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.