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Thomas Nashe 1567–1601

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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

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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)

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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 thirty-three years old when he died in 1600; Marlowe was twenty-nine, Peele thirty, Greene thirty-two.

Nash was born at Lowestoft in 1567:1 "The head towne in that iland is Leystofe, in which, bee it knowne to all men, I was borne; though my father sprung from the Nashes of Herefordshire;" a family that could "vaunt longer petigrees than patrimonies." He studied at Cambridge, in St. John's College, "in which house once I tooke up my inne for seven yere together lacking a quarter, and yet love it still, for it is and ever was, the sweetest nurse of knowledge in all that university."2 "Saint Johns in Cambridge," says he at another place, "at that time was an universitie within it selfe … having, as I have hearde grave men of credite report, more candles light in it everie winter morning before foure of the clocke than the foure of clocke bell gave stroakes."3 Like Greene and Sidney, he imbibed early a passionate taste for literature; he learnt the classical languages and foreign ones too, at least French and Italian, and enjoyed much miscellaneous reading; old English literature, Mandeville, Chaucer, Gower, Skelton, were not forgotten. Following then the usual course, he seems to have travelled on the continent, to have visited Italy and Germany,4 and to have come home, also according to custom, to rush into literature: by which word was then habitually understood fame, poverty, quarrels, imprisonment, and an early death. Not one of these items was wanting in Nash's career. A prolific and easy writer, he tried his hand at all kinds of work, composing them rapidly and with visible pleasure, always ready to laugh at the follies of others, sometimes at his own, not melancholy like Sidney, nor downcast like Greene. He very rarely alludes to his miseries without a smile, though he could not help regretting the better things he might have done if Fortune had not been so adverse, "had I a ful-sayld gale of prosperity." But "my state is so tost and weather-beaten, that it hath nowe no anchor-holde left to cleave unto."5 Having said thus much, he immediately resumes his cheerful countenance and in the best of spirits and in perfect good humour goes on describing the great city of Yarmouth, the metropolis of the Red Herring.

With this turn of mind and an inexhaustible fund of wit, satire, and gaiety, he published numerous pamphlets, threw himself impetuously into the Martin Marprelate controversy (in which another novelist, Lyly, was also taking part); sustained a rude warfare against Gabriel Harvey;6 wrote a dissertation on social manners: the Anatomie of absurditie, 1589; a disquisition with an autobiographical turn, which may be compared with those Greene has left; Pierce Penilesse his supplication to the Divell, 1592 (it had great success, and was even translated into French, "maimedly translated," says Nash,7 probably with great truth); a novel The unfortunate traveller or the life of Jack Wilton, 1594, which has most undeservedly remained until now the least known of his works; a drama, The Isle of dogs, 1597, which is lost, and for which the author was sent to prison; a curious and amusing discourse "in praise of the red herring," 1599; and many other books, pamphlets, and works of all kinds.8

Constantly entangled in quarrels, in such a way sometimes that the authorities had to interfere—for example, in his war with Gabriel Harvey, when the destruction of the books of both was ordered—he preserved to the last his good humour and his taste for people and authors who knew what it was to laugh. Curiously enough, he combined this taste with an intense fondness for pure literature and for lyrical poetry. Rabelais is among his masters, and so is Aretino, "one of the wittiest knaves that ever God made." Tarleton the jester is among his friends, and so is Kemp, the Dogberry of Shakespeare's "Much Ado," the Peter of "Romeo and Juliet," the famous dancer who performed a morris dance from London to Norwich. And at the same time he bestows with unbounded enthusiasm heartfelt praises upon Spenser, "heavenly Spenser"; upon "immortal" Sidney, whose "Astrophel and Stella" he himself published in 1591; and upon Marlowe, as the author of the exquisite Hero and Leander poem, "Leander and Hero of whome divine Musæus sung and a diviner muse then him, Kit Marlow."9

With all his fondness for merry authors, Nash can discern true poetry, and he adores it. If by chance, in the midst of an angry satirical disquisition, the word poetry comes to his pen, he is suddenly transformed, he smiles, he melts; nothing is left in him but human sympathies. "Nor is poetry an art where of there is no use in a man's whole life but to describe discontented thoughts and youthfull desires, for there is no study but it dooth illustrate and beautifie…. To them that demaund what fruites the poets of our time bring forth, or wherein they are able to approve themselves necessarie to the state, thus I answere: first and formost, they have cleansed our language from barbarisme, and made the vulgar sort, here in London, which is the fountaine whose rivers flowe round about England, to aspire to a richer puritie of speach than is communicated with the comminalty of any nation under heaven."10 When a man like Nash could write in such a strain, with a passion for vernacular literature scarcely equalled at any time, there was obviously growing among that "vulgar sort, here in London," a public for any great man that might appear, a public for William Shakespeare himself, who was just then beginning to reach celebrity. Nash does not doubt that it is possible for English to become a classical language, however rude the garb it first bore. According to Nash, Surrey was "a prince in content because a poet without peere. Destinie never defames her selfe but when she lets an excellent poet die: if there bee any sparke of Adams paradized perfection yet emberd vp in the breasts of mortall men, certainely God hath bestowed that his perfectest image on poets." Differing from Francis Bacon and a few of the grave dignitaries of literature, he has faith in that group of artists in the first rank of whom he placed heavenly Spenser, who can well bear comparison with any author of France, Italy, or Spain. "Neither is he the only swallow of our summer."11

This fondness for pure literature, for musical verse and lyrical poetry, explains how, satirist as he was, Nash had numerous friends whose feelings towards him were nothing short of tenderness. "Sweet boy," "Sweet Tom," are not usual expressions towards a satirist; they are, however, applied to Nash both by Greene and by Francis Meres, because there was in Nash's mind something besides the customary rancour of born satirists. "The man," said Shakespeare,

The man that has no music in himself
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; …
The motions of his spirit are as dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus;
Let no such man be trusted.12

A very different sort of a man was Nash; his friends found that he could be "mov'd with concord of sweet sounds," and that he could be trusted. As he survived Sidney at a time when a few years meant much for English literature, he could form a far more favourable judgment of the drama than the well-known one in the "Apologie." The ridiculous performances noticed by Sidney had not disappeared, but they were not the only ones to be seen on the stage; dramas of the highest order were being played; actors rendered them with becoming dignity, and, curiously enough to our ideas, Nash adds as a special praise that women were excluded from among their number: "Our players are not as the players beyond sea, a sort of squirting baudie comedians, that have whores and common curtezans to play womens parts, and forbeare no immodest speech or unchast action that may procure laughter; but our sceane is more stately furnisht than ever it was in the time of Roscius, our representations honorable and full of gallant resolution, not consisting like theirs of a Pantaloun, a whore and a Zanie, but of emperours, kings and princes whose true tragedies, Sophocleo cothurno they do vaunt."13 In the next century, women were allowed to replace on the English stage the newly-shaven young fellows who used to play Juliet and Titania; we are happy to say that so indecent a practice was due to foreign influence. We have Prynne's authority for believing that the first women who had the audacity to appear before a London audience were French. This happened in 1629 at the Blackfriars theatre. It is true that not long after, to make up, as it were, for lost time, plays were performed in England in which all the parts were taken by women; it is not known whether on that occasion they were French.14

Another very important characteristic in Nash is the high ideal he has shaped for himself of the art of writing, not only in verse, but in plain prose. At a time when English prose was scarcely acknowledged to be capable of artistic treatment, and when rules, regulations and theories had, as is generally believed, very little hold upon writers, it is interesting to notice that such an author as Nash, with his stirring style and unbridled pen, with his prison and tavern life, understood that words had a literary value of their own. They were not to be taken at random, but chosen with care. His theory may on some points be disputed, but it is certainly interesting to note that he had a theory at all. First, he desires that a man shall write in his own vein and not copy others, especially those who by their vogue and peculiarities, such as Lyly or Greene, were easiest of reach and the most tempting to imitate. He strongly defends himself from having ever done anything of this sort; on the contrary, more than once appeals were made to him to give judgment in literary matters:

"Is my style like Greenes, or my jeasts like Tarletons?

"Do I talke of any counterfeit birds, or hearbes or stones? … This I will proudly boast … that the vaine which I have … is of my own begetting and cals no man father in England but myselfe, neither Euphues, nor Tarlton, nor Greene.

"Not Tarlton nor Greene but have beene contented to let my simple judgment overrule them in some matters of wit. Euphues I read when I was a little ape in Cambridge, and I then thought it was ipse ille: it may be excellent still for ought I know, but I lookt not on it this ten yeare: but to imitate it I abhorre."15

His vocabulary is very rich; he has always a variety of words at his disposal and uses often two or three the better to impress our minds with the idea in his own. He coins at need new words or fetches them from classical or foreign languages. He does not do this in an off-hand way, but on purpose and wilfully; he possessed much of that curious care for and delight in words which is one of the characteristics of the men of the Renaissance. To deal with words was in itself a pleasure for them; they liked to mould, to adopt, to combine, to invent them. Word painting delighted them; Nash has an extreme fondness for it, and satirical and comical as he is, he often astonishes us by the poetic gracefulness of his combinations of words. In this as in many other particulars he imitates, longe sequens, the master he seems to have admired above others, Rabelais, who, in the tempestuous roll of his diverse waters, sometimes washes up on to the sand pearls fit to adorn the crown of any lyrical poet. Fishes appear in Nash's otherwise unpoetical prose as "the sea's finny freeholders;" the inhabitants of a port town do not sow corn, "their whole harvest is by sea;" they plough "the glassy fieldes of Thetis." He has an instinctive hatred for abstract terms; he wants expressive words, words that shine, that breathe, that live. Instead of saying that Henry III. granted a charter and certain privileges in a particular year of his reign, he will write that "he cheard up their blouds with two charters more, and in Anno 1262 and forty-five of his courte keeping, he permitted them to wall in their towne."16 The pleasure of replacing stale, common-place expressions by rare, picturesque, live ones, and in lieu of a plain sentence to give an allegorical substitute, has so much attraction for Nash, that clearsighted as he is, he cannot always avoid the ordinary defects of this particular style, defects which he has in common with many of his contemporaries, not excluding Shakespeare himself, namely, obscurity and sometimes bad taste.

Another of Nash's tendencies, which he has most decidedly in common with Rabelais, consists in the use of a number of expressions in the same sentence for the same idea. Of course one carefully chosen word would be enough; such a man as Mérimée, to take an example at the other extremity of the line, picks out the one term he wants, puts it in its place; word and place fit exactly; there is nothing to add or desire. Not so Rabelais; not so either his admirer Nash; the newly-awakened curiosities of the Renaissance were too young as yet, too fresh and strong upon them, to be easily kept down by rule and reflection. Literature too was young then, and young things are endowed with eyes that stare and admire more easily than old ones. When entering their word-shop, writers of the sixteenth century were fain to take this word, and this other too, and yet that one more; and when on the threshold, about to go, they would turn and take two or three again. There are pages in Rabelais and pages in Nash where most of the important words are supplemented and fortified with a number of others placed there at our disposal as alternatives or substitutes, for the pleasure of our ears and eyes, in case we might like them better. Nash has to express this very simple idea: Look at Yarmouth, what a fine town it is! Well, it owes all it is to the red herring. This he formulates in the following manner with quite a Rabelaisian mixture of native and half Latin words and iterations for most terms of importance: "Doe but convert, said hee, the slenderest twinckling reflexe of your eyesight to this flinty ringe that engirtes it, these towred walles, port-cullized gates, and gorgeous architectures that condecorate and adorne it, and then perponder of the red herringes priority and prevalence, who is the onely inexhaustible mine that hath raised and begot all this, and, minutely, to riper maturity, fosters and cherisheth it."17

Some critics of his time abused Nash for the liberties he took with the vocabulary, especially for his foreign and compound words. He was ready with this half-serious, half-jocose answer: "To the second rancke of reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize," such as "tympanize; tirannize," says he elsewhere; "thus I replie: That no winde that blowes strong but is boystrous; no speech or wordes of any power or force to confute or perswade, but must be swelling and boystrous. For the compounding of my wordes, therein I imitate rich men, who having gathered store of white single money together, convert a number of those small little scutes into great peeces of gold, such as double Pistoles and Portugues. Our English tongue of all languages, most swarmeth with the single money of monosillables, which are the onely scandall of it. Bookes written in them and no other seeme like shopkeepers' bookes, that containe nothing else save halfe-pence, three-farthings, and two-pences. Therefore what did me I, but having a huge heape of those worth lesse shreds of small English in mv pia maters purse, to make the royaller shew with them to men's eye, had them to the compounders immediately, and exchanged them foure into one, and others into more, according to the Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian."18

Nash had a particular literary hatred for mere empty bombast. His love for high-sounding words with a meaning was not greater than his aversion for big sounds without one. Even his friend Marlowe does not escape his censure for having trespassed in this particular beyond the limits of good taste. Nash wonders "how eloquent our gowned age is growen of late," and he has nothing but contempt for those "vainglorious tragoedians who contend not so seriously to excel in action, as to embowell the clowdes in a speach of comparison; thinking themselves more than initiated in poets immortalitie, if they but once get Boreas by the beard and the heavenlie bull by the deawlap."19

His ideas regarding the art of novel writing are very liberal, and he accepts as belonging to literature many specimens we should sternly reject. The one point to remember, however, is that he does not accept them all; he draws the line somewhere, and in that age when the novel was in its infancy, there was merit in doing even no more than this. He is very hard upon the old mediæval romances, which it is true he seems to have known only through the abridged and degenerate texts circulated in his time, for the amusement of idle readers. He readily endorses the moral views of Ascham about them, adding however, what is more interesting for us, some literary criticism: "What els I pray you, doe these bable booke-mungers endevor but to repaire the ruinous wals of Venus court, to restore to the worlde that forgotten legendary licence of lying, to imitate a fresh the fantasticall dreames of those exiled Abbielubbers [i.e., the monks] from whose idle pens pro ceeded those worne out impressions of the feigned no where acts of Arthur of the rounde table, Arthur of litle Brittaine, Sir Tristram, Hewon of Burdeaux, the Squire of low degree, the four sons of Amon, with infinite others…. Who is it that reding Bevis of Hampton, can forbeare laughing, if he marke what scambling shyft he makes to end his verses a like? I will propound three or foure payre by the way for the readers recreation:

The porter said: By my snout,
It was Sir Bevis that I let out."20

Every reader will agree with Nash, I suppose, in condemning this as balderdash.

Endowed thus with artistic theories of his own, with an intense love of literature, with an inborn gaiety and faculty of observation, Nash added to the collection of novels of the Shakespearean era, not another Bevis of Hampton, but his Jack Wilton.21 the best specimen of the picaresque tale in English literature anterior to Defoe. His romance, written in the form of memoirs, according to the usual rule of the picaresque, is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, under whose patronage Shakespeare had already placed his "Venus and Adonis." It has the defect of all the romances of the time, in England as elsewhere: it is incoherent and badly put together. But it contains excellent fragments, two or three capital portraits of individuals which show careful observation, and a few solidly constructed scenes like the vengeance of Cutwolfe which allow us to foresee that one day the dramatic power of the English genius, worn out doubtless by a too long career on the stage, instead of dying altogether, will be revived in the novel.

Nash, after the manner employed by More in his "Utopia," by Greene in his "Ciceronis amor," and in our age, with a splendour of fame to which several generations have already borne testimony, by Sir Walter Scott, introduces historical personages in his fiction. The page Jack Wilton, the hero of the tale, a little superior by his rank to the ordinary picaro has, like Gil Blas, little money in his pocket and a few odds and ends of Latin in his head; he distributes in his conversation the trite quotations that have remained by him, skilfully enough to persuade the vulgar that he does not belong to their tribe. "Tendit ad sidera virtus—Paulo majora canamus—Secundum formam statuti," &c., and from time to time, when he is greatly elated and wishes to show himself in all his magnificence, he adopts the elegances and similes proper to the euphuistic style: "The sparrow for his lecherie liveth but a yeere," &c.22

Wilton is present first with the royal court of England at the siege of Tournay, under Henry VIII. What my credit was at this court "a number of my creditors that I coosned can testifie." He lives on the resources of his wits, playing tricks worthy a whipping if not a hanging on respectable persons of limited capacity. His most notable victim is the purveyor of drink or victualler to the camp, a tun-bellied coward, proud of his pretended noble descent, a Falstaff grown old, whose wit has been blunted, who has ended by marrying Mistress Quickly, and has himself become tavern keeper in partnership with her. In old days he drank on credit: now the good fellows tipple at his expense. Such is the end of all the Falstaffs and all the Scapins. "This great Lorde, this worthie Lord," relates the wicked page, "thought no scorne, Lord have mercy upon us, to have his great velvet breeches larded with the droppings of this dainty liquor," that is, the cider that he sold; "and yet he was an olde servitor, a cavelier of an ancient house, as it might appeare by the armes of his ancestrie, drawen very amiably in chalk, on the in side of his tent doore."23

The scene between the fat, ruddy host, open-mouthed, blear-eyed, and the frolicking slender page, who delights in his tricks and covers his victim with jesting compliments, is extremely well described. Wilton finds his man "counting his barrels, and setting the price in chalke on the head of everie one of them." He addresses him his "duty verie devoutly," and tells him he has matters of some secrecy to impart to him for which a private audience is necessary:

"With me, young Wilton? quoth he, marie and shalt. Bring us a pint of syder of a fresh tap into the 'Three Cups'24 here; wash the pot!

"So into a backe roome he lead mee, where after hee had spit on his finger, and picked off two or three moats of his olde moth eaten velvet cap, … he badde me declare my minde, and there upon he dranke to me on the same."

Jack is careful not to touch at once on the matter in his head: he knows his man and attacks him first by that vanity of a noble descent which he possesses in common with Falstaff. Jack has always borne him affection, "partly for the high discent and linage from whence he sprung, and partly for the tender care and provident respect he had of poore soldiers … he vouchsafed in his own person to be a victualer to the campe: a rare example of magnificence and courtesie; and diligently provided, that without farre travel, every man might have for his money syder and cheese his bellyfull. Nor did he sell his cheese by the way onely, or his syder by the great, but abast himselfe with his owne hands to take a shoomakers knife: a homely instrument for such a high personage to touch, and cut it out equally like a true justiciarie in little pennyworthes that it would doo a man good for to looke upon. So likewise of his syder, the pore man might have his moderate draught of it (as there is moderation in all things) as well for his doit or his dandiprat as the rich man for his halfe souse or his denier …"

Jack goes on irrepressible, overflowing; it is his best moment; he does not want the sport to end too quickly: "Why, you are everie childs felow: any man that comes under the name of a souldier and a good fellowe, you will sitte and beare companie to the last pot, yea, and you take in as good part the homely phrase of: 'Mine host heeres to you,' as if one saluted you by all the titles of your baronie. These considerations, I saie, which the world suffers to slip by in the channell of carelesnes, have moved me in ardent zeale of your welfare, to forewarne you of some dangers that have beset you and your barrels.

"At the name of dangers hee start up, and bounst with his fist on the boord so hard, that his tapster overhearing him cried: 'Anon! anon! sir,' and entering with a bow askt him what he wanted.

"Hee was readie to have stricken his tapster for interrupting him in attention of this his so much desired relation, but for feare of displeasing me he moderated his furie, and onely sending him for the other fresh pint, wild him looke to the barre, and come when he is cald with a devilles name.

"Well, at his earnest importunitie, after I had moistned my lips, to make my lie run glib to his journies end, forward I went as followeth …" And the good apostle stops again; the cider and his own words have moved him; he is a little fuddled, so is mine host; they both fall to weeping. The innkeeper is ready to believe anything, and at this moment, which is the right one, the page at length determines to inform him that in an assembly where he was present, he heard mine host, the purveyor of the camp, accused of connivance with the enemy, by giving information to the besieged through letters hidden in his empty barrels. High treason is suspected! How are these dangerous rumours to be dissipated? There is only one way of doing it, that is in becoming popular in the army, very popular; he must make himself beloved by all; he must distribute cider freely and for a time suppress in his shop the unbecoming custom of paying.

The victualler follows this advice, but soon the trick is discovered; the page is roundly whipped, but being to the core a true picaroon, Wilton does not for all that feel his spirit in any way lessened: "Here let me triumph a while, and ruminate a line or two on the excellence of my wit!" This is all the sorrow and repentance the whip extracts from him.

Shakespeare, two years later, fused the two characters into one, caused the wit of the page to enter the brain of the fat man, and the blending, animated by his genius, produced the inimitable customer of the "Boar's Head" tavern.

After various adventures, Wilton returns to London, and struts about in fine clothes, whose originality he describes with an amusing rush of language: "I had my feather in my cap as big as a flag in the fore-top; … my cape cloake of blacke cloth, over-spreading my backe like a thornbacke or an elephantes eares, … and in consummation of my curiositie my hands without gloves, all a mode French." The sense of the picturesque, the careful observation of the effect of a pose, of a fold of a garment, were, before Nash, entirely unknown to English novel writers, and it was not until the eighteenth century, until the time of Defoe, Fielding, and, above all, Sterne, that the author of Jack Wilton was excelled in this special talent.

Soon the page takes up the course of his adventures again, and travels anew on the continent. He visits Venice, Florence, Rome, refraining with a care for which he is to be thanked from trite descriptions. What's the good of describing the monuments of Rome? he says; everybody knows them: "he that hath but once drunke with a traveller, talkes of them." Sir Thomas More contemplating his "Utopia," John of Leyden dragged to the scaffold, the Earl of Surrey jousting for the fair Geraldine "against all commers," Francis I., conqueror at Marignan, Erasmus, Aretino, "one of the wittiest knaves that ever God made," and other personages of the Renaissance, figure in the narrative. Faithful to the picaresque plot, Nash conducts his reader into all societies, from the tavern to the palace, from the haunt of robbers to the papal court, and makes his hero no better than he should be. At Marignan, Wilton occupies himself especially in discovering quickly who is likely to be the strongest, in order to attach himself ardently to the winner. At Venice he runs away with an Italian lady, deserts his master, the Earl of Surrey, and passes himself off as the Earl.

All this is too much at length for honest Nash, and feeling not less displeased than ourselves with the wicked actions of his hero, he himself interposes at times, not without disadvantage to his plot, and, in spite of the improbability of placing such remarks in Wilton's mouth, introduces his own opinions on the persons and incidents of the romance. This is an effect of the impetuosity of his temperament, blameable undoubtedly from an artistic point of view. We shall be indulgent to him if we remember that no author of the time was entirely master of himself and faithful to his plot. Even Shakespeare rarely resists like temptation, and when a poetic image comes into his mind, little matters it to him what character is on the stage; he makes of him a dreamer, a poet, and lends to him the exquisite language of his own emotion. Let us remember how the murderers hired to assassinate Edward's children describe the scene of the murder. They saw "the gentle babes … girdling one another"

Within their alabaster innocent arms:
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And, in their summer beauty, kiss'd each other.

A very improbable remark, it will be admitted, on the part of the murderers. But, then, it is Shakespeare who talks aloud, forgetting that he is supposed not to be there.

Nash, with like heedlessness, often interposes in his own person, and takes the words out of his page's mouth; and his bold, characteristic and concise opinions are very curious in the history of manners and literature. For example, when he describes the war of the Anabaptists and the execution of John of Leyden, he sums up thus in a short pithy sentence the current opinion of his day among literary people and men of the world, on the already formidable sect of the Puritans: "Heare what it is to be Anabaptists, to bee puritans, to be villaines: you may be counted illuminate botchers for a while, but your end wil be: Good people pray for me."

His open admiration of the charity of the Catholics at Rome reveals in him great independence of mind and much courage: "Yet this I must say to the shame of us Protestants, if good workes may merit heaven they doo them, we talke of them. Whether superstition or no makes them unprofitable servants, that let pulpets decide: but there, you shall have the bravest Ladies in gownes of beaten gold, washing pilgrimes and poore souldiours feete, and dooing nothing they and their wayting mayds all the yeare long, but making shirts and bandes for them against they come by in distresse."

At Wittenberg, Wilton sees "Acolastus" performed, an old play that was as popular in England as on the continent,25 and Nash's severe criticism on the actors shows how well the difference between good comedians and common players was understood in London. Nash shared Shakespeare's opinion of the actors who "out-heroded Herod," and he would have been of Molière's way of thinking about the performances at the Hôtel de Bourgogne: "One as if he had beene playning a clay floore, stampingly troade the stage so harde with his feete, that I thought verily he had resolved to doe the carpenter that sette it uppe some utter shame. Another floung his armes lyke cudgelles at a peare tree, insomuch as it was mightily dreaded that hee woulde strike the candles that hung above theyr heades out of their sockets, and leave them all darke." This severe criticism may serve to reassure us about the way in which the great English dramas were interpreted at that period.26 And indeed they deserved that some trouble should be taken with them, for in London it was the time of "Romeo and Juliet," of "Midsummer Night's Dream," of "Richard III."

In fact, Nash does not only possess the merit of knowing how to observe the ridiculous side of human nature, and of pourtraying in a full light picturesque figures now worthy of Teniers and now of Callot; some fat and greasy, others lean and lank; he possesses a thing very rare with the picaresque school, the faculty of being moved. He seems to have foreseen the immense field of study which was to be opened later to the novelist. A distant ancestor of Fielding, as Lyly and Sidney appear to us to be distant ancestors of Richardson, he understands that a picture of active life, reproducing only, in the Spanish fashion, scenes of comedy, is incomplete and departs from reality. The greatest jesters, the most arrogant, the most venturesome have their days of anguish; no brow has ever remained unfurrowed from the cradle to the grave, and no one has been able to live an impassive spectator and not feel his heart sometimes beat the quicker, nor bow his head in sorrow. Nash caught a glimpse of this, and therefore mingled serious scenes with his pictures of comedy, in order that his romance might the more closely resemble life. Sometimes they are love scenes as when the Earl of Surrey describes to us his awakening passion for Geraldine, and how he met her at Hampton Court: "Oh thrice emperiall Hampton Court, Cupids inchaunted castle, the place where I first sawe the perfect omnipotence of the Almightie expressed in mortalitie!" Sometimes they are tragic scenes full of blood and tortures. It is true that Nash then falls into melodrama and conducts his Wilton to a sort of Tour de Nesles where the Countess Juliana, the Pope's mistress, gives herself up to excesses, by the side of which those of Margaret of Burgundy are but child's play. Murders, rapes, and scenes of robbery multiply under cover of the plague that rages at Rome, and the horrors resulting from the pestilence are described with a vigour that reminds us of Defoe, without however equalling him. Carts containing the dead go up and down the streets, and lugubrious cries resound: "Have you anie dead to burie? Have you anie dead to burie?" The carts "had manie times of one house their whole loading."

Wilton is accused of murders committed in his house; the rope almost about his neck, he is saved by an English earl, in exile, who seems to have been imbued with Ascham's teaching, and who reproaches him for travelling, especially in Italy, where morals are so corrupt and where immorality is so dangerous. "Take care," said the earl, "if thou doest but lend halfe a looke to a Romans or Italians wife, thy porredge shall bee prepared for thee, and cost thee nothing but thy life." The earl, who proves to be a rather pedantic nobleman, passes in review all nations, and proves that they are not worth the trouble of going to see. Wilton, whose personal experience does not justify such unfavourable prognostications, especially now that he is out of danger, is wearied by this talk, and, pretending important business, gives his chattering benefactor the slip. He is soon punished; he is captured by the Jews of Rome; his adventures become more and more mysterious and alarming, and more and more does melodrama invade the story.

Sometimes, however, in the midst of these abominations, Nash's tone rises; his language becomes eloquent and his emotion infectious; he shudders himself, horror penetrates him and seizes us; the jests of the picaroon are very far from our mind, the drama is then as terrible as with the most passionate romanticists of our century in their best moments.

Few stories of our day are better contrived to give the sense of the horrible than the story of the vengeance of Cutwolfe related by himself just as he is going to be tortured. After a prolonged search, Cutwolfe at last finds his enemy, Esdras of Granada, alone, in his shirt, and far from all help. The unfortunate man implores Cutwolfe, whose brother he had killed, to make it impossible for him to do any more harm, to mutilate him, but to spare his life. His enemy replies: "Though I knewe God would never have mercie on mee except I had mercie on thee, yet of thee no mercie would I have. … I tell thee, I would not have undertooke so much toyle to gaine heaven, as I have done in pursuing thee for revenge. Divine revenge, of which, as one of the joies above, there is no fulnes or satietie. Looke how my feete are blistered with following thee from place to place. I have riven my throat with overstraining it to curse thee. I have ground my teeth to powder with grating and grinding them together for anger, when anie hath nam'd thee. My tongue with vaine threates is bolne, and waxen too big for my mouth…. Entreate not, a miracle maye not reprive thee."

The scene is prolonged. Esdras continues to beg for his life; he will become the slave, the chattel of his enemy. An idea comes into the mind of the latter: Sell thy soul to the devil, and I will pardon thee. Esdras immediately utters horrible blasphemies.

"My joints trembled and quakt," continues Cutwolfe, "with attending them, my haire stood upright, and my hart was turned wholly to fire…. The veyne in his left hand that is derived from his heart with no faint blow he pierst, and with the bloud that flowd from it, writ a ful obligation of his soule to the divell: yea more earnestly he praied unto God never to forgive his soule than manie Christians doo to save theyr soules. These fearfull ceremonies brought to an end, I bad him ope his mouth and gape wide. He did so: as what wil not slaves doo for feare? Therwith made I no more adoo, but shot him ful into the throat with my pistol: no more spake he after; so did I shoote him that hee might never speak after, or repent him. His body being dead lookd as black as a toad."27

This conversation and the sight of Cutwolfe's horrible punishment, recall Jack Wilton to himself. He regrets his irregular life, but not to the point of refunding the money stolen from the Countess Juliana; rich as Gil Blas, he can now, like him, take rank among peaceable and settled folk; he marries his Venetian lady, and returns to the king of England's army, occupied in giving a grand reception to Francis I. at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. There ends the most complete career furnished in England, before Defoe, by a character of fiction.

The primary if not only result of the publication of Jack Wilton was, so far as the author himself was concerned, to place him in new difficulties. His well-known satirical vein, his constant use and abuse of allusions, which often render him obscure, were so well known that it was considered improbable that he had been writing this time with a merely artistic aim. He had been careful to state in his dedication that readers would merely find in his book "some reasonable conveyance of historie and varietie of mirth," and that he was attempting a kind of writing new to him; it was to no purpose. Readers were on the look-out for allusions; they took his historical heroes for living people but thinly disguised, and lined Nash's story with another of their own invention. The author, who well knew the dangers of such interpretations, never ceased to protest that, in this work at least, there was no place for them. When once the public is started upon such a track, it is no easy matter to make them turn round. Nash had recourse to his usual revenge, that is, to laugh at his interpreters. "I am informed," he wrote, shortly after his Wilton was printed, "there be certaine busie wits abrode that seeke to anagrammatize the name of Wittenberge to one of the Universities of England; that scorn to be counted honest, plaine meaning men, like their neighbours, for not so much as out of mutton and potage, but they will construe a meaning of kings and princes. Let one but name bread, but they will interpret it to be the town of Bredan in the Low countreyes; if of beere he talkes, then straight he mockes the countie Beroune in France; if of foule weather or a shower of raine, he hath relation to some that shall raigne next."28

His remonstrances seem to have had very indifferent success, and Nash, to our great loss, did not again attempt novel writing. But the vein was in him, and it constantly reappears in the variety of pamphlets he has left behind him. Fine scenes of comedy, good portraits of ridiculous characters to be met in everyday life, amusing anecdotes, nearly all the elements of a sound comic novel are scattered through his writings. The familiar portraits of the upstart, of the false politician, of the inventor of new sects, portraits at which many observers of human nature in the time of Shakespeare tried their hand, are to be seen in the gallery Nash painted in his Pierce Penilesse.29 Conformably to the fitness of things, Nash described himself under the name of Pierce, as Sidney had given his high moral tone, his melancholy and loving soul to the shepherd Philisides, as Greene had told his own miseries under the name of poor Roberto. Here is Nash's portrait of the upstart who has travelled abroad and has brought back from his journey nothing more valuable than scorn for his own country: "Hee will bee humorous forsooth and have a broode of fashions by himselfe. Somtimes, because Love commonly wears the liverie of wit, hee will be an Inamorato poeta, and sonnet a whole quire of paper in praise of Ladie Manibetter, his yeolowfac'd mistres…. All Italionato is his talke, and his spade peake [i.e., his beard] is as sharpe as if he had been a pioner before the walls of Roan. Hee will dispise the barbarisme of his owne countrey, and tell a whole legend of lyes of his travayles unto Constantinople. If he be challenged to fight … hee objects that it is not the custome of the Spaniard or the Germaine to looke backe to everie dog that barks. You shall see a dapper Jacke that hath beene but once at Deepe, wring his face round about, as a man would stirre up a mustard pot and talke English through the teeth, like Jaques Scabdhams, or Monsieur Mingo de Moustrapo; when, poore slave, he hath but dipt his bread in wylde boares greace and come home againe, or been bitten by the shinnes by a wolfe; and saith he hath adventured uppon barricadoes of Gurney or Guingan, and fought with the yong Guise hand to hand."

Like Ben Jonson, Nash met on his way some Politick Would-Bes that "thinke to be counted rare politicians and statesmen, by beeing solitarie: as who should say, I am a wise man,"31—"and when I ope my lips," would have added Shakespeare, "let no dog bark!" He has met inventors of sects, and has heard of pre-Darwinian "mathematicians" who doubt the fact that there were no men before Adam and are inclined to think there are no devils at all. Nash strongly condemns these inventors and mathematicians, drawing at the same time a curious picture of the state of confusion in religious matters which was then so conspicuous in England: "They will set their self love to study to invent new sects of singularitie, thinking to live when they are dead, by having their sect called after their names: as Donatists of Donatus, Arrian[s] of Arrius, and a number more of new faith founders, that have made England the exchange of innovations and almost as much confusion of religion in everie quarter, as there was of tongues at the building of the Tower of Babel …

"Hence atheists triumph and rejoyce and talke as prophanely of the Bible as of Bevis of Hampton. I heare say there are mathematicians abroad that will proove men before Adam; and they are harboured in high places, who will maintayne to the death that there are no divells."32

Scenes of light comedy abound in Nash; they are especially numerous in his Lenten Stuff,33 a queer little book, his last work, and one which he seems to have written con amore. Never was he in better humour than when, the year before his death, he betook himself to singing "the praise of the red herring," Monsieur Herring, Solyman Herring, Sacrapant Herring, Red Herring of Red Herring hall, Pater Patriæ, as he is fond of calling him, inventing on each page a new title for his hero. There is no event in ancient or modern history where he does not discover that "Cæsarean Charlemaine Herring" has had a part to play; no person of however mean or exalted rank who has not had to deal with "Gentleman Jacke Herring." The fishes made him their king, and the Pope made him a saint. The first time he appeared at the Pope's court was a great event in Christendom. An English sailor had sold him for three hundred ducats to the purveyor of the papal kitchen, and "delivered him the king of fishes, teaching hym to geremumble it, sauce it, and dresse it, and so sent him away a glad man. All the Pope's cookes in their white sleeves and linnen aprons met him middle way to entertaine and receyve the king of fishes, and together by the eares they went, who shoulde first handle him or touch him. But the clarke of the kitchin appeased that strife, and would admit none but him selfe to have the scorching and carbonadoing of it, and he kissed his hands thrice, and made as many humblessos before he woulde finger it; and, such obeysances performed, he drest it as he was enjoyned, kneeling on his knes, and mumbling twenty Ave Maryes to hymselfe, in the sacrifizing of it on the coales, that his diligent service in the broyling and combustion of it, both to his kingship and to his fatherhood might not seeme unmeritorious."34

However careful Thomas Nash had been to act according to the views attributed to Dr. Andrew Borde concerning the cultivation of mirth as a preservative of health, he reached what this authority calls "the mirth of heaven," with much more rapidity than might have been expected. His mirth diet was obviously adulterated and mingled with wrath and sorrow. He had been born in 1567, and we read about him in a comedy performed at Cambridge in 1601, these verses which are friendly if not very poetical:

Let all his faultes sleepe with his moumfull chest,
And there for ever with his ashes rest,
His style was wittie, though it had some gall,
Some things he might have mended, so may all,
Yet this I say, that for a mother witt,
Few men have ever seen the like of it.35

The manner in which his friend Dekker represents him, shortly after, reaching the Elysian fields, leaves little doubt that his life was shortened not only by his angry passions, but by sheer want: "Marlow, Greene and Peele had got under the shades of a large vyne, laughing to see Nash, that was but newly come to their colledge, still haunted with the sharpe and satyricall spirit that followed him heere upon earthe: for Nash inveyed bitterly, as he had wont to do against dryfisted patrons, accusing them of his untimely death, because if they had given his Muse that cherishment which she most worthily deserved, hee had fed to his dying day on fat capons, burnt sack and sugar, and not so desperately have venturde his life and shortned his dayes by keeping company with pickle herrings."36


1 He was baptized in November of that year. The discovery is due to Dr. Grosart. Memorial Introduction to the Works of Nash, vol. i. p. xii.

2The Complete Works of Thomas Nashe … for the first time collected, ed. Grosart, London, 1883-4, 6 vol. 4to; Nashe's lenten stuffe, 1599, vol. v. p. 277; "Have with you to Saffron Walden, " vol. ii. p. 256; Lenten Stuffe, v. p. 241.

3 Nash's letter "to the Gentlemen Students," prefacing his friend Greene's "Menaphon," 1589.

4 This has been doubted, for the statement was considered mainly to rest upon the dedication of An almond for a parrat, and Nash's authorship of this work is no longer accepted (Grosart, i. p. 4). But as good evidence, at least, for Nash's probable travels, is derived from his Jack Wilton, in which more than one statement comes, to all appearance, from an actual eye-witness.

5Lenten Stuffe, Works, vol. v. p. 204. The first time he appeared in print was when he prefaced with the abovementioned letter Greene's "Menaphon" in 1589.

6 In his "Quip for an upstart courtier," 1592, Greene had spoken irreverently of Harvey's low extraction. Harvey heaped abuse upon Greene, being rather encouraged than stopped by the death of his opponent. In the same year, Nash, with great courage, rushed to the rescue of his friend and of his memory; when this was done he continued the war on his own account with great success, till the authorities interfered and stopped both combatants.

7 "My Piers Penilesse … being above two yeres since maimedly translated into the French tongue." Have with you to Saffron Walden, Works, vol. iii. p. 47.

8 His principal writings are distributed as follows in Dr. Grosart's edition:—I. Anatomie of Absurditie, 1589; various Martin Marprelate tractates. II. Pierce Penilesse, 1592; Strange newes, 1593, and other writings against Harvey. III. Have with you to Saffron Walden, 1596 (against Harvey); The terrors of the night or a discourse of apparitions, 1594, in which Nash on many points anticipates Defoe. IV. "Christ's tears over Jerusalem," 1593, a long pious discourse. V. The unfortunate traveller, 1594; Lenten Stuffe, 1599. VI. The tragedie of Dido, 1594 (in collaboration with Marlowe); Summers last will and testament, a play by Nash alone.

His Isle of dogs is lost, having been suppressed as soon as performed. The troubles Nash got into on account of this unlucky play are thus commemorated by him: "The straunge turning of the Ile of Dogs from a commedie to a tragedie two summers past, with the troublesome stir which hapned about it is a generall rumour that hath filled all England, and such a heavie crosse laide upon me as had well neere confounded mee" (Lenten Stuffe, vol. v. p. 199).

9The unfortunate Traveller, vol. v. p. 93; Lenten Stuffe, vol. v. p. 262.

10Pierce Penilesse, Works, vol. ii. pp. 60, 61.

11The unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton, Works, vol. v. p. 60, and Prefatory letter to Greene's "Menaphon." The same, edited by Gosse, Chiswick Press, 1892.

12 Greene's "Groats-worth," Works, vol. i. p. 143; Mere's "Paladis Tamia"; "Merchant of Venice," act v. sc. I.

13Pierce Penilesse, Works, vol. ii. p. 92.

14 "Histrio-mastix," 1633, 4to, p. 215. Coryat reports on hearsay (1608) that women had already appeared at that date on the English stage; but he is careful to note that he had never personally witnessed this extraordinary phenomenon; and he adds that he was greatly astonished to see in Italy women perform their parts in a play "with as good a grace, action and gesture and whatsoever convenient for a player as ever I saw any masculine actor" ("Crudities," London, 1776, vol. ii. p. 16).

15Strange newes of the intercepting certaine letters, 1592, Works, vol ii. p. 267.

16Lenten Stuffe, vol. v. pp. 226, 244, 216.

17Works, vol. v. p. 231.

18 Preface to Christ's teares, edition of 1594, Works, vol. iv. p. 6.

19 Prefatory letter to Greene's "Menaphon."

20Anatomie of Absurditie, 1589, Works, vol. i. p. 37.

21The unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton, 1594, Works, vol. v.

22 In these cases, Nash, or rather his hero (for Nash does not himself make use of this language which he in no way admired, but only puts it into the mouth of his self-confident good-for-nothing as the finishing touch to his portrait), adopts Lyly's style entirely, alliteration and all: "The sparrow for his lecherie liveth but a yeere, he for his trecherie was turned on the toe."

23Works, vol. v. pp. 15 et seq.

24 Name of a room in the tavern.

25 It was translated into English from the Latin by John Palsgrave: "Acolastus," London, 1540, 4to. As to this play and its author, Gulielmus Gnapheus (Fullonius) of the Hague, who had it represented in 1529, see C. H. Herford, "Studies in the Literary Relations of England and Germany in the Sixteenth Century," Cambridge, 1886, 8vo, pp. 84 et seq., 108 seq.

26Ibid. p. 71. Cf. "Returne from Parnassus," 1601, ed. Macray, Oxford, 1886, act iv. sc. 3, pp. 138 et seq., where the rules of good acting are also under discussion. Shakespeare's opinions on the same are well known ("Hamlet," act iii. sc. 2, A.D. 1602).

27Works, vol. v. p. 183.

28Christs teares (preface of the edition of 1594), Works, vol. iv. p. 5. He recurs again to the same topic in his Lenten Stuffe (1599), and complains that when he talks of rushes it is taken to mean Russia, &c.

29Pierce Penilesse his supplication to the Divell (1592), Works, vol. ii.

30 Nash speaks of himself as being Pierce: "This is a predestinate fit place for Pierse Pennilesse to set up his staff on." Lenten Stuffe Works, vol. v. p. 201.

31 "Works," vol. ii. Cf. Ben Jonson: "Sir Politick (speaking to Peregrine):

"First for your garb, it must be grave and serious,
Very reserv'd and lock'd; not tell a secret
On any terms, not to your father; scarce
A fable, but with caution"
("The Fox," act iv. sc. I).

32Works, vol. ii.

33Nashe 's Lenten Stuffe, containing the description … of Great Yarmouth … with a … praise of the Red Herring, 1599, Works, vol. v.

34Lenten Stuffe, vol. v. p. 280.

35 "The Returne from Pernassus," ed. W. D. Macray, Oxford, 1886, p. 87.

36 "A Knights Conjuring," 1607, "Works," ed. Grosart, vol. v. p. xx.

Fredson T. Bowers (essay date 1941)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6268

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 work which can have been suggested by the picaresque type of romance, such as Lazarillo de Tormes. Indeed, it seems to me that the classing of it with such stories is hardly correct."2 Various other critics have taken an interme diate position. Baker writes: "Nashe may have heard of Lazarillo de Tormes translated by David Rowland in 1576; he may at least have known that it was written as an autobiography. There is no evidence, however, in his novel or elsewhere, that he had ever read it, or had any appreciation of the distinctive method and design of picaresque fiction."3 Chandler believes that "Lazarillo de Tormes may have afforded suggestions to Thomas Nashe"; but he concludes with the caution: "At the same time, there is little or nothing in Nashe's novel that may not be indigenous. Those who have remarked the analogy between it and the Spanish tales have usually exaggerated the analogy, and have interpreted it as necessarily the result of causal connection."4 Finally, Chew summarizes: "The problem of… indebtedness … has been much debated, but it is now pretty generally admitted that though both tales belong to the category of the picaresque, they are at wide removes from each other…. The element of the picaresque is surely present, but there are other elements as well."5

Before entering upon an examination of the question, one should recall what is meant by "picaresque." In form the picaresque novel is very greatly episodic; the hero travels from place to place meeting various people and undergoing various adventures. Since the characters of one episode seldom reappear, and the incidents of one episode often have no connection with any other, the major unity is achieved only because the novel is written as the first person memoirs of a hero who appears in most of the adventures. The word most should be emphasized because the novel in Spain soon interpolated material extraneous to the story proper either in the narration of the life histories of various subordinate characters or else in the telling of set stories as in Guzman de Alfarache.

To the unity of structure afforded by a central hero as the only character to continue through the whole work, is added the unity of tone. The picaresque novel is chiefly concerned with knavery and roguery, although straightforward romantic or pathetic material is by no means barred so long as it does not directly appeartain to the hero. The hero—since he is an anti-hero to courtly romances—is a light-fingered, conscienceless knave, preoccupied with getting on in the world by tricking almost everybody with whom he is associated. He is always a servant at one time or another, and many of his knaveries are directed at his masters. These masters in turn are knavish or foolish, and in turn trick each other as well as the picaro. In tone the novel is strictly realistic, painting life from a non-sentimental point of view and with considerable emphasis on a detailed and sometimes revolting picture of low life. At the heart of the novel lies its satirical portrait of manners in the ever-changing world the picaro confronts. Thus the prime essentials of the picaresque form are these: episodic form, a non-romantic hero who (in order that a shifting background may be provided) is often a servant, and realism of outlook combined with a satirical portrait of manners in various strata of society.

We may now examine the main criticisms of The Unfortunate Traveller as a picaresque work. In denying its picaresque form McKerrow, and to some extent Chew and Chandler, emphasize the indigenous quality of much of Nashe's material drawn from English jest books, Italian novelle, and Greene's autobiographical semi-fictional writings. The initial jests played by Wilton on the cider merchant, the captain, the lecherous soldier, and the clerks are in only the first two incidents more elaborate, and are scarcely more connected, than tricks in jest books to which they are firmly allied in type although original in substance. The vengeance of Cutwolfe is suggested by a minor Italian novella, and the story of Juliana as well as the rape of Heraclide are very much in the novella tradition. The hatred of Italy, the moralistic autobiographical writing, and the interspersed pieces of literary criticism are very like Greene.

One can readily admit that Nashe's material is native and ready to his hand, but that is not to deny its picaresque quality so long as it agrees in type. After all, one can scarcely demand that an English picaresque novel draw exclusively on Spanish sources. As a parallel, it is known that the Lazarillo de Tormes takes various of its incidents from similar material: the jokes played on a blind beggar by his servants are the subject of some Spanish farces; the deceit by which Lazarillo circumvents the beggar by sipping through a straw is found in jest books; and the incident of the pretended miracle is drawn from a novella by Massuccio. It matters little that Nashe drew from sources at his hand, and that the result is more characteristic of English ideas than of Spanish, so long as his material is treated in a picaresque fashion, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The crux of the matter is really the character of Jack Wilton, the hero. Wilton as a genuine picaro has been attacked from the point of view of his essential character by McKerrow and Baker, and from his position in the story by Chandler, Baker, and Chew. McKerrow doubts whether Nashe intended him for a rogue, since he is wantonly mischievous rather than depraved. Baker tries to distinguish between the Spanish picaro living by his wits (by which he means the picaro would starve if his wits did not furnish him the means of filling his belly), and Wilton who lives to enjoy himself.

By demanding depravity as an essential, McKerrow has in my opinion misunderstood the real quality of a picaro. Depravity is, for example, a harsh word to apply to Lazarillo, the progenitor of the type; Justina is no mere wanton; and although such a later picaro as Gil Blas unhesitatingly lives in sin on various occasions, pimps in an unsavoury manner on others, and swindles right and left, we are conscious that he does so because his heart is not touched. When his conscience slowly wakens, he begins to leave his old life until at the conclusion he is a completely reformed character. It is true that Lazarillo's tricks come not from pure mischievousness but rather from necessity, and that this is in general true of picaros; but Guzman de Alfarache is a most mischievous person who engages in various cheats and jests when he has a sufficiency of everything and there is no personal profit in his actions. Justina's exploits are undertaken as much from pride in mischievousness as from necessity.

