There is general consent about the qualities of Nashe’s prose: one of the most original Elizabethan writers, he is a master of satire and polemic, capable of immense energy, invention, and reckless subversion. As an essayist he has perhaps been overshadowed by Francis Bacon and assigned the generically vague title of “pamphleteer.” However, Nashe is an essayist in the etymological sense of the word: he attempts an argument or persuasive encounter with his readers. Above all his contribution to the essay is coextensive with his humanistic commitment to rhetoric as performance. The meaning of his work is to be found not in sober epigrams or sententiae but in the movement and vitality of the prose, in the display of his compositional skill.
Like his fellow University Wits Nashe generally wrote for a commercial market, demonstrating an unerring ability to combine a talent to entertain with an eye for fashion.
In doing this his tone varies from scatological wit to moral censure. From his earliest work he betrays a debt to the complaint tradition of William Langland and John Skelton, but differs from contemporary moralists such as Philip Stubbes and Stephen Gosson by embracing the excesses of linguistic and literary invention. Robert Greene bestowed him with the title “young Juvenall” and Nashe himself declared that “of all the stiles I most affect and strive to imitate Aretines,” a reference to the scandalous satire of Aretino, whose work was translated in the 1580s.
In The Anatomy of Absurdity (1589), he adopts a euphuistic style, but in later work he establishes a more distinctive literary texture. The turning point came when he was commissioned to provide a counterblast to the popular but subversive Marprelate pamphlets. In An Almond for a Parrot (1590) he found his métier, the controversial essay-pamphlet in which he could range freely and scurrilously through numerous topics, deploying his exuberant invention to the fullest. From this point onward his literary career was dominated by verbal skirmishing. Nashe appropriated Marprelate’s “extemporall vein,” his tactics of savage invective, direct address to the reader, the juxtaposition of serious arguments with anecdote, swift colloquial banter, moral fable, and gross hyperbole; he personalized this with learned allusions, a knowledge of popular ballads and prophecies as well as journalistic curiosity.
The great flyting with Gabriel Harvey, an argument inherited from Greene, allowed Nashe to deflate a living version of one of the types he wrote against elsewhere. Harvey, who practiced a well-known and hyperbolically overbearing conceit, was also an advocate of Ramist logic and occultism. Nashe attacked each of these positions in Strange News (1592) and Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596). While Harvey wrote with a florid academicism espousing elegance and decorum, Nashe was forever his guttersnipe rival, adopting a low style replete with comic neologisms to counter Harvey’s intellectual “inkhorn terms.” Confident in his skills, Nashe uses the essay form as an arena for the settling of scores, transporting his readers through diversions of literary allusion, direct insult, and amplifications of gratuitous vulgarity. These are evident in his mock biography of Harvey and his warning that if he “take[s] truth’s part…I will prove truth to be no truth, marching out of thy dung-voiding mouth.” When Harvey complains that Nashe insulted his father’s occupation of rope maker, Nashe replies that if he were so attacked he would “have proved it by syllogistry to be one of the seven liberal sciences.”
As ever, Nashe’s concern is rhetorical power and the plenitude of wit.
In Pierce Penilesse (1592), an improvisatory and comical complaint to the Devil, Nashe considers the vices of his time, mixing an admonitory vision of the seven deadly sins with a defense of the theater and satires on foreigners and the fashions of Londoners.
The text is composed of an agitated profusion of images which relentlessly generate effects of movement and are never allowed to settle into tonal rigidity. There is little time for the establishment of a consistent viewpoint; for example, although the description of Dame Niggardize begins in the manner of a homiletic admonition, this is soon lost in a welter of specific detail, making it impossible to define the figure so simply.
Such rhetorical indulgence is exemplified in his masterpiece, Lenten Stuffe (1599), an extended tour de force which takes the form of a rhapsodic mock encomium celebrating the town of Yarmouth and its staple product, the red herring or kipper. Commencing with a history of Yarmouth, blending contemporary observation with antiquarian detail, he moves on to a celebration of this humble fish, wresting it to the center of almost every conceivable enterprise. Extemporizing a series of anecdotes, including a comic rendition of Hero and Leander, Nashe elevates the kipper to heroic heights; demonstrating how it miraculously sustains the thriving population of Yarmouth in the midst of a barren environment, he presents it as a source of wealth, beauty, and adventure exceeding that of Helen since it “draweth more barques to Yarmouth Bay than her beauty did to Troy.” The ostensible theme of this comic masterpiece, the red herring, is what it figuratively suggests: a false trail. Insofar as it has a motivation, Lenten Stuffe affirms the power of invention to elicit vitality and profusion from a world of scarcity and poverty.
In other works Nashe reveals darker compulsions. His discourse on apparitions, The Terrors of the Night (1594), commences with rationalistic refutations of occultist views:
“… there are no true apparitions,” he argues. However, it soon lapses into fragmentary and doom-laden meditations on dreams and spirits. Nashe is also drawn to the corruptions of Elizabethan London in Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (1593) where he “disinherites” his wit and presents a morbid and obsessive meditation on apocalypse, fixated on the question, “What has immortalitie to do with this muck?” This catalogue of almost pathological descriptions of monstrous births, tortured criminals, plagues, and famines lacks Nashe’s characteristic exuberance, but what remains is a compositional method based on analogy, since the images of the agonized body form a correlative to spiritual deformity. Although Nashe shortly returned to his verbal brawl with Harvey, this sense of decay and corruption is never entirely absent from his writing.
