Robert Greene’s Planetomachia, ed. by Nandini Das

Nandini Das, ed. Robert Greene’s Planetomachia (1585) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). lv +168pp. £55.00 hb. ISBN 0-7546-5661-6.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

A fitting contribution to Ashgate’s new “Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity” series, Nandini Das’s edition of Robert Greene’s Planetomachia (1585) affords access to a significant cultural artifact from the early modern period. In its incorporation of sixteenth-century astrological discourse within a framed series of “pleasaunt and Tragicall histories,” Das’s Planetomachia well illustrates “the many overlaps between modes of imaginative writing … and the vocabularies, conceptual models, and intellectual methods of newly emergent ‘scientific’ fields” (ii). The volume at the same time offers the first readily available and complete modern edition of Greene’s early-career pamphlet, supplanting at long last Alexander B. Grosart’s greatly flawed nineteenth-century version.

Greene himself continues to be best-known for calumny. In the 1592 pamphlet Greenes Groats-vvorth of Witte, he infamously warned contemporary London of “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers . . . [who] is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey” (F1v). This thinly veiled attack gave us our first record of Shakespeare since 1585 and at the same time irreversibly marked Greene as an insecure hack, a second-rate writer too petty to recognize the emergence of a supremely gifted poet and dramatist. Adding injury to insult, the reception of Greene’s work has been consistently hampered as well by sensational biography, exaggerated tales beginning in the late 1580s with the vindictive slanders of Gabriel Harvey and Greene’s own repentance narratives, and continuing into the present with Stephen Greenblatt’s fanciful fashioning of Greene as the living Falstaff in Will in the World (2004). Often overlooked in these clichéd narratives of professional jealousy and bohemian self-destruction have been Greene’s professional and literary achievements. Greene was not only a well-read and ground-breaking writer who invented new literary forms like the true-crime novella and revivified stagnant prose and dramatic genres in works like Menaphon and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, but he also was one of the most successful and influential writers in two early-modern culture industries—the print market and the professional theatre. His name routinely turns up in end-of-the century lists of England’s legendary literati, and by 1640, it had appeared on as many editions as Shakespeare’s. And like Ben Jonson, Greene had a fascinating penchant for self-display and professional self-consciousness, his pamphlets and plays routinely thematizing art and artistic production, and often drawing attention, subtly or overtly, to Greene himself as their producer.

Planetomachia bears witness to Greene’s wide-ranging knowledge and proclivity for self-presentation and generic experimentation; it also holds literary-historical importance for the dialogic interplay between its tales and its framing dialogue, a literary mode, according to Das, which was “virtually unprecedented in the literature of the period” (xl). Greene’s ample prefatory material includes “A briefe Apologie of the sacred Science of Astonomie,” a tract in defense of astrology that for the most part is a translation of Lucian’s De Astrologia, and a Latin dialogue between “Robertus Greenus and Franciscus Handus” on the question of planetary influence over the will of man, a work Greene adapted from the writings of Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. The central narrative of Planetomachia begins with a framing “sacred Parliament” (82) involving seven heavenly bodies (all of which are described as “planets”), namely Saturne, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercurie and Luna. In essence, this parliament holds a debate over which body is “the most pernitious of all the Planets” (23) for exerting the most destructive influence over the lives of men. With Sol the “appointed Moderator,” evidence is offered in short “Astronomicall description[s] and “Anatomie[s]” of each offending planet and in fictional “historie[s]” of each planet’s negative influence. Venus starts things off by anatomizing Saturn and then telling a tragic Italianate tale about a miserly duke. Once Venus is finished, the planets discuss her tale and Sol affirms “that the hapeless events of this tragical discourse came by Saturnes sinister influence” (48). These “parliamentary” proceedings are repeated with descriptions of and further Italianate tales pertaining to Venus and thereafter to Mars. Seeing that “night hath cast her duskie Mantle on the Skye,” the debate is then adjourned, with Sol promising to “meete in this present place, and moderate your controversies” (82) the next morning. Here the text ends, seemingly with Greene’s never realized intention to produce a sequel to Planetomachia, one in which the remaining heavenly bodies, Jupiter, Mercurie, and Luna, are each anatomized.

In her introduction, Das locates Greene’s multivalent texteffectively within a network of scientific, theological, philosophical and literary works, from the geocentric cosmology of the Greeks through the wide-ranging astrological musings of the Renaissance humanists. In all of these recur themes having to do with “[t]he relationship between body and the intellect, and between free will and fortune; the question of the role played by the individual in circumventing or acceding to the influence of the stars, and what is most important of all, the role of the humanist in understanding these relationships and actions, as he attempts to decipher the very nature of the stars themselves” (xxv). Ever sensitive to trends in London’s print market, Greene would also have taken inspiration from the innumerable almanacs and astrological manuals available there, as well as from newly printed astrological treatises by his contemporaries, namely Thomas Heth, Henry Howard, and the Harvey brothers. As Das convincingly shows, however, Greene owed his greatest single debt to the French physician Antoine Mizauld de Montlucon’s Planetologia (Lyon, 1551), a “compendium” of various classical and contemporary astrological tracts by Lucian, Pontano, and Mizauld himself. Greene’s reliance upon this compendium, argues Das, helps to explain his emphasis on the inescapable influence of the planets over the lives of men and women, not simply through fate but also through their bodily inclinations.

Das’s edition of Planetomachia provides the trappings of a scholarly volume. Along with a slightly regularized and faintly modernized text, it includes an ample 35-page introduction, five contemporary woodcuts, textual annotations, lists of editorial emendations and word divisions, a selective bibliography, and an index. It also includes appending sections with Greene’s source material from Planetologia and English translations of the text’s Latin prefatory material and Latin dialogue between Greene and Francis Hande. Particularly illuminating is Das’s account of Planetomachia’s shared fabrication in the print shops of Thomas Dawson and George Robinson. As she explains, Robinson’s mis-foliation of his textual fragments accounts for the fact that only one of six surviving copies was bound with the correct order of pages. Having said this, though, it bears mentioning that Das’s introduction is marred by frequent typos (“Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1533” [my emphasis xii]) and insufficient citations. Also her genre-driven literary biography is dated, as are her Textual Introduction, which ascribes literary specialization to printers rather than to publishers, and her Selected Bibliography, which only includes a paltry six scholarly works published in the last fifteen years. Given that this is a scholarly edition in the age of EEBO, I was also surprised to see quotes from Grosart’s flawed fifteen-volume Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse of Robert Greene in the introduction, especially after Das herself acknowledges crucial “lapses” in Grosart’s own edition of Planetomachia (xlviii).

Despite its oversights and errors, though, Das’s edition should nonetheless help to draw more critical interest to Greene’s large and diverse canon of works. One can hope that its appearance will both spawn new approaches to his pamphlets and plays, and encourage further scholarly editions of overlooked texts like Menaphon, Penelope’s Web, and Alphonsus, King of Aragon. Renewed interest in Greene will probably never erase Greene’s fateful insult from our cultural memory, but it may, within an academic sphere still dominated by various strands of critical theory, recast its significance.

Kirk Melnikoff,University of North Carolina at Charlotte