This motive of the profit to the picaro leads us to Baker, who differentiates between Wilton's japes which bring him no personal gain, and the necessitous tricks of the Spanish picaro. But Wilton by no means neglects money, although the issue is not so emphasized as in the Lazarillo de Tormes. Baker quotes to prove his point the passage: "Amongest this chaffe was I winnowing my wittes to Hue merrily, and by my troth so I did"; but he omits the important lines that immediately follow: "the prince could but command men spend their bloud in his seruice, I could make them spend al the mony they had for my pleasure. But pouertie in the end partes friends, though I was prince of their purses, & exacted of my vnthrifte subiects as much liquid alleagence as any keisar in the world could doe, yet where it is not to bee had the king must loose his right, want cannot bee withstoode, men can doe no more than they can doe, what remained then, but the foxes case must help, when the lions skin is out at the elbowes."6 As a direct result of his having bankrupted his fellows, Wilton engages in the cider jest to put them in a humor for further fleecing. He takes pains to distinguish this exploit as "a lewd monilesse deuice," yet comes out of it not only full of cider but with enough tapsters' aprons to provide him a magnificent tent. He confesses that when he was a page at the English court he bilked numerous creditors; when he takes up with the captain in France he admits: "out of the parings of a paire of false dice, I apparelled both him and my selfe manie a time and oft … but it was nothing towards the maintenance of a familie. This Mounsieur Capitano eate vp the creame of my earnings." Part of the jest on the deceived soldier comes in the fact that Wilton gains six crowns or more from his female disguise. The jest on the clerks turns to his extreme profit: they "for spoile resigned their deskes, with the money that was in them to the mercie of the vanquisher, and in fine, left me and my fellowes (their foole-catchers) Lordes of the field: How wee dealt with them, their disburdened deskes canne best tell, but this I am assured, we fared the better for it a fortnight of fasting dayes after."

The true picaro exalts liberality above all else in a master. So Wilton is overjoyed when he meets Surrey: "I was perswaded I should not bee more glad to see heauen than I was to see him, O it was a right noble Lord, liberalitie it selfe, (if in this yron age there were any such creature as liberalitie left on the earth)." Surrey, he says a little later, "entertained no grosse earthly spirite of auarice," and he admits backhandedly, "I was not altogether vnwilling to walke a long with such a good purse-bearer." When he and Surrey have unmasked their landlady in Venice, "it was the glittering crownes that I hungred and thirsted after, & with them for all her mocke holy daie iestures she was faine to come off, before I condescended to anie bargaine of silence." He frankly lives with Diamante, he tells Surrey, because "a king could doe nothing without his treasurie, this curtizan was my purs-bearer, my countenance and supporter. My Earldome I would sooner resigne, than parte with such a specyall benefactor." When he flees from Juliana he takes care to gather up all her plate and jewels to provide for travelling expenses. Wilton's supposed independence from money has been mistaken chiefly because he is not continually worrying about it like Lazarillo; however, if one follows the casual references one easily sees that Wilton is a picaro actually making his living by his wits.

Jack is frank enough about his fundamental knavery. The early jests are far from simple boyish pranks, and even though the king laughs at the cider merchant, Wilton is soundly whipped for his trick. He records how he cheats at dice where "Much companie, much knauery." In another place he confesses, "as freely as my knauerie was mine owne"; and again, triumphing over a jest, he says, "but I will not breath neither till I haue disfraughted all my knauerie." He is frank in his description of his purpose for going abroad: "like a Crowe that still followes aloofe where there is carrion, I flew me ouer to Munster in Germanie." At the conclusion he is sufficiently alarmed at his bad life to reform and to give liberally to charity.

Like any Spanish picaro, Wilton is heartless. He has no thought for the financial bankruptcy of the cider merchant. Because the captain annoys him, he sends him on an expedition to the French which he rather expects will lead to his death. Like any picaro he can look at himself objectively and satirize any romantic excess. When Esdras has raped Heraclide and is abducting Diamante, Wilton records: "Into my chamber I was lockte, and watchmen charged (as hee made semblaunce when there was none there) to knocke mee downe with theyr halberdes if I stirde but a foote downe the stayres. Then threw I my selfe pensiue againe on my pallate, and darde all the deuiles in hell nowe I was alone to come and fight with mee one after another in defence of that detestable rape. I beat my head against the wals & cald them bauds, because they would see such a wrong committed, and not fall vppon him." And when he is momently expecting to be anatomized by the Jewish doctor, he writes: "O, the colde sweating cares which I conceiued after I knewe I should be cut like a French summer dublet. Me thought already the blood began to gush out at my nose: if a flea on the arme had but bit me, I deemed the instrument had prickt me. Wel, well, I may scoffe at a shrowd turne, but theres no such readie way to make a man a true Christian, as to perswade himselfe he is taken vp for an anatomie. Ile depose I praid then more than I did in seuen yeare before." The interjected and on occasion uncharacteristic moralizing from Jack should not lead us to neglect what is, after all, his fundamental character. And he is no more nor less a knave and a rogue than any picaro. No picaro was brave—so Jack is several times a coward. No picaro ever killed a man; Jack is innocent of blood. But the picaro and Jack cheat the world, play profitable or amusing jests, pimp, are thieves and rogues. The Spanish rogue was not depraved in the deepest sense, nor was Jack.

Several other charges are brought against Wilton. Chandler observes that Jack is too frequently (and the more so as the work progresses) either the victim or a mere spectator of the action. That he is occasionally the victim is true enough, since it is a part of almost every picaresque novel after the Lazarillo to amuse the reader with incidents where the picaro is outsmarted and falls a victim to superior sharpers. But Jack is not too exclusively a victim. True, he is jailed on the false charge of counterfeiting, he is forced to endure the rape of Heraclide and the abduction of Diamante, he is captured by the Jew and transferred to the ownership of Juliana; but these events are gradually leading up to his repentance, and furthermore they have a silver lining. If he had not been imprisoned he would never have met Diamante and her limitless treasure chest. He finds Diamante again at the Jew's house. He escapes with a huge sum of plate and valuables from Juliana. That he tends to become more and more a spectator is largely the result of the Heraclide episode with its sequel in the execution of Cutwolfe. Yet if we unduly emphasize the importance of the incidents where Wilton is more a passive spectator than an actor—such as the events in the households of the Jew and of Juliana—we are ignoring the fundamental purpose of the picaresque novel, which is to portray manners through the observation as well as the actions of the picaro. In the latter part of the novel Nashe is chiefly concerned with painting a picture of Italian depravity, and it is inevitable that Wilton becomes the observer. Chew objects to the conclusion of the work on the grounds that Wilton apparently still has his way to make in the world, whereas the picaro is settled. This objection ignores the fact that Wilton, with Diamante and her treasure, might well consider he was sufficiently established; but, more important, the story is not over, for Nashe in typical picaresque fashion promises a sequel if there is a demand.

It must be remembered that as the picaresque novel progressed in Spain and in France, the natural development of the form led more and more towards the novel of adventure. Guzman de Alfarache, for example, is very often his own man with no need for a master, and takes service again only when temporarily out of funds. His masterless adventures, escapes from danger, cheats and counter-cheats, as a consequence, are as important in the framework of the story as is his life in service. Gil Blas has the same considerable division. In England Nashe has anticipated this later trend away from the narrow formula of the Lazarillo, and at one stride has moved the genre a very long way towards the novel of adventure. Wilton's junket through Italy is, however, no less picaresque than the then unwritten adventures of Guzman in the same country. This trend away from the framework of the Lazarillo has something to do with the important objection that picaros serve many masters, and Wilton only one. I believe, here, that the means have been confused with the end. It was found convenient and typical in early Spanish picaresque novels to survey the world from service, and to provide new backgrounds and fresh manners by a change of masters. Since this formula was forced on writers because the social status of the Spanish picaro was low and his finances straitened, it always remained simply a device for securing an end, and not the end itself. When the picaros of later Spanish and French novels grew more affluent or more respectable, or like Gil Blas achieved a higher social standing, the service of masters was dropped as convenience dictated. Consequently, it would seem the best view that Nashe has anticipated later picaresque novels, and that he has escaped identifying a Spanish technical convenience with an essential of an international form when he discards the service of masters for a considerable portion of The Unfortunate Traveller. The fact that Nashe was so firmly English in spirit would lead him naturally to such a development.

The Spanish picaro like Lazarillo was a product of specific Spanish conditions which were largely unknown in England. With the break-up of the economic and political life of Spain, overstrained by wars of conquest on the continent and later by an unsuccessful struggle with England which ate up more than all the riches the New World could pour into the treasury, the pigeonholes of society were broken and the ties of economic security loosened. Nobles became impoverished, soldiers of fortune released from the army roamed the country, and the shrewder of the lower classes—pressed on by starvation—seized the confusion in the structure of Spanish society as a magnificent opportunity for their predatory roguery. This spiritual, moral, and financial destitution is the background of the Lazarillo and the essential fact in the characterization of the Spanish picaro.

But England in the sixteenth century was on the crest of prosperity and patriotism. The structure of society was beginning to change, but the movement was upward not downward, and the springs of this change were largely mercantile and relatively honest. Patriotism and golden hope contrasted with Spanish despair and cynicism. Send an English picaro out on the seas as a pirate, and he returns a national hero laden with gold and honors, his piracy a patriotic duty and his adventures the envy of every boy in the land. In the atmosphere of sixteenth-century England the Spanish picaresque spirit could not flourish. Society was not breaking up—it was being formed—and most of those who came out on top were not cowardly, cynical, disillusioned, shrewd Spanish picaros, but blunt, healthy Englishmen, brave rather than fearful, rash than shrewd; building for a whole glorious future rather than for the picaro's miserable day to day; founding a family and a new nobility—indeed a new nation—rather than hoping only for a comfortable and obscure sinecure where life would pass by with no more struggle. The Elizabethan temper was too sanguine to be affected completely by the Spanish picaresque novel; and Spanish cynicism, at the root of the humor and the survey of manners in the Lazarillo, could not be Anglicized. Englishmen in the day of Shakespeare could scarcely feel their imaginations stirred by the struggle of a poor rogue to fill his belly and, that achieved, to sink into ignoble obscurity.

With this spirit in England we cannot expect The Unfortunate Traveller to be a carbon copy of the Lazarillo de Tormes, nor is it reasonable to demand that an English novel successfully fulfilling the major requirements of the picaresque form should be Spanish in its details. Spanish conditions forced on Spanish picaresque novels the often violated convention that the picaro should survey society and manners in service. English conditions did not require this technical device in order to secure realistically a comparable survey of manners and society; therefore, Nashe discards the convention as soon as he finds it inconvenient. Actually, however, Wilton's career in service has been underrated: he serves Surrey (apparently) in the French wars and later in Italy; and, equally important, he must be considered in service to the Jew and certainly to Juliana. Hence Jack serves three masters, and much more could not be expected in a rather adventuresome novel of the length of The Unfortunate Traveller.

A point of crucial importance, judged by the extreme emphasis placed on it by each critic, is that Wilton is no picaresque rogue because he is on intimate terms with Surrey. We may dismiss without serious misgivings such statements as Chew's that Elizabethan decorum would be violated if a rogue were associated with Surrey. Critics consistently fail to observe that we know of the intimacy and friendly relations between Wilton and Surrey only from Wilton's lips, and Wilton cannot be trusted. Although he has his moments of casual self-revelation and analysis, Jack customarily puts his best foot forward without giving due notice to the reader—who must thereupon treat the incident dramatically; that is, must trust to his own analysis of the situation rather than to the narrator's. For example, what are we to think of Wilton's excuses to Surrey when the masquerade in Florence is discovered, for Wilton gives no indication whether his statements are sincerely truthful or a clever way of pulling the wool over Surrey's eyes. The reader, of course, leans to the latter explanation. In this category come his pretensions to gentility which are slightly dubious (what does he mean by "a gentleman at least"?), and to buttress which he gives the reader a picture of his over-familiarity with Surrey that could never have obtained in real life if Surrey is to be thought a completely admirable character.

The real secret of The Unfortunate Traveller lies here, and it is one which seemingly critics have failed to observe. Baker, Chandler, and Chew—as representative writers—assert that the book is not picaresque because Surrey, as Wilton's master, is not lampooned as are the Spanish masters. Setting aside the point that not every Spanish master was satirized by his picaro servant, we come to the fact that under cover of the utmost exterior respect, Wilton is actually making extreme fun of Surrey as well as duping him in the usual picaresque tradition. Can anyone truly read in a serious manner Wilton's narrative of Surrey's love for Geraldine? Is it not instead the finest straight-faced ironic satire on courtly love? Surrey, bid look in a mirror, dismisses the wonders of the world and thinks only of seeing Geraldine's face. When Wilton learns that Surrey is human after all and is in love with Geraldine, he comments: "Not a little was I delighted with this vnexpected loue storie, especially from a mouth out of which was nought wont to march but sterne precepts of grauetie & modestie. I sweare vnto you I thought his companie the better by a thousand crownes, because hee had discarded those nice tearmes of chastitie and continencie. Now I beseech God loue me so well as I loue a plaine dealing man, earth is earth, flesh is flesh, earth wil to earth, and flesh vnto flesh, fraile earth, fraile flesh, who can keepe you from the worke of your creation." If we are to admire Surrey's character, and especially his lofty love, this is certainly an odd way: to have a noble courtly love surveyed through the materialistic eyes of an unsentimental picaro.

One may say that this is simply characterization of Wilton which need not make Surrey ridiculous; but the satire takes different forms. Surrey's account of his love to Wilton, which drew the remark quoted above, is a laughably heightened satire on the Petrarchan lover. Surrey announces to Wilton: "my little Page, full little canst thou perceiue how farre Metamorphozed I am from my selfe, since I last saw thee…. Thou knowst statelie Geraldine, too stately I feare for mee to doe homage to her statue or shrine…. Her high exalted sunne beames haue set the Phenix neast of my breast on fire, and I my selfe haue brought Arabian spiceries of sweet passions and praises, to furnish out the funerall flame of my follie. Those who were condemned to be smothered to death by sincking downe into the softe bottome of an high built bedde of Roses, neuer dide so sweet a death as I shoulde die, if hir Rose coloured disdaine were my deathes-man." The satire broadens on the wandering and stupid chivalric lover when Surrey recounts without a smile how he asked and she gave permission for him to travel: "I most humbly besought her of fauour, that she would giue mee so much gratious leaue to absent my selfe from her seruice, as to trauell a yeare or two into Italy. She verie discreetly answered me that if my loue were so hot as I had often auouched, I did verie well to applie the plaister of absence vnto it, for absence as they say, causeth forgetfulnesse."

In Italy Surrey and Wilton are thrown into prison as counterfeiters and there meet Diamante. Surrey grows light-headed and in his ecstasy mistakes Diamante for Geraldine, whereupon a rivalry develops between master and man with Surrey making ridiculous love as follows:

Mary what temptations she had then, when fire and flax were put together, conceit with your selues, but hold my master excusable. Alacke he was too vertuous to make her vicious, he stood vpon religion and conscience, what a hainous thing it was to subuert Gods ordinance. This was all the iniurie he would offer her, sometimes he would imagine her in a melancholy humor to bee his Geraldine, and court her in tearmes correspondent, nay he would sweare she was his Geraldine, and take her white hand and wipe his eyes with it, as though the verie touch of her might staunch his anguish. Now would he kneele & kisse the ground as holy ground which she vouchsafed to blesse from barrennes by her steppes. Who would haue learned to write an excellent passion, might haue bin a perfect tragick poet, had he but attended halfe the extremitie of his lament. Passion vpon passion would throng one on anothers necke, he wold praise her beyond the moone and starres, and that so sweetly and rauishingly, as I perswade my self he was more in loue with his own curious forming fancie than her face, and truth it is, many become passionate louers, onely to winne praise to theyr wits.

He praised, he praied, he desired and besought her to pittie him that perisht for her. From this his intranced mistaking extasie could no man remoue him. Who loueth resolutely, wil include euery thing vnder the name of his loue. From prose hee would Ieape into verse, and with these or such like rimes assault her.

[There follows a burlesque poem of a sort Surrey could never have written.]

Sadly and verily, if my master sayde true, I shoulde if I were a wench make many men quickly immortall. What ist, what ist for a maide fayre and fresh to spend a little lip-salue on a hungrie louer. My master beate the bush and kepte a coyle and a pratling, but I caught the birde, simplicitie and plainnesse shall carrie it away in another world. God wot he was Petro Desperato, when I stepping to her with a dunstable tale made vp my market. A holy requiem to their soules that thinke to wooe a woman with riddles.

Here the satire is clear enough, not only on the fundamental insincerity of Surrey's love-longings, but also on the mode and methods of courtly love and of courtly poetry which Nashe burlesques in such lines as these from Surrey's poem to Diamante:

Thy lips on mine like cupping glasses claspe,
Let our tongs meete and striue as they would sting,
Crush out my winde with one strait girting graspe,
Stabs on my heart keepe time whilest thou doest sing.
Thy eyes lyke searing yrons burne out mine,

In thy faire tresses stifle me outright,
Like Circes change me to a loathsome swine,
So I may liue for euer in thy sight.

We do not need the tournament with its gorgeously comic description of the knights' devices7 or of their lack of skill in tilting8 to show that Wilton is consistently lampooning Surrey, and that we have here a satire on manners—specifically on courtly love done almost in the vein of Cervantes—in the person of the picaro's master. For this reason we may dismiss freely the crucial objection that Wilton is no picaro because he is on such intimate terms with Surrey. Nashe paints Surrey in all except a few passages as a gulled and ridiculous figure, of whom Wilton is secretly contemptuous. "It was a right noble Lord," he says on his first encounter. When he secures Diamante's treasure chest, "From my master by her ful-hand prouokement I parted without leaue"; and when his masquerade as the Earl is exposed, he gulls Surrey with fulsome compliments. Finally, when Surrey has served his purpose, Jack dismisses him briefly with "post-hast letters came to him from the king his master, to returne as speedily as he could possible into England, whereby his fame was quit cut off by the shins, and there was no repriue but Bazelus manus, hee must into England, and I with my curtizan trauelled forward in Italy. What aduentures happened him after we parted, I am ignorant, but Florence we both forsooke."

How then does The Unfortunate Traveller measure up as a picaresque novel? First it has a roguish anti-hero, who makes his way in the world by his wits. He is definitely an anti-hero since he satirizes the courtly hero Surrey. Wilton does not hesitate to call himself a knave. He plays tricks on others through a natural delight in mischeif, but most of his rogueries help to line his pockets. In the service of a master he sees the world, and when sufficiently affluent he travels independently. The work is written in the form of first person memoirs and promises a sequel, even though the rogue seems fairly well established at the conclusion. The rogue tricks and lampoons his master. Manners are surveyed and satirized. We find satire on scholarship in the oration delivered before Surrey, on acting in the description of the play Acolastus, on scholarly disputations, on the immorality of Italy, on Roman monuments, and on Surrey's chivalric love representing the ideal of Petrarchan love. The tone is strictly realistic and life is painted without sentimentality; indeed, the point of view is distinctly cynical and there is a wealth of corroborative detail. In general, the construction of the novel is episodic.

What The Unfortunate Traveller chiefly lacks, however, as Baker remarks, is a thoroughly consistent point of view and a definite goal. It is not enough for a picaresque novel to satirize separate follies, distortions, and knaveries: the author must be imbued with exposing the preposterousness of any but a realistic view of life. The novel must be consistent in its parts, and add up to a total impression corresponding to the author's fundamental purpose. This The Unfortunate Traveller never completely achieves. Nashe hits here and there, but his point of view is not consistent, and his traditional English moralizing sits ill on Jack's pert tongue. And when we finish the work, we examine our minds in vain for any total impression of life communicated by the author. This is a fault, and a serious one in literary judgment, but it applies even more strongly to Head and Kirkman's English Rogue, a picaresque novel whose right to the title has never been challenged. The English Rogue shows clearly that writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England seldom regarded the Spanish picaresque novel as more than a collection of knavish jests, a view buttressed by the title The English Guzman given to an account of the adventures of the highwayman Captain Hind by George Fidge in 1652. The English did not take to heart the anti-romantic lesson the foreign novel had to teach; as a consequence, English writers and the English public were amused by the Spanish picaresque novels without comprehending the fundamental criticism of life which lay at their core. Even at the close of the seventeenth century the picaresque novel was considered not much more than a glorified jest book or criminal biography given a more connected and literary form.

In comparison with later writers, Nashe, even in a somewhat rudimentary manner, recognized the essentials of the picaresque type as it flourished in Spain, and it is difficult to believe that he was not consciously modifying and developing the Spanish novel according to the English temper and his own inclinations. Once we realize that we should not expect an absolute copy of Lazarillo de Tormes in The Unfortunate Traveller, and that Wilton is an English, not a Spanish picaro, the very real picaresque quality—albeit affected by the writer's strong nationalism—becomes clear. The ultimate literary impact of the refined Spanish genre may not be present, but it is a serious injustice to deny that in The Unfortunate Traveller, even in a partly imperfect shape, Nashe produced the first English picaresque novel.


1 J. J. Jusserand, The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare, trans. by Elizabeth Lee, (London: Unwin, 1903), p. 308.

2The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. by Ronald B. McKerrow, (London: Bullen, 1904-1910), V, 23.

3 Ernest A. Baker, The History of the English Novel, (London: Witherby, 1924-1939), III, 161.

4 Frank W. Chandler, The Literature of Roguery, (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1907), I, 197-98.

5The Unfortunate Traveler, ed. by S. C. Chew, (New York: Greenberg, 1926), xii-xiv.

6 Quotations from The Unfortunate Traveller in this article are from the edition by H. F. B. Brett-Smith, Percy Reprints No. 1, (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1920).

7 "The right honorable and euer renowmed Lord Henrie Howard earle of Surrie my singular good Lord and master, entered the lists after this order … his helmet round proportioned lyke a gardners water-pot, from which seemed to issue forth small thrids of water…. Whereby he did import thus much, that the teares that issued from his braines, as those arteficiall distillations issued from the well counterfeit water-pot on his head, watered and gaue lyfe as well to his mistres disdaine…. The trappings of his horse were pounced and bolstered out with rough plumed siluer plush, in full proportion and shape of an Estrich." After a further description of Surrey's glorious trappings, Wilton satirically remarks, "Such a fine dim shine did these christall eies and these round enranked diamonds make through their bolne swelling bowres of feathers, as if it had bin a candle in a paper lanterne." The devices of the other knights are treated in like fashion.

8 "To particularize their manner of encounter were to describe the whole art of tilting," says Wilton with his tongue in his cheek. "Some had like to haue fallen ouer their horse neckes, and so breake theyr neckes in breaking theyr staues. Others ranne at a buckle in sted of a button, and peraduenture whetted theyr speares pointes, idlely gliding on theyr enemies sides, but did no other harme. Others ranne a crosse at their aduersaryes left elbow, yea, and by your leaue sometimes let not the lists scape scot-free they were so eager. Others because they woulde be sure not to be vnsadled with the shocke, when they came to the speares vtmost proofe, they threwe it ouer the right shoulder, and so tilted backward, for forward they durst not…. Another held his speare to his nose, or his nose to his speare, as though he had bin discharging his caliuer, and ranne at the right foote of his fellowes stead." It is against competition of this ilk that Surrey triumphs and the name of Geraldine "was therby eternally glorifid."

Critics have taken this burlesque tournament seriously. For example, Brett-Smith solemnly writes: "That love of pageantry which preserved so long the trappings of an outworn chivalry is shown in the tedious description of the panoply of Surrey and his opponents." See The Unfortunate Traveller, ed. Brett-Smith, p. x.

Sr. Marina Gibbons (essay date 1964)

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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 context.1 Indeed, the personal invective of the Harvey exchange is absent or veiled, and the the singularity of cause of the Marprelate dispute has become diffused among a wide variety of subjects. With but one notable exception the polemic subjects and situations have, furthermore, been attenuated by what is oftentimes raucous humor. Polemic is, nevertheless, almost ubiquitous, whether directly stated in the lengthy denunciation of John Leiden and the Anabaptists or flimsily integrated in the discussion preceding the outwitting of the clerks, in the declamation against travel, and in the characterizations of Esdras, Bartol, and Cutwolfe. It is unmistakable in references to the Jews, the Pope and Roman Catholicism. Certainly the satire which Sidney Lee and Agnes Latham2 have remarked reveals a polemic attitude on the part of the author. Even if the incidents and characterizations did not emerge so distinctly eristic, the form of presentation of events, characters, and dialogue compels attention.

Written or articulated, the oration, from the classical era through the medieval3 and into Renaissance times, remained the principal form for enunciation of any polarity. Jack Wilton uses this rhetorical form to persuade the wine keeper and army captain to implement his roguish plots, to extricate himself from a difficult social situation, to decry a class of people, and to praise the questionable Aretina. Heraclide attempts to dissuade the infamous Esdras, and Vanderhulke welcomes the Duke of Saxony in diverse but none the less eloquent oratory. The culmination of all the oratory occurs when Cutwolfe at once praises himself, blames his victim, appeals for approval from his auditors, defends his action on the bases of reason and tradition, all in the midst of a declamation which is a self-accusation.

In her essay Miss Latham writes, "one of Nashe's literary connections was with the world of the theatre and it seems likely that this helped him to accumulate horrific themes and to decorate them with appropriate rhetoric."4 While it cannot be denied that the theater contributed to Nashe's awareness of the effectiveness and appeal of violent action, the theater cannot receive credit for his "appropriate rhetoric." The method of education is responsible for the rhetoric of the stage. Nashe with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, and all other dramatists of the day learned the "colours of rhetoric" from his earliest years in school.5 That Richard II should seldom utter a sentence without amplifying it into a declamation, and that Falstaff should satirize such declamations testify to the familarity of both playwright and audience with the whole tradition. Early education required study and imitation of the classical authors; more advanced education presupposed this knowledge and practice as it concentrated on producing skilled dialecticians and disputants. What more natural than that the product of such an education employ in his writings the method in which he was trained? Only with an effort would he not so write. Only with an effort would he avoid polemic.

And controversy was Nashe's métier, else he would not have prolonged the Harvey dispute. McKerrow says of him, "in invective he stands perhaps without a rival"6 in Elizabethan England. What Nashe himself termed a "phantasticall Treatise," therefore, invites re-examination to reveal its rhetorical character and the proclivity of its author for polemic.

The most immediately discernible bit of contentiousness is the Munster episode. The recounting of the Munsterian uprising constitutes such a departure from roguish exploits that it is not surprising that Nashe soon dissociates Jack Wilton from this portion of the narrative, though, as we shall see, it is not the first indication of Nashe's disputatious inclination. While he gives no evidence of participation in the war between the French and the "Switzers," Jack says upon arrival in Germany that he proceeds from a battle "where he was Martialist in earnest," to this battle "like a crowe … where there is carrion." Thus, polemic situation follows polemic situation. The commentary becomes polemic as Wilton points up inconsistencies in Anabaptist tenets and practice:

They would vaunt there was not a pease difference betwixt them and the Apostles; they were as poore as they, of as base trades as they, and no more inspired than they, and with God there is no respect of persons; onely herein may seeme some little diuersitie to lurk, that Peter wore a sword, and they count it flat hel fire for anie man to weare a dagger; nay so grounded and grauelled were they in this opinion, that now when they should come to Battell, theres neuer a one of them would bring a blade (no, not an onion blade) about hym, to dye for it (p. 233)

—not without typical Wilton humor, of course. After describing "fals Iohn Leiden and his fraternitie," as "they howle, they expostulate with God to grant them victorie, and vse such vnspeakable vehemence a man wold thinke them the onely wel bent men vnder heaven" (p. 234), Nashe has Wilton bow out. He says, "let me dilate a little more grauely than the nature of this historie requires, or wilbe expected of so yong a practitioner in diuinty," and for six pages in the McKerrow edition Nashe "dilates a little" against the Anabaptist sect. The tenor of these paragraphs is not that of the merry Jack. In the style of a fanatical preacher propounding questions and answering them unequivocally, the disquisition moves through a condemnation of Anabaptist howling of prayers, their devious quoting of scripture, and their attitude toward authority.

Nashe underscores the polarity of his approach with such a phrase as "those which I speake against," or the vehement declaration, "Those furnaces of Falsehood and hammer heads of Heresie must bee dissolued and broken." Lynette Feasey commends Nashe for courage in so thinly disguised championship of the persecuted English Puritan-Separatists whom he would deride but defend.7 The defense to which she refers comes near the end of the long digression:

Pittifull and lamentable was their vnpittied and well perfourmed slaughter. To see euen a Beare (which is the most cruellest of all beasts) too-too bloudily ouer-matcht, and deformedly rent in peeces by an vnconscionable number of curres, it would mooue compassion against kinde, and make those that (beholding him at the stake yet vncoapt with) wisht him a sutable death to his vgly shape, now to recall their hard-harted wishes, and moane him suffering as a milde beast, in comparison of the fowle mouthd Mastiues, his butchers. (p. 240)

While the conjecture that the Anabaptists are in reality English Puritan-Separatists may be subject to question, of course such a substitution is not without precedent. It was the course of prudence to avoid verisimilitude in the representation of any situation touching on Tudor political decrees. Spenser realized this hard fact when he too feebly cloaked his attack on Burghley and Elizabeth. A denunciation of Cardinal Wolsey is assurance that Nashe never removes far from England. In speaking of the confiscation of churches, Nashe interpolates,

The name of Religion, bee it good or bad that is ruinated, God neuer suffers vnreuenged: He say of it as Ouid said of Eunuchs: Qui primus pueris genitalia membra recidit, / Vulnera quae fecit debuit ipse pati. … So would he that first gelt religion or Church-liuings had bin first gelt himselfe or neuer liued; Cardinal Wolsey is the man I aim at. (p. 238)

Nowhere else in the narrative does Nashe so flagrantly disregard character and fictional limits. His belligerence is patent, nevertheless, in the incident involving the "coystrell Clearkes," whom Jack chose for his third bit of "scutcherie." The acts of knavery which precede implicate individuals whom Jack regards as amusing butts for tricks; however, the group of clerks belong to a profession for which Wilton, perhaps Nashe, has an antipathy. We are told that there was a "companie of coystrell Clearkes (who were in band with Sathan, and not of anie Souldiers collar nor hat-band)." Wilton scorns their meticulousness in dress and declares, "the most of these aboue-named goose-quill Braggadoches were mere cowards and crauens, and durst not so much as throwe a pen-full of inke into the Enemies face, if proofe were made: wherefore on the experience of their pusillanimitie I thought to raise the foundation of my roguerie" (p. 226). If they represent Gabriel Harvey, as one critic perspicaciously suggests,8 we need look no further to explain Jack's vehemence and delight in his self-styled role as "God's scourge."

Greater narrative integration occurs in the treatment of prejudices which Nashe probably held in common with his fellow Elizabethans. The extent to which he is being satiric in the dialogue and concretions expressive of antipathy for other nations may be deliberately enigmatic. Antithetical as these two approaches are—support of national prejudices or ridicule of these prejudices—Nashe is taking a polemic stand. An "English Earle" articulates a sustained, categorical opposition to association with foreigners, particularly through travel in foreign countries. Cain and the Israelites should serve as examples of caution to Jack against the enslavement travel forces upon man. "He that is a traueller," the earl says, "must haue the backe of an asse to beare all, a tung like the taile of a dog to flatter all, the mouth of a hogge to eate what is set before him … if this be not the highest step of thraldome, there is no libertie or freedome" (p. 297). From the Italians, the earl continues, one can expect poisoned food, a cut throat, revenge nourished as long as thirty years for the slightest offense. French, Spanish, and Italians are derided for their emphasis on fine clothing and obsequious manners; the French can teach a man only to distinguish wines, while the Spanish boast excessively but can cite excellence only in their bread, have no meat, and lie in foul straw every night. Italy, the paradise of earth, teaches the "art of atheisme, of epicurising, whoring, poysoning, the art of Sodomitrie" (p. 301). Finally, the earl concludes his tirade against travel with a panegyric on England which reduces him to tears, while the rascal Jack thinks only, "that is worse than a vpbraiding lesson after a britching" (p. 303).

In opposition to the plethora of literature which implicitly glorified travel, Nashe sets the earl's account of its evils. Not in this speech, however, does he exhaust anti-Spanish and anti-Italian bias. The characters Bartol of Italy and Esdras of Granada embody the sinister barbarity Elizabethans associated with these two countries. Both countries were strongholds of Roman Catholicism, and Papists in England whether with factual proof or for convenience were identified with traitorous plots; furthermore, anti-Spanish propaganda had been so prevalent prior to the defeat of Philip's invincible armada that certainly more than five years would elapse before Spaniards would cease to smack of cunning and treachery. Indeed, even treatises on gentility, for all their general advocacy of moderation, contain hostility toward Spaniards and Italians.9 Henry VII had welcomed Italian humanists and honored their patrons;10 contrariwise, his son had expelled Italians from the court even before the religious cleavage with Rome.11 Though translations of the works of the Italian humanists flourished in England during Elizabeth's reign and the Italian language was studied,12 the image of the Italian made the more vivid by many of these translations was one of truculence and villainy.

Nashe employs the current pictures of the people of both Spain and Italy in hyperbolic adventures intended, it would seem, to titillate readers most fearfully. Esdras, "the ugliest of all blood suckers," boasts of his terrible deeds:

My owne mother gaue I a boxe of the eare too, and brake her necke downe a paire of staires, because she would not goe in to a Gentleman when I bad her: my sister I sold to an old Leno, to make his best of her: anie kinswoman that I haue, knew I she were not a whore, myselfe would make her one. (p. 291)

Bartol of Italy, Esdras' companion, declares, "five hundred rapes and murders have we committed betwixt us." When account is later given of the murder of Bartol by Esdras, English readers no doubt were expected to applaud the manifestation of retributive justice at the same time as they reaffirmed their conviction of Spanish treachery. The polemical attitude toward southern Europeans reaches its apex as Cutwolfe proclaims the perfidy of his Spanish victim and indicts himself and his countrymen with the words, "my thoughtes traueld in quest of some notable newe Italionisme, whose murderous platforme might not onely extend on his bodie, but his soul also … no true Italian but will honor me for it" (pp. 325-26).

Bartol and Cutwolfe are supported in projecting an image of Italian villainy by the characterization of the Pope, who, we are told, authorized Esdras the Bandetto "because he [Esdras] had assisted him in some murthers" (p. 287). The Pope has many concubines; one Juliana is monstrous in her lust, a poisoner, plotter, and murderer. When thwarted in one plan "shee fared like a franticke Bacchinall, she stampt, she star'd, shee beate her head against the walls, scratcht her face, bit her fingers, and strewd all the chamber with her haier." Ironic justice triumphs as she drinks the poison she had prepared for another. In addition to his "sin-absolued whores," the Pope has "oilegreased priests borne with a blacke sant on the diuells backes in procession to the pit of perdition" (pp. 310-11). Though he has a Jewish physician, at an alleged attempt by a Jew on his life, the Pope determines to exterminate all the Jews in Rome. He relents and issues instead the proclamation: "all fore-skinne clippers, whether male or female, belonging to the old Iurie, should depart and auoid vpon pain of hanging, within twentie daies after the date thereof."

The Jews are another group assailed in the narrative. If the Spanish and Italian tales are gruesome, no less terrorizing is the Jewish situation into which Jack literally hurls himself. He falls into the cellar of the Jew Zadoch, who sells him to the physician Zacharie for his annual anatomical dissection. Though Jack experiences vicariously every phase of the proposed dissection, the physician does not have the opportunity to perform it. During the time of preparation for the scientific investigation, Jack (an omniscient observer in a dark, locked closet) gathers proof of the niggardliness, covetousness, churlishness of the physician. Lewis Brown associates the whole episode with the case in London against Roderigo Lopez, the Jewish physician who emigrated to England from Portugal. The Lopez scandal had not matured in 1593; therefore, Brown believes, Nashe was reluctant to make too direct an attack because Lopez was shielded by the queen. Besides, reconstruction of the facts served to stigmatize the papacy.13

Diamante, Jack's courtesan, has meanwhile fallen into Zadoch's power, and we are told, "he was a Iew, and intreated her like a Iew … he scourged her. The ballet of the whipper of late days here in England14 was but a scoffe in comparison of him" (p. 310). Later the courtesan exclaims, he "usde me … iewishly and tyrannously." Whereas Zacherie escapes from Rome before the previously mentioned proclamation takes effect, Zadoch receives his presumably just punishment. Nashe expects his readers to agree, for he concludes the episode with an address to the gentle sex, "Triumph, women, this was the end of the whipping Iew, contrived by a woman, in revenge of two women, herself [Juliana] and her maide." Such rejoicing is to follow the description of Zadoch's execution, which Nashe prefaces, "Ile make short worke, for I am sure I haue wearyed all my readers." When he actually had wearied his readers in the long discourse on the Anabaptists he did indeed make short work of it. In two brief sentences he accounted for John Leiden and his followers. Here, he seems confident that his readers are not weary but enthusiastic as he savors every detail of the torture. The more than two hundred words unfold a cunningly devised agony for each member of the Jew's body, followed by Nashe's comment: "Triumph, women, this was the end of the whipping Iew."15

One of the techniques employed by the Marprelate writers in their controversy was vivid depiction of phases of Elizabethan life. These they styled and adapted in a manner which would deride their opponents. Anti-Martinists, among whom Nashe is classified even by the cautious McKerrow, ridiculed the Marprelate tracts and condemned their style. Travis L. Summers-gill writes that they must have studied the style carefully because they imitate and even try to outdo its liveliness of expression and jest-book anecdotage.16 This style in polemic writing was not initiated by the Martinists, however. In his article on early Tudor prose, Professor Marsh observes "homely, racy, street-corner humor … as a component of invective or for its own sake" in earlier controversial writings.17 Whatever the origin, Nashe has learned to weld humor, description, and word economy for effective satire. He may be taunting readers for their sadistic enjoyment of gruesome details or for their romantic escapism in Arthurian tales; he does it in humorous prose satiric in purpose.

Human nature seems to change little in its avidity for stories. Nashe twits those who revel in accumulating ghastly tales by using the professional comedian's method of giving a crudely humorous twist to the most distressing human situations. Thus, the sweating sickness, torture, and death are fantastically funny. Since plagues occurred periodically throughout Europe, often with high incidence of fatalities, and England was in the throes of a severe pestilence as Nashe composed his narrative, the references to sweating sickness had both a pertinence and special horror.18 Nashe, nevertheless, has "cookes … cashierd into kitchin stuffe," a woman "hauing three chins, wipe them all away one after another, as they melted to water," and masons who "paid nothing for haire to mix their lyme, nor Glouers to stuffe their balls with, for then they had it for nothing; it dropped off mens heads and beards faster than anie Barber could shaue it" (pp. 228-29). Dreadful battle tales are accorded similar commentary: "anie man might giue Armes that was an actor in that Bat-tell, for there were more armes and legs scattered in the Field that day than will be gathered vp till Doomesday" (p. 231).

Overtones of humor appear in the descriptions of the imprisonment of the innocent wife, the rape of Heraclide, the torture of Zadoch, and notably in Cutwolfe's address from the wheel of torture. Regarding the latter, Latham points out that the jingling introduction, called the "glose vpon the text" of the avenger's speech, "Prepare your eares and your teares, for neuer tyll this thrust I anie tragecall matter vpon you," prepares more for farce than for tragedy. Not only the jingle recurs, but the utter absurdity of the situation becomes obvious when Cutwolfe expresses his physical reaction in the moment of success in stalking Esdras, "O, so I was tickled in the spleene with that word, my hart hopt and danst, my elbowes itcht, my fingers friskt, I wist not what shoulde become of my feete, not knewe what I did for joy" (p. 321). The hiss, "Now I have you!" may be an American Western-movie cliché, but it conveys a more sinister intent than Nashe's picture of a dancing villain. Though he is afire for revenge, Cutwolfe calmly lies down on Esdras' doorstep for the night and upon rising in the morning rings the doorbell. If Nashe is not writing a satire on the Senecan revenge stories enjoying such a vogue in London, we must assume that he was totally unconscious of the effect of words and word pictures on a reader.

Fredson Bowers has clearly demonstrated the influence of the wide diffusion of tragic stories by Italian novelists in Les Histoires Tragiques of Belleforest and other collections.19 With the Italian novelle translated or reworked in English, these novels introduced lurid stories of revenge-murder which could hardly have escaped Nashe. The stage had offered the theme with varying degrees of importance in Kyd's Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy, Greene's Alphonsus King of Aragon, the anonymous Selimus, Peele's Battle of Alcazar and Locrine, Marlowe's Jew of Malta, perhaps Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, all before The Unfortunate Traveller was published. Revenge was not revenge in the early novels and plays if the soul of the victim might be dispatched to heaven—the problem Shakespeare's Hamlet faced when he discovered his uncle at prayer. Nashe may well have been acquainted with Machiavelli's The Prince; if not, Gentillet's Discourse was readily available to him. In the Discourse Gentillet says,

According to the honour of his [Machiavelli's] Nation, vengeances, and enmities are perpetuall and irreconcilable; and indeed, there is nothing wherein they take greater delectation, pleasure and contentment than to execute a vengence; insomuch as, whensoever they can haue their enemie at their pleasure, to be revenged vpon him they murder him after some strange & barbarous fashion, and in murdering him, they put him in remembrance of the offence done vnto them, with many reproachfull words and injuries to torment the soule and bodie together; and sometimes wash their hands and their mouthes with his blood, and force him with hope of his life to give himselfe to the diuell; and so they seeke in slaying the bodie to damne the soule, if they could.20

For all the similarity, Nashe depicts a ludicrous character in his revenger. Cutwolfe says to his victim Esdras,

I haue riuen my throat with ouerstraining it to curse thee. I haue ground my teeth to pouder with grating & grinding them together for anger when any hath namde thee. My tongue with vaine threates is bolne, and waxen too big for my mouth: my eyes haue broken their strings with staring and looking ghastly, as I stood deuising how to frame or set my countenance whe I met thee. I haue neere spent my strength in imaginarie acting on stone wals, what I determined to execute on thee. (p. 324)

It is impossible to view with terror an adult who practices his ferociousness before a mirror, who actually re-enacts his devilish plan over and over, whose elbows itch, fingers frisk, and feet become uncontrollable. The episode concludes, furthermore, with an additional reason to affirm Nashe's satiric intent. Jack Wilton seems to relish every detail of the executioner's torture, not without humorous metaphors and puns, but he then promptly responds to the moral lesson purportedly to be derived from all tragedy—in two brief sentences he determines upon and effects a reformation in his life.

Revenge tragedy is not the only kind of drama which Nashe assails satirically. The comedy which depends upon violent gesticulation, loud screaming, and crude sport becomes part of his attack on universities. The evening entertainment at Wittenberg is the comedy Acolastus, in which one of the actors

stampingly trode the stage so harde with his feete that I thought verily he had resolued to do the Carpenter that set it vp some vtter shame. Another flong his armes lyke cudgels at a peare tree, insomuch as it was mightily dreaded that he wold strike the candles that hung aboue their heades out of their sockettes…. Another did nothing but winke and make faces…. The onely thing they did well was the prodigall childs hunger, most of their schollers being hungerly kept; & surely you would haue sayd they had bin brought vp in hogs academie to learne to eate acornes, if you had seene how sedulously they fell to them. (pp. 249-50)

Mockery of medieval romances occurs in the tale of the Earl of Surrey's love for Geraldine. This tale is so typically the traditional romance, with the Earl's dispatch to Italy to fight for Geraldine's honor so in accord with the Arthurian quest literature, that the posturing of the Earl before the imprisoned courtesan Diamante as a Geraldine-substitution becomes a hilarious farce of the courtly love tradition.

To recapitulate momentarily: Nashe's lapses from his narrative betray his polemic spirit indubitably. His identification of particular characters with treachery reveals personal prejudice or perhaps a satiric attitude toward Elizabethan prejudices or a deliberate effort to increase the existing prejudices. His satires of literary types and themes display a mitigated form of polemic.

In no manner is his polemic bent more certain, however, than in his frequent use of the oration. The oration, designedly a vehicle for polemic, is essential to the entire narrative. Dialogues are occasionally brief exchanges, but more often they extend into full rhetorical deliveries, analysis of which discloses their faithful adherence to the prescribed divisions of the classical oration. If we trace through Wilton's adventures, we discover declamations of praise, blame, accusation, defense, and persuasion.

The initial bit of knavery which Jack recounts contains a long encomium of the wine keeper, craftily phrased to dispose him to accept Jack's advice and practice liberality, especially toward Jack, in the dispensing of his liquor. Next, Jack exercises his persuasive powers to rid himself of the parasitic "mechanicall captaine." Lest the reader overlook his method in this instance, Jack states, "I entertained him with this solemn oration." With but a digression for the enjoyment of the reader, he continues until the captain is led to perform an action which heaps derision upon himself to the complete satisfaction of Wilton. The dilation on the Anabaptists constitutes a sermon-oration containing accusation and blame in order to dissuade imitation. Nothing could be more commendatory than the Earl of Surrey's panegyric on the "statlie Geraldine." Arrival at Wittenberg brings Jack to the very fountainhead of disputation. An oration is in progress, and in it orators receive ridicule poured brimful and running over as the "bursten belly inkhorne orator called Vanderhulke" addresses the Duke a "ridiculous oration." The occasion of the "solempe disputations" affords opportunity to satirize types of orators and their unimaginative dependence upon Cicero. At this time the persuasive power of oratory is attested in the result of Tully's delivery of his oration pro Roscio Amerino which Erasmus requests of the conjurer Cornelius Agrippa. Erasmus seeks to see and hear Cicero "in that same grace and maiestie he pleaded his oration pro Roscio Amerino, affirming that til in person he beheld his importunitie of pleading, hee woulde in no wise bee perswaded that anie man coulde carrie awaye a manifest case with rethorike so strangely." Yet, in compliance with his petition, "in entered Tullie, ascended pleading place, and declaimed verbatim the forenamed oration, but with such astonishing amazement, with feruent exaltation of spirit, with soule-stirring iestures, that all his auditours were readie to install his guiltie client for a God" (p. 252).

Even in the "pernicious curtizãs house" we are on the brink of a declamation when Jack imparts to Tabitha and Petro the nature of his disturbing dream—their murderous plot on his life. Before they can speak, Jack makes this observation, "as they were readie to enter onto a coulourable common place of the deceitfull friuolousness of dreames … I started out of my bed, and drew my rapier and cryde, Murther."21 Later, Jack's deviousness leads him to jail, where he is again involved with the pander Petro. Jack delivers a short declamation against panders in general, but Petro de Campo in particular, beginning "O, the heathen heigh passe and the intrinsecall legerdemaine of our special approued good pandor" and continuing through a diatribe which terminates, "he was seene in all the seuen liberall deadly sciences, not a sinne but he was as absolute in as sathan himselfe" (p. 260). Epideictic speech disappears only long enough for Jack to obtain his release from jail. As if in celebration, he begs leave to speak a word or two about "this Aretine," his liberator. The word or two expands into four hundred. Curiously, this encomium of the most vilifying polemicist of the century22 is located in the very center of Nashe's narrative (pp. 264-66).

Jack is once again speech-making, this time to extricate himself as the impostor Earl of Surrey when visà-vis the true Earl of Surrey. The momentarily dumb Wilton recovers eloquently: "No Englishman would I haue renowmed for bountie, magnificence, and curtesie but you; vnder your colours all my meritorious workes I was desirous to shroud," and he continues impassionately to climax with the question, "What is the glory of the Sunne, but that the Moone and so many millions of starres borrow their lights from him?"

