Robert Greene was born in Norwich in about 1560 to parents of the tradesmen’s class. Educated at Cambridge, Greene travelled extensively on the continent, claiming to have lived a debauched and dissolute lifestyle throughout his youth.
In fact, Greene’s life of degeneracy and waste seems to have been the primary theme of his brief 32 years on earth. He claims to have married around 1585 and fathered a child, but as his wife tried to “perswade me from my willful wickedness”, Greene, unwilling to be reformed, “cast her off”, she returning to her home in Lincolnshire, he moving or returning to London.
Greene’s years in London were marked by periods of both furious writing and extensive debaucheries. In August 1592, Greene fell ill at a dinner which featured pickled herrings and Rhenish wine, a feast which began Greene’s untimely slide to poverty and death. Abandoned by any friends he might have had, the penniless Greene died on 3 September in the home of a shoemaker and his wife where he was staying.
The day before he died, Greene wrote a note to his long-abandoned wife, asking her to repay a 10-pound debt he owed to the couple who had cared for him in his final days.
Greene also appears to have sired a bastard son, named Fortunatus, who died in 1593.
Robert Greene was most famous in his day for the numerous prose pamphlets he published; as the National Biography wrote, “his literary activity was remarkable, and he rose rapidly in popular favour.” His romances and poetry were gobbled up by an increasingly literate London.
Drama was only of secondary importance to Greene’s career, but he did leave behind at least four interesting plays:
(1) The Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Arrogon, which Greene deliberately wrote in the style of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine; the National Biography calls Alphonsus a “dreary imitation”;
(2) The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which at first glance appears to have been a knock-off of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but is in fact is a superior play, and Greene’s best dramatic work;
(3) The Scottish History of James IV, which though superficially a history play, is really an exceptional comedy; and
(4) The History of Orlando Furioso, which the National Biography calls “a poor play, with a very corrupt text.
(5) Greene also co-wrote A Looking Glass for London and England with Thomas Lodge.
If Greene is remembered at all, it is for his pamphlet Greene’s Groat’s-worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance, an obviously autobiographical account of a man living the type of debauched life that Greene himself led; in one section, Greene encourages several of his contemporaries – Marlowe, George Peele, and Thomas Nashe – to give up their careers as playwrights.
Greene particularly warns his fellow dramatists to beware, for “there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s 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 Iohannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
The reference to Shake-scene is well-known to Shakespearean trivia-buffs as signaling an attack on the bard himself; the passage is understood to be a criticism of Shakespeare for stepping outside of his bounds as an actor by taking up his pen to write plays as well; Greene’s criticism, by its very existence, implies that Shakespeare was well established as both a dramatist and actor.
The italicized line in the quoted passage – the italics appeared in the original – is a parody of a line that appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III: “O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!” This line from Henry itself originally appeared in a play entitled The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and its appearance in Groat’s-worth of Grit has been understood to be a further criticism of Shakespeare’s penchant for rewriting – or perhaps, hints Greene, plagiarizing – existing plays and passing them off as his own.
Greene’s undignified posturing has not served his reputation well over the centuries.