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Nashe, Thomas (1567–c. 1600) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

nashe’s harvey published apparently

Thomas Nashe was born in Lowestoft in November 1567, son of William Nashe, a minor clergyman. He attended St. Johns College at Cambridge from 1582 to 1588, taking his B.A. in March 1586. His father, who had been supporting his education, died in 1587, which may explain why Nashe left before taking his M.A. From Cambridge, Nashe went to London, where he quickly became a member of the literary scene, his first published work being a rather lengthy (and self-serving) preface to Robert Greene’s* Menaphon (1589). Also in 1589 Nashe entered the Marprelate controversy (which may be how he met Greene, as well as John Lyly,* both of whom wrote for the Established Church position). Because the Marprelate pamphlets were all published anonymously, it is impossible to be certain which of them Nashe wrote, but the most likely candidate is An Almond for a Parrat .

Nashe’s first full-length work, Anatomie of Absurdities , was published in 1589 but was probably written while Nashe was still a student at Cambridge. It exhibits none of the boisterous style for which Nashe was to become famous (and which he probably developed through his engagement in the Marprelate controversy). Perhaps the primary point of interest in the Anatomie is the fact that Nashe first mentions Gabriel Harvey* in it. The comment on Harvey, while not exactly generous, is also not really critical, but it may nevertheless have initiated Nashe’s long quarrel with the Harvey family, which McKerrow identifies as “by far the most important event in Nashe’s life as a man of letters” (I.65). Nashe would ultimately publish two lengthy attacks on Gabriel Harvey— Strange Newes (1592) and Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596).

It is difficult to tell how Nashe supported himself from 1589 to 1592, but he may have been writing occasional pieces for manuscript circulation like his pornographic The Choice of Valentines , known popularly as Nashe’s Dildo (c. 1592). He would later declare, “I have written in all sorts of humors privately, I am persuaded, more than any young man of my age in England” (i.320). In 1592, Nashe published the work for which he was best known during his lifetime, Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Devil , which was printed five times by 1595. Nashe was generally identified with his protagonist Pierce (probably pronounced “purse’’), and he apparently adopted him as his own persona.

In the summer of 1592, to escape the plague raging in London, Nashe stayed at Archbishop Whitgift’s castle at Croyden, where he composed his only surviving play, Summers Last Will and Testament , which contains the justifiably famous and often-anthologized song “Adieu, farewell earths blisse.” During the following winter, he resided on the Isle of Wight with Sir George Carey, where he presumably composed Strange Newes and The Terrors of the Night (though Nicholl believes the latter was written at Robert Cotton’s Conington Manor). Sometime during the spring or summer of 1593, Nashe composed the work most appreciated by modern audiences, The Unfortunate Traveler , as well as the work least appreciated by modern readers, Christs Teares Over Jerusalem . Nicholl believes that Christs Teares was the product of “an actual nervous breakdown” (169) and offers as partial evidence the fact that Nashe apparently wrote nothing else until Have with You in 1596, but I would argue that if a breakdown occurred, it occurred during the final pages of The Unfortunate Traveler , and Christs Teares was a deliberate attempt to recover a God-centered universe.

In 1597, Nashe was forced to flee London because of his part in the composition of the scandalous play, with Ben Jonson,* Isle of Dogs (no copy of which survived the government’s suppression). He settled for a time in Yarmouth, where he apparently was received with genuine hospitality. In gratitude for the town’s welcome, he celebrated Yarmouth and its chief industry, the herring fishery, in his final work, Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599). It was apparently published just prior to the order of 1 June 1599, prohibiting the publication of all works by Nashe or Gabriel Harvey (although Summers Last Will was published in 1600). Nashe apparently died shortly after this official censorship, though the date and cause of death are unknown. He is referred to as deceased in 1601.


The critical reception of Nashe’s works can reasonably be said to begin with Gabriel Harvey, but the context of their feud effectively disqualifies Harvey as a reader. Other contemporaries were generally more favorable in their assessments, which characteristically praised Nashe for his “wit.” The anonymous Parnassus Plays portrays Nashe warmly in the figure of “Ingenioso,” and Shakespeare,* apparently recognizing the dramatic qualities of Nashe’s characterizations (or perhaps Nashe’s own self-dramatization), adopts recognizable elements from his works for his own plays.

For his contemporaries, as for modern readers, Nashe’s distinction was as a stylist. His long harangues, his flurries of alliteration, his remarkable neologisms provoked both approval and exasperation among his contemporaries, as they do for us. We are, however, more suspicious of style or rhetoric today than the Renaissance was, so appreciation of Nashe’s works tends to require more justification and hence sometimes sounds rather defensive. Nashe’s biographer Charles Nicholl, for instance, offers a sympathetic insight into the conditions of Nashe’s life to explain why his work strikes us as superficial: “Championing Nashe as a pioneer journalist we must remember the ‘deadlines’—poverty, hunger, sickness, imprisonment. If his writings sometimes seem two-dimensional, these are a kind of third dimension” (47). Nicholl finally sees Nashe’s engagement with the surface of life as partaking of the power of innocence: “He never quite lost that child’s eye: its magnifications, its sense of suddenness, its fascination slipping into fear” (260). For G. R. Hibbard, on the other hand, Nashe’s inability to see below the surface left him with nothing really to say, which is why style replaced substance in his work: “The way he says a thing counts for more with him than the thing said. It is for this reason that he is, and always has been, a minor writer” (64). Neil Rhodes also sees a discrepancy in Nashe’s work between childish energy and artistic control: “Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice he activates the world around him with a reckless energy, but he cannot bring it under control” (52).

More recently, critics have begun to demonstrate how Nashe’s works are constructed not out of a discrepancy between surface and depth but out of the identity between surface and depth by historicizing the overlap of immediate, impersonal social pressures and the private formulation of a life lived within them. Looking primarily at the pressures of patronage and censorship, Reid Barbour sees Nashe’s work arising from “a knot where the commissioned and autonomous Nashe are bound together” (70). Lorna Hutson, dismissing as inadequate “any purely aesthetic or purely rhetorical approach” to Nashe’s writings, offers a detailed analysis of the broad economic realities that inspire or underwrite Nashe’s pamphlets in order to expose the transactional quality of Nashe’s writing, in which wit equals wealth in a festive economy of expenditure and consumption.

Perhaps more than most writers, Nashe profits from such extensive historical contextualization. He was a child of his time, “in many ways the most Elizabethan of all our writers,” as Hibbard says (ix), and to read him well, we must learn to read him within his historical moment.

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