Today in Literary History – September 3, 1592 – dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene dies

Robert Greene, the Elizabethan era dramatist, pamphleteer and the first person to mention Shakespeare in print (at least by allusion) died on September 3, 1592 at the age of 34.

Much of Greene’s life and death is known only by speculation. He does seem to have been a friendly rival of Shakespeare and seems, by reputation, to have been a prodigious eater and drinker.

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Some critics think he may have been one of the models for Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Greene’s death was reported to have come about from “a surfeit of pickle herring and Rhenish wine.”

During his career Greene wrote a number of successful plays and many prose works, mostly polemics on political subjects or satires of London life.

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On September 20, 1592, 17 days after his death, a pamphlet by Robert Greene 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 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. The passage that seems to be 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.

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Greene was famously portrayed in a woodcut engraving writing A Groats-Worth in a funereal winding sheet. If Shakespeare was stung by Greene’s words, we can all agree that in the end he had the last laugh.

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