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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits

§ 22. Thomas Nashe: popular form of his work

Thomas Nashe, though younger than Lodge, turned aside, like Peele, from his real bent into drama, but not, like Peele, to remain in it and to do a large amount of work. He left St. John’s, Cambridge, in the third year after taking his B.A., because of some offence given to the authorities, and visited France and Italy. Returning to London, he not only published his Anatomie of Absurditie and his preface to Greene’s Menaphon, both of 1589, but entered with enthusiasm into the virulent Martin Marprelate controversy. Nor was his interest decreased when the quarrel became a personal one between him and Gabriel Harvey. The long series of politico-religious and maliciously personal pamphlets poured out by him for some seven years made him so noteworthy that it is not surprising he should have taken advantage of his reputation by writing for the stage. Whether he worked with Marlowe on Dido Queene of Carthage, published 1594, or finished a manuscript left incomplete by the former, is not clear. Nor is it safe to base judgment of his dramatic ability on this play because of the contradiction by critics in the apportioning of authorship. Of the lost Isle of Dogs, he says himself that he wrote only the induction and the first act. When the play bred trouble, and Nashe, as author, was lodged in the Fleet for a time, he maintained that he was not really responsible for the contents of the play. But any reader of his pamphlets will need no proof that even an induction and a first act, if by Nashe, might contain much venom. Summer’s Last Will and Testament, acted at or near Croydon in 1592, gives little opportunity to judge Nashe’s real dramatic quality. It suggests both a morality and a play written for a special occasion. Nashe here shows himself ingenious, at times amusing, satirical as always. But to know Nashe at his best in what is really individual to him, one must read his pamphlets, or, better still, his Unfortunate Traveller, of 1594, the first of English picaresque novels. The dramatic work of Nashe suggests that he has stepped aside into a popular form rather than turned to it irresistibly. He cannot, like Lyly, adapt renascence ideas to the taste and the ideals of the most educated public of the time; nor is he even so successful as Peele, who, like him, stepped aside, but who succeeded well enough to be kept steadily away from what he could do best. Nashe is far enough from Greene, who, whatever his ideas gained from the university and from foreign travel, could so mould and adjust them as to be one of the most successful of popular dramatists.