Shakespeare Solved ®

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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Robert Greene and Shakespeare the Upstart Crow

Robert Greene was born 455 years ago today, on 11 July 1558.

He was one of the most famous and popular writers in London when Shakespeare was first beginning his career.

Robert Greene, in a woodcut from after his death
He is shown writing in his funeral shroud
Greene was only about 6 years older than Shakespeare, but by the time that Shakespeare arrived in London in around 1587, Greene was already well established.

By 1587, Greene, Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe were arguably the most well known writers of all.

Greene wrote in many genres, not just in plays. He is considered to be perhaps the first man to support himself as a professional writer in England.

He was a very colorful figure, wearing very fashionable clothing, and styling his red beard into a point.

It would seem that Greene was not interested in just being a writer. He wanted to create a very flamboyant identity in London that was unlike any other.

He matched his unusual style with unusual writing. He wrote stories about the underbelly of society, on the mean streets of Elizabethan London, with dark and shady characters, including a character of himself as a notorious rascal.

I think Shakespeare would have met Greene, and like any other actor and writer of the period, he would have wanted to learn how to become as successful an artist as Greene, or Kyd, or Marlowe was.

I also think that artists like Marlowe and Greene, who both went to Cambridge, would have looked down on a country bumpkin like Shakespeare as unwelcome upstart. Shakespeare did not attend university due to his father’s financial losses.

Greene's pamphlet in which Shakespeare is mentioned
Published shortly after Greene's death

Nowadays, Greene is most remembered for having written a pamphlet in 1592 that is the first historical mention of Shakespeare:

"...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey"

A rough translation would be: Shakespeare is nothing but an attention-grabbing upstart, who makes himself seem talented by performing our plays, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and thinks that he can write as well as us:  he is a Jack-of-all-trades who is conceited enough to think that he is the best actor in the country.

Bitter words.

Do they accurately portray Shakespeare? Was Shakespeare a status-seeking social climber?

It may have seemed like that to Greene. 

By 1592, Shakespeare was just getting going, and receiving his first acclaim as a writer, of the Henry VI plays. 

In 1592, Robert Greene’s greatest work was behind him, with Pandosto (1588) and Menaphon (1589).

Robert Greene must have been terrified by someone as ambitious and talented as Shakespeare.

It was a fear that Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd and any other writer in London must have felt.

By the end of 1592, Greene was dead. He probably drinked himself to death. He was only 34 years old.

By 1593, Marlowe was dead.

By 1594, Kyd was dead, and Shakespeare had no real competition in London as a writer. For almost the rest of Shakespeare's life, there was no one else who could touch him.

It is important to look at the early years in Shakespeare’s career as closely as possible, even with what little we know about those days.

It would seem that Shakespeare did not follow in the footsteps of Greene, Kyd and Marlowe. He just wrote. He was just a writer.

When Greene was drinking, and buying expensive clothes, and hanging out with Elizabethan London’s low-lifes, Shakespeare was hard at work writing.

When Marlowe and Kyd were getting in trouble with the authorities, and in Marlowe’s case possibly working as a spy, Shakespeare was writing.

Shakespeare’s success and his longevity as a writer and an artist was based, it seems very clear, on the fact that so many of the “best” writers before him did not just write. 

He saw their failures, and he learned not to make their mistakes. 

I think there is a very good moral to the story of Greene's life, as compared to Shakespeare's.

Shakespeare's genius was not just in the quality of his writing. 

Any writer will tell you that it is impossible to control the quality of the words they write.

But the quantity of time they spend writing is what they can control the most. The quality of their writing is directly a result of the time they put into it.

Shakespeare learned early on that while everyone else was busy in the taverns, he was hard at work. He sat down and wrote.


David B. Schajer

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