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.
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.
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.
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.