Upstart Crow Fact Check – The Apparel Proclaims the Man



A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by @ChasquiPenguin

Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.

Series 1

Episode 3 – The Apparel Proclaims the Man


  • The title of this episode is taken from a line in Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 3), spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes: ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’, implying that a person is judged by the manner in which he dresses. This proverb has been used, with varied wording, from at least the days of Ancient Greece, so is not a Shakespeare original. In 1500 Erasmus quoted it in Latin but it is better known to us as ‘Clothes make the man’ and, though often erroneously attributed to Will, it is generally credited to Mark Twain.


  • Shakespeare’s three plays all called Henry VI are usually performed separately and are thought to have been written in 1591 and 1592. However, there is much discussion as to whether Will wrote these alone or with another playwright. The claim by Oxford University academics that they were co-written by Christopher Marlowe is much disputed. However, in 2016 Oxford University Press published all three parts, crediting both Shakespeare and Marlowe as co-authors.


  • It is widely believed that Kit was part of Queen Elizabeth’s spy ring, headed by Sir Francis Walsingham, and is likely to have been involved in seeking out Catholics who were plotting against the monarch, reporting his findings to HQ. However, Walsingham passed away in 1590, two years before the first Upstart Crow series is set, but under his guidance over 50 government agents were working in the spy network.


  • Lord Southampton was known to be a patron of many writers of his day, including William Shakespeare. However, whether he ever held literary salons or “saucy prancings” seems to be unrecorded!


  • The ‘upstart crow’ insult was printed in Robert Greene’s pamphlet A Groat’s Worth of Wit. However, it was not published until after Greene’s death in September 1592, albeit only two and a half weeks later, fulfilling one of his dying wishes. The full phrase is ‘upstart crow beautified in our feathers’ and is widely considered to have been aimed at Will, though there are other contenders. However, as Greene was apparently criticising an actor trying his hand at writing, Shakespeare seems the most likely candidate. The phrase ‘The green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on’, from Othello and spoken by Iago (Act 3, Scene 3), sums up the view that Greene wrote this jibe out of jealousy, as William Shakespeare was making a success of writing. We can only wonder whether Greene would have become more jealous or accepting of Shakespeare’s talent had he lived beyond 1592. However, this and other derogatory comments made by Robert Greene about his fellow writers seem to bear out the view that he was not the most pleasant of people – so well-portrayed by Mark Heap in Upstart Crow.


  • Greene’s bluff which convinces Will to wear purple puffling pants and yellow tights with really silly cross-garters is taken from Twelfth Night. In this play, Malvolio is also the butt of a joke, though perpetrated by Olivia, the lady he loves, and servant Maria, via a letter. Finding the letter, which he believes Olivia has written to him, Malvolio learns that he would be even more attractive to her if he were to wear yellow stockings cross-gartered and so attires himself in this manner to the amusement/horror of all. From the Upstart Crow scripts book, I understand that this cross-gartering is the second funniest of Will’s visual jokes, after the donkey’s head in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. If only we’d had the benefit of seeing Will and Kit so attired when we were studying Twelfth Night for O-level English Lit about half a century ago! We might then have understood the gag but, despite our teacher assuring us it was hilarious to a Tudor audience, it fell flat among the class of teenagers as we couldn’t even picture the get-up!


  • With Will handing over The Jew of Malta to Kit towards the end of this episode, he not only repaid his ‘cool’ friend for supporting him by wearing identical and ridiculous attire at The Prancings, thus making his appearance there a success, but also managed to rid himself of a controversial play. Of course, within the Upstart Crow story, this has explained how The Jew of Malta has been attributed to Marlowe and also shows Kit to be devious and lazy, though the reality is that Marlowe was the prolific star playwright of the day, with Shakespeare probably trying to emulate him.


  • In actuality, The Jew of Malta was written by Christopher Marlowe, probably around 1589/90, and first performed at The Rose Theatre in early 1592 with Edward Alleyn in the lead role. This almost certainly pre-dates, by a few months, the timeline in which this episode is set. Between 26th February 1592 and 1st February 1593 there were 17 performances of this play at The Rose with Edward Alleyn likely to have portrayed the main character Barabas on each occasion. The play has long been considered controversial and today’s academics are still discussing whether Kit was prejudiced or, as the free thinker he was known to have been, he was highlighting and satirising bigotry.


In Episode 4 some mysteries surrounding Will’s sonnets are revealed – or are they?  

Twitter: @ChasquiPenguin


Upstart Crow Fact Check – The Play’s the Thing


A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by @ChasquiPenguin.

Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.

Series 1

Episode 2 – The Play’s the Thing

  • The title of this episode is from Hamlet and the words are spoken by Hamlet himself in Act 2, Scene 2: ‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’.


  • The opening scene is set in the Shakespeare family’s Stratford home, with Will speaking lines from his new play – lines written by Ben Elton, not Shakespeare! It transpires that though his father can read, neither his mother nor wife are able to. This is likely to be accurate as few girls received an education in Tudor times and this would only have been from a private tutor, though many boys did attend the free schools which taught basic literary skills at least. However, there is uncertainty as to whether John Shakespeare was literate as he used the symbol of his trade, a pair of glover’s compasses, as his signature.


  • In this episode we first hear of Mistress Clucky, the family’s hen whose feathers provide Will with his quills. Whether the Shakespeares owned a hen is not known, let alone her name(!), but if so it is likely that when he was back in Stratford Will would have fashioned his quills from her tail feathers.


