Thomas Nashe Nashe, Thomas (Vol. 88) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Nashe 1567-1601

English pamphleteer, essayist, satirist, poet, playwright, and fiction writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Nashe's life and works. For additional information on his career, see LC, Volume 41.

Regarded as an accomplished prose stylist when verse was flowering, a biting satirist in a cautious age, and a sensational journalist before the tabloid newspaper was invented, Nashe possessed an abundance of literary virtues but lacked a venue for significant success. He was among the first of the “University Wits,” Cambridge students who hoped to earn their living with their pens, and he suffered from the whims of patronage and fashion accordingly. Nashe excelled at writing occasional works; while his pamphlets and pointed satires have been difficult for modern readers to follow out of context, they revel in the details of a specific time and place. Scholars and critics several centuries removed from Elizabethan England have come to appreciate Nashe for his facility with language, reflected in extravagant wordplay, almost excessive blasts of rhetoric, and an extensive variety of voice and tone. Prose works such as Pierce Penilesse (1592) and The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) exemplify Nashe's unique gift for satire and his linguistic virtuosity.

Biographical Information

Nashe was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1567. His father, William Nashe, was a parson; his mother was William's second wife. In 1573 the family moved to the rectory at West Harling, Norfolk, where Nashe was likely educated at home by his father. In 1582 Nashe enrolled in St. John's College, Cambridge, where he became a scholar of the Lady Margaret Foundation in 1584 and earned his bachelor's degree in 1586. Biographers have speculated that his father's death in 1587 cut short Nashe's finances and forced him to leave Cambridge without obtaining a master's degree. Nashe settled in London, where he began his career as a writer. One of Nashe's first published satires was The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589), which introduced the author as an up-and-coming literary wit. During this time, Nashe became involved in the Marprelate controversy, in which he was enlisted to defend Anglican bishops who had become the victims of the scathing satirical attacks of a pamphleteer writing under the pseudonym Martin Marprelate. Nashe proved to be the superior wit, gaining popular favor with his outlandish slanders, his humorous invectives, and his sensational accusations. These attacks culminated in An Almond for a Parrat (1590), in which Nashe wrote Marprelate into submission and exposed him as noted Puritan John Penry. Nashe's success earned him the patronage of Archbishop Whitgift, under whose auspices he wrote the verse play Summers Last Will and Testament, which was probably first performed in 1592. During this time, he also wrote Pierce Penilesse and The Terrors of the Night (1594). Nashe also entered into another contentious public controversy, this time with Cambridge scholar and renowned rhetorician Gabriel Harvey. Harvey had written some critical attacks on the works of Nashe's recently deceased friend Robert Greene, and in response Nashe lampooned Harvey in Pierce Penilesse. Harvey proved to be a more intellectually able rival for Nashe than Marprelate had been. Over a period of several years, Nashe's quarrel with Harvey escalated into a intensely bitter and increasingly personal battle of wills. Nashe's literary contributions to this rivalry included Strange Newes (1593), Christes Teares over Jerusalem (1593), and Have With You to Saffron Walden (1596). Ultimately, Nashe's rhetorical wrangling with Harvey may have slowed his genuine literary output. Of works known with certainty to be Nashe's, only two other publications are extant: The Unfortunate Traveller and Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599). Though Nashe was relatively orthodox in his satirical treatments of contemporary issues, he also exposed the corruption of public and religious officials. As a result, he was censured frequently by authorities and branded as a troublemaker. His troubles came to a head around 1597 when his Isle of Dogs was banned as lewd and seditious, forcing Nashe to flee London for a short time to avoid arrest. By 1599 Nashe had effectively lost all support for his satirical writings. Indeed, the Anglican church ordered a general ban on Nashe's and Harvey's works, ending Nashe's writing career. He died in unknown circumstances in 1601.

