Literary daybook, Sept. 20

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published September 20, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction
On Sept. 20, Brenda Kovner decides to muder Joseph Monti.
-- "Murdering Mr. Monti" (1994)
by Judith Viorst

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1592, Robert Greene's "A Groats-Worth of Wit Bought With a Million of Repentance," in which appears the first printed reference to Shakespeare, was entered in the Stationers' Register. Greene was one of the most popular English authors of his day, and a notorious profligate. He had died three weeks earlier from a lifetime, as he himself had confessed, of "riot" and "incontinence," though the immediate cause was apparently "a surfett of pickle herringe and rennish wine." Included in Greene's groat (i.e., a four-penny coin) of wit was advice to his fellow dramatists to watch out for the 28-year-old Shakespeare, an actor recently turned playwright, and of dubious scruples:

"... for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde [a parody of a line from Henry VI], supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum [Jack-of all-trades], is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."

This may be a charge of plagiarism; it certainly expresses one playwright's jealousy of another's rising star. Greene wrote plays, romances, and a series of racy, semi-autobiographical tales of dissipation, intermixed with contrition and moralizing. He also specialized in "cony-catching pamphlets," a series of tales based on the nefarious techniques used by the con men and women of the Elizabethan underworld. Under the guise of informing and forearming an unsuspecting public, such "rogue literature" was a popular genre in Shakespeare's day. Pamphlets like Greene's were story-based; others merely cataloged the various tricks and trades -- telling us, for example, that a hooker is one who goes about with a long, iron-hooked staff snitching clothing left out to dry on balconies and hedges.

Greene was one of the age's first professional writers, though his very last note, written to his abandoned wife from the house of those friends who would put a crown of bay leaves on his head and pay for his winding sheet, shows him not to have managed much of a living: "Doll, I charge thee, by the loue of our youth and by my soules rest, that thou wilte see this man paide; for if hee and his wife had not succoured me, I had died in the streetes."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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