The Upstart Crow: Shakespeare's feud with Robert Greene


In 1592, the writer and critic Robert Greene accused the budding playwright William Shakespeare of plagiarism, and this stung the Bard deeply. Joe Loewenstein, professor of English and director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities and the Humanities Digital Workshop, shares Shakespeares initial response to the criticism and explains how, even decades later, the Bard was still responding to Greene – though not in the way you might expect. He also discusses the culture of imitation and plagiarism in the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries.



Rebecca King: Hey there, listeners, thanks for tuning in for our Summer with the Bard at Hold That Thought. I’m Rebecca King, and this week, I’m talking to Joe Loewenstein, professor of English, and Director of the Interdisciplinary Project for the Humanities and the Digital Humanities Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis. He has a particular story to tell about Shakespeare and one of his rivals: Robert Greene. In telling this story, we will trace the evolution of Shakespeare’s own career, the culture of plagiarism at that time, and maybe even get a sense of the real man behind the plays and poetry we know and love. To start this scene, Professor Loewenstein says it’s important to remember that the theater community at this time was very lively and highly competitive. Playwrights imitated each other, satirized each other, and admired each other in equal measures.

Joe Loewenstein: Let me tell you about something that happened to Shakespeare around the time that he turned 30. There was a writer of prose fiction named Robert Greene. He also specialized in writing about the criminal underworld in London. He wrote a book very near his death called A Groatsworth of Wit, and in it he surveys the literary scene in London. He’s basically turning out pulpy gossip about different writers, and towards the end, he mentions a newcomer—not by name. Later in the paragraph he refers to this person as “the only shake scene in the country,” but when he starts out, he goes after this guy as “an upstart crow, beautified in our feathers.” He is actually borrowing a line from Horace. Horace once described another poet as a crow decorated with other people’s feather. Greene was taking out after Shakespeare and basically accusing him of plagiarism—of stealing other people’s pretty stuff—their feathers. It is interesting, of course, that Greene was stealing Horace’s line to talk about Shakespeare stealing other peoples poetry. There’s a number of other insults that get leveled at Shakespeare in the few sentences that Greene turns out. He accuses him of plagiarism, and he accuses him of bombast, of copying Christopher Marlowe’s style. We all know Marlowe as the author of Dr. Faustus, of Tamburlaine. He also made a very weird attempt to put a bit of Virgil’s Aeneid on stage in a play called Dido, Queen of Carthage.

RK: Marlowe was of course another of Shakespeare’s competitors at the time. It’s never fun to get critiqued, but Loewenstein says this was a particularly bad time in Shakespeare’s life.

JL: It was a terrible time in Shakespeare’s life. He hadn’t been writing plays for a long time. He’d probably been acting for longer. He had also been adapting other people’s plays, and to get attacked like this would be insulting. Actually, when this book came out, I think that theatres were closed for the plague, so he is in a lousy line of work. He isn’t making any money. Then this guy goes after him for plagiarism and bombast. I believe—I can’t prove it—but I believe he tried to leave the theatre, tried to find a different career path at that particular moment.


"...there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

Happily for us, Shakespeare stuck with playwriting despite Greene’s critique! And Shakespeare did give Greene a kind of response to his book, but maybe not the response you would expect.

JL: It’s weird how he responds to Greene. He wrote a play called Titus Andronicus—a gory play, possibly more bombastic than any play then in the London theatre. It is kind of as he is digging back at Greene: “You want bombast? I’ll show you bombast.” He wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a play built up out of so much borrowed material, borrowed from Chaucer, borrowed from Ovid. It is a play basically beautified by other people’s feathers. So I think Greene hit a nerve, but the response was to say, “You want bombast, you want plagiarism? I’ll show you bombast, I’ll show you plagiarism.”

RK: Accusing someone as plagiarism in the late 16th, early 17th century is as straightforward an accusation like that today. Of course, back then, there were no laws in place to protect intellectual property. There was no notion of intellectual property. In fact, as Professor Loewenstein is about to explain, the foundation of a young writer’s education was copying, or imitation of famous authors; not the creation of new material.

JL: Status of plagiarism in early modern culture is pretty complicated. When a young person went to grammar school, went to university, he—almost only boys went to grammar school—got trained not to write original material. He got trained to copy, to imitate other writers. To translate them. To try and do tings they way they do them. To steal their best lines. It was not actually thought of as theft. It was thought of as imitation. Yu became a great writer by climbing on top of other people’s greatness. It was the way it was done. But, in certain highly competitive environments, like the theatres of the nineties, when everybody’s competing for attention, that habit of imitation can be stigmatized. I’ve heard people say that this is the moment plagiarism is invented. That is probably not the case. I work on the history of intellectual property and the history of plagiarism, and what I can tell you is that it is kind of cyclical. There are a lot of highly competitive cultural moments when a system of literary practice that is highly imitative gets stigmatized and transformed into something quasi-criminal. You know, of course, that the notion of actual legal infringement by the borrowing of other people’s tune, other people’s ways of putting things, that’s not something that develops for another hundred years or so, and it develops slowly. But the informal, non-legal stigmatizing of plagiarism comes and goes, and it came in spades in the environment of the theatre in the 1590s.

RK: Loewenstein notes that it would have stung Shakespeare in particular to be accused of plagiarism, to be accused of not being able to keep up on his own with his competition, because unlike many of his peers, he had no university education.