Vastly different is the setting when the next oration is delivered. Jack reports the compassionate appeal that Heraclide makes to "the ugliest of all blood-suckers, Esdras of Granada," that he spare her—a speech interrupted only long enough for her to swoon and for Esdras to revive her and demand that she yield. "Twixt life and death thus she faintly replied" with a fluent and fervid plea. Esdras counters with a declaration of his heinous crimes. A melodrama of verbal braggadocio and physical truculence ensues until Nashe decides he has exploited the situation sufficiently and laments, "would I had neuer vndertooke this tragicall tale," but then he bethinks himself of its further possibilities; he admonishes, "let not your sorrow die, you that haue read the proeme and narration of this eligiacall historie" (p. 292). There follows a short speech to elicit compassion from the reader for this courageous woman, who presently is able to articulate her own "resons discourse"—a condemnation of her beauty which has proved a curse, a comparison of her self with a hog, and finally a determination to join her dead husband. She concludes by addressing God, the angels, saints, martyrs, Agamemnon, and the knife: "point, pierce, edge, enwiden, I patiently affoorde thee a sheath; spurre forth my soule to mount poste to heauen" (p. 295). The "eligiacall historie" goes into a new phase as Heraclide, "throughlie stabd," in falling strikes her head against her husband's presumably dead body and revives him. Fortunately, activity replaces oratory, and therefore we may proceed to the culmination of all the oratory, the polymorphic example of polemic.

At the outset there is no equivocation about the form: "Cutwolfe begins his insulting oration," we are told. Already, the reader is being influenced against the speaker. A polemic situation—society against the murderer Cutwolfe—involves another polemic situation—the avenger Cutwolfe against the murderer Esdras, against whom society would also align itself. The polemic form is employed to persuade readers and auditors of the valor of ignominious deeds. Within this oration are two briefer orations, one a plea for time to prepare for eternity, the other, contrariwise, an abjuration of all means to eternity. Revenge and damnation of a soul, the orator avers, bring one closer to the "throne of the Almightie." Oppositions in the form of ideas, characters, and situations pile upon each other in this tragicomic conclusion to Nashe's "outrageous chronicle."

Obviously I have made no attempt to classify this unusual work into a specific genre. My purpose has been to call attention to the incidence of Nashe's propensity for contentiousness even in fictitious tales and to relate that evidence to his age, which inculcated the polemic form through its educational system, nurtured polemic through violent religious oppositions, and perhaps matured it through commitment to an intensive nationalistic spirit.


1 Travis L. Summersgill ("The Influence of the Marprelate Controversy Upon the Style of Thomas Nashe," Studies in Philology, XLVIII [1951], 145-60) refers to the rhetorical character of the educational system but does not develop this influence on Nashe's style.

2 Sidney Lee in DNB (s.v. "Thomas Nashe") discusses The Unfortunate Traveller as a "parody of those medieval story-books of King Arthur and Sir Tristram which he had already ridiculed in his 'Anatomie of Absurditie'"; Agnes Latham, "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller," English Studies, n.s. 1 (1948), 85-100.

3 For a recent challenge to the assumption that an unbroken rhetorical tradition can be traced through the Middle Ages, see James J. Murphy, "John Gower's Confessio Amantis and the First Discussion of Rhetoric in the English Language," Philogolical Quarterly, XLI (1962), 401-11. Two other articles by the same author are significant in any discussion of medieval rhetoric: "The Earliest Teaching of Rhetoric at Oxford," Speech Monographs, XXVII (1960), 345-47; and "The Arts of Discourse, 1050-1400," Mediaeval Studies, XXIII (1961), 194-205.

4 Latham, p. 89.

5 See Kenneth Myrick, Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman (Cambridge, Mass., 1935); The Praises of Folly, ed. and trans. Hoyt Hopewell Hudson (Princeton, 1941); Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1947), and Maurice B. McNamee, S.J., "Literary Decorum in Francis Bacon," St. Louis University Studies, Series A, Humanities, I (1950), 1-52, for the influence of education in Ciceronian oratory on such unrelated Renaissance writings as Defense of Poesy, Praise of Folly, the dialogues of many of Shakespeare's plays, and Advancement of Learning.

6The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (London, 1958), v, 1. In quoting from The Unfortunate Traveller I use volume II of this edition, to which page references are given parenthetically in my text.

7 Lynette Feasey, "The Unheroic Hero," Times Literary Supplement, 2 Oct. 1948, p. 555.

8 Feasey, p. 555.

9 James Cleland, Hero-Paideia, or The Institution of a Young Nobleman (1607): "if you would go to Spaine, I will neither coūcel you, nor be your guide: for there the best Noble-man of the Land shal be corrupted: blasphemie and contempt of al holinesse and Religion are so ordinairie and usual"; Certain Precepts left by a Father to his Son and a Man of Eminent Note in this Kingdom (1615), attributed to Lord Burleigh, advises: "Suffer not your sonnes to passe the Alpes, for they shall exchange for theyr forraine travell … but others vices for their owne vertues Pride, Blasphemy, and Atheisme for Humility, Reverence, and Religion."

10 Julia Cartwright (The Perfect Courtier: Baldassare Castiglione, His Life and Letters [New York, 1927] 1, 182-87) describes Henry's patronage and his honoring of the Duke of Urbino.

11 There were, nevertheless, Italian artists and architects in England throughout his reign, and it was of course no new thing for royal patronage to be influenced by political expediency: see J. D. Mackie, The Earlier Tudors 1485-1558 (Oxford, 1952), pp. 571-600.

12 Florio, in the dedicatory epistle to Second Frutes (1591), notes the use of Castiglione's Courtier and Guazzo's Dialogues by Englishmen learning Italian. In order to stimulate interest in the study of languages, Ascham in The Scholemaster praises Elizabeth's "perfit readines in Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish." Later, he places the responsibility for circulation of the morally degrading translations on "the sutle and secrete Papistes at home [who] procured bawdie bookes to be translated out of the Italian tonge, whereby ouer many yong willes and wittes allured to wantonnes, do now boldly contemne all seuere bookes that sounde to honestie and godlines."

13 Lewis Brown, "The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe," Journal of Jewish Lore and Philosophy, I (1919), 251.

14Works, IV, n. 310, explains the reference to the "ballet of the whipper."

15Works, IV, n. 315, suggests an account of a local torture as inspiration for this section.

16 Summersgill, pp. 145-60.

17 T. N. Marsh, "Humor and Invective in Early Tudor Polemic Prose," Rice Institute Pamphlet, XLIV (1957), 79.

18 Herbert G. Wright, "Some Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Writers on the Plague," Essays and Studies, n.s. VI (1953), 42-43.

19 Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton, 1940).

20 Quoted by Bowers, p. 52. Nashe need not, however, have read Innocent Gentillet's commentary on Machiavelli, so widely diffused through London was his prejudiced interpretation. W. Gordon Zeeveld in his Foundations of Tudor Policy (Cambridge, Mass., 1948) has established the early influence of Machiavelli's writings in England.

21 The italics are mine.

22 Aretino referred to himself as the "censor of the proud world," and indeed the emperor, kings, and popes feared his vitriolic pen: see Edward Hutton, Pietro Aretino: The Scourge of Princes (London, 1922). Because of his eloquence and vehemence in controversy, Lodge called Nashe the "True English Aretine," but it is Aretino's obscenity and general amorality which made him a fit choice for Nashe's "searcher and chiefe Inquisiter to the colledge of curtizans."

David Kaula (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5717

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 writing."1 When he calls it a "phantasticall Treatise" and himself an "out-landish Chronicler" he implies that it is clean different also from anything attempted before by other authors. This estimation of his work is not surprising in an author who, at a time when the discipline of imitation was almost universally considered a prerequisite to literary excellence announced that the style he admired was that "extemporall veine" which "in any humour will excell our greatest Art-maisters deliberate thoughts,"2 and that "the vaine which I haue … is of my owne begetting, and cals no man father in England but my selfe."3 The originality of The Unfortunate Traveller does not depend on its being considered the first realistic novel in English, the forerunner of Defoe.4 Even though it deals with near-contemporary personages and events and adopts a critical view of social convention similar in ways to that of the picaresque novel, it relies too heavily on extravagant and macabre effects to be credited with a consistent verisimilitude. Its chief distinction lies rather in that stylistic dexterity which Nashe liked to advertise as his particular forte,5 more especially in its exuberant parodying of current literary modes.6 Recognizing this, G. R. Hibbard in his recent study of the novel finds Nashe's dexterity uncontrolled by any premeditated plan, his method strictly improvisational:

He works in terms of what may be described as scenes. Interested in the immediate local effect he can extract from an idea or a situation, he works on it until he has exhausted its possibilities or grown bored with it, and then moves on to something else, unconcerned about its relationship with what has gone before, intent on showing his craftmanship by treating it in an arresting manner and relying on his virtuosity as a showman to cover up the gaps.7

As a result of this method, or lack of method, The Unfortunate Traveller according to Hibbard "embodies nothing that can be called a view of life," and even Jack Wilton fails to emerge as an independent fictional character. If anything holds the novel together, it is simply the "personality of the author."8

Hibbard's emphasis on the weaknesses of The Unfortunate Traveller is certainly justified if it is measured by the criteria usually applied to more recent works of fiction, such as consistency of viewpoint and characterization, and unity of narrative structure. But what this appraisal fails to take sufficiently into account is the feature of the novel which more than any other draws attention to itself and serves, perhaps, as the primary vehicle for Nashe's "view of life": the style. Before investigating this, however, we might consider whether the novel reveals any thematic or imagistic patterns which lend some coherence to its otherwise haphazard organization.

If merely the principle of recurrence is applied, the novel at once suggests an obvious pattern in its frequent images of physical violence. Such scenes as the two plagues, the two battles, and the two executions represent in meticulous detail the painful extinction of a humanity suffering either from an impersonal levelling process or from its own brutality. They are complemented by the several figures of Italianate wickedness concentrated in the latter part of the novel: Petro and Tabitha, Zadoch and Zacharie, Juliana, Esdras and Cutwolfe. Together these scenes and figures comprise a vision strongly suggestive of the traditional iconographic images of Hell, images such as those of Brueghel and Bosch, which surrealistically intensify the weak and sinful condition of humanity by depicting it in terms of physical anguish and grotesque deformity. Opposing this vision, though not equalizing it, since they are far fewer in number, are certain allusions to the contrary, paradisiac condition. Nashe uses the Earl of Surrey, for instance, as an excuse to extoll the sublime excellencies of poets:

Destinie neuer defames hir selfe but when shee lets an excellent Poet die: if there bee anie sparke of Adams Paradized perfection yet emberd vp in the breastes of mortall men, certainelie God hath bestowed that his perfectest image on Poets.9

While this is a familiar commonplace of Renaissance criticism, what Nashe proceeds to do with it is not altogether conventional; for instead of emphasizing the moral usefulness of poets, their power to move men to virtuous ends or to transform the brazen world into a golden, he insists on their complete separation from the common world:

as they contemne the world, so contrarilie of the mechanicall world are none more contemned. Despised they are of the worlde, because they are not of the world: their thoughts are exalted aboue the worlde of ignorance and all earthly conceits. (II, 242)

Surrey's separation from the world is obvious enough in his Petrarchan effusions in honor of the "more than celestiall" Geraldine. The realm envisioned in Nashe's adroit parodies is as different as possible from the infernal, one where the soul is inspired to ecstatic yearning through contemplation of an angelic perfection. While Surrey's posturings are absurd—the impulse behind them is narcissistic, as Wilton acutely observes—Nashe treats them with a bemused, even affectionate condescension, as though to suggest that if the world must have folly, a quixotic, other-worldly one is far preferable to the malicious varieties.

A less equivocal image of the paradisiac appears in Nashe's detailed description of the summer banqueting house in Rome. Although typical of his set descriptions in having little to do with what comes before and after, it is unusual in being the only passage in the novel where he devotes much attention to a purely physical setting, apart from its human occupants. The banqueting house is the "maruaile of the world," and cannot be matched "except God should make another paradise" (II, 282). Nashe is mainly preoccupied at first with the clever artifice with which the paradisiac scene is reproduced: the heavenly spheres, the flowers and trees, particularly the singing birds whose throats are cunningly fed by "organizing implements obscured in the corpulent trunks of the trees" (II, 284). The garden invites comparison with Spenser's Bowre of Blisse, except that here the artifice does not pervert nature from its proper ends but legitimately reproduces its unspoiled virtues. In the final paragraph of the description a curious shift occurs: unlike the birds, the "wylde tyranous" beasts in the garden are not artificial but real. Undisturbed by the presence of human kind, the animals are peaceable and the plants beneficent because they do not partake of those human corruptions which infected nature when "our parent Adam transgressed": "there were no sweete-breathing Panthers that would hyde their terrifying heads to betray; no men-imitating Hyaenaes that chaunged their sexe to seeke after bloud" (II, 284). Furthermore, temporal distinctions invade this part of the description, establishing a contrast between "then" and "now," or between the peaceable kingdom of the remote past and the world as it exists in the narrative present. Hence the artificial nature of the garden in suppressed and the scene sharply cut off from the surrounding human world not only spatially but temporally. One other passage where the theme of separation appears is worth noting. In the formal discourse he delivers to Wilton after saving him from the hangman, the banished English earl wonders why anyone should wish to travel abroad when the dangers so far exceed the possible benefits. He compares travelling to the fates of Icarus, Cain, and the Israelites, and sees in it a kind of spiritual bondage, a perversion of self through the affectation of strange ways of speaking, dressing, and acting. It represents spatially what the fallen condition signifies temporally, exile from one's true home or original state: "The diuel and I am desperate, he of being restored to heauen, I of being recalled home" (II, 303).

The scene of The Unfortunate Traveller divides itself, then, into three realms corresponding to the usual tripartite arrangement of the Christian cosmos. The paradisiac, which receives comparatively little treatment, is associated with the conditions of exile, yearning, and separation from the world. The middle realm, which dominates the earlier two-thirds of the novel, is the sphere of relatively normal humanity, ranging in its extremes from the ludicrous—the victims of Wilton's gulling in the British camp, the Ciceronian orators and debating scholars at Wittenberg—to the learned and wise—Erasmus, More, Agrippa, and Aretino. The infernal chiefly occupies the final Italian part of the novel with its hyperbolic images of the diabolical and grotesque. It is through the latter two realms that Wilton moves as a curious if unfortunate traveler. Although his movements often seem improvised and in several places he becomes transparent, a mere reporter rather than participant in the action, it is clear that Nashe tries at least spasmodically to give him a developing role. At first the clever and supercilious page, closely akin to the jestbook hero or theatrical vice, Wilton boasts he was "ordained Gods scourge" for fools (II, 226). His relationship to his society, though parasitic, is secure, since it is ruled by a king who is himself a "merry fellow," resilient enough not to be threatened by the pranks played on his more vulnerable subjects. The whipping Wilton suffers for one of his pranks is barely mentioned; it receives none of the meticulous attention Nashe later bestows on physical pain. While serving under the magnanimous Surrey, Wilton remains just as secure in his mischievousness, but once detached from the earl and on his own in the infernal atmosphere of Rome, he is exposed to dangers he is unequipped to cope with. "Here beginneth my purgatorie," he announces when he is mistakenly accused of raping and murdering Heraclide (II, 295). When he ignores the admonitions of yet another surrogate father, the banished earl, he turns from scourger into scourged ("God plagud me for deriding such a graue fatherly aduertiser" [II, 303]) and with comic rapidity suffers a literal fall into Zadoch's cellar, as though tumbling "on a sodaine into hell" (II, 303). His purgatory takes the form of imagining what it will be like to be dissected and being worn to the bones by Juliana's unwelcome attentions. Finally, when Wilton hears Cut-wolfe boast that man most nearly approaches the divine when God "lets one man scourge an other" (II, 326) and then sees him broken on the wheel, he repents. Thoroughly sobered, he marries his courtezan, distributes alms, flees the "Sodom of Italy," and hastens back to the protection of Henry VIII.

Wilton's progress therefore seems to follow the standard formula of moral regeneration. It is not, of course, meant to be taken too seriously. His fall, purgation, and repentance arise from the most primitive, even farcical, circumstances, unaccompanied by the deeper awareness we expect to find in serious treatments of the redemptive process. If anything, Nashe is parodying the process, exploiting the comic possibilities of the rogue-hero who brashly exposes himself to hazards far beyond his ability to control. Nevertheless, both in treating Wilton as a mock-Everyman and in giving symbolic values to the various settings through which he moves, he imposes at least a partial organization on what might otherwise be taken as no more than a series of disconnected, locally improvised episodes.

Of greater importance to the general effect of The Unfortunate Traveller is Wilton's function as the medium for Nashe's vigorous and inventive linguistic activity. Wilton's self-exhibiting stance intensifies the personal tone of the narration and facilitates the pretense that it is being delivered spontaneously in the present, not according to premeditated plan but in response to the immediate need to hold the attention of an alert and sceptical audience. At first Wilton speaks as though directly to a live, plural audience, addressing it familiarly as "lordings," "my auditors," or "my masters." Later, probably inadvertently, he becomes a writer or "historiographer" of his adventures. But Nashe still maintains the effect of close reciprocal contact between speaker and audience, repeatedly catering to the latter's curiosity and meeting its imagined boredom or scepticism. This assumption that the audience's interest needs to be constantly restimulated partly accounts for the abrupt transitions, the absence of the kind of narrative pacing normal in fiction designed for private, leisurely reading. More significantly, it influences the texture of the style, the incessant display of ingenuity in the use of such local effects as metaphor, alliteration, wordplay, proverbs, Latin tags, and mocklearned allusions.10 When Nashe refers to his style he commonly resorts to metaphors which suggest a febrile, fluctuating energy, like that of an organism so active that it constantly threatens to exhaust itself and become "tedious," but is also just as capable of quick revival. After his strenuous tirade against the Anabaptists Nashe complains: "the mark is clean out of my Muses mouth…. What is there more as touching this tragedie that you would be resolued of? say quickly, for now is my pen on foote again" (II, 241). The same fluctuation along with the equine metaphor appears again after the rape of Heraclide: first the exhaustion: "Coniecture the rest, my words sticke fast in the myre and are cleane tyred"; then the recovery: "Let not your sorrow die, you that haue read the proeme and narration of this eligiacall historic. Shew you haue quick wits in sharp conceipt of compassion" (II, 292).

The style of the novel is also influenced by the social placement Nashe gives to Wilton. As a master-page existing on the fringes of the court—he claims he is a "Gentleman at least" (II, 209)—Wilton moves with equal facility in two spheres, the elite and the plebeian. With this mobility goes a satirical perspective, an aptitude for recognizing and mimicking the pretensions of those who would seem more respectable, learned, and refined than they are by nature or social status. Wilton vividly shows this awareness when he describes himself as a page at Hampton Court. Through simile he converts each fastidious item in his courtly costume—feather, cap, doublet, hose, and rapier—into a homely, inelegant equivalent. He both exults in his finery and recognizes that it scarcely conceals the vulnerable flesh beneath: "my longe stock that sate close to my docke, and smoothered not a scab or a leacherous hairie sinew on the calfe of the legge" (II, 227). Nashe's style shows a similar versatility arising from a double impulse: on the one hand, a mimetic exuberance, a sheer delight in reproducing the cadences and elegancies of the more artificial styles as an end in itself; on the other, a searching scepticism toward the attitudes implicit in these styles, since they assume a reality more highly ordered and grandiose than is warranted by the elementary facts of experience. Nashe continually exposes the pretensions of ornamental rhetoric by exaggerating its characteristic devices and by contrasting it with a more colloquial idiom. This he does in the opening sentence of the novel:

About that time that the terror of the world and feauer quartane of the French, Henrie the eight (the onely true subiect of Chronicles), aduanced his standard against the two hundred and fifty towers of Turney and Turwin, and had the Emperour and all the nobilitie of Flanders, Holand, & Brabant as mercenarie attendants on his full-sayld fortune, I, Iacke Wilton, (a Gentleman at least,) was a certain kind of an appendix or page, belonging or appertaining in or vnto the confines of the English court; where what my credit was, a number of my creditors that I cosned can testifie: Coelum petimus stultitia, which of vs al is not a sinner? (II, 209)

For his opening fanfare Nashe adopts a magniloquent periodic movement, mimicking the bombast of the heraldic style in the inflated metaphors, the over-insistent alliteration, and the pedantic verbiage defining Wilton's position in the court. But after the semicolon the periodic rhythm collapses with the addition of a dependent clause, and the magniloquent tone is dissipated by the wordplay on "credit-creditors" and the colloquial "cosned." Finally the syntax becomes fully paratactic and the tone one of impudent self-assurance, as Wilton typically justifies his knavery with an irrelevant Latin tag and mock-pious generalization.

Among the rhetorical modes Nashe parodies or debunks—they are too numerous to illustrate—are the Ciceronian, the Euphuistic, the Arcadian, the homiletic, the sententious-epigrammatic, and the elegiacal or tragic. All but the last are variants of the decorated middle style as it was defined by the sixteenth-century rhetoricians following classical precedent; the last, exemplified by the oratory in the "eligiacall historie" of Esdras and Heraclide, belongs to the equally ornate but more passionate lofty style.11 To these Nashe opposes his low style, or what might be called Wilton's true speaking voice, which is distinguished by colloquial diction, simplified syntax, and a strong sense of physical immediacy.

For an example of stylistic contrast we can consider two passages which, although they occur several pages apart, still make a suitable comparison because they utilize the same metaphor and deal with what from the Nashean standpoint are two equivalent subjects: a horse and a woman. The first occurs in the prolonged inventory of Surrey and the knights he challenges for the glory of Geraldine—a vivid exhibition of chivalry in its final, decadent phase, when the accouterments of knighthood, no longer functional, have become purely decorative. The presentation is objective, without the intrusions of commentary by Wilton or the intermixture of styles so common elsewhere in the novel. But in its mannered complexity the style provides its own commentary. In this intricate periodic sentence Nashe explicates the allegorical trappings of Surrey's horse:

The morall of the whole is this, that as the estrich, the most burning sighted bird of all others, insomuch as the female of them hatcheth not her egs by couering them, but by the effectual rayes of her eyes, as he, I say, outstrippeth the nimblest trippers of his feathered condition in footmanship, onely spurd on with the needle quickning goad vnder his side, so he, no lesse burning sighted than the estrich, spurde on to the race of honor by the sweet rayes of his mistres eyes, perswaded himselfe he should outstrip all other in running to the goale of glorie, onely animated and incited by hir excellence. (II, 273)

This represents the extreme of Nashe's polysyndetic manner. From the standpoint of clarity the sentence has its defects, though these might be considered appropriate in view of the ultra-esoteric nature of the subject. Nashe severely jeopardizes the symmetry of the "as-so" construction by multiplying the subordinate members, and carries the digression in the earlier part of the sentence so far that he must force the syntax back into line with the interpolated "as he, I say." Nor does he make things any clearer by referring to both the ostrich and Surrey as "he." Nevertheless, the sentence does effectively convey a sense of rapid, nervous movement in its light rhythms, its intricate alliterative and assonantal patterns, and its sequences of rhymed and half-rhymed words, such as "burning-birdspurd-perswaded" and "race-rayes-eyes." The impression it produces is that of a mentality highly ingenious and volatile but self-obsessed, completely absorbed in the redundant unravelling of its fanciful conceit: a mentality close to the Petrarchan. The real horse is nowhere to be seen through the elaboration of the exotic ostrich and its unnatural natural habits.

The second passage is Wilton's description of Diamante:

A pretie rounde faced wench was it, with blacke eie browes, a high forehead, a little mouth, and a sharpe nose, as fat and plum euerie part of her as a plouer, a skin as slike and soft as the backe of a swan, it doth me good when I remember her. Like a bird she tript on the grounde, and bare out her belly as maiesticall as an Estrich. (II, 261)

This is a rather different ostrich from the one above. Such words as "wench," "fat," and "belly" quickly mark this as an example of the low style. The vocabulary (except for "maiesticall") is colloquial and largely monosyllabic, the order loose and paratactic. But the effect, compared with that of the first passage, is one of compression rather than diffusion, of continual sensuous alertness in the observation of each feature rather than fanciful elaboration of a fixed central image. Nashe's handling of rhythmical variation in the first sentence is masterful: in the introductory clause he inverts the normal word order to create a strong initial impetus, then shifts to a new cadence with the spondees and strong intermediate pauses of the four short phrases, then alters the cadence again in the two longer phrases, deftly varying their parisonic structures, and finally breaks the rising movement by adding the parenthesis without syntactical preparation, using lighter syllables and a falling rhythm to support the sense of subdued relish. The imagistic activity of the two sentences is of course intense, with the first concentrating on visual and tactile qualities and the second on kinetic. The images, however, emphasize particularity more than harmony; rather than creating a unified impression of Diamante, they present an inventory of separately observed qualities which are not strictly consistent. Diamante is fat and plump, and slick and soft; she trips and is majestical; she is compared with four very different kinds of bird. Although she hardly disappears from view like Surrey's horse, she is fragmented into a series of disconnected sensuous events, each vividly apprehended by itself and given equal value with the others.

This is not to question the effectiveness of Nashe's descriptive technique but to recognize one of the essential features of his low or natural style. When he writes in this "extemporall" vein he sees things not as organized into larger wholes through a system of emphasis and subordination, but as having a serial or paratactic equality. A longer passage will show this more clearly:

So it fel out that it being a vehement hot summer when I was a soiourner there, there entered such a hotspurd plague as hath not bin heard of: why, it was but a word and a blowe, Lord haue mercy vpon vs, and he was gone. Within three quarters of a yeere in that one citie there died of it a hundred thousand; looke in Lanquets chronicle and you shall finde it. To smell of a nosegay that was poisond, and turne your nose to a house that had the plague, it was all one. The clouds, like a number of cormorants that keepe their corne til it stinke and is mustie, kept in their stinking exhalations, till they had almost stifeled all Romes inhabitants. Phisitions greedines of golde made them greedie of their destinie. They would come to visit those with whose infirmitie their art had no affinitie; and euen as a man with a fee should be hired to hang himselfe, so would they quietly go home and die presently after they had bin with their patients. All daye and all night long carre-men did nothing but go vp and downe the streets with their carts and cry, Haue you anie dead bodies to bury? and had many times out of one house their whole loding: one graue was the sepulchre of seuen score, one bed was the alter wheron whole families were offered. (II, 286)

Like Nashe's other set descriptions, this paragraph and the one following it stand apart from the surrounding narration, being connected with what comes before and after only by the most rudimentary transitional phrases. Before the description Nashe writes, "I will dilate vnto you what happened whilest I was in Rome," and after it, "During this time of visitation, there was a Spaniard …," so launching into the Esdras-Heraclide episode. Nashe treats the plague simply as something there to be observed, neither showing its temporal development nor varying the intensity of his description from beginning to end. Suppressing his moralizing impulse, he also refrains from explaining the plague causally as the operation of divine vengeance against human wickedness. He does insert some incisive observations on greedy grain speculators and physicians; but the central point of the passage, the source of its irony, is that under such an impersonal levelling process even the most ordinary human motives and activities become lethal, the commonplace becomes grotesque. The irony holds the morbid sensationalism of the subject in check, operating in almost every sentence through such details as the nosegay, the wordplay of "infirmitie-affinitie," "quietly-presently," the cry of the carmen, and the bed-altar. Much might be said about the superb rhythmical and tonal effects of the passage, such as those in the first sentence, where the prolonged, regular movement of the first two clauses is suddenly broken by the brief exclamatory phrases. The main point to observe, however, is that Nashe presents the scene in serial fashion, as a sequence of discrete impressions. He omits casual and temporal connectives between sentences, and although in some of them he uses subordinating devices and periodic structures, his most frequent conjunction is "and." He gives each sentence its own clear, compact syntax, its own independent pattern of rise or fall.12

These qualities are especially marked in those descriptive passages which deal with subjects even more violent than the Roman plague and hence more susceptible to graphic treatment, such as the sweating sickness, the Battle of Marignano, and the two executions. Particularly in the latter we notice again a uniform intensity, a treatment of each excruciating detail not as it is felt by the victim but as it is seen externally by a highly alert but dispassionate observer. Nashe elsewhere shows his penchant for the serial technique in cataloguing the knights in the Florentine tournament and the debating scholars at Wittenberg, making it especially pronounced in the latter case by resorting to a mechanical enumerative formula: "One … Another … A third … A fourth" (II, 250-251), and so on through seven specimens, each sharply set off from the others by its own bizarre mannerisms.13

The significance of this technique extends beyond Nashe's effective use of it in his set descriptions. At a deeper level, it reflects the way of seeing which pervades the novel as a whole. As responsive as he is to the sensuous and kinetic elements of experience, Nashe habitually focuses his attention on isolated particulars. He tends to conceive human action not as evolving through a continuum of cause and effect or of past, present, and future, but as violent, fragmentary, and accidental. He repeatedly shows the more complex organizations of experience—those reflected in the various styles he parodies—belied by the human body and its comic-grotesque vulnerabilities, by man's "fraile earth, fraile flesh" (II, 245). Hence his narration characteristically moves, like the opening sentence of the novel, from a more elaborate rhetorical mode to the low style, the former embodying the illusion under attack, the latter conveying the elemental response to reality which constitutes the final commentary. This movement receives its culminating treatment in the final episode, the "truculent tragedie" of Esdras and Cutwolfe. The oration Cutwolfe delivers from the wheel is one of the clearest examples in the novel of a deliberate, artificial ordering of experience. In its concentrated dramatic form and hyperbolic style it expresses the same indomitable will which drove Cutwolfe to achieve his fantastic Italianate revenge and prompts him now to claim that through revenge man most nearly approaches the divine. His tragedy concludes, however, not with a suitably dignified demise or even with the melodramatic horror of Faustian damnation, but with the efficient, workaday dismembering of his body by the dexterous executioner, rendered in Nashe's most colloquial manner: "of his own nature was he hackster good inough: olde excellent he was at a bone-ach" (II, 327). Just as Cutwolfe began his progress toward self-deification as a "wearish dwarfish writhen facde cobler" (II, 319) sitting in his stall "knocking in of tacks" (II, 321), so he ends, violently thrust back to the creatural level, with the executioner drumming on his bones "like a sadler knocking in of tackes" (II, 327).

Both in its patchwork organization and in the local features of its style The Unfortunate Traveller fails to exhibit those complex harmonies which inform the Arcadia, The Faerie Queene, and Shakespeare's plays; or if occasionally it approaches those harmonies, as it does in the case of Surrey's Petrarchism or Wilton's moral progress, it distorts them through parody. The perspective of the novel in some ways corresponds to that creatural realism which Erich Auerbach finds abundantly represented in the literature of the late Middle Ages.14 In rendering the familiar particulars of daily experience in the low colloquial style, creatural realism deviated from the classico-humanistic conception of man and the elevated rhetorical modes in which that conception was habitually expressed. So Nashe in his preference for the "extemporall veine" likewise implicitly rejects the traditional notion of rhetoric, still very much alive in his own time, as a civilizing influence, a manifestation of man's rational nature.15 He also suggests another aspect of creatural realism: its inordinate emphasis on the Passion as opposed to the Resurrection, on man's "subjection to suffering and transitoriness."16 As we saw in his handling of Wilton, he is not inclined to deal with the redemptive process in a serious and meaningful way, and however much he fulminates against the Anabaptists, he does not otherwise reveal a conventional religiosity. The divine omnipotence as he demonstrates it works with an arbitrary violence, levelling guilty and innocent alike, scarcely distinguishable in its ferocity from Juliana gloating over the mutilated Zadoch or the crowd shouting "torture him, teare him" to Cutwolfe's executioner. What saves The Unfortunate Traveller from a morbid fatalism or Nashe from the "basic nihilism" recently attributed to him by Clifford Leech17 is the unfailing elasticity of his language, the energy with which he responds to and evaluates a broad range of experience. In this he approaches the Rabelaisian rather than the late medieval variety of creatural realism. Although his own sense of order may be defective, through his style he expresses the kind of vitality which calls into question any notion of order but the most securely grounded.


1The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford, 1958), II, 201.

2Works, III, 312.

3Works, I, 319.

4 This is the older view of the novel held, among others, by Ernest A. Baker, The History of the English Novel, II (London, 1929), 160.

5 "I haue written in all sorts of humors priuately, I am perswaded, more than any young man of my age in England,"—Works, I, 320.

6 See Agnes M. C. Latham, "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's 'Unfortunate Traveller,'" English Studies 1948 (London, 1948), pp. 85-100.

7Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 147.

8Nashe, p. 178.

9Works, II, 242. Citations from The Unfortunate Traveller hereafter will be to volume and page in McKerrow's edition.

10 In asserting that the "chief characteristic of Nashe's prose is its alertness to the possibilities of metaphor" A. K. Croston minimizes Nashe's abundant use of other devices. He does provide, however, an illuminating analysis of this particular feature of Nashe's style. See "The Use of Imagery in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Review of English Studies, XXIV (1948), 90-101.

11 See Walter F. Staton, Jr., "The Characters of Style in Elizabethan Prose," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LVII (1958), 197-207.

12 The ironic terseness and imagistic precision of Nashe's description may be better appreciated in comparison with one of Dekker's melodramatic treatments of the same subject: "And euen such a formidable shape did the diseased Citie appeare in: For he that durst (in the dead houre of gloomy midnight) haue bene so valiant, as to haue walkte through the stil and melancholy streets, what thinke you should haue bene his musicke? Surely the loude grones of rauing sicke men: the stugling panges of soules departing: In euery house griefe striking vp an Allarum: Seruants crying out for maisters: wiues for husbands, parents for children, children for their mothers: here he should haue met some frantickly running to knock vp Sextons; there, others fearfully sweating with Coffins, to steale forth dead bodies, least the fatall handwriting of death should seale vp their doores. And to make this dismall consort more full, round about him Bells heauily tolling in one place, and ringing out in another: The dreadfulnesse of such an houre, is in-vtterable: let vs goe further,"—The Wonderfull yeare, in The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker, ed. F. P. Wilson (Oxford, 1925), pp. 27-28.

13 A pictorial analogy to Nashe's descriptive technique appears in Pieter Brueghel's infernal scenes, such as those in his series of engravings on the Seven Deadly Sins. Brueghel's visual puns—human figures merging weirdly with animal shapes and inanimate objects—are similar to Nashe's grotesque vignettes: "here vn-weeldie Switzers wallowing in their gore, like an Oxe in his dung, there the sprightly French sprawling and turning on the stained grasse, like a Roach new taken out of the streame" (II, 231). Likewise Brueghel's manner of composition, his treatment of each grouping of figures as an isolated dramatic event in a densely detailed scene, corresponds to Nashe's serial technique. Both of them in their reductive visions of mankind are keenly observant but detached: they try to involve the spectator sensuously rather than emotionally. For reproductions of Brueghel's engravings, see Adriaan J. Barnouw, The Fantasy of Pieter Brueghel (New York, 1947).

14Mimesis, tr. Willard Trask (New York, 1957), pp. 218-219.

15 See Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art (Madison, Wis., 1954), p. 26. Not surprisingly in one whose sentiments are so unstable, Nashe himself subscribed to this notion a few years earlier in The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589): "Amongst all the ornaments of Artes, Rethorik is to be had in highest reputation, without the which all the rest are naked, and she onely garnished" (I, 45). Actually Nashe aims his attack on Ciceronianism in The Unfortunate Traveller (II, 246-247, 251) at the pedantic abuses of rhetoric rather than at the art of eloquence itself. Explicitly, he defends the traditional doctrines; in practice, he deviates from them.

16Mimesis, p. 217.

17"Recent Studies in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama," Studies in English Literature, III (1963), 274.

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1966)

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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 an attribution means. It is usually thought to be a satire, but the target remains uncertain. To call it a random collection of jests and stylistic parodies does not seem to do justice to a commonly felt unity of mood and attitude that it shares with the rest of Nashe's prose. The structure of the novel (novel for lack of a better word), if indeed it has one, is still debated; so, too, are the various kinds of topical references embedded in it.1 Although the essay that follows touches on this whole body of problems, its immediate concern is much narrower: first, to point out that The Unfortunate Traveller creates the confusions that it does because it is a certain kind of fiction, one that poses a minor dilemma for critical theory; second, to show that the best path out of this dilemma is a structural one, one that considers Jack Wilton's personality as the central form of the novel.


It is fair, if simplistic, to say that the principal question usually asked of The Unfortunate Traveller is "What is it really about?" Inquiries into its form, its structure, the nature and direction of its satire and topical allusion, all return to uncertainty about its final concern. An inexplicable themelessness has been the real problem in almost all Nashe's prose: faced with it in The Unfortunate Traveller, critics have followed two main paths. Either they have sought in Nashe's life and personality a central, recurring preoccupation, or they have sought out a series of individual sources and analogues that Nashe glued together into a novel. Thus the early stories come from the jest-books, the long rants are rhetorical parodies, some of the satire is connected with the Harvey controversy. The joint result of these two lines of investigation has been, not surprisingly, to leave The Unfortunate Traveller more in pieces than ever and an easy prey to charges of formlessness. The only commentator to describe, rather than reproach, Nashe's inability to focus on a subject was the late C. S. Lewis.

Paradoxically, though Nashe's pamphlets are commercial literature, they come very close to being, in another way, "pure" literature: literature which is, as nearly as possible, without a subject. In a certain sense of the verb "say", if asked what Nashe "says", we should have to reply, Nothing. He tells no story, expresses no thought, maintains no attitude. Even his angers seem to be part of his technique rather than real passions. In his exhilarating whirlwind of words we find not thought nor passion but simply images: images of ludicrous and sometimes frightful incoherence boiling up from a dark void. There is that in Nashe which connects him with artists like Bosch and the later Picasso. (p. 416)

This shrewd observation, if it holds true for The Unfortunate Traveller, would seem to imply that the confusion about the novel is partly at least in the critics' methods, rather than in Nashe's prose. For if The Unfortunate Traveller is so much closer to the preconscious springs of creativity than fiction, certainly highly stylized Elizabethan fiction, usually is, then it is useless to seek a well-made plot. We will look equally in vain for a carefully-wrought series of literary parodies or a pattern of satire, topical or otherwise. The structure of such a work as Lewis describes will be found in none of these. It is hard indeed to think where it might be found by a critic, for there exists no commonly accepted critical procedure to deal with such an artifact. And, until we know more about the relationship between literary form and authorial psychology, none will exist. Such a lacuna is clearly too complex an issue to be opened here. It is germane to remark, however, that precisely this gap in literary theory may have created the fundamental disagreements about the novel. The Traveller may be offering diverse replies because it is being asked such diverse questions. The lesson taught us would seem to be a greater clarity of method than students of Nashe have generally felt the need for.

Two consistent approaches are possible to a novel like The Unfortunate Traveller, and neither is satisfactory. We can treat it as a collection of images, boiling up from the "dark void" of Nashe's preconscious mind, upon which he has not wholly succeeded in imposing a significant form. The novel would thus be sub- or perhaps pre-literary. Or, we can consider it as a complete fictional form in which continuity is imagistic (or, in some parts, stylistic) rather than narrative. The first approach would seem to deliver at least some of the novel into the hands of the biographer or the psychoanalyst, and objections will certainly arise to this. The second approach is equally open to question, for we would be using techniques of analysis developed to cope with fiction far more sophisticated than Nashe's. To do so would be to re-enact the kind of critical anachronism in which formalist terms are applied where there is little form. The two approaches are poles apart and each excludes the other. How is one to proceed? Either approach can rightfully be called forced, artificial, and incomplete.

Fortunately, for the case of The Unfortunate Traveller a compromise works out more easily in practice than theory promises. If the novel is not "really about" anything, has no central theme, it does have a central character, Jack Wilton. He is obviously the main concern of both biographical-psychoanalytical and formalist critic. He may be Nashe, he may be a persona, he may be first one, then the other, but he will be at the center of either approach. For it is evident that, in so far as whatever Jack says (or Nashe says through him) fails to provide a theme, the character of Jack himself will tend to take over the attention that theme usually draws to itself. Narrator will become subject. The most promising approach to the novel, then, would seem to lie through Jack Wilton.

To decide whether to strike a biographical or a formalist pose, we must first decide when Jack is talking and when Nashe. A doctrinaire formalist answer is easy; we may say that there is no character named Nashe in the novel. It is even easier, however, to see Nashe everywhere. The pamphlets are full of personal allusions and asides that seem to indicate Nashe drew no fine line between himself and his fictional spokesman. The very lack of a subject, in the conventional sense, would seem to encourage a biographical reading in which Nashe is talking throughout: we scarcely need Freud to remind us, after all, that when we talk with nothing to say, we end up talking about ourselves. We should expect, in such a case, a revelation of the inner life as well as the outer. Hibbard seems to imply something like this when he says that the only unity in The Unfortunate Traveller comes from Nashe's personality (p. 178). But the conditions that seem to encourage a biographical reading of The Unfortunate Traveller actually preclude it. There is, in the first place, little reliable biographical information outside the pamphlets themselves to bring to their interpretation. We can excerpt passages that "read like a personal allusion" as McKerrow put it, and use these to make up a biography that we then feed back into the pamphlets. But even when the allusions seem clearly autobiographical, the reasoning stays circular. And when we take biographical bits from one pamphlet and use them to identify Nashe's personality (style, opinions, attitudes) in another, the guesswork is compounded. This is not to say that a dominant personality may not inform either The Unfortunate Traveller or Nashe's work as a whole, but merely that this personality will have dubious biographical value. In the absence of a reliable external biography of Nashe, his "personality" will have the truth of fiction and not that of biography.

A more strictly psychoanalytical reading seems to face the same problem. There is so little external evidence of Nashe's personality that the novel, not Nashe, is psychoanalyzed. It is no condemnation of such a procedure, of course, to observe that it analyzes not an historical personage, Thomas Nashe, but a fictional character, Jack Wilton. But we do fetch up just where a biographical approach leads us. We must take Jack Wilton as our subject, and take him as we find him, for he is all we have. Regardless of our critical bias, sufficient information simply does not exist to make either a biographical or a psychoanalytical reading possible in its own terms. There is no reason not to speculate about Nashe's state of mind, of course, provided we call it speculation.

We are left, then, so far as I can see, with a formalist analysis of Jack Wilton as the only viable approach to the novel as an artistic whole. It is far from a perfect one, but the correctives of other approaches must, in this case, remain tentative. We must allow Jack Wilton all the prerogatives a sophisticated fiction demands.

This is so far from being the case at present that one of Nashe's most judicious critics, Hibbard, denies that Jack exists at all. The commonly accepted position is that he is a picaresque hero of some sort. Arnold Kettle, in presenting this view most recently, defined a picaro as a "social outcast … rejected by, and rejecting feudal society and its morality." "The picaro's story was typically disorganized," he goes on, "a series of incidents held together by no informing plan, by nothing save the presence of the hero, who is himself a vagabond whose life has no centre and no pattern" (I, 21 ff.). McKerrow, on the other hand, held the opposite view: "practically nothing in the work … can have been suggested by the picaresque type of romance." Jack Wilton "was not intended to be a rogue at all" (Works v, 23). Hibbard cuts the knot by arguing Jack's personality out of existence altogether.

Dr. Kettle's picture of Jack as the outcast rogue, who has a certain place in society but does not "belong" to that society or feel himself in any way morally bound to its standards, is a happy fiction, concocted to serve a general theory of the picaresque. There is no Jack in the proper sense of the word, and, so far as I can see, there is no society either. (p. 178)

What I am committed to argue here is that there is a Jack Wilton and that there is a society, and that their relationship supplies both a structure and a subject for The Unfortunate Traveller.


Hibbard, in dissolving Jack, seems to be saying two things. First, that The Unfortunate Traveller is not a novel, because neither the hero nor his society remain identifiably the same throughout. The pamphlet is rather a series of tales about a series of heroes, all called Jack Wilton, but sharing little else. Second, that none of the Jack Wiltons responds to his society in the way Kettle suggests. Both verdicts are really answers to a single, not always explicit, question that seems to me the central one for the novel's structure: What attitude, or attitudes, toward society does Jack Wilton assume?

Jack Wilton is a scoundrel. He is hard up. He lives by his wits. But it is not clear that he combines these three ingredients in a picaresque formula. He does not commit a major crime that would forfeit our sympathy entirely, but it is only by accident that he does not. He does not spend all his chronicle telling us about cadging a living; only the first few episodes. He uses his wits more for pleasure and less for food than the kind of hero Dr. Kettle has in mind. It has been assumed that he is a satiric persona of some sort, but he really does not fit this type either. His behavior implies no criticism of social values. His outbursts against the order of things lament not that order as good or bad in itself, but simply his place in it. He never illustrates a framework of values larger than his own. He does, it is true, occasionally assume the pose of a vir bonus, as when he is considering the discarded niceness of the Earl of Surrey: "I sweare unto you I thought his companie the better by a thousand crownes, because hee had discarded those nice tearms of chastitie and continencie. Now I beseech God loue me so well as I loue a plaine dealing man; earth is earth, flesh is flesh … (Works, II, 245). But his actions before and after this asseveration make of it merely a pose. He is the very opposite of plain-dealing, unless it is to his advantage to be so. Thus we have properly speaking not satire at all in The Unfortunate Traveller but burlesque.2 The novel is often read for social history, but Jack's grotesque exaggerations and burlesque mockeries teach us little about Elizabethan England. When Jack is at his best, in Surrey's tournament, Vanderhulke's oration, in the death of Cutwolf, the social criticism is tangential. The abuse is the thing. This fondness prompts Sutherland to comment: "Nashe's satire exists in a vacuum. His attitude to controversy is like that of the Irishman who asked, 'Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?'" (p. 35). Yet the abuse is seldom good-natured or, in spite of all the adulation of Nashe's exuberant high spirits, really exhilarating. Even the burlesque writer must cherish some modicum of liking for his target. Compare, in this respect, Panurge's silent debate with Thaumast in Gargantua and Pantagruel with Wilton's description of Vanderhulke. Jack is too eager to strike, too senseless and indiscriminate in his targets to be a humorist. And in his need to find a target for his aggressiveness, and to overwhelm it with abuse, he loses that prime requirement for the satirist, self-control. His anger betrays in him a motive which is neither moral indignation nor good-natured amusement at folly, but simply a free-floating aggression looking for a target. And the classic kind of generalized angst seems to go with it; Jack always sounds like a hounded intruder, ready to run away from the wrath he engenders or to confess that he really did not mean it. He never seems strong. Nothing could well be further from the traditional tone of satire than this fearful insecurity.

Jack may be, as Hibbard suggests in his chapter on The Unfortunate Traveller, simply a joker out of the jest books in the first few adventures, but the reader soon encounters a more complicated motivation. The railer seems to rail out of sheer frustration and rage. Like his own description of Aretine, "utterly given over to artlesse envie" (Works, II, 265), he is a kind of allegorical indignatio. We wonder how he will succeed in matching wits with "them," with the society from which he seems cut off, but we wonder still more why he must continually attack them. Why attacks becomes more important than what he attacks. The satirist becomes subject.

Satirist here means the Jack Wilton who emerges from the admittedly unrelated episodes he passes through, the identity that accretes around the name, as in any narrative fiction. These identities do seem to have a lowest common denominator: the factor "outsider." Wherever he finds himself, he occupies an ambivalent, indeterminate place. He is a page, but certainly not one of the pert small boys who delighted the Elizabethan theatre audiences; neither is he commoner, nor yet is he treated like a gentleman. He is a traveller in a foreign land. He is a Falstaff who gets mixed up in the wars. He is a Protestant in Catholic Italy, an orthodox Anglican among the Anabaptists. He is friend to a lord, would like to change identities with him and is happy when he does, but he is unable to make the change permanent. He worships Surrey for his liberality but mocks his chivalric ideals in the tournament. He extolls the sacred duty of poetry and poet, but continually dwells on his own authorial haste and carelessness. He is a fool with no tolerance; a funny man who cannot stop short of the grotesque. Scornful of all who do not act from self-interest, he yet praises the unworldly, unselfish poet. He is in some ways like the ideal poet he describes, and would like to resemble him in others: "None come so neere to God in wit, none more contemne the world…. Despised they are of the worlde, because they are not of the world: their thoughts are exalted aboue the worlde of ignorance and all earthly conceits" (Works, II, 242). If all these instances of isolation, of ambivalent status, occurred in an elaborately structured satire on something else, on travelling, for example, or rhetoric, or chivalric derring-do, with a carefully devised, consistent persona, one might say the coincidence was forced or fortuitous, or both. But when context offers no reason at all to choose one situation over another, when the forces that Nashe's subconscious mind exerts on him are given such free play, then if Wilton is in essentially the same position in all his episodes, perhaps one can speculate that Nashe was, whatever his intention, repeatedly dramatizing a single social predicament much on his mind.

