Around three years into his career as a dramatist, Shakespeare’s blank verse—his unrhymed iambic pentameter—came under attack:
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 fac totum, in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country. O! that I might entreat you rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses and let these apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.
This passage from Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) is the first recorded response to Shakespeare’s writing and the first reference to Shakespeare in print. It was written by some combination of Henry Chettle and Robert Greene (although most scholars now think Chettle was the principal author, it was designed and marketed as Greene’s). The passage can be characterised by “lasts” as well as by “firsts.” It appears on the last pages of the Groatsworth, in a letter addressed “To those gentlemen his quondam acquaintance that spend their wits in making plays.” And it emerged from the last days of Greene’s life. He was dying. If we believe his adversary Gabriel Harvey, Greene had succumbed to “a surfeit of pickled herring and Rhenish wine” after a lifetime of boozing (even his occasional ally Thomas Nashe would admit, and then assert, that Greene’s “only care was to have a spell in his purse to conjure up a good cup of wine with at all times”). By the end of 1592, Greene was dead. The Groatsworth was published posthumously by Chettle.
In the letter’s catalogue of abuses, Greene attacks Christopher Marlowe for his atheism, Thomas Nashe (or perhaps Thomas Lodge) for his wit, and George Peele for being neither Marlowe nor Nashe. Greene allows a little admiration for these three “gentlemen” (his “sweet boy” Nashe, and “the other two, in some things rarer, in nothing inferior”)—sufficiently so for Thomas Dekker to later stage Greene, Marlowe, Nashe, Peele, and Chettle engaged in nothing worse than good-humoured spat. It is only Shakespeare who emerges without anything like the “Million of Repentance” advertised by the Groatsworth’s subtitle.
The Groatsworth’s salvo at an “upstart crow” has long been interpreted as an accusation of plagiarism (the “Shake-scene” Shakespeare beautifying his plays with others’ feathers) and/or as a belittling remark about Shakespeare having been a mere actor (an “ape” for others’ inventions). Yet scholars have not paid proper attention to the Groatsworth’s remarks about Shakespeare’s blank verse: that he “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of” the best playwrights. To “bombast” is to “stuff” or “swell.” According to Greene, Shakespeare’s blank verse is both too little and too much; he pads out its essential emptiness (its blankness, even) with portentous rhetoric and vacuous sound. In thinking about Shakespeare’s alleged “bombast,” we might consider whether he spoke others’ blank verse with a bellow (if he is one of the actorly “puppets […] that speak from our mouths”), and whether his own blank verse was especially or exclusively bombastic, or whether the Groatsworth was condemning the blank verse of the period as typically and vexatiously loud and then condemning Shakespeare for being unable, or all too able, to reach that miserable standard. In other words, we might wonder whether the Groatsworth was right rather than treating it “as something to attack, or a document from which Shakespeare needs defence or exoneration” (as Andy Kesson has put it).
The Groatsworth twists a line from 3 Henry 6: “his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” alludes to “O tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide!” (1.4.138). As it appears in 3 Henry 6 the line is part of York’s long polemic against Queen Margaret. Having treated him to a mock-crucifixion and wiped his face with his son’s blood, Margaret urges York to “Stamp, rave, and fret” (92). York obliges. He calls her “an Amazonian trull” (115), “vizard-like” (117), “as opposite to every good / As the Antipodes are unto us, / Or as the south to the Septentrion” (136-8), “stern, indurate, flinty, rough, remorseless” (143), “ruthless” (157) and “abominable” (134), “more inhuman, more inexorable – / O, ten times more – than tigers of Hyrcania” (155-6). Could this be the “bombast” which Greene hears in Shakespeare?
At the start of my new book Shakespeare’s Blank Verse: An Alternative History, I listen to the rhythms of this early Shakespearean blank verse and establish what about it makes the verse sound so bombastic—and then how Shakespeare wriggled loose of such bombast over the course of his career, and finally returned to Robert Greene’s criticism by versifying his prose romance Pandosto (1588) into the supple, non- or un-bombastic blank verse of The Winter’s Tale (c.1611). Can we even think of Shakespeare as taking his revenge upon Greene, in a play much concerned with questions of retribution and restitution, by finally returning Greene’s epistolary assault to its sender?