HC#3_Henry Chettle. (Sketch #1)

In welchem Heavy etwas über seinen Namenspatron, den frühneuzeitlichen englischen Dramatiker Henry Chettle, lernt und ihm Tribut zollt.

Printer, poet, pamphleteer.

Dramatist, co-insulter and, just maybe, early apologist of and to Shakespeare.

Allegedly an obese figure1 and, by all inference, an oppressively poor hack that would write, re-write and edit in or out anything that would make him a buck. Also a quarter2 or a rusty penny if that is what you’d offer him.

Today, you’d see them in a franchise coffee shop, barely surviving on coffee and wifi, churning out whatever they’re assigned on a writers job platform3. They’d do this while on a break from serving you your latte, because you’re certainly a lot, but not them, as evidenced by the fact that you’re buying coffee and that dude is serving it to you.

Sip your large sugared milk with traces of coffee, spiced up with enough caramel-y aroma to effectively obliterate anything like the taste of actual coffee (Coffee that is Big Black and might have a faint smell of Kerosene, have a cup, why don’t you: )

and consider the dudester. No, not the one doing “their writing” while working in a coffee shop, their Renaissance forefather Henry Chettle I mean. Let this be the first of a series of biographical/works-related sketches of that unknown author of largely unknown works, who, in fact, is mostly discussed as the publisher of a Shakespeare diss track4 that he may or may not have co-written5 and the writer of some sort of apology/inaugural puff piece6 about William, the conqueror of World Literature.

One has got to give it to the faculties of English Literature that Chettle certainly isn’t forgotten, but duly analysed, criticised, weighed (and usually found wanting), sometimes even with his actual literary production (and not his relative importance as a footnote in the Shakespeare universe) as focus, and there even is one kind don, Harold Jenkins, who some fourscore years ago took it upon himself to write and publish a “Life and Work of Henry Chettle” ( London, Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1934., all following quotations from there) which, due to the lack of almost any source to flesh out the fragmentary collection of known facts of that poor hack’s life, consists of a scant 30 pages of biography, graceful 25 pages of the Shakespeare beef and the remaining 200 pages of discussion of the man’s work, and no, after reading the book, we don’t know to whom he bequeathed his second-best bed either.

Some things though we can say with some certainty about this blog’s namesake:

  1. Dude was poor if not destitute af, and, I’ll roll that into one:
  2. Dude wrote to get some, any money.

Sample some of Jenkins’ bio drawing on the money-borrowing history as layed out by the famed diary of the Elizabethan time’s very own Cecil B DeMille, Philip Henslowe. Describing Chettle’s poverty as a wordsmith, Jenkins writes: “He cherished few literary ambitions, but was clearly ever ready to turn his hand to anything that might prove profitable – nay that might produce the few shillings that frequently were all that saved him from destitution. During these five years he struggles on, earning a meagre pittance, often by the merest hackwork.” (Jenkins, p. 20) Dude’s my hero alright. Read this: “He procures money in advance on plays that the Company commission him to write and to keep the wolf from the door he obtains private loans from Henslowe, often of pitifully small sums.” (also p. mf. 20). Check out the sums he borrows from Phil-anthrope Henslowe: five shillings on one day (June 6th 1598) and another five the next, 3,75 shillings two days later and another four days later incredible 25 shillings. This plays like a week long (money) withholding kink session those two are involved in, but, really, what awkwardness! (All numbers from Jenkins, p. 22). Some googling reveals that 5 shilling in 1590 are about 40 pounds today7, so it seems Chettle had debts to settle elseplace or was covering rent and other big money drainers with the cash Henslowe provided in those instalments. Whatever their relationship was, it was good enough for Chettle to ask for and get money, but not enough for him to come right out of the door and say: “Listen up, Phil, spare me the pain of using you as daily ATM and gimme something to live on.”

3. This was a decision.

The heavy thing about all of this is that this life was Chettle’s decision. He decided to join this new class: “There was springing up in London a class of men who sought to supply the demand, who followed the paths of literature not for a fashionable pastime, nor yet as a sacred calling, but simply as the means of gaining a livelihood. [Goes on about the famous, successful and ultimately wealthy Elizabethan entrepreneur types like Henslowe, Shakespeare and Alleyn] But there were numerous less successful men – men who played their part in providing dramatic entertainment for the public, while having no direct profits of their plays; who depended for their payment on cunning business-managers; who were ready to take up any work that might be offered, and to accept for their labours anything that would satisfy their immediate needs.” (Jenkins, p.19f) Why ever did he do that?

Because, I’ll say, he somehow must have wanted to.

Write, that is.

