Thomas Nashe (1567-1601); Biography and famous works

Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) was a famous Elizabethan playwright, poet, and pamphleteer. He was born in Lowestoft. and educated at St John’s College, Cambridge. After graduating in 1586, he became one of the “University Wits”, a group of professional writers who came to London in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and wrote for the stage and the press. The “university wits” were mainly six Oxford- and Cambridge-educated men- Robert Greene, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, and Nashe who “radically transformed” popular drama in the late sixteenth century.

His first publication was a preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589) which attacked contemporary writers who plagiarized from classical authors and praised Edmund Spenser and Robert Greene. He expanded this theme in The Anatomy of Absurdity (1589) which satirized contemporary literature, especially romances. His hatred of Puritanism drew him into the ‘Martin Marprelate’ controversy. In 1592, Nashe replied to the savage denunciations of Richard Harvey, astrologer and brother of Gabriel Harvey, with Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil. As Gabriel Harvey wrote an unpleasant account of Greene’s final days in his Four Letters the same year, Nashe responded by writing Four Letters Confuted to defend his dead friend’s memory. The latter was published in 1593 and is also known as Strange Newes of the Intercepting of Certain Letters.

A florid religious meditation, Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (1593) was dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Carey, and The Terror of the Night (1594), a discourse on dreams and nightmares, was dedicated to her daughter. He published The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jacke Wilton (1594) which is now thought to have been the first picaresque novel in English. This book mainly describes the travels through Germany and Italy of its rogue hero, Jacke Wilton, who lives by his wits and witnesses all sorts of historic events before he is converted to a better way of life. Nashe returned to satire with Have with You to Saffron-Walden, or Gabriel Harvey’s Hunt is Up (1596), to which Harvey replied; in 1599 Archbishop Whitgift ordered that the works of both writers should be suppressed. Nashe’s lost satirical comedy along with Ben Jonson, The Isle of Dogs also led to trouble with the authorities. This work caused major controversy for its “seditious” content. The play was suppressed and never published. Jonson was jailed; Nashe’s house was raided and his papers seized but he had already escaped to the country.

He published Nashe’s Lenten Stuff (1599), a mock encomium of the red herring (or kipper) which includes a  burlesque version of the story of ‘Hero and Leander’, and Summers’ Last Will and Testament (1600). Nashe had a share in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. He was amusingly satirized as “Ingenioso” in the three Parnassus plays (1598 to 1606).

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