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An Upstart Crow

Robert Greene achieved immortality by ridiculing the greatest writer in the English language. Greene's A Groats-worth of Witte, posthumously published in 1592, also marked the first mention of William Shakespeare working in London as a playwright and actor. Shakespeare's lost years started in 1585 in Stratford with the baptism of his twins and ended in 1592, with Greene's sarcastic dismissal of him as an upstart crow.

Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow,
beautified with our feathers

Click on image to enlarge

But Greene's snarky invective also provides a context for better understanding Shakespeare's significance in the English Renaissance. About a hundred years earlier, in the late 15th century, Florence gave birth, or rebirth, to interest in the classical arts of ancient Greece and Rome. Artists of the Italian Renaissance like Raphael, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo and others modelled their paintings, sculptures and architecture on those of the classical periods. Their influence spread to Venice and Rome. The transition from the Italian Renaissance to the English Renaissance can be conveniently, if arbitrarily, marked in 1564, the year Michelangelo died and William Shakespeare was born.

While modern scholars tend to eschew the term Renaissance and prefer to use Early Modern Period, the word Renaissance still has value, particularly in distinguishing how different countries manifested the cultural revolution of that time. For example, the visual arts of Italian Renaissance seemed to segue into the literary arts of the English Renaissance.

The English Renaissance actually began earlier in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Greek and Latin were the languages of scholars and the works of Homer, Euripides and Aristotle, Cato, Cicero and Ovid were among the many models of great literature that scholars studied. Students at those universities then taught those languages and classical works to young boys in small towns like Stratford-Upon-Avon. The English language was only beginning to settle down under the stabilising influence of the movable-type printing presses. In the latter part of the 16th century, a group of university-educated writers began to create works in early modern English. That group is now known as the “university wits.”

The term was coined by 19th-century literary critic, George Saintsbury. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, “The university wits include Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe (all graduates of Cambridge), as well as Thomas Lodge and George Peele (both of Oxford). Another of the wits, though not university-trained, was Thomas Kyd.” The university wits produced a body of drama strongly influenced by the styles and precepts of classical tragedy and comedy. These secular dramas were a departure from the much earlier mystery plays. Saintsbury distinguished the university wits from the writer-players like Shakespeare, who had learned Latin and Greek at their grammar schools but lacking university educations and influenced by the practicalities of performing before audiences, took more liberties with the models of classical drama.

Greene resented these less educated imposters, especially Shakespeare of whom he wrote:

“Yes trust them not: 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*, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

The allusion to a “tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide” from Henry VI Pt 3, Act 1 Scene 4 Line 112, together with the “Shake-scene” pun, helps confirm that Greene was referring to William Shakespeare and helps to date the writing and performance of Henry VI Pt 3 prior to 1592.

*Jack of all trades