Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit was published in September 1592 as the final work of England’s first celebrity author, Robert Greene, who had died at the beginning of that month.  Green was a famous writer of prose romances, stage plays, and best-selling pamphlets on ‘coneycatchers’, unmasking the techniques of London’s tricksters, cutpurses and cardsharps. Groatsworth, according to its title page, was ‘written before his death and published at his dying request’.  The extract about the ‘upstart Crow’ comes from a section intended as a ‘warning to my old consorts which have lived as loosely as myself’ and is addressed ‘To those gentlemen, his quondam [former] acquaintance, that spend their wits in making plays’.  Groatsworth was licensed for publication in the Stationers Register on 20 September 1592 ‘upon the peril of Henry Chettle’; unusual wording indicating that the work was acknowledged as potentially inflammatory.  And so it proved.

Immediately, there were accusations that it had been written by someone other than Greene.  Thomas Nashe, whom scholars believe was the third of the three playwrights addressed in Groatsworth’s letter, felt compelled to deny accusations

that a scald trivial lying pamphlet called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is given out to be of my doing. God never have care of my soul, but utterly renounce me, if the least word or syllable in it proceeded from my pen, or if I were any way privy to the writing or printing of it.[1]

A more immediate suspect was Henry Chettle.  Within ten weeks, the preface to his Kind-Heart’s Dream contained his own denial of authorship, and an apology to one of the two playwrights who had been offended.  His involvement in the text, he said, was merely to copy it out,

as sometime Greene’s hand was none of the best. Licensed it must be ere it could be printed, which could never be if it might not be read. To be brief, I writ it over, and as near as I could, followed the copy; only in that letter I put something out, but in the whole book not a word in, for I protest it was all Greene’s, not mine nor Master Nashe’s, as some unjustly have affirmed.

Chettle’s denial was widely accepted until the 1990s, when the editor of a new edition of Groatsworth was persuaded by the findings of a 1969 paper by Warren B Austin that the text bore signs of Chettle’s hand — including his common spellings of certain words — and insufficient of Greene’s. As a result, many scholars now refer to Groatsworth as being by Chettle, rather than Greene.

But Austin’s methods were deeply flawed.  In 2006, a reassessment by Richard Westley[2]  notes ten categories of error. Key amongst these is the issue of missing controls: Austin compares Groatsworth with just five of Greene’s thirty-two known prose-works, and omits several works that were close to Groatsworth in time of composition. Austin also deliberately excludes, on the basis of context, a number of key words that strongly argue for Greene as the author, and fails to take into account Chettle’s role as compositor. What Austin refers to as the ‘strongest piece of evidence’ that Chettle wrote Groatsworth is its preference for ‘-ever’ over ‘-soever’: Greene always uses the latter, Chettle the former.  But Chettle admitted to copying out the text, and could very easily have introduced the change subconsciously.  Westley concludes that ‘Austin’s findings should… be set aside’, and that the text is by Greene.  The identity of an author (as we all instinctively know) is important, and Robert Greene’s personal circumstances — particularly his impending death — make a great deal of difference to our understanding of Groatsworth.

With authorship established as Greene’s, let us return to the ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’.


[1] Thomas Nashe’s denial of the authorship of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is in the preface to the second edition of Pierce Penniless (1595).
[2] Richard Westley, ‘Computing Error: Reassessing Austin’s Study of Groatsworth of Wit’, Literary and Linguistic Computing (2006) 21 (3): 363-378.

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