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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: May ::
Greene's Upstart Crow
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1125  Wednesday, 26 May 2004

From:           William Davis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 May 2004 11:30:07 -0400
Subject: 15.1116 Greene's Upstart Crow
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1116 Greene's Upstart Crow

Many thanks to all those who have offered help and insights regarding
Greene's passage about the "upstart crow."  I didn't realize how
extensive the controversy is surrounding this passage, and all the
various interpretations assigned to it.  In fact, it seems to have
suffered a bit of scholarly overkill, from the point of view of someone
sitting up here in the stands, but apparently it is critical to various
other related theories (such as authorship issues - which, by the way,
surprised me, since this passage didn't seem to have those kinds of
implications when I initially read it).

I went to the library over the weekend, grabbed A.D. Wraight's book
"Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn," and thought I'd share some of
my thoughts (by the way, John Dover Wilson has so many books on
Shakespeare, I'm still looking for help to find his references to this
passage).

First, did Wraight have an editor on the project?  I'm sure she did, but
it didn't appear that way to me - and it seems the chapters could have
benefited from one.  A.D. Wraight's investigation of the relationship
between writers and theatre companies, particularly the possible
relationship between Greene and Alleyn, was quite detailed and
interesting to me.  However, all those details did little to provide
much of a direct link between Alleyn and the "upstart crow."  In fact,
the chapters were so bogged down with tertiary material (interesting or
not), I felt the author hurt herself and her own argument, because the
points she was hoping to make were enveloped by a dense fog of marginal
and indirect information.  I kept having to stop and ask myself, "Now,
how does this really apply to identifying the upstart crow?"  Whether
one believes Wraight's theory or not, her actual text would have
benefited from an editor making numerous suggestions to help increase
the clarity of her argument, rather than allowing the author to ramble
down every path and byway imaginable.

Next, when Wraight did manage to tackle some key issues, I was
disappointed in the way she dismissed important questions with no strong
evidence (or, in some cases, no evidence at all).  For example, she
claims that Greene would not have written about Shakespeare, because
Shakespeare was an unknown writer at that time.  Whether or not
Shakespeare was a known writer or an unknown writer in 1592 is something
I don't think can be definitively proved either way (even if the general
public didn't know who he was at that time, I still suspect the circle
of professional writers probably would).  If he were a fairly new writer
on the scene, someone who had achieved a moderate degree of notoriety
through writing his own plays or as a "hack" writer on other peoples'
plays, we wouldn't expect to find much of anything written about him in
those early years.  However, the absence of references to him does not
automatically prove he was unknown, or that he had no reputation at all
as a new comer.  To read Wraight, however, one would think the theory
that Shakespeare's unknown status was absolute and unquestioned, and
that he was still a nonentity in 1592.  There's just no proof of that.

The one that really made me squirm, however, was her "logical"
conclusion that Alleyn was a playwright.  She makes the case by drawing
a parallel between Alleyn and approximately five other actors in the
company who had made an attempt to write at least one play.  She
concludes that since some of the other actors had written plays, Edward
Alleyn "MUST" have done the same.  I never took drugs when I was in high
school or college, but I had a few friends who did.  I'm certainly glad
my parents - or better yet, any police officers - never employed the
same line of logic to absolutely prove whether or not I took drugs as
well.  In addition, right along the same vein, Wraight notices that
there were approximately 10 plays in the theatre's repertory that did
not have an author's name attached to them, therefore, at least one of
them (if not all of them) must have been Alleyn's.  I'm baffled by this
conclusion, considering the sheer volume of plays in the Renaissance
that never had author's names attached to them.  Did Alleyn write all of
them?  Some of them?  How does one determine which ones he wrote and
didn't?  No reliable methodology to help me out.

Finally, if Alleyn did write plays, and Greene were attacking him, why
not misquote a prominent line from one of Alleyn's plays, instead of
quoting a line from Shakespeare's play?  That certainly would have
pointed the finger directly at Alleyn, rather than confusing the issue
by introducing Shakespeare's work, and resolved a lot of confusion (for
Renaissance readers, as well as for later generations).  If Greene used
Shakespeare's line simply because Alleyn was the actor who played York
and spoke those words (do we know this for a fact?  Did Alleyn portray
York?), then I guess one could assume that none of Alleyn's own supposed
plays had any significant or recognizable lines for Greene to twist and
corrupt.  And in my book, that's a pretty sad commentary on Alleyn's
plays, if he wrote any at all.  In any case Alleyn appears not to have
written anything prominent enough to make Greene feel threatened by his
actual written work (or prominent enough that anyone would recognize an
intentionally corrupted line from one of his works).  If Greene really
were talking about Alleyn as the upstart crow, I can only assume Greene
was merely talking about Alleyn's attitude, rather than any actual skill
in writing, when he said the upstart crow supposed he could bombast out
a piece of blank verse as well as the University boys.

I could go on, but I fear I'm rehashing what others have likely said
before.  In the long run, however, I felt Wraight's argument for Alleyn
actually makes matters worse for that theory.  Apart from the unabashed
bias in Wraight's language, the theory requires the reader to accept a
large number of tenuous conjectures to prove the case for Alleyn, as
compared to a few simple and direct conjectures needed to prove the case
for Shakespeare.

Thoughts from a layman and groundling,
William Davis

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