Thomas Nashe

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Nashe 1567–1601

English pamphleteer, satirist, playwright, and poet.

A contemporary of William Shakespeare and a spirited pamphleteer, Nashe was an important voice in English literary culture at the turn of the seventeenth century. An immediate successor to the "Elizabethan Prodigals," a generation marked by guilty excess, a belief that writing fiction; a wasted talent, and a posture of repentance, Nashe was self-consciously experimental and brash. One of the first English writers to try to make his living by the pen, he suffered poverty and occasional persecution. Gifted and extravagant in his use of language and fierce in his defense of originality and intellectual quality in literature, Nashe never achieved the success or stature he sought. His uneven body of work tends to alienate readers, though many passages display remarkable linguistic virtuosity and exemplary satire. He is best known for his prose/fiction work The Unfortunate Traveller or the Life of Jack Wilton (1594), which some critics have found to be influential in the development of the picaresque genre and the novel in English.

Biographical Information

Few details of Nashe's life are known and his own work remains the best, if most unreliable, source of biographical information. He was born in 1567 at Lowestoft, where his father was a clergyman. In 1582 he matriculated at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he took a bachelor's degree in 1586. He continued his studies for a master's degree, but left abruptly in 1588, presumably due to financial troubles following the death of his father. He next went to London, where he unsuccessfully sought patronage and attempted to support himself by writing, a difficult task given that writing was not yet established as a profession. He did have some limited initial success: he published his first work, The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589), a satire of popular romance narratives and high rhetorical styles; he was commissioned by his friend Robert Greene to write the introduction to his Menaphon (1589); and he was hired by Anglican church officials to answer attacks against the church by a pseudonymous "Martin Marprelate." Nashe probably wrote several pamphlets in what came to be known as the Marprelate Controversy, though the only one definitively attributed to him is An Almond for a Parrat (1590). Nashe may

have done some ghostwriting for money, and he did manage to secure brief periods of patronage: in 1592, at Croydon, with Archbishop John Whitgift, and in the winter of 1593-1594, with George Carey, the Captain General of the Isle of Wight. Thereafter, Nashe was increasingly impoverished and sometimes at odds with his acquaintences, especially the former Cambridge don and rhetorician Gabriel Harvey (with whom he had a longstanding and bitter intellectual quarrel about rhetoric and satire) and various church and state authorities, including those for whom he had earlier worked. The quarrel with Harvey began with Harvey's attack on the writings of the recently deceased Greene, whom Nashe defended in Strange Newes, of the intercepting of certaine Letters and a convoy of Verses as they were going Priuilie to Victuall the Low Countries (1593), and continued pointedly in Have With You to Saffron Walden, or Gabriel Harvey's Hunt is Up (1596). In 1597 he fled to Yarmouth to avoid arrest for his now-lost play, The Isle of Dogs (1597), which had been banned as lewd and seditious by the Privy Council. Otherwise, he remained mostly in London, where he wrote two comedies and several other chaotic and sometimes autobiographical works of satire, grotesque realism, and dark fantasy, all with little commercial success. In 1599, in an effort to end his increasingly heated quarrel with Harvey, a general ban was placed on all his and Harvey's works. He died in unknown circumstances in 1601.

Major Works

Nashe's most important work is thought to be The Unfortunate Traveller , a fictional narrative about a page boy from the court of Henry VIII and his adventures in...

(The entire section is 81,011 words.)