In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle travels to Elizabethan England for Robert Greene’s comedy
Robert Greene is probably best-known, in the British popular consciousness at least, for two things. The first is for penning what was perhaps the first, and one of the most memorable, philippics against William Shakespeare: as he lay dying, Greene attacked the Stratford playwright as 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 owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.’ The second is for being played (in a comical tour de force) by Mark Heap in the BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, in which David Mitchell plays the up-and-coming Bard and the lovely Liza Tarbuck plays Anne Hathaway. (I feel I must give Liza a mention, as she once called me ‘bouncy’ on national radio and the compliment has always stuck with me. But that’s another story…)
In Upstart Crow, which takes its title, of course, from Greene’s broadside, Greene is clearly Shakespeare’s senior, viewing the Bard of Avon as a young interloper threatening Greene’s pre-eminence in the theatre world. The running joke – one of several, in fact – revolves around Greene’s attempts to get rid of Shakespeare from the theatres, at any cost. One would hardly guess that in real life, Greene was only six years older than Shakespeare. But Ben Elton, the show’s writer, does have plenty of fun with the title of Greene’s most famous and enduring play for the London stage, the comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.