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Welcome to Episode #67 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare. 

Robert Greene’s A Groatsworth of Wit was written as a small pamphlet, and told a moralistic tale which was partly autobiographical. The story includes many characters, songs, fables, and perhaps most famously–sharply barbed crticism that takes aim at his contemporary playwrights adn actors. The most famous criticism for which Greene’s work is most remembered is that this document is where Shakespeare is called and Upstart Crow. Here to help us take a detailed look at Robert Greene, the history of A Groatsworth of Wit, and what these famous insults tell us abotu the lif of William Shakespeare is our guest, Dr. Lois Potter.

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Dr. Lois Potter is the Ned B. Allen Professor Emerita of the University of Delaware, has taught at the Universities of Aberdeen, Leicester, Paris III-Sorbonne-Nouvelle, and Tsuda College, Tokyo.  She has published on Milton, English Civil War literature, the theatrical history of Twelfth Night and Othello, and Robin Hood. She edited The Two Noble Kinsmen for the Arden Shakespeare and Pericles for the Norton Complete Works. She is the author of The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography and she is currently editing Eastward Ho for the Cambridge edition of the complete works of John Marston.  She is also a frequent reviewer of theatre productions for Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Bulletin, and The Times Literary SupplementWe are delighted to have her as our guest today as we walk through the life of William Shakespeare to examine the words of the bard’s most famous critic.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Lois about :

  • What is Groatsworth of Wit actually about? 

  • Was it normal in the 16th century for someone to sit down and pen their general grievances from their deathbed the way Robert Greene does in Groatsworth of Wit?

  • Was there anything culturally significant about using the phrase, “upstart crow”?

    … and more!

Title page of Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit 1592. Public Domain. Source

I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break 
my shins against it.

As You Like It, II.4

Groatsworth of Wit is a story

Groatsworth of Wit was a story written by Robert Greene. It begins as a tale about two brothers and ends up being a an autobiographical rant about the theater industry. Shakespeare Documented explains the story by saying, “although Roberto is initially successful in writing plays, he squanders his wealth and is left dying with only a single “groat” (a coin worth four pence) to his name. The narrative shifts to first person, revealing that Roberto is Robert Greene, the supposed author” (Source). Lois agrees that naming the character Roberto indicates Greene is airing his personal grievances with the industry through this narrative. 


I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death, 
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings 
His soul and body to their lasting rest.

Prince Henry

King John, V.7

A 1595 sketch of a performance in progress on the thrust stage of the Swan. Aernout van Buchel, Utrecht, University Library. Note some notes date this to a sketch of a 1596 performance. Source

Greene was attacking the theater industry

Greene was a successful playwright in his own standing. Greene was a popular writer with a sordid family life, rife with affairs and even the rumor of an illegitimate child. Regardless of how stable his family might of been, Greene is the author of several plays including Mamillia (1580), Pandosto (1588), and Menaphon (1589), among many others. His works were incredibly famous, and even influenced other playwrights. One of Greene’s papers was a source for Shakespeare’s own, A Winter’s Tale

In this Groatsworth write up, Greene seems to be fed up with what he sees as a frustrating flaw of the 16th century theater industry. As Lois points out, this flaw extends into modern filmmakers and playwrights who express similar frustration that the actors who play their parts on stage go on to be famous for roles they did not invent. The writers, who reaosnably ought to be lauded for having written such a famous story, are largely ignored. It was apparently a difficult problem in the 16th century, as it remains today. Greene voices his criticism throughout Groatsworth of Wit, taking aim at several playwrights in particular whom Greene feels have become too famous. You might think Greene is upset that his contemporaries are violating the traditional role of a playwright to remain behind the scenes, but to me it reads like Greene is jealous of the fame of someone like Shakespeare. Greene believes his work is just as good as what Shakespeare has written, and deserves equal fame, but never received it.  In addition to Shakespeare, Greene takes aim at several playwrights, including Thomas Nashe (who collaborated with Shakespeare as well), and overall he’s objecting to the lack of honor for writers in the theater industry.


Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most 
sharp sauce.