Major Works

Two works stand out as the most important of Nashe's career: Pierce Penilesse and The Unfortunate Traveller. Some critics have called Pierce Penilesse (which would have been pronounced “purse penniless” in Nashe's time) semi-autobiographical: it is the story of an impoverished young writer who suffers from the lack of generous patrons. Pierce is driven to beg the devil for help, which leads to the satirical explication of the seven deadly sins that have corrupted Elizabethan London. Commentators have pointed out that Nashe's satire exhibits his generally conservative outlook: discussing pride, for example, the author takes to task religious nonconformists who presume to start their own sects and wealthy bourgeois merchants who affect the status of gentlemen. Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller embraces a wider scope than Pierce Penilesse. The story opens in France where Henry VIII's page Jack Wilton ekes out a living by conning noblemen and officers for food and money. Clever as he is, Jack often endures a whipping from his betters as a result of his misadventures, before moving on to try his luck again. Nashe details Wilton's picaresque exploits through France, England, Italy, and Germany as he scams his way into the company of courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, and his former master, the Earl of Surrey. Critics have observed that while the work contains some compelling satirical and stylistic elements, its merits are nevertheless overshadowed by a chaotic structure, a fragmented point of view, and an incoherent plot. In these works, as well as in Christes Teares over Jerusalem and The Terrors of the Night, Nashe demonstrates his tendency to favor sinister images, the grotesque, and even violence, a characteristic of his writing that distinguished him from other literary stylists. Nashe's ability to play with language, tone, and style to endlessly varied effects also set him apart from his peers, but his frequent focus on ugliness and cruelty strongly shaped the development of his authorial persona. As commentators have become increasingly interested in Nashe as a kind of journalist, his contributions to the Marprelate controversy and his ongoing quarrel with Harvey have begun to stand out as increasingly important aspects of Nashe's corpus.

Critical Reception

Because he expressed a largely orthodox Elizabethan perspective in a highly unorthodox and bombastic fashion, commentators have ceded that Nashe is something of an enigma who defies literary classification. His pioneering stylistic experiments with mixing bawdy and serious themes in his satires seem to be incongruous with his conservative worldview, leading many critics to conclude that Nashe's writing may be rich in style but totally void of substance. Though Nashe was apparently capable of lovely images and elegant verse, as in Summers Last Will and Testament, his talent and his circumstances seemed to favor urban grotesques and biting prose. Belonging to an era that produced William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Nashe long appeared to literary historians as a minor satirist at best and a vulgar hack at worst. As the causes to which he devoted his pen were gradually forgotten, Nashe's stature similarly diminished. C. S. Lewis (1944) was one of the earliest twentieth-century critics to consider Nashe a major talent, contending that Nashe's rhetorical abilities were among the best of his age. Lewis urged readers to look past the coarse subject matter itself and see what Nashe could do with even such low material. Indeed, a popular vein of scholarship emerged which maintained that Nashe was a sublime stylist who focused solely on language and cared nothing for content. Later in the twentieth century, however, critics began to look to Nashe as a detailed reporter of the conditions of urban life in Elizabethan London. The very topicality that repelled earlier readers and scholars became a mark of Nashe's greatness: Nashe's 1984 biographer Charles Nicholl compared him to a journalist capturing the immediate experience of London life. More broadly, Lorna Hutson suggested that Nashe's depictions of high and low culture reflect important economic changes in English society. In recent years many literary historians have attempted to date the composition of Nashe's works and trace his geographic movements throughout his writing career. These critics have contended that such an exercise is not merely academic, for Nashe styled himself as a professional writer at a time when such a profession did not exist. Indeed, they have maintained, the circumstances surrounding Nashe's mode of survival and his lifestyle as a working author could enhance the modern-day understanding of the cultural and historical significance of the Elizabethan period.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Anatomie of Absurditie: Contayning a Breefe Confutation of the Slender Imputed Prayses to Feminine Perfection (satire) 1589

*“To the Gentleman Students of Both Universities” (preface) 1589

An Almond for a Parrat (satire) 1590

†“Somewhat to reade for them that List” (preface) 1591

Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell (prose) 1592

A Pleasant Comedie, called Summers Last Will and Testament (play) c. 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 (prose) 1594

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

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

§The Isle of Dogs (play) 1597

Nashes 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. [edited by Ronald B. McKerrow] (satires, prose, poetry, plays) 1904-10

*This work is the preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon (1589).

†This work is the preface to an unauthorized edition of Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (1591).

‡This work was presumably performed in 1592, but not published until 1600.

§This work, cowritten with Ben Jonson, has been lost.

