An “Upstart Crow?”

An artist’s impression of “Shakespeare” as the “Upstart Crow”

In act IV of Timon of Athens, Timon leaves his home in Athens while his faithful steward, and other servants lament his departure. He goes to live in a cave in the woods, collecting berries, and digging up roots in an attempt to assuage his hunger. When Timon rejects the beastliness of men nevertheless his friend Apemanthus (who must represent his better reason) visits him to see how he is coping. Timon asks him what he would do if he was in possession of power and he says he would confer power to beasts so that they would devour men. There are some wonderful passages and exchanges from Timon, the now fully affirmed misanthropist and recluse:

If thou wert the lion, the fox would
beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb, the fox would
eat thee: if thou wert the fox, the lion would
suspect thee, when peradventure thou wert accused by
the ass: if thou wert the ass, thy dulness would
torment thee, and still thou livedst but as a
breakfast to the wolf: if thou wert the wolf, thy
greediness would afflict thee, and oft thou shouldst
hazard thy life for thy dinner: wert thou the
unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and
make thine own self the conquest of thy fury: wert
thou a bear, thou wouldst be killed by the horse:
wert thou a horse, thou wouldst be seized by the
leopard: wert thou a leopard, thou wert german to
the lion and the spots of thy kindred were jurors on
thy life: all thy safety were remotion and thy
defence absence. What beast couldst thou be, that
were not subject to a beast? and what a beast art
thou already, that seest not thy loss in

The Title page of Doni’s Book of Animal fables

This early rendering of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” might have been inspired by Sir Thomas North’s own translation of an Italian work of Animal Fables originally derived from Eastern sources entitled “The Moral Philosophy of Doni” published in 1570. Indeed, the term “upstart crow” is also quite likely taken from Doni’s Philosophy. The second subtitle of the volume proclaims aptly: “A Collection of Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic Fables”. One notices three further improvements upon the last edition of Thomas North‘s translation, within Jacobs’ later edition of 1888. Firstly, there is a good degree of introductory material to the tales themselves. Secondly, there is also a wealth of visual material to accompany the text. Thirdly, the spelling of Thomas North‘s English has been greatly updated, so that it is far easier to read these days. From the beginning of the 90-page introduction, the editors assist the reader to see this book in its oriental, Italian, and English context, since Thomas North was translating Doni’s Italian version from the original eastern sources. There is actually one other cultural shift before then, from the ancient Hindu to the later Muslim versions. Appendices to the introduction are helpful in showing collateral versions and a history of Western fable, in particular versions of Aesop’s Fables. A fourth appendix offers some seventy-six representative illustrations from Eastern and Western sources. That is the first part of the invaluable visual material. The second consists of the forty-nine illustrations that have been inserted alongside the text itself. In fact, Thomas North‘s work came out in two editions, one in 1570 and another in 1601. Thomas North was a major literary source for Shakespeare’s plays having also written “Dial of Princes” (1557), and “The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth Ist in 1579) from a French version by Amyot, which greatly influenced “Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well as “Anthony & Cleopatra”. The last section of the introduction discusses the merits of the two editions. My sense of what we have here is the text of the 1570 edition updated in its spelling and those rarely corrected as obvious errors within the 1601 edition. The illustrations include copies of the 1601 edition’s illustrations.

The poets/playwrights that were addressed by Robert Greene

The poet and playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592) wrote a play entitled “Pandosto”, the Triumph of Time in 1588 which provided an interesting source for William Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”. On top of which he also wrote Friar Bungay and Friar Bacon and James IVth which were also sourced by the Bard for his own dramas. In a letter or rather dying testimony to fellow playwrights of whom Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and another poet are thought to be the main recipients, Robert Greene appears sorely aggrieved and is said to have written on his death-bed in protest and warning those fellow dramatists, of his dire condition, of the dangers posed by imposters or “actors”; those who use their material to further their own ends and garner admiration and praise from the public:

Title page of Robert Greene’s “Groatsworth of Wit”

To those Gentlemen his Quondom acquaintance that spend their wits in making plays, R.G. wisheth a better exercise, and wisdom to prevent his extremities:

Base-minded men all three of you, if by my miserie you be not warned: for unto none of you (like mee) sought those burres to cleave: those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouthes, those Antics skeptic in our colours. Is it not strange, that I to whom they all have been beholding, shall (were yee in that case as I am now) bee both at once of them forsaken? Yes, trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger’s hart wrapped in a Player’s hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country. O that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: & let these Apes imitate your past excellence, and never acquaint them with your admired inventions.

