3.5.5. Henry Chettle, Greenes Groatsworth of Wit, 1592


By profession Henry Chettle (c.1560-c.1606) was a printer. He didn’t have an own printing shop but was occupied as a composer by John Danter, a somewhat disreputable printer whose press was seized in 1599. Danter printed — probably surreptitiously — Shakespeare’s Titus and Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and in all likelihood also a now lost issue of Love’s Labour’s Lost. He also printed some works of Thomas Nashe, the foremost satirist of the last decade of the Elizabethan reign. He started his apprenticeship in the Stationers’ Company along with Anthony Munday but contrary to Munday, who, giving his travel to Italy and the subsequent inception of his literary career, must have left the Stationers’ Company around 1578, Chettle was freed of the company in 1584. As apprenticeships usually ended at the age of 24, it is likely he was born in 1560 (also the birth year of Munday). Chettle seems to have entertained friendly relations with Nashe and Munday. He himself entered the literary scene much later than the two former. Munday’s literary production started c. 1579, Nashe’s shortly before 1589.

Chettle followed shortly before 1592. In the same decade he is known to have written some theatrical work. It is, however, not easy to track him down stylistically, for Chettle was an assidous imitator displaying several styles. In an epistle prefacing Anthony Munday’s translation Gerileon of England he successfully imitated Nashe’s style and signed with the latter’s initials T.N. His euphuistic novel Pierce’s Plainness emulates Robert Greene’s romances and displays most clearly some of Chettle’s syntactical and lexical idiosyncrasies, which also crop up in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, a work that more than any other of his literary productions has secured him an everlasting place in English literary history. Chettle was suspected to be himself the author of the tale purportedly written by the dying Robert Greene. In an apology, to which he had been urged by “divers of worship” and prefixed to his own tale Kindheart’s Dream end 1592, about three months after Robert Greene’s death and the publication of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, he admitted to being the editor but denied to be the author. Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit contained an invective against an actor dubbed “Shake-scene” supposed by many, especially orthodox scholars, to be Shakespeare and a more or less depreciating warning to three playwrights, thought to be Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and either George Peele or William Shakespeare. However, today the majority of scholars consider him to have been the real author.

10-11 years later Chettle, contrary to his attitude in 1592, seems to have implicitly acknowledged the authorship of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit in his epistle to the readers of England's Mourning Garment. The epistle is not signed, but a motto is subscribed: Fœlicem fuisse infaustum (“to be happy one must have been unhappy”). This motto, as far as I know never used by Robert Greene, appears thrice in Greene's Groatsworth of Wit: on the title-page, toward the end just before the closing farewell letter Greene allegedly wrote to his wife, and, after the letter itself, at the very end.

R. D.

Greene's Groatsworth of Wit,
bought with a million of repentance.
Describing the folly of youth, the falsehood of makeshift
flatterers, the misery of the negligent, and
mischiefs of deceiving courtesans.
Written before his death and published at his dying request.

Foelicem fuisse infaustum.

Imprinted for William Wright.

To those Gentlemen, his Quondam acquaintance,
that spend their wits in making plays, R [obert] G[reene]
wisheth a better exercise, and wisdom
to prevent his extremities.

