Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1757
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...
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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 confiscation of all the Nashe and Harvey pamphlets and prohibited their reprinting.
Although Nashe began his literary career by writing The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589), a long, rambling antifeminist invective against social ills, he, like Greene, entered the Martin Marprelate controversy as an opponent of the Puritans. The publication of the Martin Marprelate tracts, which were highly seditious religious pamphlets, caused considerable public unrest and alarmed the authorities during the 1590’s. The Puritan militants who published the Marprelate tracts wanted to rid the Anglican Church of the last taints of Roman Catholicism by doing away with the bishops. Nicholl concludes his chapter on the Marprelate tracts with the comment that “we shall never be quite sure who it was that wrote these daring, scintillant tracts.” This conclusion should not be drawn without reference to Leland H. Carlson’s Martin Marprelate, Gentleman: Master Job Throckmorton Laid Open in His Colors (1981), which identifies Martin Marprelate as Job Throckmorton.
The most serious flaw of this biography, however, is Nicholl’s speculative commentary and his willingness to raise issues which remain unsolved because insufficient evidence has survived. Although he acknowledges that Diamante, Jack Wilton’s Italian inamorata, is a fiction, Nicholl adds that she is so vividly drawn “that we might almost think we have in her a portrait of Nashe’s own lover. Certain suspicious resemblances to another ’Dark Lady’ of the time suggest, however, that her provenance is more complex.” There is no factual basis for connecting Shakespeare’s dark lady with the heroine of Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller.
The attempt made to connect Nashe and Shakespeare later is elaborated further into a discussion of The Taming of the Shrew (1593-1594) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1595) as works which contain topical references to Ferdinando, Lord Strange, son of the Earl of Derby. For example, the induction of The Taming of the Shrew is supposed to allude to Lord and Lady Strange because of Lord Strange’s interest in occultism. Nicholl comments:Once the signal is noticed the whole concealed message becomes clear. Shakespeare decks Sly out as a mock Lord Strange, a ’thrice noble’ lord, a ’mighty man of such descent, of such possessions’. He is dragged down by a ’lunacy’, an ’idle humour’, ’abject, lowly dreams’, these referring to the real Strange’s entanglement in occultism and conspiracy.
Nicholl also observes that the allusions to Lord and Lady Strange are appropriate because Lady Strange was “something of a ’shrew,’” citing a letter written in the seventeenth century by her second husband. The evidence that Love’s Labour’s Lost is also about Lord Strange hinges upon the similarities between the name Ferdinand, mentioned only twice in the stage directions, and Ferdinando, first name of Lord Strange. Nicholl also uses Catholicism as a basis for the identification. Henri of Navarre, Henri IV of France, had converted to Catholicism in 1593, and there were rumors that the family of Lord Strange had Catholic sympathies.
Without the justification of tracing a possible topical allusion, Nicholl also suggests that Nashe may have been the person who supplied the printer John Danter with a copy of the first quarto of Romeo and Juliet. While it is possible that Nashe had some interest in or leaning toward Catholicism, the evidence offered and conclusions drawn in A Cup of News are not convincing. Nashe and Jonson coauthored The Isle of Dogs (1597), a play which contained material offensive to the authorities but which has not survived. A fragment of the play is mentioned in a list of manuscripts in Alnwick Castle. Nicholl speculates that the play may have contained “Catholic hints” because “in the collection are copies of mainstream Catholic works like Leycesters Commonwealth.” Although Leycesters Commonwealth was written by the Catholic Father Parsons, the tract was not so much a mainstream Catholic work as it was a seditious libel.
Two of Nashe’s works, The Terrors of the Night (1593) and Christs Teares over Ierusalem (1593), are puzzling because they seem at odds with his other writing. C. G. Harlow is responsible for demonstrating that Nashe wrote The Terrors of the Night while visiting the home of Sir Robert Cotton, the distinguished antiquary. Extending Harlow’s account of Nashe’s visit to Cotton, Nicholl suggests that Nashe wrote The Terrors of the Night, an attack on demonology and melancholy, to assist Cotton in dealing with his own melancholy. Cotton’s correspondence with his physician John Case in 1593 alludes to his depression. Very much the rationalist, Nashe indicates that dreams can result from undigested events of the day, poor diet, illness, and other natural causes. Nicholl plausibly suggests that Nashe too became depressed while visiting Conington and that his study of The Terrors of the Night foreshadowed his own nervous breakdown, which is described in Christs Teares over Ierusalem.
Although there are sources which Nashe clearly consulted in writing Christs Teares over Ierusalem, and although, as Nicholl observes the work resembles a sermon and belongs to the tradition of “literature of warning,” the tone of the work is troubling. In the pose of the penitent, Nashe bids farewell to satire and apologizes to Gabriel Harvey, but he launches a fierce, even morbid, attack on the vices and values of London citizens and magistrates. Death, vividly and painfully portrayed, is a recurring theme in Christs Teares over Ierusalem. Nashe describes his pamphlet as a “holy complaint,” but Nicholl seems correct in interpreting the work as pathological rather than devotional. Citing evidence from Christs Teares over Ierusalem, that Nashe developed the physical symptoms of a nervous breakdown, Nicholl also notes that Nashe wrote no new work for three years after completing Christs Teares over Ierusalem. In the fifteen months prior to writing Christs Teares over Ierusalem, Nashe, however, had written six original works. In his satirical pamphlets, Nashe’s high comedy sometimes veers toward the grotesque; in Christs Teares over Ierusalem, the grotesque never becomes comic. The tone of satire and morbidity heightens the impression of an imagination haunted by the grotesque.
Nicholl’s biography of Nashe is well written and comprehensive. It is regrettable that he was unable to resist the perennial temptation to fill in the gaps and blank spaces which might associate the life of this fascinating writer with that of Shakespeare. Nicholl comments appreciatively on Nashe’s prose style, perhaps the most important asset of this complex writer. Nashe’s style is colloquial but learned; he burlesques the Latinate inkhorn terms of the scholarly Humanists and lightly, but with remarkable dexterity, engages in extravagant hyperbole.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24
The Guardian Weekly. CXXX, March 11, 1984, p. 21.
New Statesman. CVII, May 18, 1984, p. 26.
The Observer. March 25, 1984, p. 22.
Punch. CCLXXXVI, March 21, 1984, p. 30.
Times Literary Supplement. May 18, 1984, p. 540.