IF BEFORE HIS SUCCESS with the Henry VI plays Shakespeare had not already met Marlowe, he would certainly have met him soon afterward, and along with Marlowe he would have met many of the other playwrights-poets, as they were then called-- who were writing for the London stage, They were an extraordinary group, of the kind that emerges all at once in charmed moments, as when a dozen or more brilliant painters all seemed to converge at the same time on Florence or when for years at a time New Orleans or Chicago seemed to have a seemingly limitless supply of stupendous jazz and blues musicians, In all such moments, of course, sheer genetic accident is at work, but there are always institutional and cultural circumstances that help the accident make sense. In late-sixteenth-century London those circumstances included the phenomenal growth of the urban population, the emergence of the public theaters, and the existence of a competitive market for new plays. They included too an impressive, widespread growth in literacy; an educational system that trained its students to be highly sensitive to rhetorical effects; a social and political taste for elaborate display; a religious culture that compelled parishioners to listen to long, complex sermons; and a
vibrant, restless intellectual culture. There were very few options for promising intellectuals: the educational system had surged ahead of the existing social system, so that highly educated men who did not want to pursue a career in the church or law had to cast about for something to do with themselves. Disreputable though it was, the theater beckoned.
At some moment in the late 1580s, Shakespeare walked into a room-- most likely, in an inn in Shoreditch, Southwark, or the Bankside-- and quite possibly found many of the leading writers drinking and eating together: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Watson, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene. Other playwrights might have been there as well-- Thomas Kyd, for example, or John Lyly, but Lyly, born in 1554, was substantially older than the rest, and Kyd, though he subsequently shared a room with Marlowe, seems to have been held at a distance by the group as a whole. For despite his success as a playwright, Kyd made enough to live on by plodding away as a mere scrivener, a professional penman who copied out texts, and the most stylish writers held such humble occupations in disdain. The group shared a combination of extreme marginality and arrogant snobbishness.
For Marlowe, at least, the marginality of the playhouse may have been part of the pleasure. He led a notoriously risk-taking life. But he had only an extreme case of a restless, risk-taking streak present in many of those who responded to the lure of the theater. One of Marlowe's closest friends, London-born Thomas Watson, had studied at Oxford but left without a degree, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, to travel and study on the Continent, learning, as he put it, "to utter words of diverse sound." He returned to London ostensibly to study law, though he also seems to have been engaged in duplicitous, high-stakes games, somewhere between espionage and extortion. At the same time he threw himself into the literary scene, where he quickly emerged as one of its most learned figures, publishing by the time he was twenty-four years old a Latin translation of Sophocles' Antigone, composing original Latin poetry, translating Petrarch and Tasso into Latin hexameters, and experimenting in English for the first time since Wyatt and Surrey with the fashionable Continental form, the sonnet.
Somehow in this hectic life Watson also found time to write plays in English for the popular stage. Surveying the theater in the late 1590s, Francis Meres ranked Watson with Peele, Marlowe, and Shakespeare as "the best for tragedy"; more sourly, an antagonist, accusing him of fraud, declared that he "could devise twenty fictions and knaveries in a play which was his daily practice and his living." None of these plays survives, and Watson is now best known as the friend who intervened in a street brawl between Marlowe and an innkeeper's son named William Bradley. The brawl, on Hog Lane, near the Theater and the Curtain, ended with Watson's sword stuck six inches into Bradley's chest. Watson and Marlowe were both arrested on suspicion of murder but were eventually released, on grounds of self-defense.
Watson's disturbing combination of impressive learning, literary ambition, duplicity, violence, and rootlessness is a clue to understanding his deep kinship-- his blood brotherhood-- with Marlowe. It serves as well as an introduction to the group of writers, the so-called university wits, whom the young Shakespeare would have encountered at the outset of his career. Not all of them were quite as sinister as Marlowe and Watson. Thomas Lodge, about six years older than Shakespeare, graduated from Oxford and began to study law. The second son of London's lord mayor, Lodge had a course of respectable prosperity laid out for him, his dying mother having left a bequest to support his studies and to launch him in his legal career. But the prospect of this career evidently disagreed with him, for he forfeited this bequest and his father's goodwill by dropping out and plunging into the literary scene. At about the time Shakespeare was writing or collaborating on the Henry VI trilogy, Lodge penned his own play about a country destroyed by factional conflict, The Wounds of Civil War, performed by the Lord Admiral's Men. Neither this nor the other plays in which Lodge had a hand showed much talent, and he seems in any case not to have staked all his hopes on a career as a playwright, for in 1588 he embarked on an adventurous voyage to the Canary Islands. He returned with a new literary composition to show for himself, a fine prose romance he titled Rosalind: "the fruits of his labors," he wrote of himself, "that he wrought in the ocean when every line was wet with a surge." Like Marlowe and Watson, then, Lodge was a bold risk-taker: in 1591 he sailed with
Thomas Cavendish to Brazil and the Straits of Magellan and returned to tell the tale. But he was a less turbulent spirit: it would have been easier to have a drink with him without fearing for your purse or your life.
