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Punning References to Robert Greene in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
by Roy Neil Graves
Copyright 2005, All rights reserved


           I'm confident that Shakespeare’s
Sonnets allude in various witty ways to Robert “Robbin” Greene, Will’s infamous detractor.
           Below is a paper presented in Nashville at Lipscomb University on 26 February 2005 in a session of the annual conference of the Tennessee Philological Association. Preceding the full text of the paper is an abstract (which will appear in the proceedings journal). The paper refers to a handout that also appears below inside the text of the paper.


Punning Allusions to Robert Greene in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English, The University of Tennessee at Martin

A paper presented at Tenneessee Philological Association, Lipscomb University, Nashville, 26 Feb. 2005.
(This abstract is to be published in the proceedings journal.)

            William Shakespeare’s rampant punsterism is an established fact, and speculations about puns in his texts, including topical wit in the Sonnets, have abounded. Still, readers have almost certainly not yet plumbed the lightsome depths of the Bard’s punning wit, especially in the Sonnets, where Will’s lines aim themselves at private readers and allow visual scrutiny of sub-audible wordplays that the configurations of letterstrings adumbrate. One likely area in the 1609 Quarto for a new and focused investigation into such coy wit comprises the six widely dispersed sonnet lines where the word “green” occurs: 12.7, 33.3, 63.14, 68.11, 104.8, and 112.4. “Green” (like “Crow”) strikes our eyes and ears as a playful invitation to explore adjacent contexts for humor alluding to Will’s much-quoted antagonist Robert Greene, the disgruntled contemporary who in his posthumous Groatsworth of Wit (1592) branded the young playwright/actor “an upstart Crow” that “is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in the countrey.”
         Particularly insistent wordplays occur in sonnets 104 and 112, where phonic elements insinuate “R. Greene.” These two wordstrings, in fact, stand as fruitful samples revealing latent wit: “Since first I saw you fresh which yet are greene” (104.8), e.g., allows such puns as “Scene see: sourest [f = ‘long s’] eye saw ewe fresh, witch white, R. Greene.” And the query “So you ore-greene my bad, my good alow?” (112.4) suggests, e.g., “Sour R. Greene may be odd midget, aye low?” Read thus, both puns encode “sour” and denigrate Greene. Line 112.4 is immediately preceded by another question that seems relevant to Greene’s personal attack: “For what care I who calles me well or ill?” Further, the run-on play at lines 68.11-12 links “...greene, / Rob...,” while hard by, in line 70.4, hovers “A Crow that flies in heauens sweetest ayre.”
         My own earlier findings, published at <> and in several TPA papers, demonstrate in artifactual detail how the Sonnets are at bottom a complex game, an extended double entendre comprising stichic units that have double functions, so that each line in Q works once in the 154 visible Sonnets and again in 154 hidden Runes, as I call them. One deduces that Will framed these formerly lost coterie texts, authorized and latent in Q all along, to entertain some private constituency that included his contemporaries. In the context of the astounding discovery of the Runes, it seems almost predictable to find topical coterie puns stashed in the Q lines, beneath the level of audibility, as one kind of gamy bait, “On purpose layd to make the taker mad,” as Will says in Sonnet 129.8.

Punning Allusions to Robert Greene in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English, The University of Tennessee at Martin
The full text of a paper presented at Tennessee Philological Association, 2005, with a handout.
(The text here shows small modifications that adapt it to this medium.)

            William Shakespeare’s love of puns is an established fact. “A quibble,” Dr. Johnson said, “gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth.”  Even some of us who like puns more that Dr. Johnson did may agree with his premise. Puns are distracting, pulling readers off the ostensible course of a text. Nonetheless, they’re part of what and how a Shakespearean text means, and to wish they weren’t there and ignore them  is to misread the poems. The Sonnets, I argue, have long been misread, partly because they’re gamier than we’ve dared to think.
            Unlike the plays, the Sonnets target private readers. As he built them, Will would have known that he could expect close scrutiny of wordplays in his letterstring configurations. Given the coterie mindset of his Age and the delight all Renaissance writers took in sprezzatura or “suppressed design,” I believe we’re justified in moving well beyond the conventional kinds of puns that everybody readily acknowledges in the Sonnets.
             Briefly let me point toward the broad range of those. First there are the knee-jerk puns like heart/art, hour/whore, and antic/antique. Will’s phrase “Holy antique hours” (68.9), for example, puns “wholly antic whores.” More radically, the phrase “ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” (73.4) puns “runed quires [i.e., a sheets of paper] where late the Sweet Bard sang.” There’s the whole range of bawdry such as the conventionalized sexual puns explored in Eric Partridge’s classic study Shakespeare’s Bawdry. And other kinds of still unexplored coterie puns can be illustrated by the one in Sonnet 10, line 1, “For shame deny that thou bear’st love to Annie!”  (The Q texts reads “any,” A-N-Y.) That is to say, “How dare you say you don’t love my wife!” Imagine an all-male coterie of readers responding to such a joke.
            Given Will’s propensity for puns and his own “great mind” (as he calls it in Sonnet 114), we can safely assume, further, that any effective wit we find in his writings is more likely to be his doing than ours. I’ve often been charged with overingenuity in reading the Sonnets, and I categorically deny that  charge.
            Because of the uncertainty surrounding the publication of the 1609 Quarto, I ought to be overt in asserting my own deduction that the printed details of the 154 sonnets in Q are authorized, not pirated and botched. My conclusion, based on more than two decades of delving into private meanings in the Sonnets, is that Will collaborated with Thomas Thorpe to ensure that the authorized details saw their way into print. (Thorpe, as you know, is the “T.T.” of Q’s dedication page whom experts agree was the printing agent for the Sonnets.) I invite those of you who assume that Q is unauthorized to accept my premise for the time being as a working hypothesis.

