Nashe as Monarch of Witt and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Nashe as "Monarch of Witt" and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Joan Ozark Holmer, Georgetown University

The general influence of Nashe on Elizabethan literature has long been recognized, but the specific influence of Nashe on Shakespeare's work still remains largely underestimated. This essay will attempt two related tasks: first, the analysis of new evidence for dating Shakespeare's composition of his first romantic tragedy, which helps us to establish Nashe's priority of influence; and second, the exploration of how and why Shakespeare uses Nashe and his work as he does. The latter also reveals new insights about Shakespeare's adaptation of sources as an imaginative act, not merely of reminiscence, but reminiscence with a difference.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The importance of Nashe for Shakespeare's composition of his play and for his creation of Mercutio demands further investigation. To Evans's succinct account of dating Nashe's composition of Have with You, several points might be added for further consideration. McKerrow suggests that Nashe's allusion to writing for the press in his important letter to William Cotton, "which was evidently written about September, 1596.… probably refers to Have with You, which cannot yet have been published" (5:28-29). In this letter to Cotton, Nashe also refers to writing for the stage, but his hopes there have been thwarted because London's mayor and aldermen persecute the players who had known better days "in there old Lords tyme." McKerrow annotates this as apparently an allusion to the death of Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, the first Lord Hunsdon, in July 1596, and he suggests that Nashe was probably associated "with the Chamberlain's men, for these alone would be affected by Hundson's death" (5:194). If so, Nashe's association with Shakespeare's company would increase the likelihood of Shakespeare's access to Nashe's Have with You.

Although Nashe's composition cannot be precisely dated and seems to have extended over a considerable period of time,35 it appears that Nashe probably was busily at work finishing this piece in the late summer of 1596. Another overlooked allusion to Lord Hunsdon, this time not to the father but to the son, may help to substantiate this view. Nashe refers to the work of "a singular Scholler, one Master Heath, (a Follower of the right Honorable and worthie Lord of Hunsdon that now is)" (3:83). McKerrow explains that Thomas Heath dedicated his work against Harvey that appeared in 1583 to Sir George Carey (Baron Hunsdon) (4:342). But Nashe's explicit phrasing for the Lord of Hunsdon "that now is" (my italics) suggests that Sir George Carey is now the new or second Lord Hunsdon. He succeeded his father, Sir Henry Carey, the first Lord Hunsdon, who died on 23 July 1596, but he did not receive the title of Lord Chamberlain until March 1597. Consequently, as E. K. Chambers explains, Shakespeare's company "was properly known as the Lord Hunsdon's men from 22 July 1596 to 17 March 1597; before and after that period it was the Lord Chamberlain's men."36 Sir George Carey was also a patron of Nashe (5:21). Nashe's reference to the present Lord Hunsdon here indicates that at least this passage was written after July 1596, and this reference would accord with the suggestion McKerrow offers from Nashe's letter to Cotton. Evans wisely cautions that the reference to performance of Romeo and Juliet by '"the L. of Hunsdon his Servants'" on the title page of the first quarto, published in 1597, might be "only a publisher's device to capitalise on the most recent performances and does not prove that the play was not acted earlier when Shakespeare's company was known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men." This reference, however, might also refer to the play's debut and its immediate popularity because the title page advertizes that the play "hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely."

Not only do Shakespeare's echoes from Nashe's Have with You appear scattered throughout Romeo and Juliet from its first to last scene, but also equally important to note is that Shakespeare's references from Nashe are culled from throughout the whole of his Have with You. McKerrow thinks that it is "not improbable that all the early part, as far as 33:30, was added just before it was sent to press" (4:302). If so, and if we accept Tobin's evidence from this early part of characterization hints for Shakespeare's Benvolio and Mercutio, then we must conclude that Shakespeare had access to either a nearly complete manuscript version or to its published version.

Several important points concerning Shakespeare's characterization of Mercutio might be added to Tobin's evidence taken from the supposedly latest part of Nashe's composition. Tobin stresses only Nashe's emphasis on "sportive wit" in his characterization of his interlocutor, Don Carneades, the boon companion to Domino Bentiuole, whose name probably serves for Shakespeare's Benvolio because that name appears in no other source.37 But Nashe also describes Don Carneades as a good fighter—"who likewise is none of the unworthiest retainers to Madame Bellona" (3:22)—and there is an aggressive side to Shakespeare's Mercutio. Although McKerrow does not gloss Nashe's use of "Don Carneades," Nashe probably has in mind the famous Greek philosopher, Carneades, because later in Have with You Nashe mocks the praise given by Harvey's schoolmaster to Harvey's mind: "O acumen Carneadum" (3:64). Carneades's reputation for skepticism and rhetorical skill would suit Nashe's idea of this interlocutor as well as Shakespeare's own development of Mercutio.

