Johnny Do-It-All

Household calamity, here in the wilds of Berkshire.

My appliances have clearly held a meeting and do not approve of their working conditions. And now a conspiracy is afoot.

The first to down tools was the food mixer. Then the breadmaker, producer of wholemeal, home-made bread daily, began to produce flat paperweights which could anchor a small liner.

And finally a tetchy Phil informed me the iron was roughing up his shirts.

We have two choices: we can repair: or throw away. It rankles to throw these things out; their construction is sturdy, their composition nigh-on irreversible, and they were all purchased in the not so distant past.

But we are not practical people. While we might long to look under the bonnet, we wouldn’t have a clue what was going on there. For the want of an odd job man, the three miscreants might as well take themselves to the tip and chuck themselves over the side. The waste verges on criminal.

An underrated man, Johnny Do-It-All. Or as they say in Latin, Johannes Factotem.

And never more than when the term was used of the greatest playwright who ever populated the boards.

Of course, the term was meant to be derogatory. And it was wielded by a character who was a literary giant when William Shakespeare was a young upstart.

Actually – and this is a tangent I am unable to resist – it was used a year before Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in a pub brawl, placing Shakespeare in London before Marlowe’s death, and vanquishing my favourite conspiracy theory that Shakespeare was indeed Marlowe.

The litarary giant was a big, bluff, badly behaved man called Robert Greene.

How badly behaved it is difficult to divine, for he made his name in later times as a celebrity writer, chronicling his own bad deeds and decline in  fly-on-the-wall pamphlets. Many of his claims are dramatic; their provenance questionable. He claims to have travelled Italy and Spain where he “sawe and practizde such villainie as is abhominable to mention”, yet there is no evidence of this experience in his writings.

Greene seems to have been born in 1558 in Norwich, the son of a saddler or a publican – there are two Robert Greenes born in that year in Norwich- and then gained a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge.

He did not distinguish himself; he graduated 38th out of 41 scholars. But he made a canny move: he began to write romances.

Like the MIlls and Boons of today they sold well. They were carefully pitched to appeal to gentlewomen but wooed gentlemen as well. But  the parallel with penny fiction ends there: as well as being prolific he was clever, inventive and entertaining. His works flew off the shelves.

At which time he turned to parodying himself.

He wrote about his misdeeds and  his clear need to repent and the audience loved it. Green became the first celebrity writer, according to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography. A fellow writer, Gabriel Harvey, in his Foure Letters, described him by the late 1580s: “Who in London hath not heard of his dissolute, and licentious living; his fonde disguising of a Master of Arte with ruffianly haire, unseemely apparrell, and more unseemelye Company … his fine coosening of Juglers, and finer juggling with cooseners, … [his] impudent pamphletting, phantasticall interluding, and desperate libelling. ”

But he knew writing. And he knew plays, too: he took the rough English dramas of the time and gave them form: he linked different sub plots with common themes, and treated women differently and more sympathetically, much as he had in his romances.

And then a young playwright appeared who bested all that, and has buried all Greene’s achievements.

William Shakespeare: a young actor-turned playwright. Scholars have uncovered affectionate references in the younger man’s work to the older man’s influence. One academic has even advanced the theory that Falstaff is Greene.

But just after the death of the old reprobate, a posthumous pamphlet was published under his name. No-one knows conclusively whether it is his or not. It is called Greenes Groats-Worth of Witte.

In it: pure historical gold: the first written reference to Shakespeare. Although it is a curmudgeonly perspective.

“there is an upstart Crow,” it goes,  “beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.”

So: Shakespeare was a Johnny Do-It-All. An upstart crow with a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.

And that was just the beginning of a very long story…

Written in response to Side View’s Theme for this week: Odd Jobs – which you can find here


46 thoughts on “Johnny Do-It-All

  1. what a lovely response to the theme.

    Like us all Shakespeare obviously was once a youth and probably no less brash and rash than most of them

    1. I think anyone with a talent like that must have deeply unsettled the playwrights of the day. For who could come close to that verse of his? Flinging mud was probably their only recourse…

  2. been off line for couple of days (another machine!) and so my first coffee of the day has been strangly lacking in depth:( thanks again for splendid post – I never knew about him – great story

  3. Great stuff, Kate. “..impudent pamphletting, phantasticall interluding, and desperate libelling. “ so reminded me of any British election campaign!

    1. He really was a riveting character: a huge tranche of research has been done because of his connection with Shakespeare so this skims along the surface, Roger. Worth a delve, I think.

  4. Regarding Christopher Marlowe: In his super documentary “In Search of Shakespeare”, Michael Wood states that after spending his last few hours in a pub, Marlowe then went to a government safe house in Deptford, by arrangement, to meet three men: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeers, and Robin Pooley, described as ‘the evil genius of the Elizabethan underworld’. All three – like Marlowe – had connections with Lord Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster.

    We don’t know what the meeting was for, but according to Frizer’s, Skeers’, and Pooley’s subsequent witness reports, at six in the evening, Marlowe had an argument with Frizer. He – Marlowe – got up from the bed he had been lying on, took Frizer’s dagger from him and started pummelling Frizer on the head with it.

