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Thomas Nashe (November 1567 – c. 1601) was an Englishmarker Elizabethan pamphleteer, poet and satirist. He was the son of the minister William Nashe and his wife Margaret (née Witchingham).

Polemical woodcut deriding Nashe as jailbird

Life and career

Little is known with certainty of Nashe's life. He was baptized in Lowestoftmarker, Suffolk, where his father was curate. The family moved to West Harling, near Thetfordmarker in 1573 after Nashe's father was awarded the living there at the church of All Saints. Around 1581 Thomas went up to St John's College, Cambridgemarker as a sizar, gaining his bachelor's degree in 1586. From references in his own polemics and those of others, he does not seem to have proceeded Master of Arts there. Most of his biographers agree that he left his college about summer 1588, as his name appears on a list of students due to attend philosophy lectures in that year. His reasons for leaving are unclear; his father may have died the previous year, but Richard Lichfield maliciously reported that Nashe had fled possible expulsion for his role in Terminus et non terminus, one of the raucous student theatricals popular at the time. Some years later, William Covell wrote in Polimanteia that Cambridge "has been unkind to the one [ie, Nashe] to wean him before his time." Nashe himself claimed that he could have become a fellow had he wished (in Have With You to Saffron-Walden).

Then he moved to Londonmarker and started his literary career in earnest. The remaining decade of his life was dominated by two concerns: finding an adequate patron and participating in controversies, most famously with Gabriel and Richard Harvey. He arrived in London with his one exercise in euphuism, The Anatomy of Absurdity. His first appearance in print was, however, his preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon, which offers a brief definition of art and overview of contemporary literature. After this (and the publication of Anatomy) he was drawn into the Martin Marprelate controversy on the side of the bishops. As with the other writers in the controversy, his share is difficult to determine. He was formerly credited with the three "pasquil" tracts of 1589-1590, which were included in R. B. McKerrow's standard edition of Nashe's works: however McKerrow himself later argued strongly against their being by Nashe. The anti-Martinist An Almond for a Parrot (1590), ostensibly credited to one "Cutbert Curry-knave," is now universally recognized as Nashe's work, although its author humorously claims, in its dedication to the comedian William Kempe, to have met Harlequin in Bergamomarker while returning from a trip to Venicemarker in the summer of 1589. However, there is no evidence Nashe had either time or means to go abroad, and he never subsequently refers to having visited Venice elsewhere in his work.

In 1590, he contributed a preface to an unlicensed edition of Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, but the edition was called in, and the authorized second edition removed Nashe's work.

At some time in the early 1590s Nashe produced an erotic poem, The Choice of Valentines, possibly for the private circle of Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby (then known as Lord Strange). This circulated only in manuscript. It describes the visit of a young man named 'Tomalin' to the brothel where his girlfriend Frances ('Frankie') is employed. Having paid ten gold pieces for her favours, Tomalin is embarrassed to find that merely lifting her skirts makes him lose his erection. She perseveres in arousing him however and they make love, but to her disappointment he has an orgasm before her. Frankie then decides to take matters into her own hands: hence the informal title by which the poem was known, Nashe's Dildo. It was sharply criticized for its obscenity by contemporary authors Joseph Hall and John Davies of Hereford, though Nashe had tried to pre-empt criticism by placing it in the tradition of classical erotica: "Yet Ovid's wanton muse did not offend".

His friendship with Greene drew Nashe into the Harvey controversy. In 1590, Richard's The Lamb of God complained of the anti-Martinist pamphleteers in general, including a side-swipe at the Menaphon preface. Two years later, Greene's A Quip for an Upstart Courtier contained a passage on "rope makers" that clearly refers to the Harveys (whose father made ropes). The passage, which was removed from subsequent editions, may have been Nashe's. After Harvey mocked Greene's death in Four Letters, Nashe wrote Strange News (1593). Nashe attempted to apologize in the preface to Christ's Tears Over Jerusalem (1593), but the appearance of Pierce's Supererogation shortly after offended Nashe anew. He replied with Have With You to Saffron-Walden (1596), with a possibly sardonic dedication to Richard Lichfield, a barber of Cambridge. Harvey did not publish a reply, but Lichfield answered in a tract called "The Trimming of Thomas Nash," (1597). This pamphlet also contained a crude woodcut portrait of Nashe, shown as a man disreputably dressed and in fetters.

Alongside this running dispute, Nashe produced his more famous works. While staying in the household of Archbishop John Whitgift at Croydonmarker in October 1592 he wrote an entertainment called Summer's Last Will and Testament, a "shew" with some resemblance to a masque. In brief, the plot describes the death of Summer, who, feeling himself to be dying, reviews the performance of his former servants and eventually passes the crown on to Autumn. The play was published in 1600.

In 1593 Nashe published Christ's Tears Over Jerusalem, a pamphlet dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Carey. Despite the work's apparently devotional nature it contained satirical material which gave offence to the London civic authorities and Nashe was briefly imprisoned in Newgate. The intervention of Lady Elizabeth's husband Sir George Carey gained his release.

He remained in London apart from periodic visits to the countryside to avoid the plague - a fear reflected in the play Summers last will and Testament, written in the autumn of 1592. William Sommers, whose comments frame the play, was Henry VIII's jester. It includes the famous lyric:

Adieu, farewell earths blisse,
This world uncertaine is,
Fond are lifes lustful joyes,
Death proves them all but toyes,
None from his darts can flye;
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on us.

In 1597, following the suppression of The Isle of Dogs (co-written with Ben Jonson), Jonson was jailed, but Nashe was able to escape to the country. He remained for some time in Great Yarmouthmarker before returning to London.

He was alive in 1599, when his last known work, Nashes Lenten Stuffe, was published, and dead by 1601, when he was memorialized in a Latin verse in Affaniae by Charles Fitzgeoffrey.

He was featured in Thomas Dekker's News from Hell and referred to in the anonymous Parnassus plays, of which the latter provides this epitaph:

Let all his faultes sleepe with his mournfull chest
And there for ever with his ashes rest.
His style was wittie, though it had some gall,
Some things he might have mended, so may all.
Yet this I say, that for a mother witt,
Few men have ever seene the like of it.

Chronology of Nashe's works

He is also credited with the erotic poem The Choice of Valentines and his name appears on the title page of Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, though there is uncertainty as to what Nashe's contribution was. Some editions of this play, still extant in the 18th century but now unfortunately lost, contained memorial verses on Marlowe by Nashe, who was his friend.


  • R. B. McKerrow, ed., The Works of Thomas Nashe, 5 vols. 1904-10, repr. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958. (The standard edition.)

See also

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