Shakespeare's portrait of Mercutio is not far off the mark from Nashe and his inclination to loquaciousness, his claim to "frolicke spirits" (3:77), his skill in bawdry (3:30-31), his intolerance of vain fencing boasts, his resentment of boyish accusations, and his genius for personal satire replete with inventive name-calling and mock titles, all of which resonate in Nashe's wittiest and most scornful treatment of his quarrel against Harvey, Have with You to Saffron-Walden. In his quarrel with Harvey, Nashe opposes, as does Mercutio, airs and newfangledness (3:30-31). Nashe's hatred of fads—the "new fangled Goliardos and Senior Fantasticoes" (3:31) and Harvey's looking and speaking like an Italian and affecting "Italian puntilios" (3:76)—parallels Mercutio's animadversion against the "new tuners of accent," "fashion-mongers … who stand so much on the new form, that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench" (2.4.26-30). Like Mercutio's tirade against Tybalt, Nashe denounces Harvey as "idle and new fangled" (3:26), as a "swash-buckler" (3:55) whose "horrible insulting pride" (3:56) needs someone like Nashe "to humble him" (3:69). The princely airs of Harvey and Tybalt—that "spirit of Bragganisme" (3:109)—are precisely what Nashe and Mercutio claim to eschew. Mercutio's allegiance to male camaraderie in adopting a friend's cause in a quarrel is especially noteworthy because of the absence of such a motif from Brooke's poem, Shakespeare's chief source. In Brooke the briefly introduced element of youthful male friendship drops out after the unnamed counterpart to Shakespeare's Benvolio offers to Romeus his counsel about the cure for lovesickness (lines 101-48). Yet this very motif of a friend assuming the defense of another friend in a private quarrel undergirds the Elizabethan literary altercation with Nashe defending Lyly against Harvey.

Just as some critics have thought Nashe a model for Moth in Love's Labor's Lost,38 it is tempting to suggest that Nashe, praised by Francis Meres as a "gallant young Iuuenall" (5:148), also provides some hints for Mercutio when Shakespeare seeks to enflesh a witty, aggressive, young masculine character who has a personal quarrel with another arrogant, quarrelsome enemy. Nashe's youthfulness was an issue in the quarrel, so that Harvey finds fault with Nashe's "minoritie of … beard" and calls him "Captarne of the boyes " (3:129). Nashe's reputation, as described by Izaak Walton, for "merry Wit," for being "a man of a sharp wit, and the master of a scoffing, Satyrical Pen" (5:47-48), lingers long after his premature death in 1601. Although Shakespeare inherited the name of "Mercutio" from Brooke's poem, for Shakespeare that name probably conveys nuances of ingenuity and eloquence derived from Mercury. Appropriately enough, mercurial Nashe associates himself especially with the winged Mercury, desiring "sprightly Mercury" to be his muse in Have with You (3:23-4). Nashe's nimble wit, capable of "a new kind of a quicke fight" (1:283), characterizes that of Mercutio as well, who also employs imagery of the fight in his "wild-goose chase" of matching wits with Romeo when he quips: "Come between us, good Benvolio, my wits faints" (2.4.57-60). Later in this same work, Nashe mocks Harvey's pretense to "attractive eloquence"—"the Mercurian heauenly charme of hys Rhetorique" (3:96)—and spoofs Harvey's desire to "stellifie" himself "next to Mercury" (3:107) when Nashe has invoked Mercury "to inspire [his] pen. "39