By and large, writes for the London theatres—the playwrights of London—an awful lot of them were university educated. People who had come to London hoping to be noticed, to get a position at court, to be absorbed into rich people’s households as tutors to children. And none of those people—or very few of those people—actually got the jobs they came to London to get. It’s like our own students going off to New York to become famous writers or break into publishing or students going to L>A> hoping to get jobs as screenwriters. In the 90s, lots of people like John Lily, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, they came to London with their fancy university education, and because they couldn’t make it the way they had hoped to make, instead they tried to make ends meet by writing plays. Sure enough, a great, great moment in theatre history was born out of the work of a bunch of disaffected, disappointed, unemployed young me. Shakespeare competed in that group, but Shakespeare, of course, didn’t have a university education. He probably had a slight sense of inferiority, and to be dug at by Greene the way he was dug at probably stung pretty seriously.

RK: This is not to say that Shakespeare did have a lot of original work. In fact, pretty much all of his stories were stolen or adapted from other people’s work.

JL: He was not an original writer. Not at least for plots. I think you would be hard put to find across the 30 odd plays that Shakespeare wrote any that had a plot that Shakespeare wrote himself, developed himself. He is a magpie, a crow. He picks up other peoples stuff, and he reworks them. It is the how of his plays, not the what, that I think is where we should be looking to get the Shakespearean fingerprint. Obviously, he has good taste in the stuff he steals. He doesn’t steal junk—well, he’ll steal some junk. But he’s not an original.

RK: However, Shakespeare didn’t let Greene’s words rattle him for very long. From this low-point in his life at the age of 30, when Greene published his critique to the writing of Hamlet less than a decade later, Loewenstein notes a decided shift in the Bards’ attitude about his work, his competitors, and his place within the world of literature.

JL: I’m not saying that he retained forever his sense of inferiority. Less than ten years from the time Greene made his dig, Shakespeare wrote a play about a young prince whose father was murdered. That, of course, is a borrowed plot, and in it the hero runs into a travelling troop of actors. He tells them what kinds of plays he likes. He remembers a play they had put on that he admired. A play that adapts some of Virgil’s Aeneid to the stage. He is obviously thinking of Marlowe. He is obviously thinking of Dido, Queen of Carthage. In fact, when he asks to have a speech for that lay recited, he quotes the first line and he quotes it from Marlowe. Then he says no, no, that’s not it, and he revises it. Then he remembers some more of the play, and then he lets the actor recite the rest of it. When Shakespeare stages that scene, he’s remembering Marlowe remembering Virgil, the great Epic poet. And he is remembering a moment in the Aeneid when Virgil is remembering the story of the fall of Troy. And when Virgil is effectively announcing, this epic that I am writing about Aeneus picks up where Homer left off, when Shakespeare writes Hamlet, in this particular moment he says, I am picking up where Marlowe left off, and Marlowe was picking where Virgil left off, and Virgil was picking up where Homer left off. We are imitators. We are in a tradition. We don’t invent things. We continue things. What is especially interesting about that moment is what Marlowe was trying and what Shakespeare is trying is to bring the plots and the concerns of epic, the most prestigious literary form there was, and trying to bring that material on to the London stage. The theatre is low-class entertainment. The are basically claiming—Marlowe’s asserting and Shakespeare’s asserting—that this lowlife form of entertainment, the Elizabethan and Jacobean equivalent of TV, is up to what Homer and Homer were about. Between that moment of absorbing the insult from Greene and the moment of writing Hamlet, I think Shakespeare came to believe in the theatre, however déclassé a medium it was, that it was a serious medium and a medium in which one could continue imitatively a tradition that stretched all the way back to Homer.

RK: Finally, as a last note to this relationship between Shakespeare and Greene, Professor Loewenstein looks at one of the last—if not the last—play Shakespeare wrote that brings this story full circle.

JL: A lot of people think that the last play Shakespeare wrote was The Tempest. It might very well be the last play he wrote. I think the last play he wrote was The Winter’s Tale. It’s six-to-one and a half dozen to the other. The reason that I like thinking that The Winter’s Tale is Shakespeare’s last play is that it is based on a piece of prose fiction called Pandosto or The Triumph of Time. That piece of prose fiction was written by Robert Greene, who died a couple of decades earlier. The play The Winter’s Tale was a play about death and resurrection. It is a play with bombast in it, and of course, it’s a play the plot of which is entirely borrowed. Shakespeare is beautified with Robert Greene’s feathers in The Winter’s Tale, so I like to think of that as Shakespeare’s last play, a last way of at once thumbing his nose at Robert Greene and also of expressing some admiration for Robert Greene’s good taste.

RK: Many thanks to Joe Loewenstein, a professor of English and Director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities and the Digital Humanities Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis, for taking the time to meet with me. Join me next week for part two of this conversation to learn more about Shakespeare’s relationship with some of his other rivals, including frenemy Ben Jonson. You can find Hold That Thought and all of our archived episodes on Soundcloud, iTunes, and Stitcher. Subscribe to get the latest episodes right on your phone.



Wikimedia Commons: Woodcut of Greene "suted in deaths livery", from John Dickenson's Greene in conceipt (1598)
Free Music Archive: Podington Bear