1592 a posthumous hotchpotch of writings by the pamphleteer and
playwright Robert Greene was published under the title Greene's
Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance.
In it was a letter addressed to three of his 'fellow Schollers
about this Cittie' who 'spend their wits in making plays' -
Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and George Peele: members
of that loose literary fraternity known as the 'University
Wits'. It contains a blistering attack on a certain uneducated
actor who was presuming to write for the theatre:
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.
The target of this broadside was the twenty eight year old William Shakespeare
- signalled both by the punning name 'Shakescene', and by the parody of a line
from his Henry
VI Part 3, 'O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide'. The passage was
probably written in the summer of 1592 (Greene died on 3 September). It is the
earliest certain allusion to Shakespeare as a writer, though clearly he had
already achieved some success in the field: this is implied by Greene's pique,
and is corroborated by the 1592 account books of Philip Henslowe, impresario
of the Rose theatre, which record high takings for 'harey the vi', almost certainly Henry
VI Part 1.
description of Shakespeare as a 'crow' carries two meanings. It refers
to him as an actor - one who merely mimics the words of others, as a crow
does - but it has also a graver imputation of plagiarism. It echoes the
Roman poet Horace's image of a plagiarizing poet as a 'little crow' decked
with 'stolen colours'. The scholarly Greene, who adorned his title pages
with Horatian tags, would certainly have known this passage from one of
Horace's Epistles. It was probably this slur which prompted Shakespeare
to remonstrate with the hack-author Henry Chettle, who had edited the Groatsworth from
Greene's fragmentary manuscripts. In his own pamphlet, Kind-heart's
Dream, published at the end of the year, Chettle duly apologized:
I am as sorry as if the original fault had been
my fault, because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he
excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have
reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his
facetious grace in writing, which approves his art.
As Chettle's phrasing shows, Shakespeare felt his 'honesty' had been impugned by Greene, as well as his 'art'.
Posterity has preferred Chettle's Shakespeare to Greene's but in a sense, of
course, Greene was right. Like all young writers Shakespeare learned from his
predecessors. Among the playwrights of the early 1590s none was more charismatic
than Christopher Marlowe. He and Shakespeare were exact contemporaries and were
from similar backgrounds - the shoemaker's son from Canterbury and the glover's
son from Stratford - but Marlowe had won a scholarship to Cambridge and had
thereby crossed that intellectual and social frontier which Greene was so keen
Plagiarism is perhaps too strong a word, but certainly the Henry VI plays
contain unmistakable echoes and borrowings from Marlowe -
||Like captives bound to a triumphant car...
With captive kings at his triumphant car...
brandish your crystal tresses in the sky...
shaking her silver tresses in the air...
these arms of mine shall be thy sepulchre...
my heart shall be thy sepulchre...
bears a Duke's revenues on her back...
wears a lord's revenues on his back...
made our footstool of security...
makes his footstool on security...
|[1 Henry VI]
[1 Henry VI]
[1 Henry VI]
[Jew of Malta]
[2 Henry VI]
[3 Henry VI]
[Massacre at Paris]
These are, in Greene's terms, some of the linguistic 'feathers' with which Shakespeare has 'beautified' his early plays.
Such particular parallels are part of a more general debt to Marlowe's 'mighty
line', both in the Henry
VI plays and also in Titus Andronicus, another very early Shakespeare
play, where the scheming 'blackamoor' Aaron has the poetic and psychological
cadences of the Marlovian over-reacher:
Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts:
I will be bright and shine in pearl and gold
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I' - to wanton with this queen.
Behind this interplay lies a personal connection of which we know nothing. In the intimate, rivalrous world of literary London the two men must surely have known one another. They were rather different in character - one does not sense in Shakespeare that reckless, quarrelsome quality intrinsic to Marlowe; one does not think of him as 'intemperate & of a cruel heart' (as Thomas Kyd said of Marlowe).
Marlowe was fatally stabbed in 1593, aged twenty nine. It is thought that Shakespeare
refers to the violent circumstances of his death in As
You like it: 'It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little
room'. In the same play Marlowe is called the 'dead shepherd', when Phoebe quotes
a famous line from Hero
and Leander -
Dead shepherd now I find thy saw of might:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight'
This is poignant, but in general Shakespeare's later echoes of Marlowe are more
ironic. In Henry
IV Part 2, Falstaff's swaggering side-kick Pistol is full of faulty scraps
of Marlowe - his 'hollow pampered jades' misremembers the line from Tamburlaine,
'Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia'. In The
Merry Wives of Windsor, the Welsh priest Hugh Evans soothes his 'melancholies'
by crooning a couple of stanzas from Marlowe's famous lyric 'Come Live With Me',
complete with comic Welsh pronunciations ('And we will make our peds of roses',
etc). In Hamlet, the speech of the First Player - that epitome of outdated
theatrical histrionics - is a parodic version of Marlowe and Nashe's Dido
Queen of Carthage.
nature of these later references suggest the audience's familiarity with the
Marlowe canon: their very casualness is a kind of tribute. Yet there is also
a note of desertion - the poet who had inspired Shakespeare in his early years
is now made light of. These comic characters quote him as if they were whistling
an old tune. The crow has flown on and no longer needs that borrowed Marlovian