Perhaps the most famous literary snarl ever was penned in 1592 by Robert Greene in his Groats-worth of Witte:
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 passage is famous because it clearly refers to William Shakespeare ("Shake-scene") and is the first documentary evidence we have of his rise to prominence in the London theater world, indeed the first direct documentary evidence regarding him at all since the baptism of the twins in 1585.
Greene was a minor Elizabethan playwright (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay) and pamphleteer, six years Shakespeare's senior, a university educated man (MA from both Oxford and Cambridge) and proud of it, yet known to be a wastrel. He wrote the Groats-worth of Witte as a bitter, dying man, and in it attacked his younger rivals Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele as well as Shakespeare. Much has been written about this passage. Its importance is that it verifies several facts about Shakespeare's career as it had developed by 1592:
Also in 1592 Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), another playwright and pamphleteer, made reference to Talbot, the hero of Shakespeare's very popular Henry VI Part 1 in his book Pierce Pennilesse, his Supplication to the Devil:
How it would have joy'd brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeare in his tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the teares on ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.
The "at severall times" in this passage is significant. Elizabethan theatrical companies produced plays in repertory, several being played simultaneously, new ones being added and tried out while old, less profitable ones were dropped from the rotation. Philip Henslowe, a theatrical impresario kept a Diary in which he kept many records, such as theater receipts, payments to playwrights, the cost of costumes, etc. A typical month (March 1592) shows one of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays being performed 5 times in rotation with 13 other plays. Shakespeare's play was apparently the most popular at the time (it was new to Henslowe on March 3), since the next most performed play during the month was Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (3 times--called Joronymo, after its main character) and Marlowe's Jew of Malta (twice). (One marvels at the feats of memory required of Elizabethan actors).
In any event, we see that Shakespeare was well established in the London theater world by the end of 1592. By this time he had probably already written The Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, perhaps Two Gentlemen of Verona, the three parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus and perhaps even Richard III. Assigning dates to the plays is, on the whole, a very difficult and finally irresolvable business. When dates are assigned in this essay, they are simply best guesses based on the painstaking work of monumental scholars such as E. K Chambers and John Dover Wilson. For a more complete treatment see a canon of Shakespeare's works. Use the BACK button on your browser to return to this page when finished. For detailed discussion of dating issues of the plays, one cannot do better than consult the introductions to the various Arden Editions of the plays.
Shakespeare's chief rival among early Elizabethan playwrights (then as now) was Christopher Marlowe, who had by this time (he was murdered in 1593) written his Tamburlain plays, Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. Had Shakespeare died in the same year as Marlowe, his accomplishment would have been thought remarkable, but Marlowe would undoubtedly have been given the precedence as the better of the playwrights by subsequent critics. Fortunately for us, there was much more to come.
©1995-1998 Terry A. Gray
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