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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits

§ 17. Plays attributed to Greene

The dramatic work remaining to us which is certainly his is small. A lost play of Job is entered in the Stationers’ register in 1594 as his. The attribution to him of Selimus on the authority of the title-page of the first edition, 1594, and of two quotations assigned to him by Allot in England’s Parnassus, 1600, which are found in this particular play, is not accepted by either A. W. Ward or C. M. Gayley; and Churton Collins says that his authorship is “too doubtful to justify any editor including [it] in Greene’s works.” It is now generally admitted that he was not the author of Mucedorus, or of The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, which have sometimes been assigned to him. It seems all but impossible to determine Greene’s share in the First Part of the Contention betwixt the Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke. Critical opinion, following the lead of Miss Lee, is, on the whole, disposed to favour the view that Greene had some share in the work, but where, and to what extent, are mere matters of conjecture. On the other hand, the attribution to him of George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield is not to be waived. This attribution arises from two manuscript statements in sixteenth century handwriting on the title-page of the 1590 edition in the duke of Devonshire’s library, “Written by … a minister, who ac[ted] the piner’s pt in it himselfe. Teste W. Shakespea[re],” and “Ed. Juby saith that ye Play was made by Ro. Gree[ne].” It is certainly curious that the play is not known to have been acted until after Greene’s death, in 1593, though Henslowe does not mark it as new at that time. The Sussex men, too, who appeared in it, though they had given two performances of Frier Bacon, with Greene’s former company, seem never to have owned any of the unquestioned plays of Greene. On the other hand, there certainly are resemblances between the play and the dramatist’s other work, and though, when taken together, these are not sufficiently strong to warrant acceptance of the play as certainly Greene’s, no recent student of his work has been altogether willing to deny that he may have written it. If it be Greene’s, it is a late play, of the period of James IV.

The two most recent students of Greene, C. M. Gayley in his Representative Comedies and Churton Collins in his Plays and Poems of Robert Greene, working independently, agree that the order of Greene’s plays remaining to us should be, Alphonsus, A Looking Glasse for London and England, Orlando Furioso, Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay and James IV. A Looking Glasse may best be considered in treating Lodge’s dramatic work. Alphonsus bears on the title of its one edition, 1599, the words, “Made by R. G.” Neither its exact sources nor the original date of performance is known. It is evidently modelled on Tamburlaine, aiming to catch some of its success either by direct, if ineffectual, imitation, or by burlesque. Its unprepared events, its sudden changes in character and its general extravagance of tone, favour the recent suggestion that it is burlesque rather than mere imitation. Here is no attempt to visualise and explain a somewhat complex central figure, in itself a great contrast with Tamburlaine. Rather, with the slenderest thread of fact, Greene embroiders wilfully, extravagantly. The characters are neither real nor clearly distinguished. Whatever may be the date of the play in the career of Greene, it is from its verse and its lack of technical skill, evidently early dramatic work. Churton Collins, resting on resemblances he saw between Alphonsus and Spenser’s Complaints, wished to date the beginning of Greene’s dramatic work in 1591. That this theory separates Alphonsus widely from the success of Tamburlaine in 1587 seems almost fatal to it; for the significance of Alphonsus, either as imitation or as burlesque, is lost if there was so wide a gap as this between it and its model. It seems better, on the metrical and other grounds stated by C. M. Gayley, to accept circa 1587 as its date. Moreover, it should be noted that so early a date as this for Greene as playwright fits the words already quoted from his Repentance in regard to his having begun as a dramatist shortly after he left the university.

In 1592, Greene was accused of having sold Orlando Furioso to the Admiral’s men, when the Queen’s men, to whom he had already sold it, were in the country. This serves to identify the author, who is not named on the title-page of either the 1594 or the 1599 edition. Its references to the Spanish Armada, and the common use by it and Perimedes, 1588, of five names approximately the same, favour circa 1588 for its date. The earliest record of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay is under 19 February, 1591/2 in Henslowe’s diary, when it is not marked as new. It was published in 1594. Were we sure whether it follows or precedes Faire Em, with which it has analogies, it would be easier to date. If it preceded, it belongs to about July or August, 1589; if it followed, then 1591 is the better date. In either case, it is, perhaps, striking that there occurs in the play the name Vandermast, which appears, also, in Greene’s Vision, written, as Churton Collins shows, so early as 1590, although not published till later. Though the name appears in the chapbook which, seemingly, was the source of the play, no such conjurer is known to history. This tendency to use common names in pamphlet and in play has already been remarked in Perimedes and Orlando Furioso. Greene may have borrowed it from his own play. This would favour the 1589 date for Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay. Or, the play may have borrowed from the Vision, in which case the evidence points to 1591. The Scottish History of James IV, slaine at Flodden is not at all, as its title suggests, a chronicle play, but a dramatisation of the first novel of the third decade of Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi. It clearly shows some interpolation; nor is it indubitable that the interludes of Oberon, king of the fairies, were an original part of the play or by Greene. Certain resemblances between this play and Greenes Mourning Garment, 1590, besides references by Dorothea to the Irish wars and complications with France, point to 1590–1 as a probable date for this play.

If Nashe’s statement be true, that Greene produced more than four other writers for his company, and a play each quarter, surely we must have but a small portion of his work. Yet what we have is marked by no such range of experiment as we noted in Peele’s few plays. His sources, so far as known, are romantic—Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a novel of Giraldi Cinthio and a series of fantastic tales about two conjurers. He handled his sources, too, in the freest possible way, sometimes using them as little more than frames on which to hang his own devices. In Alphonsus, for instance, it is nearly impossible to tell whether he had in mind either of two historical figures—Alphonso V, king of Aragon, Sicily and Naples, who died in 1454, and Alphonso I, king of Aragon and Navarre, who died in 1134. Probably, here, as in Orlando, where he follows Ariosto closely only in a few details, and in James IV, where he deliberately foists upon a seemingly historical figure incidents of pure fiction, he rather uses well known names because he may thus interest the prospective auditor than because either these figures or the historical material itself really interest him.