George Gascoigne c. 1539-1577
English poet, playwright, and critic.
Considered accomplished in several forms, Gascoigne was a major literary pioneer. Scholars generally agree that he wrote the first English prose comedy, the first book of English literary criticism, and the first original English verse satire written on Roman models. Some contend that his most famous work, The Adventures of Master F. J. (1573), is the first English novel. Gascoigne's works are informed by his wide array of experiences, including the study of law, military duty, and service at court. The quality of Gascoigne's works significantly changed over the course of his career, shifting from a cheery idealism to a passionate moralism.
Details of Gascoigne's life are unclear. Thought to have been born around 1539 in Bedfordshire, he is known to be the son of Margaret Scargill Gascoigne and Sir John Gascoigne, a prosperous landowner and farmer. References to Trinity College, Cambridge, in Gascoigne's writings suggest that he was educated there and left before completing his degree. By 1555 Gascoigne studied law at Gray's Inn, but returned to Bedfordshire when he lost interest in the legal profession. Soon afterward, he represented his father at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, affording Gascoigne an opportunity to enter court life. However, he never completely won the favor of the court until later, in the 1570s. Between 1558 and 1572 Gascoigne experienced a number of legal difficulties that caused him to suffer both financially and emotionally. His marriage in 1561 to Elizabeth Bacon Breton, a woman who had not legally divorced her previous husband, led to several years of litigation. In 1565 Gascoigne returned to Gray's Inn in an effort to better his financial situation. While there he wrote some of his most significant early works. In 1568 Gascoigne's father, on his deathbed, disinherited him. Around this time Gascoigne again left Gray's Inn, and by May 1570 he was placed in a Bedford jail for failure to pay his debts. In order to avoid further incarceration and to remedy his financial problems, Gascoigne undertook a military career, fighting in two campaigns in Holland the early 1570s. Following his return from the war, Gascoigne was accused of several crimes, including murder and treason. In an effort to avoid an investigation, he returned to Holland for another military expedition. The rest of Gascoigne's life was spent trying to gain recognition as a writer, an endeavor in which he realized some success. His The Pleasant Tale of Hemetes the Hermit (1575) and The Grief of Joy (1576)—both of which he presented directly to Queen Elizabeth—were well-received at court. Gascoigne died, following a lengthy illness, on October 7, 1577, in Lincolnshire.
Among Gascoigne's first significant works is The Supposes (1566), an adaptation of an Italian comedy. A story of disguise and mistaken identity, Gascoigne altered Lodovico Ariosto's original to provide uniquely English characters that appealed to Queen Elizabeth's court. His A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573) was originally published under the guise of an anthology representing the works of several authors, though it was written entirely by Gascoigne. Many scholars consider this ploy a sophisticated literary device that serves to focus on the art of rhetoric and the playfulness of reading. Contained in this anthology is The Adventures of Master F. J., one of Gascoigne's most celebrated works. A collection of poems framed by a prose narrative, The Adventures of Master F. J. offers a variety of material for critical study, ranging from the author's pioneering structure and metrical patterns to his commentary on social and gender roles. Subsequent works by Gascoigne, such as The Spoyle of Antwerpe (1576), an account of war atrocities he witnessed in Holland, and his translation The Droomme of Doomesday (1576), demonstrate a shift in his writing style which suggests that his concerns had changed from aesthetic innovation to stout moralism. Ultimately, however, Gascoigne is recognized for his ability to write about a variety of subjects from a wide array of perspectives, which, in turn, demonstrates his appreciation of language and rhetoric and his aptitude for literary invention.
Critics generally agree that Gascoigne was one of the most important innovators in English literature. Some scholars contend that The Adventures of Master F. J. is the first English novel, and most agree that The Supposes is the first English prose comedy, Certain Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English (1575) is the first book of English literary criticism, and The Steele Glas (1576) is the first original English verse satire written on Roman models. In addition, critics such as William L. Wallace suggest that the variety of rhyme and metrical patterns found in Gascoigne's poetry illustrates his willingness to explore the possibilities of English verse. However, some critics, including Stanley R. Maveety, contend that not all of Gascoigne's pieces were original. For example, Maveety argues that the structure of The Steele Glas borrows heavily from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman and asserts that Gascoigne may be less of an innovator than many believe. Moreover, while Jocasta claims to be translated from Euripides' Phoenissae, which would make it the first Greek tragedy to appear on an English stage, it was actually adapted from Lodovico Dolce's Italian play Giocasta. Nevertheless, Gascoigne's reputation as a literary pioneer and innovator remains secure.
