Thomas Nashe Nashe, Thomas (Vol. 41) - Essay


(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 London and on the continent. Less a coherent story than a series of tales told to and by Jack, The Unfortunate Traveller has posed an interpretive challenge for critics. All agree that the work lacks coherence and recognizable form. While it has elements of a novel, satire, and picaresque, none of these genres is believed to characterize the text adequately. In general, critics conclude that it has insufficient structure to be a novel, and while it is full of satirical episodes, there is no clear target on which the satirical intent is focused. The episodic structure, the youthful anti-hero, and the realistic and unsentimental tone all suggest the picaresque, and many critics have examined this theme in the story, yet they remain divided in opinion. Some argue that The Unfortunate Traveller should indeed be considered an important example of the picaresque in English, while others maintain that, although it has a clear relationship to that genre, it is still missing the consistent point of view and the growth and development of the protagonist that are fundamental to the meaning of picaresque tales. The chaotic structure of the work has proved a compelling interest, with critics offering numerous analyses that find some semblance of textual unity in Nashe's or Wilton's life or psyche, the style, or the grotesque themes. The other most significant feature of the text, and indeed all of Nashe's work, is the stylistic virtuosity and wordplay that are so abundantly displayed. Nashe was self-consciously original and exuberant in his use of language, and by all accounts his work demonstrates considerable talent. He frequently uses linguistic invention to parody high rhetorical styles and traditions and in so doing advances his own theories of prose and literary creation. Perhaps the greatest weakness of this bombastic style is its emphasis on and frequent use of images of physical ugliness, deformity, mutilation, and violence. While some critics have found this imagery to be central to Nashe's view of language as a material force, it has tended to have a negative effect on readers from Nashe's day to our own. Nashe's other work is similar in style and in its lack of clear structure. The partly autobiographical Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell (1592) was somewhat well received, and imitated or replied to by several of Nashe's contemporaries. It is a social satire, painting a portrait of a poor artist and comparing him to various representatives of London low life exemplifying the seven deadly sins and suggesting that the artist is more deserving of money than the scoundrels who have it. Christes Teares Over Jerusalem, whereunto is annexed a comparative admonition to London (1593) is a rhetorically complex diatribe written during a time of plague. It retells the fall of Jerusalem and addresses the perceived iniquities of the city of London, warning that London may also incur God's wrath and suffer a fate similar to that of Jerusalem. His shorter essay, The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594), claims to narrate a series of visions experienced by a dying gentleman and offers an interesting and sometimes psychologically-astute treatise on dreams and nightmares. Nashe's lighter work includes A Pleasant Comedie, called Summers last will and Testament (1592), a play about the retirement of the court jester to Henry VIII, emphasizing the interplay of high and low discourses, and Lenten Stuffe (1599), a witty encomium to the city of Yarmouth with a mock epic in honor of the Red Herring. Nashe is here again playing with high and low styles and setting popular culture against the elite.

Critical Reception

Nashe had relatively little success or appreciation in his day; few of his works were published in more than one edition, and readers and critics, as well as the authorities, found much of his work distasteful and troubling. Yet his voice and ideas were certainly well known and contributed to the literary culture and changing styles of the Jacobean period. In the seventeenth century he was known largely as a satirist and a participant in the Marprelate controversy. From the eighteenth century on, Nashe remained a marginal figure, of little intrinsic interest, and most valuable as a source for historical and cultural material relevant to the study of Shakespeare and other famous Elizabethans. Recently, a renewed interest in the picaresque and the development of both the novel and prose styles in English literature led to considerable critical attention and debate given to The Unfortunate Traveller. Nashe has also attracted the attention of post-structuralist critics who are interested in unreliable narrators and the tension between rhetorical aims and linguistic anarchy. The Unfortunate Traveller has been described as the most modern of Elizabethan works and Nashe has been compared to such writers as James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. Thus, Nashe's literary talent is still recognized, and some aspects of his work that were once considered flaws are now interpreted more favorably by a different critical sensibility.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Anatomie of Absurditie (satire) 1589