Robert Greene, A Groatsworth of Wit (1592)

An illustration from a Hindu book on Animal Fables

Robert Greene, a talented writer who was imprisoned for debt on more than one occasion, died in squalor and poverty in the home of a poor shoemaker’s house near Dowgate, London in September 3rd, 1592. The pamphlet was entered into the Stationer’s Office on the 20th September 1592 by the publisher Henry Chettle. Numerous attempts have been made to make some sense of Greene’s comments, if indeed he made them, as it was suggested that Henry Chettle wrote the entire piece, attempting to pass it off as Greene’s last testimony. Symbolically, the crow was known for its ability to imitate any call, the ape for its mimicry so what the writer is suggesting is that the actor in question, which many presume to be Shakespeare, is a mimic and a plagiarist. The condemning phrase in Greene’s excoriating letter: “Tyger’s hart wrapped in a Player’s hyde”, is actually taken directly from Shakespeare’s own Henry VIth part 3, spoken by Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York to Queen Margaret who having captured the city is about to have him executed. The symbolism of the tiger is thought to represent ruthlessness, expediency, cruelty and stealth. Richard pleads with the Queen showing his son’s handkerchief soaked in his own blood:

Oh Tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a womans hide!
How could’st thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?

As we all know Richard’s appeal to a conquering woman, who was known as the “she-wolf” of France failed. However, the term or phrase “the onely Shake-scene in a country” is thought to refer to Shakespeare and as it is hyphenated it re-affirms the actor or Jack of all trades (Johannes fac totum) thinks he is the only jobbing actor turned playwright or poet in the country equal to Shakespeare. Being able to shake-a-scene means being able to hack it on stage in public. Of course this just does not make sense when we break it down semantically. Firstly, how could Shakespeare be equal to, and attempt to imitate himself? The sentence claims the actor thinks he is “Shakespeare” and the purpose of this essay is to determine who “Shakespeare” really was. Now Greene could have been saying that he thought Shakespeare had ripped him off or that a man called Shakespeare had benefitted from the work of other playwrights or more succinctly thought he was able to produce blank verse!

Portrait of Robert Greene

Anyway, as it turns out the writer and publisher Henry Chettle went on to write an apology to clarify what Greene and in part what he himself actually intended by those abstruse and cryptic remarks:

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 playmakers, is offensively by one or two of them taken: and because on the dead they cannot be avenged, they wilfully forge in their conceits a living author: and after tossing it to and fro, no remedy, but it must light on me…With neither of them that take offense am 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…I am sorry as if the original fault had been mine own, because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes: Besides, divers of worship (worthship?) have reported his uprightnesse of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious (urbane and polished) grace in writing, that approves his art.

Again this letter has been misconstrued because of its lingering ambiguity by the Stratfordians and used by Shakespearean researchers as proof that Henry Chettle, the humble and unassuming publisher was apologising to William Shakespeare and one other playwright, but the apology did not extend to a third, again un-named. Another group of contenders suggest that Henry Chettle was secretly the writer of Shakespeare’s plays. So, firstly Chettle says that two playwrights have taken offense and about the playwrights to whom the letter was addressed “With neither of them that take offense am I acquainted”-meaning he does not know them personally and that of those two (possibly Marlowe) he states he is not sorry never to have met him. Christopher Marlowe, because of his open adherence to atheism, his homosexuality and the anarchic nature of his dramas, was an anathema to some circles of the mainstream literary circle in London. But the object of Greene’s scathing derision we must assume is the person who is of “divers worship” (ie: worthy in diverse fields or admired broadly), is upright in his dealings, honest, urbane, graceful and polished in his writings, at least according to Chettle. Now was Chettle apologising to the actor, the Johannes fac totum? Hardly, this would appear to be a virtually blind apology to a person who of high rank had been injured by some of Greene’s remarks. At the commencement of the letter he addresses “all three of you” playwrights without naming them but it is widely accepted that those playwrights were Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. So, how could Greene in the first place warn Shakespeare and his contemporaries about an upstart crow, when the upstart crow is presumed to be William Shakespeare. Furthermore, why did Chettle feel the need to apologise to the two people who took offense, namely Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare and neglect to offset any libellous remarks made against Marlowe?

An artist’s impression of an upstart crow with peacock’s feathers

I suggest that the reference to the “upstart crow” was in actual fact a condemnation of the Stratford Man, the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, who while passing himself off as William Shakespeare, the playwright and poet, was getting above himself and causing quite a controversy among some dramatists, writers and poets in London.
Malone in the 18th century misconstrued this letter citing it as irrefutable proof of Shakespeare as an actor and playwright first rubbing shoulders with other worthies such as Kit Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Since then, without erudite scrutiny nearly everyone in academic and literary circles has taken this to prove the existence of Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon who caused such a controversy among other writers in London.