Nashe's influence on Shakespeare's characterization of Mercutio also has provocative implications for recent critical discourse on Renaissance sexuality. Using mythographic evidence, Joseph A. Porter, for example, links Mercury to Mercutio through homosexuality, emphasizing the strongly phallic character of both. Porter stresses how Mercutio speaks to affirm male bonding against the incursions of women. He speculates that in killing off Mercutio, Shakespeare stifles that spokesman against romantic love as well as overcomes his own anxiety of influence in processing some of what is most disturbing in Marlowe, who can be seen as the embodiment of the Renaissance Mercury and Shakespeare's rival in several respects. Emphasizing what he sees as Mercutio's homosexual bawdry, Porter claims one of the prime textual examples to be what he finds an image of sodomy: "O Romeo, that she were / An open-arse, and thou a popp'rin pear" (2.1.37-38).40 However, "open-arse" has been more compellingly glossed as an image of the pudendum on the basis of the known anatomical features of the medlar that cause it to be called the open-arse fruit.41 A definition from a sixteenth-century herbal suggests how this fruit could be so viewed: "the fruite … is of a browne russet colour, of a rounde proportion and some-what broade or flat … with a great broade nauel or Crowne at the toppe, or ende.… after they haue bene a while kept … they become soft and tender."42 Hence, Mercutio balances the female (medlar) and male (pear) genitalia for intercourse in his "fruitful" wordplay. However, the sense of Mercutio as the arch-advocate of male bonding does indeed pervade the play.

The topic of Mercutio's sexuality and aggression is a complex one. It can be argued that Mercutio's "phallocentrism" is not simply a "scorn of hetero-sexual love," nor is it simply "light intermittent misogyny," as Porter claims (197-98). Hatred of women is not so much at stake as is the use and abuse of women. Believing a man should "be rough with love," Mercutio advises Romeo: "You are a lover … / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down" (1.4.17, 28), and Mercutio conjures Romeo "in his mistress' name" (2.1.28). Heterosexual activity is upheld as long as it remains at its lowest common denominator, at the brute level, the level of Sampson's and Gregory's sexual tyranny: "I will be civil with the maids; I will cut off their heads.… their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt" (1.1.19-20, 22-23).43 For the audience, the prince's opening denunciation of "mistempered weapons" (1.1.78) through bestial man's misuse of them may refer to more than one kind of foining and recall the "naked weapon" (1.1.29) wordplay that just preceded. Mercutio's preference for rough love serves as a foil to Romeo's romantic love until Romeo tragically adopts Mercutio's view of such love as "effeminate" (3.1.105) and embraces Mercutio's definition of manhood in terms of violence—fight and fury.

In evoking a male-dominance ethos where women are objects for male sexual pleasure and clearly take second place to male bonding, Mercutio differentiates himself from his friends Romeo and Benvolio, both of whom share a similarly described desire for romantic privacy (1.1.110, 117-21). Mercutio is never depicted as desiring such moody solitude, but rather he is ever the hub of his social wheel, the center of male conviviality. He even defines Romeo as becoming his true self once he stops groaning for love and resumes his male sociability: "Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo" (2.4.72-73). Mercutio's social definition of selfhood accords well with Nashe's own penchant because, as Hibbard reminds us, Nashe "lives wholly and only in society" (252). Although Porter argues that Shakespeare "conjures the god Mercury and also the raised spirit of Marlowe" (163) in Mercutio, Nashe's essential sociability complements the fraternal spirit of Mercury that Porter emphasizes (32) but that Marlowe does not typically exhibit.44 Porter also associates Mercury, the classical deliverer of dreams, with Mercutio's Queen Mab so that in this speech "what we have is a kind of possession of Mercutio by the god" (104). But a Mercury-Mercutio linkage through dreams operates not by "possession" but by detachment. Mercutio, as a foil to Romeo, mocks dreams, and as a dream scoffer Mercutio resembles not Marlowe but Nashe who wrote a very clevery jeu d'esprit on dreams, The Terrors of the Night (1594).45 Shakespeare's emphasis on Mercutio's pugnacity tends to contradict Porter's otherwise richly suggestive argument for Mercutio as an avatar of Mercury because pugnacity is not a trait typical of Mercury, despite the variety of his attributes. Mercutio's quarrelsomeness, so essential to the duels on behalf of friends at the play's tragic turning point, is not unlike Nashe's defensive posture for his friend Lyly. However, Mercutio's comic combativeness—his verbal sparring—does modulate into tragic aggression—his physical dueling—that costs his own life.

Although Nashe's own combative spirit is a quality he shares with his admired friend Marlowe, Shakespeare's particular expression of Mercutio's aggressiveness points to Nashe, who was as quarrelsome as he was witty and who itched to use a sword against Harvey (3:134). Even if we do not overrule but qualify Porter's argument for the influence of Marlowe on Mercutio, it would seem that Nashe makes an equally good, if not better, candidate for real-life influence. Porter claims that "in plot the most striking homology is between Mercutio's death and Marlowe's" (138), and he generates a Romeo-Shakespeare link from his Mercutio-Marlowe association, suggesting that Romeo's indirect responsibility for Mercutio's death presents "a trace of Shakespeare's unconscious assumption of responsibility for Marlowe's death" (141).46 Mercutio does indeed resemble Marlowe in the fact of early death resulting from a quarrel. But the manner and motive of Marlowe's quarrel is very different from Mercutio's where the language and emphases, as we have seen, indicate Nashean influence. Inside a tavern room, with three other men present, Marlowe dies from a dagger wound during a quarrel with Ingram Frizer over the supper bill. This is no outdoor rapier duel in defense of a friend's reputation against an insulting enemy.