              My paper today looks freshly at certain details in the Quarto lines that may encode plays on the name Robert Greene, and the handout tries to epitomize some  of those. The most obvious places to look, of course, are the six sonnet texts where the word “green” occurs overtly. (See the two-page handout, reproduced immediately below. Later points in the paper will return to this handout for illustration.)

In each of these cases where the word “green” occurs, I argue, this word is a playful invitation for us  to explore the adjacent contexts for humor alluding to Will’s much-quoted antagonist. All of you here will know of Greene as the disgruntled contemporary writer whose “Upstart crow” diatribe is the best clue we have in the Bard’s skimpy biography about just when the young Will started his fabled rise in the theatre world of London.
            Greene was just six years Shakespeare’s senior and died young in 1592.  Unlike Will, he was a university man. During a 34-year life, Greene became known as the most prolific and versatile writer in Elizabethan London, working in many modes. A weak, superficial man who sported unconventionally long hair, Greene in his day was notorious for riotous debauchery. Even one professed admirer admitted that Greene’s life was “a loathsome / Puddle of filthiness, inly polluted, / With all abuse that can be devised.” A married man and wife deserter, Greene underwent some kind of repentence about 1590. Two years later, attended by the mother of his illegitimate son and others, he died in poverty and ignomy after eating some pickled herring. Adding insult to gastronomic injury, they buried him in a cemetery near Bedlam.
            Greene’s notoriety persists, of course, because of his bitter attack on the young Will Shakespeare. In a posthumously published miscellany titled Greenes Groats-worth of Wit (1592), he cautioned three fellow playwrights including Marlowe not to trust or write for stage actors, whom he demeaned as “Puppits...that speak from our mouths, those Anticks garnished in our colors.” He went on: “Trust them not: for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verrse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a crountrie.” Whether Greene was calling Will a plagiarist or just plain uppity for presuming to rise above his station and write plays is a matter of dispute, but the harsh tone of his richly figurative diatribe is not. 
            Records suggest that Shakespeare formally protested Greene’s Groats-worth affrontery—as did Marlowe, whom Greene in his apostrophe had urged to recant atheism. 
           Over time, Greene’s scurrilous comments about Will have typecast him as a jealous antagonist whom a young, spirited wordsmith might well have wanted to take a few swipes at. One of those rejoinders seems to comes in the third Henry VI, where a key phrase in Greene’s diatribe gets parodied in Will’s line “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!”  Since we know that Shakespeare was at work on at least some of the Sonnets before 1599, we can plausibly imagine him still hearing the dead man’s words in his head as he developed the Q cycle.                    