If woeful experience may move you (Gentlemen) to beware, or unheard-of wretchedness entreat you to take heed, I doubt not but you will look back with sorrow on your time past, and endeavour with repentance to spend that which is to come.
Wonder not, (for with thee will I first begin) thou famous gracer of Tragedians [1], that Greene, who hath said with thee (like the fool in his heart) There is no God should now give glory unto his greatness: for penetrating is his power, his hand lies heavy upon me, he hath spoken unto me with a voice of thunder, and I have felt he is a God that can punish enemies. Why should thy excellent wit, his gift, be so blinded that thou shouldst give no glory to the giver? Is it pestilent Machiavellian policy that thou hast studied? O peevish folly! What are his rules but mere confused mockeries, able to extirpate in small time the generation of mankind? For if Sic volo, sic iubeo [I want this, I order this] hold in those that are able to command: and if it be lawful Fas & nefas [through right or wrong] to do anything that is beneficial, only Tyrants should possess the earth and they, striving to exceed in tyranny, should each to other be a slaughterman; till the mightiest outliving all, one stroke were left for Death, that in one age man's life should end. The broacher [introducer] of this Diabolical Atheism is dead [2], and in his life had never the felicity he aimed at: but as he began in craft, lived in fear and ended in despair. Quam inscrutabilia sunt Dei iudicia? [How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! Romans 11:33] This murderer of many brethren had his conscience seared like Cain: this betrayer of him that gave his life for him, inherited the portion of Judas: this Apostata perished as ill as Julian[3]: and wilt thou, my friend, be his disciple? Look but to me, by him persuaded to that liberty, and thou shalt find it an infernal bondage. I know the least of my demerits merit this miserable death, but wilful striving against known truth exceedeth all the terrors of my soul. Defer not (with me) till this last point of extremity, for little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.
With thee I join young Juvenal [4], that biting Satirist, that lastly with me together writ a comedy. Sweet boy, might I advise thee, be advised, and get not many enemies by bitter words. Inveigh against vain men, for thou canst do it, no man better, no man so well. Thou hast a liberty to reprove all, and name none, for one being spoken to, all are offended; none being blamed, no man is injured. Stop shallow water still running, it will rage, or tread on a worm and it will turn. Then blame not Scholars vexed with sharp lines if they reprove thy too much liberty of reproof.
And thou, no less deserving than the other two [5], in some things rarer, in nothing inferior, driven (as myself) to extreme shifts [fraudulent or evasive devices], a little have I to say to thee, and were it not an idolatrous oath, I would swear by sweet St. George, thou art unworthy better hap sith thou dependest on so mean a stay. Base-minded men all three of you, if by my misery 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 Antics garnished in our colours. 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) be both at once of them forsaken?
Yes, trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow [6], beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide [7] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and, being an absolute Johannes factotum [8], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country. O that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: and let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and nevermore acquaint them with your admired inventions. I know the best husband of you all will never prove an Usurer, and the kindest of them all will never prove a kind nurse: yet whilst you may, seek you better Masters, for it is pity men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasure of such rude grooms.
In this I might insert two more that both have writ against these buckram [stiff] Gentlemen: but let their own works serve to witness against their own wickedness if they persevere to maintain any more such peasants. For other new-comers, I leave them to the mercy of these painted monsters who (I doubt not) will drive the best-minded to despise them. For the rest, it skills not though they make a jest at them.
But now return I again to you three, knowing my misery is to you no news: and let me heartily entreat you to be warned by my harms. Delight not (as I have done) in irreligious oaths, for from the blasphemer's house a curse shall not depart. Despise drunkenness, which wasteth the wit and maketh men all equal unto beasts. Fly lust as the deathsman of the soul, and defile not the Temple of the Holy Ghost. Abhor those Epicures whose loose life hath made religion loathsome to your ears: and when they soothe you with terms of Mastership, remember Robert Greene, whom they have so often flattered, perishes now for want of comfort. Remember, Gentlemen, your lives are like so many lighted Tapers that are with care delivered to all of you to maintain: these with wind-puffed wrath may be extinguished, which drunkenness put out, which negligence let fall, for man's time is not of itself so short but it is more shortened by sin. The fire of my light is now at the last snuff, and for want of wherewith to sustain it, there is no substance left for life to feed on. Trust not then (I beseech ye) to such weak stays, for they are as changeable in mind as in many attires. Well, my hand is tired and I am forced to leave where I would begin: for a whole book cannot contain their wrongs, which I am forced to knit up in some few lines of words. Desirous that you should live, though himself be dying,

Robert Greene.


