Was Shakespeare a ‘jack-of-all-trades’?
The English author Robert Greene died on 3 September 1592, and a posthumous pamphlet was published at his dying request. It was titled Green’s Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a million of repentance. Describing the folly of youth, the falsehood of makeshift flatterers and mischiefs of deceiving courtesans. In this pamphlet, Greene supposedly refers to Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’. He calls him as ‘the only Shake-scene in a country’ and dismissively describes him as Iohannes fac totum, or ‘Jack-of-all-trades’:
…there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s hart wrapped in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
It is generally accepted that Greene was alluding to Shakespeare because it is likely that ‘Shake-scene’ is a play on his name and because the reference to a ‘Tiger’s hart wrapped in a Players hide’ was an allusion to Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3. In the play, Margaret of Anjou mockingly tells the Duke of Yok that she has killed his son. The distraught duke describes her as a ‘she-wolf’ who has a ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide’:
She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth:
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph like an Amazonian trull
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates.
But that thy face is vizard-like, unchanging,
Made impudent with use of evil deeds,
I would assay, proud queen, to make thee blush.
To tell thee whence thou cam’st, of whom derived,
Were shame enough to shame thee, wert thou not shameless.
Thy father bears the type of King of Naples,
Of both the Sicils and Jerusalem,
Yet not so wealthy as an English yeoman.
Hath that poor monarch taught thee to insult?
It needs not nor it boots thee not, proud queen,
Unless the adage must be verified,
That beggars mounted run their horse to death.
‘Tis beauty that doth oft make women proud,
But God he knows thy share thereof is small.
‘Tis virtue that doth make them most admired;
The contrary doth make thee wondered at.
‘Tis government that makes them seem divine;
The want thereof makes thee abominable.
Thou art as opposite to every good
As the Antipodes are unto us
Or as the South to the Septentrion.
O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!
How couldst thou drain the lifeblood of the child
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?
…That face of his the hungry cannibals
Would not have touched, would not have stained with blood:
But you are more inhuman, more inexorable,
O, ten times more, than tigers of Hyrcania.
See, ruthless queen, a hapless father’s tears.
This cloth thou dip’dst in blood of my sweet boy,
And I with tears do wash the blood away.
[He hands her the cloth]
Keep thou the napkin, and go boast of this;
And if thou tell’st the heavy story right,
Upon my soul, the hearers will shed tears.
Yea even my foes will shed fast-falling tears
And say ‘Alas, it was a piteous deed!’
(Act 1 Scene 4)
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