Pamphleteer, poet, playwright, and wit, Nashe was omnipresent on the English literary scene in the crucial decade of the 1590s, but was most influential in the development of a vigorous English colloquial prose style. An invariably controversial figure—dismissed by one opponent in the period’s various pamphlet wars as a mere “makebate” or creator of strife; praised by his mentor Robert GREENE as “young Juvenal, that biting Satirist”; and celebrated by William SHAKESPEARE as Moth in Love’s Labour’s Lost—Nashe is best remembered as an enemy of censorship and promoter of subversive pleasures who invested both his life and writing with ferocious energy.
The son of a country parson, Nashe attended St. John’s College, Cambridge, as a sizar (B.A. 1586), after which, rather than taking orders, he migrated with the other so-called University Wits to London to earn his living in the rough and tumble world of the theaters and the nascent sphere of popular journalism. Although no portion of his work for the professional theater survives or can be identified, he is known to have contributed piecemeal to plays, possibly collaborating with Christopher MARLOWE on Dido, Queen of Carthage (perf. ca. 1586; pub. 1594) and implicated with Ben JONSON in the scandal over The Isle of Dogs (perf. 1597).
Nashe sharpened his writing skills, and first came to the attention of the authorities, in the “Martin Marprelate” controversy. One of several professional writers hired by Archbishop Whitgift to answer a series of anonymous but highly effective Puritan attacks on episcopacy, Nashe perfected a prose style—what he calls “the extemporal vein”—that was spontaneous, energetic, and occasionally explosive. Relying upon colloquialisms and snatches of popular songs, it was the antithesis of the polished, golden style of John LYLY’s Euphues then popular among courtiers and evidence of Nashe’s interest in serving a popular rather than an aristocratic audience. Nashe’s aggressive, quick-fire wit made his prose style the perfect vehicle for polemical exchanges, his topics shifting so often that it was difficult for an opponent to hold him in sight long enough to fire at him. Literary historians conclude that with An Almond for a Parrot (1590) Nashe decisively settled the Marprelate controversy.
The enormous success of Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil (1592)—with five editions within three years—established Nashe as a figure to note. A SATIRE upon the moral lethargy of the current age, Pierce presents the Seven Deadly Sins in their contemporary guises, scoring hits against numerous highly visible targets. As a complaint against the economics of authorship, the pamphlet is an extraordinary portrait of an evolving literary culture. Nashe praises poetry (especially that of Sir Philip SIDNEY and Edmund SPENSER), defends the theater, and presents his understanding of his own satiric role as a scourge of vice. Nor does he hesitate to chastise the proliferation of bad poets and of booksellers lacking discrimination.
“For who can abide a scurvy peddling poet to pluck a man by the sleeve at every third step in Paul’s Churchyard,” he asks rhetorically, “and when he comes in to survey his wares, there’s nothing but purgations and vomits wrapped up in waste paper. . . . Look to it, you booksellers and stationers, and let not your shops be infected with any such goose giblets or stinking garbage, as the jigs of newsmongers.” Nashe’s irony depends upon the shrewd reader’s recognizing that this is exactly how his critics disparaged Nashe’s own writing.
Nashe’s popularity grew with The Unfortunate Traveller; or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594), one of the earliest fictional prose narratives in English and a forerunner of the picaresque novel that would be brought to fruition by Daniel DAY, Tobias SMOLLETT, and Henry FIELDING a century or more later. Jack Wilton is a page who describes himself as “winnowing my wits to live merrily” among the “chaff” of modern life. However, by attaching him to the Earl of SURREY (who, before Sidney, represented an aristocratic poetic ideal), Nashe is able to use him to comment further upon Tudor literary culture. Among their adventures, the pair meet the great humanists of an earlier generation, Sir Thomas MORE and Desiderius ERASMUS, and enjoy a demonstration of classical oratory when the magus Cornelius Agrippa conjures up the ghost of Cicero. Although Jack’s adventures frequently border on the tragic, a Rabelaisian enjoyment of life dominates the work. As Jack concludes the account of one of his scrapes, “Then was I pitifully whipped for my holiday lie, though they made themselves merry with it many a winter’s evening after.”
Summers Last Will and Testament, an entertainment performed before Archbishop Whitgift in October 1592, betrays a similar element of Bakhtinian grotesque revelry, as Nashe plays with the character of Will Summers, the great clown of the Elizabethan stage, and inscribes the work within the cycle of nature. But the entertainment is also a work of high moral seriousness, castigating illiberality as seriously as does Pierce. “What pleasure always lasts? No joy endures,” Summers laments. The plague rages outside the doors of the archbishop’s country estate, but one must laugh and make merry, maintain hospitality, and refuse to let covetousness further encroach upon communal festivity. That Nashe can present himself as a scourge, but one with a comic attitude, summarizes the paradox of his work. He is capable of writing works of religious penitence like Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (1593), and a lyric like the hauntingly beautiful “Song” from Summers Last Will: “Beauty is but a flower,/Which wrinkles will devour,/Brightness falls from the air,/Queens have died young and fair,/Dust hath closed Helen’s eye./I am sick, I must die:/Lord, have mercy on us.” But it is because he is so conscious of life’s invariably tragic end that he can also write works of sexual festivity like The Choice of Valentines (date unknown), in which the speaker pays a Valentine’s Day visit to his favorite prostitute, only to ejaculate prematurely and leave her to seek satisfaction with a dildo; or his last work, Nash’s Lenten Stuffe (1599), a festive celebration of red herring. In his oftentimes vitriolic pamphlet war with Cambridge don Gabriel Harvey, which culminated in Nashe’s Have with You to Saffron-Walden; or, Gabriel Harvey’s Hunt Is Up (1596), Nashe found the perfect adversary, Harvey proving as pedantic, self-important, and incapable of festivity as Nashe was nimble-witted and certain that by taking on Harvey he could expose the Puritan extreme of Elizabethan society.
The date and circumstances of Nashe’s death remain uncertain. The last record of him to survive dates from early 1599, when he left London, in trouble with the law and hoping to escape a new outbreak of the plague. Although two epitaphs for him circulated in 1601, establishing December of that year as the latest possibility for his death, it is not known how or where he died.
Bibliography Hilliard, S. S., The Singularity of T. N. (1986); Hutson, L., T. N. in Context (1989); Nicholl, C., A Cup of News: The Life of T. N. (1984)
Pamphleteer, poet, playwright, and wit, Nashe was omnipresent on the English literary scene in the crucial decade of the...
Nashe graduated from St John's College, Cambridge, in 1586. After a tour through France and Italy he settled in London in...
He spent six years at St John's College, Cambridge, and is numbered among the University Wits who made the decade 1590-1600 an...