Another member of the circle of writers, George Peele, the son of a London salt merchant and accountant, had already as a student at Oxford begun to earn a reputation for wild pranks and riotous living-- a book was published chronicling his supposed adventures-- but he was also early noted for his gifts as a poet and a translator of Euripides. He seems to have been a sometime actor as well as an energetic writer of lyric poems, pastorals, pageants, and plays for the popular stage. At the time Shakespeare would have first met him, Peele had published verses in praise of his friend Thomas Watson, scripted the lord mayor's pageant, and had a play, The Arraignment of Paris, successfully presented to the queen. He was probably at work on The Battle of Alcazar, his own response to the immense popularity of Marlowe's Tamburlaine. None of this feverish activity brought in much money, and Peele was rapidly running through the dowry brought to him by his wife. But he must have been amusing company: his friend Thomas Nashe called him "the chief supporter of pleasance now living." Nashe was not normally one to give compliments. Of the university wits, he was the most bitingly satiric, and in the late 1580s, newly arrived in London, he was demonstrating his gift for mockery in a succession of anti-Puritan pamphlets. Three years younger than Shakespeare, the son of the curate of a small Herefordshire parish, Nashe had gone to Cambridge as a "sizar," a scholarship student, and had continued his studies there for a year or more after he took the B.A. degree that enabled him to write "gentleman" by his name. His first publication, an epistle addressed to "the Gentleman Students of both universities," was a harsh review of recent literary efforts-- the cruel judgments of a brash young man, leavened with some flattering remarks about his best friends. Nashe praised Peele, Watson, and a few others for their "deep witted scholarship," but he had particularly acerbic things to say about upstarts "who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) think to out-brave better pens with the swelling bombast of a
bragging blank verse." Nashe's florid style delighted in its own obscurity: "Indeed it may be the engrafted overflow of some kill-cow conceit, that overcloyeth their imagination with a more than drunken resolution, being not extemporal in the invention of any other means to vent their manhood, commits the digestion of their choleric encumbrances to the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllabon." But through the haze of verbal self-display, the point is sharply clear: certain men with only a grammar school education have had the audacity to write plays in blank verse for the public stage. This type of impudent rustic-- a man with little or no Latin, French, or Italian, born to be a servant or small-town lawyer's clerk busies himself with "the endeavors of Art," imitates the poetic style and favorite meter of his university-trained betters, and thinks he can leap into a new occupation: "if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches." These words were written well before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Presumably, the specific object of nastiness here was Thomas Kyd, who had no university degree, had served as a lawyer's clerk and a servingman, and had written a play, now lost, about Hamlet. But the general terms of the withering attack also applied perfectly to Shakespeare, as Shakespeare would have understood.
Nashe's epistle was prefIxed to a lurid romance, Menaphon, penned by the central figure in this circle of writers, Robert Greene. Though he turned out to play an important role in Shakespeare's life, Greene was by no means the most accomplished; Marlowe towered above him, and he would never write anything as good as Nashe's wild picaresque novel, The Unfortunate Traveler, Peele's charming play The Old Wives' Tale; or even Lodge's elegant Ovidian poem, Scylla, Metamorphosis. But Greene was
larger than life, a hugely talented, learned, narcissistic, self-dramatizing, self-promoting, shameless, and undisciplined scoundrel. Four years older than Shakespeare, the son of poor parents from Norwich, he managed, like Marlowe and Nashe, to get a scholarship to Cambridge, where he took his M.A. in 1583. He went on to receive another degree from Oxford. With these impressive qualifications and with a marriage to "a gentleman's daughter of good account," Greene seemed set for a prosperous life (he briefly thought he might study medicine), but his desires led him in a different direction. Having squandered his wife's marriage portion, he abandoned her and their small child and headed off to London , uncertain how he would support himself.
Greene, who constantly fictionalized his life, wrote a story of how he was recruited to write for the stage. Since he was an inveterate liar, there is no reason to believe a word of his account, but it must have struck contemporaries as at least plausible, and it served as a kind of literary initiation myth. "Roberto"-- for so he calls himself-- was sitting by a hedge at the side of the road, complaining about his lot, when he was approached by a man who recognized that he was a gentleman down on his luck. "I suppose you are a scholar," the stranger said, "and pity it is men of learning should live in lack."
Greene then recounted a revelatory moment of social misrecognition. How, he asked the affable stranger, could a scholar possibly be profitably employed? The stranger replied that men of his profession get their whole living by employing scholars.
"What is your profession?" said Roberto.
"Truly sir," said he, "I am a player."
"A player!" quoth Roberto. "I took you rather for a gentleman of great living, for if by outward habit men should be censured [i.e., judged], I tell you, you would be taken for a substantial man."
Here in strikingly pure form is the convincing performance of status, the miming of the "outward habit" of a gentleman, that served to draw Will to the profession of acting. For Greene, however, the performance was a fraud: the actor could pretend to be a substantial man, but in himself he was a thing of nothing.
To succeed in creating his illusion, the actor needed not only expensive costumes but also persuasive words, poetry that he, a mere sham gentleman, could not generate. Hence his need to find a real gentleman like Roberto-- educated, cultivated, and in need of cash-- whom he could hire. Roberto signs on, in Greene's account, follows the actor to town, and finds himself lodged in "a house of retail," that is, a whorehouse. He is no longer in danger of starving--
"Roberto now famozed [sic] for an Arch-playmaking poet, his purse like the sea sometime swelled, anon the like the same sea fell to a low ebb; yet seldom he wanted, his labors were so well esteemed"-- but he has prostituted his learning and his talent; his ordinary companions become cardsharps, forgers, and pickpockets; his bones are ravaged by syphilis; and his belly is so puffed up by "immeasurable drinking" that he becomes "the perfect image of the dropsy." He experiences brief bursts of repentance, accompanied by noisy resolutions to change his life, but the resolutions give way at the slightest provocation to renewed dissipation. When the "gentlewoman his wife" begs him to return to her, he ridicules her. With his mistress and their bastard son, he moves from place to place, cheating the innkeepers, running up unpaid tavern scores, eluding his creditors. "So cunning he was in all crafts, as nothing rested in him almost but craftiness."
