As a young man who chose to make his living as a writer, Thomas Nashe would almost certainly have tried his hand at drama. With the strong traditions of native English drama at his back, classical drama in his brain, and Renaissance hybrid drama daily before his eyes, Nashe could hardly have escaped the temptation to enter the field. His contributions to dramatic literature are not as plentiful as those to prose, nor perhaps as plentiful as he might have wished. Evidence indicates that Nashe participated to a greater or lesser extent in the writing of five plays.
Nashe’s first experience with drama probably occurred while he was at Cambridge. A contemporary of his wrote that Nashe “had a hand in a show called Terminus et non terminus,” but neither the play nor the extent of Nashe’s participation in it is known. The next reference connecting Nashe to drama was made by Nashe’s friend Robert Greene. In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), Greene draws a comparison between Christopher Marlowe and “yong Iuvenall, that byting satyrist, that lastly with mee together writ a comedie.” Because Nashe had been closely associated with Greene and because he best fits the description that Greene gives, most scholars believe that Nashe is “yong Iuvenall.” Which of Greene’s plays received Nashe’s contribution is not clear, although some scholars offer A Knack to Know a Knave (pr. 1592) as a possibility. There is no evidence, however, to lead to any definite conclusion. The third play with which Nashe is connected is Dido, Queen of Carthage. Although the title page lists “Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nash, Gent.” as authors, most scholars believe from internal evidence that Nashe had little if any part in the authorship. A final play, also coauthored, this time with Ben Jonson, was presented in 1597. The Isle of Dogs, no text of which is extant, was reported to the Privy Council as being “a lewd plaie . . . contanyng very seditious and sclanderous matter.” An order was issued to prohibit the play’s being acted, and warrants were issued for the arrests of both Nashe and Jonson. Nashe, who later wrote that he had “begun but the induction and first act of it” and was unaware of what was added without his consent later, fled London and escaped prosecution. Jonson, on the other hand, was jailed.
Summer’s Last Will and Testament
It is Nashe’s fourth try at drama that survives in full and from Nashe alone. Summer’s Last Will and Testament was published in 1600, but it was almost certainly written and presented in 1592 at the home of Archbishop Whitgift in Croydon. Written not for the public but for a private audience and a special occasion, Summer’s Last Will and Testament shows little of what Nashe might have accomplished had he attempted a complete drama in the tradition of Thomas Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, and others. Nashe himself distinguishes between regular English drama and his work by including in his prologue the assertion “nay, ‘tis no play neither, but a show,” and truly the work is more in the form of a seasonal pageant than a play. Nashe’s pageant is in the form of a debate, or a series of debates, and therefore Summer’s Last Will and Testament is not far removed from the style of his pamphlets.
Written almost certainly to be performed by amateur players as informal entertainment at the home of Archbishop Whitgift, Summer’s Last Will and Testament treats two themes (with the usual digressions that help identify Nashe’s style): the hot summer just drawing to a close and the plague then devastating London. Will Summers, the famous jester of Henry VIII, is cast as narrator, chorus, and general analyst of the proceedings, serving as Nashe’s apologist for the light content of the pageant. In a self-deprecating vein, Nashe has Will reflect on the suitability of having a famous jester as commentator for this particular drama: “One fool presents another; and I, a fool by nature and by art, do speak to you in the person of the idiot our playmaker.” In answer to his own question about the significance of the ideas in the work, Will remarks, “Deep-reaching wits, here is no deep stream for you to angle in.” After he delivers the “scurvey Prologue” Nashe wrote for him, a speech Will criticizes regularly while delivering it, he decides to stick around to “flout the actors and him [Nashe] at the end of every scene.” Almost true to his word (he rarely waits until the end of scene to comment), Will Summers condemns the ideas, language, and acting throughout the work.
Will Summers’s denigrating comments are the best part, except for an occasional excellent lyric poem, of an otherwise dull drama. After an overly long speech early in the first scene on the subject of begging, Will swears that it was as boring as a sermon: “So we come here to laugh and be merry, and we hear a filthy beggarly oration in the praise of beggary. It is a beggarly poet that writ it.” “This play,” he says, “is a gullimaufry,” an absurd mixture—and indeed it is.
As the action continues, Will Summers becomes less intrusive, probably because he is bored to sleep, but he still interrupts every scene with his witty comments. The work consists, after the introductory comments and prologue, of ten scenes and an epilogue. The central character, Lord Summer (a personification of the season, not to be confused with Will Summers) appears in each scene, his purpose to interview his “officers” to determine what is left of the wealth he gave to them. With the help of Vertumnus (god of the changing seasons), Summer questions and argues with Autumn, Winter, Ver (spring), Solstitium (solstice), Sol (sun), Orion, Harvest, Bacchus and his companions, and Christmas and Backwinter (sons of Winter). Various Morris dancers, clowns, and maids round out the dramatis personae.
Lord Summer enters, supported by Winter and Autumn. In attendance are satyrs and wood nymphs, who sing the song “Fayre Summer Droops,” a conventional lament on the passing of summer,...
(The entire section is 2536 words.)