The kind of jesting Jack likes fits this predicament well enough. The joke is, for him, an instrument of attack, of deflation. As he says admiringly of Aretine: "His pen was sharp pointed lyke a poinyard; no leafe he wrote on but was lyke a burning glasse to set on fire all his readers. With more than musket shot did he charge his quill" (Works, II, 264). Wilton's characteristic rhetorical figures are the "reducing" ones: "his alie honor" for the camp victualler whose gulling opens Jack Wilton's adventures; "their hooded hypocrisie" to describe the Wittenberg scholars who welcome the Duke of Saxony; Petro de Campo Frego, "our special approved good pandar" as Wilton styles him, was "seene in all the seven liberall deadly sciences." Jack allows no figure of respect or authority or prosperity to remain unattacked; the prosperous camp victualler is ruined and disgraced; Erasmus and More are left to their "discontented studies"; Surrey, who is praised with a fulsomeness intended, as Hibbard thinks, to catch Sidney's eye, is ridiculed for his love of Geraldine and of chivalric tourneys; Tabitha is executed; Diamante's cuckolded husband is made to run off; Dr. Zachary is banished by the Pope; Zadoch "executed with al the firy torments that could be found out"; Cutwolf shoots Esdras of Granado in the mouth in a memorable scene; Cutwolf himself is graphically butchered a page later. It is a mistake to think that evil is being punished in all cases. These figures share not evil, or goodness, but a dominant position over Jack. Jack does not triumph, unless his last-page marriage to his "curtizan" be so considered, but he does manage to protect himself against what today we might call the "system," power legitimate or not. The typical situation of the pamphlet appears to be Jack's revenge on his persecutors. More than the run-of-the-mill picaro-rogue who lives by his wits, he is pursued and tormented. His predicaments tend to be horribly bizarre; he is threatened not with a beating but with being donated to a medical school for experiment. The kinds of things that plague Jack, as The Unfortunate Traveller changes from a jest-book exercise into something more serious, are infinitely varied. But the threatening itself persists.

Hibbard is right, I think, in refusing to look upon this aspect of Jack's behavior as a studied "picaro" pose, as antifeudal manifestation of prebourgeois philosophy. Jack vacillates too much. But his repudiation of authority seems unmistakable. We can speculate, if we like, that Nashe's own attitude toward authority sought and found expression in The Unfortunate Traveller. He, too, occupied a marginal class position. But this speculation does not force us to agree with Kettle that The Unfortunate Traveller was written to illustrate an emergent bourgeois attitude toward the dying feudal social structure. If we must speculate, we might say that the novel illustrates Nashe's subconscious attitude toward authority as well as Jack Wilton's precisely because it was not written to illustrate that attitude or any other. No theme interfered with a settled preoccupation of mind.

Jack's persistent attack of authority suggests the kind of humor we are to expect from him. It only pretends to be lighthearted, Rabelaisian. Agnes M. C. Lathem writes: "So deft are Nashe's lightning transitions that we almost forgive him for writing a book which requires them, a book designed to leave its readers giddy, gasping and weak with laughter, as though they had just come off a switch-back." No one, I submit, has ever been left gasping and weak with laughter by The Unfortunate Traveller since the first day it was hawked about London at the start of its not notably successful career. We are giddy all right, but not from laughter. Wilton's technique is that of the improvisor who can go on jesting ex tempore as long as he can profit from it. He walks a tightrope. We are giddy because he is giddy too, and always on the point of falling off. Does Nashe consciously create this vertigo? Does he pretend to a haste deliberately calculated to throw the reader off balance and keep him there? Or was he writing so fast that he really did approximate an improvising jester? Again, we might look at The Unfortunate Traveller rather than at Nashe's psyche. Had he restored the reader's balance by slowing down, he certainly would have destroyed the power of the fiction. For by accident or choice, its profuse speed is one of its great virtues. Without it, Wilton's jesting would fall flat. He lacks tolerance. To compensate, he sustains outrageous abuse and revolting gore endlessly. Not the just accuracy of his attack, but the imaginative variety, the rhetorical richness of his animosity, provoke the laughter. The more incoherent the associative rambling, the more it tells us, not about the subject, but about Jack. In the passage quoted earlier, C. S. Lewis comments on the unreality of Nashe's anger. If we read "Jack Wilton" for "Nashe," we may perhaps see this unreality in The Unfortunate Traveller. The angrier Jack gets, the more elaborate his language becomes. The more elaborate the language, the more one attends to it and not to the target of the abuse. The object of The Unfortunate Traveller, what Nashe says, what The Unfortunate Traveller is about, becomes Jack Wilton. If pressed, Jack himself might confess that his great subject was his own wrath.

If we look more closely at Jack's adventures, we can see his increasingly violent anger patterning out a specific social class relationship. In his first adventure, with the victualler, he emerges as a practical joker on the edge of harmlessness and about to step over. The victualler, or tapster, is a fool but harmless. He in no way hurts Jack nor, so far as the reader knows, anyone else. He is a neutral target and the jest unprovoked: "He and no other was the man I chose out to damne with a lewd moniless device" (Works, II, 211). But Jack thinks of him in an odd way:

there was a Lord in the campe, let him be a Lord of misrule if you will, for he kept a plaine alehouse without welt or gard or anie ivybush…. This great Lord, this worthie Lord, this noble Lord, thought no scorne (Lord, have mercie vpon us) to haue his great veluet breeches larded with the droppings of this daintie liquor, & yet he was an old seruitor, a cauelier of an ancient house, as might appeare by the armes of his ancestors, drawen verie amiably in chalke on the in side of his tent dore. (Works, II, 210-211)

Why cast the tapster as a lord? And which side is Jack on? Does he attribute to the victualler aristocratic pretensions so that he can ridicule him for them? Or mock the panoply of aristocratic life by attributing it to a tradesman? Or simply try to get a laugh from the incongruity? He seems on neither side and antagonistic to both. He could fetch a laugh here in many ways, yet chooses to do it by ironically juxtaposing two social classes. And the juxtaposition is finally irrelevant, for the main jest (the kind we expect of a picaro rogue) comes later, when he invents his story of high-level betrayal in order to obtain free meat and drink. His mindless detail seems more to his real purpose than the traditional jest by which the sharp-witted rogue obtains free cider from the dull victualler. On the one hand Jack Wilton is fascinated by the genteel, who in these times was frequently down-at-heels, and on the other hand, by the middle-class, who were prospering as never before. He envies both and yokes them together for no other reason than to group his enemies.

His joke on the Captain, a little more serious than that played on the victualler, has at least some provocation. The Captain, though poor, flaunts his rank: "You must think in an Armie, where trunchions are in their state-house, it is a flat stab once to name a Captaine without cap in hand. Well, suppose he was a Captaine, and had neuer a good cap of his owne, but I was faire to lend him one of my Lords cast veluet caps, and a weather-beaten feather, wherewith he threatened his soldiers a far off …" (Works, II, 217). Jack resents the show of power, and also the poverty, since he has to gamble for the Captain to remedy it. So he schemes to have him sent on a dangerous mission from which he will not return. What sidesplitting fun!

Gone he is; God send him good shipping to Wapping, and by this time, if you will, let him be a pitiful poore fellow and vndone for euer: for mine own part, if he had been mine own brother, I could haue done no more for him than I did, for straight after his back was tumd, I went in all loue and kindness to the Marshall generall of the field, & certifide him that such a man was lately fled to the Enemie, & got his place begd for another immediately. (Works, II, 222)

The humor of the jest comes from the skill with which Jack uses his wits and observation to play on the Captain. Jack, the clever, perceptive subordinate who sees beneath pretense to real motive, is made to play the fool for a clod whom the rough hand of social inequity has placed above him. (The Captain gives himself away to the French King by the lack of that ready wit which Jack so plentifully possesses.) Jack temporarily redresses the balance. Here again we should note some apparently unimportant details. The Captain's weakness on which Jack plays is the desire to be noticed and hence advanced in rank: "Resteth no way for you to clime sodenly but by doing some rare strategeme, the like not before heard of: and fitlie at this time occasion is offered" (Works, II, 218). The Captain is tempted to folly much as, at another level, Jack himself is set in action. For the ruse aims, as the long quotation above shows, to rid Jack not so much of the Captain's drain on his purse as of the Captain himself, so as to get his place for another.

The more closely one reads these harmless, happy incidents, the more one begins to think Jack Wilton a rogue. Look, for example, at this apologia that Jack tosses out in the midst of telling how he robbed the "companie of Coystrell Clearkes."

My masters, you may conceaue of me what you list, but I thinke confidently I was ordained Gods scourge from aboue for their daintie finicalitie. The houre of their punishment could no longer be proroged, but vengeance must haue at them at all a ventures. So it was, that the most of these aboue-named goose-quill Braggadoches were mere cowards and crauens, and durst not so much as throwe a pen-full of inke into the Enemies face, if proofe were made: wherefore on the experience of their pusillanimitie I thought to raise the foundation of my roguerie. (Works, II, 226)

A preposterous justification, it in some sort jumps with Jack's humor—he likes to punish. This pleasure in punishment, merited or not, recurs in all Jack's adventures.

Jack betrays his preoccupation with the outward signs of rank in the first narrative link, which bridges the time between the first trip abroad and the second, and which includes his activities as a page and the description of the sweating sickness in England. He remarks of his page service:

I was the first that brought in the order of passing into the Court which deriued from the common word Qui passa and the Heralds phrase of armes Passant, thinking in sinceritie, he was not a Gentleman, nor his armes currant, who was not first past by the Pages. If anie Prentise or other came into the Court that was not a Gentleman, I thought it was an indignitie to the preheminence of the Court to include such a one, and could not bee salude except wee gaue him Armes Passant, to make him a Gentleman. (Works, II, 227-228)

What an unusual deed to chronicle! Surely this didn't come from the jest books. It has no relevance whatever. Jack seems no particular friend to the nobility elsewhere in the story, or indeed even here. He is simply preoccupied with social distinctions.

The description of the sweating sickness delights in repulsive detail simply for its own sake. The description of the battle of "Turwin" that follows seems just such another:

It was my good lucke or my ill (I know not which) to come just to the fighting of the Battell; where I saw a wonderfull spectacle of blood-shed on both sides: here vnweeldie Switzers wallowing in their gore, like an Oxe in his dung, there the sprightly French sprawling and turning on the stained grasse, like a Roach new taken out of the streame: all the ground was strewed as thicke with Battle-axes as the Carpenters yard with chips; the Plaine appeared like a quagmyre, ouerspred as it was with trampled dead bodies. In one place might you behold a heape of dead murthered men ouerwhelmed with a falling Steede in stead of a toombe stone, in another place a bundell of bodies fettered together in their owne bowells; and as the tyrant Romane Emperours used to tye condemned liuing captiues face to face to dead corses, so were the halfe liuing here mixt with squeazed carcases long putrifide … the French King himselfe in this Conflict was much distressed, the braines of his owne men sprinkled in his face…. (Works, II, 231)

This description serves no narrative purpose. Jack seems so to have enjoyed describing the sweating sickness horrors that when he comes to the end of them, he must needs keep going. He enjoys watching the scourge of God at work.

The tirade against John of Leiden and his Anabaptists Hibbard takes to be serious religious satire (or at least abuse). It may be. It certainly offers Jack another role as scourge. This reader at least finds that Jack enjoys playing the role quite as much as he has a theological grievance—that, in other words, Jack has capitalized on still another occasion to vent his own generalized spleen.

How much weight to attach to the recurrent jibing at Surrey's Geraldine is hard to judge. If for Surrey we are to read Sidney, this persistent mockery makes no sense at all. The nonsensical tournament renders this identification more difficult still. The soul of the jest lies in the insignia of rank, and, more generally, in the upperclass ceremony, but the incongruities are so carefully elaborated that one is tempted to call it the only really harmless jest in the work. Characteristically, Wilton overdoes it. There are too many ludicrous chivalric devices. But he shows here what he seldom does elsewhere, a real interest and delight in what he mocks. He approaches something like bemused tolerance. If Jack Wilton's trading of identities with Surrey has any relevance at all, it may be to offer the other side of Jack's very ambivalent attitude to persons of rank. He envies them, yet his wit and common sense alone would set him off from their elaborate politesse even if his worldly situation suddenly altered for the better.

The most arresting episodes in The Unfortunate Traveller, as well as the most seemingly irrelevant, tell of the bandit Esdras of Granado. The first of these episodes is the rape of Heraclide, which Jack describes. At this point Jack ceases to be a protagonist and becomes only a narrator of the violence to follow. He begins the process of dissociation which is climaxed by Cutwolf's suicidal surrender, when the principle of violence, one might say, is sacrificed to the principle of order. This change from actor to narrator of violence has never been satisfactorily explained. Focussing on the progression of violence rather than on the humor might help explain it. By becoming the narrator of violent antisocial behavior rather than its perpetrator, Wilton can both continue the progression of increasing violence and at the same time keep the credibility of one who has not done anything irrevocably wrong. While retaining some of the elements of the picaro pose, he can yet revel in a serious violence the picaresque mode forbids.

In the rape of Heraclide episode, no pretense either to jest or to picaro revenge prank is made. Jack describes, at interminable and intolerable length, the sadistic torment and final rape of a wife on the supposedly dead body of her husband. The rhetoric is ludicrously overdrawn:

This woman, this matrone, this forsaken Heraclide, hauing buried fourteene children in fiue daies, whose eyes she howlingly closed, & caught manie wrinckles with fiinerall kisses; besides hauing her husband within a day after laid forth as a comfortles corse, a carrionly blocke, that could neither eate with her, speak with her, nor weepe with her; is she not to bee borne withall though her body swell with a Timpany of teares, though her speech be as impatient as vnhappie Hecubas, thogh her head raues and her braine doate? Deuise with your selues that you see a corse rising from his hierce after he is carried to church, & such another suppose Heraclide to be, rising from the couch of enforced adulterie. (Works, II, 292-293)

Yet it never collapses into parody and so it remains extravagant and cruel. The episode is offensive, yet may have been meant as a jest. Literary analysis is helpless. The novel itself provides no standards by which to judge such savoured, but irrelevant violence. Nashe supplies no stylistic control by which to judge the rhetoric. As one stage in a series of progressively more violent scenes the episode at least has a context. Rebellion against the constituted order could hardly be taken any further than Esdras of Granado takes it. The punishment of Esdras by Cutwolf poses the same puzzles as the rape of Heraclide. Hibbard sees it as a deadly serious exemplum "depicting the inevitable way in which divine justice works to punish human weakness" (p. 167). But the emphasis is all on the punishment, not on the justice. It is incidentally a just action; in the context of The Unfortunate Traveller, it provides a climactic act of violence. Cutwolf's oration draws the torment out with sadistic relish. As with the rape of Heraclide, the rhetoric is too declamatory to be seriously convincing, draws attention from action to speaker. Yet if self-consciously declamatory, it is still too vivid to be burlesque. Both gore and rhetoric draw our attention to Cutwolf, not to justice. The scene is the most frankly violent in the novel. We can, I think, relate it to the pattern of violence preceding it by construing Cutwolf's punishment of Esdras as Jack Wilton's attempt to kill the scourge of God figure that he had been acting and dramatizing. He casts Cutwolf in the part and then has him surrender himself to the mob that tears him apart. Thus the enjoyment of violence, so evident throughout, is brought under at least some social control.

If we were permitted a guess at Wilton's subconscious, we might say he is here vicariously killing off a part of himself that blocks his establishing a harmonious relationship with society.

Brauely did he drum on this Cutwolfes bones, not breaking them outright, but, like a sadler knocking in of tackes, iarring on them quaueringly with his hammer a great while together. No ioint about him but with a hatchet he had for the nones he disioynted halfe, and then with boyling lead souldered vp the wounds from bleeding: his tongue he puld out, least he should blaspheme in his torment: venimous stinging wormes hee thrust into his eares, to keep his head rauingly occupied: with cankers scruzed to peeces hee rubd his mouth and his gums: no lim of his but was lingeringly splintered in shiuers. (Works, II, 327)

Odd treatment at all events to give a vicar of God's justice, in an otherwise happy—or at least neutral—ending.


At this point the reader may well ask to what end this violence tends, what artistic purpose it fulfills. None. The Unfortunate Traveller is indeed "pure" literature, a succession of grotesque episodes with structure, a "theme" if you like, so far as Jack is conceived, but building to no paraphrasable meaning. We may emphasize the language to back-light the "rhetorical" parody; we may excerpt detail to get social history. We may point out sources, and call the novel one of a series of "merrie tales" collections. We may, as has been done here, examine Jack's role to gain from it a fundamental pattern, a narrative repetition of social disenfranchisement and violence. But, having seen this pattern, we can do nothing with it. Jack's story is a confession, a fictional autobiography in which, as Northrop Frye says,3 the speaker makes available what he feels has been an integration of his own experience. But here no integration has occurred. The confession is bankrupt. Jack is a consistent character, I believe, but we seldom either profit or delight from his chronicle. He establishes a characteristic accent, one that reveals his personality as well as the episodes that it so clearly complements. Jack is not the problem of The Unfortunate Traveller and neither is narrative unity. Seeing him clearly solves, I think, both problems. The real dilemma The Unfortunate Traveller poses is how one criticizes the imitation of a truly neurotic personality. Can literature take as subject not a personality integrated by literary form, but a personality integrated by no form save the search for one, consistent only in the love of violence? The Unfortunate Traveller is being read today as it has not been since Nashe's lifetime. I wonder if this is because we respond to it as literary form or only because Wilton's neurosis is very like our own. Perhaps it is because his neurosis is like ours that our novel is becoming so much like his.

It is not difficult to find Jack Wilton's personality in other of Nashe's prose fictions. It is not difficult to see that this personality is enhanced by Nashe's characteristic looseness of form, for this looseness offers his sometimes subconscious frustrations precisely the opportunity they need to gain expression. Nor is it hard to relate such an incoherent, disenfranchised personality to the little we know of Nashe's own life and the good deal that we know of others like him. Jack Wilton's frustrations may, in fact, be those of a whole group of Elizabethan writers. Nashe, with nothing to write about, may have written about more than himself.

Looking at The Unfortunate Traveller in this pseudobiographical light may also suggest the extent of Nashe's indebtedness to the picaresque tradition. That his original intention was, in general terms, picaresque seems likely. The beginning of the novel, drawing as it does on the jest books for some clever stunts, seems to indicate it. But Nashe soon shifted direction away from this traditional beginning. What followed was, everyone seems to agree, original. In precisely what way it became original I hope I have begun to show. One can speculate why Nashe started out as he did; he could write a successful jokebook and relieve some of the spleen his own failures had built up. Once started in this way, it seems very plausible that he would modify the picaresque jest to his own purposes. In doing so he did not create a finished work of art—it is more like the wellings-up of subconscious situations and responses in the creative imagination that provide the raw material of art. It strikes one, as I think do many of Nashe's pamphlets, as the product of a prodigious creative imagination of almost Dickensian richness, running beyond control.

Hibbard remarks in the course of his discussion of The Unfortunate Traveller that it "has no representative quality at all" (p. 146). I maintain that it does. This quality, this consistent pattern of antisocial violence, may well have come from the unique expressive demands that Nashe's personality and social situation made on his writing. But we cannot prove it.


1 The only full-length study of Nashe, G. R. Hibbard's Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, Mass., 1962) includes a chapter on The Unfortunate Traveller. C. S. Lewis has written brilliantly but briefly of Nashe's prose in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: excluding drama (New York, 1954). The notes to McKerrow's edition (The Works of Thomas Nashe, Ronald B. McKerrow, ed., rev. F. P. Wilson, 5 vols., Oxford, 1958), the starting point for any student of Nashe, are not especially illuminating for problems of structure. Professor F. T. Bowers long ago made out a case for the novel as picaresque in "Thomas Nashe and the Picaresque Novel" (Studies in Honor of John Calvin Metcalf Charlottesville, 1941). Arnold Kettle puts this interpretation into the framework of a Marxist theory of the picaresque novel in An Introduction to the English Novel (2 vols., London, 1951). James R. Sutherland comments briefly on the satire of The Unfortunate Traveller in English Satire (New York, 1958). Agnes M. C. Lathem sees The Unfortunate Traveller as essentially a series of parodies of rhetorical exercises: "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's 'Unfortunate Traveller'" (English Studies 1948, New Series, 1, 85-100). More recently, Sister Maria Gibbons has directed attention to the elements in the novel that recall Nashe the controversialist: "Polemic, the Rhetorical Tradition, and The Unfortunate Traveller" (Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LXIII, 408 ff.). David Kaula has analyzed "The Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller" (Studies in English Literature, VI, i, 43-57). There is also a detailed stylistic study by George M. Anderson, still unpublished, "The Use of Language and Rhetoric in Thomas Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller" (Doct. Diss., Yale University, 1961). All subsequent citations of these works are in parentheses within the text.

2 Kenneth Burke makes this distinction in Attitudes Toward History: "The method of burlesque (polemic, caricature) is partial not only in the sense of partisan, but also in the sense of incompleteness. As such, it does not contain a well-rounded frame within itself; we can use it for the ends of wisdom only insofar as we ourselves provide the ways of making allowances for it; we must not be merely equal to it, we must be enough greater than it to be able to 'discount' what it says." (Boston, 1961), p. 55.

3Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. 307-308.

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7711

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 works on it until he has exhausted its possibilities or grown bored with it, and then moves on to something else, unconcerned about its relationship with what has gone before, intent on showing his craftsmanship by treating it in an arresting manner and relying on his virtuosity as a showman to cover the gaps."1 Stanley Wells puts the case succinctly: The Unfortunate Traveller, he writes, "has no organizing principle; it is not a unified work of art."2 These are two of Nashe's most sensitive and understanding critics; and I should say at once that to argue for The Unfortunate Traveller as a fully coherent work would demand more critical ingenuity than I possess. But it seems worth suggesting that, in our anxiety not to force a bogus unity on the book, we may have overlooked some interesting cases where one point does connect with another, where arrangement seems purposeful, and where there is some consistency in the ideas beyond the basic purposes of entertainment and stylistic display. That is all I want to claim; but if the claim seems reasonable it may suggest a slight re-adjustment in our judgment of Nashe's achievement.

To begin with a simple point: one cannot help noticing that, in the rich variety of the book, one kind of atmosphere seems increasingly predominant. There is, especially towards the end, a sense of oppressive heat and physical corruption. Sweating, tortured flesh becomes an obsession. The motif is introduced fairly early, in the description of the sweating sickness:

The Mortalitie first began amongst old men, for they, taking a pride to haue their breasts loose basted with tedious beards, kept their houses so hot with their hayry excrements, that not so much but their verie walls sweat out salt-peeter with the smothering perplexitie: nay, a number of them had meruailous hot breaths, which sticking in the briers of their bushie beards, could not choose but (as close aire long imprisoned) ingender corruption. (p. 230)3

The tactile sense has become unnaturally acute—walls sweat, breaths cling to beards—an ordinary domestic scene has become a nightmare. And throughout the book Nashe gives us a vivid sense of the sheer physical discomfort of life, particularly when our normal senses are tuned to a pitch that is unnaturally intense. This physical horror is matched with an increasing moral horror at a world full of violence and corruption; in both cases our sense of what is normal is outraged. There is the figure of Esdras of Granada, rising arrogantly above moral law, and frighteningly immune (or so he appears at first) to the normal processes of fate and retribution: "I tel thee I haue cast the dice an hundred times for the gallies in Spaine, and yet still mist the ill chance…. Now thinkest thou that I who so oft haue escaped such a number of hellish dangers, onely depending vppon the turning of a fewe prickes, can bee scare-bugd with the plague?" (pp. 290-291) Moral and physical horror combine in the increasing proliferation of scenes of treachery, murder, and torture towards the end of the book. The world is so corrupt that it seems to be hurtling towards doomsday, when "the Sunne shall be turned into darknesse, and the Moone into bloud" (p. 235).

Against this violent and corrupt world, Nashe sets the pleasure garden of the summer house in Rome. This is not, I think, simply a piece of "fine writing" indulged in for its own sake. It provides a vision of life that is diametrically opposed to the chaos outside the garden, and correspondingly extreme. It is in itself a model of the world, "a heauen and earth comprehended both vnder one roofe" (p. 282). But it is a model of the world before the Fall, a world of harmony, order, and innocence: the music of the spheres is heard; the wolf and the lamb lie down together. As Nashe's description continues, the past tense begins to take on special force, and this model of Eden seems to fuse with the real, "historical" Eden in the writer's mind: "Serpents were as harmlesse to mankinde as they are still one to another: the rose had no cankers, the leues no caterpillers, the sea no Syrens, the earth no vsurers. Goats then bare wooll, as it is recorded in Sicily they doo yet. The torride Zone was habitable …. As the Elephant vnderstands his countrey speach, so euerie beast vnderstood what man spoke" (pp. 284-285). The walls of the garden seem to dissolve, and we have instead a vision of the whole earth as it was before Adam fell. But this is only part of the effect. Pulling in the opposite direction is a very clear sense of the garden as a mechanical contrivance, where flowers are "painted" on the ground (p. 283) and where the music of the spheres is produced by some "enwrapped arte" (p. 282). This impression, of course, centers on the fantastic mechanical birds who provide the music of the garden. Nashe describes the beauty of their song, but he spends most of the description on an elaborate account of the metal pipes, bellows, lead plummets, and revolving wheel that operate the mechanism (pp. 283-284). This unfallen world is not, after all, the reality of Eden recovered; it is an ingenious mechanical contrivance. And since the description of the birds comes before the passage on the animals, mentioned above, that passage is shadowed with irony. The only animals who lie down peaceably together are clockwork toys. The peace of the garden is a mechanical peace, possible only to "bodies without soules" (p. 283). Agnes M. C. Latham suggests that "The shortcomings of the real world are mocked by this exquisite fantasy,"4 but I think the effect is more complicated than that. The outside world is real but horrible; the garden is beautiful but unreal: each world mocks the other. We may recall here the sly description of the tournament at Florence, in which the elaborate armor of the knights is a laughable attempt to reproduce the real world mechanically—notably the trappings of Surrey's horse, made to imitate an ostrich (p. 272). The pleasure garden at Rome is not the only place where we can find mechanical birds. Here, however, the comic effect comes through simple exaggeration;5 in the later passage, the effect is subtler, a juxtaposition of the real and unreal worlds, showing the inadequacies of each.

The contrast between the pleasure garden and the world outside is, of course, a general one; Nashe does not bother with point-by-point comparisons. But the fact that Nashe moves (with only a brief interlude) from the garden to a startling description of the plague would seem to indicate that the contrast is intentional. And I think there is a contrast on one specific point, at least. The birds are indestructible, because they are mechanical. In contrast, human flesh is shockingly vulnerable:6 "I haue seene an old woman at that season, hauing three chins, wipe them all away one after another, as they melted to water, and left hir selfe nothing of a mouth but an vpper chap" (p. 229). This is one of Nashe's most characteristic effects. The blending of farce and horror, the exaggeration that is the more outrageous for being so precise—if one wants to give an impression of what Nashe's style is like, this is one of the most tempting passages to quote. The idea of the dissolution of human flesh seems to spark his imagination. And this is something about which his narrator, Jack, has a particular phobia, especially when the flesh is question is his own. Here, he is threatened with dissection by Doctor Zachary:

O, the colde sweating cares which I concerned after I knewe I should be cut like a French summer dublet. Me thought already the blood began to gush out at my nose: if a flea on the arme had but bit me, I deemed the instrument had prickt me. Wel, well, I may scoffe at a shrowd turne, but theres no such readie way to make a man a true Christian, as to perswade himselfe he is taken vp for an anatomie. Ile depose I praid then more than I did in seuen yeare before. Not a drop of sweate trickled downe my breast and my sides, but I dreamt it was a smooth edgd razer tenderly slicing down my breast and sides …. In the night I dreamd of nothing but phlebotomie, bloudie fluxes, incarnatiues, running vlcers. I durst not let out a wheale, for feare through it I should bleede to death, (p. 305)

In both these passages, our sense of what is physically normal is once again shocked: flesh dissolves into liquid; a single break in the skin will let out the blood of the whole body. The element of farce in both descriptions makes the exaggeration acceptable to the imagination: what we could not believe as straight description, we will accept readily enough if it is presented as at least half a joke. But there is, at the same time, a nervous edge to the joking: our bodies really are vulnerable to the most appalling damage; Nashe has exaggerated something that is real, and the comic tone may be partly an attempt to cover up a very real sense of shock.7

Even when he is rescued from the threat of dissection, Jack still has cause to worry that his body will be worn out by serving Juliana's lust. When Diamante shows her the poison intended for her, Juliana puts it on the shelf, "thinking to keepe it for some good purposes: as, for example, when I was consumed and worne to the bones through her abuse, she wold giue me but a dram too much, and pop mee into a priuie" (p. 314). Fundamentally, she is no different from Zachary. They both want to use his body, though for different purposes, and they are equally indifferent to Jack himself. Sex is just another, slower way in which the body can be wasted and destroyed, till it becomes a piece of rubbish to be popped into the privy. And Jack's fears look like being realized: "Nere a sixe houres but the Countesse cloyd me with her companie. It grew to this passe, that either I must finde out some miraculous meanes of escape, or drop awaie in a consumption, as one pinde for lack of meate: I was clean spent and done, there was no hope for me" (p. 316). This way of describing sexual exhaustion, as the wasting of the flesh, is common enough,8 and it carries the suggestion of venereal disease, a suggestion which Jack makes explicit elsewhere: "Some inconuenience she brought mee too by her harlot-like behauior, of which inough I can neuer repent me" (p. 314). The same suggestion, it is worth noting, is conveyed by the sweating sickness, one symptom of which is the loss of hair (p. 229). The horror of the pox clearly obsessed the Elizabethan mind—the number of jokes they made about it tells us that—and even when it is not specifically mentioned, it may be part of Nashe's imaginative response to the vulnerability of the flesh. In any case, the transfer of Jack from Zachary to Juliana shows us that the anatomy subject and the hard-worked gigolo are essentially in the same category, and that whether the body is used as an object of analysis or of selfish, one-sided pleasure (Jack never admits to enjoying sex with Juliana; quite the reverse, in fact) the basic effect is the same—the cynical exploitation of a very vulnerable object.

When the idea of physical dissolution is first introduced in the book, it is a purely comic effect. When Jack is terrorizing the cider-merchant, "then fell hee on his knees, wrong his handes, and I thinke on my conscience, wepte out all the syder that he had dronke in a weeke before" (p. 213). In the context of this particular episode, this is a side-effect, the main point being Jack's practical joke on the merchant. In later passages, such as the description of the sweating sickness, the concentration is on physical description, the idea of a body dissolving into liquid carries more weight and importance, and the comic exaggeration combines with a genuine sense of shock. Similarly the idea of tortured flesh is at first passed off quite casually: "Then was I pitifully whipt for my holiday lye, though they made themselues merrie with it manie a Winters euening after" (p. 216).9 But the battle scenes on the continent treat the idea in more detail:

as the tyrant Romane Emperours vsed to tye condemned liuing caytiues face to face to dead corses, so were the halfe liuing here mixt with squeazed carcases long putrifide. Anie man might giue Armes that was an actor in that Battell, for there were more armes and legs scattered in the Field that day than will be gathered vp till Doomes-day: the French King himselfe in this Conflict was much distressed, the braines of his owne men sprinkled in his face…. (p. 231)

The tone here is still to some extent detached and flippant, and the last grisly touch is largely sensationalism; the narrator's own feelings do not really seem to be aroused, and comedy and horror do not feed on each other, as they do in other passages. But Nashe is clearly becoming more interested in the idea of tortured flesh, and a more controlled attitude of genuine disgust soon appears. After the slaughter of Munster, we have a description of the bodies, "mangled flesh hung with goare," at which point Jack expresses a desire to be rid of the tale, of which he is suddenly tired (p. 241). The same weary disgust introduces the torture of the Jew Zadoch: "Ile make short worke, for I am sure I haue wearyed all my readers" (p. 315). He then describes with clinical precision how the Jew's flesh is burned, whipped, and grated. One wonders whether Nashe (or Jack—I will come to that problem in a moment) takes a sadistic pleasure in this description, and this is not easy to determine; but the way the description is introduced suggests that whatever fascination there is, is mingled with distaste.

I have suggested that the pleasure garden is contrasted with the horror of the fallen world, and that the result is a certain skepticism about the vision of permanent innocence and harmony, attractive though it is. It is also worth suggesting that the grisly and protracted death scenes, and the descriptions of the carnage of battle, may be set against Surrey's dreamy fantasies of dying for love: "Those who were condemned to be smothered to death by sincking downe into the softe bottome of an high built bedde of Roses, neuer dide so sweet a death as I shoulde die, if hir Rose coloured disdaine were my deathes-man" (p. 243). In this world, nobody dies sweetly: two pages earlier, the slaughter at Munster was described. The battle and torture scenes have their own kind of fantasy, but as I have suggested it is fantasy based on exaggerating the painful, brute facts of reality. Surrey's softening of what death involves has the effect of an anaesthetic; but Nashe's concern in the torture scenes is to make us feel the pain of the knives and the acid, to let us hear the crunch of breaking bones. When he does withdraw from full involvement, it is not to deny the facts but to attempt a wry comic detachment from them, the attempt itself being sometimes a way of conveying a real sense of horror. And in one case where detachment is achieved, it becomes in itself a careful and pointed critical attitude to the suffering described. Nashe writes of the skill of Cutwolfe's executioner: "At the first chop with his wood-knife would he fish for a mans heart, and fetch it out as easily as a plum from the bottome of a porredge pot. He woulde cracke neckes as fast as a cooke cracks egges" (p. 327). The human body is a very cheap commodity (it can be sold for money to anatomists); and the narrator contemplates its cheapness, and its fragility, with sardonic amusement. This is what the flesh finally comes to, for all the value we put on it—an object on which the ingenious torturer can exercise his skill to please the public, of no more significance in itself than a plum or an egg. This is consistent with the attitude to the flesh throughout: its vulnerability is both horrible and comic.

Is this Nashe's attitude, or Jack's? If there is some measure of control over the material, is it to be seen as Nashe's own viewpoint, or as his attempt to give the narrator some coherent attitudes that would make him a character? This raises the whole problem of Jack himself, to which I now wish to turn. Edward Wagenknecht writes, "Jack is a human being, not a mere peg on which to hang speeches,"10 but he does not really justify this assertion, and G. R. Hibbard's view that Jack "as a realized human being … does not exist at all"11 is much easier to support. We are aware of a narrative voice, whose tone and manner are not always consistent. Frequently this voice attempts to characterize itself, but the attempt is not fully sustained. The result is not a coherent character, but a series of effects—a practical joker, a preacher, a thief, a penitent. So far, one can agree with Hibbard. But it can also be argued, I think, that these effects are arranged in some order, an order that is not entirely without significance,12 and that there is some justice in David Kaula's contention that "Nashe tries at least spasmodically to give [Jack] a developing role."13

The first section, modelled on contemporary jest-books, gives us a witty, unfeeling practical joker, a conventional but reasonably concrete figure. He jokes casually about his own coldness: "I, beeing by nature inclined to Mercie (for in deede I knewe two or three good wenches of that name) …" (p. 213), and he crows over the discomfiture of his victims: "Here let me triumph a while, and ruminate a line or two on the excellence of my wit" (p. 225). As we have already noticed, when he is whipped for one of his pranks, he dismisses the beating with a shrug, and an apparent feeling that the fun of the joke is what really matters (p. 216). At the end of this section there is some hint that the broader experiences the book is about to show are connected with the character's own maturing: "let me quietly descend to the waining of my youthfull daies, and tell a little of the sweating sickness, that made me in a cold sweate take my heeles and runne out of England" (p. 228). As the page-boy grows up, he sees that the world is not a playground but a place of suffering and horror. But lest we should think that Nashe is starting to write a novel, a few pages later we come to the anti-Puritan sermon, and anything like artistic coherence, in character or style, flies out the window.

When Jack enters the service of the Earl of Surrey, we are once again aware of him as a concrete figure. He praises his master, and through him poets in general, for their divine vocation, but the effect is qualified when he adds, "I was not altogether vnwilling to walke along with such a good purse-bearer" (p. 243), and his attitude towards Surrey becomes increasingly sardonic.14 In particular, he is scornful of his master's highminded approach to love, which he sees as too literary to be practical, and which he contrasts with his own more effective wooing: "My master beate the bush and kepte a coyle and a pratling, but I caught the birde" (p. 263).15 In his wit and cynicism the Jack who appears here is quite consistent with the jesting page of the opening section, though there are some changes which, in a realistic novel, we might connect with the character's maturing: the boisterousness is softened, there is a new interest in sex, and the cynicism appears to be based on a wider experience of life. Once he has arrived in Italy, however, his role in the narrative changes and the kind of character he presents to us changes as well. The Italian cheaters start to work on him, and he becomes less a rogue and more a victim. Moreover, now that he is the butt of knavery himself, he finds it less purely amusing than he did when he was the knave. He is indignant at being victimized by a pander, for example, and he turns his indignation into a moralizing tirade against panders in general (pp. 259-260). The character we saw earlier was too much in control of his world to have any cause for such indignation. Not only that, but his old cockiness is gone. When Surrey finds that Jack is impersonating him, and doing so rather expensively, Jack's reaction is panic; he describes it with characteristic extravagance, concluding, "And I thinke vnfainedly, if he, seeing our faint heart agonie, had not soone cheered and refreshd vs, the dogs had gone together by the eares vnder the table for our feare-dropped lims" (p. 268). (Once again, we have the image of collapsing flesh, comically described.) This is quite different from the clever page who described his whipping with a brisk insouciance. Jack is less resilient than before; he plucks up the wit to offer a clever excuse only when he realizes that Surrey is not really angry. And there is even a new squeamishness. The narrator who gave us every detail of his rough practical jokes among the English appears to find the rougher horrors of Italy too much for him. He describes the rape of Heraclide only up to a point: "Conjecture the rest, my words sticke fast in the myre and are cleane tyred; would I had neuer vndertooke this tragicall tale" (p. 292).

This raises the question of whether Jack can be seen as reforming in the course of the book. In describing the rape of Heraclide, he seems to display a new compassion, which he wants the reader to share: "Let not your sorrow die, you that haue read the proeme and narration of this eligiacall historie. Shew you haue quick wits in sharp conceipt of compassion" (p. 292). This is quite different from the sardonic addresses to the reader that Jack usually makes. But the question of how seriously we can take this expression of feeling is bound up with the question of how seriously we can take the passage as a whole. Agnes M. C. Latham feels that Nashe is engaging in literary parody, and that his extravagant description of the rape is a deliberate, comic affectation.16 G. R. Hibbard disagrees, pointing to Christ's Tears over Jerusalem as an indication that Nashe was capable of reckless extravagance even when he was writing quite seriously; and of the two, Hibbard seems to have the stronger case.17 All the same, the violence and extravagance of the description make us doubt whether, parody or no parody, the narrator's intention is really to rouse our compassion, or whether he simply wants (like the fat boy in Pickwick) to make our flesh creep. And another posture that Jack strikes in this scene if interesting: when his courtesan is carried off by Esdras of Granada, "I cride out, Saue her, kill me, and Ile ransome her with a thousande duckets" (p. 287). The heroic gesture is a striking contrast with Jack's usual cynicism about women—until we stop and ask how Esdras will collect the thousand ducats when Jack is dead. We actually have two heroic gestures from him, which are comically inconsistent with each other. What we are left with, I think, is not a central character who reforms his attitudes under the pressure of experience, but a narrative voice which changes its tone to fit the changed nature of the events described. And when occasion calls for it, the voice of the cynical page-boy is still ready to hand, as when we hear of the fate of the maid who accidentally gave Juliana poison: "I heard the Pope tooke pittie on her, & because her trespasse was not voluntarie but chancemedly, he assigned hir no other punishment but this, to drinke out the rest of the poison in the glasse that was left, and so go scot-free" (p. 319). And, as J. J. Jusserand points out, the repentance which Jack expresses at the end of the novel is not enough to make him refund the money he has stolen.18

It is out of place, then, to talk of Jack as a developing character. There are too many inconsistencies, and too many doubts about the seriousness of his attitudes. But one can see that the raw material for a developing character is there, if Nashe had been sufficiently interested to pull it all together. One important factor that appears to be missing is a clear sense of why the character changes, what pressures in his experience force him to alter his attitudes. Each change comes to us as a fait accompli, unexplained and unexamined. All the same, there are a few hints. The idea of travelling is, I think, important. The lecture on the subject which Jack gets from the banished English lord presents travel as a nightmare of suffering from which any sane man would want to escape: "Get thee home, my young lad, laye thy bones peaceable in the sepulcher of thy fathers, waxe olde in ouerlooking thy grounds, be at hand to close the eyes of thy kinred. The diuel and I am desperate, he of being restored to heauen, I of being recalled home" (p. 303). This is all very conventional, of course, but (pace Miss Latham)19 none the less serious for that. And though the lecture is couched in general terms, it is surely connected with the depiction of the horrors of Italy which dominates much of the book, and on which the title depends; certainly it contains more, and more detailed, references to Italy than to any other country. Jack is indeed an "unfortunate traveller," capable of fending for himself when he is among his own people, but comparatively helpless in the den of human wolves that is Italy. He certainly feels chastened for scorning the banished lord's advice—"God plagud me for deriding such a graue fatherly aduertiser" (p. 303)—since he falls into more misfortune almost at once. And, in the end, Jack does return to his own people:

Mortifiedly abiected and danted was I with this truculent tragedie of Cutwolfe and Esdras. To such straight life did it thence forward incite me that ere I went out of Bolognia I married my curtizan, performed many almes deedes; and hasted so fast out of the Sodom of Italy, that within fortie daies I arriued at the king of Englands campe twixt Ardes and Guines in France, where he with great triumphs met and entertained the Emperour and the French king, and feasted many daies. And so as my storie began with the king at Turnay and Turwin, I thinke meete here to end it with the king at Ardes and Guines. (pp. 327-328)

So in the end the book—and the narrator—come full circle, and return to home base. We see hints here, not of a character's relation to society (an idea effectively disputed by Hibbard—see n. 11) but of a central figure whose attitude changes under the battering of experience. The narrative voice we hear throughout the book does, on the whole, alter: from the cheeky cynicism of the early passages it changes its note to sobriety and even horror as it contemplates the villainies of Italy and the general suffering of life—a suffering with which the vulnerability of the flesh, discussed earlier, is closely related.

And in the structure of the book as a whole, we detect a greater coherence towards the end. The fact that the book steadies itself and acquires a firmer shape once Jack gets to Italy has frequently been noticed, without being examined in detail;20 but a closer examination reveals just how radical the change is. In the opening passages we have, not just variety, but different kinds of artistic purpose—a jest-book, a sermon, a travelogue—and the control is frequently uncertain, even within a single episode. Leyden and his followers appear first as farcical grotesques, in improvised armour made up of chamber-pots, dripping pans, old boots, and the like (pp. 232-233); but the sermon directed against them is solemn and totally humorless, with a serious commitment to Christ, the Church, and the Gospel which is totally unlike anything else in the book. Nashe does not seem to have made up his mind whether to treat the Anabaptists as clowns or as a serious threat to the divine order of things.21 Later, in the description of the Earl of Surrey, there is the same divergence in attitudes. The praise of poets seems to be a direct and serious statement from Nashe himself: "Destinie neuer defames hir selfe but when shee lets an excellent Poet die" (p. 242); but this is quickly followed by Jack's more worldly praise of him as a "good purse-bearer" (p. 243) and one who has "discarded those nice tearmes of chastitie and continencie" (p. 245). In both these cases there is a division in point of view, between the serious and the sardonic; and we could also see this as a failure to reconcile the voice of Jack with the voice of his creator.

Most revealing, perhaps, are the arbitrary transitions of the first part. There is a cataloguing quality about the jest-book section: "This was one of my famous atchieuements" (p. 217); and the description of Jack's wanderings through northern Europe is a travelogue, with incidents selected for no other purpose than that of entertaining the reader: we have cartoons of scholarly orators, a fairly straight presentation of Cornelius Agrippa's magic, and guest-star appearances by More, Erasmus, and Luther. Here, even the coherence of a catalogue is abandoned, since the incidents are neither of the same kind nor described from the same viewpoint. The actual transitions are presented casually, with a take-it-or-leave-it air: "I must not place a volume in the precincts of a pamphlet: sleepe an houre or two, and dreame that Turney and Turwin is wonne, that the King is shipt againe into England, and that I am close at harde meat at Windsore or at Hampton Court" (p. 227). (Windsor or Hampton Court: even as he changes location, he is vague about where he is going.) And sometimes even this slight accomodation to the reader's sense of continuity is abandoned. In describing the heat of the sweating sickness, Nashe writes that men envied goats their ability to breathe at the ears as well as the mouth and nose, and then adds: "Take breath how they would, I vowd to tarrie no longer among them. As at Turwin I was a demy souldier in iest, so now I became a Martialist in earnest" (p. 231). This is not so much a transition as a sudden wrench, arbitrary and unapologetic.

In Jack's journey through northern Europe, the transitions give a sense of aimless wandering: "Dismissing this fruitles annotation pro et contra; towards Venice we progrest, and tooke Roterdam in our waie, that was cleane out or our waie." Then a few lines later, "So left we them [More and Erasmus] to prosecute their discontented studies, and made our next iourney to Wittenberg" (pp. 245-246). Subjects are casually dropped, for the sake of rather arbitrary changes in location, and the locations themsleves hardly matter, except as a means of introducing new material. Nor do Jack and Surrey matter very much, except as spectators. But as soon as they get to Venice—their first stop in Italy—an important change takes place. Tabitha the Temptress plots to murder Jack, and, when foiled, gives the two men counterfeit gold which lands them in prison. Jack and Surrey are no longer spectators, watching other characters on display: there is an action, they are involved in it, and they definitely get the worst of it. For the first time the title of the book begins to make sense. And we get our first indication that they are actually affected by something that happens on the journey. Jack says of the pander who betrays them, "he planted in vs the first Italionate wit that we had" (p. 260).

The book does not entirely lose its travelogue quality (in the descriptions of the tournament and the garden, for example) but a certain kind of incident—a piece of intrigue or violence of which Jack is the victim—now occurs with increasing frequency. And this is connected with a more careful sense of place than Nashe achieved before: Italy is the first location that is allowed to display a character of its own, to be something other than a blank background. Nor is this confined to conventional remarks about Italian villainy, though these certainly play an important part. When Jack is in Rome, there is a closer, more detailed analysis of the city and the mentality of its people than earlier passages would have led us to expect. Many of the sights described are memorials of the past, and Jack connects this with the Roman temperament: "Tyll this daie not a Romane (if he be a right Romane indeed) will kill a rat, but he will haue some registered remembraunce of it" (p. 279). This is not unrelated to the violence of the Italians: "Nothing so long of memorie as a dog; these Italians are old dogs, & will carrie an iniurie a whole age in memorie: I haue heard of a boxe on the eare that hath been reuenged thirtie yeare after" (p. 298). The bulk of Jack's comments, of course, point towards the orthodox Elizabethan view of Italy as a hotbed of villainy: "If thou doost but lend halfe a looke to a Romans or Italians wife, thy porredge shall be prepared for thee, and cost thee nothing but thy lyfe" (p. 298). Cutwolfe, describing his revenge, uses the term "Italian" to indicate not so much a nationality as a mode of conduct: "my thoughtes traueld in quest of some notable newe Italionisme" (p. 325); "This is the falt that hath called me hether; no true Italian but will honor me for it" (p. 326). It is only fair to add that even here Nashe is not entirely consistent: he describes with genuine admiration the almsdeeds done by wealthy Romans, and makes no attempt to relate this to what he has said about Italians elsewhere (p. 285). On the whole, however, the Italian temperament is consistently portrayed, and presented as the root cause of the violence of the action and the misfortunes of the central figure.

