Monday, November 24, 2008

"Shake-scene" and shattering the Shakespeare myth: a question for authors Samuel Blumenfeld and Daryl Pinksen

Q: Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene's 1592 deathbed pamphlet entitled Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is largely famous for the appearance of one hyphenated word: "Shake-scene."

Stratfordians have long maintained that "Shake-scene" is the first mention of Shakespeare as a writer as early as 1591. Now I understand their desire to show that Shakespeare was already established in London circa 1591. They need to establish this, after all, since they maintain that Shakespeare wrote the very intricate (and dare I say very Marlovian) Henry VI, Part I--his first play--circa 1589. Pretty impressive work by a novice. Yet is this the best Stratfordians can do? No "other" mention of a theatrical Shakespeare exists at this time, and so all we have to go with is Robert Greene's "Shake-scene" amid a bitter rant about how theatre owners and actor-managers exploited him and other writers (Greene was debt-ridden, by the way).

Sam: Yes, Carlo, one of the historical resources Stratfordians use to prove that Shakespeare was a known actor and playwright before 1592 is Robert Greene’s pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentence.

Greene, born in 1560, had been at Cambridge from 1575 to 1583, thus overlapping the years when Marlowe had been there. Marlowe, born in 1564, had entered in 1580. Thus, both men, who became aspiring playwrights, were well acquainted with each other. In fact, later, Greene was so impressed with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine that he wrote a play, Alphonsus King of Aragon, in imitation of Marlowe’s style. But it was a flop, and in 1588 he attacked Marlowe in a pamphlet, Perimedes the Blacksmith.

In 1592, Greene, down and out and suffering from a fatal disease, wrote a largely autobiographical pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, which was published posthumously. In it he lashed out at those in the theater business who had used him and then left him to die in poverty. Obviously, he was referring to Edward Alleyn, who had acted in his plays, and Philip Henslowe who had produced them (ed. note: see 6/12/08 post on Henslowe's Diary). He wrote:

Is it not strange, that I, to whom they all have been beholding: is it not like that you, to whom they all have been beholding, shall (were ye in that case as I am now) be both at once of them forsaken? Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country. O that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: & let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.

It is obvious that Greene was trying to warn his fellow playwrights about the predatory practices of actors and producers, namely Alleyn, the well-known "Shake-scene," and Henslowe, his father-in-law theater owner. Alleyn became so wealthy that he was able to endow Dulwich College as a depository for Henslowe’s archives.

Greene’s pamphlet would have been largely forgotten had it not been read in 1778 by a classical scholar named Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730-1786), who was convinced he had made a significant discovery. He wrote: “There can be no doubt, I think, that Shake-scene alludes to Shakespeare.” He also observed that the reference to the “tyger’s heart” was taken from Henry VI, Part III, the authorship of which in 1778 was still questioned. We can be sure that Greene knew who wrote it!

Of course, in 1778 very little was known about Shakespeare, and the authorship question had not even arisen. But now that we know much more, it is obvious that "Shake-scene" refers to Edward Alleyn and not William Shakespeare, who was a totally unknown entity in 1592. Indeed, Shakespeare's name first appears in print on the dedication page of the poem Venus and Adonis in 1593, after Marlowe’s supposed demise. His name does not appear on the title of a play until 1598, when it appears on Love’s Labour’s Lost, “newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere.” That play had to be written by a university wit, and not a country bumpkin with no documented education of any kind.

Yet, Stratfordians have used Greene’s pamphlet as proof that Shakespeare was a well-recognized actor and playwright before 1592. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Stratfordian claim has made it difficult to accurately date the plays written before 1593 or designate their true authorship.

Stratfordians have written all of their biographies on the dubious foundation of Greene’s pamphlet, never questioning Tyrwhitt’s assumption. Indeed, Stephen Greenblatt, in his much acclaimed biography of the Bard, Will in the World, goes so far in his book as to remove the hyphen in "Shake-scene," thus giving the impression that "Shakescene" is indisputably Shakespeare. In doing so, he not only violated his profession as a scholar, but also perpetuated a gross historical error. Greene would have never used "Shake-scene" to refer to the name of an actual individual, since nowhere in the pamphlet does he refer to anyone by name.

