in October he was not found in his London lodgings when the taxman called, but that is as much as we can say about his whereabouts.  This is also the year in which he would be listed, eighteen years later, as ‘principle comedian’ in the play Every Man in His Humour; an item of evidence we will assess more fully when we turn our attention properly upon Ben Jonson. The seeming doubt of Hall and the possible doubt of Marston leads to an important question.  Exactly how visible on the London scene was William Shakespeare in the 1590s?


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