Such was Greene's self-portrait-- "Hereafter suppose me the said Roberto," he wrote halfway through his account, throwing away the thin fictional mask-- and for such a notorious liar, it seems surprisingly accurate. He was famous for a life that combined drunken idleness and gluttony with energetic bursts of writing, famous too for his impecuniousness, his duplicity, his intimate knowledge of the underworld, his fleeting attempts at moral reform, and his inevitable backsliding. Back in Norwich once, he wrote, he heard a sermon that moved him to a firm resolution to amend his life, but his profligate friends all laughed at him, and his resolution collapsed. His mistress, Em Ball-- with whom he had a short-lived son whom he named Fortunatus-- was the sister of the leader of a gang of thieves, one Cutting Ball, who was eventually hanged at Tyburn. Aided no doubt by this accomplished native informant, Greene, setting himself up as a kind of ethnographer, made money turning out pamphlets introducing respectable English readers to London's dense society of cheats, swindlers, and pickpockets: "cozeners," "nips," "foists," "crossbiters," "shifters." Despite his university degrees and his snobbery, he himself had the morals and the manners of a thief: he was particularly proud of the fact that he had sold the same play, Orlando Furiaso, to two different companies of players, the Queen's Men and the Admiral's Men. His friend Nashe called him "the Monarch of Crossbiters and the very Emperor of shifters." Evidently, Greene regarded actors-- by whom he saw himself and other gentleman poets exploited-- as particularly appropriate targets for his chicanery. Where the actor's dream was to pass himself off as a gentleman, Greene's dream, realized with perfect success, was to transform himself into a cynical, swaggering London bully.
"Who in London hath not heard of his dissolute and licentious living?" asked one of Greene's bitter enemies, the Cambridge pedagogue Gabriel Harvey. This is a master of arts, Harvey wrote, an educated man, who has chosen to deck himself out "with ruffianly hair, unseemly apparel, and more unseemly company." He has become notorious for his vainglorious boasting, his vulgar clowning, and his trashy imitating of every new fashion. But it is important not to underestimate him: he is sly enough to cheat professional gamesters at their own dirty tricks. An oath breaker and a foulmouthed blasphemer, Greene is a man with no moral compass, and his life is a shambles. Harvey rehearsed as many of the scabrous details as he could muster: Greene's monstrous overeating, his constant shifting of his lodgings, his feasting his friends and then skipping out before paying the bill, his abandonment of his virtuous wife, his pawning of his sword and cloak, his prostitute-mistress and their bastard son Infortunatus, his employment of the mistress's thuggish brother-in law as a bodyguard, the brother-in-Iaw's execution, his insolence to his superiors, and, when money is short, "his impudent pamphleting, phantastlcal interluding, and desperate libeling." "Phantastical interluding," Harvey 's term for Greene's playwriting, is linked to yet another item in the litany of scandals: "his infamous resorting to the Bankside, Shoreditch, Southwark, and other filthy haunts." Greene could always be found in his true element: the neighborhood of the theaters.
This was the neighborhood to which Shakespeare came in the late 1580s, and this was the figure at the center of the group of playwrights, all in their twenties or very early thirties, whom he encountered. Shakespeare would have had no difficulty recognizing that Marlowe was the great talent, but It was the flamboyant Greene, with his two M.A. degrees, sharp peak of red halr, enormous appetites, and volcanic energy, who was the most striking figure in the fraternity of restless, hungry writers. Shakespeare's relations to Greene and company might at first have been cordial. The newcomer clearly found much to interest, even fascinate, him in this grotesque figure
and his remarkable friends·, indeed, he might have sensed immediately what would turn out in fact to be the case: these were people with whom he could get his start as a writer and whom he would remember and imaginatively exploit for the rest of his life. The electrifying effect of Tamburlaine upon him was only one facet of this fascination. Shakespeare studied Watson's sonnets and Lodge's Scylla’s Metamorphosis (whose stanza he borrowed for Venus and Adonis); he probably collaborated with Peele in the bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus; he repeatedly mined Nashe's satiric wit and probably used him as the model for Mote in Loves Labours Lost; at the height of his powers he took Lodge's prose romance Rosalind and turned it into As You Like It, and near the end of his career, when he wanted to stage an old-fashioned piece, a "winter's tale," he dramatized Greene's by-now-forgotten story of irrational jealousy, Pandosto. In Shakespeare's work there are relatively few signs of the influence of Spenser, Donne, Bacon, or Ralegh, to name a few of his great contemporaries; the living writers who meant the most to him were those he encountered in the seedy inns near the theaters soon after he arrived in London.
For their part, the group of reckless young writers and their leader, Greene, may initially have found Shakespeare an agreeable fellow. He was, by all accounts, pleasant company, affable and witty; and his writing, even at that very early point, doubtless showed that he had real talent. It is possible that he had initially been hired to assist Nashe or Peele in the writing of a play about Henry VI and then displayed his mettle. Alternatively, he undertook to write the history play on his own. In either case, his surprising success as a playwright commanded respect. Not only did Nashe acknowledge in print that something extraordinary had happened-- thousands of people wept for the death of an English hero who had been dead for two hundred years-- but Marlowe offered the still more impressive tribute of imitation: he sat down to write his own English history play, chronicling the tragic life and death of a king, Edward II, brought down by his consuming love for his handsome favorite. Several of the others also began to mine the chronicles and scribble English history plays, though only Marlowe came close to what Shakespeare had achieved. There are, in any case, enough signs of serious attention to Shakespeare's early work to suggest that the group of writers may at first have actively wanted to cultivate his acquaintance.
The group would probably have been sorely disappointed. First and foremost, of course, Shakespeare lacked the principal qualification of belonging to their charmed circle; he had not attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The little society of writers was, by Tudor standards, quite democratic. Birth and wealth did not greatly matter: Nashe, whose family, as he put it, boasted "longer pedigrees than patrimonies" rubbed shoulders with Marlowe, the cobbler's son; Lodge, the son of the former lord mayor of London, drank with Greene, whose parents in Norwich lived sober, modest lives at a far remove from the glittering guildhall. What mattered was attendance at one or the other of the universities. Even the acerbic Nashe found warm words for his Cambridge college, St. John's, writing years later that he "loved it still, for it ever was and is the sweetest nurse of knowledge in all that university," And long after he had left the university, Greene signed one of his dedicatory epistles "From my Study in Clare Hall."
