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Shakespeare & Beyond

Thomas Nashe: A dominant literary voice in Elizabethan England

Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe

Thomas NasheElizabethan literature makes little sense without Thomas Nashe (1567-c.1600). We are used to thinking of Elizabethan (and Jacobean) literature with Shakespeare at the center, but evidence suggests that, although Shakespeare was considered an important writer in the last decade of the queen’s reign, Nashe was one of the dominant literary voices. Nashe, who wrote some poetry but more drama and prose, helped establish the nature of English theater, as well as expanding the range, depth, and sophistication of English prose style beyond what his predecessors and contemporaries could have imagined or thought possible.

We are only just starting to realize the impact that Nashe had on the theater. He wrote only one sole-authored play that we know of, an extraordinary combination of traditional folk drama and satire, written with an acute awareness of the ephemerality of life, Summer’s Last Will and Testament (acted 1592; published 1600). He collaborated with Shakespeare as part of the writing team that produced the three Henry VI plays, and was almost certainly responsible for the first act of Henry VI, Part One. He co-authored a play with Ben Jonson, The Isle of Dogs (staged in 1597 at the Swan Theatre on Bankside, close to the site of the modern Globe). Unfortunately, all traces of this work are lost as it offended the authorities so gravely that it was shut down and all the theaters closed for the season with an order that they be destroyed (an order, mercifully, which was not carried out).