Thomas Nashe was primarily a pamphlet writer, although he wrote a work of long fiction (The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton, 1594), a long poem (The Choise of Valentines, 1899), and several songs and sonnets in addition to the plays listed above.
Thomas Nashe was best known during his own day as the writer of pamphlets, who used lively rhetorical devices, a ready wit, and outrageous personal attacks to get the better of the pompous scholar Gabriel Harvey. Harvey, who took himself and his ideas seriously, was no match for Nashe, the young University Wit who used words as a soldier did a rapier. The attacks that Nashe leveled at the Puritans have none of the romantic niceties of Thomas Lodge, the euphuistic panegyrics of John Lyly, or the literary balance of Thomas Deloney: His language is direct, stark, without pedantry. Nashe offers no pleasant dialogues or polite deviations. When Harvey suggested a truce in the war of words between Nashe and him, Nashe responded that he would make “Uncessant warres with waspes and droons,” and he dismissed Harvey simply as a dunce. The magnificent invective found in the speeches of William Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Prince Hal, and (especially) Kent was almost certainly derived from the monstrous hyperbole and the extravagant vituperation Nashe hurled at his adversaries.
Among modern students of literature, Nashe is remembered for his most unusual work, the picaresque novel of adventure The Unfortunate Traveller. It tells the story of a young page who, after serving in the army of King Henry VIII, travels to Europe to find a means of earning a living. The underworld realism that Nashe presents in his descriptions of Jack Wilton’s escapades has earned him a reputation for being more than a mere pamphleteer, a hurler of invective. The book is not a unified work of art; its characters, other than Jack himself, are not particularly memorable. Its descriptions of the harshest elements of human life, such as disease, hunger, torture, rape, and murder, place it in stark contrast to the sweet absurdities of romance; it thus shows the way to the modern novel.
Almost all that Thomas Nashe wrote was published in pamphlet form. With the exception of a long poem (The Choise of Valentines), several sonnets and songs, and at least two dramas (Summer’s Last Will and Testament, pr. 1592, and The Isle of Dogs, pr. 1597), all his work was prose. His prose works include The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589); An Almond for a Parrat (1590); a preface to Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591); Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell (1592); Strange News of the Intercepting of Certain Letters (1592); Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (1593); The Terrors of the Night (1594); The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594); Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596); and Nashe’s Lenten Stuffe (1599).
Thomas Nashe was more a journalist than an artist, if the definition of artist is one who follows the Aristotelian principles of using life as a source from which one creates a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Nashe informed and entertained his sixteenth century audience in the same way that a journalist pleases the public today. He was known in his time not as a poet or a dramatist, although he wrote both poetry and plays. He was known as the worthy opponent of the scholar Gabriel Harvey, as one who with lively rhetoric, biting invective, and soaring wit destroyed every argument the pompous Harvey could muster. He was also known to Elizabethans as the chief defender of the Anglican Church against the attack of the Puritans in the Martin Marprelate controversy. The magnificent invective found in the speeches of William Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Prince Hal, and (more especially) Kent was almost certainly derived from the vituperation Nashe hurled at his adversaries.
Among modern students of literature, Nashe is remembered for his most unusual work, the picaresque novel of adventure, The Unfortunate Traveller. It is the story of a young page, Jack Wilton, who, after serving in the army of Henry VIII, travels to Europe to find means of earning a living. The underworld realism that Nashe presents in his descriptions of Jack’s escapades has earned him a reputation for being something other than a hurler of invective. The book is not a unified work of art; its characters, other than Jack himself, are not particularly memorable. Its descriptions of the harshest elements of human life, such as disease, hunger, torture, rape, and murder, place it in stark contrast to the sweet absurdities of romance; it thus shows the way to the modern novel.
Crewe, Jonathan V. Unredeemed Rhetoric: Thomas Nashe and the Scandal of Authorship. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. A study of the conflict between orthodox values and a cynical perception of society’s injustice and exploitation that cuts across Nashe’s career, complicating and adding tension to his work.
Helgerson, Richard. The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Nashe and his colleagues Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Robert Greene, and Thomas Lodge, all with university training, formed a group of literary bohemians in London. Helgerson catalogs their escapades and relates them to their lives.
Hilliard, Stephen S. The Singularity of Thomas Nashe. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Hilliard takes a fresh look at Nashe’s life and writing, discovering the distinctive qualities of his wit and style and showing how they transformed both poetry and prose.
Holbrook, Peter. Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994. A historical study of political and social views in sixteenth century England.
Hutson, Lorna. Thomas Nashe in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Considers Thomas Nashe within his social and historical milieu.
McGinn, Donald J. Thomas Nashe. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Contains insightful commentary on Nashe’s life and works. Focuses on Nashe’s works as portrayals of the various types of middle-class Londoners—their appearance, their manners, and their customs.
Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. This scholarly biography sets a high standard. In addition to substantial discussions of Nashe’s life and writings, Nicholl includes illustrations of portraits and scenes, as well as reproductions of relevant documents.
Nielson, James. Unread Herrings: Thomas Nashe and the Prosaics of the Real. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. This study examines Nashe’s use of realism in his works. Bibliography.