Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 4. Robert Greene’s Social Pamphlets

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

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 4. Robert Greene’s Social Pamphlets

Four years later, Robert Greene changed the current of prose literature, discarding all the canons of euphuism by which he himself had made his reputation. But even Greene did not at once discover the want of his age. He began by appealing to the old English love of felonious ingenuity and humorous knavery in the coney-catching pamphlets already described. He gives but few facts of thief life, and these are mostly drawn from the second part of Awdeley’s Fraternitye and Parker’s Manifest Detection of Dice-Play. The bulk of his work is taken up with “pithy and pleasant” tales, which lack the picturesque touches and sociological interest of Harman’s great work. But, at the same time, his pamphlets are most significant. To begin with, he is no longer writing of the organised vagrants who infested the country, but of the versatile London thief, a modern type, whose existence was bound up with the development of the capital. And, again, though this realistic interest in city life has compelled even a successful euphuist to denude his diction of all ornamentation, yet the framework of his pamphlets shows the skill of the professional author. His methods of presentation are well illustrated by The Defence of Conny-catching. The pamphlet claims to be a plea for the disreputable thief, and contends that worse cozenage was to be found among the respectable classes. Yet this argument merely served as a pretext for exposing the dishonesty of usurers, millers, butchers, lawyers and tailors, and, still more, as an excuse for presenting the public with some admirable tales. Apparently, the success of these rather superficial pamphlets led him to widen his scope, and to include the practices of female criminals. This new material afforded an opening for novelty of form. Greene, always in search of variety, revived the medieval dialogue, presented the public with A Disputation betweene a Hee Conny-catcher and a Shee Conny-catcher, in which the interlocutors discuss the comparative merits of male and female with a view to theft and blackmail. Though a burlesque debate, this tract really penetrates deeply into the sociology of crime, by considering the questions of sex and character which underlie the superficial dexterity of coney-catching.

This series of pamphlets marks Greene’s apprenticeship in social literature. Having exhausted his material, he produced, in July, 1592, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier, in which he reaches his consummation. It has already been shown how the greater part of the tract is taken up with a dispute between the courtier and the tradesman; and how the jury of tradesmen brought in to decide the case enables Greene to pass in review representatives of differing trades and pursuits.

The value of the pamphlet consists in the new life and meaning that Greene puts into old forms of thought. Tradesmen had been victims of caricature since the early Middle Ages. The attack on the fashionable spendthrift, the central figure of A Quip, is part of the immemorial feud between men of wealth and men of learning, and had already found expression with Sir Thomas More and Roger Ascham. The idea of reviewing the representatives of each trade and profession had been used again and again by pamphleteers since The Ship of Fools, to go no further back. Yet the pamphlet marks a fresh stage in the development of popular literature. The types of society are brought into immediate contact with the social controversy which culminated in the civil war. Moreover, their portraiture is new. Character sketches arise as soon as a writer has a point of view from which to contemplate a class or a type. In Bartholomaeus Anglicus, the aim of the descriptions is sociological; in Higden and, later, with Andrew Boorde, the trend is ethnological and political. Awdeley and Harman use the character sketch to distinguish the different departments in the art of roguery, which at first sight appears homogeneous. But very few writers before Greene had embodied the moral or humorous aspect of a class in the individuality or mannerisms of its representatives. If we take the knight, the tailor, or the usurer, we recognise them at once as living personalities. And what draws or repels us is the man’s occupation, or, rather, Greene’s conception of his occupation. Henceforth, Londoners were to look for the glory or shame of their society in the description of familiar figures which thronged the street or St. Paul’s.

But Greene’s most profound commentary on his age is the Groat’sworth of Wit. The outline of the story is probably reminiscent of readings in Terence, and the main idea may well have been suggested by the Dutch Latin comedies of the Prodigal Son. But autobiographical touches are unmistakable. We see there the evil effects of a boyhood spent in an unsympathetic home, hopelessly out of touch with the new movements of the time. Such an environment was not likely to prepare a sensitive, impulsive youth for the dissipations of the university or the storm and stress of Elizabethan London. Greene represented a fairly numerous class of men whom an undiscriminating study of Latin and Italian poetry led to the hiding of debauchery under an appearance of art and culture. The spectacle of the perfidious Lamilia, composing love ditties and accepting courtship couched in Ovidian and Terentian preciousness, is an unconscious allegory on the fundamental imperfection of the renascence.