Gascoigne's Memories, Written Upon This Occasion (poetry) 1565
Jocasta [adaptor, with Francis Kinwelmershe; from Lodovico Dolce's play Giocasta] (play) 1566
The Supposes [adaptor; from Lodovico Ariosto's play I Suppositi] (play) 1566
*A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, Bounde Vp in One Small Poesie. Gathered Partely (by Translation) and Partly by Inuention (poetry) 1573; revised and enlarged as The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire, 1575
The Glasse of Gouernement. A Tragicall Comedie (play) 1575
The Droomme of Doomes Day. Wherein the Frailties of Mans Lyfe, Are Portrayed, Translated by Gascoigne [translator; from Pope Innocent III's De Contemptu Mundi sive de Miseria Humanae Conditionis] (poetry) 1576
The Grief of Joy (poetry) 1576
The Spoyle of Antwerpe. Faithfully Reported, by a True Englishman, Who Was Present (pamphlet) 1576
The Steele Glas. A Satyre. Together with the Complainte of Phylomene (poetry and play) 1576
The Complete Works of George Gascoigne. 2 vols. [edited by John W. Cunliffe] (poetry, plays, novel, and criticism) 1907-10
*This work includes the plays The Supposes and Jocasta, the novel The Adventures of Master F. J., the long poem Dan Bartholomew of Bath, and the poem “Gascoigne's De Profundis,” as well as the masque Gascoigne's Device of a Masque for the Right Honourable Viscount Montague and sundry verse. The revised version also includes the critical treatise Certain Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English, and revises The Adventures of Master F. J. as The Pleasant Fable of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco, Translated Out of the Italian Riding Tales of Bartello.
Genevieve Ambrose Oldfield (essay date April 1937)
SOURCE: Oldfield, Genevieve Ambrose. “New Light on the Life of George Gascoigne.” The Review of English Studies 13, no. 50 (April 1937): 129-38.
[In the following essay, Oldfield focuses on Gascoigne's marriage and apparent disinheritance and how these events are reflected in the poet's writings.]
Although many facts in the life of the Elizabethan poet George Gascoigne are obscured by the lapse of time and disputed by his biographers, it is my intention to consider now only two of these matters, i.e. (1) the so-called “disinheritance theory,” which presupposes that Gascoigne was legally disinherited before his father's death; and (2) the poet's marriage, which long has been enshrouded in mystery and which still presents its baffling points.
First of all, in considering the disinheritance theory, the poet's own words should have some weight in the matter, though, unsupported by other proof, they would avail but little. However, it is as well at least to glance at his prose preambles and the prose introductions to his poems. In these prefatory remarks, which are cast in the form of letters, his attitude should be sincere, and in all of them one notices that he often refers to his misspent youth. For instance, in his “Epistle to the Reverend Divines,”1 written in 1574, he writes “whatsoever my youth hath seemed unto the graver sort, I woulde bee verie loth nowe in my middle age to deserve reproch. … For if I shoulde nowe at this age seeme as carelesse of reproche, as I was in greene youth readie to goe astray, my faultes might quickely growe double, and myne estimation shoulde bee woorthie too remayne but single.” Later in the same he refers to the “oversight of my youth” which “had brought me far behind hand and indebted unto the world.”