And there are other ways in which the various components of the book are drawn together more closely than before. Characters are no longer simply put on display, but are given roles in the story. Aretino, like Luther, More, and Erasmus, makes a guest-star appearance, but unlike them he is involved in the action, and is instrumental in releasing Jack and Surrey from prison. Similarly, the banished lord who delivers the lecture on the horrors of travel is introduced, not for that purpose alone, but to rescue Jack from execution; and his sermon arises naturally from his role in the story. (Once again, however, one has to make reservations. The tone of the sermon is not consistent: it begins and ends with the voice of a sober moralist, but in the middle section the sardonic comments on different nationalities are delivered in the racy, cynical tones we associate with Jack.) There is even, in the Italian section, something you could call a plot, and a serious attempt to weave different strands of action together. One thing, for the first time in the book, leads to another. Put in prison by Tabitha, Jack meets Diamante. He loses her only to find her again when he falls by mistake into Zadoch's cellar (even more remarkable, he was actually looking for her at the time). Jack and his courtesan undergo roughly parallel adventures, with Jack threatened with dissection by Zachary, and Diamante "scourged … from top to toe tantara" (pp. 309-310) by Zadoch. Jack's own misfortunes at this point are interconnected, as we have already seen. Zachary and Juliana are not two separate villains in unrelated anecdotes: they are in competition with each other, fighting over Jack's body, though each has a different use for it.

Finally, the interaction of the characters becomes quite complex. Resenting Zachary's refusal to give Jack to her, Juliana tricks him into offering poison to the Pope, who sentences all the Jews in Rome to banishment. Zachary suggests that the banishment might be revoked if Juliana were presented with a bondmaid; Zadoch offers Diamante; Zachary agrees, but adds a twist of his own by instructing her to poison Juliana. Diamante reveals the plot, and while Zachary flees, Zadoch is tortured and executed. Meanwhile Jack and Diamante celebrate their latest reunion by ransacking Juliana's house and fleeing with the spoils; she takes to bed in a rage, calls for some spiritus vini, and her maid by mistake gives her Zachary's poison, which she had been saving for Jack. This is not simply a plot; it is an intrigue with a neat, ingenious irony worthy of Middleton.

The last extended episode of the book, the execution of Cutwolfe, takes up some earlier strands of action, and weaves a similar, though simpler, pattern of revenge. Cutwolfe is being executed for murdering Esdras of Granada, the robber who raped Heraclide and stole Diamante, and for whose crimes Jack was very nearly executed. Jack was rescued as a result of the dying confession of Bartol, one of Esdras' confederates, whom Esdras killed in a quarrel. Cutwolfe was Bartol's brother, and his murder of Esdras was an act of revenge. But it is also connected with the rape of Heraclide, a connection made plain in Cutwolfe's narration. In begging Esdras to spare her, Heraclide had appealed to his fear of death and damnation, but he had scorned the idea of fear (pp. 289-291). But when threatened by Cutwolfe, he changes his tune, and it is his craven fear of both death and damnation that permits the ingenious horror of the revenge, in which Cutwolfe offers to spare him if he will renounce his salvation and consign his soul to the devil—and when he has done so, shoots him in the throat. Jack refers to this as Heaven's revenge for Heraclide's rape (p. 320) and Esdras himself makes the connection: "Heraclide, now thinke I on thy teares sowne in the dust, (thy teares, that my bloudie minde made barraine). In reuenge of thee, God hardens this mans heart against mee" (p. 323). The detailed description of Cutwolfe's execution makes a logical culmination for The Unfortunate Traveller: it takes up, for the last time, the motif of tortured flesh that runs through the book; and it provides one last spin of the wheel of violence and revenge that controls the action in Italy. After this, Jack's return to the English camp provides a sharp and genuine sense of relief.

But, as I have indicated, no great claims can be made for tight organization or consistent purpose in the first two-thirds of the book. We must return to the earlier statement that The Unfortunate Traveller is not a fully coherent work of art. It survives chiefly as a grand, grotesque entertainment, alive with comedy and horror, with the flamboyance of Hieronymus Bosch but without his concentration of purpose. It is worth noticing, however, that what coherence can be detected in the book points forward to later developments in the English novel. Nashe pulls some sections of his work together through devices which the novelists who followed him were to use more purposefully—interrelated strands of action, a coherent pattern of images (centered here on the frailty of the flesh),22 and a development in the central figure which, though rudimentary, anticipates the now-familiar theme of the education of the hero.


1Thomas Nashe (London, 1962), p. 147.

2 Introduction to his selection of Nashe's work, Thomas Nashe (London, 1964), p. 18.

3 All references are to the text in The Works of Thomas Nashe, II, ed. R. B. McKerrow (1904-1910; rpt. Oxford, 1958).

4 "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's 'Unfortunate Traveller,'" English Studies, n.s. l (1948), 99. Walter R. Davis, in a study published since this article was written, has taken Miss Latham's view even further, describing the garden as "the basis of Jack's serious critique of the postlapsarian world." Idea and Act in Elizabethan Fiction (Princeton, 1969), pp. 235-236.

5 Both Latham ("Satire," p. 92) and Hibbard (Thomas Nashe, p. 164) have pointed out the mockery in the description of the tournament. They see it as primarily a parody of chivalric conventions, and they are probably justified in doing so; but the parallel with the pleasure garden—art as mechanical contrivance—should not be overlooked.

6 In this connection it is worth mentioning that, as David Kaula has pointed out, the description of the summer-garden is unusual for this book in that it describes "a purely physical setting, apart from its human occupants." See "Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in English Literature, 6 (1966), 45. It is interesting to compare Nashe's treatment of this motif with the Byzantium poems of W. B. Yeats, in which a mechanical golden bird is set against decaying mortality, "The fury and the mire of human veins."

7 As Ernest A. Baker puts it, Nashe's hyperbole, "except when he was undisguisedly fabling," was always based on fact; "he exaggerated to make the truth more biting." The History of the English Novel: Vol. II: The Elizabethan Age and After (New York, 1968), p. 160.

8 Compare Richard of Gloucester: "Ay, Edward will use women honourably. / Would he were wasted, marrow, bones, and all" (III Henry VI, 3.2.124-125).

9 See Kaula, "Low Style," p. 47. It is also worth noting that, though the braggart captain whom Jack sends into the French camp is threatened with the wheel and other tortures, the threats never materialize, and he is punished simply with laughter and a whipping.

10Cavalcade of the English Novel (New York, 1954), p. 11.

11Thomas Nashe, p. 177. Hibbard argues that Nashe failed to keep Jack separate from himself, and he is particularly critical of the idea that Jack is a young man adjusting himself to society: "There is no Jack in the proper sense of the word, and, so far as I can see, there is no society, either" (p. 177).

12 This is true in a simple way of the minor figure, Esdras of Granada, who is an arrogant, Satanic figure in his first appearance and a cringing penitent in his last. There is no modulation between the two effects, but there is an obvious (if conventional) logic in the way they are arranged.

13 "Low Style," p. 47. See also Davis, Idea and Act, p. 218.

14 See Hibbard, Thomas Nashe, pp. 156, 162-163.

15 As Hibbard remarks, "The two opposed attitudes to love, incarnate in Surrey and Jack, provide the backbone for the middle section" (Thomas Nashe, p. 157).

16 "Satire," p. 95.

17Thomas Nashe, p. 169. Miss Latham's view of the book as a sustained exercise in literary burlesque is entertaining and attractive, but based on rather dubious critical grounds. She points to some obvious cases of parody, and takes them as "indicative of the way the wind is blowing" ("Satire," p. 94), using them as a guide to passages where parody is not so obvious. But with a writer as uncontrolled and inconsistent as Nashe normally is, we can never be sure that the wind is always blowing in the same direction.

18The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare (London, 1890, rpt. 1966), p. 320. David Kaula suggests that "Wilton's progress … seems to follow the standard formula of moral regeneration" but that this is presented in a spirit of parody ("Low Style," pp. 47-48). But a parody must convey a clear sense of what its target is, and I do not feel that the idea of moral regeneration is established firmly enough for this.

19 See "Satire," p. 89. Once again, Miss Latham is on dangerous ground, arguing that this passage is funny because it is so thoroughly conventional—a point of view that (one suspects) an Elizabethan would have some difficulty in understanding.

20 See, for example, Wagenknecht, Cavalcade, p. 10.

21 The sermon itself departs almost completely from the normal interests of the book. Elsewhere Nashe is concerned with physical description, and particularly with horror; here, what could have been a Bosch-like vision of terror is turned into a rather forced abstraction: "Doth not Christ say that before the Latter day the Sunne shall be turned into darknesse, and the Moone into bloud? whereof what may the meaning bee, but that the glorious Sunne of the Gospell shall be eclipsed with the dim clowd of dissimulation … and the Moone shall be turned into blood, those that shine fairest, make the simplest shewe, seeme most to fauour Religion, shal rent out the bowels of the church, be turned into blood" (p. 235). This recalls the forced interpretations that Nashe parodies so shrewdly in describing the allegorical armor at the tournament in Florence.

22 Here at least one may take issue with A. K. Croston, who claims, "there is nothing in Nashe of that instinctive fitting of images into a larger whole which modern criticism has demonstrated in Shakespeare. Nashe is local, irrelevant, and essentially burlesque…. " See "The Use of Imagery in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Review of English Studies, 24 (1948), 101.

Madelon S. Gohlke (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6427

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 Last Will and Testament.

Wit with his wantonnesse
Tasteth deaths bitternesse:
Hels executioner
Hath no eares for to heare
What vaine art can reply.
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord haue mercy on us.2

Jack's ballad, which summarizes his career until the point of his near-hanging, and Nashe's somber lyric both find a point of reference in the opening of Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit.

This younge gallant, of more wit then wealth, and yet of more wealth then wisdome, seeing himselfe inferiour to none in pleasant conceipts, thought himselfe superiour to al in honest conditions, insomuch yt he deemed himselfe so apt to all things, that he gaue himselfe almost to nothing, but practising of those things comonly which are incident to these sharp wits, fine phrases, smoth quipping, merry taunting, vsing iesting without meane, & abusing mirth without measure. As therefore the sweetest Rose hath his prickel, the finest veluet his brack, the fairest flowre his bran, so the sharpest witte hath his wanton will, and the holiest heade his wicked waye.3

The Anatomy of Wit, with its regular association between wit and wantonness and their collective opposition to wisdom, poses the central problem of The Unfortunate Traveller: the apparent split between rhetorical cleverness and moral action. Nashe's resolution of this problem involves a sophisticated handling of what was for him a barely existent genre—picaresque.

Although generally regarded as an early example of the picaresque genre, The Unfortunate Traveller is rarely interpreted specifically in this light.4 Discussion of picaresque in fact tends to obscure rather than to illuminate the thematic issues of the work by focusing on the most obvious and superficial aspects of the genre, such as the status of the hero as a social outcast and episodic form. The violence of the book, for instance, has been construed as an expression of Jack's neurotic desire for revenge against a repressive society,5 while the episodic construction of the plot has been interpreted as a manifestation of a disintegrative or nihilistic vision.6 The emphasis on punishment and the apparent aimlessness of the narrative7 become less troubling, however, if treated as aspects of Nashe's integration of his subject, the relationship between wit and wisdom, into a unique and complex form.

Whether Nashe knew of the Spanish Lazorillo de Tormes as a work antipathetic to romance or not, he must have been aware of the implications of the title of his own book. Travel in picaresque and specifically in Nashe's tale inverts the quest motif of romance, turning a fortunate journey into an unfortunate one.8 Often, at the heart of the work one finds not a vision of life or destiny as in Book I of The Faerie Queene, for instance, but a vision of death or apparent futility.9 Travel in picaresque portrays a quest for knowledge which fails. The hero doesn't learn or change significantly through his adventures.10 While he does not reflect on his experience in a systematic way, patterns of experience, often pessimistic, do emerge for the reader through the accumulation of episodes.11 The title of The Unfortunate Traveller describes the direction of Jack's adventures and of human life in general, both of which find expression in the English earl's conception of travel as exile.

The antiromantic thrust of Jack's journey in The Unfortunate Traveller frustrates or renders futile his attempts to control people and events through wit. The apparent failure of wit in the face of suffering, evil, or the simple fact of mortality, which might have been sufficient to constitute Nashe's theme, acquires a further moral dimension through the association of wit with pride. It is the wantonness of Jack's wit, his wilful attempts to manipulate others, which makes him particularly vulnerable to misfortune.

The tale condemns the use of wit as an instrument of pride, setting up an apparently irreconcilable division between the kind of egotistic, verbally sophisticated intelligence displayed by Jack and moral action. "Wit with his wantonnesse tasteth deaths bitternesse." Wilton with his wantonness barely escapes the rope. One fundamental picaresque pattern, the negative quest, contributes to the development of this theme. Another picaresque pattern both alleviates the pessimism of this strain and provides a resolution of the central tension of the tale.

Richard Lanham perceives a schizophrenic division in The Unfortunate Traveller between "a style which pretends to breakneck gaiety and a plot which becomes less and less comic."12 This feature is not peculiar to The Unfortunate Traveller. The fact that the hero of picaresque for the most part does not change may easily give rise to such a split. While the context of action alters, the hero does not. While the action of The Unfortunate Traveller stresses violence, retribution, and death, Jack himself is unaffected. Apart from one brief moment of dejection, Jack maintains his essential energy and optimism in the face of an increasingly somber reality.

The peculiar invulnerability of the picaresque hero puts a comic face on tragic events. His protection is a kind of willed ignorance, a refusal to incorporate a full understanding of his experience which, depending on one's perspective, looks either like foolishness or wisdom.13 He describes in an apparently objective way what he sees while shielding himself from the impact of his vision. This process is essential to the thematic resolution of The Unfortunate Traveller where Jack Wilton, by dissociating himself from actions based on power or revenge, provides a tenuous but real connection between wit and wisdom.

Jack's foolishness, his resilience in the face of suffering and death, due largely to his lack of introspection, is a kind of humility. His wit, compounded initially of equal parts of verbal play and practical jokes, gradually confines itself to the passive, purely verbal function of narration. The reverse in Jack's fortune, which begins to make itself evident early in the tale, forces him to relinquish the role of master for that of servant and to become a witness rather than a participant in events. As Jack becomes less of an actor and more of a spectator, his "wit" ceases to be a manipulative agent, evolving instead into a vehicle of moral vision.


While the episodic construction of The Unfortunate Traveller has led most critics to the view that it is formless, the tale is very obviously and deeply structured by its title. The pattern of unfortunate travel begins to emerge as early as Jack's encounter with the sweating sickness in England, a minor catastrophe quickly followed by a second, the defeat of the Swiss army, and by a third, the massacre of the Anabaptists, all of which form a prelude to Jack's imprisonment in Rome (first on the charge of counterfeiting and then on the charge of murder) and ultimately to his fall into the hands of the anatomist, Zachary. If the plot seems chaotic or randomly composed, it is because Jack himself fosters that illusion by his attitude of easy irresponsibility and his faith in chance. He is a rogue and a gambler. "I had the right vayne of sucking vp a die twixt the dints of my fingers; not a creuise in my hand but could swallow a quater trey for a neede"; Jack implicitly regards wit as a means of manipulating the randomness of experience. This carefree attitude, however, is undermined by the structure of events, which reveals a moral pattern based on pride and punishment.14

There is a considerable degree of pride in Jack's wit.

Here let me triumph a while, and ruminate a line or two on the excellence of my wit: but I will not breath neither till I haue disfraughted all my knauerie. (225)

My masters, conceaue of me what you list, but I thinke confidently I was ordained Gods scourge from aboue for their daintie finicalitie. The houre of their punishment could no longer be proroged, but vengeance must haue at them at all a ventures. (226)

Jack's self-conception is analogous to that of the Anabaptists. Both see themselves as God's scourge, Jack because he feels no concern for his victims and the Anabaptists because they expect God to punish their enemies. Their prayers represent a form of threat or manipulation.

Peace, peace there in the belfrie, seruice begins: vpon their knees before they ioine fals Iohn Leiden and his fraternitie verie deuoutly, they pray, they howle, they expostulate with God to grant them victorie, and vse such vnspeakable vehemence a man wold thinke them the onely wel bent men vnder heauen. (234)

Their religious convictions are corrupted by the desire for personal revenge.

These Anabaptists had not yet forsooke all and followed Christ, they had not forsooke their owne desires of reuenge and innouation, they had not abandoned their expectation of the spoile of their enimies, they regarded their liues, they lookt after their wiues and children, they tooke not vp their Crosses of humilitie and followed him, but would crosse him, vpbraid him, and set him at nought, if he assured not by some signe their prayers and supplications. (239)

In attempting to coerce God, the Anabaptists resemble the Titans in their effort to overthrow Jupiter.

Whosoeuer will seeke to saue his soule shall loose it: whosoeuer seekes by headlong meanes to enter into Heauen and disanull Gods ordinance, shall, with the Gyaunts that thought to scale heauen in contempt of Iupiter, be ouerwhelmed with Mount Ossa and Peleon, and dwell with the diuell in eternall desolation. (236)

It is clearly the pride of the Anabaptists which is punished by the ensuing massacre. The death by hanging of John Leyden pre-figures, moreover, Jack's own narrow escape from the gallows. The increasingly unfortunate turn of Jack's adventures may be read as a moral comment on his early use of wit.

The Anabaptist episode links the pattern of misfortune with the concept of moral design. This connection is made explicit by the debate between Esdras and Heraclide. Esdras, for whom the plague in Rome is an occasion to rape, plunder and murder, believes himself immune from the consequences of his actions. He, like Jack, relies on chance.

Thou telst me (quoth he) of the plague, & the heauie hand of God, and thy hundred infected breaths in one: I tel thee I haue cast the dice an hundred times for the gallies in Spaine, and yet still mist the ill chance. Our order of casting is this, If there be a Generall or Captine new come home from the warres, & hath some 4. or 500. crownes ouerplus of the Kings in his hand, and his soldiers all paid, he makes proclamation that whatsoeuer two resolute men will goe to dice for it, and win the bridle or lose the saddle, to such a place let them repaire, and it shall be readie for them. Thither go I, and finde another such needie squire resident. The dice run, I win, he is vndone. I winning haue the crownes, hee loosing is carried to the Gallyes. (290-1)

Esdras, like Jack, sees himself as a man who is supremely able to profit from the random nature of reality. Heraclide, on the other hand, tries to defend herself from rape with an argument based on divine retribution. She interprets the current plague as an instrument of divine justice and threatens her attacker with bodily and spiritual destruction in the event of the violation of her chastity.

A man that hath an vneuitable huge stone hanging only by a haire ouer his head, which he lokes, euerie Pater noster while, to fall and pash him in peeces, will not he be submissiuely sorrowfull for his transgressions, refraine himself from the least thought of folly, and purifie his spirit with contrition and penitence? Gods hand like a huge stone hangs ineuitably ouer thy head: what is the plague but death playing the Prouost Marshall, to execute all those that will not be called home by anie other meanes? (289)

Esdras rapes her anyway and she commits suicide, but the matter does not rest here. Cutwolfe, who later murders Esdras to avenge the death of his brother, Bartoll, confirms Heraclide's faith in eventual retribution. Esdras's sense of immunity to consequence emerges as another form of pride. He, like the Anabaptists and to a lesser extent Jack, attempts to play God or God's scourge. Even Cutwolfe falls into this trap.

Reuenge is the glorie of armes, & the highest performance of valure: reuenge is whatsoeuer we call law or iustice. The farther we wade in reuenge, the neerer come we to ye throne of the almightie. To his scepter it is properly ascribed; his scepter he lends vnto man, when he lets one man scourge an other. (326)

By usurping the divine function of punishment, Cut-wolfe virtually assures his own damnation. Executed in turn for the murder of Esdras, Cutwolfe is left "on the wheele as in hell" (327).

The increasing emphasis on violent retribution, including physical torture, explicitly negates Jack's lighthearted vision of random adventure. The English earl who rescues Jack from the gallows articulates this growing awareness. Travel, he maintains, is a form of punishment which originated with Cain.

The first traueller was Cain, and he was called a vagabond runnagate on the face of the earth. Trauaile (like the trauaile wherein smithes put wilde horses when they shoo them) is good for nothing but to tame and bring men vnder. (297)

This passage tends to universalize the condition of travel and to associate it with a kind of primal guilt. The next analogy, which stresses travel as a state of suffering and bondage, has equally powerful overtones.

It is but a milde kinde of subiection to be the seruant of one master at once: but when thou hast a thousand thousand masters, as the veriest botcher, tinker, or cobler freeborne will dominere ouer a forreiner, and thinke to bee his better or master in companie: then shalt thou finde there is no such hell as to leaue thy fathers house (thy naturall habitation) to Hue in the land of bondage. (297-8)

With the phrase "thy fathers house," whose Biblical connotations expand to include a sense of one's religious origin and destiny, travel becomes a metaphor for the human condition. We are all unfortunate travellers, embarked on the same course of suffering, loss of liberty and death.

Of even greater significance than the Englishman's view of travel is his view of wit.

Some alledge they trauell to learne wit, but I am of this opinion, that as it is not possible for anie man to learne the Art of Memorie, whereof Tully, Quintillian, Seneca, and Hermannus Buschius haue written so manie Bookes, except he haue the grounds of it rooted in him before. That wit which is thereby to be perfected or made staid, is nothing but Experientia longa malorum, the experience of manie euils: The experience that such a man lost his life by this folly, another by that: such a yong Gallant consumed his substaunce on such a Curtizan: these courses of reuenge a Merchant of Venice tooke against a Merchant of Ferrara; and this poynt of iustice was shewed by the Duke vpon the murtherer. (299)

This passage severely criticizes both Jack's attitude towards wit as a form of superficial ingenuity and his corresponding attitude towards experience. As the experience of many evils, wit emerges as a futile insight into the nature of corruption. Only pride or wantonness would lead one to seek this kind of knowledge.

Perhaps, to be better accounted of than other of thy condition, thou ambitiously vndertakest this voyage: these insolent fancies are but Icarus feathers, whose wanton waxe, melted against the Sunne, will betray thee into a sea of confusion. (297)

Wilton's wantonness, which impels him to seek or to exercise wit through travel, appears as a form of insolence which nearly betrays him into a sea of confusion.

The episode involving the English earl draws together the narrative and thematic concerns of the tale in a way which suggests that wit inevitably participates in the pattern of pride and punishment, which in turn structures life as a series of inescapable misfortunes. From this point of view, the tale seems to corroborate Lyly's distinction between wit and wisdom. The association of wit with wantonness and eventually with wickedness finds a disturbing parallel in the passage which concludes Jack's tirade against the Anabaptists.

When Christ said, the kingdome of heauen must suffer violence, hee meant not the violence of long babling praiers, nor the violence of tedious inuectiue Sermons without wit, but the violence of faith, the violence of good works, the violence of patient suffering. The ignorant snatch the kingdome of heauen to themselues with greedines, when we with all our learning sinke into hell. (234)15

Although Jack initially dissociates himself from the victims of his scorn, he goes on to include himself in the company of those who with all their learning sink into hell. Jack briefly perceives himself despite, or rather because of, his wit as one of the damned. What emerges in this passage is the realization that salvation may have nothing to do with wit in any of its manifestations, with learning, cleverness, or ingenuity—that such apparent wisdom may in fact contribute to one's damnation. Such wit is more than wantonness; it is in a very real sense the experience of many evils.


As the pattern of misfortune reveals itself with increasing violence, one wonders how it is that the hero continues to escape death. From his early arrogance it would seem that he, like John Leyden or the bandit Esdras, deserves to be punished. Yet he is released from prison, rescued from the gallows, redeemed from the hands of the sinister Doctor Zachary, to marry his courtesan and escape the Sodom of Italy. Although Jack encounters one horror after another in his travels (sickness, torture, massacre, rape, execution), he emerges from them remarkably untouched. The key to his invulnerability lies in his switch from an active to a passive role, from participant in events to narrator of events. This fundamental change both relieves him from the charge of acting as God's scourge and provides a context in which wit is compatible with wisdom.

It is only in the very early part of the narrative that Jack regards wit as a means of manipulation, thereby resembling the Anabaptists who attempt to play God. He is for the most part a spectator and a victim rather than a mastermind of events. This change of perspective occurs with the sweating sickness in England, the first serious indication of misfortune, which forces Jack into the passive pattern of flight that characterizes most of his subsequent adventures. Jack's life of crime is not long enough to make him a serious offender. His subjection to the threat though not the actuality of death is consonant with the extent and effects of his pride.

What replaces wit as an instrument of pride is wit as an instrument of observation. In ceasing actively to control events, Jack becomes a keen observer of events, so much so that his voice at times seems to fuse with that of his creator, Nashe. He is a witness and a shrewd reporter of the Anabaptist massacre, of the rape of Heraclide, of the executions of Zachary and Cutwolfe. It is Jack's voice, as narrator, which conveys these incidents, as it conveys, without making explicit, their moral impact. With perhaps one exception, Jack does not generalize about the meaning of what he sees; but he describes events with such precision that the reader cannot remain insensitive to their implications. He even suggests casually that his narration be treated as a form of instruction: "… as freely as my knauerie was mine owne, it shall be yours to use in the way of honestie" (217). The seemingly passive functions of observation and narration may be seen to possess an active moral character.

Narration, as a verbal art which has as its end, not the manipulation of people for personal gain, but the manipulation of feeling or awareness for moral gain, provides a ground for the reconciliation of wit and wisdom. The figure of Aretino is the locus for this reconciliation. Aretino, who is introduced as "one of the wittiest knaues that euer God made" (264), provides a model for the exercise of wit in a moral and specifically verbal way. It is he who rescues Jack from his first imprisonment by exposing the sinister designs of Tabitha. Aretino's wit, which finds ideal expression in his role as inquisitor, acts as a kind of moral flail, earning him the posthumous title of "il flagello dei principi." His eyes "pearst like lightning into the entrailes of all abuses," while his pen

was sharp pointed lyke a poinyard; no leafe he wrote on but was lyke a burning glasse to set on fire all his readers. With more than musket shot did he charge his quill, where hee meant to inueigh. No houre but hee sent a whole legion of deuils into some heard of swine or other. (264)

Aretino's moral vision, which is expressed through language rather than action, redeems wit from the general charge of pride. By exercising wit as a verbal rather than a physical scourge, Aretino escapes the fate of a John Leyden or a Cutwolfe. He even contributes to the redemption of "wantonness" from its association with pride and wickedness.

If lasciuious he were, he may answere with Quid, Vita verecunda est, musa iocosa mea est; My lyfe is chast though wanton be my verse. Tell mee, who is trauelled in histories, what good poet is, or euer was there, who hath not hadde a lyttle spice of wantonnesse in his dayes? (266)

Aretino's wit, as Jack describes it, is really a form of satire. His weapon is ink. His adversary is evil. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of Jack's narration, particularly of the execution scenes, where reportage takes on a moral character.16 The flamboyance of the following passage, for example, does not entirely negate the rhetoric of moral concern.

Prepare your eares and your teares, for neuer tyll this thrust I anie tragecall matter vpon you. Strange and wonderfull are Gods judgements, here shine they in their glory. Chast Heraclide, thy bloud is laid vp in heauens treasury, not one drop of it was lost, but lent out to vsurie: water powred forth sinkes downe quietly into the earth, but bloud spilt on the ground sprinkles vp to the firmament. (32)

Jack prepares us to understand the self-destructive nature of the revenge ethos which Cutwolfe describes in the following oration. Cutwolfe's story, as transcribed by Jack, condemns the desire for revenge by revealing the relationship between vigilant justice and pride.

But Jack's vision is unconsciously satiric. He is almost an unwilling spectator at the execution scene which concludes the tale. It is as though his narration were forced on him. He neither seeks nor wholly comprehends the spectacle of crime and punishment which he nevertheless very powerfully describes. His rhetoric, like that of Aretino, acts as a kind of verbal scourge. Unlike that of Aretino, it is not completely integrated into his awareness. Jack's wit as embodied in his narration both expresses a somber moral vision and relieves him of the burden of that vision by confining his role to that of spectator, which also allows him to maintain an essentially comic attitude towards experience. If Jack were fully to understand what he perceives, the conclusion of the tale would be dark indeed.

The wit which by the end of The Unfortunate Traveller is compatible with wisdom is dependent on the peculiar form of picaresque which Nashe develops, through the figure of Jack Wilton. Although wit with its wantonness does inevitably taste death's bitterness, Jack's repeated encounters with misfortune gradually diminish his insolence and intellectual pride to the point where he is permitted to escape for a while at least the sea of confusion. His apparent simplicity, moreover, his guilelessness as a narrator both preserves the tale from total gloom and prevents him from assuming a stance of moral superiority. Though "mortifiedly abjected and daunted by the truculent tragedy of Cutwolfe," Jack manages to recover some of his carefree good humor in time to rejoin the English camp at Ardes and Guines. By remaining in some sense a rogue, a nonintrospective, light-hearted adventurer, Jack avoids what is perhaps the most serious temptation of all, the temptation to consider his moral insight a sign of election. The dissociation of Jack's narration from his interior mental processes prevents his role as satirist from turning into another manifestation of pride. It is after all the ignorant who go the direct way to heaven while the sophisticated and the learned sink into hell.

What prevents Nashe himself from joining the wits who tread the primrose path? It is hard to imagine anyone who would be more sensitive than he, as a virtuoso stylist and perhaps the wittiest writer of his generation, to the painful paradox which describes the fate of the Anabaptists. How does Nashe himself deal with Lyly's division between wit and wisdom, or in the deepest sense between words and action? The analogy of The Unfortunate Traveller may be extended, I think, to Nashe's work as a whole, which is characterized by the two strains Lanham perceives in the tale: breakneck gaiety of style in relation to a somber subject. Nashe's brilliant, digressive, and racy style is offset by an obsessive and often violent vision of judgment.17 Nashe, like Jack Wilton, perceives a tragic world through comic or foolish eyes. As a satirist, he sometimes subjects that world to intense scrutiny. In this role, words for him, as for Aretino, are weapons with a burden of moral vision. It is for this reason, I think, that he so often ridicules style itself.18 The bad writing of the Puritans is as clear an indication of their spiritual failings as their religious error. By assuming the morality of style, Nashe redeems to some extent his own fascination with language as he answers the question implicit in Lyly's Anatomy.

Nashe would be the first to admit that "the sharpest witte hath his wanton will." But he would also be the first to defend wit against the dull, the humorless, and the joyless as a principle of both energy and insight. There is much of Nashe himself in Jack Wilton, who integrates the sober realization that wit must inevitably fail into the stubborn, foolish, wilful, even simple refusal to be daunted by that fact. In the end, Jack's choice of what to see and what to ignore is both innocent and shrewd, compounded of the same elements as Nashe's style.


The question posed by Lyly's Anatomy of Wit was for Nashe and for the generation that followed an issue of major significance. The O.E.D. cites The Anatomy of Wit as the first instance of the use of "wit" in the sense of purely verbal facility, supplanting the older sense of the word as wisdom, talent, or understanding. If Nashe is able to accommodate these two potentially divergent meanings, it is with difficulty and with no sense of permanent achievement. The Unfortunate Traveller arrives at a complex, comic vision of experience which rests on a keen awareness of its own precariousness. Nashe's sense of style as expressive of moral vision is continually subject to doubt, his comedy trembling on the edge of violent reversal. Though by no means a nihilist, Nashe does express some aspects of what we have come to think of as post-romantic anxiety.

The split between language and action which Nashe perceives as a moral dilemma of potentially tragic dimensions becomes a major concern of poets whose greatness overshadows his slender body of work. Spenser was to imagine the corruption of language as a fundamental property of evil, and to embody that threat finally in the Blatant Beast, the enemy of Courtesy and ultimately of civilization itself. Shakespeare was to wrestle with the inherent doubleness of language and its susceptibility to evil designs throughout his career, punning relentlessly on the word "lie" which in its double associations of duplicity and intimacy goes to the heart of the problem. Subsequent poets confronted a world whose medieval cosmic underpinnings had finally been destroyed.

A statement towards the end of The Unfortunate Traveller seems to foreshadow this era of uncertainty and upheaval. Stunned by the spectacle of Cutwolfe's execution, Jack wearily concludes: "Unsearchable is the booke of our destinies." It is the sense of the unintelligibility of experience both confronted and finally evaded which is so moving here. Jack's survival also requires a defeat, an admission of ignorance in the face of the irreducible complexity of the world. It is the peculiar form of courage displayed by the picaresque hero, here portrayed through the figure of Jack Wilton, in response to the fundamental opacity of experience which accounts perhaps for the revival of interest of our own century in the picaresque mode. Those modern writers who are concerned with the essential ambiguity of both language and reality would clearly find sympathy, as John Berryman did, with that obscure but brilliant Elizabethan pamphleteer, Thomas Nashe.


1 For his careful reading and suggestions regarding this essay I am grateful to my friend and colleague, David Luke.

2 Thomas Nashe, Summers Last Will and Testament, The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald McKerrow, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1966), III, 283. All quotations from Nashe are taken from this edition. Subsequent quotations from The Unfortunate Traveller (vol. II) are indicated within the text by page number. For ease of reference, I have modernized the titles of Nashe's works, but have not otherwise altered McKerrow's text. The use of italics throughout is Nashe's.

3 John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, in The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. W. Bond, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1902), I, 184.

4 For a full discussion of The Unfortunate Traveller as picaresque, see Fredson T. Bowers, "Thomas Nashe and the Picaresque Novel," Humanistic Studies in Honor of John Calvin Metcalf (Charlottesville, 1941), pp. 12-27.

5 Richard Lanham, "Tom Nashe and Jack Wilton: Personality as Structure in The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in Short Fiction, IV (1966-7), 201-16.

6 The following comment on The Unfortunate Traveller by C. S. Lewis provides the basis for this view: "In his exhilarating whirlwind of words we find not thought not passion but simply images: images of ludicrous and sometimes frightful incoherence boiling up from a dark void" (English Literature in the 16th Century [New York, 1954], p. 17). Clifford Leech refers to Nashe's "basic nihilism" in "Recent Studies in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama," Studies in English Literature, III(1963), 269-85. This attitude seems to prevail in the most recent criticism of the tale. David Kaula concludes that Nashe "tends to conceive human action not as evolving through a continuum of cause and effect or of past, present, and future, but as violent, fragmentary, and accidental" ("The Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in English Literature, VI[1966], 55). Walter Davis claims that "the only concept of an unformulated reality available to Nashe was that of a mere chaos of events" (Idea and Act in Elizabethan Fiction [Princeton, 1969], p. 236).

7 Nearly every critic who has examined the tale has come to the conclusion that it is structureless. For various formulations of this attitude, see J. J. Jusserand, The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare (London, 1890); A. K. Crosten, "The Use of Imagery in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Review of En glish Studies, XXIV (1948), 90-101; Arnold Kettle, An Introduction to the English Novel (London, 1951); John Berryman (ed.), The Unfortunate Traveller (New York, 1960); G. R. Hibbard, Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); Stanley Wells, Thomas Nashe, Selected Writings (London, 1964); David Kaula, "The Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller"; Walter Davis, Idea and Act.

8 The relationship between picaresque and heroic narrative is generally discussed in terms of inversion. According to Robert Scholes and Robert Kellog, "The linear simplicity of primitive epic—the chronicle of the deeds of the hero—provides the ground plan for the unheroic picaresque narrative. Picaresque presents us with the deeds of an unhero, a rogue, seen through his own eyes and thus located in the actual world" (The Nature of Narrative [New York, 1966], p. 209). Stuart Miller perceives an absolute contrast between the romance plot and the episodic plot of picaresque: "In the picaresque, we start with life's chaos assaulting the picaresque hero in one event after another and we watch it continue to do so. …. No mysterious order emerges to bind events together and to bring them to some end. …. The picaresque plot merely records fragmented happening after fragmented happening" (The Picaresque Novel [Cleveland, 1967], p. 12). Claudio Guillen relates the travel motif of picaresque to the older "Pauline view of life as pilgrimage or exile within the confusion, the ocean, the labyrinth of earthly existence" ("Toward a Definition of the Picaresque," Literature as System [Princeton, 1971], p. 98). The pattern of the pilgrimage corresponds roughly to the pattern of romance, while picaresque more nearly approximates the condition of exile.

9 According to Stuart Miller, every aspect of the picaresque genre points to the realization that the "world is without order, is chaotic" (The Picaresque Novel, p. 10). I would shift the emphasis from chaos to the unfathomability of experience combined with a drift towards misfortune.

10 Claudio Guillen maintains that the picaro does change, primarily through contact with the corruption of the world. He becomes a rogue in order to survive (Literature as System, p. 88). Aside from this process of adaptation, I do not see that the picaro typically undergoes fundamental changes of character. It might be argued that conversion constitutes a fundamental change, but this motif when it appears seems arbitrarily grafted onto the picaro's basic nature.

11 Guillen alludes to this process without elaborating on it. "The use of recurrent motifs, circular patterns, and incremental processes is particularly frequent in the picaresque" (Literature as System, p. 85).

12 Richard Lanham, "Opaque Style in Elizabethan Fiction," Pacific Coast Philology, I (1966), 25-31.

13 Stuart Miller describes this process from a slightly different perspective. "The Unfortunate Traveller is full of sick jokes, full of attempts to make the horrible funny. Jack the narrator keeps reality at a distance with his wit, stylistic brilliance, and drink, because reality is simply too horrible to contemplate seriously" (The Picaresque Novel, p. 104). Miller credits Jack with a greater degree of self-consciousness than I am willing to admit.

14 The theme common to the three geographically defined sections of the book, according to Walter Davis, is excess. The specific sin of the Anabaptists is religious excess or pride. Although I agree with Davis about the centrality of this theme, which I would prefer to call "pride" throughout, I do not agree with his interpretation of Nashe's satiric stance as one of "encyclopedic destructiveness" (Idea and Act, pp. 219 and 229).

15 A similar exhortation appears at the end of The Anatomie of Absurditie. "Let not learning, which ought to be the Leuell, whereby such as Hue ill, ought to square theyr crooked waies, be the occasion vnto the of farther corruption, who haue already sucked infection; least their knowledge way them downe into hell, when as the ignorant goe the direct way to heauen" (Nashe, Works, I, 49). For the source of this passage and that of its counterpart in The Unfortunate Traveller, see Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium in Renaissance Philosophy: The Transalpine Thinkers, ed. and trans. Herman Shapiro and Arturo B. Fallico, 2 vols. (New York, 1969), II, 70. The fact that Nashe twice echoes this passage gives some indication of its significance for him.

16 Ronald Paulson, in The Fictions of Satire (Baltimore, 1967), p. 14, comments significantly on the satirist's moral stance as executioner. "In many satires, we may note in passing, the punishment is also objectified in the satirist's image of himself as a surgeon or public executioner." Of even greater interest to this study is Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr.'s discussion of the rituals of public execution in the sixteenth century. According to Edgerton, "The ritual of capital punishment was deeply involved with Christian symbolism"; the legal process of condemnation was conducted in order to "appear as an earthly preview of the Last Judgment"; and the execution itself was meant to convey a religious message concerning sin and salvation ("Maniera and the Mannaia: Decorum and Decapitation in the 16th Century," The Meaning of Mannerism, ed. Franklin W. Robinson and Stephen G. Nichols Jr. [Hanover, 1972], pp. 67-104).

17 The motif of judgment and punishment or execution appears regularly in Nashe's writing, revealing a consistently dark strain in his temperament. See the following passages for some of the more notable references to this theme: The Anatomie of Absurditie, I, 32; An Almond for a Parrat, III, 353; Christs Teares Over Jerusalem, II, 139-40; and The Terrors of the Night, I, 345, 355, 373, and 386.

18 For the most extensive treatment of Nashe's techniques of stylistic parody, see Agnes Latham, "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller" English Studies, ed. F. P. Wilson (London, 1948).

Barbara C. Millard (essay date 1978)

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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 combination of crude joke and terrible detail particularly accents the studies of rogue life, tales of adventure, and tracts for the times, even though such moments of horror and farce are often incongruous with either the romantic or the realistic character of these works. As Huntington Brown pointed out in his discussion of Rabelais, however, the grotesque can be, "as truly as tragedy, an imitation of life in the Aristotelian sense."1 Its appearance in such an experimental piece as The Unfortunate Traveller deserves therefore a closer scrutiny as to whether it is the result of caprice—a monstrosity, according to Montaigne, which violates right form and is unrelated to the non-grotesque in art: "having neither order, dependencie, or proportion but casual and framed by chaunce"2—or, whether the grotesque is a unifying element which, in the words of Frances Barasch, "resides not only in the structure of the work, but in the writer's view of the world, in fact, in the theme of the work itself."3 Because of the wealth of literary material within this period and the complicated history of the grotesque in art, this study must necessarily limit itself to a cursory look at a few exemplary Elizabethans and their suggestive use of the grotesque as providing a context for Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller. This remarkable piece will be considered as an effective and seminal work in English literature for its conscious use of the grotesque as a structural and thematic center within the picaresque novel. Of particular concern in this examination of The Unfortunate Traveller is the interrelationship between the picaresque and the grotesque, for it is the interaction of cultural impetus and personal vision which results in the deliberate artistic development of the grotesque mode as subject, form, and theme.

During the period in which Nashe was writing, the appearance of the grotesque in English prose fiction is generally sporadic and phenomenal. But time and again, the inclusion of these grotesque episodes force their authors, if only for greater exploitation of the sensational, into refining aspects of their narrative art in order to accommodate the different mode. Furthermore, as Robert Greene, Thomas Deloney, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Nashe devised their presentations of the macabre, the physically deviant and horrible, they were not only catering to popular taste but also revealing the dis-ease of their age, exposing the "reality" of a primitive undercurrent in a growing urban civilization, and reasserting the lines between the natural and the unnatural in human beings and their constructs. Such a juxtaposition of the fabulously contrived edenic villa (which Nashe's Jack Wilton visits in Rome) with the city's famine suggests an interest in the grotesque as it threatens confidence in the integrity and order of nature, and therefore, for most Renaissance writers, as it threatens the basis of art. Yet, as O. J. Campbell testifies, these "proletariat" writers were also amused by the deplorable absurdity and outrageous follies they observed in the mad, vicious world they knew.4 Hence, the elusive combination of satire, sadism, and low comedy which results in not just a description of what appears to be grotesque but the reader's combined experience and apprehension of the grotesque moment itself.

The grotesque exists, as Frances Barasch and Philip Thomson define it, when just such a tension between mirth and horror, seriousness and mockery exists.5 However, Wolfgang Kayser's final interpretation of the impetus for the grotesque pertains to the Elizabethan experiment as well, for much of this lurid material avowedly attempts "to invite and subdue the demonic aspects of the world."6 Having "Beaten open the Infernall Gates," Thomas Dekker opens his discoveries of "strange country" and terrible dreams through the engine of his pamphlets. In the age of Gloriana, demons were both real and fantastic enough. Much of the grotesque or unnatural in these narratives are extensions of that barbarity which produced records of rape, random murder, incest, filicide, and the horrors (plague, poverty, brutality) resulting from the squalor of slum life and the systems of criminal justice and penal administration.

In one sense, then, the spring for the grotesque mode came from the outer world which thrust its incongruities on Nashe and his cohorts. Otherwise, the literary treatment and structural use of the grotesque go beyond the service of satire and receive their impetus from the artist's own sense of the neurotic and erotic impulses common to all men. Even such a conventional prose romance as Sidney's Arcadia locates much of its pith in abnormal relationships like those involving the disguised Zelmane (Pyrocles) or in the inverted episodes of "chivalric" encounter like that between "Zelmane" and the "clownes": "But she … hitte him so surely on the side of his face, that she lefte nothing but the nether jawe, where the tongue still wagged…. But Dorus (leaving the miller to vomit his soul out in wine and bloud) strake of another quite by the waste…. "7 Of particular interest is the deliberate shift in stylistics, diction, and image from the general tenor of Sidney's prose. The technique is not far from the mock glorification of magnificent carnage in Dekker or its distillation into the exaggerated detail of an execution or murder in Nashe or the less flamboyant Deloney.

While celebrating bourgeois affluence and catering to its taste for both entertainment and edification, Thomas Deloney flirts with the grotesque by setting extravagant episodes, extravagantly treated, within a realistic framework. His tale, The Gentle Craft, glorifies the virtues and successes of shoemakers, yet Deloney salts his prosaic dough with a garish battle between an elephant and a dragon, a fantastic encounter with a cyclops, the grisly burial alive of a greedy priest, and the comic-gruesome deaths of Hugh and Winifred. How does one react to this terrific comedy? Deloney, like Nashe earlier, seems to be reacting to more than audience demand for thrills. His handling of such a romantic tale with a genre which itself was a defiant reaction to the effete romances of the aristocracy would indicate that his maudlin treatment is aggressive. The narrating voice finally does not really evoke pity, but revulsion.

More the literary chameleon than Deloney, Robert Greene divided himself between wooing a gentle audience with conventional romance and assaulting the squalid character of London with the cony-catching pamphlets. Although Greene does explore the distortion of personality by a prominent fault (vanity) in his pretty tales like Alcida, the reporter distinctly emerges from the blur of his euphuistic romance to link with Nashe in his unflinching pamphlets and their portraiture of freakish men. These chronicles of social monstrosities in the criminal underworld are part of the background against which we must read The Unfortunate Traveller. Most conspicuous, perhaps, among Greene's rogues is Ned Browne who, in The Blacke Bookes Messenger, "telleth verie pleasantly … such strange prancks and monstrous villanies by him and his consorte performed." Like that of most Elizabethan rogues (including those Jack Wilton describes), Ned's gnarled life relaxes itself to a desperate sense of death. Resulting in a perverse philosophy of carpe diem (not unrelated to the twisted logic of Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit" in our time), the rogue has apprehended "Death only as Natures due." In an age when plagues and starvation harvested thousands at random, the identification of nature with death results in a beast-world of antic criminality. Hence, Ned's gaudy narrative celebrates the rogue's ingenuity and fustian craft until the note abruptly sours with the sadistic description of his "miserable" death by hanging and the subsequent ravaging of his corpse by wolves.

Greene and Nashe are not alone in their temptation to spin wry heroes out of villainous fiber. Thomas Dekker, too, developed a knack for working the macabre into social criticism in order to exploit the social anxiety and unrest which resulted from the hoardes of disbanded soldiers and generally unemployed after the Drake and Norris expedition of 1589. These displaced persons rapidly inflating the criminal class were feared, detested, scourged, and destroyed—sometimes simply for loitering, but their misshapen lives made fascinating reading for those buying at the stalls in Saint Paul's.

A later work than The Unfortunate Traveller, The Belman of London (1608) brings "to Light the Most Notorious Villainies, drawne to the life, of purpose that life may be drawne from it." Largely, it serves as a catalogue of "valiant beggars" in which a perverse hierarchy raises its most unregenerate characters in first place and titles them "upright-men." The account deliberately begins with an apostrophe to the pastoral wholesomeness of country life, but abruptly inverts the pastoral in discovering the countryside to be a nest for the "beasts" among men. While spying on a conclave of rogues, the "belman" observes them at table "as if they had beene so many Anticks: A Painters prentice could draw worse faces then they themselves made." Insofar as their wrenched ethic has disturbed the order of things and threatened the conventions of that order, the rogues sound strings on the time-honored lyre of the Robin Hood—Robin Goodfellow—Puck Hairy tradition. To that extent they are still psychologically manageable within the cultural context.

