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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 18. Thomas Nashe

The next great realist, Thomas Nashe, was another of those university wits who lived hard, wrote fiercely, and died young. He seems to have travelled in Germany and Italy; by 1589, he had done with Cambridge, and was endeavouring, in the metropolis, to live by his pen. His description as “a fellow … whose muse was armed with a gag tooth and his pen possessed with Hercules’ furies” shows how he struck a contemporary, but his vigour was of the cheerful kind. With all his boisterousness, there is about him an unconquerable gaiety, and, in spite of hopes of patronage deferred, and an imprisonment on account of his unfortunate play, the Isle of Dogs (1597), it was the ludicrous, rather than the morbid in life, that appealed to him.

Like his friend Greene, Nashe was responsible, in the first place, for certain pamphlets dealing with the social life of London; but he does not confine himself, as was the case with Greene, to the outcast and the pariah, nor, on the other hand, does he find much attraction in the steady-going citizen. His attack is directed against respectable roguery, against foolish affectations and empty superstition, and these things proved excellent whetstones for his satirical wit. His Anatomie of Absurditie (1589) is a characteristic study of contemporary manners. He plays with the theme of Stubbes’s Anatomy of Abuses (1583); but, while he does not deny that much evil was abroad, he yet contrives to find much that is amusing in the “licentious follies” assailed by the puritan. In Pierce Pennilesse, his Supplication to the Divell (1592), where he figures as Pierce, Nashe gives a fair taste of his quality. He pillories, among others, the travelled Englishman “who would be humorous forsooth, and have a broode of fashions by himselfe”; the brainless politician who thought “to be counted rare … by beeing solitarie”; and those inventors of religious sects who were a confusion to their age. The result is a gallery of contemporary portraits, faithfully reproduced, and tempered with wit. In 1593, he wrote Christ’s Teares over Jerusalem, a pamphlet which throws light upon the morals of Elizabethan London, and, incidentally, depicts the gamester, the threadbare scholar and tavern life generally. He rails against those who “put all their felicity in going pompously and garishly,” and then he turns his attack upon “dunce” preachers and usurers. The former he accuses of “hotch-potching” Scripture, “without use or edification”; the latter had drawn from Lodge his Alarum against Usurers (1584), while their evil practices were numbered among notorious crimes in the 109th canon of 1603. The object of his ridicule in his next pamphlet, Terrors of the Night (1594), is the superstition of the age, and here Nashe amuses himself by discoursing on dreams, devils and such like, in a way that must have proved entertaining to many of his contemporaries. But his merriest effort was reserved for his last: in Lenten Stuffe (1599), he writes in praise of the red herring after a visit to Yarmouth, and his wit runs riot, as he suggests the part which that homely fish had played in the history of the world.