On September 20, 1592, a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a successful but dissolute playwright was published in London. It was called A Groats-Worth of Witte bought with a Million of Repentance (a groat being a small coin).
It is most famous for containing, it would seem, the first printed reference to William Shakespeare, although in coded language.
Greene’s pamphlet features snide remarks about rival playwrights and actors, without coming right out and naming them.
If anyone was offended by Greene’s little book when it was published, it was too late to complain to Greene in person. He had died a few weeks earlier, on September 3rd, reportedly of “a surfeit of pickle herring and Rhenish wine.” He was 34 and by his own admission a hearty partier and hard drinker.
(The woodcut above shows Greene writing Groats-worth while wearing a funeral winding sheet.)
The passage that looks like it is taking a dig at Shakespeare, who was then 28, is about an “upstart” actor who also has the nerve to write plays. Here it is:
…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 beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum (Jack-of all-trades), is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.
The line “Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” references a line from Shakespeare’s own Henry VI, Part 3, “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,” and the pun on Shake-scene seems like a dead giveaway.
Still, something tells me Shakespeare had plenty of time in his career to forget this early sting.