Henry Chettle was one of the most prolific of the Elizabethan playwrights. He also wrote prose works. His father apprenticed him to a London printer in 1577. He rose to be quite senior in the publishing business, where his main interest was in publishing ballads and plays. He was partly responsible for publishing a pirated version of a quarto of Romeo and Juliet, to which he is thought to have added some lines and stage directions.
The first reference scholars have found that refers to William Shakespeare is in a 1592 pamphlet by Robert Greene: A Groat’s-worth of Wit, in which he comments on a new writer in London: “…for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the one Shake-scene in a country”. It was printed by Henry Chettle, and there is a scholarly debate about whether it was actually written by Greene at all: some say it is a forgery by Chettle.
Like so many men of various backgrounds coming into the London theatre community, the printer was attracted by the playwriting trade and began to dabble in it, working with the friends he was making – Drayton, Dekker, Haughton, and even some of the big stars of the age like Jonson and Webster.
One Elizabethan play, Sir Thomas Moore, is a dramatic biography based on events in the life of the Catholic martyr, who had been Lord Chancellor of England during the Reign of Henry VIII and was executed for refusing to support Henry’s break with the Church in Rome. The hand of up to about ten prominent writers can be found in the text. It seems that it was passed around among them for anyone to add what he liked. This work was overseen by Chettle and one or two other writers. The aspect that makes this play so famous and so worthy of attention is that there is consensus that one of the scenes was written by Shakespeare.
Chettle was involved in about fifty plays although only twelve seem to have been written by him alone. Only one of those, The Tragedy of Hoffman: or a Revenge for a Father, with a plot similar to that of Hamlet, first performed in 1602, was printed – in 1631. Chettle also wrote non-dramatic pieces – stories that may be regarded as forerunners of the novel, including a narrative about an apprentice printer, Piers Plainnes Seaven Yeres Prentiship, and a romantic piece, Kind Heart’s Dream.
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