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.


Click here to subscribe and we’ll notify you when new content is posted.