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.
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.
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.
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.