The juggler with words: Thomas Nashe

thomas nasheThomas Nashe played a large role in the Elizabethan  literary world, for a small man. He was renowned in his day as a superlatively witty writer whose verbal barbs pricked inflated egos from the highest court to the darkest alley.

He wrote anything that would sell: bits of government propaganda, plays, accounts of dreams, religious invective, even a picaresque novel (more on this later.) A pamphlet sold for threepence; Nashe got 40 shillings and perhaps a cup of wine. The nascent concept of copyright at this time only applied to publishers, not writers.

(12 shillings in a pound; 40s = £3.3. A blacksmith or a cook might make £6/year, plus meat and drink, in 1588. A gentleman of an Inn of Court would want £60/year to pay his fees and keep up appearances. The schoolmaster at Nashe’s grammar school got £16/year in 1570.)

The printer might sell hundreds of copies of a popular pamphlet and Nashe was a very popular writer. C.S. Lewis called him ‘the perfect literary showman, the juggler with words.” Biographer Charles Nicholl wrote “He was prolific and controversial, the pamphleteer who precisely caught the time’s flavour. He reigned pre-eminent among ‘the riffe-raffe of the scribling rascality.'” If you want to know what sophisticated Elizabethans read (since they couldn’t watch The Daily Show), read some Nashe. If you want to learn about Elizabethans, read Charles Nicholl’s excellent books, referenced below.

The look of a rascal

We have a portrait of Thomas Nashe, or at least a caricature. The woodcut shown above was first printed in a pamphlet written by one of his bitter enemies, yet another victim of his ferocious wit, Richard Lichfield, a barber-surgeon from Trinity College, Cambridge. The pamphlet, published in 1597, was titled The Trimming of Thomas Nashe. Apparently Nashe had written something insulting about barbers and Lichfield felt the need to respond with heat.

The woodcut shows Nashe in chains — wishful thinking, most likely, although he did spend time in prison for debt now and then. It also shows him wearing a doublet and round hose (“Spanish kettledrums”), the garb of a gentleman, although they don’t fit him very well. Note the unbuttoned doublet and the lack of a hat — the sign of a disreputable man. He wore his hair a bit long, which was the fashion in the ’90s, but had no beard, a feature that was remarked upon by his contemporaries. Nashe was fair and probably nearly beardless by nature. He was also apparently on the short side and scrawny. You can’t really tell from this woodcut, but he was also gag-toothed — some of his teeth stood out at odd angles. That’s quite a handicap in a age that considered external appearance to mirror internal qualities.

The briefest of biographies

Nashe was born in Suffolk in November, 1567, making him 3 years younger than Marlowe and Shakespeare. Nashe’s father was a curate, one of the poorer forms of cleric, when Thomas was born. He later was granted the living at All Saints near Thetford, a better position. Nashe went to St. Johns’ College at Cambridge University as a sizar, a student who performs menial labor such as cleaning rooms and waiting at table in exchange for tutelage. He graduated BA in 1586, but stayed on for a few more years, leaving without taking an MA.

dido
Dido seated on a throne

St. John’s was famous for its theatrical productions; perhaps that’s how Thomas met Christopher Marlowe. They did become friends at university. It’s believed they collaborated on Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage (a fun read, go for it.)

Nashe came down to London around 1589 and joined the University Wits (a Victorian term), a group of poor, but educated, scribblers that included Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and of course, Marlowe. Greene and Nashe were among the first men to make a living from writing in the history of English letters; that alone ought to make them notable.

Nashe lived all around London, especially in the suburbs north of the city walls, moving frequently for lack of funds.He knew everyone; literary London was a small world in those days. He played dice with courtiers’ pageboys and drank with the Clerk of the Kitchen, picking up gossip about his betters. He hung out in taverns near the theaters and picked up gossip about his peers. Shakespeare affectionately lampooned him with the character Master Moth in Love’s Labour Lost.

He skipped town in 1597 to avoid arrest for a play he co-wrote with Ben Jonson called The Isle of Dogs, deemed so dangerous by the government that no copies of it remain. His last work was published in 1599. By 1601, a eulogy appeared for him; he had died. How or when we’ll never know.

Nashe vs Martin

In 1589, Thomas Nashe was one of three satirical writers hired by Canon Richard Bancroft to write counter-strikes against the popular and highly illegal works of a radical Presbyterian who called himself Martin Marprelate. (Mar-prelate = mess up a priest. Get it? Elizabethan humor, not always funny.) If this sounds like a stupid move, I agree with you, but Martin was winning the public over to his anti-establishment cause. Canon Bancroft thought a popular appeal might help turn things around. Mostly it just raised the rhetorical temperature in London that summer, but it also succeeded in drawing Martin back out of seeming retirement, so that his pressmen, at least, could finally be caught.

I’ve blogged at length about the Marprelate Controversy (and part II) and am happy to say it’s finally out of my system. So I’ll just give you a couple of excerpts for the flavor of the exchange. Mostly they just slung insults at each other, though Martin was chiefly aiming at the Church.

Martin Junior (a pseudonym of the pseudonymous Martin), July, 1589, Theses Martinianae

“Fire and faggot, bands and blows, railing and reviling, are — and have been hitherto — their common weapons; as for slandering and lying, it is the greatest piece of their holy profession. And these, with their bare assertions, and their wretched cleaving to popish absurdities are, in a manner, the only proofs and tried maxims they offer unto the church in this age.”

