Henry Chettle is a well-known Elizabethan printer and playwright connected with many high-profile writers including William Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Nashe, Anthony Munday, and Thomas Heywood. Chettle established himself as a great collaborator, working with many authors and contributing to many famous plays.
In 1577 his father, Robert Chettle, apprenticed him to learn the trade of printing in London. Over the course of his life, Chettle worked with over 48 plays in the 1590s and early 1600s. Of those 48 plays, Chettle is said to have written 12 of them entirely by himself, while partially editing or contributing to the rest. Some significant plays that Chettle worked with were: Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Romeo and Juliet, Patient Grissel, The Tragedy of Hoffman: or a Revenge for a Father, The Blind Beggar of Bethnal, and Sir Thomas More.
One of Chettle’s most noteworthy contributions was to the play Sir Thomas More. The play dramatizes the former Lord Chancellor of England’s execution after he refuses to support Henry VIII’s separation from the Roman church. The authorship of this play is unclear, however, many believe it to have been first drafted by Anthony Munday. Scholars believe that Henry Chettle assisted in the 1590s, and that contributions from Thomas Dekker, William Shakespeare, and Thomas Heywood followed. This play exists in one singular manuscript, in which scholars have analyzed handwriting styles to identify who made which contributions. Hand “D” has been identified as Shakespeare, whereas most believe Chettle to be “Hand A.” The play was never printed and there is no record that it has ever been acted out on a stage.
Despite his work with many well-known and significant plays, much controversy surrounds Chettle’s work, relationships, and overall authenticity. In 1591, Chettle entered a partnership with the notorious printers William Hoskins and John Danter. Hoskins and Danter were responsible for printing the 1597 “bad” quarto of Romeo and Juliet, and Chettle reputedly contributed to the work’s inconsistencies. The quarto has been labeled “bad” because the writing is unlike Shakespeare’s. One theory is that the quarto’s source was an “actor-reporter” who improvised lines, another is that Chettle is a bad editor.
The year 1592 is the first time that there is solid evidence of Chettle’s writing career taking off. However, the details of Chettle’s career remain mostly unknown due to a lack of evidence. For example, Chettle helped publish a pamphlet called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, yet some like Shakespeare and Marlowe believed that Chettle authored the work. In Kind Hearts Dreame, which Chettle published under his ow name, he shut down such claims that he authored Greene’s Groatsworth. Despite his denials, there is contradictory evidence and uncertainty remains.
In the face of ambiguity concerning the details of Chettle’s life and career, Philip Henslowe’s diary offers some clarity. Henslowe’s diary documents multipl loans made to Chettle, suggesting that Chettle may have been on the brink of poverty, or over it. In 1599, one of these loans was made to help Chettle gain release from Marshalsea prison. The date of Chettle’s death is uncertain, but he certainly left a mark, however blurry at times, as a printer, writer, and dramatic collaborator.