Finally, Nashe's ghoulish narrative of the plague finds a counterpart in Dekker's ironic account of The Wonderful Yeare (1603), in which scenes of horror are juxtaposed with passages of beauty and fantasy. As with Nashe, Dekker's parenthetical expression proves a sharp-toothed weapon, while his blending of the fantastic with realistic detail engenders a graver "realism" of the horror of the plague than a more statistical version. Ironically acting as anaesthetic to the birth of calamity is the prefatory section celebrating the joyful omens of the Stuart succession. Once again capricious Death turns life garish as a bride collapses midway between the phrases "in sickness" and "in health." In the midst of "for better" and "for worse" she becomes worse (p. 128). Yet, the Antic spares a drunkard who stumbles into an open grave of pestilent corpses so that he rises to startle the bleary-eyed sexton. Ultimately, we discern that the narrative is nicely structured by the "lickerish expectation" of the caprice of this "ruffianly swaggerer" Death. The impossibility of comprehending the logic of nature arouses a dread which is simultaneously mitigated by a dry humor. The latter often results from deliberate stylistic appeals to the audience's intellectual pleasure in the perverse and its smugness in its own safety.

So far, this discussion has glanced at the scope, sophistication and intensity of the grotesque mode in Elizabethan fiction as Nashe's associates dabbled in it. One notes accordingly that the infusion of ironic comedy appears to be proportionate to their involvement with the mode. Finally, the effort to realize an equal tension between the terrible and the ridiculous is achieved in the grotesquerie of Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). Nothing like it exists up to that time in English narrative, but the controversy still goes on as to exactly what it is. In charging Nashe with brilliance rather than artistry, C. S. Lewis nevertheless spotlights the essential character of this work and identifies it with the tradition of the grotesque in the visual arts: "In his exhilarating whirlwind of words we find not thought nor passion but simply images: images of ludicrous and sometimes frightful incoherence boiling up from a dark void. There is that in Nashe which connects him with artists like Bosch and the later Picasso."8 In light of the more intensified interest in the grotesque of later artists and critics in the twentieth century, we can perhaps more clearly appreciate Nashe's experimentation with this elusive mode. Rather than merely redeeming the formlessness of the work with its dark fascination, the grotesque structure within The Unfortunate Traveller actually supports the picaresque nature of the novel while rendering the work more peculiarly Nashe's own and less imitative within the continental tradition of the picaresque.

Beginning as a rogue par excellence, the hero, Jack Wilton, undermines the existing order from within. As a soldier he alternately fleeces the profiteers in his company and avoids active duty; and, as a page, he scourges the courtiers with his supercilious rites. The structural frame of the picaresque novel consists, therefore, of Jack's movement from anti-hero to non-hero, from victimizer to victim. Like the demon in Ben Jonson's The Devil Is An Ass, the alienated picaro discovers his own naiveté regarding the nature of evil and the level of absurdity in an alienated world.

Identifiable as a persona for Nashe in the Induction, Jack mockingly bequeaths, "for wast paper here amongst you," certain pages of his misfortunes. Wars, massacres, and plagues provide pulp for his press. Ludicrous and horrible is his description of the sweating sickness in England: commingled with the spectacle of whole families wiped away are glimpses of fat people larding, like Falstaff, the lean earth, of clothiers profiting from their savings on cloth. On familiar turf in these episodes, Jack remains secure from danger and his tone is aloof as he outlines the wretched panorama of the battlefield after a French-Swiss conflict: "I saw a wonderfull spectacle of blood-shed on both sides: here unweeldie Switzers wallowing in their gore, like an Oxe in his dung; there the sprightly French sprawling and turning on the stained grasse, like a Roach new taken out of the streame …" (II, 230-231).9

Jack meets the insanity of war (in which a city, paid for with 12,000 lives, is surrendered "in reconciliation") with irreverent imagery: "That Warre thus blowen over, and the severall Bands dissolved like a Crowe that still followes aloofe where there is carrion, I flew me over to Munster" (p. 232). But the tones become mixed (as does the logic of the digressive treatise on humility and violence) in Jack's account of the Anabaptists' crazy and inadequate dress for battle, their hysterical praying, and their misplaced trust in the rainbow which ironically portends not their victory but their slaughter. Has nature or God betrayed them? Jack offers no opinion, but sums up with an account of the opposing army's butchering, with teary eyes, the heretics: "Pittifull and lamentable was their unpittied and well perfourmed slaughter" (p. 240).

Joining up with the Earl of Surrey, Jack quits his "cavaliership," and becomes a willing pawn to a doting knight on a darkling chessboard. Touring Northern countries, Jack gleefully satirizes conventional details of chivalric romance (Surrey's dotage on the phlegmatic Geraldine, the German tyrant husband) and the folly of scholarly approaches to the correction of pirate commonwealths. Life is lived foolishly and absurdly here; public practice is divorced from political theory, and the latter disappears in plagiarized legal gibberish. However, Jack's narrative voice becomes significantly modified inasmuch as he does not control these situations. His perception of follies is indirectly obtained through Surrey, whom he "follows"; and, moreover, he seems unaware of the full tenor of the scenes he describes. The saucy rogue has become an unperceptive or "content" persona. By the time he reaches Wittenburg, he can no longer distinguish the reality from the appearance and is efficiently duped by a prostitute and her bawd—twice.

In Italy, as we could expect, the landscape becomes increasingly strange, the structures more deceptive. And, as Jack recedes into his non-heroic identity, the grotesque strain grows more virulent. The description of the summer banqueting house is a highly wrought piece of prose appropriate to the offensiveness of an art that attempts to outstrip nature. As such, the prose is as sophisticated and artificial as the "inchained" birds with throats of conduit pipes: "Such a golden age, such a good age, such an honest age was set forth in this banketting house" (p. 285). With the swiftness of a cinematic slide change, the scene shifts from the sleeping wolves and lambs of the garden to the vision of the plague in the city. After drawing the veil of death and hopelessness around the setting, Jack proceeds with the violent story of the rape of Heraclide. The episode is told in a mock-serious style, but this time combining vivid narration with high-flown moralizing. Jack Wilton is ensnared in the drama and humanized considerably in the process; for once he projects more than the cold mask of the persona. When his courtesan is dragged off by the bandits, the sequence of his emotions is realistic: indignation, anger, cowardice, frustration. Fearing an imaginary guard, he is threatened by the failure of supernatural forces to render justice, but he is cynically aware of his own impotence and the emptiness of his bravado: "Then threw I my selfe pensive againe my pallete, and darde all the devils in hell, nowe I was alone, to come and fight with mee one after another…. I beat my head against the wals & cald them bauds, because they would see such a wrong committed, and not fall uppon him" (pp. 287-288).

Nashe's technique for intensifying the rape itself pioneers the device of telescoping action. Jack, spying from above through an opening in the floor, frames the scene. The inhuman rapist-murderer, Esdras, looms ghoulishly against the backdrop of plague and death in the house, but Heraclide suggests a parody of Lucrece as she histrionically appeals to all the conventional standards of morality which turn her logic against her: "If thou be a man, thou wilt succour mee; but if thou be a dog and a brute beast, thou wilt spoile mee, defile mee, and teare me" (p. 290). Esdras proceeds to be a beast (as Jack proceeds to be a voyeur) and ravishes her, on the "pillow" of her dead husband's body. From a warped sense of "virtue" the lady commits suicide to atone for her defilement and save her honor. The grotesqueness of the whole sequence is nicely rounded by her husband's awakening from his "sleep" (jarred by the discomforting weight of bodies, no doubt). Jack falls target for the husband's wrath, his imprisonment and escape leading to his further victimization by the sinister Jew, Dr. Zachary, and Juliana.

The erstwhile rogue founders hopelessly in the tortuous machinery of ecclesiastical and scientific roguery. Incarcerated, bartered, alternately threatened with being anatomized, bled to death, sexually depleted, and starved, Jack succumbs to hysteria and splenetic imaginings like those portrayed in Nashe's Terrors of the Night ("In the night I dreamt of nothing but phlebotomy, blood fluxes, incarnatives, running ulcers"): "I cald to minde the assertion of some philosophers, who said the soule was nothing but blood: then thought I, what … if I should let my soule fall and breake his necke into a bason" (p. 308). Significantly, Jack's ubiquitous perspective of the early episodes and instructed vision of the middle section have been narrowed, in captivity, to his own meager and partial perception.

Jack resigns himself to powerlessness, even before he is rescued by his mistress, and decides to return to England. First, he soaks his wounded morale in exorbitant descriptions of the executions of the Jew, Zadok, and of Esdras' murderer. In a passage which has brought accusations of callousness and sadism against Nashe,10 the Jew is langorously tortured to death. The key is not so much in the subject matter as in the intense, almost inhuman, precision with which Jack narrates, as though the details were singularly important, not the life. In trying to understand his experience, Jack must anatomize the torture as the mob must anatomize the criminal "all the people (outragiously incensed) with one conioyned outcrie yelled mainely, Awaie with him…. torture him, teare him or we will teare thee in peeces if thou spare him" (p. 327).

But the charm has clearly worn off Jack's role as picaro. No longer defiant of convention, the non-hero recoils from this realm of the grotesque from which he can no longer remain aloof. If the reality of wars and plague has discredited the ideals of chivalry and divine governance, the reality of his own inability to contend with the underside of human experience or to traverse safely the frontiers of the estranged world discredits his claim to even the anti-heroic stance of picaro or social rebel. Retreating into the formulated behavior he once spurned, Jack "converts" himself to the cult of conformity and survival: "Mortifiedly abiected and danted was I with this truculent tragedie…. To such straight life did it thence forward incite me that ere I went out of Bolognia I married my curtizan, performed many almes deedes; and hasted so fast … that within fortie daies I arrived at the king of Englands campe…" (pp. 327-328). Thus, as Jack himself becomes grotesque in his failure to orient himself in the physical universe, he opts for the controlled or regulated hazard (the military career) as preferential to the chaotic one. His wry fate echoes the wry lament in Nashe's "A Litany in Time of Plague":

Wit with his wantonnesse
Tasteth deaths bitternesse:
Hels … executioner
Hath no eares for to heare
What vaine art can reply.
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord have mercy on us
(III, 1602-08).

So, too, does Jack resign sovereignty of himself and "dye" into his new "straight" life."11

Nashe has employed the grotesque mode to shape his narrative into the cohesive work it is. He paces the narrative with grotesque encounters and structures his central figure's development according to his perception of and reaction to the intensified experience. Nashe's narrative technique defines an intimate relationship to the mode, as Jack's apprehension of the grotesque originates in his own mind (his interpretive early descriptions) and shifts to become identified with the character of the outer world. In Italy, Jack finds the grotesque within and without and increasingly incomprehensible. But we are given an additional, outer perspective on the point of view of the narrative. In the customary prefatorial address, Nashe aptly divides himself (and his tone) between "voices"—as the author obsequiously seeking patronage and as the supercilious gallant laughing at his own work as that of the picaro-page Wilton.

In the dedicatory epistle to the Lord of Southampton, Nashe not only seeks to "sell" himself to the nobleman but also "fictionalizes" a sophisticated audience for his work:12 "Long have I desired to approove my wit unto you." He promises and delivers "some reasonable conveyance of historie and varietie of mirth" to readers whose power over his works he respectfully concedes: "Unrepreviably perisheth that booke whatsoever to wast paper, which on the diamond rocke of your judgment disasterly chanceth to be shipwrackt." But in his "Induction to the dapper Mounsier Pages of the Court," the sharp-witted Nashe, with tongue-in-cheek, baits another audience—dice-playing, hard-drinking, and smoking city-squires who are sarcastically "bequeathed" the narrative for "wast paper." Or, as the rest of the address proposes, the sheets can kindle tobacco, stop mustard pots, or serve as napkins for "madde whoorson" printers.

Which "role" represents the reality of Nashe's world, which tone his true attitude towards that world, which fictionalized audience the one to whom he directs the narrative? Perhaps some impetus for the grotesque mode arises from this dualism in Nashe's perspective: high ambition and low comedy, gentility and buffoonery, pungent satire exposing real horrors in the political world to those nobles who supposedly control it and fantastic drollery for those who must mock the mad world in order to endure it—these are the components reflected in the artist's eye "that sees round about it selfe." In his bold experiment with the novel, Nashe has recognized, deliberately or intuitively, the grotesque mode as at once structural and thematic within the narrative form. Ulrich Wicks, in attempting to define the picaresque, notes the element of the grotesque as "horrible incident" and states that its primary function in such fiction is "to arouse some kind of shocked response" from its audience. Yet, in so designating the grotesque as producing an awareness of only the "nightmare world," Wicks divorces the grotesque from the total effect of the picaresque as he describes it: "In picaresque we 'participate' in the tricks essential to survival in chaos and become victims of the world's tricks."13 Actually, as Nashe utilizes the grotesque mode in his adventure, it arouses our awareness of the "trick" or joke as well. The laughter emerging from the grotesque and existing in equal tension with the horrible is even more essential to our acceptance of the "trick" than that rather superior snicker arising from the satire in the novel.

Insofar as The Unfortunate Traveller deviates from the norm of either Elizabethan romance or prose tract, Nashe has used a method of tonal structure appropriate to his experiment in the picaresque. Its combination of sinister tones with light overtones anticipates the later works of the Schaur-Romantiks and consequently much modern fiction. Through such experimentation as Nashe's we are reminded that the "driving purpose of form is to transform that which might inspire terror (or revulsion) into something which can be contemplated and experienced without fear"—in fact, with pleasure.14


1Rabelais in English Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933), p. 6.

2 Michel de Montaigne, Essayes, transi. John Florio (1603), (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), Ch. XXVII, "Of Friendship."

3The Grotesque: A Study in Meanings (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 10.

4Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1938), p. 22. Campbell goes on to note that Nashe "in the very title of his Anatomie of Absurdities (1589) marks the difference between his attitude and that of his predecessors. What they found abhorrent, he thought entertaining, and even funny" (p. 23).

5The Grotesque (London: Methuen and Co., 1972), passim. Thomson's definition reflects several critics' thoughts on the subject, especially: Frances K. Barasch, "The Meaning of the Grotesque," an introductory essay to Thomas Wright's A History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art (New York: Ungar, 1968); and Lee Byron Jennings, The Ludicrous Demon. Aspects of the Grotesque in German Post-Romantic Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).

6The Grotesque in Art and Literature, transl. Ulrich Weisstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), p. 188.

7The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, 4 vols. (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1912-26), I, 312-313.

8English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), p. 416. Agnes M. C. Lathem also argues for a strong burlesque element in the narrative's horrors, in "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's 'Unfortunate Traveller'" (English Studies, New Series, 1 [1948], 85-100). The critical debate over the generic identity of this narrative is aptly summarized by Richard A. Lanham in a footnote to his own essay on the subject, "Tom Nashe and Jack Wilton: Personality As Structure In The Unfortunate Traveller," (Studies in Short Fiction, 4 [1967], 201-216). Lanham's identification of both the neurotic impulse in Jack Wilton and its resemblance to our modern condition only confirms this novel's participation in the grotesque tradition as well.

9 All references are taken from The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, 5 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958; rpt. and ed. by F. P. Wilson).

10 David Kaula, "The Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in English Literature, 6 (1966), 45-48.

11 The equation suggests the modern existentialist perspective in which one knows who he is only insofar as he knows who he is not. In this the picaro is one with Kafka's Joseph K., Mann's Joseph, Camus' Meursault, Sartre's Roquentin, or Melville's Ahab.

12 The relationship between the audience which a writer "fictionalizes" for himself and his stylistics is presented by Walter J. Ong, S. J. as an evolving characteristic of literature in "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction," PMLA, 90 (January 1975), 9-21.

13 "The Nature of Picaresque Narrative: A Modal Approach," Publications of the Modern Language Associ ation of America, 89 (March 1974), 247, 242.

14 Simon O. Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 128.

Cynthia Sulfridge (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7083

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 acknowledged that it is an unconventional narrative. For want of a better explanation of its peculiarities, decades of critics dismissed the work as a primitive forerunner of the novel, influenced by Lazarillo de Tormes and the rise of the Spanish pícaro. Most critics today, however, agree with Fredson T. Bowers that such a dismissal oversimplifies.2 R. B. McKerrow, in the complete Works, and G. R. Hibbard, in the only existing full-length biography of Nashe, have led in the trend away from the picaresque interpretations and toward more sophisticated analyses of the textual peculiarities.3

Nevertheless, critics continue to find the text perplexing, and many have resorted to dealing with only isolated aspects of the work rather than attempting to classify the whole of Nashe's rather eclectic narrative. Hibbard's attempt to summarize and describe the text is a vivid illustration of why so many critics have avoided trying to take an overview. Unable to synthesize the various aspects, he finally concludes that the "'story' is sheer improvisation."4 Hibbard is disturbed by the same eclectic quality that led Agnes M. C. Latham to decide that The Traveller is "a spirited parody of popular literary themes and styles" and that it is "a book designed to leave its readers giddy, gasping, and weak with laughter, as though they had just come off a switchback."5

While others have acknowledged the vertiginous sensation induced by Nashe's text, few find it quite as mirthful in its effect as Latham does. Responding to Latham, Richard A. Lanham commented:

No one, I submit, has ever been left gasping and weak with laughter by The Unfortunate Traveller since the first day it was hawked about London at the start of its not notably successful career. We are giddy all right, but not from laughter.6

The salient aspect of the more recent criticism is the growing awareness of the peculiar effect The Unfortunate Traveller has upon its reader. What begins as an apparently light, humorous book proceeds to take its reader through a maze of narrative maneuvers which leaves readers baffled and uneasy. Nevertheless, in noting this effect, no one has quite explained why it is there. It may be that it was this very narrative effect that Nashe considered his "cleane different vaine," however. Perhaps we make a mistake in looking for the essence of the text simply in its story line.

The story told in The Traveller, after all, is a convoluted but not particularly enigmatic one. Jack Wilton relates his adventures as he moves from Henry VIII's camp in France, to England where he encounters the sweating sickness, and on to the continent and the battle of Marignano. After stops in Münster and England again, he joins Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, for an eventful trip through Rotterdam, Wittenberg and Italy. In Venice they are joined by Diamante (who becomes Jack's mistress), and after Surrey holds a ludicrous tournament in Florence, Jack and his "lady" move on alone. In Rome and Bologna, the two survive a series of misfortunes (caused variously by the plague, plunderers, ruthless Jews, and unfortunate misunderstandings). And finally, in a fit of unexpected moral insight, Jack repents, marries Diamante, leaves Italy, and promises more tales if his audience applauds his efforts.

It is a simple, if rambling, story, and at first glance would not seem a text to particularly unsettle readers. What is omitted in a summary, however, and what gives the work its unique flavor is the narrative technique and its deliberate entanglement of the reader. For The Unfortunate Traveller gradually involves the reader in an unexpected turn. At first the tone and content of the text seem very much like that of the familiar Renaissance jestbook or rogue tale; the reader is being told a series of amusing anecdotes. But as he reads on, he finds his role with respect to the text being subtle but deliberately changed. His experience of the text becomes increasingly unsettling, particularly with respect to the narrative voice.

The first person narrator in The Traveller is one of the structural characteristics which early critics identified as picaresque. While it is true that Lazarillo is written in the first person, there is considerably more to the use of the first person in the English text than there is in the Spanish one. The Traveller makes conscious use of a double first-person narrative and purposely focuses upon its complex narrator-reader relationship.

The first of the two narrative voices to address the reader in The Unfortunate Traveller is the fictive one of Thomas Nashe himself in "The Induction to the dapper Mounsier Pages of the Court." He describes the text to come and, in doing so, begins to characterize himself and the second narrator, Jack Wilton:

A proper fellow Page of yours called lack Wilton by me commends him vnto you, and hath bequeathed for wast paper here amongst you certaine pages of his misfortunes. In anie case keepe them preciously as a priuie token of his good will towardes you. (207)

The entire letter is set in this playful tone, with Nashe joking about Jack and the text, and it closes with a pitch to the reader to join the proposed fun and read on through the rest of the text:

… onely let this suffice for a tast to the text, and a bitte to pull on a good wit with, as a rasher on the coles is to pull on a cup of Wine. Heigh passe, come alofte: euerie man of you take your places, and heare Iacke Wilton tell his owne Tale. (208)

On a purely practical level, of course, the letter was Nashe's attempt to get the browser at the bookseller's to buy. But with respect to the goals of the text, it is his purpose to designate an audience which will identify readily with Jack Wilton. He establishes a mood of familiarity and plays up this mood, suggesting that the audience has a certain responsibility for Jack's narrative:

Iust a little nearer to the matter & the purpose. Memorandum, euerie one of you after the perusing of this pamphlet is to prouide him a case of ponyardes, that if you come in companie with anie man which shall dispraise it or speak against it, you may straight crie Sic respondeo, and giue him the stockado. It standes not with your honours (I assure ye) to haue a gentleman and a page abusde in his absence. (207)

As he goes on elaborating upon the "articles" of his "memorandum," detailing how his audience should feel and act toward Jack's text, the prevailing emphasis is upon a sense of fraternity between narrator and reader. He acts as if he is inviting his reader to join him in a nearby pub, to meet their "proper fellow Page," and to take their seats around him. The role of the fictive Nashe here is not unlike that of the "setter" who roamed the streets of London in Tudor times seeking out the "cony," putting him in a mood of relaxed congeniality and delivering him to the master who would make use of the preliminary conditioning to turn an unwary stranger into a baffled victim.

By designating Jack's fellow pages as the expected audience, Nashe's Induction sets the stage for the characterization of the second narrative voice. The point is not so much that the text is designed for the court pages per se as that it is a narrative set up for a persona who assumes an immediate intimacy with his readers. The reader may be anyone (later, in fact, other specific readers are addressed at specific moments),7 but whoever he is, the reader is a person with whom Jack assumes the right to take certain liberties.

When Jack begins his own introduction, he reinforces the effect:

I, Iacke Wilton, (a Gentleman at least,) was a certain kind of an appendix or page, belonging or appertaining in or vnto the confines of the English court; where what my credit was, a number of my creditors that I cosned can testifie: … There did I (soft, let me drinke before I go anie further) raigne sole king of the cans and blacke iakes, … (209)

He addresses his reader as he would an old friend. He speaks as if in a dialogue and makes "inside" jokes about his own mischievousness (209). He gets great fun out of bragging to his compeers about his rascality:

This was one of my famous atchieuements, insomuch as I neuer light vpon the like famous Foole: but I haue done a thousand better iests, if they had been bookt in order as they were begotten. (217)

He imagines his reader and himself as laughing uproariously over his past exploits: "Oh my Auditors, had you seene him. … if (I say) you had seene but halfe the actions that he vsed, … you wold haue laught your face and your knees together" (219). He directs affectionate teasing at the reader: "Gentle Readers (looke you be gentle now since I haue cald you so), as freely as my knauerie was mine owne, it shall be yours to vse in the way of honestie" (217).

This banter is interlaced with other comments which suggest that Jack is sitting across the table from his reader, telling him the story face to face. He anticipates his reader's responses and answers him. From time to time he expects the reader to participate actively in the text. At one point he even demands that the reader fill in the elaborate details of a transition:

I must not place a volume in the precincts of a pamphlet: sleepe an houre or two, and dreame that Turney and Turwin is wonne, that the King is shipt againe into England, and that I am close at harde meate at Windsore or at Hampton Court. (227)

He implies that this is more a conversation—more a cooperative effort—than a monologue.

All of these narrative techniques point to the fact that The Unfortunate Traveller is an eminently "oral" text and that it is oral in a very particular way—in a distinctly modern sense of the word. It is important to note here what is meant when we describe Nashe's text as oral. Walter J. Ong's well-known studies of "oral residue" in Renaissance texts have left the impression that when one speaks of oral effects in sixteenth-century works, he speaks, like Ong, of the postprint orality of an age highly influenced by classical rhetoric. In this kind of oral text, as Ong explains,

… expression is chiefly by means of formulas, with the bulk of the remainder formula-like or "formulaic" and very little non-formulaic expression. In a literary text, on the contrary, we find few formulas and only a bit of the formulaic, leaving us with mostly nonformulaic compositions. Oral composition or grammatical structure is typically non-periodic, proceeding in the "adding" style; literary composition tends more to the periodic.8

Although there is at times the appearance of an "adding style" in Nashe's writing, clearly this is not what we mean generally when we speak of his narrative as oral. Rather, The Traveller employs patterns we think of today as colloquial. As E. D. Mackerness put it some years ago,

… Nashe's style has close affinities with a language meant to be spoken rather than perused in silence. Not only are his rhythms similar to speech (as opposed to consciously created literary) rhythms, but his whole procedure maintains a contact with elements of ordinary usage such as were later considered to be outside the purview of the respectable writer.9

These oral characteristics are part of an effort in the text to bring the reader into a close interaction with Jack Wilton, to blur the distinctions between the reader's world and the narrator's. They nudge the reader into a casual, unguarded relationship with the narrator. They lead him to accept gradually the terms of the narrator's world as a feasible reality. They prepare him for the effects of Jack's subtle blending of the reader's reality markers with those of the narrative. Jack speaks of historic events and personalities the reader will recognize as "real."10 He sets the events of his story within remembered historical time. He locates the events of his narrative geographically within the reader's known world. And, finally, in his coup de maitre, he manipulates the reader's unconscious tendency to blend the concepts of verb tense and of time.

Jack begins by speaking as if his delivery is taking place at the very moment in which the reader is reading it. Whatever would halt the flow of an oral delivery halts Jack's tale as well. He stops to drink (209) or to tell the reader to fill in portions of the story (227), and the discourse is interrupted. He pauses to gloat over his own cleverness, and that interrupts the tale as well. Or he changes his mind and his story flows on again:

Here let me triumph a while, and ruminate a line or two on the excellence of my wit: but I will not breath neither till I haue disfraughted all my knauerie. (225)

All of these are temporal interruptions to a temporal flow of narrative. They suggest that this text, unlike most written texts, is subject not to the laws of the written word but to the laws of oral discourse. Ordinarily it is in the reader's power to control the flow of the written word, to pick up the book or put it down, but here the power of interruption seems to lie elsewhere as it would if the reader were involved in a conversation. The text suggests that here there is no difference between "textual time" and "reader time."

The effect of this is a blending of the reader's exterior, temporal world with the text's interior, spatial one. Reading through the pages becomes the equivalent of moving through time, which, of course, in one sense it is. But rather than limiting the time/space relationship to a 'so-many-pages in so-many minutes' ratio, the narrative voice attempts to confuse the reader's time with the time of the text—or, more precisely, with that of the narrator,—and both with the physical limitations of a "text" which exists in a spatial world. The reader is meant to lose his sense of separateness from Jack's textual world, or more precisely the two worlds are meant to seem the same. The deliberately imposed setting, the oral nature of the text, and the blurring of his sense of time and space outside the text contribute to making the reader vulnerable to Jack and the dictates of his text.

Initially, however, the effect upon the reader of this blending of the two worlds is not in itself unsettling. The reader is drawn gently within the boundaries of the fictive world. He is subtly urged into a relationship with a persona who seems much like the innocuous figure around whom many late sixteenth-century jestbooks were set. Jack, however, soon begins to show some peculiar changes in his character and in his behavior toward his reader. He does not remain the jolly, friendly jester. In the passage in which Jack tells of his return from battle in France (227), after politely telling the reader to fill in the transition, Jack suddenly turns on the reader. Although his relationship with his reader has been apparently congenial to this point, for no apparent reason he begins to talk as if the reader were opposing him:

What, will you in your indifferent opinions allow me for my trauell no more signiorie ouer the Pages than I had before? yes, whether you will part with so much probable friendly suppose or no, Ile haue it in spite of your hearts. (227)

The reader finds himself trying to cope with a persona who not only constantly changes character, attitude, and manner but also punctuates these unexpected maneuvers with implied accusations that the reader is somehow at fault.

Perhaps more disturbing to the reader than even these abrupt changes in mood is the change that takes place in Jack's sense of humor. At the beginning of the text, fun is poked at some characters who seem to merit ridicule, and most of the humor grows out of Jack's simply assisting these people at making fools of themselves. A greedy ale merchant in Henry's camp attracts Jack's mischievous attention, and Jack manages to convince him that the only way he can counter King Henry's suspicion that he is a traitor is to give away his wares to all the English soldiers (210-216). Likewise Jack dupes an over-ambitious captain (217-225), another licentious one (225), and three clerks who are taking advantage of the soldiers in camp (225-226). The reader can be amused with Jack, for in each case the punishment of the victim seems deserved. But as his narrative goes on, Jack begins to see humor in some rather peculiar things. He describes the horror of the sweating sickness which strikes London, yet finds amusement in the plight of the victims:

I haue seene an old woman at that season, hauing three chins, wipe them all away one after another, as they melted to water, and left hir selfe nothing of a mouth but an vpper chap. (229)

He comes to the battlefield at Marignano, the "wonderful spectacle of bloodshed," and finds humor in that as well:

Anie man might giue Armes that was an actor in that Battell, for there were more armes and legs scattered in the Field that day than wil be gathered vp till Doomesday: … (231)

A persona who finds comic relief in an old woman's slow wasting from a deadly fever and delight in punning about the gruesome spectacle after a battle is a grotesque companion. Jack, whom initially the reader finds likable, now shows signs that there is another side to his nature. At first the reader can laugh easily at Jack's jests and can even accept a certain intimacy with the persona himself. But as the narrative progresses, though Jack keeps insisting upon his tone of familiarity with the reader, he and his attitudes become more and more difficult for the reader to identify with.

As the text proceeds, the character of the narrative voice and the tone of the narration vacillate so erratically and unpredictably that the reader finds himself in a position very different from the one he experienced and anticipated as he read the early pages of the text. As he has become more implicated in the text, his relationship to the narrator and the narrative has become considerably less comfortable. If he pauses to glance back and to compare an early passage with a later one, he can see that the narrator and tale have somehow changed before his very eyes. For instance, in the first section of the text most of the narrative reads like this passage in which Jack describes his initial relationship with one of his victims:

Well, suppose he was a Captaine, and had neuer a good cap of his owne, but I was faine to lend him one of my Lords cast veluet caps, and a weatherbeaten feather, wherewith he threatned his soldiers a far off, as Iupiter is said with the shaking of his haire to make heauen & earth to quake. Suppose out of the parings of a paire of false dice I apparelled both him and my Selfe manie a time and oft: and surely, not to slander the diuell, if anie man euer deserued the golden dice the King of the Parthians sent to Demetrius, it was I: … (217)

In those early pages Jack had chattered about his rascality and narrated his jests like a mischievous but harmless clown. Jack and his early victims were all rogues whose comic antics and comic fall were expected fare. There were victims in Jack's story, but there was no discomfort in hearing about them. Two hundred pages later, however, one almost feels that he has picked up the wrong book, that some other narrator is telling some other tale. Here is a passage from one of the last anecdotes narrated in the text:

To the execution place was he brought, where first and foremost he was stript, then on a sharp yron stake fastened in y ground he had his fundament pitcht, which stake ran vp along into the bodie like a spit; vnder his armeholes two of lyke sort; a great bonfire they made round about him, wherewith his flesh roasted, not burnd:…. Then dyd they scourge his backe partes so blistred and basted, with burning whips of red hot wier: his head they nointed ouer with pitch and tar, and so inflamed it. To his priuie members they tied streaming fire-workes: the skinne from the crest of the shoulder, as also from his elbowes, his huckle bones, his knees, his anckles, they pluckt and gnawed off with sparkling pincers: … (315-316)

Jack blithely reports the execution as if it were welcomed word on a justified retribution. The victim is Zadoch the Jew, clearly cast from the beginning as a villain. He is hardly a character for whom the reader would, under normal circumstances, have sympathy. But the matter of fact reporting of the details of his being placed on a spit, roasted, whipped and skinned alive overloads the reader's emotional circuits. A report that Zadoch had been suitably and moderately punished would have satisfied a need in the reader; the elaborate description of his mutilation and torture only further unsettles the reader. The disturbing effect is particularly intense because at this point the text lacks what Norman Holland has called an "adaptive strategy"—"something that looks quite like … unconscious defenses, but which occurs explicitly in literary works."11 Normally we depend upon the structure of a text both to provide outlets for, and to defend us against, our more primitive impulses. A text which does the former while failing to do the latter can become a very uncomfortable experience for the reader.12

Not only has the text metamorphosed from a blithe jestbook into a horror story, but the narrative voice is behaving as if it had not. He still makes flippant remarks about the content and about the subjects of his anecdotes. He introduces the passage above, for instance, with this comment: "Ile make short worke, for I am sure I haue wearyed all my readers" (315). Ten pages later he introduces a similarly gruesome account with, "The executioner needed no exhortation herevnto, for of his own nature was he hackster good inough: olde excellent he was at a bone-ach" (327). Jack moves in and out of these horror tales as if they were the innocent pranks of the early part of the text.

It is not surprising, then, that readers have found The Unfortunate Traveller unsettling, have thought that it must simply be an aimless text with an inconsistent persona, and, have backed away from it concluding, with Hibbard, that "There is no Jack in the proper sense of the word, …"13 The content and tone of the text change from pleasant to unpleasant, and the reader's experience of the text changes with them. Disturbed by this, readers have concluded that the text—and particularly the character of the narrative voice—were inadequately planned. The Jack Wilton of the last part of the text does not have the same relationship with his reader that the Jack Wilton of the first part had with him, but if the narrative voice seems drastically different—both in his nature and in his treatment of his reader—the question we need to ask is whether there is any pattern in the unexpected change. We need to look back at what the text tells us about Jack.

The reader's concept of Jack Wilton in The Traveller is drawn primarily from direct experience of him. Jack tells his own story, and he is constantly attempting to manipulate the reader closer to him. This forced intimacy is, in fact, part of the reason for the reader's difficulty in dealing with him. Jack implies that he and his reader are well acquainted; while constantly promoting the unexpected, he acts as if everything is progressing normally. But the reader is not dependent entirely upon his own encounter with Jack (or even upon Nashe's Induction) for his information. Upon the occasion of his first return to England, Jack gives a physical description of himself (227). Overall, the image is of a pompous, gluttonous and rather testy young fop. And since it is a self-portrait, it gives the reader a hint that the narrative voice may not be as pleasant a fellow as he has seemed. But the most revealing insight of all is the characterization we get of Jack as he boasts about the pranks he has played. In his tales about his exploits, we get a detailed description of a side of Jack Wilton that nothing else in the text has given us up to that point. We see Jack as he is with his victims—a character very different from the one who is telling the tale.

For example, the very first jest Jack relates is the one he plays on the ale merchant in the English camp. He begins by describing the Falstaff-like merchant as a man who "thought no scorne (Lord, haue mercie vpon vs) to haue his great veluet breeches larded with the droppinges of this daintie liquor" (210). As we follow him through the steps of his onslaught upon the unsuspecting merchant, if we mark his actions and attitudes, we begin to see the very characteristics that appear in Jack again toward the end of the text—under different circumstances. First, he shows how he chooses the appropriate setting for his approach, always, as here, a setting that suggests companionship and intimacy:

… comming to him on a day, as he was counting his barels and setting the price in chalke on the head of them, I did my dutie very deuoutly, and tolde his alie honor I had matters of some secrecy to impart vnto him, … (211)

Jack always likes to establish the impression that he and his victim are compatriots, preferably drinking companions. In this instance the mood is easy to set:

With me, yong Wilton, qd. he, mary, and shalt: bring vs a pint of syder of a fresh tap into the three cups here, wash the pot: so into a backe roome hee leade me, where after he had spitte on his finger, and pickt of two or three moats of his olde moth eaten veluet cap, and spunged and wrong all the rumatike driuell from his ill fauored goats beard, he bad me declare my minde, and thereupon hee dranke to mee on the same. (211)

Jack has little respect for his victims, but this he never lets on to them. He carefully creates the appearance of closeness and affection:

I vp with a long circumstaunce, alias, a cunning shift of the seuenteenes, and discourst vnto him what entire affection I had borne him time out of minde, …(211)

He assures his victim that his sole interest is the other's welfare:

These considerations, I saie, which the world suffers to slip by in the channell of forgetfulness, haue moued me, in ardent zeale of your welfare, to forewarne you of some dangers that haue beset you and your barrels. (212)

In this particular anecdote, the longest description Jack gives of one of his jests, he lets us see the great fun he himself has tormenting and traumatizing his victim while the poor victim struggles with what to him is unexpected and horrifying news:

At the name of dangers hee start vp, and bounst with his fist on the boord so hard that his tapster ouer-hearing him, cried anone, sir, by and by, and came and made a low legge and askt him what he lackt. Hee was readie to haue striken his tapster for interrupting him in attention of this his so much desired relation, … (212)

Jack always depends on his story telling skills to work his game, and he delights in his ability to draw out the details unmercifully:

Well, at his earnest importunitie, after I had moistned my lippes to make my lie run glibbe to his iourneies end, forward I went as followeth. It chanced me the other night, amongest other pages, to attend where the King, with his Lordes and many chiefe leaders, sate in counsell: there, amongst sundrie serious matters that were debated, and intelligences from the enemy giuen vp, it was priuily informed (no villains to these priuie informers) that you, euen you that I nowe speake to, had—(O would I had no tong to tell the rest; by this drinke it grieues me so I am not able to repeate it.) (212-213)

He revels in the game of enticement and delay, making his victim frantic by skillfully counterbalancing the unexpected revelation against the withheld detail:

Nowe was my dronken Lord readie to hang himselfe for the ende of the full point, and ouer my necke he throwes himself verie lubberly, and intreated me, as I was a proper young Gentleman and euer lookt for pleasure at his handes, soone to rid him out of this hell of suspence, and resolue him of the rest: … I, beeing by nature inclined to Mercie (for in deede I knewe two or three good wenches of that name), bad him harden his eares, and not make his eies abortiue before theyr time, and he should haue the inside of my brest turnd outward, heare such a tale as would tempt the vtmost strength of lyfe to attend it and not die in the midst of it. (213)

With his compatriots Jack is the mischievous joker, but with his victims he is fond of playing the moralist and preacher:

What shal I say? that which malice hath saide is the meere ouerthrow and murther of your daies. Change not your colour, none can slander a cleere conscience to it self; receiue al your fraught of misfortune in at once. (213)

After teasing and delaying as long as he can, Jack finally tells the ale merchant the awful "truth":

It is buzzed in the Kings head that you are a secret frend to the Enemie, and vnder pretence of getting a License to furnish the Campe with syder and such like prouant, you haue furnisht the Enemie, & in emptie barrels sent letters of discouerie and corne innumerable. (214)

He provides a little information, just enough to stir his victim's curiosity, and then withdraws to act the innocent who regrets having to tell the tale at all:

Answere me (quoth he), my wise yong Wilton, is it true that I am thus vnderhand dead and curied by these bad tongues?

Nay (quoth I), you shall pardon me, for I haue spoken too much alreadie; no definitiue sentence of death shall march out of my well meaning lips; they haue but lately suckt milke, and shall they so sodainly change their food and seeke after bloud? (214-215)

Jack plays a carefully planned role with his victim, feigning regret at his disclosures and offering uncharacteristic utterances of philosophy and advice:

I cannot stay at this time to report each circumstaunce that passed, but the onely counsell that my long cherished kinde inclination can possibly contriue, is not in your old daies to be liberall: such victualls or prouision as you haue, presently distribute it frankely amongst poore Souldiers; I would let them burst their bellies with Syder and bathe in it, before I would run into my Princes ill opinion for a whole sea of it. (215)

Another of his practices in dealing with his victims is to exchange his usually careless, colloquial speech pattern for a stilted, melodramatic kind of stage diction. The contrast is evident in his tale about the ale merchant in which he places narrative lines next to his dialogue with his victim. It is even more noticeable if one compares one of the opening passages with a passage like the following in which he flatters one of the captains he victimizes:

I see in your face, that you were born, with the swallow, to feed flying, to get much tresure and honor by trauell. None so fit as you for so important an enterprise: our vulgar polititians are but flies swimming on the streame of subtiltie superficially in comparison of your singularitie, their blinde narrow eyes cannot pierce into the profundity of hypocrisie; you alone, with Palamed, can pry into Vlysses mad counterfeting, you can discerne Achilles from a chamber maide, though he be deckt with his spindle and distaffe: … (221-222)

The excessive melodrama, the alliteration, the parallel structure and other rhetorical decorations with which Jack adorns his addresses to his victims contrast sharply with the vernacular he uses on his reader at the beginning of the text while the reader is still being treated as a friend.

This, then, is the modus operandi of Jack Wilton, the incurable rouge. And if the reader looks back at these jests, he begins to see something that has become very familiar in his own experience of Jack. The narrator of The Unfortunate Traveller is, par excellence, the cony catcher about whom Nashe's friend Robert Greene was so fond of writing. The fictive Nashe in the Induction has served as Jack's "setter," leading the reader into Wilton's tavern and into his power. Then Jack—with his reader as with the victims of his jests—has proceeded with the step by step execution of his confidence game. He has begun by establishing the impression of intimate friendship. With his reader as with the merchant, he has carefully created the illusion of the comradeship of drinking partners and has expressed great concern for his welfare. With the reader, too, Jack has indulged his story-telling skills designed to prolong the narration and has relished the chance to tease his audience with what is left unsaid. There is in these passages the very same pose of innocence he has taken with the ale merchant. For example, he relates the course of a rape in startling detail, tantalizing his reader with the prurient description, until he comes to the end and says, "Coniecture the rest, my words sticke fast in the myre and are cleane tyred; would I had neuer vndertooke this tragicall tale" (292). The comment echoes the words he used to tease and put off the merchant: "I have spoken too much already." …"O would I had no tong to tell the rest; … it grieves me so I am not able to repeat it." With his reader as well, Jack has become uncharacteristically sacerdotal, offering unexpected sermons and moral pronouncements: "Strange and wonderfull are Gods iudgements, here shine they in their glory" (320). And in the closing pages of the text, Jack more and more takes on the melodramatic stage diction that earlier he had used only on his victims. He speaks to his reader with all the excess, the alliteration, the parallel structure and rhetorical adornment that he favored in the passage quoted above in which he gulled the captain:

This woman, this matron, this forsaken Heraclide, hauing buried fourteene children in fiue diaes, whose eyes she howlingly closed, & caught manie wrinckles with funerall kisses; besides hauing her husband within a day after laid forth as a comfortles corse, a carrionly blocke, that could neither eate with her, speak with her, nor weepe with her; is she not to bee borne withall though her body swell with a Timpany of teares, thogh her speech be as impatient as vnhappie Hecubas, thogh her head raues and her braine doate? (292)

It is because these parallels exist that the peculiar, changing behavior of the narrative voice in The Unfortunate Traveller becomes doubly disturbing to the reader. Much of the content of the latter half of the text is disturbing enough in itself, and so are the abrupt shifts in tone and content, but this parallel between the relationship Jack has with his early victims and the one he has with his reader at the close of the text is the most unsettling effect of all. The reader finds himself in a situation very much like that of the ale merchant. He is not in a position to deny the truth of what Jack has to say (any more than the ale merchant is), but the world the narrative voice gradually draws him into is an erratic and insecure one. Worse, it seems to become a more and more brutal one, and his companion through all this turns out to be a caricatured Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Short of putting the book down and the experience out of his mind, the reader has no way to free himself from what has become a relationship of increasing discomfort. He began the text as Jack's comrade and somehow has been transformed into Jack's victim.

As numerous critics have pointed out, The Unfortunate Traveller does start out very much like the jestbooks, the rogue stories, and the picaresque tales of the same period. But if Nashe had any of these traditions in mind when he began, ultimately he transformed his work into a "cleane different vaine." If he began by laughing with his reader at the confusion and dismay of others, he concluded by putting the reader himself in confusion and dismay. The history of the text's limited popular appeal and the comments of many of its critics indicate that the effect has been an understandably displeasing one to readers. But the idea of writing a text in order to amuse himself with an assault upon his primary reader is characteristic of Nashe. He triumphed in his replies to Martin Marprelate and in his pamphlet war with Gabriel Harvey because he was able to employ a street humor and a colloquial jargon (possibly learned from Martin himself)14 to degrade and ridicule his victim. As C. S. Lewis points out, in dealing with Harvey, Nashe was blatantly "unfair, illogical, violent, extravagant, coarse, but then"—as with the reader in The Unfortunate Traveller—"that is the joke."15

The resulting vertiginous effect of the text, which Latham described as leaving its readers feeling "as though they had just come off a switchback," is ironically what makes the text both unique and seriously flawed. Nashe seems not to have looked beyond the immediate effects of his work. He belonged to the first wave of professional writers, the same men whose names later became associated with terms like "hack" and "Grub Street," men whose purposes were immediate and pecuniary. The only potential Nashe sought in his "cleane different vaine" was its potential to sell. He made no attempt to endow his work with a reader experience which transcended the text. The experience—the sensation—itself was the text. This is what C. S. Lewis called Nashe's "'pure' literature: literature which is, as nearly as possible, without a subject. In a certain sense of the verb 'say', if asked what Nashe 'says', we should have to reply, Nothing."16 And it is because the text is "pure" in this sense that it failed to make anything of its unusual narrative beyond becoming a unique and rather elaborate jest. Even in the one respect which mattered most to him, Nashe misjudged the effect of his text. People ride "switch-backs" for pure sensation, deliberately making themselves "victims" of a sort for the sake of the experience itself, but they seldom read books for this reason. The text (like a practical joke) is by its very nature more entertaining for its writer than for its reader. And, as a result, in its own day there were no additional printings after the initial ones (despite Jack's closing hint that he hoped for clamorous applause), and the work has never had much of a following since. The Unfortunate Traveller, with its peculiar indulgence of the author's own amusement, failed to become a successful literary innovation because Nashe, in concentrating upon audience effect, ironically overlooked the inevitable results of the audience response it elicited. It is a text which, in victimizing the reading audience upon whom its own success depended, paradoxically became itself the ultimate victim of its author's peculiar humor.


1 Thomas Nashe, The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), II, 207. References to The Traveller refer to this edition and hereafter are cited parenthetically in the text.

2 Fredson T. Bowers, "Thomas Nashe and the Picaresque Novel," in Humanistic Studies in Honor of John Calvin Metcalf (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia, 1941), p. 20.

3 Ronald B. McKerrow, ed., The Works of Thomas Nashe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), IV, 252-253; G. R. Hibbard, Thomas Nashe (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 145-146.

4 Hibbard, p. 178.

5 Agnes M. C. Latham, "Satire on Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's 'Unfortunate Traveller'" English Studies (Essays and Studies n.c), 1 (1948), 88 & 99.

6 Richard A. Lanham, "Tom Nashe and Jack Wilton: Personality As Structure in The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (Spring, 1967), 209.

7 "Ministers and Pastors," p. 237; "Puritans," p. 266; "Women," p. 316; "Guiltless Souls," p. 320.

8 Walter J. Ong, "Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 80 (June, 1965), 148-149.

9 E. D. Mackerness, "A Note on Thomas Nashe and 'Style,'" English, 6 (Spring, 1947), 199.

10 Earl of Surrey, p. 241 ; Erasmus and Thomas More, p. 245; Cornelius Agrippa, p. 246; Pietro Aretino, p. 264; and the siege of Tournay and Terouanne; the battle of Marignano [1515]; the Anabaptist uprising in Münster [1534].

11 Norman Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), p. 106.

12 Ibid., "Form as Defense," pp. 104-133.

13 Hibbard, p. 177.

14 With regard to Nashe's part in the Marprelate writings and the influence the controversy had upon his style, see D. J. McGinn, "Nashe's Share in the Marprelate Controversy," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 59 (1944), 952-984, and Travis L. Summersgill, "The Influence of the Marprelate Controversy Upon the Style of Thomas Nashe," Studies in Philology, 48 (April, 1951), 145-160.

15 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1954), p. 413.

16 Hibbard, pp. 178-179.

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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3649

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
reorganizing victimization frescoes translating
violence into patterns so powerful and pure
we continually fail to ask are they true for us1

Adrienne Rich, appraising literary tradition, asks us to consider the assumptions at the heart of fiction. Her description of the violence often embodied in art touches areas we can explore in a reading of The Unfortunate Traveller. Nashe's text, like the art Rich discusses, reveals the manipulative capabilities of storytelling by consistently translating and reorganizing violence and victimization. Nashe illustrates his narrator's struggle to maintain control over his audience and his environment first through a series of pranks and jokes, second through his descriptions of his travels, and finally through his descriptions of Heraclide's and Cutwolfe's stories. Preferring to explore the text's unifying feature, we do not intend to retrace the steps of scholars who have investigated Nashe's rhetoric and imagery.2 Rather, our interest here is to suggest a pattern of domination and manipulation in the text by selectively highlighting certain narrative strategies.