University education carried a significant social cachet, which these writers were only too happy to vaunt. But, to be fair, it was valued as well for the learning that it signified. Nashe pored over Aretina and Rabelais and gleefully coined words out of Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Italian. Peele joined Nashe in ridiculing an inept hexameter written by Gabriel Harvey. Watson's youthful translation of Antigone ended with allegorical exercises in different kinds of Latin verse: iambics, sapphics, anapestic dimeters, and choriambic asclepiadean meter. Shakespeare was by no means without learning-- The Comedy of Errors, written early in his career, shows how elegantly and lightly he carried his knowledge of Latin comedy-- but he was neither capable of nor interested in Watson's type of academic self-display. Moreover, Shakespeare was by origin a provincial, and, more to the point, he had not completely left the provinces behind. If he had turned away from his father's occupation and left his parents, he had not, like Lodge, incurred a parental curse; if he had left his wife and three small children, he had not, like Greene, burned his bridges. He had none of the dark glamour of the prodigal son, Indeed, even his imagination remained bound up with the local details of country living, And if the young
bohemian writers recognized with surprise that the man they deemed a country bumpkin had thought hard about many things; if they grasped that his imagination was far less constrained by convention than theirs; if they were startled by the quickness of his intellect, the breadth of his vocabulary, and his astonishing power to absorb everything he encountered and make it his own, perhaps they also were nettled by something morally conservative in him. The conservatism. was already visible in the Henry VI trilogy, with its reaffirmation of the traditional cautionary precepts that Marlowe in Tamburlaine had boldly called into question, But it was visible as well in Shakespeare's refusal to throw himself fully into a chaotic, disorderly life. Aubrey did not specify what particular social situation he was referring to when he wrote that Shakespeare "wouldn't be debauched," but a strong candidate would be any invitation from Robert Greene. Shakespeare may have sensed a snobbish assumption of superiority on the part of the university wits; it would be surprising if they did not look down upon him and surprising if he did not perceive it. He did not contribute commendatory verses to any of the books that they published in the late 1580s and early '90s. No doubt he was not asked to do so. He, in turn, did not likely solicit for himself any commendations of the kind they routinely wrote for one another. None in any case appeared. He did not enter into their literary controversies, just as he seems to have been kept-- or kept himself-- outside their raucous social circle, This is, after all, a man who soon went on to manage the affairs of his playing company, to write steadily (not to mention brilliantly) for more than two decades, to accumulate and keep a great deal of money, to stay out of prison and to avoid ruinous lawsuits, to invest in agricultural land and in London property, to purchase one of the finest houses in the town where he was born, and to retire to that town in his late forties. This pattern of behavior did not suddenly and belatedly emerge; it established itself early, probably quite soon after the turbulent, confused, painful years that led up to his escape from Stratford and his arrival in London. Shakespeare looked around at the gentleman poets who were supplying the playing companies with plays. He took in what was exciting about their writing. He made their acquaintance
and savored what was startling or amusing about their reckless lives. In the light of his subsequent career, it is possible to imagine his response more fully. He saw that they were proud of their university degrees, their fine Latin and Greek, their scoffing and mockery and carelessness. He saw that they drank for days and nights at a time and then, still half-drunk, threw something together for the printer or the players. He grasped, in all likelihood, that no matter what he wrote, he would remain in their eyes a player, not a poet. Though they may occasionally have exhibited signs of nervousness about the young man from Stratford-- they were impressed and troubled, after all, by the success of the Henry VI plays-- they probably thought that he was rather naive and guileless and that they could easily take advantage of him. Greene in particular, making everyone laugh with his zany stories of coney catching, was confident, in all likelihood, that Shakespeare was a coney to be caught.
One part of this at least is indubitably true: Shakespeare wrote for the theater not as a poet, in the sense that Greene and company understood themselves, but as a player. He was not alone in writing for the stage on which he also performed, but he was the one who was best at it, and the players were quick to recognize how valuable he was. He must also have seemed exceptionally canny and trustworthy about money-- the very opposite of the university wits-- for a treasury document that mentions him in December 1594, in the company of Burbage and Kempe, suggests that he was already one of those fiscally responsible for the troupe. He knew how to put money in his purse and to keep it there. Greene's purse, by contrast, was evidently empty when, in August 1592, he fell ill after a dinner, at which Nashe was present, of pickled herring and Rhenish wine. Abandoned by all of his friends, he would have died like a homeless beggar had a poor shoemaker named Isam and his kindly wife not taken him in and cared for him through his final days. Digging for dirt, Greene's inveterate enemy, Gabriel Harvey, went in person to talk with Mrs. Isam. Much of the scene Harvey depicts-- the shameless scoundrel, "attended by lice" and begging for a "penny-pot of malmsey," seized by the grip of a terrible fear-- may be discounted as the expression of bilious hatred, but some of the melancholy details ring true. The woman told me, Harvey writes, how the dying man
…was fain, poor soul, to borrow her husband's shirt, whiles his own was a-washing: and how his doublet and hose and sword were sold for three shillings: and beside the charges of his winding sheet, which was four shillings; and the charges of his burial yesterday, in the New-churchyard near Bedlam, which was six shillings, and four pence, how deeply he was indebted to her poor husband, as appeared by his own bond of ten pounds, which the good woman kindly showed me.
She showed him as well a letter Greene left for the wife he had abandoned:
Doll, I charge thee by the love of our youth, and by my soul's rest, that thou wilt see this man paid: for if he and his wife had not succored me, I had died in the streets.