Maybe dreams of achieving success played into it, but his writing in Kinde-Hearte’s Dream (see e.g. footnote 5 of this here ranthlet) and other texts suggest otherwise. He would have done it one way or the other. As I said, dude’s an everyday hero alright, a true DIY progenitor who wasn’t impeded by his origins as orphan of a weaver’s family (check Jenkins p. 3f), who used his knowledge and aquaintances of his learned trade as a printer and went on to do what he wanted to do. This is not about artistic freedom or some lofty genius realizing himself. Chettle consciously decided to become one of many for little, unsteady pay, to be continually rather more than less expendable, or at least he looked that possibility in the eye when deciding to go ahead and write and in doing so became nothing less than a Minor Threat Elizabethan Dramatist. Coincidentally, let’s jam one of the classics (they only have classics.) by DIY heroes Minor Threat:

4. In total, Dude was as DIY as could be:

During his career he cut out every middleman by being a printer, an editor, a writer. While he didn’t go full Ian Mackaye and founded his own printing press to print and distribute his own works, he comes pretty close, considering especially, that DIY wasn’t even invented as an idea. While a prime motivation certainly was to obtain any money – and for that motive to publish texts that might prove commercially successful like an eulogy on the just deceased queen Elizabeth I in 1603 (“England’s Mourning Garment“) – it can be said that he was acting as his own agent to do what he pleased.

England’s Morrissey Garment

5. Dude’s pretty obscure.

Much like kvlt Black Metal tapes, early Italian Hardcore Punk 7″ records or that band that mixes up Death Metal and Salsa on a Monday; like an Exploitation-Zom-B-going-on-C-Movie or an autobiography of a genius artist tomcat you have to dig y little deeper to chance upon Chettle. Back in his day, that mightn’t have been the case, since there was no concept of mainstream and underground. But even then he was a margin walker.

And today, studying EngLit you’ll probably see his name at some point, most likely in relation to the Shakespeare diss, perhaps in conjunction with his most famous works, Hoffmann and England’s Mourning Garment. I’m not too aware anymore if these texts are actually read in courses with any kind of regularity (in my time it didn’t go beyond Webster) or just referenced in a textbook. In any case it takes the will to go obscure to actually dive in. Do it, though, the recompense is real (to close off with some truly weird (but almost gentle) stuff):

On the Heavy Chettle classification table of Heavy Stuff (Patent pending) this scores an easy Sysiphos and a half, but just you wait ’til we get into the stuff dude wrote, particularly surviving chef oeuvre “The Tragedy of Hoffmann” to learn about some truly heavy heaviness.

1 Quoted by Jenkins (p.28) from Thomas Dekker, on p.76 of his „A Knight’s Conjuring“, ed. Rimbault (Percy Soc.): „in comes Chettle sweating and blowing, by reason of his fatness“.

2Of course, as we will see, rather shillings and pence than bucks and quarters, but such are the strange currencies of idiomatic turns of phrase.

3 “In the twentieth century he might have been a prominent journalist“ (H. Jenkins, The Life and Work of Henry Chettle by Harold Jenkins, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1934) – yeah, make that “prominent in the coffee shop they work at, for the quality of their milk foam“ in this our 21st century.

4 I’ll quote Jenkins out of convenience: “Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit contains (…) an outspoken address embittered by the hardship of Greene’s last days, and contains the well-known attack on Shakespeare …”. The diss is basically that Shakespeare had problems with his own blackness and was hiding a son called Adonis. Oh, wait, no that was someone else. Really, Greene (and perhaps/or those writing in his name), famously attacked Shakespeare (among other things) as an “upstart crow”, meaning he saw him as an unwelcome and much too successful and able competitor.

5Unlike any decent participant in a common rap beef Chettle didn’t hit back when criticized for publishing Greene’s attack, but „he made his excuses in (…) his own pamphlet Kindheart’s Dream (…). He contends that he has never made attacks on literary men; in fact he has always respected the profession.“ (Jenkins, p. 9) So much so, that he wants to become a writer himself and sets about doing so asap. Whatever this means in relation to Shakespeare, about Chettle it says that he 1) seeks to ingratiate himself with those that might give him some work, i.e. a life, and 2) he admires good writers.

6 Interestingly, Shakespeare specialist Lukas Erne argues, pretty heftily and he wasn’t the first to do it, in „Biography and mythography: Rereading Chettle’s alleged apology to Shakespeare“ (in: English Studies, 79:5, 430-440, DOI: 10.1080/00138389808599146), that Chettle didn’t want to apologize to Shakespeare at all, but to contemporary author Peele, which is too nicely ironic for me to unfangle here. Find it funny (or not) for yourself. For Shakespeare biographers, of course, it is an incredible loss. (Sadface emoji.)

7 See whether the math checks out here: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result