Thomas Nashe: A dominant literary voice in Elizabethan England

Thomas NasheElizabethan literature makes little sense without Thomas Nashe (1567-c.1600). We are used to thinking of Elizabethan (and Jacobean) literature with Shakespeare at the center, but evidence suggests that, although Shakespeare was considered an important writer in the last decade of the queen’s reign, Nashe was one of the dominant literary voices. Nashe, who wrote some poetry but more drama and prose, helped establish the nature of English theater, as well as expanding the range, depth, and sophistication of English prose style beyond what his predecessors and contemporaries could have imagined or thought possible.

We are only just starting to realize the impact that Nashe had on the theater. He wrote only one sole-authored play that we know of, an extraordinary combination of traditional folk drama and satire, written with an acute awareness of the ephemerality of life, Summer’s Last Will and Testament (acted 1592; published 1600). He collaborated with Shakespeare as part of the writing team that produced the three Henry VI plays, and was almost certainly responsible for the first act of Henry VI, Part One. He co-authored a play with Ben Jonson, The Isle of Dogs (staged in 1597 at the Swan Theatre on Bankside, close to the site of the modern Globe). Unfortunately, all traces of this work are lost as it offended the authorities so gravely that it was shut down and all the theaters closed for the season with an order that they be destroyed (an order, mercifully, which was not carried out).

Nashe’s name appears on the title page of Dido, Queen of Carthage (published 1594), alongside that of his dead friend Christopher Marlowe. Nashe’s role in this play is controversial, but the attribution confirms that Nashe and Marlowe were very close and that Nashe was eager to preserve Marlowe’s legacy. A year after Marlowe’s poem retelling the Greek myth of Hero and Leander was published, Nashe transformed the tale into a comedy in his great work on the red herring, Lenten Stuffe (1599). Furthermore, the attribution on Dido, Queen of Carthage demonstrates what many scholars are now realizing, that Nashe had a hand in many plays. Cases have been made that he was a co-author for A Knack to Know a Knave (1594), a vehicle for the clown William Kemp; Edward III, which Shakespeare may also have worked on; and even Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (c.1592).

Nashe’s influence on prose was even greater, and in his short writing career of about a decade he produced eight substantial major works. Nashe’s prose is characterized by its excoriating and brilliant wit. He has the panache to move with ease from the style of a sermon to brutal satirical onslaughts, juxtaposing learned classical references with observations of the popular stuff of everyday life. It is one of the many stunning ironies of Nashe’s career that he began his writing career – so far as we know – in his early twenties writing for the bishops against the Puritans, but ended up going too far in his own quarrel with the Cambridge don Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631), so that his works were named in the Bishops’ Ban of 1599 forbidding satire. This makes Nashe the only writer in English literary history whose works inspired the authorities to threaten to close down the theaters and to censor the press.

Reading Nashe is an extraordinary experience. His long, carefully constructed sentences make inspiring and disturbing connections. He has an eye for unsettling details, such as the description of a tortured man’s fingernails looking like half-opened shop shutters towards the end of The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). He is exceptionally good at quick turns of phrase and clever verbal assaults, often at the expense of his nemesis, Gabriel Harvey, whose work he claims is produced in expensive editions which are valuable only when they are recycled, used to stuff mustard pots, hold hot spices, or as toilet paper. He also has the ability to produce lines of astonishing beauty. His most famous words, “Brightness falls from the air” are taken from the “litany in time of plague” in Summer’s Last Will and Testament and have not only been widely referenced by novelists, poets, and critics, including James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and William Empson, but are also the subject of animated academic discussion. Does Nashe mean “air”? Or is that a misreading of “hair”? Hair does indeed go dull after death, and it is one of Nashe’s favorite subjects, especially when he is insulting the luxurious and vain styles sported by Harvey and his brothers. In all probability it is a pun linking the deathly, darkening atmosphere caused by plague and the loss of sheen from the dead heads of its victims.

Nashe not only shaped English literature as we understand it today but also expanded its range and possibilities. It is clear that he had a major impact on numerous other writers, especially Shakespeare. The language of Falstaff, for example, owes much to Nashe’s energetic satire in Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596), a masterpiece that is now neglected because its range and diversity make it so hard to read. We are working on a new edition of Nashe’s works, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2021. This edition will provide the fullest account today of surviving copies of Nashe’s books, new insight into their print histories, and extensive annotation. The work is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the United Kingdom and supported by partners such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, where we recently held a symposium, Thomas Nashe and His Contemporaries, bringing together scholars from the United States, the UK, and Canada. The project has also held events at the Globe; staged Summer’s Last Will in its original setting (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Summer Palace in Croydon, now Archbishop Whitgift School); and produced podcasts discussing Nashe’s life and significance. We will hold future events in Newcastle and Great Yarmouth, where Nashe fled after The Isle of Dogs was banned. Learn more on The Thomas Nashe Project website.