           And now to the texts themselves.
            On page 1 of your handout, the location numbers of the six widely dispersed texts in Q that use the word “green” are cataloged down the left of the page. You also see three other variant forms that might stand for “green”—growne in 32; grone in 50; and the odd word greeing, a clipped form of “agreeing,” in 114). These locations, I propose, are the likeliest places to look for plays on the name Robert Greene.
            You’ll also see that I’ve cataloged some other key terms including forms of ROB or ROBERT as well as prominent figurative words in Greene’s charge—notably CROW, FEATHER, TYGER, AND HYDE.  At the bottom I’ve also noted explored briefly the occurrences of the words HEART, PLAYER, WRAPPED, and UPSTART.  Finding where the clusters of all these key terms converge has given me a crude mode for exploring the poet’s mind, in something of the way that researchers look into a brain scan to see exactly where the most mental activity is occurring as a person gets subjected to certain stimuli. The analogy is crude, but you get my point.
            At left I’ve divided the Sonnets into 11 sets of 14 numbers each, since my earlier research into hidden elements in the Quarto shows that Will was working in groups of 14 as he wrote the poems. [Show a holograph arrangement of Set I. Links: How Will Wrote the Runes, The Runes and Their Charcteristics.] Here, for example, is a reconstructed UR-text, if you will, of  Set I. Astoundingly, if you read “across” the set, linking up first lines with first, second with second, and so on, you’ll generate 14 hidden poems. This is not the topic of my paper today, but again I’ll ask you to imagine as a tentative act of faith that every line in the Sonnets is a double entendre, working once in the overt texts and once in the hidden ones.  Certainly this assumption would reinforce the idea that the Sonnet verses are gamy and that punning for private readers is inherent intheir nature.             
            But let’s go back to the overt texts, saving that other large argument for another day.  For now you can accept my Set divisions merely as an organizing device, to help you see elements emerge that are closely clustered and thus apt to’ve been written contemporaneously.
            My general conclusion, which I’ll try to illustrate briefly, is that in certain places in the Sonnets where other “relevant” terms cluster around the word “green,” one can be nearly certain that the poet has Greene in mind as a joking referent. 
            Especially interesting are two cases where punning letterstring forms suggest “R. Greene.”                            

            [Here show a projection of Sonnets 104 and 112 as they occur in Q.]
           You see that these occur in Sonnets 104 as “are greene,” and in Sonnet 112 as an even more contrived-sounding “o’er-greene.”
            Since some of the poet’s “green-wit” might lie in the overt subject matter of the texts, we note that 104 feels vaguely like a topical apostrophe to some “fair friend.”  We’re geared to thinking of this man as the mysterious Handsome Young Man of the Sonnets, so it’s a real reach for us to hear the poem  as a coy, ironic address to a dead person, especially to Greene. But the first line and other details do admit that reading: A dead person such as Greene surely can’t age. And line three might mean “you’ve been dead three years.”  (A contemporary, incidentally, described Greene as being “of face ami[a]ble, of body well proportioned.”)
            It’s probably easier to imagine the poem as some kind of punning attack, not a tribute. One pun in line 8, for example, is this: “Since first I saw you fresh, WITCH WHITE [that is, Y = ET], R. Greene.” Note also that “Which” as a possible pun on “witch” occurs in number 112 as well. [Point out line 2.]
            Ostensibly, Sonnet 112 is also an address to an unnamed “fair friend,” and it’s not hard to imagine that line 4 has that friend’s approbation in mind as a foil to Greene’s attack.  The listener’s “love and pity” (as line 1 says) might makes up for some scandalous attack, the one mentioned in line 2. “So you o’er-green my bad” would seem to mean “you could spruce up my faults.”  However, like many of Will’s lines in Q, the line could also mean the opposite: That is,  “Your attacks on my faults out-strip those that Greene made. You out-Greene Green.”
             In any case, this text seems, more clearly than 104, to be thinking of some kind of past criticism of the poet.  Reference to judgment and criticism occurs in at least five lines.  Line 2 mentions “vulgar scandal”); 3 speaks of “calling me well or ill”); 4 mentions faults and  virtues; 10 mentions “others’ voices; and 11 speaks of “critic and flatterer.”  Line 8 encodes a pun on “sensor” in “my steel’d sensor changes.” The endline of the poem might well be an apostrophe to Greene, suggesting “Everybody else has buried you, but I haven’t.”
            One possibility is that the “are green” pun in 104 helped induce the topic of Greene’s attack in the poet’s mind, and that Sonnet 112 is a more conscious exploration of that subject. With the poet’s fertile mind searching for figurative materials, thinking about Greene probably prodded his thinking later on the same set leaf. [Show where the two poems occur on the Set leaf.]                                                                    