  • The cool, confident Kit Marlowe makes his first appearance in this episode, arriving in Will’s London room, and starts as he means to go on! It soon becomes evident that the Upstart Crow character is popular in London social circles, a “posh boy” who is somewhat selfish, lazy and a fraud – Will has written all his plays, while Kit takes credit for them! – but, at the same time, is working as a government spy. However, the truth is a rather different, though by no means as amusing, as the following points highlight, Ben having again changed history slightly for excellent comedic effect.



  • In reality, Christopher Marlowe was not from a wealthy background. The son of a Canterbury shoemaker, he gained school and university scholarships through his own academic merit, graduating from Corpus Christi College (then known as St Bene’t’s, abbreviation of St Benedict’s) with a BA in 1584, gaining his MA in 1587. He must have been very hardworking as aside from his high academic achievements, he translated Ovid’s Amores from Latin into English, while still a student. This was published in three volumes under the title Ovid’s Elegies. The first publication date is not known though in 1599 Archbishop John Whitgift ordered the burning of these books due to their racy content. However, later publications are available today.


  • Christopher Marlowe was also a prolific poet and playwright and is believed to have written both Tamburlaine Part 1 and Dido while at Cambridge, going on to write five other plays: Tamburlaine Part 2, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and Massacre at Paris by the age of 29. Some academics believe he wrote more, but with many plays of that era remaining anonymous, the authorship debate continues. Kit’s original style and skilful playwriting was not only extremely popular with audiences in the late Elizabethan era but also influenced and paved the way for Shakespeare and other writers. With their controversial issues, written in iambic pentameter, Marlowe’s plays began to change the London stage in the late 1580s.



  • Although Upstart Kit is dismissive of Will’s various proposed play titles, when he hears of The Tragical History of Mary, Queen of Scots, (dubbed by Will The Frog-Jock Queen) he takes an interest. In actuality, Shakespeare never wrote a play with this title nor theme – or if he did, perhaps he did eat it!!



  • The Marlovian Theory puts forward the idea that Kit faked his own death on 30th May 1593. The second part of this Theory contends that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays. Upstart Crow turns this around, making Will the author of all Kit’s plays! In this episode Will mentions giving Kit his Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus but, wanting to take the credit for his own work, refuses to hand over The Frog-Jock Queen to him as well!



  • The reference to Kit working as a secret agent is thought to be true. While there is no actual proof of this, a letter sent to Marlowe’s Cambridge college lecturers, and signed by members of the Privy Council, urged them not to withhold his MA. With his long absences from college, Christopher was threatened with not being allowed to receive his MA, despite finishing all the work required, and to a high standard. The following extract explains Marlowe’s absences from college: ‘that in all his accions he had behaved him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service’.


  • Assuming this episode is set in 1592, as Episode 1, then Kit’s mention of Walsingham is an anachronism as Sir Francis Walsingham, head of Queen Elizabeth Spy Ring, died in 1590.


  • In Upstart Crow Kit is always well-dressed and is usually wearing an ornate and expensive velvet doublet. This reflects the portrait, believed to be of Christopher Marlowe, which was found, in much need of renovation, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1952. Neither the sitter nor artist is named but the inscriptions in Latin on the painting describe the subject as a young man, aged 21 in 1585 and includes his motto in Latin, which translates as ‘That which feeds me, destroys me’. Though there is no certainty, it is generally assumed that there is a strong possibility that this depicts Christopher Marlowe who was, by all accounts, an outstanding student and perhaps his academic achievements were marked by his college commissioning this portrait. However, it is unlikely Kit could have afforded to buy the luxurious doublet worn for the painting so perhaps it was on loan to him.


  • In many episodes of Upstart Crow Robert Greene holds a variety of high government positions and in The Play’s the Thing it is Master of Revels. In actual fact, Robert Greene held none of these, and between 1579 and 1610 Edmund Tilney was the Master of Revels. Part of his job was to provide censorship; therefore he could deny a play’s performance by refusing to issue a licence, even report its content, but he also protected the work of playwrights and other artists and organised the entertainments for Queen Elizabeth and King James I. He is believed to have licensed 30 of Shakespeare’s plays but under the censorship banner did insist on changes being made to some of these.


  • Although Robert Greene criticises Will’s educational background, naming as “Cambridge men” the playwrights Marlowe, Kyd, Nashe, Beaumont and himself, this is not strictly accurate. Although the Cambridge-educated playwrights of the day were known as “The University Wits”, Thomas Kyd, though considered among them, did not attend university, and Francis Beaumont was unknown then as he would have been about 8 years old, but later graduated from Oxford University. As a footnote, although the real Robert Greene did seem to look down upon Shakespeare, and even his fellow university graduates, he was not a posh boy either. It is thought his father was either a shoemaker or an innkeeper and as Robert did not gain a scholarship to Cambridge, earned his keep while there by working as a sizar – a servant to both the wealthy and scholarship students.


  • With Anne summoned from Stratford to find the missing play, she quickly concludes that it has been stolen by Kate for Kit to present as his own. Will decides on a plan to get the play back by writing a play (The Lamentable Tragedy of The False Maid and the Stolen Muse) and the words he uses before he starts writing it, ‘The play’s the crucial factor, to catch the conscience of our girlie actor’ are a parody of Hamlet’s (please see first fact above). Like the stolen play, this one doesn’t exist either!


  • The episode ends with Will and Anne having a late-night chat in their parlour. As ever, Anne shows her perception by suggesting to Will that he should write a play within a play but he doesn’t think this will work! However, the real Shakespeare did write a few plays within plays, among them Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. This practice had existed for centuries, with the Ancient Egyptians being among the first to devise this, and it continues to this day.


In Episode 3 there is further insight into the personalities of Kit and Robert Greene with the nice Will Shakespeare taken in!