This past September I spent a month exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library’s unique collection of books by someone who has fascinated me for a long time: the Elizabethan pamphleteer, Thomas Nashe (1567-c.1601). As a writer who experimented with new genres and prose styles, he is hard to categorize. He produced the early novel The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), collaborated on plays with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and made the first overt mention of a dildo in English in his poem The Choice of Valentines (c.1593). His writing style is inventive, visceral, and unflinching; take for example this dismissal of hypocritical patrons as “graybeard Huddle-duddles and crusty cum-twangs.”1
Nashe is increasingly being taught in university courses of Renaissance literature, as an early writer of prose fiction who blurs the distinction between high and low culture in his texts. Despite the growing importance of his work to university students and early modern scholars alike, the last major edition of his complete works was in 1904-10, by the renowned bibliographer Ronald B. McKerrow. McKerrow’s edition was lightly revised by F.P. Wilson in 1958, and subsequent paperbacks, such as J.B. Steane’s modernized Penguin edition of 1972, were still largely based on McKerrow’s editorial policy and notes. What this means is that despite hundreds of articles and book chapters that have been written on Nashe in the past three decades, no new editorial or textual analysis has been done on his writing since before the First World War.
Until now. I am part of an editorial team (led by Jennifer Richards at Newcastle University and Andrew Hadfield at the University of Sussex) which is putting together a critical edition of Nashe’s complete works for the first time in over 100 years. To accompany this edition, our project will bring Nashe’s words to life in staged readings and performances of selected texts, and by producing multi-media resources which contextualize his work.
At the very heart of this project, though, is the work of securing good primary texts for the edition, and providing up to date annotation and introductory essays which will help readers of Nashe to rediscover his writing. To do this, we are starting from scratch, and collating early copies of Nashe’s work now held in various research libraries such as the Folger, which has the largest collection of Nashe’s work in America. Despite the Herculean efforts of McKerrow in editing the works of Nashe by himself, he was limited to examining the 46 copies held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the British Museum (now the British Library) in London and checking them against Victorian editions of Nashe such as A. B. Grosart’s Complete Works (1883-4). In contrast, our project is planning to see the 285 copies of Nashe known to survive, 124 of which are found in the United States.
Because of this wider scope, our edition will provide the reader with a more stable text. Copies unseen by McKerrow have already turned up additional variants which occurred when these copies were in print. Early modern printed texts are not exact copies of each other. The job of a corrector, or even of the author himself, was to look for mistakes in the printed sheets, and to literally stop the press in order for the wrong type to be removed and replaced. This did not mean, however, that the sheets already printed with errors would be thrown away, because this would have been too expensive; and so a mixture of corrected and uncorrected sheets now appears in different copies of the same text. Nashe’s works are filled with these ‘stop press corrections,’ like ‘plunge’ corrected to ‘plague,’ and ‘companie’ to ‘timpanie.’ In half of the surviving copies of Nashe’s final work, Lenten Stuffe (1599), there are eleven extra commas added to two pages, a detail which suggests that the rhythm and grammar of that section was important to the person correcting it.
The Folger’s collection of Nashe has some great examples of unique items, like Nashe’s handwritten notes in his copy of John Leland’s Principum Ac illustrum aliquot & eriditorum in Anglia virorum Encomia (1589, STC 15447).2
In the images below we can see Nashe’s signature on the back of the title page, and quotations from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (c.1592) written in the margins: “Faustus: Che sara sara deuinynitie adieu,” a quotation of Faustus’s opening soliloquy: “What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera: What will be, shall be? Divinity adieu!”Another, more blurry, reference to Dr Faustus appears on the next page, “Faustus: studie in indian silke,” a reference to that same soliloquy, where Faustus imagines his minions “fly to India for gold” and “fill the public schools with silk/ Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad.”3
This also gives us the tantalizing possibility that Nashe had either seen an early performance or read a now lost manuscript of Dr Faustus, if he indeed made these marginal notes in 1589; this is a possibility as he references Leland’s book in his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589), but not in his later works.