Again the following year, in an “Epistle to the Young Gentlemen of England,”2 in apologizing for his poems he attests that “a man of middle yeares, who hath to his cost experimented the vanities of youth, and to his perill passed them: who hath bought repentance deare, and yet gone through with the bargaine: who seeth before his face the tyme past lost, and the rest passing away in post: Such a man had more neede to be well advised in his doings, and resolute in his determinations. For with more ease and greater favour may we answere for tenn madde follies committed in grene youth, than one sober oversight escaped in yeares of discretion.” And of his poems he says, “for the most of them being written in my madnesse, might have yeelded then more delight to my frantike fansie to see them published, than they now do accumulate cares in my minde to set them forth corrected: and a deformed youth had bene more likely to set them to sale long sithence than a reformed man can be able now to protect them with simplicitye.” And later, “being indebted unto the world (at the least five thousand days very vainly spent) I may yeeld him yet some part of mine account in these Poemes.”
And, again, to account for publishing his poems, he states “bicause I have (to mine owne great detriment) mispent my golden time, I may serve as ensample to the youthfull Gentlemen of England, that they runne not upon the rocks which have brought me to shipwracke.” He adjures his readers to “beware … and learn you to use the talent which I have highly abused. Make me your mirrour. And if hereafter you see me recover mine estate, or re-edify the decayed walls of my youth, then begin you sooner to build some foundation which may beautify your pallace.”
Once more, in “The general advertisement” of his poems “to the reader,”3 the following passage is suggestive of the same regret or disappointment: “yet wit and I did (in youth) make such a fray, that I fear his cozen wisdom will never become friends with me in my age.” He excuses himself with these words, “Well though my folly be greater than my fortune, yet overgreat were mine unconstancy if in mine own behalf I should compile so many sundry songs or sonnets.” “For,” says he, “in wanton delights I helped all men, though in sad earnest I never furthered myself any kind of way.”
All these references and innuendoes surely at least bespeak some serious thought in the poet's mind, something that might well have been otherwise.
To include as evidence autobiographical material gleaned from his poems would perhaps be treading on dangerous ground, since it has been claimed recently that Gascoigne's Hundreth Sundry Flowres4 is but an anthology of verses written by various poets of the period,5 so the evidence of his verses will be left until later. But even if the author himself cannot be relied upon for facts concerning his own life, it would seem indeed strange if a contemporary and friend during his lifetime should feel called upon to write untrue things of the poet's life immediately after his death. And yet Arber's reprint of the Stationers' Register for the year 1577 contains the entry, under the name of Aggas: “Licenced unto him a Remembraunce of the well employed lief and godlie ende of George Gascoign esquier who deceased at Stamford in Lincolnshire the vij of October, 1577, the reporte of George Whetstons gentleman.” It will be realized that George Whetstone was really a friend, for it was at his home in Stamford that Gascoigne died in the presence of his wife and son, and was buried in the family vault of the Whetstones.
The pamphlet containing the “reporte” (Malone 593, in the Bodleian) is in verse and tells of the life and death of the poet. It is written partly in the first person, as though Gascoigne himself were the writer, and between the verses are interspersed several interesting annotations in prose, as though Whetstone had added these, such as “He was Sir John Gascoigne's sonne and heire disinherited,” and “he thought he could succeed dispite his disinheritance.” It does not seem probable that at such a time a friend would make false statements about the poet's disinheritance if some such thing had not occurred. But to turn to more authoritative proof in the legal documents.
As early as June 1, 1562, Sir John had disposed of the capital house and site of his manor of Cardington with appurtenances, by “sale, bargaine, enfoeffment,”6 etc., of the same to Edward Gilbert, alderman of London, after having recovered the same to the use of himself and wife “and their heirs forever” from Francis Earl of Bedford and Sir George Converys, less than a month previously on May 12, 1562.7 And in both these documents the name of his son and heir do not occur, though in similar documents “his son and heir, George” together with the father, are named as party of the one part, especially in deeds pertaining to property.
