Kirk Melnikoff, ed., Robert Greene. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. xxxvii+569pp. ISBN 978 0 754 62858 3.
Jesus College, Oxford
Jenny Sager, "Review of Kirk Melnikoff, ed., Robert Greene". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 12. http://purl.org/emls/16-1/revmeln.htm
- In this new collection of poems, prose and essays, tracing the reception of Robert Greene from his death in 1592 to the present day, Kirk Melnikoff’s introduction opens with a much recounted tale of professional jealousy. If Greene is remembered at all, Melnikoff laments, it is as the long forgotten Elizabethan hack writer, who once wrote a pamphlet – Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit - in which he called Shakespeare an ‘upstart crow’ in a fit of professional spite. This insult, which as John Jowett has demonstrated, was probably the work of Henry Chettle, has ensured that Greene continues to be typecast as Shakespeare’s embittered predecessor. Doomed forever by the intellectual hindsight prescribed by a canon that has been built around the belief in a Shakespeare-centred universe, Greene’s oeuvre has never fully emerged from Shakespeare’s shadow. Promising to redress this injustice, Melnikoff turns this age-old anecdote on its head, recasting Greene as an ‘absolute Johannes fact totum’, whose popularity knew no limits. Reminiscent of Alexander Leggatt’s tongue-in-cheek retrospection that ‘if Shakespeare had been run down by an ox-cart in 1580’ critics might be ‘more inclined to see’ Greene’s work on its ‘own terms’, Melnikoff’s introduction seems determined to avoid the usual pitfall of reading Greene as little more than Shakespeare’s jealous rival.
- Despite his good intentions, Melnikoff’s resolve weakens slightly towards the conclusion of his introduction. Unable to resist the temptation of the bard for long, Melnikoff muses over whether Shakespeare was indirectly ‘inspired’ by Greene’s posthumous literary hauntings. He makes the case that Puck’s ‘comic mischief’ in a Midsummer Night’s Dream is not dissimilar to that of another ‘Robin Goodfellow’, Barnabe Rich’s Rich Greene from Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593). Pushing still further, he even goes as far as to suggest that Rich’s exploits might ‘resonate with the tragic registers of the famed Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet’.
- But in spite of this somewhat fanciful digression into the world of source-study, the volume provides a comprehensive literary-historical reassessment of Greene’s output. Although the majority of the critical material has appeared in previous incarnations, the volume includes a series of provocative essays and chapter excerpts from Steve Mentz, Lori Humphrey Newcomb and Jeremy Dimmick, among others. Melnikoff’s introduction also offers a wide-ranging and engaging overview of Greene’s extensive canon, emphasising Greene’s ‘generic flexibility’, his commoditisation of ‘the enterprise of authorship’ and his fascination with ‘the stuff of celebrity’. This latter preoccupation recapitulates arguments advanced in his previous volume of essays, edited alongside Edward Gieskes: Writing Robert Greene: Essays on England’s First Notorious Professional Writer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
- Melnikoff’s Robert Greene is one of a series of volumes from Ashgate that set out to reassess the work of the ‘University Wits’. This group consisted of six university educated writers - Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele and Thomas Nashe – who travelled to London seeking fame and fortune in the early 1580s. Indeed much of their literary output reveals a profound tension between their desire to fulfil their lofty intellectual ambitions and their need to appeal to the commercial print-market. It is perhaps telling that the phrase ‘university wits’ was first coined by the literary scholar George Saintsbury who, after failing to secure an Oxford fellowship, left for London in 1878, to live by his pen as a journalist.
- From its conception the term ‘University Wits’ has provided generations of critics with a sounding board from which to articulate their attitudes towards modern academia. In his popular biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World (2004), Stephen Greenblatt makes a cringe- worthy claim that, as a consequence of Greene’s attack in the Groatsworth, Shakespeare modelled the character Falstaff on Greene, in an act of private revenge. Fanciful stuff for sure but Greenblatt’s motives are intriguing. Those of a suspicious nature might be forgiven for thinking that Greenblatt is using the famous anecdote as an allegory for his own predicament, as a way of hitting back at what he sees as the petty green-eyed jealousy and intellectual snobbery which plagues his academic rivals.
- Likewise, Melnikoff’s introduction sounds eerily relevant in the context of today’s arguments over the future of the university system in the current economic climate. Rereading Melnikoff’s description of Greene’s frustration at the dreariness of his university education and his desperate struggle to find patronage and employment after graduation, one cannot help but wonder whether Melnikoff is as much preoccupied by the uncertain fate faced by the current crop of ‘university wits’, as he is by the mixed fortunes of a group of writers from the 1580s.
- Gieskes, Edward and Kirk Melnikoff, eds. Writing Robert Greene: essays on England’s first notorious professional writer. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the world: how Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2004.
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