The Folger also holds one of the manuscript copies of The Choice of Valentines, an erotic poem which was never printed in Nashe’s lifetime. When McKerrow edited this poem in 1905, he had only known of three copies, those held in the Bodleian Library, the Inner Temple Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (both in London). Today we know of three additional manuscript copies, one held at the British Library, another in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, and the sixth in the Folger, in a commonplace book containing both bawdy and religious verse (Folger MS V.a.399).4
Meanwhile, the Folger copy of Nashe’s virtuoso attack on his rival Gabriel Harvey, Strange Newes gives us a clue that this text’s dedication was considered controversial at the time it first went to press. The pamphlet went through six different issues, and we know by comparing the first with subsequent issues that a paragraph in the dedication to the pseudonymous ‘Apis Lapis’ had to be rewritten after the first issue (probably because it was potentially libelous as it mentioned specific people and places).
There is only one surviving copy of the fourth issue of Strange Newes, and it is held by the Folger (STC 18377b.5). What makes it so unusual is that the dedication to Nashe’s mock-patron ‘Apis Lapis’ which appears in every other issue of the text, is entirely missing from this fourth issue. At first we thought this might be a sign that a later owner had removed the preface, but on closer inspection it became clear that the decision to remove the dedication was made at the print shop. In three earlier issues, the back of the title page is blank. Next we have the dedication (sig. A2r-A4r), followed by Nashe’s “letter to the reader” (sig. A4v-B3r).
In the Folger copy, there is no dedication, and the first side of the “letter to the reader” is printed on the back of the title page (sig. A1v). This means that someone in the print shop intentionally removed the dedication from the fourth issue, knowing that this would mean also having to remove the first side of the letter to the reader (which is printed on the reverse of the dedication’s final page). This in turn meant that they needed to reset that section of the letter somewhere else, and chose the back of the title page, probably to save on paper. Did the printers do this because the entire dedication was considered too controversial? Or was this a one-off copy, made for a specific customer? It is clues like this which allow us to tell a new story about the production of Nashe’s works.
My trip to the Folger also brought up new information about Nashe’s preface to Robert Greene’s prose romance, Menaphon, which was first published in 1589. Only four copies of this first edition have survived, and three of them are incomplete. Two copies, held at the British Library and the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, are missing the final page (leaf A3) of Nashe’s preface, while the Huntington Library’s copy in California is missing Nashe’s preface altogether.
The Folger’s copy (STC 12272), meanwhile, does have this final page (leaf A3), but on first glance it looks like a page from another book, as it has been cut to a smaller size than the surrounding pages. Thanks to the help of the Folger’s curators Caroline Duselle-Melish and Heather Wolfe, our project now thinks that this page is a cancel. It seems less likely that it was taken from a different copy, because the Folger’s A3 is printed on a different stock of paper, which suggests that it was a supplement. Add to this the fact that no other A3 pages survive from this 1589 edition, and it seems possible that what was originally written by Nashe at the end of the preface was cancelled, and a new ‘cancellans’ (the Folger’s A3) replaced it.5
This means that the Folger copy is actually the most complete copy of this first edition (it is still a 1589 text, even if it is a rewriting) and that the original ending to Nashe’s preface (the cancellandum) is lost. That it even needed to be replaced could mean, however, that the original ending to Nashe’s preface may have been controversial in the same way as his Strange Newes dedication proved to be.
By returning to the drawing board and seeing all of these early copies of Nashe in person, our editorial team is discovering clues about the printing of his texts, and apparent evidence of (self)censorship at one of the earliest stages of circulation.
- Thomas Nashe, ‘Lenten Stuffe,’ vol 3. The Works of Thomas Nashe. vol.3, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow. 5 vols. (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1905) p.155
- For more on this copy, see Paul H. Kocher, ‘Some Nashe Marginalia Concerning Marlowe,’ Modern Language Notes, vol.57, no.1, (Jan 1942) pp.45-9.
- Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus ‘A-text’ ed. David Bevington, Eric Rasmussen (Manchester: Manchester Uiversity Press, 1962) I.i. ll 49-50, 84, 92-3.
- On this manuscript, see Robert C. Evans & Kurt R. Niland, “The Folger Text of Thomas Nashe’s ‘Choice of Valentines’,” PBSA 87:3 (1993) pp.363-374.
- A cancel is a term for a replaced page of a printed book, though bibliographers use the Latin derivatives of the word to distinguish between (a) the page that has been remove—cancellandum—and (b) the page that replaces it—cancellans.
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