Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 7. Robert Greene

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 7. Robert Greene

The most notable exponent of this fashionable type of work is, however, Robert Greene. His character, the date of his appearance and the attendant circumstances, all made it inevitable that he should follow the fashion, and work it for what it was worth. In his Mamillia (1580) he relates how a fickle Pharicles undeservedly wins Mamillia’s hand, a circumstance which leads on, naturally enough, to questions of love and youthful folly. Upon these topics Greene, therefore, discourses, and duly recommends what he has to say, by means of zoological similes and classical precedents. These details of ornamentation he repeats in succeeding works, in his Myrrour of Modestie (1584), based upon the story of Susanna and the elders, and in Morando (1587), a series of dissertations upon the subject of love. In 1587, two companion works, characterised by the same style, appeared from his pen. The first, Penelope’s Web, consists of a discussion in which the faithful Penelope, strangely enough, embodies the ideas of the Italian Platonists in her conception of love, and then goes on to portray the perfect wife. In Euphues his Censure to Philautus, on the other hand, the perfect warrior is sketched, Euphues supplying the picture for the benefit of his friend. But, in spite of this and other sequels to Lyly’s original story, the enthusiasm aroused by Euphues and the love-pamphlets he engendered had already begun to subside. Greene was already working in another field; and Lodge’s still more belated pamphlet Euphues Shadow, the battaile of the sences, “wherein youthful folly is set down” (1592), is nothing more than a hardy survival. It was a work born out of season; and, though its author was pleased to describe his Rosalynde as “Euphues golden legacie found after his death in his cell at Silexedra,” such a description was little more than the whim of one “who had his oare in every paper boat”—the work itself belonged to another genre.

Before the vigour of this edifying output had begun to abate, the literary current was already setting in the direction of the court romance. The study of codes of etiquette and morality, was, after all, an unsatisfying diversion, and, to those who looked back regretfully to the more substantial chivalry of an earlier day, the romance still made a definite appeal. The earlier romance, however, had fallen into disrepute by this time; and the Elizabethan type was drawn up on lines somewhat different, and more in keeping with the fashion of the age. With the retention of characters of a princely kind and the frequent addition of a pastoral setting, a fresh situation was devised, that of the nobly born in a simple life; and this, in its turn, brought about a change of motive, so that the general theme became that of the separation and reunion of royal kindred. Therefore, while the earlier chivalrous and supernatural elements are, for the most part, absent from the romances of Sidney, Greene and Lodge, in their Arcadias and Bohemias true nobility shines all the more clearly through the wrappings of humble pastoral circumstance. And this was a theme of which Shakespeare made good use in his romantic plays.