Thomas Nashe merits both critical and biographical attention. Born in Lowestoft, on the coast of Suffolk, in 1567, and reared in a preacher’s family, Nashe became the most energetic and inventive of Elizabethan prose writers. His The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) was the first picaresque novel in English. Charles Nicholl, the author of A Cup of News, draws on the basic biographical outline of Nashe’s life which is presented in Ronald B. McKerrow’s five-volume edition of Nashe’s works, The Works of Thomas Nashe (1904-1910; revised edition by F. P. Wilson, 1958). Nicholl, however, also uses passages from Nashe’s works and the demonstrable facts of his life as a springboard for speculation.
A Cup of News, then, has to be classified with the large body of works which aim at literary detection and purport to identify, for example, the real William Shakespeare, the dark lady, and the rival poet. Nicholl seems to have worked principally with secondary sources rather than examining the actual letters and documents. References to the correspondence of Sir Robert Cotton, for example, a patron of Nashe, are cited from Hope Mirelees’ A Fly in Amber: An Extravagant Biography of the Romantic Antiquary, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1962). At the same time, Nicholl has carefully gathered a considerable amount of material and worked hard to make accessible the story of a complex and fascinating writer.
Nicholl regards Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599) as the best of Nashe’s works. Even if one grants that Nashes Lenten Stuffe is a particularly successful pamphlet, Nashe is perhaps best known for his satirical interchanges with Gabriel and Richard Harvey. The bibliographical history of the quarrel, which was sorted out by R. B. McKerrow, is extremely complicated. Robert Greene, the brilliant but profligate leader of the University Wits, was apparently hired by the Anglican bishops in the late 1580’s to write against the Puritan opposition which was distributing the Martin Marprelate tracts. The immediate cause of the literary quarrel was Richard Harvey’s attack on Greene in Plaine Percevall (1590) and his sneers in his preface to The Lamb of God (1590) at Nashe’s preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589).
Greene replied, in A Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592), with a satirical vignette which seems to have been canceled or withdrawn, describing the Harveys as sons of a rope maker from Saffron Walden. Before Gabriel Harvey could reach London to initiate legal action, Greene died, reportedly from a surfeit of pickled herring and Rhine wine. Harvey researched the details of Greene’s death and began to write Foure Letters (1592), in which he depicted Greene’s death on a lice-infested bed as the appropriate reward for a sinful life; at the same time, Harvey defended his family’s claim to gentility.
Nashe had in the meantime published Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell (1592), which brilliantly satirized the Harveys. Nashe describes Richard Harvey’s The Lamb of God as a “sheepish discourse” and then wittily returns to the issue of the gentility of the Harvey family: “The Lambe of God make thee a wiser Bell-weather then thou art, for else I doubt thou wilt be driven to leave all and fall to thy fathers occupation, which is, to goe and make a rope to hang thy selfe.” Pierce Penilesse is a satiric homily on the seven deadly sins, with a digression in defense of chronicle plays as well as an attack on Richard Harvey.
Once Pierce Penilesse was printed and circulated, Harvey, in the middle of the third letter, abruptly shifted his enmity from the dead Greene to the living Nashe. Nashe replied with Strange Newes of the Intercepting Certaine Letters and a Convoy of Verses, as They Were Going Privile to Victuall the Low Countries (1592), in which he defended the memory of his friend Robert Greene, insisted upon the right to freedom of speech for orators and poets, and then attacked Gabriel Harvey’s style as “overweapond” and “pan-pudding prose.” The pamphlet warfare between Nashe and Harvey continued sporadically through 1597. In 1599, the ecclesiastical authorities ordered the...
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