Ronald B. McKerrow (essay date 1904)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McKerrow, Ronald B. Introduction to The Works of Thomas Nashe, Vol. I, pp. 110-36. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1904.

[In this excerpt, McKerrow surveys the classical and contemporary works that most influenced Nashe's writing, particularly those of Pietro Aretino and François Rabelais. The critic argues that Nashe's borrowings often do not reflect a significant debt to earlier authors, suggesting that the author read widely but not deeply.]

One of the most interesting, and at the same time most difficult, branches of the biography of a man of letters, is that which investigates the books with which he was familiar and which influenced him in his own work....

(The entire section is 11234 words.)

C. S. Lewis (essay date 1944)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lewis, C. S. “Prose in the ‘Golden’ Period.” In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, pp. 394-465. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944.

[In this excerpt, Lewis characterizes Nashe as one of the greatest prose humorists and pamphleteers of his time. The critic writes that Nashe was highly original and uniquely able to use coarse and grotesque language to his rhetorical advantage, comparing him to both Picasso and James Thurber in his mastery of dark and violent imagery, used primarily to comic effect.]

Thomas Nashe1 (1567-1601) is undoubtedly the greatest of the Elizabethan pamphleteers, the perfect literary showman, the...

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John Berryman (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Berryman, John. “Thomas Nashe and The Unfortunate Traveller.” In The Freedom of the Poet, pp. 9-28. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976.

[In this essay, originally written in 1960 and reprinted in a posthumous collection of essays and stories, Berryman focuses on generic issues surrounding The Unfortunate Traveller and Nashe's strengths as a writer. The critic also discusses Nashe's public quarrel with Gabriel Harvey as providing instances of his best work.]

Considering how little we know of his short restless life, and how little we read his work, Thomas Nashe makes an oddly distinct impression. One sees a small man, passionate, racy,...

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G. R. Hibbard (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hibbard, G. R. “The Miseries of Authorship and Pierce Penilesse.” In Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction, pp. 49-84. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

[In this essay, Hibbard details what is known and what can be surmised of Nashe's efforts to make a living as a writer, suggesting that in Pierce Penilesse the author strove to capitalize on his status as a starving artist and not to produce a coherent satire. The critic concludes that the public response to Pierce Penilesse steered Nashe toward the kind of occasional writing that would characterize his career.]


The Almond was probably...

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Donald J. McGinn (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McGinn, Donald J. “Nashe's Place in English Literature.” In Thomas Nashe, pp. 163-70. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In this essay, McGinn reports on contemporary and later responses to Nashe's work, including his reputation as an anti-Martinist pamphleteer. The critic asserts that Nashe's work has been misunderstood and underrated in modern times because scholars have failed to recognize the aims of his writing. McGinn suggests that Nashe is better appreciated as a journalist or satirist whose writing was for the moment rather than for posterity.]


During the years immediately following his...

(The entire section is 3033 words.)

Jonathan V. Crewe (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Crewe, Jonathan V. “The Loss of Decorum.” In Unredeemed Rhetoric: Thomas Nashe and the Scandal of Authorship, pp. 21-44. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

[In the essay below, Crewe contrasts Nashe's theatrical rhetoric with Puritan rhetorical standards, arguing that the language of excess in Nashe is an effective rhetorical strategy and not merely a lack of self-control. The critic primarily focuses on Nashe's earlier works, noting that in later works the author attempted to redeem his rhetoric from the dangers of theatrical duplicity or manipulation.]

The critics whose work I surveyed in the previous chapter are linked in a common effort to...

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Charles Nicholl (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Nicholl, Charles. “The Pamphleteer.” In A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, pp. 1-11. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

[In the following essay, Nicholl characterizes the career of Thomas Nashe as that of a tabloid journalist: topical, sensational, and highly temporal. The critic suggests that Nashe's forays into urban grittiness were not attempts to highlight or change social problems, but rather opportunities for laughter and immediate experience.]

Thomas Nashe came in on the crest of the last great Elizabethan wave. He arrived in London in 1588, an ambitious young wit fresh from Cambridge. His first major success as an author was with...

(The entire section is 5549 words.)

