Thursday, 28 December 2017

28 December, 1593 - George a Greene

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at gorge a gren the 29 of desembȝ 1593 ... iijll xs

In modern English: Received at George a Greene, 28th December ... £3 and 10 shillings

Today, Sussex's Men continued their run of success, performing yet another play to a packed theatre! This time it was George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield George a Greene was a plebeian Northern hero from popular folklore, famed for his quick wit and his talent for winning fights. The play itself is a silly but entertaining piece of English patriotism, in which George repels a Scottish invasion. A couple of years after these performances, the text of George a Greene was published, making it one of the few plays of Sussex's Men that we can actually read.


Who wrote this play?


The Folger copy of George a Greene,
with Buc's note on its authorship
Before we dig into the plot of George a Greene, it's worth looking at an intriguing puzzle over who wrote it. The play was popular enough for several editions of it to be published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One copy, now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, has a note on it in the handwriting of Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels, who was in charge of censoring plays and arranging entertainments for the Queen. The note reads:

Written by .......... a minister, who ac[ted] the pinner's part in it himself. Test[ified by] W. Shakespeare.
Ed. Juby sayeth that this play was made by Ro. Gree[ne]. 

From the note, it seems that Buc asked two people who wrote George a Greene: William Shakespeare and the actor Edward Juby. Shakespeare said it was a churchman who played George a Greene himself, but apparently couldn't remember his name, so Buc left a blank. But then Juby said it was Robert Greene, a well-known playwright whom we've met several times already in the course of this blog, as he wrote some of the plays performed by Lord Strange's Men: Orlando FuriosoA Looking-Glass for London and England and possibly Friar Bacon.

This note is of great interest to scholars of the enigmatic Shakespeare, as it's a rare early reference to a conversation with him. Still, the bard's recollection of a performing cleric-playwright seems rather odd, so George a Greene is more often regarded today as a play by Robert Greene, even though it's not much like his other work. We'll probably never know who really wrote it, but it's an intriguing little mystery.

Of pinners and Wakefield



A medieval pinfold in Capenhurst, Cheshire
So, George a Greene is a pinner, but what does that mean? A pinner (or, sometimes, a pinder) is someone employed to round up stray livestock such as sheep and cows, and pen them in a pound (in northern England, these pounds were often called 'pinfolds', and some of them still stand to this day).  The pinner would then make money by charging the owners for their release or selling unclaimed animals at market. Pinning may not seem like much of a livelihood, but in the town of Wakefield, a centre of the English wool trade, the town pinner was likely kept busy chasing after stray sheep.

However, the work of the pinner is not actually important to the plot of this play. What is important is that George-a-Greene is a pinner of Wakefield because Wakefield is in northern England, and in this play that means it's on the frontline of a Scottish invasion. King James of Scotland is at loggerheads with King Edward of England. Which James and which Edward? Technically, it must be James II and Edward IV but to be quite honest, historical accuracy is the last thing on this author's mind.


The play


Wakefield's medieval bridge and Chantry Chapel
George a Greene begins with the Earl of Kendal joining with King James of Scotland in his planned invasion, and trying to raise an army in northern England. His treasonous plans do not impress the patriotic people of Wakefield. George a Greene, the eponymous pinner, is the leader of the popular resistance, telling his fellows, "We are English born, and therefore [King] Edward's friends, / Vowed unto him even in our mother's wombs". Through trickery, George captures Kendal and hands him over to the authorities. Meanwhile, King James's invasion collapses when a siege is broken by an elderly war veteran and his son, who takes James prisoner and bring him before King Edward.

George's contribution to the defeat of the invasion sums up his essential characteristics: he's smart, he's tough, and although he's a poor man and a commoner, he's a patriot and he loves his king. But being a commoner causes problems for George, because his girlfriend, Bettris, has a domineering father named Grime who wants her to marry someone of higher status than a mere pinner, and locks her up in his house. George, using his brains again, sends his boy, Willy, disguised as a woman, to rescue Bettris from her father's house where she is kept. Bettris escapes by swapping clothes with Willy, but she still won't marry George without her father's permission, and what's worse, Willy is now trapped in the house, in women's clothing, and Grime has fallen in love with him! The life of a pinner is clearly more complicated than you might expect.

