Thomas Nashe Additional Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The dramatist, novelist, and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe was the son of a minister. He spent several years at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and received his degree in 1585. By 1588 he was living in London, trying to make a living with his pen as one of the so-called University Wits. Among his friends were Robert Greene, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Lodge, and Christopher Marlowe.

At this time Puritan writers, under the pseudonym of Martin Marprelate, were attacking the bishops and the government of the Church. Using the name Pasquil, Nashe joined the controversy against the Puritans, especially against Gabriel Harvey. His contributions to the “paper war” include Strange News of the Intercepting of Certain Letters, Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem, and Have with You to Saffron-Walden.

The most notable of his works was a picaresque novel of romantic adventure entitled The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton, the story of a page who attends the earl of Surrey on his Grand Tour and who marries a Venetian lady. The use of realistic detail in this work set the pattern for the novels of Daniel Defoe. Nashe also wrote several plays, among them Dido, Queen of Carthage (written together with Marlowe), and Summer’s Last Will and Testament, which was originally a masque presented at the house of Sir George Carey. A lost play, The Isle of Dogs, a slanderous work of which he wrote at least a part, led to his being sentenced to the Fleet prison, a sentence he seems to have avoided somehow. He died in 1601, probably at Yarmouth.


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: A versatile writer of satiric pamphlets, plays, lyric poetry, and a novel, Thomas Nashe had a marked influence on many of his contemporaries, including William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, who admired his powers of wit and observation and his inventive use of language.

Early Life

Thomas Nashe was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the third son of William Nashe, a clergyman. In 1573, when Thomas was six, the family moved to West Harling, Norfolk, where Thomas’s father took up a position as rector. Since the nearest school was seven miles away, it is likely that Nashe received his early schooling from his father.

In October, 1582, Nashe matriculated as a sizar scholar of St. Johns College, Cambridge University, although he may have been in residence at St. Johns for two terms before this. A sizar was a poor student who performed menial tasks such as making beds and serving at table in return for free food rations.

Student life at Cambridge was strict. The academic day began at dawn; students were expected to attend college for all but three weeks a year and were allowed to leave the college only twice a week. Punishments were severe, including whippings and fines; lodgings were crowded, and in winter were damp and cold.

In spite of these privations, Nashe seemed to flourish at Cambridge, and in 1584 he was appointed as a scholar of the Lady Margaret Foundation of the University. In Nashe’s later writings, he praised St. John’s College highly, although he did lament the strong Puritan influence there, which gave him a lifetime aversion to Puritanism.

While at Cambridge, Nashe was a close friend of the dramatist Christopher Marlowe, and he probably had a hand in producing some satirical plays during his student years. In 1586, Nashe was awarded the degree of bachelor of arts. He continued at St. Johns to work on a master of arts degree, but he never completed it, leaving Cambridge for London in the early fall of 1588. The reason for his departure is not known, but it may have been because his father, who had helped to support him at the university, died the previous year, leaving Nashe without the financial means to continue. Nashe’s intention in London was to follow his fellow Cambridge graduate Robert Greene and make a living as a writer. In Elizabethan England, the idea of pursuing a career as a professional writer was a novel one, but Nashe, full of youthful confidence, was prepared to give it a try.

Life’s Work

Once Nashe reached London, he registered his first literary piece, a dull pamphlet entitled The Anatomie of Absurditie, which he had written during a vacation in 1587. Not published until 1590, it received almost no attention. The following year Nashe wrote a preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589); the fact that he was commissioned to write such a piece for an established author suggests that he already had something of a reputation in literary London. Yet it was not until the publication of his pamphlet An Almond for a Parrat in the spring of 1590 that Nashe found his true voice, a satirical, colloquial, vivid, journalistic style that was to make him the most popular of the Elizabethan pamphleteers. Almond was Nashe’s contribution to the controversy surrounding the Puritan pamphlets of “Martin Marprelate,” which were attacks on the Church of England written in colloquial language to appeal to public opinion. Nashe’s reply successfully imitated the style of the Martin pamphlets and also identified for the first time in print the name of their author.

Armed with his new style, Nashe produced his greatest popular success, the social satire Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Devil (1592), which went through at least five editions between 1592 and 1595. In this book, Nashe’s persona, Pierce Penilesse, grumbles that his talents go unrewarded and that in the society in which he lives, money goes to those least deserving of it. He therefore decides to send a supplication to the devil, asking him for a loan. The supplication takes up most of the book, in which contemporary social abuses are described in terms of the seven deadly sins. Nashe’s purpose appears to have been to entertain rather than to moralize, however, and Pierce Penilesse is memorable for its lively anecdotes, the feeling of spontaneity it conveys, the poetic imagery, and the realistic detail taken from the streets of the Elizabethan London that Nashe walked every day. It is notable also for its defense of literature and of the theater.

Thin and long-haired, with a boyish appearance, Nashe was now a well-known figure in London, and his self-cultivated notoriety was only increased by a long-running literary quarrel between himself and Cambridge scholar...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)