Stephen S. Hilliard (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hilliard, Stephen S. “Nashe's Orthodoxy.” In The Singularity of Thomas Nashe, pp. 25-61. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

[In this excerpt, Hilliard demonstrates Nashe's basic conservatism in his early works, including his involvement in the Marprelate controversy. Hilliard concludes, however, that the arguments of the Marprelate debate, as reflected in An Almond for a Parrat, planted the seeds for Nashe to become less orthodox in his later career.]

Approached in isolation from their historical context, Nashe's works seem more modern and “themeless” than they do when they are cross-referenced with the works that make up their...

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Lorna Hutson (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hutson, Lorna. “Festivity and Productivity.” In Thomas Nashe in Context, pp. 72-99. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

[In this essay, Hutson provides the social and economic context for Nashe's writing. The critic finds in Nashe a transitional figure between new and old economies, comparing his work to that of Jonson, Herrick, and other contemporaries.]

We have seen how the need to inculcate responsible social attitudes through literature produced a schematically pre-fabricated or compendious style of discourse which could not but frustrate a writer whose special talent was, as was Nashe's, for improvisation. Prompted by his dissatisfaction with the costive,...

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Philip Schwyzer (essay date autumn 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Schwyzer, Philip. “Summer Fruit and Autumn Leaves: Thomas Nashe in 1593.” English Literary Renaissance 24, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 583-619.

[In this essay, Schwyzer surveys the circumstances surrounding the composition and the publication history of The Unfortunate Traveller and Christs Tears over Jerusalem to explain how the two works could be the product of the same time in Nashe's career. The critic characterizes Nashe as an innovator whose deep belief in orthodoxy and the status quo gave him the freedom to experiment without fear of upsetting the order he believed was firmly entrenched.]

Thomas Nashe's dedication of The Unfortunate...

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Peter Holbrook (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Holbrook, Peter. “‘Playing the Knave’: Social Symbolism and Interplay in Thomas Nashe—Pierce Penilesse.” In Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare, pp. 27-85. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

[In this excerpt, Holbrook discusses how Nashe navigated high and low social and rhetorical positions in Pierce Penilesse. The critic argues that although Nashe was adept at using low and popular voices in his writing, his social viewpoint does not generally reflect a truly populist position.]

Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell explicitly foregrounds outsiderness:


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Katherine Duncan-Jones (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Christs Teares, Nashe's ‘Forsaken Extremities.’” Review of English Studies n.s. 49, no. 194 (1998): 167-80.

[In the following essay, Duncan-Jones examines Nashe's relationship to Sir George Carey and Lady Carey in order to demonstrate the extreme poverty and legal difficulties Nashe experienced in his career. A letter from Carey to his wife demonstrates Nashe's debt to the Careys and the danger that his enemy Gabriel Harvey genuinely posed to him.]

The only surviving visual image of Thomas Nashe, a clumsy woodcut in a satirical pamphlet on him called The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597), shows him as a convicted...

(The entire section is 5339 words.)

Steven R. Mentz (essay date summer 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Mentz, Steven R. “The Heroine as Courtesan: Dishonesty, Romance, and the Sense of an Ending in The Unfortunate Traveler.Studies in Philology 98, no. 3 (summer 2001): 339-58.

[In this essay, Mentz discusses Nashe's use of generic models in The Unfortunate Traveller, particularly his adaptation of the romance. The critic suggests that Nashe pressed on the tensions within the romance genre, not so much for satirical effect but as a means of expanding the genre and exploring its potential.]

Many are honest because they know not how to be dishonest.

Thomas Nashe1


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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Fehrenbach, Robert J. “Recent Studies in Nashe (1968-1979).” English Literary Renaissance 11 (1981): 344-50.

Updates earlier Nashe bibliographies, concentrating on works of literary criticism.

Harlow, C. G. “Nashe's Visit to the Isle of Wight and His Publications of 1592-4.” Review of English Studies n.s. 14, no. 55 (1963): 225-42.

Constructs an updated chronology for several Nashe texts in an effort to reexamine Nashe's authorial role.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A. Thomas Nashe: A Concise Bibliography. New York: Samuel A. Tannenbaum, 1941, 31 p.


(The entire section is 513 words.)