Although it increasingly appears to have been abandoned in the twenty-first century, conscience is everywhere in the late sixteenth. Hamlet, of course, blames it for his cowardice; Margaret curses Richard III with it; and it seems almost a rule that if you hire two thugs to carry out some dastardly act, one of them will prove reluctant …
It is also, it seems, only for the poor and the base – much like its cousin, Patience. Even in moments of classic anagnorisis, I’d suggest we scarcely see it in our tragic heroes – a subject for another post, perhaps.
Anyway, to Robert Greene …
If there’s anyone more maligned than Greene who wasn’t actually a serial killer or worse, I’m struggling to come up with a name. Imagine your eternal legacy being just two disparaging words, aimed at everyone else’s darling – the literary equivalent of ‘Jesus sucks!‘, perhaps …
[As a side note, I think there’s something to be said for going down in history as the person who invented the phrase ‘Trump who?‘]
With this is mind, I decided I was going to read Greene’s most famous work and decide for myself whether it was indeed worth a groat (I’m currently half-way through, so you’ll have to wait for my judgement.) In doing so, the following death-bed advice from a fictitious father to his favourite son caught my attention, not least because it strikes me as gratifyingly Machiavellian:
without wealth life is a death: what is gentry if wealth be wanting, but base seruile beggerie?
thou shouldest not stand on conscience in causes of profite, but heape treasure vpon treasure, for the time of neede: yet seeme / to be deuout, else shalt thou be held vile: frequent holy exercises, graue companie, and aboue all, vse the conuersation of yong Gentlemen, who are so wedded to prodigalitie, that once in a quarter necessity knocks at their chamber doores: profer them kindnesse to relieue their wants, but be sure of good assurance: giue faire words till dayes of payment come, and then vse my course, spare none: what though they tell of conscience (as a number will talke) looke but into the dealings of the world, & thou shalt see it is but idle words. [a]
but that was simply a construct speaking. Conscience is something to be feared, as we see when Greene abandons any pretence of fiction and begins his own death-bed advice to the reader:
O horrenda fames , how terrible are thy assaultes? but Vermis conscientiæ , more wounding are thy stings.
That worm of conscience bringing us back full circle to Richard III, as so many of my posts do.
Is conscience like death? A kind of ‘ego-death’, the graveyard of ambition and the will to power, leading to more socially-acceptable and beneficial behaviour? Something too horrible to consider, and therefore delegated to others, whilst at the same time lurking, inevitably in the background? Is the possession of one what ultimately defines the fundamentally good from the fundamentally evil?
[a] Robert Greene, ‘A Groatsworth of Wit’, in George Saintsbury, Elizabethan and Jacobean Pamphlets, (Percival & Co: London, 1829), (epub edition)