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October 22, 2017

Greene, Shakespeare, "Cony-Catching"

On this day in 1592 Robert Greene's A Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance, in which appears the first printed reference to Shakespeare, was entered in the Stationers' Register. Greene was one of the most popular English authors of his day, and a notorious profligate. He had died three weeks earlier from a lifetime, he confessed, of "riot" and "incontinence," though the immediate cause was apparently "a surfett of pickle herringe and rennish wine." Included in Greene's groat (i.e. a fourpenny coin) of wit was his advice to his fellow dramatists to watch out for the twenty-eight-year-old Shakespeare, an actor and playwright of dubious scruples:
    ...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde [a parody of a line from Henry VI], 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.
This may be a charge of plagiarism; it certainly expresses one playwright's jealousy of another's rising star. Greene wrote plays, romances and a series of racy, semi-autobiographical tales of dissipation, intermixed with contrition and moralizing. He also specialized in "cony-catching pamphlets," a series of tales based on the nefarious techniques used by the con men and women of the Elizabethan underworld. Under guise of informing and forearming an unsuspecting public, such "rogue literature" was a popular genre in Shakespeare's day. Pamphlets like Greene's were story-based, others merely cataloged the various tricks and trades-telling us, for example, that a hooker is one who goes about with a long, iron-hooked staff snitching clothing left out to dry on balconies and hedges.

Greene was one of the first professionals to make a living by writing, though the circumstances of his death do not suggest prosperity. His very last note was written to his abandoned wife from the house of some who had befriended him, and who would put a crown of bayleaves on his head and pay for his winding sheet: "Doll, I charge thee, by the love of our youth and by my souls rest, that thou wilt see this man paid; for if he and his wife had not succoured me, I had died in the streets." Greene's list of final complaints leave no doubt as to why his wit ran out at a groats-worth -- though there may have been some conning even at the end:
    ...if thou saw my wretched estate thou couldst not but lament it, nay, certainly I know thou wouldst. All my wrongs muster themselves before me, every evil at once plagues me. For my contempt of God I am contemned of me; for my swearing and forswearing no man will believe me; for my gluttony I suffer hunger; for my drunkenness, thirst; for my adultery, ulcerous sores.

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