However, one would pass by this fact most innocently if Sir John Gascoigne's will8 did not very clearly indicate that the relation between himself and his son George was far from harmonious. The will was made on April 2, 1568, two days before Sir John died. In it he left to his wife household effects to the value of 300 marks, to be appraised by “four indifferent persons,” according to the terms and meaning of a promise conveyed in a pair of indentures between Francis, Earl of Bedford and Sir George Conyers on the one part, and himself and son, George, on the other part, with his wife to have her choice of the goods. Other bequests followed, including the lease of the parsonage of Fenlake Barnes in Cardington to his younger son, John. And all his manors, lands, etc., not before granted he left to his son George and his heirs, “upon one condition only, and not otherwise,” that his executor should be allowed to take sufficient of the profits therefrom to satisfy all debts, legacies and bequests as set forth in the will, including one annuity of £20 for life to a servant, Anne Drewry.9 Or, alternatively, he ordained that his son, George, should discharge the terms of the will within one year of his father's death, and if this were not done all his lands, tenements, etc., not included in his wife's jointure and £16 per annum out of the profits of her jointure, were to go to Sir John's executor to enable him to carry out the terms of the will, including also the payment of funeral charges, etc. A list of the debts followed, including a recognizance in which George was implicated and would suffer.
This recognizance10 was made on November 12, 1567, only five months before the will was drawn up, and consisted of a pair of indentures between Sir John Gascoigne and his son, George, on the one part, and one Thomas Colby of London on the other part, and discloses the fact that the latter paid to the former the sum of £940 for the manor of “Escottes, alias Cotton,” in Cardington, with all its appurtenances, farms, lands, etc., except several leases of land not yet expired, which were to run until expiry with the profits reserved to Sir John and his heirs.
Then on the security of this recognizance Sir John alone, without reference to his son, accepted from Thomas Colby on December 15 next following the sum of 2,000 marks and again on March 10, 1568, another £200, both of which amounts were to be returned only if the terms of the original recognizance were not kept. Three weeks and two days later, when Sir John made his will—only two days before he died—the terms of the recognizance apparently were still troubling his mind. Probably he feared that his son George would attempt to forfeit the pledge he had made with his father regarding Thomas Colby's “possession and enjoyment of the property unmolested” by claims, for he stipulated that his executor should take whatever steps might be necessary to prevent such forfeiture of the recognizance, even to “the prosecuting and serving of execution of a bond” against his son.
This left matters so that George, if he had wished to recover the premises involved, not only would have had to repay the original sum of £940 received from Colby for the manor and appurtenances, but also the additional 2,000 marks and £200 advanced to his father by Colby. And Sir John in his will, to further ensure that all the tangle was carried out, appointed this same Thomas Colby supervisor of his will, to confer with and advise the executor. And if his executor, a nephew through his wife's connections, William...
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Stanley R. Maveety (essay date April 1963)
SOURCE: Maveety, Stanley R. “Versification in The Steele Glas.” Studies in Philology 60, no. 2 (April 1963): 166-73.
[In the essay that follows, Maveety examines the structure and meter of The Steele Glas, contending that the structure was heavily influenced by the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman.]
In 1576 George Gascoigne wrote a poem of about 1200 lines called The Steele Glas. The “trusty” steel glass or mirror is the poet's device in which he sees an unflattering reflection of his own society. Occupational types from kings on down are seen as a rather shabby lot. Pride, greed, and dishonesty are everywhere, and as Gascoigne looks...
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Leicester Bradner (essay date fall 1965)
SOURCE: Bradner, Leicester. “Point of View in George Gascoigne's Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 3, no. 7 (fall 1965): 16-22.
[In the following essay, Bradner analyzes the importance of point of view in Gascoigne's work and elucidates the author's narrative skill.]
When George Gascoigne first published his poems in 1573, his desire to dissociate himself from the events described in them led him to adopt a number of subterfuges. One of the most important of these was the creation of an outside editor or narrator from whose point of view we see the action. He used this device in presenting his miscellaneous poems and in two pieces of extended narrative. The first,...
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Ronald C. Johnson (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: Johnson, Ronald C. “The Love Lyrics.” In George Gascoigne, pp. 36-55. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
[In the excerpt below, Johnson discusses Gascoigne's love lyrics, noting that while some display the conventions of courtly love poems, some are unusual for their examination of the psychology of love.]
A discussion of Gascoigne's lyric poems falls naturally into two sections, those concerning love and those concerning his insights into himself and his society. The love lyrics grew out of his life at court, and they include the forms we expect from the courtly love tradition, such as the praise of a lady, the disclosure of love, and the lament of an...