Greene had another dying wish. He asked Mrs. Isam to place "a garland of bayes"-- a laurel wreath-- on his head: he would go to the grave a poet laureate, even if he had to be crowned by a shoemaker's wife. Harvey takes a predictably sour view of this leave-taking -- "vermin to vermin must repair at last"-- but he also provides a fuller epithaph:
La, a wild head, full of mad brain and a thousand crotchets: A Scholar, a Discourser, a Courtier, a Ruffian, a Gamester, a Lover, a Soldier, a Traveler, a Merchant, a Broker, an Artificer, a Botcher, a Pettifogger, a Player, a Cozener, a Railer, a Beggar, an Omnigatherum [i.e., miscellaneous assemblage], a Gay Nothing: a Storehouse of bald and baggage stuff, unworth the answering or reading: a trivial and triobular [i.e., worthless] Author for knaves and fools: an Image of Idleness; an Epitome of Fantasticality; a Mirror of Vanity.
Though this catalog suggests a remarkably full life of vice, and though Greene himself often adopted the melancholy voice of an old man looking back upon his prodigal youth, at his death he was only thirty-two years old.
The others in the group quickly followed their leader to the grave. In the same month, September 1592, Thomas Watson, aged about thirty-five, was buried , cause of death unknown-- or perhaps in that terrible year of plague, it was not necessary to specify it. Two volumes of his poems were printed posthumously-- his friends had no doubt read them already in manuscript-- and his name remained for some time in circulation
for a less honorable reason: he was invoked In the courts as a scoundrel in two particularly nasty swindles, The following May, Watson's friend Marlowe, who had not yet reached his thirtieth birthday, was killed in a tavern fight, allegedly over the "reckoning," that is, the bill.
George Peele, the great reveler, published a moving verse tribute to his dead friends Watson and Marlowe, Then a few years later, probably in 1596, Peele too was gone. Not quite forty years old, he died, it was said, of a "loathsome disease" possibly syphilis, And in 1601, at thirty-three, the youngest of the original group, Thomas Nashe, died, leaving his grieving father, the minister, to bury him in the country churchyard.
Of the six young university-trained playwrights whom Shakespeare encountered in the late 1580's, only one, Thomas Lodge, managed to survive his thirties and to live what the age would have considered a long life. But not a literary life: abandoning poetry and fiction, Lodge took a degree in medicine and became one of the leading physicians of his day. He died in 1625, at the ripe age of sixty-seven.
After 1593, with Greene, Watson, and Marlowe all dead, Shakespeare (not yet thirty years old) had no serious rivals. He followed up on his major success with the Henry VI plays by writing the brilliant Richard III. He had experimented, crudely but energetically, with tragedy in the bloody Titus Andronicus, and had demonstrated his great strengths as a comic playwright, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Comedy of Errors. He had triumphed. But there was a bitter aftertaste. Greene kept scribbling, or so it was said, even on his deathbed. The claim is not implausible: he was the kind of writer who turned his entire existence into a lurid penny pamphlet. He had left behind him enough material to enable a hack printer and sometime playwright, Henry Chett!e, to bring out a posthumous book. Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance, rushed into print before the corpse was fully cold, was probably mostly written by Chettle or by someone collaborating with Chettle, perhaps, as some rumors had it, Nashe. But it carried the mark of Greene's own seething resentments. He noisily berated himself He dangerously accused Marlowe- "thou famous gracer of Tragedians"-- of atheism. And then he turned his anger on Shakespeare.
Rehearsing the old rivalry between poets and players, Greene warned his gentlemen friends Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele not to trust those "puppets", the actors, that "speak from our mouths." Actors were mere burrs that cleave to the garments of writers. They would be virtually invisible were they not "garnished in our colors," and yet the ingrates have forsaken him, in his hour of need. Thus far Greene's words might apply to actors like Burbage or AJleyn, but they could hardly fit a player who had also proved himself a successful playwright.To make them fit, Greene (or his ghostwriter) famously shifted ground: "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 Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country." "O tiger's heart
wrapped in a woman's hide!" York cries in the third part of Henry VI, to
describe the ghastly, ruthless woman who waves in his face a handkerchief that she has steeped in the blood of his murdered child.
When he read the line twisted to describe him, Shakespeare might have thought that Greene was accusing him of ruthlessness. Alternatively, he was being charged with poetic excess, the bombastic exaggeration of the style of his betters. The insult is ambiguous, but it would have been clear to Shakespeare that there was an issue of status: an "upstart" is someone who pushes himself in where he does not belong, who dresses himself up as a nightingale though he caws like a crow, who imagines that he is a Johannes Factotum- a "Johnny-do-everything"-- when in fact he is merely a second-rate drudge, a "rude groom" who thinks he is an accomplished poet when he is only an "ape" imitating the inventions of others.
These were painful words, particularly in the mouth-- as they were said to be-- of a dying man; they had something of the finality of a curse, in a world that took such curses with deadly seriousness. And Greene’s Groatsworth ended with a coda, a retelling of Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ant, in which at least one modern interpreter, Ernst Honigmann, detects a further insult, Greene was, of course, himself the wanton grasshopper, carelessly skipping through the meadows in pursuit of
Pleasure. If Honigmann is right, the miserly ant, a "waspish little worm" who refused to help his "foodless, helpless, and strengthless" acquaintance, was Shakespeare. Greene, in this account, must have asked Shakespeare-- who may at this point have already been handling some of the players' finances-- for assistance and been refused. The refusal would help to explain the bitterness of the satiric portrait: upstart crow, rude
groom, ape, worm.
How Shakespeare responded to the attack tells us a great deal about him. He did not directly answer the charges or, like Harvey, launch a polemical counteroffensive. But he must have quietly done something unusually effective. For, less than three months after publication of the pamphlet, Henry Chettle flatly denied in print having any hand in it: it "was all Greene's." As for himself, Chettle averred, it is well known that he always "in printing hindered the bitter inveighing against scholars." "Scholars"-- so Shakespeare was now being treated as if he had, after all, attended university.