    ‘In that affray’ as the coroner’s report says, Frizer managed to snatch the dagger back and ‘in defence of his life’ stabbed Marlowe with it, just above the right eye. The wound was two inches deep and killed Marlowe instantly.

    According to Frizer, Skeers, and Pooley the argument was over no more than the bill – the reckoning. In one of his plays, though, Shakespeare said that ‘not to understand a man’s verses can kill a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room’ (adapted from As You Like It Act 2. Sc iii. L.12-15).

    Marlowe’s last play had been Edward II ‘a scathing attack on a corrupt ruler and a fawning court’…!

    Apologies if you knew the documentary already. If you didn’t, I highly recommend it; it is very interesting from start to finish.


    1. I always welcome references to material like Wood’s Malcolm, thank you 🙂 It was watching that which first set me off on my favourite conspiracy theory. They do look so alike in the pictures and Marlowe had friends in high places. But all the academics are adamant the two playwright’s styles are so different; and what of this, a reference to Shakespeare in a text published a year odd before Marlowe was stabbed?

      Hmmm. Curiouser and curiouser.

  5. A factotem! I haven’t heard that word in years; the old man used to drop in the odd word of Latin as it was part of his daily life in school or church. I’ve never learned any. Odd the thoughts a word can conjure up… Thanks, Kate. It’s always good to think of the old man 🙂

  6. Fascinating, Kate. A few of my friends and I were just discussing Shakespeare over coffee Friday afternoon. I’ll be sure to send them here to visit your words. What a wonderful response to the Odd Jobs theme.

  7. Another day, another learning experience, thank you! Don’t believe I’d ever heard that any of his contemporaries disparaged Shakespeare’s work, but to be honest, I’ve never really studied it at much length either. 🙂

    When I commenced reading, I believed you to be headed in an entirely different direction here — you are a master of the written U-turn — and your reference to “Johnny Do-It-All” led me to Jack of all Trades and this: Another matter entirely; yet, to my mind, a posting quite similar to yours.

    1. Interestingly my trail today began an ‘jack of all trades’, Karen. Johannes factotem was a precursor to the phrase. The article looks great: some sound advice there…

  8. It’s the pits when all your appliances go at once. Makes you feel there’s contagion in the air. Tragic, but not a tragedy, at least according to the textbooks.

    1. Quite: like they say about a common cold: not bad enough to consign you to bed for the day, but bad enough to be deeply uncomfortable. I shall not be brought to ruin by the rebellion of the appliances: but shall be deeply inconvenienced by them. Pesky varmints.

  9. I got side-tracked as I often do, after reading ‘A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess’
    A fascinating period of our history.

    As for appliances that all seem to go at the same time – I have a theory for this: manufactures build in obsolescence by making one part (usually of plastic in an otherwise fully metal construction, which will break after a given time) Most people cannot be bothered to get it fixed or the price (labour costs) prohibit the desire.
    A typical example is the modern camera, there is lot of working early Nikons; the F, F2 and even the F3 but I wonder how many old digital cameras will still be around in 20 or 30 years!


    1. Hello David! Thanks for taking the time to comment! Do you know, I have never read Burgess’s take on Marlowe. I think it is instantly my next read.
      As for building in a finite life to small applicances, I agree. If only odd-job men would set up little repair shops in every town so we could potter along with our humble little appliances instead of throwing them away…

  10. This was great, heading off in a completely different direction to where it seemed to be going, and i read it just after a read a thing in the paper about Shakespeare (it’s his birthday on Monday) which made it even more interesting.

    If that’s your toolkit in the picture at the top, you’re a far better family at DIY than we are.

    1. Tinman, Phil’s Man Drawer is very sparse. I don’t even think he has a phillips screwdriver in it. We are not DIY-ers…those are a set of 16th century tools, as befits the Shakespeare theme.

  11. My goodness this is rich! I chuckled out loud when you said “and this is the tangent I couldn’t resist…” Your tangents are so rich and full I’m not even aware that they are tangents! I love every bit of the this story, and never once thought about how Shakespeare was received or critiqued by the previous luminaries. And I’ve learned a new description from you once again…Johannes fac totum-I can’t wait to break that into my vocabulary! So rich! I am afraid I also have small appliance litter still in cupboards, closets and I even saw that Jay put an old printer (he tried to hide it) in the greenhouse. Simply put, it’s just too hard to get rid of these things any more. As you said, and I smiled at this, too, “their composition nigh-on irreversible.” The landfills certainly can’t take them any more. This was almost another Earth Day post 🙂 Debra

  12. Another peek into juicy Tudor England. Complete with 21st century woes. I’ve read the Upstart Crow quote before, but I didn’t know its provenance.

    Sorry for your appliances… I’ve a Johannes factotum of sorts at my house, but he’s of precious little use to you all the way over here. Do you suppose Uncle Sam would allow us to call a trip to repair your bread machine a “work expense?”

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