*"To the Gentleman Students of Both Universities" (essay) 1589

An Almond for a Parrat (prose) 1590

**"Somewhat to reade for them that list" (essay) 1591

Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell (prose) 1592

A Pleasant Comedie, called Summers last will and Testament (drama) 1592

Christes Teares Over Jerusalem, whereunto is annexed, a comparative admonition to London (prose) 1593

Strange Newes, of the intercepting of certaine Letters and a convoy of Verses as they were going Priuilie to Victuall the Low Countries (prose) 1593

The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (essay) 1594

The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton (prose) 1594

Have With You to Saffron Walden, or Gabriel Harvey's Hunt is Up (prose) 1596

***The Isle of Dogs (drama) 1597

Nashe's Lenten Stuffe, containing the description and first Procreation and Increase of the towne of Great Yarmouth in Norfolke: With a new Play never played before, of the praise of the RED HERRING (prose) 1599

The Works of Thomas Nashe. 5 vols. (essays, prose, and drama) 1904-08

*This work was written as a preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon.

**This work was published as a preface to a pirated edition of Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella.

***This work has been lost.

J. J. Jusserand (essay date 1890)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Thomas Nashe; The Picaresque and Realistic Novel," in The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare, translated by Elizabeth Lee, T. Fisher Unwin, 1890, pp. 287-327.

[In the following excerpt from his study of the development of the English novel, Jusserand offers an introduction to Nashe's life and his major prose work, The Unfortunate Traveller, arguing that it is an early example of the picaresque in English.]

…. Thomas Nash made one of that group of young men, full of spirit, fire and imagination, who shone during the first part of Shakespeare's career, who fancied they could live by their pen, and who died prematurely and miserably. Nash was about...

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Fredson T. Bowers (essay date 1941)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Thomas Nashe and the Picaresque Novel," in Humanistic Studies in Honor of John Calvin Met-calf, University of Virginia, 1941, pp. 12-27.

[In the following essay, Bowers analyzes The Unfortunate Traveller as a picaresque work, concluding that while imperfect, it does, nonetheless, qualify as the first English picaresque novel.]

Whether Thomas Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller (1593) may accurately be classed as a picaresque novel has been variously debated. At one extreme stands Jusserand, who calls the work the best specimen of the picaresque in English anterior to Defoe;1 at the opposite pole is McKerrow: "I see practically nothing in the...

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Sr. Marina Gibbons (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Polemic, the Rhetorical Tradition, and The Unfortunate Traveller," in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXIII, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 408-21.

[In the following essay, Gibbons discusses Nashe's extensive use of polemical discourse in The Unfortunate Traveller, linking it to the rhetorical tradition of his day.]

Though much has been written about Thomas Nashe's implication in the Marprelate controversy and even more about his literary dispute with the Harveys, no one has examined The Unfortunate Traveller with an awareness of the polemic so manifest in it, nor has the evidence of this polemic been observed in its rhetorical...

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David Kaula (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveler," in SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1966, pp. 43-57.

[In this essay, Kaula offers a thorough analysis of several aspects of Nashe's style and suggests that Nashe's self-conscious use of literary technique provides a unity many critics find lacking in his works.]

Thomas Nashe was aware that in The Unfortunate Traveller he had produced an unconventional work. In his dedicatory letter to the first edition, published in 1594, he claims that he had written it at the urging of certain friends, "it being a cleane different vaine from other my former courses of...

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Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Tom Nashe and Jack Wilton: Personality as Structure in The Unfortunate Traveller," in SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 207-16.

[In the following essay, Lanham analyzes The Unfortunate Traveller as a fictional autobiography expressing both the character of Jack Wilton and the psychology of Nashe himself]

If The Unfortunate Traveller has, alone of the shorter Elizabethan fictions, stayed alive for a modern learned audience, it has done so at least partly because it presents so many problems of interpretation. It is commonly called a picaresque novel, but few critics have agreed on just what such...

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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Artistic Coherence in The Unfortunate Traveller," in SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 31-46.