Daryl: Thanks, Carlo. Sam Blumenfeld is quite right in pointing out just how crucial the "Shake-scene" reference is to the Shakespeare industry. Assuming it to be a reference to the Stratford man, it would verify that he was firmly established in the London theater world as of 1592. It would link him to a known Shakespeare play, Henry VI, and place him in contact with Lord Strange's Men at a time when Christopher Marlowe was writing for them. For Shakespeare biographers this is a goldmine, for it allows them to address what is arguably the most salient feature of the works of Shakespeare--the overwhelming debt the plays owe to Christopher Marlowe. By locating both Shakespeare and Marlowe in the company of Lord Strange's Men at the same time, biographers can imagine a close working relationship, perhaps even a personal one, between the two playwrights. Nearly all Shakespeare biographies devote ample speculation to this relationship, a relationship inferred entirely from the "Shake-scene" reference. Greene's reference is so important, so interwoven into the mythos of Shakespeare, that it has become indispensible. It simply cannot be abandoned, for if it were, it would be tantamount to erasing huge chunks of dozens of Shakespeare biographies.

The case for the "Shake-scene" referring to Shakespeare is strong; Greene's use of the prefix "Shake" and the fact that Green alludes to a Shakespeare play, Henry VI, both carry weight. But an alternative explanation, that "Shake-scene" was actually aimed at the premier actor of the age, Edward Alleyn, is even stronger. Greene tells us that the "Shake-scene" was a "player," i.e. an actor, and had a "tyger's hart," a line taken from Shakespeare's Henry VI. We know that Edward Alleyn spoke those words on stage; he was the lead actor for Lord Strange's Men in 1592 when Henry VI was performed. And a "Shake-scene" does sound like an egocentric ham splitting the rafters with bombastic speech. But the most important piece of evidence pointing to Alleyn as the "Shake-scene" is that Greene had already documented his dislike for Alleyn two years earlier. In 1590, Robert Greene had written this passage:

Why Roscius, art thou proud with Aesop's crow, being pranct with the glory of other's feathers? Of thyself thou canst say nothing, and if the Cobbler hath taught thee to say Ave Caesar, disdain not thy tutor because thou Pratest in a King's Chamber. (Robert Greene, Francesco's Fortunes, 1590)

The similarities to Greene's 1592 "Shake-scene" reference are striking. "Roscius," the name of a famous Roman actor, is Edward Alleyn. Ben Jonson also referred to Alleyn as "Roscius" in a 1616 poem he wrote, titled "To Edward Alleyn." The "Cobbler" was a common nickname for Marlowe, and a reminder of his humble origins as the son of a cobbler. In 1590 Greene told Alleyn that he was merely an actor mouthing words that others, like Greene and Marlowe, had written for him. Alleyn was "proud with Aesop's crow, being pranct with the glory of other's feathers." Then, in 1592, Greene claims that someone he calls a "Shake-scene" is "an upstart crow beautified with our [playwrights'] feathers." This sounds like it could be a continuation of Greene's attack on Alleyn. There would seem to be enough evidence to, at the very least, call the "Shake-scene" reference into question. But to hear Shakespeare's biographers tell it, there is no question, for the Shakespeare conclusion is regarded as unimpeachable. Let us assume for a moment that the argument here is academic, how should we decide what to believe? My answer is that we must ask ourselves would Edward Alleyn have assumed that Greene was referring to him in the "Shake-scene" reference. Given the similarity to the 1590 insult, and the fact that Alleyn had spoken the "tyger's hart" line on stage, how could he have assumed that the insult was not aimed at him? If Alleyn assumed that he was the "Shake-scene" being insulted (again) by Greene, then we must assume that he was "Shake-scene" as well.

Here is why the debate is not academic: if we were to assume that "Shake-scene" was Edward Alleyn, then Shakespeare--the writer Shakespeare--would not exist before Marlowe's disappearance in 1593. Beyond that, it would link Christopher Marlowe to Edward Alleyn's performance of Henry VI, a play which scholars have long noted sounds like a deliberate emulation of Marlowe's style by Shakespeare. The line between the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare is already blurred; replace Shakespeare with Edward Alleyn as the "Shake-scene," and the line is effectively erased.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, November 2008

Click here for Daryl Pinksen's "Was Robert Greene's 'upstart crow' the Actor Edward Alleyn?"

Click here to purchase Samuel Blumenfeld's The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection.

Click here to purchase Daryl Pinksen's Marlowe's Ghost.

Click here to reach Daryl Pinksen's website.

