Robert Greene, The second and last part of Coney-catching and The third and last part of Coney-catching (selections)


Autolycus is a successful coney-catcher in Shakespeare's play. The art of swindling is a chief topic for Robert Greene, whose 1588 novel Pandosto formed the primary source for Shakespeare's play. Within a few years of this novel, Greene began to publish a series of pamphlets dealing with "cony-catching," the art of cutting purses or robbing unsuspected gulls. In the second and third of his pamphlets, published in 1592, Greene depicts the kinds of roguish thievery demonstrated by Autolycus: his robbing of the young clown by feigning his own victimizing at the hands of thieves. The young clown's naivete invites Autolycus's success, and Greene's text supplies us with a historical correlative to Shakespeare's dramatization.

In the second excerpt, Greene demonstrates how the act of ballad singing allows for an audience ripe for swindling. Like Autolycus with the Bohemian rustics, Greene's cutpurse uses his skill as a singer to generate his own ill-gotten gains. Both of these examples testify to Shakespeare's historical veracity in describing the vocation of robbing that is emblematic of Autolycus's prodigious skill.

Robert Greene. The Second and last part of Conny-Catching. London, 1592.


Book 2

WHILE I was writing this discovery of foisting, & was desirous of any intelligence that might be given me, a gentleman, a friend of mine, reported unto me this pleasant tale of a foist, and as I well remember it grew to this effect. There walked in the middle walk a plain country farmer, a man of good wealth, who had a well-lined purse, only barely thrust up in a round slop, which a crew of foists having perceived, their hearts were set on fire to have it, & every one had a fling at him, but all in vain, for he kept his hand close in his pocket, and his purse fast in his fist like a subtle churl, that either had been forwarned of Paul's, or else had aforetime smoked some of that faculty. Well, howsoever it was impossible to do any good with him he was so wary. The foists spying this, strained their wits to the highest string how to compass this boung, yet could not all their politick conceits fetch the farmer over; for jostle him, chat with him, offer to shake him by the hand, all would not serve to get his hand out of his pocket.

At last one of the crew that for his skill might have been doctorate in his mystery, amongst them all, choose out a good foist, one of a nimble hand and great agility, and said to the rest thus: "Masters, it shall not be said such a base peasant shall slip away from such a crew of gentlemen foists as we are and not have his purse drawn, and therefore this time I'll play the stall myself, and if I hit him not home, count me for a bungler for ever, and so left them and went to the farmer and walked directly before him and next him three or four turns, at last standing still, he cried "Alas, honest man, help me! I am not well", & with that sunk down suddenly in a sown, the poor farmer seeing a proper young gentleman (as he thought) fall dead afore him, stepped to him, held him in his arms, rubbed him & chafed him. At this there gathered a great multitude of people about him, and the whilst the foist drew the farmer's purse and away; by that the other thought the feat was done, he began to come something to himself again, and so half staggering, stumbled out of Paul's, and went after the crew where they had appointed to meet, and there boasted of his wit and experience. The farmer, little suspecting this villainy, thrust his hand into his pocket and missed his purse, searched for it, but lining and shells & all was gone, which made the country man in a great maze that he stood still in a dump so long, that a gentleman perceiving it asked what he ailed: "What ail I, sir?" quoth he. "Truly, I am thinking how men may long as well as women." "Why dost thou conjecture that, honest man?" quoth he. "Marry, sir," answers the farmer. "The gentleman even now that sound here, I warrant him breeds his wife's child, for the cause of his sudden qualm that he fell down dead grew of longing." The gentleman demanded how he knew that. "Well enough, sir," quoth he. "And he hath his longing too, for the poor man longed for my purse, and thanks be to God he hath it with him." At this all the hearers laughed, but not so merrily as the foist and his fellows, that then were sharing his money.''

Book 3

Another tale of a cozening companion, who would needs try his cunning in this new invented art, and how by his knavery (at one instant) he beguiled half a dozen and more.

5OF late time there hath a certain base kind of trade been used, who though divers poor men, & doubtless honest apply themselves to, only to relieve their need, yet are there some notorious varlets do the same, being compacted with such kind of people as this present treatise manifesteth to the world, and what with outward simplicity on the one side, and cunning close treachery on the other, divers honest citizens and day-laboring men, that resort to such places as I am to speak of, only for recreation as opportunity serveth, have been of late sundry times deceived of their purses. This trade, or rather unsufferable loitering quality, in singing of ballets, and songs at the doors of such houses where plays are used, as also in open markets and other places of this city, where is most resort; which is nothing else but a sly fetch to draw many together, who listening unto an harmless ditty, afterward walk home to their houses with heavy hearts. From such as are hereof true witnesses to their cost, do I deliver this example.

A subtle fellow, belike emboldened by acquaintance with the former deceit, or else being but a beginner to practice the same, calling certain of his companions together, would try whether he could attain to be master of his art or no, by taking a great many of fools with one train. But let his intent and what else besides, remain to abide the censure after the matter is heard, & come to Gracious street, where this villainous prank was performed. A roguing mate, & such another with him, were there got upo[n] a stall singing of ballets which belike was some pretty toy, for very many gathered about to hear it, & divers buying, as their affections served, drew to their purses & paid the singers for the[m]. The sly mate and his fellows, who were dispersed among them that stood to hear the songs: well noted where every man that bought, put up his purse again, and to such as would not buy, counterfeit warning was sundry times given by the rogue and his associate, to beware of the cut purse, and look to their purses, which made them often feel where their purses were, either in sleeve, hose, or at girdle, to know whether they were safe or no. Thus the crafty copesmates were acquainted with what they most desired, and as they were scattered, by shouldering, thrusting, feigning to let fall something, and other wily tricks fit for their purpose. Here one lost his purse, there another had his pocket picked, and to say all in brief, at one instant, upon the complaint of one or two that saw their purses were gone, eight more in the same company found themselves in like predicament. Some angry, others sorrowful, and all greatly discontented looking about them, knew not who to suspect or challenge, in that the villains themselves that had thus beguiled them made show that they had sustained like loss.

But one angry fellow, more impatient then all the rest, he falls upon the ballad singer and beating him with his fists well favoredly, says, if he had not listened his singing, he had not lost his purse, and therefore would not be other wise persuaded, but that they two and the cutpurses were compacted together. The rest that had lost their purses likewise, and saw that so ma[n]y complain together, they jump in opinion with the other fellow, & begin to tug & hale the ballad singers, when one after one, the false knaves began to shrink away with the purses. By means of some officer then being there prese[n]t, the two rogues were had before a Justice, and upon his discrete examination made, it was found that they and the cut-purses were compacted together, and that by this unsuspected villainy, they had deceived many. The fine fool-taker himself, with one or two more of that company, was not long after apprehended, when I doubt not but they had their reward answerable to their deserving, for I hear of their journey westward, but not of their return. Let this forewarned those that listen singing in the streets.