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Ronald C. Johnson (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: Johnson, Ronald C. “The Three Plays.” In George Gascoigne, pp. 137-55. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson discusses the plays The Supposes, Jocasta, and The Glasse of Government.]
When we read Gascoigne's plays, we are immediately aware that the first two plays, The Supposes and Jocasta, are translations and vary considerably from his last play, The Glasse of Governement, which is original. The two translated plays were done party as exercises, partly as experiments; and their form and content reflect the purposes of their original authors. The Glasse of Governement, however, handles...
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Linda Bradley Salamon (essay date January 1974)
SOURCE: Salamon, Linda Bradley. “A Face in The Glasse: Gascoigne's Glasse of Government Re-examined.” Studies in Philology 71, no. 1 (January 1974): 47-71.
[In this essay, Salamon contends that the play The Glasse of Government displays the values of Christian humanism.]
Scholarly inattention to George Gascoigne's The Glasse of Governement (1575) is not surprising. As the work's first modern student, C. H. Herford, dryly remarked, “The poetry of penitence is rarely immortal.”1 Set among the richer blossoms of Tudor drama, this first complete effort of Gascoigne's moral “reformation”—acknowledged a closet drama, for...
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William L. Wallace (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: Wallace, William L. Introduction to George Gascoigne's The Steele Glas and The Complainte of Phylomene: A Critical Edition with an Introduction, pp. 4-70. Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1975.
[In the essay which follows, Wallace provides an in-depth analysis of both The Steele Glas and The Complainte of Phylomene.]
Maister Gascoigne is not to bee abridged of his deserved esteeme, who first beate the path to that perfection which our best Poets have aspired to since his departure; whereto he did ascend by comparing the Italian with the English as Tully did Graeca...
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Gregory Waters (essay date spring 1977)
SOURCE: Waters, Gregory. “G. T.'s “Worthles Enterprise”: A Study of the Narrator in Gascoigne's The Adventures of Master F. J.” Journal of Narrative Technique 7, no. 2 (spring 1977): 116-27.
[In the essay below, Waters analyzes the importance of the narrator in The Adventures of Master F. J.]
When George Gascoigne first began to write his tale about a young, highly romantic lover and an older, more experienced married mistress, he discovered in the courtly love tradition an ideal frame of reference to manipulate for satiric and moral effect. By 1573 courtly love had lost most of its power as a code of social values, and the time was right for a detached,...
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Roy T. Eriksen (essay date summer 1984)
SOURCE: Eriksen, Roy T. “Two Into One: The Unity of George Gascoigne's Companion Poems.” Studies in Philology 81, no. 3 (summer 1984): 275-98.
[In the following essay, Eriksen suggests that Gascoigne arranged the poems in his works in certain combinations to reflect various themes.]
George Gascoigne often combined and arranged his shorter poems into sequences or larger units of poetry, a compositional technique variously reflected in The Adventures of Master F. J., his poems written on given “theames,” his translation from Orlando furioso, and in the first Elizabethan sonnet sequences.1 His companion poems, “Gascoignes good morrow”...
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Roy T. Eriksen (essay date August 1985)
SOURCE: Eriksen, Roy T. “Typological Form in ‘Gascoignes De Profundis.’” English Studies 66, no. 4 (August 1985): 300-9.
[In this essay, Eriksen examines the typological form of “Gascoignes De Profundis,” lauding its innovative qualities.]
Gascoigne's translation of the penitential Psalm 130 provides an early and hitherto unnoticed example of an attentiveness to typological shape and pattern that we more readily associate with George Herbert, or in a rather more rudimentary form with the metrical psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. As Louis L. Martz has observed, ‘Sidney's translation of the Psalms represents … the closest approximation...
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Nancy Williams (essay date spring 1986)
SOURCE: Williams, Nancy. “The Eight Parts of a Theme in ‘Gascoigne's Memories: III.’” Studies in Philology 83, no. 2 (spring 1986): 117-37.
[In the following essay, Williams illuminates the themes of the poem “Gascoigne's Memories: III.”]