Robin Hood, from a 16th century edition of the
ballad A Jest of Robin Hood
Being a folk hero isn't easy either. Down in Sherwood Forest, Maid Marian is jealous of George a Greene, feeling that his reputation now outshines that of her own Robin Hood. She nags Robin into proving his superiority over his northern counterpart, so Robin, Will Scarlett and Much the Miller's Son trek up to Wakefield and fight George with staves. This fight must have been quite spectacular on the stage:

George. Sirrah, darest thou try me?
Will Scarlet. Aye, sirrah, that I dare!
   They fight, and George a Greene beats him.
Much the Miller's Son. How now! What, art thou down? Come sir, I am next!
   They fight, and George a Greene beats him.
Robin Hood. Come sirrah, now to me: spare me not,
For I'll not spare thee.
George. Make no doubt I will be as liberal to thee.
   They fight; Robin Hood stays.
Robin Hood. Stay, George, for here I do protest,
Thou art the stoutest champion that ever I laid hands upon!
George beats Much and Will Scarlett, but his fight with Robin ends in a draw. Having gained respect for one another, the two heroes feast together instead.

Fighting with staves, from a German fighting
manual published by Christian Egenolff
But this isn't the only fight that George gets into. In Bradford, a shoemaker enforces a custom known as "vail staff" (vail is an archaic word meaning the lowering of a weapon), according to which men must not carry their staves on their shoulders but rather trail them on the ground, or else they must fight the shoemakers. The two kings, James and Edward, come through the town, disguised as commoners, and they oblige when a shoemaker warns them to vail their staffs. But George and Robin Hood are passing through at the same time and scoff at Edward and James for being so docile. Seeing this derision, the local shoemakers attack them, but George beats them all up and then demands that they serve drinks to welcome Robin Hood, resulting in the delightful stage direction "They bring out the stands of ale and fall a-drinking". The kings then reveal their identities.

King Edward IV
At the end of the play, all these threads are tidied up. At George's request, King Edward orders Grime to let George marry Bettris; Grime agrees as long as he can marry the "lovely lass" he found in his house. With this agreed, Willy throws off his disguise, to Grime's anger. King Edward then offers George a knighthood, but he refuses it, insisting that a man's deeds are more important than his social status:

Then let me live and die a yeoman still:
So was my father, so must live his son,
For 'tis more credit to men of base degree,
To do great deeds, than men of dignity.
Instead, George requests that King James' release be contingent on him paying reparations to the war's victims. In the play's last lines, King Edward proposes to have supper with George and concludes,
And for the ancient custom of "vail staff", keep it still,
Claim privilege from me;
If any ask a reason why or how,
Say "English Edward vailed his staff to you".
As you can see, this is a silly and episodic play, but it has some amusing moments. Readable texts of it are hard to come by, but see if you can track down a copy of J. Churton Collins' 1910 edition of the plays of Robert Greene.


What we learn from this


George-a-Greene contains many of the qualities that we've come to expect from popular plays at the Rose: violence and patriotism. However, the heroes of the plays we've seen previously tended to be chivalric knights. In contrast, the hero of this play is a working class man of the people. What's more, it's full of imagery associated with the activities of common people during festivals and holidays, including feasting and stave-fighting competitions. Lots of other plays of this period tap into this imagery (Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday is perhaps the best and most famous), but this is our first encounter with this popular subgenre in our journey through the Rose repertory, and it may suggest that the repertory of Sussex's Men included different kinds of hero than those of Lord Strange's.


Further reading


George-a-Greene information

  • Alan Nelson. "George Buc, William Shakespeare, and the Folger George a Greene", Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 74-83.
  • Erika Lin, "Popular Festivity and the Early Modern Stage: The Case of George a Greene", Theatre Journal 61 (2009): 271-97
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 893.


Henslowe links



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