            Another context where Will seems likely to have Greene in mind is in the environs of Sonnet 33.                          [Show Sonnets 32-33.] Here the content—about sunny days and the loss of them—is typically ambiguous personally, with vague topical suggestions of past elation and gloom. The lead-in (in Sonnet 32) mentions the friend’s muse as not having “growne with this growing age” ( line 10) and says “poets better prove since he died” (13).  Puns in line 10 include “Heed (or hate) my friend’s muse Greene—witty is Greene-gauge.” Since “Gauge” is a medieval noun for “standard of measurement,” Will’s “green-gauge” joke here might well have razzed the listening friend, whoever that was, by suggesting that Greene’s writings were a touchstone of quality.  (OED shows “greengage” as a variety of plum to be an 18th century coinage incorporating a proper name.)
            In Sonnet 33, the confluence of the endwords “Greene” (line 3, where the initial in line 4 is “G”) and “hide” in line 7 makes us think that the detractor is on Will’s mind.  (Remember that “...wrapped in a player’s hide” was the key, italicized phrase in Greene’s detraction.) Clinching this conclusion, I propose, is the convergence of the end-letterstring “row” [show line 10] and “BUT...”) to generate “Robert,” Greene’s first name. 
           One pun of many possible in lines 10-11 is this:  “With all triumphant splendor, enemy be ‘Robert,’ OUT, a Jack, he was but one whore, mine!”  Remember that the term “Jack” in the form of “Johannes Factotum” had occurred in Greene’s original charge. The poem’s close might even be a statement of grudging affection for Greene, and of forgiveness. The last line “Suns of the world may stain,” punning on “sons,” certainly reminds us of Greene’s attempt to besmirch Will’s character. 
           A final intriguing confluence here is that Greene died at age 34, the endword or catchword at the bottom of the Q page, the number of the sonnet coming up.  Will couldn’t have anticipated this number in print, but 33 may be close enough in its numerology to work.

           A third context where Greene-wit occurs almost certainly is in the vicinity of Sonnet 68, which is at least partly about living “a second life on second head”—rather much what Greene charged Will with. [Show a projection of Sonnets 67.8-68-69-70] The fun here is that the keyword “Greene” 68, line 11, intersects “Robbing” or “Robbin” in line 12. [Point out this intersection.]

            Notably, “Robin Greene” was the name by which Greene styled himself in the posthumous pamphlet Repentance, published in 1592 just after the notorious Groatsworth of Wit, in which S. was attacked.
             You’ll notice here that the converging acrostic letterstring spells out RAT downward from this name.  Farther up we see BOB [5-3, upward; point this out]. In Sonnet 67 another phonic version of ROB occurs in the acrostic RWB (lines 8-10). A long version of RAT (RWAWAT) occurs farther up [show this]. Meanwhile, down in Sonnet 69, a “crow” hides in the endword “CROWND” (line 5).  The phrase “the thought of hearts” is in line 2, reminding us of that word in Greene’ “upstart crow” passage.
             In the next Sonnet, 70, the word “Crow” recurs, in loose contiguity with hearts farther down.

            We don’t have time to pursue possible links between the overt content of these Sonnets and the hidden references to Robin Greene, except to say that the key lines in Sonnet 68 allude to plagiarism of the sort Greene seemed to be charging Shakespeare with: Line 7 speaks of “living a second life on second head.”
            Here, taken overtly, the two lines in which the name occurs may seem to deny Greene’s charge of plagiarism. The lines read, “Making no summer of an other’s green, / Robbing no old to dress his beauty new.” References in 69, lines 5-7, to “praise” and “other accents” also seem to pursue similar topics. 
           A further cluster of Greene-wit occurs in Sonnets 112-115, bridging two of the sets. We’ve already looked at 112, where “O’er greene my bad” occurs and discussions of “vulgar scandal,” “shames and praises,” of “critic and flatterer,” and the like. The keyword Greene in 112 finds development that you can most easily see summarized on the first page of your handout. Here are clustered several plays on “crow,” with the words “up,” “heart” and “flattery” all in the vicinity.  Most interesting is the coinage in 114. 11 of the odd line “Mine eye well knows what with his gust is greeing” [point this out], just after “drinks it up.” One pun of many here is “Many well know Southy’s gust is Greene.”  (Southy is a short form that I have deduced for Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, Will’s only known patron, a handsome man most often proposed as Will’s beloved friend in the 1590.  Here, again, the joke as I take it is that Will is razzing his patron/friendthe Friend’s taste runs toward Greene’s writing. “Gust,” of course, means “taste,” from the Latin gustibus.)
            The danger of biographical readings of puns comes in the overlaid pun here, “My Annie well knows Hathaway’s gust is Greene.” This turns the line concurrently into a wife-berating joke about her bad taste for a hack writer.

            We’ll have to leave the argument here. While not conclusive, my findings do suggest that Will used the prodding of Greene’s attack to find both overt and covert materials to develop in the Sonnets—topical and coterie materials that contemporaries among the Sonnets original readers would have picked up on.
            I leave you with a page of more arcane coterie decipherings, all of them undogmatic and in the playful spirit that I’m sure governed the composition and release of the Quarto Game.
              At best a paper like this might sensitize you to some of the punning potentialities in the Sonnets in future—and might put you on guard against dogmatic lyrical readings and the prescriptive approaches of received opinion.  The key to the Sonnets, as Dr. Johnson said, is the infinite variety of the Great Mind that generated them. By contrast, all of us are pea-brains.


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