There was more: he was not, Chettle wrote, personally acquainted with either of the two playwrights who took offense at Greene's words, "and with one of them I care not if I never be." This playwright, unnamed, was unquestionably Marlowe, who in December 1592 was evidently not a person whom the hack, his ear to the ground, thought it safe to know. But the other was a different matter. Chettle now understood, as he explained in a twisted and unctuous apology, that he should have blocked the printing of Greene's unwarranted remarks about this second playwright: "That I did not, I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes." This offended figure was also unnamed, but the likeliest candidate is the "upstart Crow." At some point in the past three months, then, Chettle had a "civil" conversation with Shakespeare, or at the very least he had the occasion to observe him in person. He had also, it seems, suddenly acquainted himself with Shakespeare's excellence "in the quality he professes"-- an oily periphrasis for writing and acting in plays. And then comes a further motive for this recantation: "Besides, diverse of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his
facetious grace in writing, that approves his art." "Diverse of worship," that is, socially prominent people, people who have it in their power to make my life miserable, have spoken to me both about the honorableness of Shakespeare's character and about the "facetious grace," the facility and polish, of his writing.
From Shakespeare himself, not a word about Chettle, in the immediate wake of Greene's attack or subsequently, but he got an apology of the kind that poor, impotently sputtering Gabriel Harvey could only dream. Indeed, in the years that followed, relations between Shakespeare and Chettle may well have been cordial. They collaborated, with several other playwrights, on a play, apparently never performed, about Sir Thomas More.
The account was almost settled, but not quite. Greene's phrase "beautified with our feathers" must have stung. For in 1601, when the Groatsworth of Wit and the fat scoundrel who penned it had long vanished from view, Shakespeare allowed himself an unusual self-indulgence. Polonius-- whose literary pretensions go back to the time when he was "accounted a good actor" "i' th' university" (Hamlet, 3.2.91, 90) where, as he tells us, he played Julius Caesar-- has put his hands on one of the love letters that Hamlet has sent to his daughter. "Now gather and surmise," he says to Claudius and Gertrude, starting to read: "'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia.'" Then abruptly the old councillor comes to a halt for a piece of literary criticism: "that's an ill phrase, a vile phrase, 'beautified' is a vile phrase" (2.2.109-12).
"Thus," as the clown Feste says in Twelfth Night, "the whirligig of time brings in his revenges" (5.1.364). Shakespeare's plays from the 1590s are sprinkled with sly parodies of the words of his erstwhile rivals. Falstaff's overheated sexual excitement in The Merry Wives of Windsor-- "Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves, hail kissing-comfits, and snow eringoes" (5.5.16-18)-- ridicules Lodge's
Wits Misery and the Worlds Madness. The Moorish king's plaintive words to his starving mother in Peele's Battle of Alcazar-- "Hold thee, Calipolis.... Feed and be fat that we may meet the foe"-- returns as a piece of tavern swaggering in 2 Henry IV: "Then feed and be fat, my fair Calipolis" (2.4.155). And a moment earlier the same drunken swaggerer,
Ensign Pistol, has taken Tamburlaine's famously sadistic taunting of the kings he has yoked to his chariot-"Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia! / What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day? " and turned it into fustian nonsense:
And hollow pampered jades of Asia,
Which cannot go but thirty mile a day,
Compare with Caesars and with cannibals,
And Trojan Greeks?
There is much more in the same vein, and if all the plays by the university wits had survived, scholars would no doubt have identified still other instances.
These parodies only suggest that Shakespeare was, after all, a human being, who could take some pleasure in returning literary insults and mocking rivals, even dead ones. But something far more remarkable and unpredictable happened in his work with the grotesque figure of Robert Greene. "Thou whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig," Falstaff's whore, Doll Tearsheet, pouts endearingly, "when wilt thou leave fighting o'days, and foining o'nights, and begin to patch up thine old body for heaven?" To which the fat knight replies, "Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death's-head, do not bid me remember mine end" (2 Henry IV, 2.4.206-10). The deeper we plunge into the tavern world of Falstaff-- gross, drunken, irresponsible, self-dramatizing, and astonishingly witty Falstaff-- the closer we come to the world of Greene; his wife, Doll; his mistress, Em; her thuggish brother, Cutting Ball; and the whole crew.
Falstaff and his friends have the raffish appeal that the wild crowd of London writers must have exercised on the young Shakespeare. In Falstaff's seedy haunts in Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge, Prince Hal gains access to an urban cast of characters far removed from anything he has known before, and he takes particular delight in having learned their language: "They call drinking deep 'dyeing scarlet,' and when you breathe
in your watering they cry 'Hem!' and bid you 'Play it off!' To conclude, I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life" (1 Henry IV, 2.5.13-17). There is, the play suggests, a politics to this language lesson-- "when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap"-- but at the same time it seems a thinly disguised depiction of Shakespeare's own linguistic apprenticeship in taverns.
So too the relationship between Falstaff and Hal centers on fantastically inventive, aggressive language games of the kind that several of the university wits specialized in:
PRINCE HARRY: ... This sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh--
FALSTAFF: 'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish-- O, for breath to utter what is like thee!-- you tailor's yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck--
This is precisely the trading of comic insults, the public flyting, the madcap linguistic excess for which Greene and Nashe in particular were famous. Perhaps Shakespeare had participated in the games; in any case, he had absorbed the lesson and could outdo their best efforts.
Above all, the prince and his grotesque friend-- "that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly" (2.5.409-13)-- spend their time inventing and playing theatrical games, acting out scenes, and parodying styles of playwriting that had gone out of fashion. The theatrical games make visible other dark thoughts as well: kingship is a theatrical performance by a gifted scoundrel; Hal's father, King Henry IV, has no more legitimacy than Falstaff; Falstaff has taken the place of Hal's father, but the position is precarious; Falstaff, fearing that he will be turned away by Hal, is willing to betray his friends; Hal is planning to throw them all off. "No, my good lord," pleads Falstaff, ostensibly in the role of the prince speaking to his father,
… banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, Banish not him thy Harry's company, Banish not him thy Harry's company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
To which Hal, ostensibly in the role of his father, quietly, chillingly replies, "I do; I will."