[Below, Leggatt discusses the lack of unity and coherence in The Unfortunate Traveller and finds that, while the work is disorganized, it moves toward several focusing devices that later became important to the novel genre.]

To most of Nashe's readers, artistic coherence in The Unfortunate Traveller is, like Mrs. Harris, chiefly notable for its non-existence. This is how G. R. Hibbard describes Nashe's method in the book: "Interested in the immediate, local effect he can extract from an idea or situation, he...

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Madelon S. Gohlke (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Wits Wantonness: The Unfortunate Traveller as Picaresque," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 73, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 393-413.

[In the following essay, Gohlke analyzes Nashe's use of the picaresque in The Unfortunate Traveller to resolve a conflict between rhetorical cleverness and the need for moral action in the novel's tone.]


Close to death, Jack Wilton, in the middle of The Unfortunate Traveller, composes a ballad which he calls "Wiltons Wantonnesse."1 The half-serious, half-comic title of this ballad echoes one of the most haunting stanzas from Nashe's "Litany in Time of Plague" in Summers...

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Barbara C. Millard (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Thomas Nashe and the Functional Grotesque in Elizabethan Prose Fiction," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 39-48.

[Below, Millard discusses the notion of the grotesque in Elizabethan literature and argues that Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller makes effective use of the grotesque as a structural and thematic center to the work.]

Between 1579 and 1600, Elizabethan "novelists" like Thomas Nashe produced what would appear to be little more than rudimentary experiments in their art, yet much of this prose narrative effectively assimilates the grotesque, as episode, character, theme, and image, into its patchwork structures. The...

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Cynthia Sulfridge (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Unfortunate Traveller: Nashe's Narrative in a 'Cleane Different Vaine'," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 10, No.l, Winter, 1980, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Sulfridge analyzes the effect of Nashe's explicitly unconventional style on the reader, arguing that the text makes the reader a sort of victim of its alienating style.]

In the letter of dedication for The Unfortunate Traveller, Thomas Nashe described his text as being in a "cleane different vaine" from anything else he had ever written.1 He gave no explanation of how he envisioned this new vein, but readers of The Traveller have long since...

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Susan Marie Harrington and Michael Nahor Bond (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: '"Good Sir, Be Ruld by Me': Patterns of Domination and Manipulation in Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 243-50.

[In the following essay, the critics suggest that Nashe manipulates the reader through the use of specific narrative strategies and thereby implicates the reader in the violence of the text.]

I can never romanticize language again
never deny its power for disguise for mystification
but the same could be said for music
or any form created
painted ceilings beaten gold worm-worn Pietas

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Reid Barbour (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Nashe and the Stuff of Prose," in Deciphering Elizabethan Fiction, Associate University Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 64-81.

[In the following excerpt from his study of Elizabethan fiction, Barbour examines Nashe's concept of prose, with particular attention to his The Terrors of the Night.]

A Little Night Stuff

… I am arguing that the peculiarities of Nashe's quasisomatic prose can be studied in terms of the contradictions between his commission to fill gaps in the body and soul of the status quo and the endogenous invention of that prose. We can focus the questions arising from "stuff if we look at Nashe's The Terrors of the Night or,...

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Peter Holbrook (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Nashe, Contradiction, and Interplay: The Example of Lenten Stuffe" in Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare, Associated University Press, Inc., 1994, pp. 40-56.

[In the following excerpt from his study of literature and social stratification in Renaissance England, Holbrook analyzes the social symbolism of Nashe's Lenten Stuffe, with particular emphasis on themes of the outsider and the interplay between high and low social status.]

Nashe, Contradiction, and Interplay: The Example of Lenten Stuffe

… The politics of the Nasheian text appear complex. I have suggested...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1984, 342 p.

Recent and critically acclaimed biography, drawing on historical material and Nashe's own writings.


Berryman, John. The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1976, 389 p.

A collection of essays on literary history with a chapter on the place of Nashe and The Unfortunate Traveller.

Crewe, Jonathan V. Unredeemed Rhetoric: Thomas Nashe and the Scandal of...

(The entire section is 440 words.)