Even Marlowe's earlier duel in Hog Lane, not considered by Porter, might seem more apropos for Mercutio's duel but that it differs from Shakespeare's characterization of an intractable Mercutio who dies as a result of his duel. In this swordfight, Marlowe neither suffers a wound nor dies because he withdraws from his combat against William Bradley after his friend Thomas Watson arrives. Responding to the clamor the people raise against the fight, Watson seeks to part the combatants to keep the queen's peace, according to the coroner's jury, but as Mark Eccles suggests, he may also have intended to aid Marlowe against Bradley with whom he already was at odds.47 Unlike the peacemaker Romeo, Watson does not raise his arm or interpose his body but rather draws his sword. When Bradley sees Watson with drawn sword, he attacks and severely wounds Watson. Defending himself, Watson retreats into a ditch whereupon he finally strikes Bradley a mortal blow. This historic duel is superficially suggestive for the duel in Romeo and Juliet, namely, the intervention of a third man to part two combatants with one being killed as a result. However, Marlowe's retirement from this skirmish, despite his bleeding friend's peaceful intervention and posture of self-defense, contrasts markedly with Mercutio's quarrelsome instigation against Tybalt as well as his refusal to withdraw. Nor does "newly entertain'd revenge" (3.1.171) motivate Watson to fight because his friend Marlowe has not been slain, unlike the much more problematic situation the avenger Romeo faces.

If we entertain the possibility that Shakespeare found Nashe suggestive for his characterization of Mercutio, what more might we glean from the Harvey-Nashe quarrel? Unlike Marlowe but like Mercutio, Nashe had a reputation for an effervescent satiric wit and for a decidedly bawdy bent reflected in his life and literature. As Bruce R. Smith has argued, what moderns term "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" may not have been necessarily opposed categories in Renaissance England.48 Nashe, as a possible real-life model for Mercutio, would be an intriguing instance of this idea, and a consideration of him also raises provocative questions about the place of libertine sexuality in Elizabethan London.

Evidence about Nashe as a young rakehell in London who probably engaged with both sexes in wanton behavior parallels the sense of double play that Mercutio seems to convey through his heterosexual bawdry and his possibly implicit homosexual position as the keynoter for male bonds. Some of the evidence comes from Nashe's own pen, but the bulk comes from his adversary Gabriel Harvey. Concerning the latter, we must bear in mind the complex evolution of the Harvey-Nashe quarrel, traced so carefully by McKerrow (5:65-110), and the tendency in such personal satire to hyperbolic invective and fictitious embroidery of skeletal facts. It is worth observing that Harvey initially thought well enough of Nashe to describe Nashe as "a proper yong man if aduised in time" (1:170). Oddly enough in a letter directed against Nashe, Harvey evidently recognized Nashe's talents as a writer to group him with other accomplished writers, like Spenser and Daniel, for "their studious endeuours … in enriching, & polishing their natiue tongue, neuer so furnished, or embellished as of late" (1:218-19).49 Nashe originally counterattacked Richard Harvey, Gabriel's brother, and did not attack Gabriel himself until his Strange News (1592), and then he did so violently. After this attack by Nashe, Gabriel begins his leveling of specific sexual accusations against Nashe in his Pierces Supererogation (1593) and his A New Letter of Notable Contents (1593), the latter being a letter that McKerrow suggests Harvey...

(The entire section is 7665 words.)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Some known but misinterpreted facts as well as some overlooked evidence helps to establish the date of composition of Romeo and Juliet in the latter half of 1596, a later date than has been traditionally entertained.1 The evidence now in question revolves around significant verbal parallels, especially the oft-noted important "parallel" between Nashe's lines in Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596)—"not Tibault or Isegrim, Prince of Cattes, were euer endowed with the like Title" (3.51)2—and Shakespeare's description of Tybalt as "more than Prince of Cats" (2.4.17-18). In recorded medieval-Renaissance literature, the name of "Tibault/Tybalt" as a name having feline...

(The entire section is 5462 words.)