Born: baptised November 1567, Lowetoft, Suffolk
Died: c. 1601 (aged 33-34)
Notable Works: Summer’s Last Will and Testament
Thomas Nashe (baptised November 1567 – c. 1601) was an Elizabethan playwright, poet, satirist and a significant pamphleteer. His most famous works are The Unfortunate Traveller and Summer’s Last Will and Testament.
Very little is known about Nashe’s life, including his exact birth date, his death date, or where he is buried.
Thomas Nashe – Life
Early Life and Education
Thomas Nashe was one of only two surviving children of William Nashe and Janeth (née Witchingham). While the date of his birth is unknown, he was baptised in November 1567 in Lowestoft, on the coast of Suffolk. His parents had six other children, but only Thomas and Israel (born in 1565) survived childhood. Nashe’s father was a curate. Their last name was often recorded as Nayshe.
In 1573, the Nashe family moved to West Harling, near Thetford, after Nashe’s father was awarded the living there at the church of All Saints. Here, Nashe was educated from home. Around 1581, Nashe went up to St John’s College, Cambridge as a sizar, gaining his bachelor’s degree in 1586.
Nashe stayed in Cambridge beyond his BA to work on a Master of Arts, but he left for London in 1588. It is unclear why he left, but it may have been due to the possible death of his father in 1587.
In London, Nashe began his literary career. The remaining decade of his life was spent trying to find work, but he wrote other pieces. He had already completed one manuscript, and followed this was his prefatory epistle to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589), which was his first published piece of work. It offered a brief definition of art and overview of contemporary literature. The Anatomy of Absurdity that came after was more euphuistic in style than any other of his works.
In 1590, Nashe contributed a preface to an unlicensed edition of Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. However, the Sidneys may not have been pleased with the epistle, which was removed from the authorized edition.
In October 1592, Nashe wrote his most famous work — Summer’s Last Will and Testament. This was a “show” with some resemblance to a masque, which he wrote while staying in the household of Archbishop John Whitgift at Croydon Palace.
In 1593, Nashe published Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem, a pamphlet dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Carey. Despite the work’s apparently devotional nature, it also contained satirical material which resulted in Nashe being briefly imprisoned in Newgate Prison. The intervention of Lady Elizabeth’s husband Sir George Carey gained his release.
In 1594, Nashe wrote a book titled The Terrors of the Night; Or A Discourse of Apparitions, which sceptically considers dreams, nightmares, and apparitions. The Terrors of the Night is an important work for Nashe because it was patronised by the Carey family, dedicated to Elizabeth Carey (Sir George’s daughter). The purpose of the book is to satisfy the friends of a gentleman who died after having strange visions.
In 1597, Nashe co-wrote the play The Isle of Dogs with Ben Jonson, but it caused a major controversy for its “seditious” content and was never published. Jonson was jailed and Nashe’s house was raided and his papers seized. However, he had already escaped to the country and remained for some time in Great Yarmouth before returning to London.
Nashe’s last known work was Nashes Lenten Stuffe, which was published in 1599.
Throughout his life, Nashe was also involved in some controversies. In 1588, a series of tracts attacking the established church began to appear under the pseudonym Martin Marprelate. These pamphlets divided their space between presenting the necessary points of reformation and making a mockery of the bishops in power. It is unknown how much of a share Nashe had in this controversy, but the church hired Nashe, along with others, to parody Martin on stage and in print. It is thought that Nashe wrote the last and best of these anti-Martin pamphlets, An Almond for a Parrot.
Nashe’s friendship with Greene led to his involvement with the Harvey brothers controversy. In 1590, Richard Harvey’s The Lamb of God complained about the anti-Martinist pamphleteers in general, as well as criticising the Menaphon preface. Then, two years later, Greene’s A Quip for an Upstart Courtier contained a passage on “rope makers” that clearly refers to the Harveys, whose father made ropes.
Following this, Gabriel Harvey mocked Greene’s death in Four Letters and Nashe wrote Strange News (1592). Then, Nashe attempted to apologise in the preface to Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem (1593), but Harvey attacked Nashe again in A New Letter of Notable Contents (1593), published along with Pierce’s Supererogation (1593). To this, Nashe published Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596). Harvey did not publish a reply, but Lichfield answered in a tract called “The Trimming of Thomas Nash” (1597). This pamphlet also contained a crude woodcut portrait of Nashe, shown as a man disreputably dressed and in fetters.
It is unknown where or when exactly Nashe died, or where he is buried.
Summers Last Will and Testament
Summers Last Will and Testament was written in October 1592 and published in 1600, and is Nashe’s most famous work. It is a play notable for breaking new ground in the development of English Renaissance drama, and Nashe’s only extant solo-authored play.
There is no indication as to when this play was performed for the first time, but the text refers to the English countryside of Queen Elizabeth I, and also to an outbreak of bubonic plague. In brief, the plot describes the death of Summer, who, feeling himself to be dying, reviews the performance of his former servants and eventually passes the crown on to Autumn.
The Unfortunate Traveller
The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton is a picaresque novel that was first published in 1594 but set during the reign of Henry VIII of England. The book was published in four parts, and it is the best known novel penned by Nashe.
Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell is a tall tale, or a prose satire, that was published in London in 1592. Pierce Penniless was among the most popular of the Elizabethan pamphlets, being reprinted in 1593 and 1595, and then translated into French in 1594.
The pamphlet is written from the point of view of Pierce, a man who has not met with good fortune, who now bitterly complains of the world’s wickedness, and addresses his complaints to the devil. It is told in a style that is complex, witty, anecdotal, and peppered with newly-minted words and Latin phrases.
The Choise of Valentines
The Choise of Valentines was written by Nahse some time in the early 1590s. It is an erotic poem that begins with a sonnet to “Lord S”. It has been suggested that The Choise of Valentines was written possibly for the private circle of Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby (then known as Lord Strange). It describes the Valentine’s Day visit of a young man named ‘Tomalin’ to the brothel where his lover, “Mistris Francis”, has recently become employed.
The Choise of Valentines was circulated only in manuscript and was first printed in 1899. The poem contains the most detailed description of a dildo in Renaissance literature. It also contains one of the first attestations of the word dildo, though the word seems to derive ultimately from nonsense syllables common in early-modern popular ballads.
Nashe not only shaped English literature as we understand it today, but also expanded its range and possibilities. He had a major impact on numerous other writers, especially Shakespeare, and he is remembered for his unique writing style that included carefully constructed sentences that made inspiring and disturbing connections, and his eye for unsettling details.
The wit in his writing allows him to tackle difficult subject matters and he moves with ease from the style of a sermon to brutal satirical onslaughts. While he only sole-authored one play, he had a huge impact on theatre, too, and is the only writer in English literary history whose works inspired the authorities to threaten to close down the theatres and to censor the press.
List of Works
- 1589 The Anatomy of Absurdity
- 1589 Preface to Greene’s Menaphon
- 1590 An Almond for a Parrot
- 1591 Preface to Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella
- 1592 Pierce Penniless
- 1592 Summer’s Last Will and Testament (play performed 1592, published 1600)
- 1592 Strange News
- 1593 Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem
- 1594 Terrors of the Night
- 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller
- 1596 Have with You to Saffron-Walden
- 1597 Isle of Dogs (Lost)
- 1599 Nashe’s Lenten Stuffe
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