While probing the relationships at the center of the plays, the brilliant scenes of improvisatory playacting also probe deeply Shakespeare's relationship with Greene and company. Or rather, they provide a glimpse of how Shakespeare looked back upon that relationship years later, when most of the doomed lot were dead and his own position as England's reigning playwright was secure. "I know you all," Shakespeare has Hal say
early in 1 Henry IV, after a scene of jesting and genial wit,
and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
To recognize this proximity between Greene and Falstaff is not only to see how "foul and ugly" were the origins of Shakespeare's golden, capacious, and endlessly fascinating character. To be sure, Greene was tawdry enough-- a drunk, a cheat, and a liar whose actual horizons were pathetically narrow compared to his grandiose projections. That tawdriness is precisely one of Falstaff's characteristics, quite literally
itemized in the "tavern reckonings, memorandums of bawdy-houses and one poor pennyworth of sugar-candy to make thee long-winded" that Hal finds when he searches his pockets (3.3.146-48). It takes no great detective work on Hal's part to discover how empty Falstaff's claims are-- only a fool would take him at his word, and clear-eyed Hal is anything but a fool. It also takes no special gift to see how nasty and common were the actual circumstances of Robert Greene's life. The more demanding and interesting
task is to savor the power of the illusions without simply submitting to the cheating and the lies. What Falstaff helps to reveal is that for Shakespeare, Greene was a sleazy parasite, but he was also a grotesque titan, a real-life version of the drunken Silenus in Greek mythology or of Rabelais' irrepressible trickster, Panurge.
Shakespeare seized upon the central paradox of Greene's life-- that this graduate of Oxford and Cambridge hung out in low taverns in the company of ruffians-- and turned it into Falstaff's supremely ambiguous social position, the knight who is intimate with both the Prince of Wales and a pack of thieves. Falstaff captured Greene's bingeing and whoring, his "dropsical" belly, his prodigal wasting of his impressive talents, his cynical exploitation of friends, his brazenness, his seedy charm. He captured too the noisy, short-lived fits of repentance for which Greene was famous, along with the solemn moralizing that swerved effortlessly into irreverent laughter. "Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing," Falstaff says, adopting the role of the corrupted innocent: "and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give over this life, and I will give it over. By the Lord, an I do not, I am a villain. I'll be damned for never a king's son in Christendom." To which Hal-- like the friends who mocked Greene out of his pious resolutions-- replies with a simple question: "Where shall we take a purse tomorrow, Jack?" "Zounds, where thou wilt, lad! I'll make one; an I do not, call me villain" (1.2.82-89). So much for moral reform.
Falstaff was not a straightforward portrait of Robert Greene (who was neither a knight nor an old man), any more than the whore Doll Tearsheet was a faithful portrait of the virtuous country wife named Doll whom Greene abandoned or the tavern hostess Mistress Quickly was a portrait of
the Mistress Isam from whom he borrowed money and who nursed him through his final illness. Here as elsewhere, Shakespeare's actual world gets into his work, but most often in a distorted, inverted, disguised, or reimagined form. The point is not to strip away the reimaginings, as if the life sources were somehow more interesting than the metamorphoses, but rather to enhance a sense of the wonder of Shakespeare's creation-- the immensely bold, generous imaginative work that took elements from the wasted life of Robert Greene and used them to fashion the greatest comic character in English literature.
Greene was by no means the sole source. Like many of Shakespeare's most memorable creations, Falstaff is made out of multiple materials, much of it not from life but from literature. Shakespeare understood his world in the ways that we understand our world-- his experiences, like ours, were mediated by whatever stories and images were available to him. When he was in a tavern and encountered a loudmouthed soldier who bragged about his daring adventures, Shakespeare saw that soldier through the lens of characters he had read in fiction, and at that same time he adjusted his image of those fictional characters by means of the actual person standing before him.
In inventing Falstaff, Shakespeare started, as he so often did, from a character in a play by someone else, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which had been performed by the Queen's Men in London and on tour. This crude anonymous play, which chronicled the near miraculous transformation of Prince Hal from wastrel youth to heroic king, included a dissolute knight, Sir John Oldcastle, as part of the crew of thieves and ruffians in which Hal had become enmeshed. Shakespeare took over this figure (he originally used the same name, only changing it to Falstaff after the descendants of Oldcastle objected) and built upon its spare frame his vast creation. He took the stock figure of the braggart soldier, the blowhard who is always going on about his martial accomplishments but who plays dead when danger comes too close, and combined him with another venerable comic type, the parasite, always hungry and thirsty and always conniving to get his wealthy patron to pick up the tab. To these he added features of the Vice in the morality play-- shameless irreverence,
the exuberant pursuit of pleasures, and a seductive ability to draw naive youth away from the austere paths of virtue. And he conjoined some elements of a newer cultural stereotype) the hypocritical Puritan who noisily trumpets his commitment to virtue while secretly indulging his every sensual vice. But to contemplate these pieces of literary flotsam and jetsam is already to see how complete and unexpected was Shakespeare's transformation of them.
He himself must have been surprised by what began to emerge when he sat down to write Henry IV. What would have been predictable, what he may initially have intended, was some version of the lively but largely conventional figure whom in fact he created some years later in All's Well That Ends Well. That character, Paroles, has all the appropriately obnoxious traits of the loudmouthed bragging corrupter of the young, and the audience is invited to delight in his discomfiture. But even here, when his imagination was not operating at the very pinnacle of its power, Shakespeare did something odd, something that casts light back on the infinitely greater Falstaff. Paroles has been utterly humiliated, exposed and disgraced before his friends and fellow officers so devastatingly that the suicide proposed to him is the only honorable course of action. But he is anything but honorable, and, rejecting any thought of putting an end to himself, he takes his leave. "Captain I'll be no more," Paroles ruefully acknowledges, and then his mood shifts;
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live.