In one of the narrative's most memorable passages, Jack, locked in another chamber, watches Esdras brutally rape Heraclide. This incident is the most graphic presentation of a motif that pervades Jack's story. Rape, the most degrading act of violence, reduces the victim to a state of complete subjection. The utter brutality of this particular rape derives not only from the violence itself, but also from Esdras' psychology; he prolongs the rape, enjoying his domination of Heraclide. Esdras wants Heraclide to acknowledge his domination by submitting to him: "she must yeld, she should yeld, see who durst remoue her out of his hands."3

Pleasure in domination likewise prolongs the violent encounter between Esdras and Cutwolfe. When Cutwolfe finally catches Esdras, he forces him into a situation of complete passivity, translating the violence of Heraclide's rape into the violence of his revenge. Cutwolfe plainly states that, while pursuing Esdras, he waited for the chance to "[get Esdras] at more advantage," and when he enters Esdras' lodgings, he casts this advantage in sexual terms: "Now haue I got thee naked in my power" (321, 322). Although Cutwolfe has explained that he wants to revenge his brother's death, Esdras connects Cutwolfe's arrival with his own crime against Heraclide: "Heraclide, now thinke I on thy teares sowne in the dust…. In revenge of thee, God hardens this mans heart against mee" (322). Recognizing the tenor of the conflict, Esdras responds to Cutwolfe as he would have had Heraclide respond to him. He yields completely, thinking that his abject submission might pacify Cutwolfe: "Put me to anie pains, my life reserued, and I willingly will sustaine them" (322). Even the iconography of the murder itself recalls Heraclide's rape. Cutwolfe tells us that he "bad [Esdras] ope his mouth and gape wide … therewith made I no more ado, but shot him full into the throat with my pistol" (326).

These two scenes are so grotesque that many readers may judge their violence gratuitous. Some might agree with Richard Lanham that they are "the most interesting episodes in The Unfortunate Traveller, as well as the most seemingly irrelevant."4 Others might agree with Charles Larson that the horrible cruelty "is not completely unpleasant to readers of any era; indeed … it may afford a certain pleasure."5 These incidents, however, are neither pleasurable nor irrelevant. They exaggerate and reorganize patterns of violence that Nashe presents early in the narrative. Though Jack's pranks are relatively innocent, his humor, because it succeeds only at the expense of another, is based on pleasure in domination and manipulation. That Jack enjoys manipulating others is evident both in his treatment of his audience and in his own reactions to his pranks.

In his stories about the English camp, Jack speaks with a fine sense of comic timing and an acute sense of his audience's presence. His sentences are filled with parenthetical remarks as he brags to his listeners; and he calls out to them frequently, demanding that they be "Gentle Readers," or accusing them of failing to appreciate his wit and prowess. When Jack apologizes for the length of his stories, he captures both his inflated sense of accomplishment, and his enjoyment of controlling, and subverting, what his readership knows and expects of him:

What, will you in your indifferent opinions allow me for my travell no more signorie ouer the Pages that I had before? yes, whether you will part with so much probable friendly suppose or no, Ile haue it in spite of your hearts. For your instruction and godly consolation, bee informed, that at that time I was no common squire, no vndertrodden torchbearer. (227)

Jack's joviality, pride, sarcastic wit, and ascription of "indifferent opinions" to his listeners suggest their imperceptiveness and his perspicacity. Moreover, his method of moving from one part of his tale to another aggrandizes his exploits and underscores his finesse in manipulating his audience's expectations. His speech conveys his pleasure in fooling and controlling others, and his descriptions invariably call attention to his cleverness and unique sense of humor. Jack implies that his audience, like the men he is able to swindle and humiliate, is susceptible to his superior wit.

Similarly, Jack's skill and interest in manipulating others is revealed in his descriptions of his pranks. After recounting what happened to the Captain, Jack pauses and requests: "Here let me triumph a while, and ruminate a line or two on the excellence of my wit" (225). He also begs the Captain, "good sir, be ruld by me" (222). Moreover, the alemaster mentions that Jack has "euer lookt for pleasure at his handes" (213). Jack's pleasure no doubt frequently took the form of cider and ale, but the phrase suggests that his need to dominate lies at the root of his humor and his relationships to others. Wit is not usually a source of triumph, but Jack sees it as an instrument of domination and manipulation.6 Clearly, Jack's pranks are not the most violent incidents in the text. However, his pranks contain the same pattern of violence portrayed in the scenes involving Heraclide and Cutwolfe. By entertaining us, Nashe focuses our attention on the pranks' humor, disguising violence.

As "sole king of the cans and black iackes" (209), Jack successfully controls what happens to him in the English camp. When he becomes a traveller, however, new demands are placed upon him. There is a sense, as Jack begins his travels, that he competes both with the men he encounters and with the rarity of the spectacles he observes. When he meets Surrey, for instance, Jack encounters some difficulties in managing affairs to his liking. Surrey has his own story to tell, and Jack is forced both to allow him to tell it and to praise the virtues of so worthy a man. This exercises his patience until he is compelled to say:

Let me not speake anie more of his accomplishments for feare I spend all my spirits in praising him, and leaue my selfe no vigour of wit or effects of a soule to go forward with my historic (242)

Similarly, when Jack hears Sir Thomas More and Erasmus, he tells us their conference "were here superfluous to rehearse" (245), and later in Wittenberg he complains that Luther and Carolostadius "vttered nothing to make a man laugh" (250); the rest of their dispute he has forgotten. When Jack feels threatened or bored he asserts control by ridiculing, or passing over as insignificant, the events he witnesses but does not control.

Jack can also exercise control by commenting on an event to his satisfaction when he does not participate in it. In Florence, for instance, Jack must watch the tournament held in Geraldine's honor. He tells us that it "were here too tedious to manifest all the discontented or amorous deuices that were vsed in this turnament" (277). However, he does go on to manifest them, and more so than most of us would care for. Since he cannot win the tournament himself, or better yet find a way of causing a scandal, he dwells upon it at length. Whether we are gratified by the information Jack gives us, bored by his loquacity, or disappointed by his lapses in memory, we are reminded of Jack's presence in the narrative, and we realize the power he possesses as storyteller. His finesse in shaping our response to certain events disguises his lack of participation in them. However, Jack's troubles while travelling stem also from his inability to control events he does participate in. We witness Jack struggling to maintain control when Surrey catches him in the act of impersonation. Forced to resume his own identity, Jack makes the most of his resignation: "thus challenged of stolne goods by the true owner: Lo, into my former state I return agayne; poore Iack Wilton and your seruant am I, as I was at the beginning, and so wil I perseuer to my liues ending" (269). His next comment to his audience makes explicit his anger and his struggle to control what part of the situation he can:

That theame was quickly cut off, & other talke entered in place, of what I haue forgot, but talke it was and talke let it be, & talke it shall be, for I do not meane here to remember it. (269)

Again we see Jack choosing to omit from his story what he cannot control, and here we are also allowed a glimpse of his anger, betrayed by the repetitiveness of his sentence. He cannot seem to let the subject go or subtly manipulate the record of this incident. His insistent, impatient voice suggests that he is angry both because he is not in full control and because his audience knows that.

A similar, but more serious problem arises for Jack when his plan to outsmart Tabitha the Temptress backfires. He finds himself duped in a manner reminiscent of his own "famous atchieuements" (217). Naturally, Jack does not appreciate the irony of his predicament. Incensed and embarrassed, he exclaims to his audience: "I could drinke for anger till my head akt, to thinke howe I was abused. Shall I shame the deuill and speak the truth? To prison was I sent" (258). In his anger he breaks from his narrative to address his audience. His inability to maintain a detached tone of address makes apparent the vehemence of his anger. Furthermore, Jack does not want to tell us that he has failed; the fact that he has been duped is so unusual and terrible that its retelling will "shame the deuill."

Jack's imprisonment signals a change in the text as a whole. At this point in the narrative, Nashe develops new means of narrating events. Another voice emerges from the narrative which is neither mischievous and jovial, nor angry, nor defensive. In his most helpless moments Jack is able to describe in detail incidents he did not witness or actively control. His assertive, omniscient narration of these events disguises his powerlessness and his absence from the center of the action.7 For example, he describes both Zadoch's execution and Juliana's poisoning although he was not present at either event. When he separates from Surrey, Jack carefully tells us that he is unaware of his master's adventures from their point of separation (279). Now Jack displays no such concern for the verifiability of his words. By suggesting Jack's ubiquity when Jack is really most helpless and desperate Nashe subtly and effectively manipulates his readers, for we neglect to question the authority of Jack's omniscience.

Paradoxically, as another means of obscuring his powerlessness, there are times in the latter part of Jack's story when he finds it more advantageous to shift his audience's attention away from himself. An example of this manipulative stratagem is Jack's manner of describing Heraclide's rape. Jack is surprised by Esdras and his partner while in bed with Diamante. She is taken from him by force and he is left locked in his chamber, humiliated, dejected and in a strange state of passivity. Though Jack is shocked that his cries elicit no aid, he goes on to describe the rape without ever once attempting to distract Esdras. Suddenly, Jack has become a detached narrator, no longer interrupting his descriptions to address the audience. He is so removed from the scene that for the first time in the narrative we nearly forget about him. Moreover, Jack describes the incident in uncharacteristically elevated language. His description is neither impish nor sarcastic; rather, he speaks beautifully and poignantly. When Heraclide collapses with grief Jack tells us:

With that she fell in a sowne, and her eies in their closing seemed to spaun forth in their outward sharpe corners new created seed pearle, which the world before neuer set eie on. (288)

Readers sympathetic to Jack might imagine that the scene's pathos renders him mute, keeps him from calling out to Esdras, and enables him to choose his words so eloquently. But such a reading ignores Nashe's narrative strategies. He temporarily shifts our attention away from Jack in order to undermine our assessment of Jack's behavior during the scene. Jack is almost as vulnerable to Esdras as Heraclide is, but his detailed and elevated description of Heraclide's anguish directs our attention to her suffering and discourages our consideration of Jack's indefensible quiescence as well as his powerlessness.

In this case, Jack cannot disguise his actions with humor. Certainly, Heraclide's rape is a much more violent form of domination than the kind Jack has effected himself, but what Jack has done differs more in degree than in kind from the horror he has witnessed. By distancing himself as much as possible from the scene, Jack obscures his impotence as well as our identification of his past conduct with Esdras's pleasure in victimizing Heraclide.

However, poetic justice would have Jack become a victim: he deserves to suffer as he has made others suffer. Significantly, Jack's first comment when Heraclide's rape is over is "[h]ere beginneth my purgatorie" (295). Heraclide's husband mistakenly assumes that Jack has committed the rape and has him placed in jail. During the remainder of his chronicle Jack spends most of his time bound in darkness, alone, and victimized. We are tempted to feel sorry for Jack because he is continually blamed for crimes he does not commit. As he tells this portion of the tale, Jack makes the most of our sympathy in order to camouflage his helplessness. Thus he is careful to speak in a voice which stresses his grasp of the situation but does not offend. For example, after describing his tormenting fears while waiting to be vivisected, Jack gently leads his audience to a consideration of Juliana's actions: "Spare we [Zacharie] a line or two, and look back to Iuliana" (306). His use of "we" suggests a change in Jack's relationship to his audience, and a voice that is more confiding than jesting. Though Jack continues to manipulate us through the authority of omniscience, he does not risk offending our intelligence as he does earlier.

Jack adopts yet another voice when he hears Cutwolfe's story. Not surprisingly, Jack is "[m]ortifiedly abiected and danted" (327); although he has been made to suffer more than he deserves, like Esdras and Cutwolfe, Jack derives pleasure from dominating others. Faced with the most extreme example he has seen of the ramifications of victimization and revenge, Jack's reaction is to convert to straight living thereafter, or so he tells us.

Despite his confessions of sincerity, there is something very unsatisfactory about this conversion. We have been listening to Jack speak with relish about his youthful exploits, but we never hear him connect the violence and manipulation he has witnessed and experienced to the violence and manipulations he has perpetrated himself. His shifting response to the violence obscures its coherence. Jack is ready to admit that he was converted without thoroughly accounting for his motivation. Moreover, Jack's introduction of Cutwolfe's story conceals an act of manipulation similar to Jack's means of recounting Heraclide's rape.

Jack explains that Cutwolfe's story is better told by Cutwolfe himself, and then figuratively takes his place with us, the audience, to hear Cutwolfe speak. But why does Jack not bridle at his own usurpation? He was not so generous with Surrey nor was he so explicit when he sat in the wings during Heraclide's rape. We may well wonder why Jack does not interject his opinion more often in the last few pages of his chronicle. Only after Cutwolfe concludes does Jack return to tell us of his conversion. By figuratively joining his audience, Jack shifts the responsibility for evaluating Cutwolfe's story from himself to his audience. Throughout the story Jack's comments have consistently evaluated all the events he witnessed. We have seen the extent to which this evaluation was an act of manipulation on Jack's part. Now, suddenly, Jack has ceased to evaluate and becomes silent. Presumably we are now free to evaluate Cutwolfe's story as we will. However, a still more subtle manipulation of our response to this event occurs.

The connection between evaluation and manipulation, implicit throughout Jack's narrative, becomes explicit when we consider Jack's introduction, Cutwolfe's introduction, and the unusual metaphor of a customs house used in the text's dedication to the Earl of Southampton. When Nashe calls his work "goods vncustomd," subject to "the seale of [Southamptom's] most excellent censure," he posits Southampton's power to stand outside the text and place a value on it (201).8 Similarly, Jack, introducing Cutwolfe, consigns the role of evaluation to the audience. The same implication occurs as the anonymous introducer of Jack Wilton explains what the pages can do with Jack's narrative if they find no pleasure in it. These introductions underscore the audience's ability, and even responsibility, to evaluate freely a text, and they obscure the manipulative capabilities of the storyteller. Nashe seemingly gives to his readers the responsibility for finding coherence in his tale.

In a text that uses many styles to describe a variety of events, Nashe has consistently addressed the tension between an audience and a storyteller, calling into question "the narrator's relationship to the reader."9 Essentially, the manipulation at the heart of both the plot and narrative prevents us from freely judging the text, even though the text creates the fiction that such evaluative freedom is possible. Nashe has presented us with a carefully structured series of manipulative stratagems which constantly shape our response to the text. His narrator consistently dilutes and disguises the text's violence and manipulation. We see manipulation both in the events Jack witnesses and in the way he recounts them. As he retreats from the action, his mode of telling becomes more important, and the manipulation becomes more subtle, illustrating throughout Nashe's awareness of the power of omniscient storytelling. Jack's transition from bullying narrator to fellow member of the audience draws us into the text, hindering our ability to recognize the narratorial manipulation. The Unfortunate Traveller exemplifies what Adrienne Rich would label a work of disguise and mystification, for it obscures a pattern of violence and manipulation while implicating us in that pattern. As a result, we face a pattern of pleasure in domination, unable to ask if it is true for us as well.


1 … Adrienne Rich, "The Images," A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1981), pp. 3-5.

2 Mihoko Suzuki provides a helpful review of Nashe criticism in '"Signorie ouer the Pages': The Crisis of Authority in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in Philology, 81 (1984), 348-71. She notes that most critics have "repeatedly addressed a two-fold interpretative problem: the book's apparent lack of unity and its pervasive portrayal of violence" (348). Her analysis of the crisis of authority provides a historical and political context for the violence and manipulation we discuss. For an analysis of rhetoric and imagery, see, for example, A. K. Croston, "The Use of Imagery in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Review of English Studies, 24 (1948), and Agnes M. C. Latham, "Satire and Literary Themes and Modes in Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller," English Studies n.s. l (1948).

3 All quotations from Nashe are from The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, revised by F. P. Wilson, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966). The Unfortunate Traveller is in Volume 2; the quoted passage is on page 89.

4 "Tom Nashe and Jack Wilton: Personality as Structure in The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 213.

5 "The Comedy of Violence," Cahiers Elisabethains, 8 (1900), 26.

6 Margaret Ferguson illustrates Jack's uses of "words as weapons" in "Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller: The 'Newes of the Maker' Game," English Literary Renaissance, 11 (1981), 165-182. See especially pp. 167-168.

7 Ann R. Jones discusses Nashe's shifting narrative voice, linking it to a "demystifying reading process" and an exploration of discourse. See "Inside the Outsider: Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller and Bakhtin's Polyphonic Novel," ELH, 50 (1983), 61-81. She notes that as a "historiographer of Jack's misfortunes … Nashe does not keep up a mask of effortless omniscience. In fact, the text displays the structural problems that arise when a first-person narration intersects with the multiple plots of romance. Jack tells us things he could not know" (77).

8 See Suzuki for an analysis of the way the other metaphors in the dedication, particularly that of the fertile tree, underscore this aspect of the text: "the deliberative tone of this passage evinces a desire for effective authority, a desire which coexists with a skepticism toward it, for it is the 'ingenuous' lord who is entrusted with the task of finding the 'litle summer frute' hidden among the leaues" (352).

Reid Barbour (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4548

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, a Discourse of Apparitions (registered, 1593; published, 1594). Nashe's interest in spirits began … in Pierce Penilesse, where he delves into demonology. In that text, Nashe initiates his lifelong fascination with voids and sieves—images that appear in one form or another in many of his texts. Often, the sieve is a sign of the hapless nightmare or impoverishment into which Pierce (or Jack Wilton) has fallen. Some holes are demonic: "I do not doubt (Doctor Diuell) but you were present in this action, or passion rather, and helpt to bore holes in ships to make them sinke faster" (I.185). Some are simply vicious, like the lechery that "hath more starting holes than a sive hath holes" (216). As a vacuus viator, Pierce is truly picaresque (as Harvey recognized), insofar as Lazarillo's motto says that "where one hole is closed another opens."18 There are foolish vacancies—Harvey is one such inflation of nothingness.19 But the ultimate sieve is Pierce's last resort—hell itself.

Such images of gaps and holes confront the narrators of nearly all Nashe's works. But I want to focus on the one political void of Pierce Penilesse because it prepares us for the role of the stuffer in Terrors. Pierce links idleness and sedition, and he asserts that work fills the vacuities of a commonwealth. To prevent holes in the nature of things, the authorities ought to allow for stage plays, honest rivalry, and, indeed, for war, which vents the "wastes of people." It is hard to gauge how much of this assertion is mockery—certainly some of it is, as Hutson claims. But Nashe's own stuffing is a vocation that often poses as faith in the powers that rule. So, whereas Nashe's prose comprises "higher matters" in contrast to the "light toyes" that simply keep other people busy, his enterprise always straddles the line between serious, remedial work and trivial play. This straddling explains why Pierce invokes faith toward the end of his treatise: "Nor doo I affirme [the other cures for spirits] to be vnfallible prescriptions, though sometime they haue their vse: but that the onelie assured way to resist their attempts is prayer and faith, gainst which all the diuells in hell cannot preuaile" (239).20 With stuff, work must be faith and leave no trace of itself—no fictive bronze in the "Golden World" (191) of the Elizabethan establishment.

Hutson has argued that Pierce Penilesse is for the most part mockery, although she concedes some traditionalism in Nashe's approach. But the same cannot be said for The Terrors, which critics have dismissed for its confusion. As C. G. Harlow has shown, two families, the Cottons and the Careys, had vested interests in this pamphlet's account of dreams and spirits.21 In the process of working through the many theories of dreams and spirits in the Renaissance, Nashe manages to raise the most basic questions about the nature of his own prose, and about the void that it is asked to fill in silence. What is stuff? How can it be present in the world—its body, numen, and social formations? How can proud, extemporal stuff account for its presence when it is no longer authorized by its onetime patrons?

The preface to The Terrors reminds Elizabeth Carey that this work has been necessitated—imposed on Nashe—by some acquaintance. The motive appears to center on the strange, potentially bewitched, visions of a dying "Gentleman" in a house where Nashe has stayed. The stuffer, in essence, must account for the dreams: were they real or melancholic? But, as Nashe at once affirms and denies the numinous dream, he likens the materials of his language to dreams and spirits, all elusive in regard to their makeup. To the skeptic, dreams materialize only to the extent that they derive from the poor digestion of some legume or piece of meat.22 To the believer, dreams are not just real or true, but somehow present—even there in the room like a daimon. Just so with prose stuff: Nashe suggests that his verbal leviathans—his thick locutions—shift between the physicality of things, the daimonic presence of visions, and the airy nothings of a nominating fancy. What is more, the skeptic and the believer disagree about the remedial function of the dream. To the former, the dream signals the state of the body or the cathexis of the mind,23 whereas the latter credits the dream with some miraculous intervention. But at the same time, Nashe's treatise on the dignitary's dream either redresses the needs of one family and, by extension, his own needs, or it ensures the numinous presences to which dreams and daimons contribute.

Dreams become, then, the perfect analogue for a quasi-material prose: for both are problematic in their substance and in their production. The worst vexation for both visions and "stuff" is the devil. Satan can enter into dreams, of course, but he also possesses qualities that are the mirror image of Nashe's ideal prose (hence the irony of Pierce's supplication to the devil). The devil is flexible: "nimble and sodaine … in shifting his habit" (I.349). He creates vents in order to fill them: "The wrinkles in old witches visages, they eate out to entrench themselues in" (349). The very thickness of evil spirits stifles a hypothetical audience: "In Westminster Hall a man can scarce breath for [spirits]; in euery corner they houer as thick as moates in the sunne" (349). In fact, devils leave no vacuum with all their cramming:

What do we talke of one diuel? there is not a roome in anie mans house, but is pestred and close packed with a campe royall of diuels. Chrisostome saith, the aire and earth are three parts inhabited with spirits. Hereunto the Philosopher alluded, when he said, Nature made no voydnes in the whole vniuersall: for no place (bee it no bigger than a pockhole in a mans face) but is close thronged with them. Infinite millions of them wil hang swarming about a worm-eaten nose. (349)

Here, then, we have a demonized version of that ideal to which Nashe's prose aspires until Lenten Stuffe relocates his inventive prose in a void. But, as Nashe edges toward the connections between spirits and prose, he leaves the devil—whom faith can make "vanished"—for more anonymous and potentially benign spirits.

In regard to apparitions, Nashe insists (with the "credit" of the gentleman in mind) that "[n]o, no, they are spirits, or els it were incredible" (350). But he also reduces spirits to the flimsy "bubbels" of a superstitious imagination. The bubbles of the dreamer are figured in more material terms: dreams are the "bubling scum or froath of the fancie, which the day hath left vndigested; or an after feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations" (355). While Nashe conflates the leftover thoughts of a day and the residues of the metabolism, he takes a step toward language, the "fragments of idle imaginations." Indeed, "fome" also names Harvey's idle words in Strange Newes. The stakes for the dreamer also are at issue for the stuffer: the nature of the product and the place of its production, in the mind or outside the mind in the very nature of things.

Dreams may be materially present in the room, or they be the foam of an overwrought imagination. But Nashe makes a firmer connection between these dreams and his own prose when he reports the prodigies of "Island" (i.e., Iceland). The subject of his inventive digression seems empty: "how come I to digresse to such a dull, Lenten, Northren Clyme, where there is nothing but stock-fish, whetstones, and cods-heads" (360). The herring is destined to become a major trope for Nashe's prose. But the lenten quality of the fish is not so important here as the surreal nature of the prose that has invented these materials as the stuff of a barren land:

I care not much if I dream yet a little more: & to say the troth, all this whole Tractate is but a dreame, for my wits are not halfe awaked in it: & yet no golden dreame, but a leaden dreame it is; for in a leaden standish I stand fishing all day, but haue none of Saint Peters lucke to bring a fish to the hooke that carries anie siluer in the mouth. And yet there be of them that carrie siluer in the mouth too, but none in the hand: that is to say, are verie bountifull and honorable in their words, but except it be to sweare indeed, no other good deedes comes [sic] from them. (360-61).

Thus, the prose is a leaden dream that is "extraught" from the world in several respects. The play on fishing expresses the frustrations of the Elizabethan writer in a patronage system; but it also invokes the soteriology of works (fishers of men, St. Peter's catch of "good deedes") that is troublesome for the patronized staffer. For Nashe has a job to do: he must resolve the mystery of the particular dream that has vexed his hosts. This is to say that Nashe's prose—its status halfway between sleep and waking—must either declare the dream empty, celebrate its reality, or create that reality with the stuff of his verbiage.

The anxiety of the oneiro-critic whose own productions might be criticized is everywhere apparent in the text. There are analogies between death and dreams: "as when a man is readie to drowne, hee takes hold of anie thing that is next him: so our flutring thoughts, when wee are drowned in deadly sleepe, take hold, and coessence themselues with anie ouerboyling humour" (370). Then, there is the recurring motif of the master and the servant, a relation that in Nashe's works spells humiliation for the former or pain for the latter. For the servant, dreams mitigate pain, although only for awhile: "He that dreams merily is like a boy new breetcht, who leapes and daunceth for ioy his pain is past: but long that ioy stayes not with him, for presently after his master the day, seeing him so iocund and pleasant, comes and dooes as much for him againe, whereby his hell is renued" (356). We see the schoolboy once again "with his hoase about his heeles, ready to be whipt, to whom his master stands preaching a long time all law and no Gospel, ere he proceed to execution" (373). For all dreamers, night can summon the stuff of punishment and torture: "a man should be rosted to death, and melt away by little and little, whiles Phisitions lyke Cookes stand stuffing him out with hearbes, and basting him with this oyle and that sirrup" (373). Sleeping can be like unfortunate travel, where the "wearie traueller … layeth his fainting head vnawares on a loathsome neast of snakes" (345).

These images of anxiety recur throughout Nashe's works, and they often condense the key elements of stuffing. There are vents in the world and in the body that can drain us. The stuff in those vents, like the materials in our pillows, can make matters even worse: for we can "stuffe … our night pillowes with thistles to encrease our disturbance" (373). But the vents and the stuff of our dreams can also save or repair us:

Sooner [the devil] will pare his nayles cleanly, than cause a man to dreame of a pot of golde, or a money bag that is hid in the eaues of a thatcht house.

(Heere is to be noted, that it is a blessed thing but to dreame of gold, though a man neuer haue it.)

Such a dreame is not altogether ridiculous or impertinent, for it keepes flesh and bloud from despaire: all other are but as dust we raise by our steps; which awhyle mounteth aloft, and annoyeth our ey-sight, but presently disperseth and vanisheth. (368).

One of the traditional notions about dreams holds that they supply us in sleep with what we lack in our waking hours.24 But prose stuff itself is required to provide such a thatch against despair, emptiness, and the devil. For this reason the prose dream has its own share of anxieties. Its materials might not suit the remedial task at hand, or they might slip from the author's control: "Come, come, I am entraunced from my Text, I wote well, and talke idely in my sleepe longer than I should" (361). Much of this fear concerns the staffer's need for authorization and boundaries: "I feare I haue strayed beyond my limits: and yet feare hath no limits, for to hell and beyond hell, it sinkes downe and penetrates" (376). Fear and triumph alternate in the images that mediate for Nashe between authority and endogeny. He courts but also criticizes his humanist masters; and he seeks but also excoriates patrons. Nashe serves, then runs from the officials of the Elizabethan government.25 But in the commission of Terrors, the analogy between the dreamer and the stuffer brings the vexations of service to the fore.

Nashe insists, to begin with, that his "sources" are authoritative. The Church Fathers have his respect, although the standard dream lore gets an impatient and dismissive citation. There are oral authorities: we see the boy Nashe absorbing endless stories: "I haue heard aged mumping beldams as they sat warming their knees ouer a coale scratch ouer the argument verie curiously…. When I was a little childe, I was a great auditor of theirs, and had all their witchcrafts at my fingers endes, as perfit as good morrow and good euen" (369). But his most eager appeal is to his patron, Carey, whose virtues Nashe even offers to "decypher" (375). In the final section of Terrors, the family servant reinvents the dream, whose mysterious origin is of interest to the Cottons but also perhaps to the Careys. The skeptic in Nashe claims at one point that "there is no certaintie in dreames," but he offers at another some exceptional assurance of their truth: "I confesse the Saintes and Martirs of the Primitiue Church had vnfallible dreames" (372). As the proser begins his task, dreams are no longer just a metaphor for his stopgap prose; for that prose is caught in the middle of a dream whose "credit" Nashe must record, supply, or suspend. And it is more likely that he will have to do all these things at once.

Not only the interests of gentle families are at stake. We see Nashe's own interest in filling the vents of his new patron's world when he celebrates its hermetic seal: "Through him my tender wainscot Studie doore is deliuered from much assault and battrie" (375). The protected servant has, therefore, the leisure to recreate what may be "true apparitions or prodigies" in his own forceful prose. That his prose mediates the dream of the honorable friend is crucial: Nashe can invent the material in a hypothesis (a challenge to "put case"), or just reflect the daimonic world as faithfully as Camden's "last repollished Edition of his Brittania" (374) conveys the artifacts of the world. For Nashe, stuff wavers on the line between the idealized realms of fact and fiction, the world and the wit. Duty requires that the stuffer be humble—he will not "underprop" the dream or "take vpon [himself] to determine" its status (378). But he also must satisfy the gentle family and himself. And so the prose must be his and not his, a somatic presence and an airy nothing. His stuff, that is, refigures the problem of the gentleman's apparitions.

Nashe prefaces his account with praise for the dreamer's credibility and "strong faith" (380). In the dreams, too, the old man conquers the devil in a battle for the dreamer's soul, even though the devil can produce unreal dreams out of the errant faculties of the dreamer. But whatever their source, Nashe gives the dreams all the qualities of good stuff: they are gigantic, metamorphic, and forceful in their entrance to the dying man's room. Thus, we see global mouths and "whole shelues of Kentish oysters" for eyes (379). And the dreams come into the room from outside—they appear as corpulent presences external to the dreamer.

Despite the "perfect ease" in the dreamer's faith and in the presence of the dreams, Nashe defends his own role in the recreation of this faith and presence. Has the stuffer filled empty dreams with the body and power of his language? Or has he merely represented the already full and forceful presence of the dream? His answer is careful: "God is my witnesse, in all this relation, I borrowe no essential part from stretcht out inuention, nor haue I one iot abusde my informations; onely for the recreation of my Readers … heere and there I welt and garde it with allusiue exornations & comparisons" (382). Any "stretcht out" material was only trimwork ("welt and garde") and unimportant to the validity or redemptive quality of the dream. But "invention" cuts two ways for Nashe, toward the gathering of commonplaces ("allusiue … comparisons") and from the author's own venting wits. Nashe has not exactly clarified the status of his work.

He proceeds, however, to make explicit his patchwork on truth:

If the world will giue [the dream] anie allowaunce of truth, so it is: For then I hope my excuse is alreadye lawfullye customed and authorized; since Truth is euer drawne and painted naked, and I haue lent her but a leathren patcht cloake at most to keepe her from the cold: that is, that she come not off too lamely and coldly. (382)

We are a long way from the mysterious and rhetorical colors of Greene's deciphering. One wonders, though, how far it is between truth's "patcht cloak" and divinity's "scratcht face" in the Marprelate controversy. Nashe is careful enough to make this proviso a matter of representation—of how truth will "come off." He would expedite the reception of an otherwise hobbled truth. But he does not explain whose fault it is that truth "come[s] off so weakly—the reader's, the author's, or truth's own patron. What exactly is the servant lending, and to whom?

The ventings of the stuffer are perhaps safest if he simply gains our faith in his tale: "Are there anie doubts which remaine in your mynde vndigested, as touching this incredible Narration I haue vnfolded? Well, doubt you not, but I am milde and tractable, and will resolue you in what I may" (382). Our digestion will be aided by the "tractable" stuff of his prose—for stuff is nothing if not flexible and solvent.26 The proser would not only ease our digestion of the dream; he would fill our pillows with a material that will allow us to "haue a good night, and sleep quietly without affrightment and annoyance" (384).

But, although his readers may rest well, Nashe's mode of prose keeps him busy in the pursuit of the strategies and claims by which he can defend "stuff." In two other works, Nashe dramatizes good dreams and bad. The strange homily of Christs Teares has some kinship to The Terrors; and, indeed, both works address the Careys. In The Unfortunate Traveller, Nashe unleashes a nightmare of torture for his stand-in, Jack Wilton. This latter work best illustrates one of the darkest aspects of stuffing for hire: the need for scapegoats. That the proser might prove a scapegoat results from the proximity between faith and works, fact and fiction, service and subversion. But, although the stuffer must fear his own exile or demise, he has some favorite scapegoats, too. For Jack Wilton, it is the deciphering Surrey. For Nashe, it is Doctor Harvey whose claims to under-prop the status quo with "works" are presumptuous, but whose poetic style resembles nothing more than a sieve:

Nor do I altogether scum off all these ["inkhornisms"] as the newe ingendred fome of the English, but allowe some of them for a neede to fill vp a verse; as Traynment, and one or two wordes more, which the libertie of prose might well haue spar'd. In a verse, when a worde of three sillables cannot thrust in but sidelings, to ioynt him euen we are oftentimes faine to borrowe some lesser quarry of elocution from the Latine, alwaies retaining this for a principle, that a leake of indesinence, as a leake in a shippe, must needly bee stopt with what matter soeuer. (Strange Newes, I. 316)

In chapter 5, I will take a long look at the strategies by which Nashe foists his own fears of presumption and leakage onto Harvey. As Nashe defines and then redefines good stuff, he can always attribute bad stuff to the doctor. Harvey claims too much cultural importance for his words, and in any case his prose lacks the malleable form and somatic presence of Nashe's animated stuff.

But the author of good stuff can sympathize now and then with Harvey's need for "desinence," which G. Gregory Smith glosses as a proper boundary.27 For stuff, with all its spontaneity and abundance, needs closure, too. Although Nashe never ceases to brag about his expeditious style, he fears losses: "If my stile holde on this sober Mules pace but a sheete or two further, I shall haue a long beard…. O it is a miserable thing to dresse haire like towe twixt a mans teeth, when one cannot drinke but hee must thrust a great spunge into the cup, & so cleanse his coole porridge, as it were through a strayner, ere it comes to his lippes" (292). The work of stuffing can leave one weary and compromised: no wonder that Terrors ends abruptly with a prayer for closure in the final judgment.28 He suggests that such an event is notable for being a seal against or an end of anxiety rather than the very epitome of and prelude to the damnation of souls. Whatever the case, the final sentence epitomizes the creed behind responsible stuff: "Thus I shut vp my Treatise abruptly, that hee who in the daye doth not good woorkes inough to answere the objections of the night, will hardly aunswere at the daye of iudgement" (386). For Nashe, "stuff is the proser's answerable style.

But the answer is not simple: its soteriology of both faith and works entails that stuff cannot afford to be clear about the origins of prose. Nashe seems always to be debtor and lender at the same time. For this reason, he is especially ambivalent about his literary heritage: both strongly committed and resistant to "influence." As Harvey suggests, Nashe's biggest problem with influences is Greene. He defends the prodigal Greene and even claims to have learned plotting from him, a lesson in discovery to which we will return in the next chapter. Indeed, when it comes to extended "histories," discovery offers "stuff the same kind of escape into narrative control that it lent to Greene's coney-catching and repentance pamphlets. But, as we will also see in the next chapter, Nashe's lukewarm reception of Euphuism and his disdain for "greene colours" are part and parcel of his most reduced scapegoats, the decipherers, whose idea of a sufficient prose is superseded (Nashe believes) by the force and presence of his material stuff—the verbal leviathans and thick words. The decipherers have sold out—to politics, to pleasure, to convention. Even so, this scorn for the decipherers brings with it a considerable irony: that in the end, as the stuffer tries to empty out his prose and to situate it outside the world, he faces the possibility that stuff is closer to the paradoxes and problems of deciphering than he could ever admit.

Lorna Hutson has poised the festive Nashe against the humanist "preoccupation with the depletion of resources" that gave rise to literary, moral, and economic reform.29 Such reform affected the idea of copia, and so the idea of deciphering. But the sieves and materials of stuff are more fully implicated in this context than even Hutson suspects. For the nightmares of The Unfortunate Traveller and the offering of a redeemed stuff in Christs Teares are all part of a madcap dream that thrusts prose into the constitution of the same world that Greene's idealized mode would govern in absentia. Nashe, however, cannot so carelessly maintain the obvious distance between golden worlds and leaden.


18 #x2026; See Lazarillo De Tormes, in Two Spanish Picaresque Novels, trans. Michael Alpert (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), 44-45, for the scene in which the starving picaro makes a hole in his master's food chest with the hopes of finding a morsel. The master's discovery of the hole makes him think that there are mice in the house, but the picaro assures him that mice never congregate in such a miserable place (cf. Pierce Penilesse). Each day the master fills the holes, and each night they open again, "so quickly that we must have been the originators of the proverb which says, 'Where one hole is closed another opens.'"

19 See Hodges, Renaissance Fictions of Anatomy, for Nashe's contaminating process of anatomizing Harvey. The exchange of stuffs required by parody—I empty your text and fill yours with mine, mine with yours—is yet another version of the give-and-take strategy of the stuffer.

20 The relation between faith and works is vexed, even for Luther who wrote that their difference "is easy to be uttered in words, but in use and experience it is very hard … [because] these two sorts of righteousness do encounter more near together than you wouldest wish or desire." See Martin Luther, Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1961), 107.

21 C. G. Harlow, "Thomas Nashe, Robert Cotton the Antiquary, and The Terrors of the Night," Review of English Studies, n.s., vol. 12 (1961): 7-23.

22 Manfred Weidhorn, Dreams in Seventeenth-Century English Literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), 24-38.

23 Weidhorn, chap. 1.

24 See Weidhorn, 29-30. For Freud's reading of demonic dreams in the seventeenth century, see his case study of the painter Christoph Haizmann in The Standard Edition of … Freud, ed. James Strachey, vol. 19 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), 69-105.

25 Nashe got into trouble over Christs Teares, Pierce Penilesse, The Isle of Dogs, and in general for his (and Doctor Harvey's) output. As for the humanists, in Lenten Stuffe, Nashe argues with Ascham; in The Unfortunate Traveller, Erasmus joins the other somewhat deflated dignitaries; Aretino appears in a number of roles; and in The Anatomie, Nashe exposes a rift between the private and public values of Elyot. Yet, Nashe also defends the learned traditions of oratory and poetry. In chapter 5, I will consider Nashe's skepticism and its relation to his cultural positions.

26 Hutson uses the metaphor of solvency to describe the way in which the carnivalesque Nashe breaks didactic materials down into festive pleasure.

27 See Smith's anthology, II. 431.

28 For the compromises, see Hodges, Renaissance Fictions of Anatomy.

29 Hutson, Thomas Nashe in Context, 36.

Peter Holbrook (essay date 1994)

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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 that Nashe's revision of a traditional Elizabethan rhetorical variety into a disorienting multiplicity or apparently undisciplined formlessness can be read contrarily: as potential radical undermining and scandalous mockery of those canons of decorum that underpin social and aesthetic order; as the conservative's bitter indictment, through grotesque mimicry, of a chaotic, repulsive contemporary scene. In either case the contrast is with Lyly, where variety symbolizes a certain social beauty and stylistic order, a broader human harmony. In respect of the social symbolism of the two styles, we note how easily and completely, if briefly, euphuism became a court style and how Nashe's manner did not enjoy this dissemination as a social form. Pierce Penilesse had a certain vogue, and some imitators, but its success was nothing by comparison with Euphues's: the Nasheian style seems not to have symbolized privilege as readily as the Lylean.59 But euphuism discursively marked off for a time an elite social group, almost as surely as coats of arms or costly apparel—perhaps because of its full-blown ideological character: its appealing vision of a coherent natural and human reality. One searches vainly in Nashe for that intuition of the world as an ordered hierarchy, which informs Lyly's rhetoric. Nashe is the great antitotalizer of the period: thus where the "antithetic style" of euphuism has been well-described by Wilson Knight as a "balancing of contradictions,"60 Nashe's writing seems consistently antigeneric and to pursue disharmony: if Lyly synthesizes, Nashe seems content with "mingle-mangle."

In exploring the social symbolism of Nashe's texts and their relation to traditional or socially endorsed modes, I suggest we begin with the difficulties and possibilities of his situation. Whereas Lyly's style epitomizes courtliness (and not least in that tone of cool, amused irony he adopts toward his courtiers), Nashe's texts project a certain crucial marginality. Thus his expressed conservatism (McKerrow described his social and religious opinions as "purely conventional" [Nashe, 5.130]) combines with what seems a sense of being on the outside of the powerful world. The notion that Nashe's texts should be read in the light of a social marginality is not original with me, but I do wish to argue with some inferences drawn from this view. In particular, I shall disagree with the idea that Nashe's texts are not only outside the dominant or authoritative culture, but opposed to it. In other words, I want to suggest that social marginality is not here to be read as contradiction. But at this point we must confront the question that asks how Nashe, a gentleman, can possibly be regarded as an outsider, and outside what?

Nashe was a gentleman, on the right side of that dividing line of Tudor and Stuart society that separated gentlemen from commoners. And he qualified as a gentleman on two counts, if we take as our criterion what Peter Laslett has called "the most celebrated Elizabethan definition of a gentleman," William Harrison's in his Description of England (pub. 1577):

Whosoever studieth the laws of this realm, who so abideth in the university giving his mind to his books, or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or beside his service in the room of captain in the wars, or good counsell given at home, whereby his common-wealth is benefitted, can live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall … be called master … and reputed for a gentleman ever after.61

Nashe gave his mind to his books,62 and could live without performing manual labor. He was, then, a member of that group Anne Jennalie Cook terms "the privileged."63 That his father was a clergyman (rather than, say, a tradesman, like Shakespeare's) was perhaps also fortunate—for the clergy may have constituted a separate status group, if one uncertainly related to the landed gentry.64 Nashe was, then, by these standards, essentially an "insider"—a member of that immensely favored, select, and numerically tiny group that dominated society. Nonetheless, these facts do not convey the complexity of his position. To begin with, if internal differences among the gentry, particularly between peers and mere gentlemen, were less important than the basic division between gentlemen and the rest, they still counted; and Nashe was not an aristocrat. Thus it makes sense to regard him as an outsider with respect to this elite, the most powerful of all. Secondly, Nashe's claim to gentility was complicated by his vocation: a gentleman did not write for money—he did not need to, of course, because ideally he lived off landed revenues.65 As Philip J. Finkelpearl points out, most of the literature written in what Jonson called those "Nurseries of Humanity," the Inns of Court (a considerable part of Elizabethan literature) was not written for publication: Donne, for instance, publishing only three poems in his lifetime.66 But Nashe appears to have supported himself directly from writing. Yet few professional authors prospered: "with the notable exceptions of Shakespeare and Spenser, the lives of Elizabethan authors comprise case-histories of poverty." The predicament of "authors of humble origins" was that "to attain gentlemanly status they had to avoid manual labour, yet if they chose authorship as a profession, they lost caste in the eyes of gentlemen."67 Lack of riches, especially landed wealth, did not automatically disqualify one from gentility; yet Harrison makes it clear that a certain minimum income was necessary to "bear the … charge" of a gentleman, gentility being largely a matter of life-style.68 A claim to gentle status was not helped by poverty, especially in a period of exceptional social mobility when many people were making such claims and when, consequently, there prevailed some confusion as to who was and was not entitled to style himself "gentleman."69 Such a competitive, status-conscious environment suggests a difficult situation for Nashe: his own status cannot have felt as unassailable as he would have liked, especially when persons less cultivated, but unfortunately richer, than he ("Carterly upstarts": see above, n. 36) gave themselves airs and perhaps believed themselves superior to impecunious scholars. I suggest Nashe's writing registers an anxiety about station, and that it attempts to wrest from the world a certain social distinction.

Obviously, then, Nashe was not outside the elite in the wretched way that "the people" were—those whom Sir Thomas Smith, in the 1560s, described as "the fourth sort of men which do not rule."70 Nashe was a gentleman, though without as secure a claim upon gentility as those better bred or richer than he and, as a pamphleteer, he was stained, like the dyer, by a dubious occupation. It is important to stress Nashe's "insider-ship," because it complicates the tendency to assimilate his texts to an idea of the populace, often conceived of as having an essentially contestatory relation to the elite. Thus much seems implied by Robert Weimann, for example, in a book that, along with Bakhtin's writings, has done much to set the tone of contemporary formulations of the function of the popular in Renaissance literature.71 "Nashe's satire and prose," Weimann observes, is "most effective when most intimately in contact with popular speech and jest book traditions"; but Weimann's interpretation of the nature of this "contact" is questionable. Arguing for "the common ground" shared by humanism and the "popular tradition," Weimann implies that Nashe's texts articulate a "social criticism which a popular audience might be expected to encourage." Thus The Unfortunate Traveller "attack[s]" both the "trading Puritan" and the "warring knight" (the tournament at Florence constituting an "ironic rejection of chivalry"), and his works generally, like those of humanists such as More and the University Wits of the nineties, suggest the possibility of "some ultimate concord between the humanist and popular points of view."72 There are problems with this approach, which have to do with the theoretical assumptions of Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition. The most important of these is the tenability of the notion of a homogeneous, coherent, popular "worldview," almost always antithetical, it seems, to a ruling class "outlook."73 For a historical critic, the underlying conception of elite and popular relations implicit in the book is strangely unhistorical, even essentialist.74 The abstractness of the approach is more obvious when we consider what is intended by "point of view." The implication is of something akin to class or collective political consciousness, and yet it is not at all clear that such consciousness, or anything resembling it, was present among common people before the advent of industrialism and mass society (a consideration which, we should note, renders the term "the people," with its modern political connotations, problematic when used for this period).75 There may not, in other words, have been a distinctively "popular" point of view, independent of and opposed to the elite's. (A related issue is whether the forms of speech Weimann identifies as popular, for example proverbs, are properly defined as such when the elite also used them.)76 How best to describe social and social-literary relations in this period, and the limitations for cultural analysis of a strictly oppositional understanding of elite-popular relations, are major concerns of this study. The issue here is the nature of the association observed between "the people" and Nashe, the way contact with "popular speech" and literary forms enjoyed by the people is construed as indicating a potential solidarity of "outlook" between Nashe and them. It is the suggestion of affinity with those outside the political nation I think misleading, in that a relative sense of social insecurity, of being on the margins of elite life, is confused with a positive form of social solidarity. This is not to deny that Nashe was "in contact with" popular forms or, insofar as it existed, a popular point of view. But I shall argue that such contact does not entail solidarity: Nashe's outsiderness is a complicated affair, and seems not to have issued in a feeling of identification with those further down the social ladder, doing without a Cambridge degree. On the other hand, Nashe's sense of distance from the influential fostered a certain ironic or "realistic" perspective on elite culture, which at times strategically exploits, without identifying with, a style of irreverence that the texts mark as popular (whether justifiably or not). Nashe uses an interpretation or idea of popular culture, but in such a way as to distinguish himself from his inferiors.