The playwright Robert Greene collaborated with “Shakespeare” on several plays so it is highly unlikely that he would have condemned the author Shakespeare and re-iterates his contempt of the parvenu Stratford man in his “Farewell to Folly” and the practice of using a pseudonym and “mask” for literary endeavours:

“Others…if they come to write or publish anything in print, it is either distilled out of ballets (ballads) or borrowed of theological poets which, for their calling and gravity, being lothe to have any profane pamphlets pass under their hand, get some other Batillus to set his name to their verses. Thus is the ass made proud by this underhand broker. And he that cannot write true English without the aid of clerks of parish churches will need make himself the father of interludes”.

During the War of the Theatres when the University Wits were accused of being unable to write plays based on life experience, Will Kempe who was with Richard Burbage and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men condemned the academics as being removed from everyday reality. In the play “Return to Parnassus” he spoke as follows:

Few of the university men pen plays well. They smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why! Here’s our fellow Shakspeare puts them all down; aye, and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson’s a pestilent fellow; he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakspeare hath given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.

The Arthur Golding Classic “Ovid’s Metamorphoses”

Unfortunately, as any academic should know, William Shakespeare was greatly influenced by and had frequently sourced the Greek writer Ovid, and in particular his “Metamorphoses”. Indeed, he makes many references to English, Roman and Greek Gods both in his plays and poetry. The Stratfordians have proposed that despite not having had a university education that the Stratford Shakespeare was able to procure all the books he required from the Stratford publisher Richard Field who was also instrumental in printing his first attempts at poetry. However, Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” was dedicated to his nephew, Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford who is considered the most likely candidate for having written Shakespeare’s plays. Therefore we must accept that Kempe was ill-informed even about his own fellow writers, who no doubt he presumed to be a common man with an elevated wit and universal perspective. Nevertheless, Shakespeare had a natural writing style and was able to translate archaic themes and infuse them with contemporary experience. Moreover, the Stratford actor had a relatively good relationship with Ben Jonson even though Jonson had satirised him in his Every Man Out of his Humour as the clown Sogliardo. It was probably Thomas Dekker (“Satiromastix”) who the Bard purged in 1601 when Jonson’s play “Poetaster” was first staged by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men wherein Jonson compared himself to Horace who was instructed by the Emperor Julius Caesar to administer an emetic to Crispinus (Marston) and Demetrius (Dekker). The first time the name of W. Shakespeare appears in print is with the play “Love’s Labours Lost” (1598) and this must have had an effect on the jobbing actor from Stratford. A year later Shakespeare had managed to purchase a substantial property named New Place and by 1601 had even procured his coat of arms with the motto “Not Without Right” which entitled him to be known as a landowner and gentleman. The term or title in Elizabethan England implies an elevated status of Esquire, that is one of the landed gentry, and therefore someone entitled to bear arms. In his Epigrams,-no: 56 (published in 1617) Ben Jonson lampooned his newly acquired status with a tract entitled Poet Ape and in a reference “Not Without Mustard”.

A Carrion Crow Calling out!

Poor Poet Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the froppery of wit,
From Brokage has become so bold a thief
As we the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays, now grown
To a little wealth, and credit on the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose t’was first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! As if half-eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.

Like Greene, Ben Jonson is aggrieved that Shakespeare, by now an actor/writer and probably director/manager in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was buying the copyright of old plays and revising them, thereby accruing great wealth, status and distinction – which is certainly true of the actor from Stratford. Yet therein lies a dilemma if not an unacknowledged subtle distinction. William Shakespeare is often portrayed by a number of academics as innovative and original yet many of his plays are in actual fact plagiarised if not derived from other fellow playwrights of the time. A typical example is the anthology The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), printed by William Jaggard in which five poems are erroneously attributed to William Shakespeare, although some are from his play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Christopher Marlowe’s contribution entitled “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” was countered by Sir Walter Raleigh with his own “The Nymph’s Reply”. It was quite common practice for a poet or playwright to make a comment or response to another poet or playwright within the confines of a literary device, in some cases the more topical the better. Therefore, we might misconstrue their ironical reasons or mocking motivations today and mistakenly perceive them as plagiarism, eclecticism or imitation. In 1612 the playwright Thomas Heywood (“Apology For Actors”) states that the author Shakespeare “is much offended with W. Jaggard that [altogether unknown to him] presumed to make so bold with his name”. Although no copyright law existed at the time it was still considered an audacious trick to use an author’s name as a ploy to sell an anthology of poetry. Nevertheless, despite the apparent offence that this presumption might have caused, Jaggard’s son Isaac was still entrusted with the task of printing Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623?

