The Triumph of Time: The Fortunate Readers of Robert Greene’s Pandosto

  • Lori Humphrey Newcomb
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


Nowadays, we recognize literary evaluations as cultural constructs, as products of particular and contingent histories and we attempt to strip away these accumulations without hoping to restore an originary artifact. But if we wish to trace the evaluative history of an early modern text, what evidence do we have of its earlier fortunes and how can we read that evidence except through our current evaluative conditionings? Unlike historians of modern literature who can draw on rich authorial, critical and publication archives, we are reduced to ingeniously interpreting evidence so thin and contradictory as to seem unreliable. To pick a famous example of these difficulties, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia was republished steadily through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that apparently unambiguous publication history is complicated by anecdotal estimations of Arcadias value, which, as compilers of literary allusions found long ago, rose and fell like ‘tennis balls tossed by the racket of the higher powers’: late-Elizabethan adulation yielded to Jacobean ambivalence, Caroline nostalgia and Augustan scorn.2


Tennis Ball Love Story Popular Fiction Female Servant Popular Text 
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  1. 1.
    Robert Greene, Pandosto. The Triumph of Time, in Paul Salzman, ed., An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford, 1987), p. 182 (here-after cited as Elizabethan).Google Scholar
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    Kay notes that the tennis-ball image was echoed by both John Webster’s Bosola and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. See Dennis Kay, ed., Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism (Oxford, 1987), pp. 18, 32, hereafter cited as Kay.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Salzman’s edition assumes the existence of a lost first edition of the text from c. 1585 (Salzman, Elizabethan, xvii, xxvii), a theory first advanced by Alexander Rodger in ‘Roger Ward’s Shrewsbury Stock: An Inventory of 1585’, The Library, 5th ser., 13 (1958): 247–68. If this is true, Greene wrote Pandosto around the time of his other more courtly romances and when Sidney was revising the Arcadia — and before Thomas Underdowne’s 1587 Englishing of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica. If Sidney’s Old Arcadia was the innovator in prose imitations of Heliodorus, the Hellenistic author had apparently already been naturalized to the stage: in a 1582 polemic, Plays Confuted in Five Actions, Stephen Gosson lists ‘the Oethiopian historie’ among the foreign works ‘thoroughly ransackt to furnish the Playe houses in London’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 8.
    It is, of course, Hero and Leander who are unfortunate and Dorastus and Fawnia who are fortunate. I thank Peter Lindenbaum for calling my attention to this conjunction and many others. The new titles affiliate these familiar texts with more fashionable high-keyed works ranging from William Davenant’s tragedy, The Unfortunate Lovers (1638) to Aphra Behn’s novellas, The Unfortunate Happy Lady and The Fortunate Bride (1696).Google Scholar
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    The Stationers’ Company ordinance of 1598 fixed the maximum retail price of printed books, based on the number of signatures and the typeface chosen, with exceptions allowed for dense or complicated work (Francis Johnson, ‘Notes on English Retail Book-prices, 1550–1640’, The Library 5th ser., 5 [1950], p. 84). These variables corresponded to the capital costs (paper) and the labour costs (presswork and composition). The price for most works of about 1/2 d per sheet remained stable until about 1635, while prices for most other goods doubled over that period (p. 93). As long as Pandosto remained a straightforward quarto fitted neatly into seven signatures, its unbound cost could not vary much. Although Johnson postulates that English booksellers sometimes charged lower prices for reprints, his own examples of prices for Greene titles do not bear out that theory (pp. 94, 103). The various options for binding, always at extra charge, would have offered buyers scope for distinguishing themselves by income, but few editions of Pandosto retain original bindings.Google Scholar
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    The first phrase is the title of Chapter 4 in Bridget Hill, Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1989), pp. 47–68; the second is from Susan Cahn, Industry of Devotion: The Transformation of Womans Work in England, 1500–1660 (New York, 1987), p. 4.Google Scholar
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    Richardson, Clarissa, p. 261. Clarissa uses the same word, highly significant in this metafictional context, writing that Lovelace, ‘I have too much reason to believe, formed a plot to fire the house, to frighten me, almost naked, into his arms’ (p. 278). Those commentators on Greene who have noted this late reference have completely missed its ironies (René Pruvost, Robert Greene et ses romans [Paris, 1938], p. 284; Caroline Lucas, Writing for Women: The Example of Woman as Reader in Elizabethan Romance [Milton Keynes, 1989], p. 51).Google Scholar
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    Scouten, Vol. I, pp. 457, 471. Such links can be extended endlessly, given the smallness of the theatrical community. Macnamara Morgan mounted another play at Covent Garden in 1754, with most of the actors from The Sheep-Shearing; called Philoclea, it was based on Arcadia and was crushingly reviewed. See George Winchester Stone, Jr., The London Stage, 1660–1800, Part IV: 1747–1776 (Carbondale, IL, 1962), Vol. I, pp. 404–5.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Lori Humphrey Newcomb

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