A biographical sketch

This biography was originally published in Chief Elizabethan Dramatists. Ed. William Allan Neilson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911. p. 869-870, 855.

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Greene was much given to the mingling of autobiography with his fiction, and this has resulted in a much larger body of possibly true biographical details than we possess concerning most of his contemporaries. He was born in Norwich of a respectable family, probably about 1560; entered St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1575; graduated B.A. in 1578; travelled in Spain and Italy, and, by his own account, lived up to the proverbial reputation of the Italianate Englishman; returned to Cambridge and took his M.A. in 1581; and during the rest of his short life busied himself in the production of the very considerable mass of romances, tracts, songs, and plays which today give him his place in literature. About 1585 he married a Lincolnshire woman, who bore him a son, and whom he deserted after spending her portion. The annals of literature hardly bear the record of a more sordid career than that of this university-bred man of letters; and his death was only too fitting a close to it. He died in 1592 in the house of a poor shoemaker, to whom he gave a bond for ten pounds, leaving the following letter to his deserted wife: "Doll, I charge thee by the love of our youth and by my soul's rest that thou wilt see this man paid, for if he and his wife had not succoured me I had died in the streets, Robert Green." Following his own wish, the shoemaker's wife crowned his head with a garland of bay.

In spite of the self-confessed wickedness of his ways, Greene was not a hardened criminal, and no themes are more frequent in his tracts than moral exhortation and repentance. It is further notable that his work is freer from grossness than that of most of his contemporary playwrights, and he is distinguished for the freshness and purity of his female creations. He seems also, to judge from his plays, to have retained a love for the country, where he often chose to lay his scenes; and he ranks high among the lyrists of the time.

The vivacity and variety of his humor are well exemplified in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1589). This play was first printed in quarto in 1594. The existence of a second quarto, said to have been issued in 1599, has been rendered highly doubtful by Gayley. Later editions appeared in 1630 and 1655. The date of production was probably 1589-90. That part of the plot dealing with the marvelous exploits of Friar Bacon is drawn from The Famous Historie of Friar Bacon, a late sixteenth-century account of the legends that had gathered round the name of the Oxford Franciscan, Roger Bacon (born 1214). The love story is Greene's own. It seems probable that this comedy was conceived as a foil to Marlowe's tragedy of Doctor Faustus, some of the scenes approaching an actual parody, and stress being laid on the superiority of the English to the German necromancer.

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