The existence of this theatrical and “Literary Janus” (a two-faced god) was again satirised in the anonymous play “Return From Parnassus”, and in a much later satire “The Great Assizes Holden in Parnassus by Apollo and His Assessors” (1645) by the satirical poet George Wither (1588-1667) who was himself a Puritan and patronised by the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Pembroke and Earl of Montgomery. Mount Parnassus, in ancient Greece was the sacred home of the muses and the god of poetic inspiration Apollo and George Wither’s work parodies twelve poets as jurors/malefactors including himself as Britain’s Mercury;

  1. George Wither – Mercurius Britannicus
  2. Thomas Carey Mercurius Aulicus
  3. Thomas May – Mercurius Civicus
  4. William *Davenant – The Scout
  5. Josuah Sylvester – The writer of Diurnalls
  6. George Sands – The Intelligencer
  7. Michael Drayton – The writer of Occurrences
  8. Francis Beaumont – The writer of passages
  9. John Fletcher – The Post
  10. Thomas Heywood – The Spy
  11. William *Shakespeare The writer of weekly accounts
  12. Phillip Massinger – The Scottish Dove etc.

*The Oxfordshire poet, William Davenant is considered by several Stratfordians to be the illegitimate son of the actor William Shakespeare, and note that the Bard’s name is not hyphenated in this instance.
Among the “mock assessors” elected by the author in this excoriating satire are Lord Verulam (Sir Francis Bacon), Sir Phillip Sidney (Constable), William Budeus (High Treasurer), John Picus (High Chamberlain), and Julius Caesar Scalinger. Clearly, at this moment in time and from Wither’s literary, and one would assume well informed perspective, the idea that Sir Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare were one and the same did not exist otherwise they would not exist as separate characters. Alongside these illustrious names are transposed those renowned for their humanist ideals; Erasmus, Lipsius, John Barclay, John Bodine, Adrian Tenerus, etc. Finally, the list concludes with Joseph Scalinger (The Censor of Manners at Parnassus), Ben Jonson (The Keeper of the Trophonian Den), John Taylor (Chief Crier) and Edmund Spenser (Clerk of the Assizes).

In this biting send-up George Wither describes twenty Elizabethan celebrities who are described as “Assessors” convened at Apollo’s court to judge the worthy and unworthy contributors to the birth of the English Renaissance. However, he only re-iterates the notion that William Shakespeare was merely a “mimic”. The Parnassus Plays were produced at St. John’s College, Cambridge around 1600 and consist of “The Pilgrimage to Parnassus” and “The Return to Parnassus”, the latter composed of two parts, the second entitled “The Scourge of Simony”, they are thought to have been penned by John Day (1574-1640) who wrote plays for performance by the Children of the Revels, a company sponsored by Edward de Vere. Among the poets satirically portrayed are Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare with supporting characters Richard Burbage and Will Kempe.

Edward de Vere, the real author of the Sonnets

It was not uncommon at the time for a poet or writer to disguise their contribution or authorship. The reasons are varied and depend largely on the nature of the text. “The Art of English Poesy” (1589), an apparently anonymous work attributed to George Puttenham gives numerous reasons why poets and their craft were derided in their day by other nobles as being effeminate, sentimental and fantastical. Clearly, in the majority of cases, the pen was mightier than the sword. It was also a time when most people had to conceal from public attention their views and opinions especially if they differed considerably from Protestant or Catholic ideals. Sir Thomas More wrote plays under a pseudonym, William Ross (Guielielmus Rosseus) and arranged to engage a “mask” to conceal his polemics from his majesty Henry VIIIth. Thomas Nashe wrote under the pseudonyms Cuthbert Curryknave and Pierce Penniless, Edmund Spenser used Colin Clout and Immerito and the anonymous author of the Martin Marprelate pamphlets is still unknown to us today. In 1610, the poet John Davies of Hereford published a volume entitled “The Scourge of Folly”, (a parody of Marston’s “Scourge of Villainy”-1598) which consisted of poems to several famous people and to some of Davies’s acquaintances. One of these poems was euphemistically addressed to William Shakespeare as follows: To our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare.

Some say (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,
Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;
And, beene a King among the meaner sort.
Some others raile; but, raile as they thinke fit,
Thou hast no railing, but a raigning Wit:
And honesty thou sow’st, which they do reape;
So, to increase their Stocke which they do keepe.

Anyone who has studied the classical writers of Rome knows that Terence was an ancient Roman playwright who, like Shakespeare had arisen to great acclaim although born from humble origins. Through these memorials and dedications a whole body of myth evolved around the figure of “Shake-speare”, some compared him to Apollo, some to Ovid, Virgil and so forth. Nevertheless, the real Shakespeare appears to elude our imagination and mental comprehension. But not all poets were full of admiration.

The links to my publications, the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy in “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and my anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

In the early part of my career I have worked extensively in media, the arts and theatre as an innovator and environmental conservationist and much later took on a role as an investigative journalist and commentator on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.

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