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THOMAS NASHE

Elizabethan Writer

(1567 - ?1601)

"I had as lief have no sun, as have it shine faintly..."

  PORTRAIT OF THOMAS NASHE
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Early life

Thomas Nashe was a famous Elizabethan satirist. Born November 1567 in Lowestoft, a fishing port in eastern England, he was the third son of a clergyman called William Nashe. When Nashe was a child of six his father became minister of a country village, West Harling in Norfolk, and the family moved there. Nashe probably had his first schooling with his father at home.
At fourteen (not specially young for those days) he went up to Cambridge university, where he spent five years studying dry subjects like philosophy and Latin before finally taking his degree in 1586. He may have planned to stay on, but early in 1587 his father died; possibly the money for his education ran out.  Also though, in about 1586/7 Nashe had helped other students put on a play (now lost) that evidently upset the university authorities. Perhaps they put pressure on him to leave.  Whatever the real reason, by late 1588 and aged almost twenty-one, Nashe quit Cambridge for London.

Career
In London young Nashe took part in a government propaganda campaign against puritans (he never liked puritans), and soon grew friendly with other authors, in particular Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene.   Both men had also been to Cambridge, weren't interested in the usual plodding careers of teaching or the church, and were now trying to survive as writers. Both were acknowledged talents, but neither made much money. Nor did Nashe.
The trouble was that there was no author's copyright in Elizabethan England, so once a writer sold his work to a publisher he never saw any more of the profits, not even if it became a bestseller. Consequently writers were nearly always broke. The only ones who weren't had found patrons, rich men who paid a writer if he dedicated his book to them, and sometimes even fixed him up with an easy job which left him time to write more. Men like that were rare, as Nashe soon discovered.
Fame!

In 1592 Nashe wrote Pierce Penilesse , a short book about a writer so sick of being broke he decides to try a new patron - the Devil. It was an instant hit. Thomas Nashe had found fame! But still no fortune.

Over the next ten years or so Nashe lived on the edge, trying different types of writing from plays to soft porn.   He was a restlessly intelligent man with a sharp eye, and sometimes he couldn't resist turning it on important people. This usually led to trouble. In 1593 he was jailed by the London authorities for criticising them in a religious pamphlet, Christ's Tears, ending up in Newgate where forgotten prisoners could easily die of hunger and disease. Luckily a great nobleman called Sir George Carey pulled strings to get him out. (This was the same man who later protected Shakespeare's acting company from the puritans who wanted to close it down.) Four years later, Nashe co-wrote a satirical play called The Isle of Dogs. We don't know what was in it because it was instantly suppressed, but it caused such an uproar all the theatres were closed and Nashe himself had to clear out of London, barely escaping arrest.
Though Nashe usually had no trouble finding a publisher he was always hard up - partly due to a love of drinking, smoking and probably casual sex. He was proud his pamphlets sold well, particularly some he wrote insulting a pompous academic called Gabriel Harvey. Harvey had a long public feud with Nashe in which they took turns savaging each other in print. Nashe of course won. He wasn't just ruder than Harvey, he was far funnier. It's a big mistake to see him just as a writer of comic abuse though. In his brief career he tried most types of writing from poetry to plays, and his story The Unfortunate Traveller, about the wild overseas adventures of a youngster called Jack Wilton, is considered an important forerunner of the novel.
Death
The life of a writer in Elizabethan England could be fast and short.  Greene died of drink and/or plague in 1592, Marlowe went half a year later when he was killed in a fight.   Nashe lasted about eight more years. He died aged about 33, in either 1600 or 1601: nobody quite knows when or where. He went out on a high note though - the year before, the exasperated authorities had finally banned everything he ever wrote. The only surviving portrait of him is the rude cartoon above, showing him as a jailbird.
In his own day Nashe was never entirely respectable but he was certainly respected, at least by the younger end of the intelligent reading public. They admired his fire and independence, and his new way of handling words. His lively style survived him and had a big effect on subsequent writers.

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