Romeo and Juliet, II.4

Woodcut showing Robert Greene. The image is of the dead Greene, and comes from a pamphlet published in 1598, Greene in Conceipt, by John Dickenson. It shows the late author in his shroud. pamphlet published in 1598, Greene in Conceipt, by John Dickenson Source

Greene is specifically calling out Shakespeare


One way we know Robert Green was talking about Shakespeare (or insulting him, rather) is that he mentions not only phrases that refer to his name, but he also quotes a line from a play that Shakespeare had written (and was popular) recently.

When Groatsworth was written in 1592, several plays had been produced which Shakespeare either wrote or had worked on including Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III. There’s even one play by Robert Greene that Shakespeare might have rewritten for a performance, and that could have incensed the more experienced playwright.

In the write up, Greene refers to a “Shake-scene” which is not a term known to have been used prior to Robert Greene’s application of it here, so most scholars agree he is talking about Shakespeare. Of course, there’s the more famous “upstart crow” reference, which also makes sense to have been Shakespeare given that William Shakespeare was making a splash in London’s theater industry at this precise time.

Greene also paraphrases a line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3 when he mentions “Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” and in H6P3, the Duke of York calls Queen Margaret, “O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!”

As Lois points out in this week’s episode, being “on his death bed” does not have to mean Robert Greene was immobile, or confined to an actual bed. It could mean simply that he had a terminal illness (or was perhaps just old and near the end of his life). With someone as passionate about theater as Greene was at the time, Lois and many other scholars as well, contend it’s entirely plausible (and that this line in the Groatsworth forms evidence) that Greene went to a performance of Henry VI Part 3, which was enormously popular.

What, shall this speech be spoke for our excuse? 
Or shall we on without a apology?


Romeo and Juliet, I.4

Title page of Kind Hearts Dream by Henry Chettle. Public Domain. Source

Henry Chettle’s Apology


Robert Greene had only recently died, and was extremely popular when his Groatsworth of Wit was published in 1592. It was officially entered into the Stationer’s Register as having been printed “at the peril of Henry Chettle.” Chettle was a book publisher of the time, and had been accused of printing Groatsworth in Greene’s name. In addition to insulting Shakespeare, it is thought that Christopher Marlowe was particularly incensed at the publication, placing Chettle in hot water socially speaking. As a result, Chettle made a point to deny the charges that he had written Groatsworth and to specifically apologize to anyone offended, when he published his work, Kind Hart’s Dream that same year.  Hart’s Dream, Chettle addresses accusations of being the auhtor, and claims he was not.


About three months since died M. Robert Greene, leaving many papers in sundry booksellers’ hands, among other his Groatsworth of Wit, in which a letter written to divers play-makers is offensively by one or two of them taken, and because on the dead they cannot be avenged, they willfully forge in their conceits a living author […] With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be. The other, whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that, as I have moderated the heat of living writers and might have used my own discretion (especially in such a case, the author being dead), that I did not I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art. Source

While Chettle does acknowledge he edited Groatsworth, suggesting he even added a few words or altered Greene’s original structure, he does apologize for any material that might offend, and says he wishes he had removed more of what Greene had originally said. 


As Lois points out, Chettle could have done more than edit, but could have also added material purely his own, and scholars have debated for the last several centuries whether Groatsworth is indeed, by Chettle. So whether it was Greene, or Chettle who famously insulted Shakespeare by calling him an upstart crow, we may never completely achieve a consensus, but as Chettle was a playwright and storyteller published in the time period, with access to publishing means, he does stand in an incriminating position with opportunity, means, and motive.


Books Lois Recommends:

Lois’ choice for her desert island book was a work by Proust. In addition to being a quite intelligent choice for a deserted island, Proust is a favorite choice of another guest on That Shakespeare Life, Francois Laroque, who explains the 16th century tradition of Twelfth Night (and associations with the play) in Episode 37 of That Shakespeare Life here. He, too, enjoys Proust. (And I think you might as well!)

Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare, shown above, and recommended in today’s episode, is a guest of That Shakespeare Life. Join that conversation here.

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