Weimann has not been the only writer to link Nashe with a popular, contestatory perspective. Perhaps more common, though, has been the tendency to see Nashe if not as a popular writer then as in some other way oppositional or radical, possibly unintendedly. We have come a long way from McKerrow's twitting of Nashe for his conventionalism. He now attracts a more aggressive critical language: "destabilizing," "subversive," "transgressive." Thus Stephen Hilliard, contrasting Nashe with Lyly, views Nashe's texts as essentially contradictory, expressing the "social discontents" of "the displaced young men of the city," and his career as showing an "increasing estrangement from his own society."77 However, when it comes to the social relations of and in Nashe's texts, contradiction is a less helpful notion than the broader, more flexible one of interplay. I shall argue that Nashe's relation to high modes is not really describable as contradiction and that his texts are not radically alienated. Equally, Hilliard's stress on Nashe's "singularity," where it implies a stylistic radicalism at odds with social-rhetorical norms, needs reformulation: I would see these as playfully, ironically distanced or manipulated rather than undermined (the ironization of elite modes not preventing some identification with them, as the insider/outsider model used here is intended to suggest).78 Again, Weimann's recent description of The Unfortunate Traveller as "modernist" is not a casual reference to Nashe's pride in his idiosyncrasy and novelty.79 What is invoked is a twentieth-century modernism, assaulting and undermining traditional mainstream culture.80 But the analogy of this radical anti-institutional modernism is finally as inappropriate for Nashe as it is for the citizen or nongentle tragedies, discussed in chapter 2 of this study, which ironically distance elite modes even as they affirm them. Two final examples of the kind of approach that draws on the conflictual social model I hope to complicate. Michael D. Bristol offers a Bakhtinian reading of Nashes Lenten Stuffe in terms of a "popular-festive … politics of uncrowning," in which Nashe "identifies with … disadvantaged and struggling groups" to present an "oppositional and subversive position … vis-à-vis … entrenched power and authority."81 And Jonathan Crewe's conception of the problematic, subversive relation of Nashe's scandalous rhetoric to decorum (see above, n. 35) has been equally influential. Yet just as the view which assimilates Nashe too readily to popular culture turns marginality into solidarity, so such approaches may mistake it for alienation. Nashe occupied a border, insecure, and anxious social position (his texts are full of concern about status), but I cannot see him as alienated from the authoritative aristocratic culture or disposed to adopt a radical stance toward it. I must disagree, then, with Stephen Hilliard's ambitious attempt to read Nashe's work as that of an "alienated intellectual," participating in currents of thought that would play a role in the crisis of Stuart society.82 Nashe's works reveal discontent, but this does not issue in a fundamental, subversive alienation. Instead, they attempt to articulate a more secure and rewarding social persona. Interpreting Nashe's outsiderness as alienation is to reduce the complexity of his situation and to overlook the extent to which Nashe is very much an insider, that is, a gentleman.83

Reading Nashe in the light of a supposed social marginality has concentrated on The Unfortunate Traveller and begins with Richard Lanham's notion that Jack Wilton's "outsider" position, occupying "an ambivalent, indeterminate space … neither … commoner, nor … gentleman," may articulate the "frustrations," (or sense of disenfranchisement), "of a whole group of Elizabethan writers." The idea that outsiderness maintains an aggressive or combative stance toward authority (Lanham speaks of Jack's "anger" and "aggressiveness" as lacking the control of satire and of his "persistent attack on authority") emerges in Lanham's essay and has been influential in Nashe criticism since.84 It has been developed by Ann Rosalind Jones in an important essay on The Unfortunate Traveller, in many respects similar to my approach, and which I shall discuss now—before getting to Wilton—because of its ramifications for understanding Nashe generally.

The importance of Ann Jones's approach lies in her appreciation that Wilton "inhabits a series of inside-outside positions," a "marginal status" matching "the nonalignment of many sixteenth-century writers." She sees Wilton as a "socio-psychological … projection of Nashe's understandable frustrations and wishful thinking onto a freer and more powerful narrator/hero"; Wilton's tale, therefore, is basically a "success story," or "rise to wealth and security."85 The emphasis upon the doubleness of Wilton's (Nashe's) position is important: Nashe is not simply an estranged "outsider." So Jones speaks of Nashe having a "double relationship to reigning discourses": this, too, seems a helpful conclusion to be drawn from the insider/outsider status of Nashe's work. Moreover Jones, interested in Nashe's relation to high forms, sees The Unfortunate Traveller as developing a certain "critical distance" on literary modes, a distance interpretable in the light of Nashe's own marginality.86 However, Jones's interest in the radical potential of The Unfortunate Traveller leads her to liken it to the Bakhtinian or Kristevan "anarchic" or polyphonic text, which, exposing "conflicts among … literary and social practices," is potentially "transgressive" of "official" or monological discourses.87 Notable is the use of a language of contradiction to formulate Nashe's relation to elite culture: the text "challenges the ideologies implicit" in the "genres" it distances.88 But is this best way to describe the interrelations among discourses in Nashe?89 We should note that Nashe's "double relationship" to elite discourses is insufficiently described by the notion of parody, even an aggressive, agonistic parody demystifying high modes, if that means merely that as parodist he "cannot do without" them.90 This probably underestimates the significance of such modes for Nashe: he could not do without them, but not only in the weak sense that he is parasitically dependent upon them for literary guerilla warfare. We must attend to Nashe's investment in such forms and the elite culture they symbolize—forms that may reinforce a claim to gentility and even kinship with aristocracy.91 Ultimately, Nashe's relation to the high symbolic modes is ill-described in polemical metaphors: to play ironically with "official" forms is not necessarily to undermine them. Rather than reading the texts through this oppositional paradigm (and it is hard to see what opposition of this kind could offer Nashe) I will read them as attempts to develop, in a socially difficult position, a viable, productive, alternative persona.

Nashe, then, is to be understood in the context of the University Wits: and here we recall that while sixteenth-century humanism regarded state service as its prerogative, "opportunities of service … do not seem to have been particularly great."92 But if Nashe, like many others, is out in the cold, we need not understand the ironic realism he occasionally turns upon elite culture as antagonistic, outsiderness just as easily inspiring ingenious strategies for successful identification with insiders. Marginality might well, however, foster a complicated relation to the culture of the powerful: in Nashe it seems to underlie an ironic complication and "critical distancing" of elite literary modes. While this approach raises again the question of Nashe's "radicalism," we must resist collapsing critical distance into radical subversion. Since my topic is Nashe's manipulation of socio-rhetorical distinctions, it is necessary to revisit Robert Weimann's powerful account of the relation between "popular" and "elite" elements in Renaissance texts and, distancing myself from his approach, clarify what critical distance means in Nashe.

It does not mean a radical rejection of elite cultural modes and life. At least since Weimann's study, it is this sense of criticism that has formulated the social dialectics of Renaissance texts, and which has of course in certain contexts been profoundly illuminating—no less a play than King Lear has benefited from this approach.93 But the problems in it also need to be addressed. A serious shortcoming of Weimann's book is its ultimate reliance on contradiction as a way of conceiving hierarchy relations, or the reduction of such relations to a paradigm of class-conflict.94 In other words, behind Weimann's vision of English Renaissance plays as articulating different social outlooks and class-specific communicative modes lies a contestatory theory of their interrelations. Weimann, of course, does not treat Shakespeare's texts as radically contradictory in the way that Ann Jones, invoking a poetics of "heteroglossia," does Nashe's: his point is that Shakespearean drama achieves a new artistic synthesis of elite and popular traditions, based on a social and cultural unity to be lost in the supposed century of revolution. Yet this national unity is essentially a unity in contradiction, a tense synthesis, and popular culture challenges elite conceptions.95 This conflictual understanding of the relations between high and low social strata and their cultural modes has been applicable in some texts studied here, and, obviously, recent ways of talking about Renaissance culture are in its debt. But "the notion of contradiction," which, as Fredric Jameson writes, "is central to any Marxist cultural analysis," is not universally applicable in the period and risks flattening out the complexity of social relations in Renaissance texts.96 The following analysis relies heavily, both for global approaches and local insights, on Weimann's work, which remains the most exhaustive study of social heterogeneity in a humanist author. I am "Weimannian" in feeling that Nashe cannot be understood without invoking a relation between modes nominated by him as "popular" and "elite" and that their interplay is as central as in many Shakespeare plays. Nashe often uses "popular" modes to assert an individual power and his own marginality means he is open to a "popular realism" that critically frames elite modes as fantasy or unworldly idealism. But this use of apparently nonelite modes does not involve a polemical identification with the popular (on the contrary, if aware of his marginality, Nashe is anxious to have known what separates him from the vulgar). Yet such ironic distancing is "critical" in a limited but important sense: through this process particular modes are foregrounded as specifically elite symbolisms, the texts showing an awareness of the cultural meaning of literary modes. By this defamiliarizing, critical point of view, Nashe is disengaged somewhat from the dominant group.

Let us attempt, then, to understand this distancing in Nashe's texts, in which discursive modes are viewed ironically, from "outside," as the cultural codes of an aristocratic elite, by focusing on the tense dual character of Nashe's insider/outsider position. For it is clear that Nashe is emphatically associated with the culture of power, or has its culture, humanism, if not its power (the problem being how to exchange that culture for the hard currency of power). This culture links him, tenuously, to the elite and distinguishes him from the populace. Thus his ironic, realistic attitude to it, grounded in the fact that he cannot identify with this milieu and its modes with the full, unself-conscious ease of an aristocrat like Sidney or the naïve charm of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, in The Unfortunate Traveller, is itself likely to be problematic.97 For what is at stake in Nashe's writing is his social identity. The problem is alarmingly simple: if not obviously of the elite then of the populace or uncomfortably close to it. The writing, then, improvises some workable alternative social space. And it may be in knavish play ("play[ing] the knave," as Will Summers puts it in Summers Last Will and Testament [Nashe, 3.233]), in the impudent, bold manipulation of social-rhetorical modes that we call social interplay, that Nashe constructs such a space, circumventing the oppressive division between elite and popular. Wittily manipulating elite and "popular" modes, Nashe turns the passivity of outsiderness into the activity of power, redefining marginality as opportunity and privilege. We must read the knavishness of Nashe's texts as the attempt to turn unconventionality to account. The knave, the central figure of Nashe's texts, is not easily placed, but this unplaceability suggests freedom. Still, Nashe's knavishness combines with allegiance to an elite which he is by training deeply associated with. While tracing Nashe's defamiliarization of establishment forms, we must also note his investment in them.

Our sense of Nashe living this curious but, given the predicament of Elizabethan authors, probably representative double life of insider/outsider will be heightened if we look again at two literary characters. I have alluded to Nashe's Puckish playfulness, and the analogy is intended seriously. For Puck is one of Shakespeare's most socially ambiguous figures, "as familiar in a palace as in a cottage with his broom,"98 his playfulness being an essential part of his ambiguousness: play is what makes Puck too fluid a figure to fix his social character (the very notion of "social character," when applied to him, seeming hopelessly clumsy). Puck is in some sense a member of Oberon's court, but knows intimately the ways of the "villagery" (2.1.35). His humorous relish of this common scene reminds us of Nashe's zest for the seamier, baser sides of life. But what of Puck's relations with the populace? As with Nashe's relations with popular culture, they are not easily defined. He does not merely condescend to the "hempen home-spuns" or to "the wisest aunt telling the saddest tale" in her cottage (3.1.77; 2.1.51), at least not much more than he does to the aristocratic lovers, and he enjoys the quotidian, mundane milieu of humble folk. Yet if Puck is at home in this ordinary world, we don't think of him as a part of it, and so with Nashe. Both Puck and Nashe play with the popular—moving in it, understanding it, never completely removed from it, ridiculing it—never, though, identifiable with it. And yet the Puck who sweeps the house at the end of the play is not quite to be identified with an elite milieu, either. Like Puck, Nashe is a marginal figure. (Note too Puck's relation to Oberon: it is not equality, but there is no antagonism—it is not Caliban and Prospero. The knave is not necessarily a subversive figure.) Puck is a "knavish sprite" (2.1.33), and this spirit of wanton, mischievous play is Nasheian, and detaches both figures from an elite/plebeian dichotomy, the knave being neither high nor low but eluding the status-structure altogether.

One hesitates before advancing again the parallel of Hamlet, but the Hamlet in question is not the prince sung by flights of angels to his rest but the modern student, who, like Nashe, "lack[s] advancement," Hamlet who is both inside and outside the court. Weimann's brilliant reading of Hamlet as a figure articulating a "popular outlook" is not completely satisfactory.99 He is better described more tentatively: it is the social ambiguousness of Hamlet that is essential. Hamlet raises the problem of the politics of marginality, whether it is "popular" and oppositional. Doubtless Hamlet is more alienated from the court than Nashe from the elite: England is not a prison to Nashe. And Hamlet, even as "our chiefest courtier" (1.2.117), is loved of the "general gender" (4.7.18), and closer to the play's plebeians than, say, Claudius or the fop Osric (though these characters remind us of the central importance of distinctions among the play's ruling class as against those between it and the people). Does relative closeness, however, require identifying Hamlet with this humble scene of life? If, in "inky cloak" (1.2.77), he is separated from the court, he has a strongly ironic sense of popular life: the First Clown is a "knave" (5.1.76, 137), a "mad knave" (5.1.101) and an "ass" (5.1.78), and he observes with bemused dismay that the Clown's repartee shows how "the age is grown so pick'd that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe" (5.1.140-41). Such expressions of a clear sense of social superiority (rather underestimated by sentimental interpretations of Hamlet) remind us of Hamlet's distance from nonelite life, sympathy with the grave diggers necessarily implying separation.100 Overall it is the lack of social solidarity, excepting friendship, that characterizes Hamlet. Puck highlights Nashe's playfulness and marginality. Hamlet's sardonic, knavish wit reveals a serious side to play: the madcap "antic disposition" (1.5.172) is strategic (even if its goal is notoriously obscure); it is anxiously defensive and originates in a certain vulnerability; it attempts to reserve a certain free expression in a constricting situation; it is elusive, refusing to be pinned down ("Hide fox, and all after" [4.2.30-31]). Hamlet's flippant yet taut "wild and whirling words" (1.5.133) are oblique, the point being evasion. This sense of play as survival strategy helps us understand the madcap, knavish, antic writing of another insider/outsider, who also won't be pinned down and who attempts to secure a certain social power.101 Nashe's anxiously assertive play is more like Hamlet's tense maneuvering than easygoing aristocratic sprezzatura. The anxiety is intrinsic to the situation: if one cannot be totally inside, one can claim a certain power by mocking the pretensions of those who are (ironizing, for example, the idealism of high, heroic, or romantic cultural modes). Yet at the same time one does not want to be mistaken for one of those hopelessly outside: there must be the disclaimer, "But really, I am not like them!"

The account of Nashe's writing omitting its playful character distorts it, and Nashe is open to the playful perspectives on elite culture of supposed nonelite modes because he is not himself completely identified with that culture. Thus his critical perspective on literary modes often involves an irresponsible disregard for decorum, a ridiculing of high discourse. This irresponsibility will often seem popular, though its affinities are equally with humanist traditions of learned folly, playful paradox, and mock encomium in Erasmus, More, and Cornelius Agrippa.102 It is not wrong to see a Tarltonizing spirit of popular irreverence in Nashe, even if Strange Newes, Of the Intercepting Certaine Letters denies specific influence: "the vaine which I have … is of my owne begetting, and cals no man father in England but my selfe, neyther Euphues, nor Tarlton, nor Greene" (1.319), but we must remember the social heterogeneity of this mocking spirit.103 When we recall the satire directed at plebeian or citizen life (which probably asserts kinship with aristocratic society), it is clear that Nashe's writing has no more a simple relation to "popular" than to "elite" culture. "Knavish," then, better captures the stance of the Nasheian text than "popular," because it implies a strategic social undecidability. The trickster can feel equal to or superior to anybody. But "knave" also has lower-class associations (it is traditionally opposed to "knight")104 and can suggest what we have called the popular strain in Nashe's writing. The knave, such as Puck, is linked with humble life—Autolycus "is" a tinker—but isn't to be confused with it: Autolycus is "constant" to his "profession" of "knavery" (4.4.682-83) and isn't equatable with the Shepherd and his son; Greene's wily conny-catchers swindle simple husbandmen visiting the city.105 The distinction is between low and lower-class life, or virtuous simplicity and disreputable savvy:106 it's not an absolute one, but it is central to Nashe's works.

In any case, it is in knaves like Wilton, Summers, or Pierce Penilesse, insignificant figures at the margins of gentility, that Nashe finds bohemian freedom from decorum. We meet this idea of a nonelite freedom in The Unfortunate Traveller, when Surrey changes roles with his servant Wilton to enjoy "more liberty of behaviour" (2.253). Just as Wilton does not inherit Surrey's morality with his clothes, neither has he internalized humanism—true of all of Nashe's knavish personae, and making possible a discursive "liberty of behaviour." Nashe's knavishness is often a disenchanting, demystifying realism, experience, in Weimann's formulation, contrasting with idealism.107 But the aggressively popular character of Weimann's conception of this realism (like Bakhtin's "popular laughter" debunking "official" seriousness) makes it less useful in analyzing Nashe's realism.108 Realism of sentiment in Nashe is not a mode of solidarity, though it does obliquely assert an unconventional distinction. We must allow, then, for the links between his realism and nonelite life (elite cultural modes are seen "from below," from the apparent perspective of common life),109 but we must resist treating this realistic perspective as exclusively low or as confronting high culture. Nashe's admiration for Aretino ("one of the wittiest knaves that ever God made") underscores the point that realism in Nashe is not necessarily political in the Weimannian or Bakhtinian sense. Aretino is the poet of the real, Il veritiero: "His pen was sharp pointed lyke a poinyard; no leafe he wrote on but was lyke a burning glasse to set on fire all his readers…. His sight pearst like lightning into the entrailes of all abuses" (2.264, 265). In Aretino (to whom Nashe was likened)110 Nashe celebrates wit and prestigious Juvenalian satire rather than a lower-class, oppositional viewpoint.111 Still, Nashe's knaves ironize high forms by low life and upset polite discursive conventions, and in isolating and manipulating elite cultural symbolisms Nashe aims at an individual social-literary power. This playful attitude toward authoritative modes is clear in the jokey, brilliant retelling of the Hero and Leander story in Lenten Stuffe.

Because it, in Horatio's words, "consider[s] too curiously," Nashes Lenten Stuffe (pub. 1599) recalls Hamlet's demythologization of "the noble dust of Alexander," till he finds it "stopping a bunghole" (5.1.203). The deidealizing wit of Lenten Stuffe is almost as charged as Hamlet's in the graveyard: there is a sense of distance from noble life, issuing in a strange relish for anti-Ovidian, degrading itineraries (Leander ["sodden to haddocks meate" (3.198)] is turned into Ling, and Hero into Red Herring), and there is also a certain realism, a sense of having seen through it all. In Nashe this is a seeing through form, a knavish undoing of tragedy. I begin with Lenten Stuffe because, purporting to have been written away from London "in the countrey" (3.176) and in praise of the fishing town of Yarmouth, which harbored Nashe after the suppression of the play The Isle of Dogs (performed 1597), it literalizes some of the questions about social-literary insiders and outsiders I have been asking. These circumstances also raise starkly the issue of the relation of Nashe's writing to elite society and authority. I want to argue that although the work seems to aggressively travesty a high literary mode, we need a more nuanced conception of the relation between elite mode and Nashe than words like estrangement and travesty suggest.

The argument that Nashes Lenten Stuffe aligns itself with popular culture against elite culture has been forcefully made by Michael Bristol. Yarmouth, famous for herring fisheries, is described topographically and "historically" and extravagantly eulogized. It is the affecting to see tragedy as "tragedizing," or the contradiction posed between popular truth and elite fabulation, which suggests Nashe's "alienation" from courtly culture. If tragedy, the falsifications of "divine Musaeus" and "Kit Marlow" (3.195), is attacked, the idealizing Sidneian poetic may be challenged by the polemical valorization of truth over art. These categories are not neutral: implied is a contradiction between proletarian reality and upper-class mystification. In chapter 2 we will see a similar contrast at work in "bourgeois" tragedies that seem to reject the "glozing stuff" of the traditional form for the "simple truth" of humble life.112 Certainly it is present in this version of Hero and Leander, "a brilliant use of indecorum," as Sandra Clark puts it:113 the implication of Nashe's retelling is that, seen from the social space of a fisherman's town, tragedy seems a contrivance. By invoking this undistinguished "real" to criticize tragic idealization, Nashe may seem to cast himself as radical-popular demystifier. Much depends on how we picture the relation between the high formality of tragedy and the low, ignoble content—Hero's bawd-nurse, for example, "a cowring on the backe side whiles these things were a tragedizing" (3.200)—that is, while Hero laments over Leander's corpse (the Nurse is subsequently translated into mustard). One can see how the standardized rhetoric, dramaturgy and stagecraft of the Elizabethan playhouse might draw such irony,114 but it is the social symbolism of form that is emphasized.

In "degrading" tragic representation (to recall Bakhtin's formulation about Renaissance art)115 Nashe frames or distances it, opening up a certain gap between its aristocratic idealization and plebeian "experience." Social interplay ironizes what is seen as social form. This detached perspective on the prestigious idealizing modes of representation is reinforced by the insistence on novelty: "I am the first that ever sette quill to paper in prayse of any fish or fisherman" (3.224). Championing singularity, Nashe takes an individualistic stance toward generic norms. Robert Weimann has said that "out of the constraints of a socially most precarious position, Nashe snatched a modicum of freedom and experiment," a freedom that for Weimann, like Crewe, subverts decorum.116 Thus the flamboyant play Nashe makes with hierarchical order—Hero and Leander exchanged into Herring and Ling, and red herrings glorified ("but to thinke on a red Herring, such a hot stirring meate it is, is enough to make the cravenest dastard proclaime fire and sword against Spaine" [3.191])—will appear as "subversion." Moreover, if we accept the work's conspicuous self-identification with Yarmouth and with plebeian culture (the title page of the 1599 edition recommends it as "fitte of all Clearkes of Noblemens Kitchins to be read: and not unnecessary by all Serving men that have short boord-wages, to be remembered" [3.141]),117 such overturning of decorum will seem indebted less to learned paradox than to popular carnival and radical topsy-turvy, unmasking elite pretension. What I have sketched is the possibility of reading this part of Nashes Lenten Stuffe as identifying with nonelite life and contesting quasi-official neoclassical institutions (seen as contradicted by "truth"). But Nashe's disengagement from and irresponsibility toward aristocratic symbolism in Lenten Stuffe requires a less aggressive characterization.

What I want to stress about this (in some ways self-consciously "popular") work is the delicacy of its rhetorical task. Rather than simply drawing on popular culture, it deploys it. The circumstances of composition give some clue here: having crossed the line between permissible and impermissible satire in The Isle of Dogs, Nashe humorously deflects suspicion by associating himself with the unpretentious culture of fisher folk, the implication being that it is malicious, "selfe-conceited misinterpreters," with their "peevish moralizing and anatomizing" (3.216), who have got him into trouble: far from meddling in important matters, Nashe's preoccupations are as lowly as those of fishermen.118 Associating himself with this virtuous simplicity, Nashe gives the lie to the accusation that his interests tend to subjects they would be wiser not to ("deepe politique state meaning" [3.214]). If popular culture has this tactical importance, as an impish gesture of humility, it is wrong to speak of real identification. The piece distances elite cultural modes as idealizing, but not to privilege plebeian "reality." The Puck analogy is again useful. The image of the old nurse ("mother Mampudding … a shrewish snappish bawd" [3.200]) on her backside is relished for the sheer actuality of the scene and its deidealizing possibilities, and yet the author's distance from it is stressed: he laughs with the Nurse, using this scene to bring out the pretensions of tragedy, and at her, in the same way that Puck can express amused detachment and understanding of the "villagery" (2.1.35) and mechanicals. The work does not, then, except ironically, proclaim itself popular: it is "a light friskin of my witte … wherein I follow the trace of the famousest schollers of all ages, whom a wantonizing humour once in their life time hath possest to play with strawes, and turne mole-hils into mountaines" (3.151). It emulates "Phylosophers … with their paradoxes [i.e., praises] of povertie, imprisonment, death, sicknesse, banishment, and baldnesse' (3.176) and strenuously asserts its scholarship, invoking "Polidore Virgill" and "Camdens Britannia" (3.172; Nashe also stresses his "seven yere" at "S. Johns" [3.181]). Most importantly, its witty triviality distinguishes its author as a virtuoso.119 The demythologizing of tragedy asserts a confident familiarity or kinship with this tradition. It is manipulated or overturned rather than simply being presented as alien to a popular viewpoint. Nashe exploits a social-rhetorical tension between high and low discourse, but it is not easy to situate his work within this tension. A passing allusion to chronicle

To recount ab ovo, or from the church-booke of his birth, howe the Herring first came to be a fish, and then how he came to be king of fishes, and gradationately how from white to red he changed, would require as massie a toombe as Hollinshead; but in halfe a penniworth of paper I will epitomize them. (3.195)

expresses a flippant irresponsibility toward the genre by someone seemingly outside its social assumptions (the low pamphlet cheekily promises entertainment rather than the "massie" history of kings)120 but also confers upon Nashe its authority (he is familiar with it). Irony allows Nashe to have his cake and eat it: the pretensions of a symbolic tradition he is partly outside can be mocked and its power over him neutralized, but its prestige can be invoked, and its power for him activated. That Nashes Lenten Stuffe presents itself as, in some ways, an outsider's text, written not at court but at Yarmouth, is important for a social-rhetorical reading of Nashe's outsiderness, which has a real social basis; but the pointed assertion of being inside elite modes, of a knavish independent power over them, is also significant.

The discussion of Lenten Stuffe suggests some general features of Nashe's works:

1. Degradation/Idealization

Nashe's works articulate the central Sidneian contrast between "brazen" and "golden" worlds121 as a social interplay between "popular" and "aristocratic." But two qualifications are necessary. First, the "brazen" in Nashe is not always reducible to the popular in the same way that "golden" is to the aristocratic: Nashe's knavish realism is not equatable with the viewpoint of simple fishermen. Second, the texts do not necessarily privilege a socially commonplace reality: though it may be invoked to distance elite poetic conventions, this need not mean that the text embraces a "popular sense of reality."122

2. Separation/Identification

Nashe often playfully and individualistically separates himself from sanctioned modes (Weimann calls this "modernism" and Stephen Hilliard "singularity"). Yet this separation includes identification, or the tapping of the prestige of modes, the appropriation of their value by a virtuoso handling. This sense of separation, we may add, is ultimately rooted in Nashe's circumstances. The ambiguousness of the relation to high modes requires avoiding constructions of it which, like those stressing modernism or an alienated, scandalizing singularity, reduce complexity to radical contradiction.

3. Irresponsibility/Responsibility

Exploiting a broadly nonelite or knavish perspective, Nashe converts marginality into a playful assertion of independence from symbolic modes (which otherwise express an order of life to which he cannot entirely belong). But if Nashe's handling of elite modes is irresponsible, with irony compensating for outsiderness, there is nonetheless the attempt to assert, through their sophisticated and accomplished manipulation, a fundamental responsibility for such modes. Irresponsibility is the ironic mask of the knowing insider.

4. Interplay between High and Low:

Hero and Leander/Herring and Ling. All the Nashe works treated here manipulate social contrasts, and ethical and aesthetic contrasts in them have social content. The emphasis, however, is on "manipulate": it is in playing with this division that Nashe as knavish, elusive author writes himself as unplaceable in it—which is the alternative to an impossible identification with high culture. These points amount to a single claim: Nashe's writing is not reducible to one social perspective and its essence lies in a complicated social interplay….


59 … On Euphues's success, see Hunter, John Lyly, 72; on Pierce's, Hibbard, Thomas Nashe, 59-60.

60 "Lyly as Shakespearian Precursor," in Shakespearian Dimensions (Brighton, England, 1984), 154.

61 Quoted in Laslett, World We Have Lost, 35.

62 He was one of many for whom gentle status depended on attending university—a fact explaining the significant increase in the numbers of graduates during the sixteenth century: see Hugh F. Kearney, Scholars and Gentlemen: Universities and Society in Pre-Industrial Britain: 1500-1700 (London, 1970), 26-27. Thomas's father was "apparently … not a university graduate," according to McGinn, Thomas Nashe, 13.

63 For Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London: 1576-1642 (Princeton, 1981), not doing manual labor was the gentleman's main characteristic (24). Nashe styles himself "Thomas Nash Gentleman" on the title page to the 1592 edition of Pierce Penilesse (1.149) but as McGinn, Thomas Nashe, points out, in Strange Newes, Of the Intercepting Certaine Letters (pub. 1592) he appears to retract this claim or not care much about it: see 1.311-12. This disowning of gentility is an instance of that rhetoric of overcoming social distinctions which, I shall argue, is central to Nashe's writing.

64 See Palliser, Age of Elizabeth, 73-74. David Cressy, "Describing the Social Order of Elizabethan and Stuart England," Literature and History 3 (1976), accepts that the clergy and professions were considered superior to merchants, tradesmen, and craftsmen, but thinks them still basically subordinate to the landed gentry (35): "their gentle status was a concession to their abilities" (29, 37). An even more negative estimation of their place has been advanced by Youings in Sixteenth Century England, who writes that the parish clergy "were in no real sense gentry"; she classes them with the better-off yeomen, noting that the Cambridge matriculation registers grouped clergymen's sons "with those of tradesmen and farmers as mediocris fortunae" (319).

65 "The dominant value system" of Elizabethan society was "that of the landed gentleman": Stone, Crisis, 39. On the powerful attraction in this period of "the ideal of rural gentility," see Wrightson, English Society, 30, as well as Lawrence Stone and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (Oxford, 1984), 11-16, who comment that land was a more "secure," if generally less lucrative, investment than business. But it also "signified power and status" (13), and men spent on country seats "because at bottom they were prestige-maximizers rather than profit-maximizers" (15).

66 Finkelpearl, John Marston, vii, 27-29.

67 Miller, Professional Writer, 12, 22.

68 On the kind of income necessary for an aristocratic life-style, see Stone, Crisis, 44.

69 According to Palliser, many individuals rose in status in the period: Age of Elizabeth, 77, and Stone, Crisis, observes an "unprecedented rate" of upward and downward social mobility (38). Cf. too A. L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (New York, 1951), 222.

70 Quoted in Laslett, World We Have Lost, 31.

71 For Bakhtin, see Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, Ind., 1984), and also The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, Tex., 1981).

72 Weimann, Shakespeare, 180, 181. Cf. his reference to "popular uses of language … associated with Tarlton or Nashe" (205).

73 Both Weimann and Bakhtin tend to divide up certain qualities or values between an elite and a populace. The folk are practical, irreverent deidealizers; the rulers, high-minded and solemn—dubious generalizations at any time. It is true, as we shall see, that Nashe exploits an elite "idealism" and a broadly nonelite "realism" in his texts—but that this reflects some essential historical opposition seems unlikely. In the English tradition there appears no insuperable barrier between the attitudes Weimann and Bakhtin find popular and elite ones—as Chaucerian fabliaux or academic "folk" plays like Gammer Gurtons Nedle (ca. 1552; pub. 1575) would suggest. The danger lies in stereotypes of either "popular" or "elite" culture: see Finkelpearl's description of the Revels at Gray's Inn in 1594-95, which combined "disorderly conduct, mock solemnity" and ribaldry with impeccable moral orthodoxy (John Marston, 38, 61).

74 This may not surprise: see Kolakowski's excellent discussion of the "monism" of Marx's "historiosophy," in which class struggle is the totality of the past. Historical materialism shares this essentialism, Kolakowski shows, with "all universal theories of history": Main Currents of Marxism, 366, 351-52, 363-71.

75 For the argument that class-consciousness in traditional society was restricted to the elite, see Laslett, World We Have Lost, 22-53.

76 In "Shakespeare and the Diction of Common Life," in Shakespearian and Other Studies, F. P. Wilson quotes the speech of a Parliamentarian full of proverbs (114), commenting that "to an Elizabethan the proverb was not merely or mainly of use for clouting a hobnailed discourse" (117). Weimann, Shakespeare, says proverbs express "a mode of perception that had its roots in practical life and in the common man's concrete world of objects and ideas" (206; and see 237). One may ask: Do proverbs express the wisdom of common, that is, shared, life, or the specific experience of the "common man"?

77 See Hilliard, Singularity, 10, 241: The Unfortunate Traveller "subverts the literary and social conventions of the Elizabethan 'golden' age" and "undercuts both the traditional conception of society and the humanistic poetic" (123, 124). And see also Mihoko Suzuki's "'Signiorie over the Pages': The Crisis of Authority in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in Philology 81 (1984): 348-71, which argues that Nashe's text subverts political and "literary authority" (349).

78 Hilliard argues that "singularity," partly "forced on [Nashe] by his estranged status," was "a quality … that … threatened to become disruptive to the traditional social order" (Singularity, 3). Too serious an approach may distort it, however. The type of antiestablishment undergraduate humor that, rather than profoundly criticizing institutions, is essentially loyal to them (because of the privilege education confers) may be closer to the nature of Nasheian irony than the "subversion" of some approaches. On undergraduate culture in the sixteenth century, see Finkelpearl's opening chapter on the Inns of Court in John Marston.

79 Weimann, "Fabula and Historia: The Crisis of the 'Universall Consideration' in The Unfortunate Traveller," in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Greenblatt: Nashe's "authorship came to constitute and rely upon an authority distinctly his own. In this respect, Nashe (for all his political conservatism) was indeed a modernist" (191). Crewe, Unredeemed Rhetoric (68) uses the term "modernism" to indicate the self-consciousness of the writing rather than a literarypolitical radicalism. David Kaula, "The Low Style in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller," Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 6 (1966), stresses Nashe's pride in his originality and the impression he likes to give of having refused the "discipline of imitation" (43-44).

80 Cf. Fredric Jameson on the "negative, critical, or revolutionary vocation" of modernism as interpreted by the Frankfurt School in his foreword to Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester, England, 1984), xvi.

81 Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York, 1985), 95, 100, 96, 102.

82 Hilliard, Singularity, 68, drawing on Mark H. Curtis, "The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England," Past and Present 23 (1962): 25-44.

83 As will be already obvious, Nashe's relation to the elite involves broad questions about the relations between intellectuals and authority generally. Some illumination here is found in Gramsci's distinction between "organic" and "traditional" intellectuals, the former accepting their status as "an organic category" within a "fundamental social group" (thus "bourgeois" intellectuals, "proletarian" intellectuals) and the latter asserting independence from society: "Since … traditional intellectuals experience through an 'esprit-de-corps' their uninterrupted historical continuity and their special qualification, they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group." The Nasheian persona is, as we shall see, in its emphasis on a certain autonomous, alternative, self-validating prestige, strikingly similar to the way "traditional" intellectuals define themselves: see Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London, 1971), 15, 8, 7.

84 "Tom Nashe and Jack Wilton," 207, 216, 206, 209.

85 "Inside the Outsider," 75, 74-75, 73, 74.

86 Ibid., 75, 71 (see also 66-67).

87 Ibid., 75, 78, 73.

88 Ibid., 75.

89The Unfortunate Traveller is a "jarring confrontation" of "irreconcilable voices and mind-sets of [the] time" (ibid., 78).

90 Ibid., 75.

91 The Hamlet analogy is again useful: just as the prince's power over important, oppressive figures like Claudius and Polonius stems from his histrionic ability to move in their world ("the glass of fashion and the mould of form" [3.1.153]) while not being restricted to it, so Nashe's desired image is the knowing insider, freely moving in and out of aristocratic modes. Hamlet's ability to bewilder the court heavyweights and keep them guessing, his appearance of being the mirror of courtesy and yet uncircumscribed by the court, his very resistance to sociological or other types of analysis (we do not know, as Harold Jenkins points out, what he makes of the fustian of "mobled queen," but we know what Polonius thinks; see the note to 2.2.499 in the Arden edition [London, 1982])—such chameleonic unfixability of character suggests ways of understanding the social symbolism of Nashe's styles.

92 Kearney, Scholars and Gentlemen, 25.

93 I have in mind Walter Cohen's reading of the play in terms of a "lower-class subversiveness" (348) in Drama of a Nation, 322-56.

94 On the usefulness of this paradigm for understanding social relations in this period, see introduction, nn. 15 and 36. In The World We Have Lost, Peter Laslett argues that the concept of class-conflict is more appropriate to nineteenth- and twentieth-century societies than to Tudor or Stuart England, where the ruling elite was the "only … body of persons capable of concerted action over the whole area of society," the "only … class in fact" (23). Laslett's argument depends upon "a distinction … between a status-group, which is the number of people enjoying or enduring the same social status, and a class, which is a number of people banded together in the exercise of collective power, political and economic" (22-23). Laslett's criticism of the usefulness of the concept of class for describing the social structure of Early Modern England finds support in J. H. Hexter's attack on "The Myth of the Middle Class in Tudor England" in Reappraisals in History (London, 1961): the Tudor "middle class" ("merchants, financiers, industrialists, the town rich, the bourgeoisie") lacked class consciousness: it had "no ideology of class war or even of class rivalry"; its most successful members aspired to join the aristocracy (75, 113). Cf. also Stevenson, Praise and Paradox, on the aristocratic, courtly nature of the literary praise of plebeian and bourgeois groups, especially her chapters "The Merchant as Knight, Courtier, and Prince," and "The Gentle Craftsman in Arcadia." For Palliser, The England of Elizabeth, the notion of "permanent antagonism" between rich and poor is fundamentally inapplicable to "a paternalist or deference society" like Tudor England (78, 80; see also 77-83). As regards the relation of literary culture to this problem, the lack of fundamental hostility to the elite in the most consciously plebeian author of the period, Thomas Deloney, is pertinent. The word "class" in reference to nonelite life is sometimes unavoidable, despite its often misleading implications; where it is used here it is usually a synonym for Laslett's "status-group." And rather than invoking a theory of general class-struggle (the real problem with the systematic application of the concept of class to this period), I continue in what follows to concentrate on the ambivalence, tension or uncertainty complicating the ideal hierarchy of society.

95 Thus the fool in medieval and Renaissance drama "reflects a dramatic and social position that rejects the assumptions of the mythical or heroic theme in favor of the common sense attitude of a plebeian … audience"; and "the popular tradition" in Shakespeare is seen as "supplementing, enriching, modifying, inverting, criticizing, or generally distancing the main action" (Weimann, Shakespeare, 13-14, 238). Although thus allowing for a multiplicity of relationships to "the main action," the book's emphasis tends to fall on the critical function.

96 Jameson, Political Unconscious, 80.

97 For an early sociology of the Elizabethan literary landscape, see John F. Danby's excellent Poets on Fortune's Hill: Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher (London, 1952), which proposes that Sidney was to literature what Elizabeth was to politics (31): "The Arcadia is Great House literature" (71).

98 Nevill Coghill, Shakespeare's Professional Skills (Cambridge, England, 1965), 59.

99 Weimann, Shakespeare: Hamlet mocks Polonius from the position of "popular commentator and parodist" (133); his wordplay generally "revives a late ritual capacity for reckless sport and social criticism" (150); in the scene with the "egalitarian" (240) grave diggers (who "challenge or complement some of the basic values of the play" [239]) the viewpoints of plebeian and prince merge: "the wit of the clown comes so near the experience of the courtier that it affects his language" (240). In sum, though Hamlet's relation with the court is "ambiguous" (231), the emphasis is on Hamlet as a vehicle for " platea-derived popular conventions and attitudes" (235), or on his solidarity with an audience with a significant lower-class component and with characters "of lesser degree" (234). Although Hamlet is friendly with Marcellus and Barnardo, it is worth noting that they are "gentlemen," or officers, like Horatio (1.2.196)—he is apparently not intimate with the soldier Francisco.

100 An instance of Hamlet sentimentalism is Miklós Szenczi's "The Nature of Shakespeare's Realism," Shakespeare Jahrbuch 102 (1966), which speaks of "the instinctive connection of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Timon with the people" (53). Annabel Patterson, in Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), sees Hamlet as at times "a … spokesman for popular protest" (95). On the decline of deference toward the English nobility, relevant to Hamlet's complaint, see Stone, Crisis, 746-53.

101 We may compare with Hamlet's mad speech Lear 4.6, where torrents of "wild and whirling words" are evasive in a slightly different sense, talking down killing thoughts (such as responsibility). But here too such language seems a bid at empowerment, or survival, proceeding out of and trying to overcome through fantasy a real vulnerability: "No, they cannot touch me for [coining], I am the King himself…. Come, come, I am a king, / Masters, know you that?" (4.6.83-84, 199-200). The horrendously aggressive linguistic egoism of Lear's disordered speech (a speech to annihilate the world) is far removed in intensity from Nashe's often equally bewildering language play—but the common element of a frenetic assertiveness is there.

102 See Henry Knight Miller, "The Paradoxical Encomium with Special Reference to Its Vogue in England, 1600-1800," Modern Philology 53 (1956): 145-78, and Walter Kaiser, Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1963). Kaiser thinks Nashe read Agrippa "more carefully than most" (143).

103 Nashe's stress on novelty, evident in this quotation, usually seems an attempt to distinguish himself as a special case transcending conventional social distinctions. David Margolies, Novel and Society in Elizabethan England (London, 1985) has argued that "most Elizabethan fiction writers accepted the role of entertainer" to the public (2). Nashe, however, does not want Tarlton's status.

104 See OED, "knave," sb. 2.

105 why was Greene, during 1591-92, so preoccupied with the London low-life scene? Obviously pamphlets about it sold. But a secondary reason suggests itself. Like Nashe in eking out a precarious, vaguely disreputable living on the margins of the elite, and no doubt, as a graduate, anxious about his relationship to the vulgar, Greene finds the socially ambivalent connycatcher an intriguing, perhaps solacing, figure. The rogue living by his wits, also surviving outside the traditional social structure, is hardly identifiable with his victims. The conny-catcher is a kind of sadistic revenge fantasy of the talented but impoverished professional author: he contemptuously takes in the clowns, including those of substance, and is not subordinate to the elite but rather a confident, raffish figure of glamorous power. On rogue, low-life, and prison literature, see Wright, Middle Class Culture, 410-11, 437-46.

106 The distinction is like that between Greene's underworld rogues and Deloney's upright plebeians.

107 Weimann, Shakespeare: a popular "realism of sentiment" shows up the "limits of idealism" (112, 111).

108 Cf. Bakhtin, Rabelais: "festive folk laughter … means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes" (92; and see 4 and passim). The gap between ideals and experience is a fundamental theme of Elizabethan fiction for Davis, Idea and Act: the experience of Jack Wilton "constantly gives the lie to ennobling formulations of the real" (215).

109 Cf. Jones, "Inside the Outsider": through Jack Wilton a "range of social classes and practices is seen from below" (64).

110 Cf. Lodge (1596): "Th. Nash, true English Arentine" (cited by McKerrow in Nashe, 5.147).

111 For Nashe and Juvenal, see Hibbard, Thomas Nashe, 63-64. Aretino is celebrated as a scourge of princes; but the stress is on the Italian's brilliance rather than on any dissenting stance—it is a personal distinctiveness that is emphasized, and Aretino is a humanist power fantasy: "The French king, Frances the first, he kept in such awe, that to chaine his tongue he sent him a huge chaine of golde, in the form of tongues fashioned" (2.265; see 2.264-66). Nashe emphasizes Greene's knavish quick wit in a retort to Harvey's attack on the dead writer (1.287-88). What is stressed is, again, a personal quality that excepts one from the social system. The same admiration for a prodigious, unconventional talent is expressed in the precocious preface (addressed to the "Gentlemen Students of Both Universities") Nashe wrote for Greene's Menaphon in which, as a young unknown, he casts up the accounts of English literature. In this document (composed, it would like to have thought, for a select group of readers), Nashe targets not only dull "mechanical mate[s]" (3.311), authors of "two-pennie Pamphlets" (3.316) "that feed on nought but the crums that fall from the Translators trencher" (3.312), but academic ink-hornists: "give me the man whose extemporall veine in any humour will excell our greatest Art-maisters deliberate thoughts" (3.312). What is advanced is a relative outsider's power, personal, noninstitutional, idiosyncratic, which neutralizes Establishment power. Yet it is a subtle game that Nashe plays: if he seeks to distinguish himself from those stigmatized as jumped-up, laborious pedants of the Harvey type (the son of a rope-maker, as he liked to remind his readers), he also aligns himself with "the indevours of Art" (3.315), energetically praising that "Nurse of all learning, Saint Johns in Cambridge" (3.317)—his college. The idiosyncrasy of Nashe's style, especially the proliferation of coinages, suggests a straining for distinction: on his exceptional linguistic innovation, see Jürgen Schäfer, Documentation in the OED: Shakespeare and Nashe as Test Cases (Oxford, 1980), 7, 60-63. On Nashe's stylistic individualism, see Paul Salzman, English Prose Fiction: 1558-1700: A Critical History (Oxford, 1985), 83-86, and Margolies, Novel and Society, 3, 86. For his scorn for "common" writers like Deloney, see Wright, Middle Class Culture, 93-94.

112 See the epilogue, lines 17-18, to Arden of Faversham in M. L. Wine's edition (London, 1973).

113The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets: 1580-1640 (Rutherford, N.J., 1983), 255.

114 Elizabethan dramaturgy and stage practice was probably rather heavily stylized, combined with realism of detail where possible: see Bradbrook, Elizabethan Tragedy, 16-28. On Shakespeare's "theatrical shorthand," see Alan C. Dessen, "Shakespeare and the Theatrical Conventions of His Time," in Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1986), 90 and passim.

115 "Degradation, whether parodical or of some other type, is characteristic of Renaissance literature" (Bakhtin, Rabelais, 21).

116 Weimann, "Fabula and Historia," 191: in The Unfortunate Traveller, Nashe "sacrifice[s] Renaissance decorum [Sidney's "Universall Consideration"] for … historiography" (186).

117 "Fishermen" are addressed as the audience (3.223; see also 3.223-25), and it is proclaimed that their "kannes shall walke to the health of Nashes Lentenstuffe" (3.225), in commemoration of the author's service.

118 Cf. the complaint about "deepe reaching wits … Moralizers … that wrest a never meant meaning out of every thing, applying all things to the present time" in Summers Last Will and Testament (3.235).

119 For Hibbard, Nashe's subject is always his "virtuosity as a writer": Thomas Nashe, 64.

120 Pamphlets had a low status, appealing mostly to "a kind of middle-class" ("tradesmen, merchants" and so on) whose "tastes and values" differed "significantly … from those catered for by writers like Sidney and Spenser": Clark, Elizabethan Pamphleteers, 22, 23, 176-77.

121 "Her [Nature's] world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden": Defence, 78.

122 Weimann, Shakespeare, 14….

Further Reading

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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 Authorship. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, 120 p.

Analysis of philosophies of rhetoric in the English Renaissance with Nashe as an exemplary author.

Hibbard, G. R. Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962, 262 p.

Standard introduction to Nashe's work.

Hilliard, Stephen. The Singularity of Thomas Nashe. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 260 p.

Analysis of Nashe's life and works which argues that Nashe struggled with a tension between the traditional ideals of Elizabethan society and the rapid social changes of his era.

Holbrook, Peter. Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994, 204 p.

A study of social symbolism in Nashe and Shakespeare.

Hutson, Lorna. Thomas Nashe in Context. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, 294 p.

Analysis of the economic and social contexts for Nashe's life and writing with discussion of several of his major works.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. "Inside the Outsider: Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller and Bakhtin's Polyphonic Novel." English Literary History 60, No. 1 (Spring 1983): 61-81.

Discussion of Nashe's text in connection with structuralist and post-structuralist theories of fiction.

Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954, 696 p.

Comprehensive literary history with often-cited discussion of Nashe's work.

McGinn, Donald J. Thomas Nashe. Boston: Twayne, 1981, 193 p.

Summary discussions of all Nashe's published works, as well as of his quarrel with Gabriel Harvey, and a brief biographical sketch.

Nowicki, Wojciech. "Picaresque and Its Early Adaptation in England: A Note on Nashe's Jack Wilton," Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 12 (1980): 177-84.

Discussion of the development of the picaresque in England, with analysis of the role of Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller.

Rhodes, Neil. Elizabethan Grotesque. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980, 207 p.

Study of the grotesque in the Elizabethan era, with a discussion of Nashe and the origins of satirical journalism.

Salzman, Paul. English Prose Fiction: 1558-1700—A Critical History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985, 379 p.

Analysis of Elizabethan and seventeenth-century prose which suggests that Nashe's work is less realistic than often assumed, and that it owes much to other genres such as the jest-book and the polemical treatise.

Steane, J. B. Introduction to Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane. New York: Penguin, 1972, 501 p.

Overview discussion of Nashe's most important works.

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Thomas Nashe Poetry: British Analysis


Nashe, Thomas (Vol. 88)

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