Nashe, Aug. 1589, A Countercuffe given to Martin Junior. 

“Pasquill [Nashe] hath taken up your Glove, and desires you to charge your weapon at him like a Man. If you play with him, as your father and your selfe have doone with the Bishops heretofore, if you barke like a Curre and bite behind, he will have a trick with his heele to strick out your teeth.”

Martin, Oct. 1589, The Protestatyon

(This was published after Martin’s printers were captured. Martin, still unidentified, may have printed this himself, with the help of another conspirator.)

“Wherein, notwithstanding the surprising of the printer, he maketh it known unto the world tha the feareth neither proud priest, antichristian pope, tyrannous prelate, nor godless catercap, but defieth all the race of them by these presents, and offereth conditionally, as is farther expressed herein, by open disputation to appear in the defence of his cause against them and theirs.”

Nashe, spring, 1590, An Almond for a Parrot

(You slip the ship’s parrot an almond to get it to regurgitate the latest gossip.)

“Welcome, Master Martin, from the dead, and much good joy may you have of your stage-like resurrection. It was told me by the undaunted pursuivants of your sons… that your grout-headed holiness had turned up your heels like a tired jade in a meadow, and snorted out yourr scornful soul like a measled hog on a muckhill, which, had it not been false (as the devil would have it), that long-tongued doctress, Dame Lawson, must have been fain (in spite of inspiration) to have given over speaking in the congregation, and employ her parrot’s tongue instead of a wind-clapper to scare the crows from thy carrion.”

(No idea who Dame Lawson is. But this is utterly typical Nashe!)

A few words about the works

Nashe’s prose is so aggressively novel in words and imagery, it can be hard to read. Excerpts are nice; there are lots in Nicholl’s book.

The Wikipedia page lists all his works. You can find them for free at places like the Gutenberg Project in a variety of formats, including epub and mobi. I can recommend The Unfortunate Traveller, which I read on the elliptical machine (thus in small doses.) Not being an expert in literature, I don’t know why this isn’t considered the first novel, rather than Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Maybe Nashe’s work is too rambling? I enjoyed it anyway.

Here are some samples of Nashe’s style. Remember that Elizabethans, especially the educated ones, LOVED word play. Extravagant new words and bizarre metaphors tickled them in all the right places.

From Pierce (pronounced ‘purse’) Penniless, pub. 1592:

About the typical gentleman of the Inns of Court: “A young heir or cockney that is his mother’s darling, if he have played the waste-good at the Inns of Court or about London, and that neither his student’s pension nor his unthrift’s credit will serve to maintain his college of whores any longer, falls in a quarrelling humour with his fortune because she made him not King of the Indies, and swears and stares after ten in the hundred that ne’er such a peasant as his father or brother shall keep him under….”

“Envy is a crocodile that weeps when he kills and fights with none but he feeds on.”

And this, describing the eight kinds of drunkard: “Nor have we one or two kind of drunkards only, but eight kinds. The first is ape drunk, and he leaps and sings and hollers and danceth for the heavens. The second is lion drunk, and he flings the pots about the house, calls his hostess whore, breaks the glass windows with his dagger, and is apt to quarrel with any man that speaks to him. The third is swine drunk — heavy, lumpish, and sleepy, and cries for a little more drink and a few more clothes. The fourth is sheep drunk, wise in his own conceit when he cannot bring forth a right word. The fifth is maudlin drunk, when a fellow will weep for kindness in the midst of his ale and kiss you, saying ‘By God, Captain, I love thee; go thy ways, thou dost not think so often of me as I do of thee. I would, if it pleased God, I could not love thee so well as I do’ — and then he puts his finger in his eye and cries. The sixth is martin drunk, when a man is drunk and drinks himself sober ere he stir. The seventh is goat drunk, when in his drunkenness he hath no mind but on lechery. The eighth is fox drunk, when he is crafty drunk as many of the Dutchmen be, that will never bargain but when they are drunk.”

Nashe makes a few brief appearances as Marlowe’s sidekick in Death by Disputation. He plays a more prominent role in the fourth Bacon mystery, Publish and Perish. I love the little squirt, so I’ll bring him back at least one more time in book 6, to be set in 1593, when Tom persuades Francis Bacon to investigate Christopher Marlowe’s death.

References

(Note: I link to Nicholl’s books in Amazon, but A Cup of News was priced for libraries and it’s now out of print. $66 + shipping from the UK!! The Reckoning can be had, but really all his books are worth the trouble of ordering through Interlibrary Loan.)

The Elizabethan Compendium

Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1984.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. The University of Chicago Press. 1995.

Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street. Viking Adult. 2008.

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2 Comments on "The juggler with words: Thomas Nashe"

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John Yeoman
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Ay, Anna, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) is possibly the first English ‘novel’ in that it features a third-party protagonist presented in the third person. Cervantes was just eleven years behind him with Don Quixote (1605), but it wasn’t translated into English until 1620. And Thomas Deloney’s hilarious Thomas Of Reading – a series of tales loosely woven into a continuous story and also arguably one of the first novels – came out in 1612. Thomas Nash was brilliantly ahead of his time. His pyrotechnic style reminds me of some of today’s more inventive newspaper columnists (like the UK’s Giles Coren… Read more »
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