In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) Henry Chettle gives a verbal trouncing to an actor who, overrating his own abilities, feels that he can compose blank verse as well as a dramatist. The fact of the matter is: Chettle means neither Will Shaksper the actor nor William Shakespeare the poet. He is talking about an actor, one who shakes the scene and thinks himself the “onely Shake-scene in a countrey”. Chettle’s tirade against the actors is part of a warning that he would have fellow-dramatists heed. He warns them of “atheism, money-lenders and actors”. Chettle’s warning goes out, in general, to “those gentlemen who spend their wits making plays”, and particularly to the Machiavellian and “famous grazer [shepherd] of tragedians” (Christopher Marlowe), “the young Juvenal, that biting satirist” (Thomas Nashe) and – “I would swear by sweet Saint George” – to the “nothing inferior” writer (George Peele). Henry Chettle says that actors are nothing but burrs who cling on to a play and ruin it, enriching themselves at the cost of the author.
The well-worn passage from Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is as follows:
Unto none of you (like me) sought those burrs to cleave, those puppets (I mean) that spake from our mouths, those antics garnished in our colours. 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 you in that case as I am now) be both at once of them forsaken?
Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s 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 Shake-scene in a country. O that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses, and let those apes imitate your past excellence, and nevermore acquaint them with your admired inventions.
With the words “an upstart crow”, Chettle rebuked a contemporary ham actor, a notorious ranter (shake-scene) – changing the words of the best dramatist in a clumsy way (“that ... supposes he is as able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”). But whom did Chettle mean when he spoke of “the best of you”?
The actor in question is said to have used the sentence “with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide”. This is a parody on a quote from Shakespeare “O tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide!” (3Henry VI, I/4)
Chettle took up, or probably invented this parody on a sentence of the “best” to show that the actor in question was indeed a disrespectful villain. And that “the best” was Shakespeare.
“Gotcha!” cries the auditorium. This parody on a quote from Shakespeare is the proof that the actor, who was the cause of Chettle’s chagrin, and the author of the Shakespearian works, are indeed one and the same person.
If that is your opinion dear reader, then you really ought to think this thing through again. There’s no such thing as an author who gets on a stage and does a parody on his own work. There never has been. There is only one logical solution; the annoying actor and the author must have been two separate individuals; some professional truth-benders might have a problem with that, but there it is.
To sum up: The quote from Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, which has been repeated ad nauseam, when interpreted correctly proves Chettle’s adoration of a singular dramatist, later renowned as William Shakespeare.
(In any case we are surprised to see a reference to the author’s name “Shakespeare”, a name first made public in the summer of 1593 with the appearance of Venus and Adonis. In January 1593 Thomas Nashe made references to a certain “Master William” just three months after Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.)
We can say with a high degree of certitude that the actor in question was the popular Edward Alleyn, a member of The Admiral’s Men. He was the son-in-law of Philip Henslowe who left James Burbage’s theatre company in 1592, ensuing the rivalry between the two leading theatre companies, The Admiral’s Men and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
In view of the fact that Henry Chettle was known for his very liberal views in the matter of plagiarism, it would seem that Chettle used Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit to hide behind the name of Robert Greene and pontificate to his enemies: Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn. Marlowe and Nashe litigated against the publisher of the pamphlet. Marlowe threatened Chettle with vengeance. Nashe, a declared friend of Robert Greene called the publication a “scald trivial lying pamphlet”.

                                                                                                             K. K.



[1] “thou famous gracer of Tragedians”: Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) who gave grace to the tragedians.

[2] “The broacher of this Diabolical Atheism is dead”: Macchiavelli.

[3] “this Apostata perished as ill as Julian”: Julian, emporor of Rome (331-363).

[4] “young Juvenal”: The satirist Thomas Nashe.

[5] “And thou, no less deserving than the other two”: Probably George Peele, because Chettle swears “by sweet St. George”.

[6] “an upstart Crow”: From the time of Horace down to the period under discussion the figure of the crow decked in borrowed feathers was a favorite description of incorrect imitators.

[7] “his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide”: See commentary.

[8]Johannes factotum”: OED: ‘A Jack of all trades, a would-be universal genius.’