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Anonymous said...

this is a great piece that all those serious about the authorship question should read.

Anonymous said...

a very convincing argument

Anonymous said...

kinda ticks me off that shakespeare apologists think shake-scene is real evidence.

Anonymous said...

excellent post, makes a heck of alot of sense

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. Mr. DiNota does it again!

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

most convincing, blumenfeld & pinksen make a formidable defense!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I have to say, I don't find that entirely convincing. Greene seems to be making fun of the "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" quote from Henry VI. Why make fun of a line just because Alleyn had said it onstage? Alleyn said many lines onstage, by many poets. Parodying the line really only makes sense if Greene is attacking the author, not someone who happened to say those lines onstage.

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, how does "he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you" fit Edward Alleyn? If "bombast out" refers to merely SAYING the lines, how does this fit the University Wits, none of whom were actors? It seems to refer to an actor who has become a playwright and supposes he can write blank verse as well as the University Wits. This fits the traditional Stratfordian view of Shakespeare. It doesn't fit Edward Alleyn.

Anonymous said...

a very convincing piece.

Daryl Pinksen said...

Luanna, you've made two good points.

About the first.

By riffing on one of the best known lines of dialogue from Henry VI, Part III - a line made famous by Alleyn - Greene's readers would have thought of the actor, not the writer.

For example, imagine if someone were to make fun of the Scarface line "Say hello to my leettle friend" - who would come to most people's minds, Al Pacino or Oliver Stone?

At the time no one had heard of Shakespeare, but Alleyn was the most popular actor in the country.

About the second.

You're right, the accusation is against an actor who now thought he could write verse good enough to be performed alongside those of Greene, Marlowe, Nashe and Peele.

I believe that actor was Edward Alleyn, and the play Tambercam (a Tamberlaine knock-off), which was being performed by Alleyn in 1592 alongside the Henry VI plays, was written by Alleyn as well.

In Henslowe's diary, Alleyn was paid by Henslowe for Tambercam (Henslowe called it "his [Alleyn's] book".) There is no other candidate for Tambercam's authorship.

Cassidy said...

clear and convincing; great work, gentlemen!

PatB said...

"We know that Edward Alleyn spoke those words on stage"

- How do you know? Those words are spoken by the Duke of York. Do you have any evidence that Alleyn played that part?

"By riffing on one of the best known lines of dialogue from Henry VI, Part III - a line made famous by Alleyn - Greene's readers would have thought of the actor, not the writer."

- That's because they would have only a vague idea, if any, who the writer was. The readers that count are Marlowe, Nashe and Peele, the three professional playwrights to whom the pamphlet is addressed. They would know very well who wrote it.

"...namely Alleyn, the well-known 'Shake-scene'"

- You are trying to slip past the reader's guard the idea that "Shake-scene" was a common appellation for an actor. But it had never been heard of before, and would never be heard of again, except in reference to this pamphlet. Its one-and-only use supports the conclusion that the intent was purely to pun on someone's name.

ElviraCardigan said...

Mmm...I'm strictly agnostic on this issue, with perhaps a sliiight leaning toward *wanting* the Marlowe-Shakespeare thing to be true, because...well, it'd just be cool. But I have no firm opinions.

So, with that in mind, I think the case for Alleyn makes reasonable sense , were it not for the fact that 'Shake-scene' is just *too* much like 'Shakespeare', and too unlike any kind of generic word for a scene-stealing actor. It just reads like an intended pun I'm afraid.So I'm hovering over the belief that Shakespeare was the intended target, possibly because he was a new young upstart with pretentions and not very famous yet?

But, even if this is true, it's not really any kind of clinching argument that Shakespeare wrote all the plays attributed to him, is it? I mean surely one of your major points is that authorship was a loose and ragged concept then. WS could be taking existing works and adding bits - maybe padding his own parts - without being any kind of major new voice, yes? In fact if he was doing such things, and was really rather bad at it, then the diatribe would make quite a lot of sense.

Daryl Pinksen said...


Absolutely, Greene's choice of "Shake" to preface his disparagement of the "Crow" cannot be simply dismissed as a barb at Shakespeare. It is the kind of thing Greene was apt to do.

Although that argument can never be eliminated, I've since beefed up the counter-argument for the theory that Greene was in fact attacking Alleyn. I'd love for you to read it and comment. Just click on my name to go to the essay.


Daryl Pinksen