This is the life force itself.
This life force is at work to an unparalleled degree in Falstaff. In him too it burns brightest when everything that goes by the word "honor"-- name, reputation, dignity, vocation, trust worthiness, truthfulness-- is stripped away. "Can honour set-to a leg?" Falstaff asks, at the brink of battle.
No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath not skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word "honour"? What is that "honour"? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o'Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. (1 Henry IV, 5.1.130-38)
A few moments later, standing over the corpse of Sir Walter Blunt (killed fighting bravely for the king), Falstaff sharpens the stark opposition between empty words and the only thing that actually matters, at least to him: "I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life" (5.3.57-58).
To a degree unparalleled in Shakespeare's work and perhaps in all of English literature, Falstaff seems actually to possess a mysterious inner principle of vitality, as if he could float free not only of Shakespeare's sources in life and in art but also of the play in which he appears. If a theatrical tradition, first recorded in 1702, is correct, Queen Elizabeth herself not only admired Shakespeare's great comic character but also sensed this inner principle: she commanded the author to write a play showing Falstaff in love. In two weeks' time, or so it is said, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written, to be first performed on April 23, 1597, at the annual feast to commemorate the founding of the Order of the Garter. Famous already in Shakespeare's lifetime, constantly alluded to throughout the seventeenth century, and the subject of a distinguished book length study as early as the eighteenth century, the fat knight has for centuries provoked admirers to attempt to pluck out the heart of his mystery: great wit and the ability to provoke wit in others; spectacular resilience; fierce, subversive intelligence; Carnivalesque exuberance. Each of these qualities seems true, and yet there is always something else, something elusive that remains to be accounted for, as if the scoundrel had the power in himself to resist all efforts to explain or contain him.
Shakespeare himself evidently struggled to keep his own creation within bounds. The climax of the second of the great history plays in which Falstaff appears is a scene in which Hal, newly crowned as Henry V, brutally dashes his friend's wild expectations of plunder: "I know thee not, old man" (2 Henry IV, 5.5.45). It is the most decisive of repudiations. Falstaff is banished from the royal presence on pain of death, and the king's coldly ironic words to the onetime "tutor and feeder of my riots" conjure up the final, literal containment of all that corpulent energy: "know the grave doth gape / For thee thrice wider than for other men" (5.5.60,51-2). Yet a moment later Falstaff seems already to be slipping free from this noose-- "Go with me to dinner. Come, Lieutenant Pistol; come, Bardolph. I shall be sent for soon at night" (5.5.83-85)-- and at the play's close Shakespeare announces that he will bring him back once again. "One word more, I beseech you," says the actor who speaks the epilogue. "If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it" (lines 22-24). It is as if Falstaff himself refuses to accept the symbolic structure of the play that has just ended.
Yet when he actually sat down to continue the story, by writing a play about Henry V's great triumph over the French at Agincourt, Shakespeare had second thoughts. Falstaff's cynical, antiheroic stance-- his ruthless, comic deflation of the idealizing claims of those in power and his steadfast insistence on the primacy of the flesh-- proved impossible to incorporate into a celebration of charismatic leadership and martial heroism. That celebration was not without Shakespeare's characteristic skeptical intelligence, but for the play to succeed-- for Hal to be something more than a mock king-- skepticism had to stop short of the relentless mockery that in two consecutive plays Falstaff so brilliantly articulated. Hence Shakespeare decided to break his promise to the audience and to keep his comic masterpiece out of Henry V. Indeed, he decided to get rid of him permanently by providing a detailed narrative of death: ''A parted ev'n just between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o'th' tide," Mistress Quickly memorably recounts,
for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his finger's end, I knew there was but one way. For his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a babbled of green fields. "How now, Sir John?" quoth I. "What, man! Be O' good cheer." So a cried out, "God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a bade me lay more clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone. Then I felt to his knees, and so up' ard and up' ard, and all was as cold as any stone. (Henry V, 2.3.11-23)
The drama here is not the death scene itself, which is carefully kept offstage; the drama, as Shakespeare and his audience understood, is the spectacle of a great playwright killing off the greatest of his comic characters. Of course, given Falstaff's manner of life, the official cause of death must be overindulgence-- the equivalent of Greene's fatal feast of pickled herring and Rhenish wine-- but the play makes clear that it has staged a symbolic rnurder: "The King has killed his heart" (2.1.79).
'An upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers": Greene and his crowd, despite their drunken recklessness and bohemian snobbery, saw something frightening in Shakespeare, a usurper's knack for displaying as his own what he had plucked from others, an alarming ability to plunder, appropriate, and absorb. Shakespeare, for his part, understood that he did not belong with these grasshoppers, and he may, as Greene himself seems to imply, have turned down some request for help tram the indigent, desperate scoundrel.
In Prince Hal, the author of the Henry IV plays saw himself, projecting onto his character a blend of experimental participation and careful, self-protective distance; recognizing the functional utility of his tavern lessons in language games and in role-playing; and unsentimentally accepting the charge of calculated self-interest. Reflecting on the scene he entered into in the late 1580s, Shakespeare acknowledged what he had had to do in order to survive. But the coldness that he attributed to himself-- or rather to Hal-- was only one aspect of his relationship with Greene, and perhaps not the most important aspect. For if Shakespeare took what he
could from Greene-- if, as an artist, he took what he could from everyone he encountered-- he also performed a miraculous act of imaginative generosity, utterly unsentimental and, if the truth be told, not entirely human. Human generosity would have involved actually giving money to the desperate Greene; it would have been foolish, quixotic, and easily abused. Shakespeare's generosity was aesthetic, rather than pecuniary He conferred upon Greene an incalculable gift, the gift of transforming him in to Falstaff.