In 1565 George Gascoigne, deeply in debt and searching for a way out, decided to “abandon all vaine delightes and to returne unto Greyes Inne, there to undertake againe the studdie of the common Lawes.” To celebrate the occasion of his return to the Inns of Court, five of his friends challenged him to write “in verse somewhat worthye to bee remembred, before he entered into their fellowshippe … five sundrye...
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Dale B. Billingsley (essay date summer 1993)
SOURCE: Billingsley, Dale B. “The Pastime of Master F. J.” Renaissance and Reformation 17, no. 3 (summer 1993): 5-18.
[In this essay, Billingsley suggests that The Adventures of Master F. J. portrays reading as leisure pastime that is also a mode for the attainment of power.]
To one class of literary works, variously descended from the Platonic dialogue, the representation of leisure is a necessary prerequisite. Without it, philosophical conversation in the gymnasium or at dinner parties is impossible; night-long discourse about the best courtier, unlikely; garden-talk about perfect societies, merely utopian. For another class of works, leisure is a central...
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William E. Sheidley (essay date spring-summer 1996)
SOURCE: Sheidley, William E. “George Gascoigne and The Spoyle of Antwerpe (1576).” War, Literature, and the Arts 8, no. 1 (spring-summer 1996): 49-64.
[In the essay below, Sheidley contends that The Spoyle of Antwerpe is one of only a few contemporary works that has a direct appeal to modern readers.]
On Sunday, November 4, 1576, some 6,000 mutinous Spanish soldiers, angry over lack of pay and pillage, poured down from their citadel and burst through the defenses of the wealthy and beautiful Dutch city of Antwerp. Over a period of several days they rampaged through the town, stealing or extorting its portable riches, raping and murdering its...
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Susan C. Staub (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Staub, Susan C. “The Lady Frances Did Watch: Gascoigne's Voyeuristic Narrative.” In Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, edited by Constance C. Relihan, pp. 41-54. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Staub explores how voyeurism in the The Adventures of Master F. J. offers insights on gender roles of the Elizabethan era.]
One of the most crucial scenes for an understanding of the complexities of George Gascoigne's Adventures of Master F. J. (1573) has been virtually ignored by scholars. This scene occurs fairly early in the narrative, shortly after the hero,...
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Gregory Kneidel (essay date fall 1998)
SOURCE: Kneidel, Gregory. “Reforming George Gascoigne.” Exemplaria 10, no. 2 (fall 1998): 329-70.
[In the essay which follows, Kneidel asserts that Gascoigne intentionally depicted himself in his writings as an internally divided individual.]
George Gascoigne returned to England from an undistinguished tour of military duty in the Low Countries to find that the publication of his A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573) had created a minor scandal at court.1 Designed to attract patrons and secure employment, this anthology of amatory verse, two translated plays, and the epistolary novella The Adventures of Master F. J. had in fact proven...
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Rayna Kalas (essay date spring 2002)
SOURCE: Kalas, Rayna. “The Technology of Reflection: Renaissance Mirrors of Steel and Glass.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32, no. 3 (spring 2002): 519-42.
[In the following essay, Kalas examines the symbolic importance of the mirror in Gascoigne's The Steele Glas.]
In 1576, just a few years after the newly invented crystal glass pocket mirror was first available as a novelty import in England, George Gascoigne published a verse satire conspicuously titled The Steele Glas. The poem is an estates satire for the sixteenth century and as such levels its invective on all of society. Yet as its title indicates, the poem orchestrates its censure...
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Helgerson, Richard. “Gascoigne.” In Elizabethan Prodigals, pp. 44-56. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Explains how Gascoigne's love poetry provides information on its author.
LaGrandeur, Kevin. “Androgyny and Linguistic Power in Gascoigne's The Steele Glas.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37, no. 3 (fall 1995): 344-61.
Explores technical innovations and the depiction of gender roles in The Steele Glas.
Nathan, Leonard. “Gascoigne's Lullabie and Structures in the Tudor Lyric.” In The Rhetoric of Renaissance Poetry from Wyatt to...
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