Fulke Greville

'Concerning the Tragedies themselves; they were in their first creation three; Whereof Antonie and Cleopatra, according to their irregular passions, in forsaking empire to follow sensuality, were sacrificed to the fire. The executioner, the author himself'.


'Now if any man shall demand why I did not rather leave unto the world a complete history of her Life, than this short memoriall in such scatter’d, and undigested minutes, let him receive this answer from a dead man, because I am confident that no flesh breathing – by seeing what is done – shall have occasion to ask that question, whilst I am living'.



For my own part, I found my creeping Genius more fixed upon the Images of Life than the Images of Wit. I concievd an Historian was bound to tell nothing but the truth, but to tell all truths were both justly to wrong, and offend not only Princes, and States, but to blemish, and stir up against himselfe the frailty and tendernesse, not only of particular men, but of many Families, with the spirit of an Athenian Timon'.

The Grevillian Theory

The Grevillian Theory is a 'Group' theory. It holds that Fulke Greville wrote The Sonnets in competition with Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella and that he wrote the plays with a 'Syndicate' of writers. In circa 1590 Greville, who described himself as 'The Master of Shakespeare', formed a syndicate of playwrights which included his friends and proteges: Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Samuel Daniel, Mary Pembroke and others, and that the plays were fronted by Greville's servant and fellow townsman, William Shakspere.


The evidence for Greville's syndicate of writers is shown by two letters in the Bodlian Library. The first is a letter (circa 1590), written by Francis Bacon on the instructions of his patron, the Earl of Essex. Bacon was Greville’s solicitor, friend, and literary collaborator. Greville used his influence at court to advance Bacon’s career and defended him until the end.

The letter was written in reply to Greville's request for advice on how to organise a playwriting syndicate.

The fact that Bacon wrote the ‘blueprint’ for Greville’s playwriting syndicate means that he was a chief collaborator in all the plays Greville’s syndicate ever produced. That is in addition to Bacon’s known writing collaboration with Greville. They shared lodgings at Essex House for four years (1596-1600), and it is widely held that Bacon’s Advancement of Learning and Greville’s Treatise of Humane Learning, were written in competition there. Professor Joan Rees has written that the ‘works can be read as thesis and anti-thesis’ (Rees, Fulke Greville, p.195. 


Cosin Fulke;  You tell me you are going to Cambridge, and that the Ends of your going are, to get a scholar  to your liking, to live with you, and some 2 or 3 others to remain in the Universitie, to gather for you; and you require my opinion what Instruction you shall give these Gatherers ... The greatest Clarks are not ever the wisest men ... I do confess, I would have you gather the chiefest Things, and out of the chiefest Books yourself; and to use your other Collectors in gathering Arguments, and Examples to prove, or Illustrate any particular Position or Question. For they should, like labourers, bring Stone, Timber, Morter, & other Necessaries to your Building: But you should put them together, and be the Master Workman yourself'.



The proof that Greville carried the project through is contained in a letter from Lionel Sharpe to John Coke, professor of rhetoric at Trinity College Cambridge:


'To my very lovinge frend Mr Cooke of Trinity Colledge … Now it just so happened, when I had returned, that I bumped into Sir Fulke Greville. I realized that, although he had sampled the talents of several university men who are seeking to win his favor, he was nevertheless more desirous of your talent than theirs, because he had heard of you before. I was filled with joy and this opinion which he had conceived of your character and learning I set about reinforcing to the best of my ability by my own commendation. As a result, he wished for you all the more and, although he did not ask me to write to you, he promised you a guaranteed L30 a year if you wished to commit your work in the arts to him alone. You must make up your own mind up about what you will do. You will live by means of letters with a man who is noble in the eyes of all the courtiers, in the eyes of the earl of Essex especially, and a man who is in good favor with the queen. You will be the companion of a man of wisdom, sharp judgement, sublime learning and the most urbane manners, and who is loved by men of letters because of his renowned abilities as much as he loves them. You will live on a generous stipend, guaranteed every year. Whether you intend to accept, I do not know. I await your reply at [?] on Thursday of next week. If you can, do not reply by letter but visit me yourself. Goodbye, my dear Coke, and be persuaded that if I had not committed myself to this vocation which I have entered into, and had I not totally devoted myself to the earl of Essex, I would never refuse such conditions. Again, farewell. Truly yours, Lionel Sharpe'.


Coke accepted the offer and became Greville's Johannes Factotum, managing his affairs as estate agent, accountant, political adviser, historian and literary editor. There is a letter which shows that Coke researched for Grevllle and provided him with 'heads' and short arguments for his works:  'Good John, write me your opinion not by way of discourse but by heads and short arguments pro et contra'. Coke closely edited Greville's works for style and grammar  and subjected them to line by line criticism, insisting that they be made smooth and passable by much filing and that every unnecessary word be excised.


Coke was described his contemporary, Sir John Elliot as a great scholar but a naive man whose 'conversation being with books, & that to teach not studie them, men & business were subjects which he knew not, & his expressions were more proper for a schoole than for a State & council'.


One of the earliest traditions regarding Shakespeare's method of composition is an exact reflection of Greville's tame historian, John Coke.  In 1728, the publication of Captain Goulding’s Essay Against Too Much Reading provided support for the theory that Shakespeare had collaborated with others in the composition of the plays. Goulding claimed that he had the story from ‘one of his [Shakespeare’s] intimate Acquaintance’ (possibly Sir William Davenant who has been described as a ‘fountain’ of stories about his literary godfather, Shakespeare):

'His being imperfect in some Things, was owing to his not being a scholar, which obliged him to have one of those chuckle­pated Historians for his particular Associate, that could scarce speak a Word but upon that Subject, and he maintain’d him, or he might have starv’d upon his History. And when he wanted anything in his Way, as his plays were all Historical, he sent to him, and took down the Heads of what was for his Purpose in Characters … Then with his natural flowing Wit, he work’d it into all Shapes and Forms, as his beautiful Thoughts directed. The other put it into grammar'.

The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined (books.google.co.uk)

'I presumed, or it rather escaped me, to make my Images beyond the ordinary statute of excesse, wherin again that women are predominant, is not for malice, or ill talent to their Sexe; but as Poets figured the vertues to be women, and all Nations call them by Feminine names, so have I described malice, craft, and such like vices in the persons of Shrews, to shew that many of them are of that nature, even as we are, I mean strong in weaknesse; and consequently in these Orbes of Passion, the weaker Sexe commonly the most predominant'.


'He that will behold these Acts upon their true Stage, let him look on that Stage wherein himself is an Actor, even the state he lives in, and for every part he may perchance find a Player'.



'The Tragedies … my purpose in them was … to trace out the high waies of ambitious Governors, and show in the practice, that the more audacity, advantage, and good successe such Soveraignties have, the more they hasten to their owne desolation and ruine'. 



'Of the Tragedies remaining … which having slept out my own time, if they happen to be seene hereafter, shall at their own perill rise upon the stage, when I am not; Besides, in the same proposition I further saw, that the many judgements, which those Embryoes of mine must probably have past through, would have brought forth such a world of alterations, as in the end the worke itselfe would have proved a story of other mens writing, with my name only to put to it'.