Nashe’s scatalogical moralism and rhetorical prowess are clearly at odds with the Baconian plain style and the conception of the essay that were to dominate the 17th century. In his capacity to wander constructively and entertainingly Nashe suggests Montaigne’s description of the essay as a “bundling up of so many different things.”
Although original and powerful, Nashe’s influence on the essay is difficult to assess.
Changes in taste combined with the ban imposed on printed satire in 1599 (following official disquiet over Nashe and Harvey’s quarrel) meant that the qualities of Nashe’s writing could not easily be reproduced. The virtues of his prose were inherited instead by the dramatists. The energy and invention of many theatrical characters, including Shakespeare’s saturnalian Falstaff, bear more than a passing resemblance to the spirit of Tom Nashe.
Born in 1567 in Lowestoft, Suffolk. Moved to Harling, Norfolk, 1573. Studied at St.
John’s College, Cambridge, 1582–88, B.A., 1586. Arrived in London, 1588, and became involved with a group of writers known as the University Wits, including Thomas Lodge, John Lyly, Thomas Watson, George Peele, Matthew Roydon, and Robert Greene; Greene appointed Nashe to write the preface for his Menaphon, 1589. Employed, along with other writers, by Archbishop Whitgift as a paid government propagandist to write retorts to the subversive but popular Puritan satirical Martin Marprelate tracts, 1589. Engaged in a continuing dispute with Richard and Gabriel Harvey, 1590s: suppressed by Archbishop Whitgift as part of his blanket ban on satire, 1599. Used a succession of patrons, including Lord Strange, Archbishop Whitgift, Robert Cotton, and Sir George Carey.
Lived on the Isle of Wight to escape counter-attacks on his satirical writing, 1592/93–94;
forced to flee London because of the satire The Isle of Dogs, written with Ben Jonson, 1597; returned to London by early 1599. Died in 1601.
Essays and Related Prose
(Many anti-Marprelate writings were once attributed to Nashe, but authorship no longer certain)
Preface to Menaphon by Robert Greene, 1589
The Anatomy of Absurdity, 1589
An Almond for a Parrot, 1590; edited by J.Petheram, 1846 “Somewhat to Reade from Them That List,” Preface to Astrophel and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, 1591
Strange News, 1592.; facsimile reprint, 1969
Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Devil, 1592.; facsimile reprint, 1969; edited by J.Payne Collier, 1842, reprinted 1966, and G.B.Harrison, 1966
Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem, 1593; facsimile reprint, 1970
The Terrors of the Night; or, A Discourse of Apparitions, 1594
Have with You to Saffron-Walden, 1596; facsimile reprint, 1971; edited by J.P.Collier, 1870
Lenten Stuffe, 1599; facsimile reprint, 1971
Selected Writings, edited by Stanley Wells, 1964
The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, edited by J.B.Steane, 1972
Other writings: the fiction work The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), the poem “A Choice of Valentines,” and the plays Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592), Dido, Queene of Carthage, with Christopher Marlowe (1594), and The Isle of Dogs, with Ben Jonson (1597).
Collected works edition: Works, edited by Ronald B.McKerrow, 5 vols., 1904–10, revised edition, edited by F.P.Wilson, 5 vols., 1958.
Johnson, R.C., “Thomas Nashe 1941–1965,” in Elizabethan Bibliographies Supplements 5, edited by Charles A.Pennel, London: Nether Press, 1968
Tannenbaum, Samuel A., Thomas Nashe: A Concise Bibliography, New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941
Anselment, Raymond A., “Betwixt Jest and Earnest”: Marprelate, Marvell, Swift and the Decorum of Religious Ridicule, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979
Barber, C.L., “The May-Games of Martin Marprelate,” in his Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972 (original edition, 1959)
Crewe, Jonathan, Unredeemed Rhetoric: Thomas Nashe and the Scandal of Authorship, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982
Hibbard, G.R., Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962
Hutson, Linda, Thomas Nashe in Context, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
Lewis, C.S., English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973:410–16 (original edition, 1954)
McGinn, Donald J., “Nashe’s Share in the Marprelate Controversy,” PMLA 59 (1944): 952–84
McGinn, Donald J., “The Allegory of the ‘Beare’ and the ‘Foxe’ in Nashe’s Pierce Pennilesse,” PMLA 61 (1946): 431–53
McGinn, Donald J., “A Quip from Thomas Nashe,” in Studies in the English Renaissance Drama, edited by Josephine Bennet, Oscar Cargill, and Vernon Hall, London: Peter Owen and Vision Press, and New York: New York University Press, 1959:172–88
Mackerness, E.D., “Christ’s Teares and the Literature of Warning,” English Studies 33 (1952): 251–54
McPherson, David C., “Aretino and the Harvey-Nashe Quarrel,” PMLA 84 (1969): 1551– 58
Nicholl, Charles, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984
Perkins, David, “Issues and Motivations in the Harvey-Nashe Quarrel,” Philological Quarterly 39 (1960): 224–30
Rhodes, Neil, Elizabethan Grotesque, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980
Salyer, Sandford M., “Hall’s Satires and the Harvey-Nashe Controversy,” Studies in Philology 25 (1928): 149–70
Schafer, Jurgen, Documentation in the O.E.D.: Shakespeare and Nashe as Test Cases, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980
Steane, J.B., Introduction to The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works by Nashe, edited by Steane, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972
Summersgill, Travis L., “The Influence of the Marprelate Controversy upon the Style of Thomas Nashe,” Studies in Philology 48 (1951): 145–60
Thomas, Sidney, “New Light on the Nashe-Harvey Quarrel,” Modern Language Notes 68 (1948): 481–83
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