3.1.1. Annotations to 3.1. (by KK)


In his essay “Honest or Civil Conversation” Robert Detobel expresses the view that the author of Greenes Groatsworth of Wit (1592), i.e. the printer Henry Chettle in his admonishing speech  to the contemporary playwrights Marlowe and Nashe possibly alluded to the third contemporary dramatist William Shake-speare. Greene, warning the playwrights against intrusive actors,  writes as follows:


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 Machivilian 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 Caine: this betrayer of him that gave his life for him, inherited the portion of Iudas: this Apostata perished as ill as Iulian[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 Iuvenall [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 S. 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 fac totum [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.

This long letter is followed by a public apology in Henry Chettle’s Kindhearts Dreame at the beginning of 1593, in which he mainly addresses Christopher Marlowe. Simultaneously Chettle regrets not having protected the “third playwright” enough against Robert Greene’s words. His apology reads as follows:

The other [the third playwright], whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that as I have moderated the heat of living writers [in: Plaine Perceval, The Peace-Maker of England, 1590 [9]], and might have used my own discretion (especially in such a case), the author [Greene] being dead, that I did not, I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his [the third playwright’s] demeanour no less civil that he excellent in the quality [=the art] he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.

I would like to invoke three points to prove that Henry Chettle neither in his address to the three playwrights nor in his apology can have had Shakespeare as the “third playwright” in mind:

1. The distinctive mark of the “third playwright”, namely the vow “by sweet St. George” neither applies to Will Shakspere nor to William Shake-speare. Without such an identifier, however, Greene’s address to the three playwrights would have been meaningless.

2. “Greene” compared his misery of being dependent on the actors and his mental acrobatics (extreme shifts) to the situation of the “third playwright” – and predicted him a similarly bitter end in case he failed to liberate himself from his state of dependence. “Greene”

(= Chettle) even goes one step further, calling the “third playwright” ‘base-minded’ if he does not listen to his – “Greene’s” – warning. Such comments would not only have been considered defamatory and punishable with reference to William Shake-speare (= Earl of Oxford), Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, moreover, they would have been inappropriate towards a high aristocrat who did not suffer any hardship despite his overextending himself financially.

3. Chettle’s apology would have made matters worse in Shake-speare’s (= Oxford’s) case, since with his constant declaration of his “civil demeanour”, his “uprightness of dealing” and his “honesty” he raises the suspicion that these virtues might be doubted or have already been questioned (See J. D. Wilson, 1951: “But why drag in that pointed reference to ‘honesty’ and ‘uprightness of dealing’? One does not publicly certify a friend is no thief unless someone else has previously asserted the contrary as publicly.” )

[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 Iuvenall”: The satirist Thomas Nashe. Of course Chettle was writing under the name of Robert Greene. But even then the term “quondam acquaintance” in the address is inappropriate, at least for Nashe who had lately written a comedy with Greene [A Moral of Cloth Breeches and Velvet Hoses (?)] and caroused with him in August, less than a month before.

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

[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.’

[9] Plaine Perceval, The Peace-Maker of England (1590) is written by Henry Chettle who enters his nickname Kind-heart” in the text. “Gape Martin that I may see thy age, but take heed, thou bite me not; I thought so; the mark is not out of thy mouth, for thy hast a Colt’s tooth in thine head still: if thou wilt have it drawn by foul means, thes Roisters have beetles to knock it out; if gently, let me be thy tooth drawer, I have a kind heart of mine own, and that name hath been good at such a practice heretofore.”