Thomas Nashe

(From: Faulke, Tiger’s Heart in Woman’s Hide  p. 65-73)

     The junior member of the Pembroke playwriting team, Thomas Nashe, took great umbrage at suddenly having this splendid batch of poetry thrust into his hands. Though dazzled by what he read, he was by inclination outraged to realize that Sidney’s sonnets were already quite old (ten years, in fact). It was as if Nashe and the rest of the nation had been allowed to flounder a long time when these poetic gems might have offered all of them some genuine poetic guidance. At back there was a long simmering (and genuine) issue of the better courtly poets keeping their own (often superior) works in tight-knit manuscript circulation among themselves. In order to set to right this and several other perceived injustices suffered at the hands of the Pembroke company, Nashe took a copy of the sonnets to bookseller Thomas Newman. In mid-September 1591 appeared Sir P.S. His Astrophel and Stella. Wherein the excellence of Sweet Poesy is concluded. Augmenting the Sidney and Daniel sonnets were a few verses from the man who had offered to become Nashe’s patron until he fell into royal disfavour, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and Thomas Campion, a student at law who was a very good lyricist.

     Nashe’s letter, Somewhat to read for them that list [like], was the prefatorial gateway into this heretofore hidden trove of verse. Though written in Nashe’s trademark satirical manner, the letter (when laid out end-to-end) exposes fairly clearly his motive and justification for what he has done, his feelings towards Mary Sidney and the other playwrights, and his thoughts on what her ladyship’s actors could expect from this great committee outpouring. Although there is as yet no sign of either Shakspere or Shakespeare, Nashe strikingly reveals the countess’s wish to ingratiate herself into the playwriting process. 

     But before he can describe his playhouse experience Nashe must first come to terms with the issue of the piracy and the woman he has seemingly robbed. He admits to some presumption even to praise Sir Philip Sidney. He knows that these jewels (Sidney’s sonnets) will now come to their hands that know not their value, and that the coxcombs of our days, like Aesop’s cock, had rather have a Barley kernel wrapped up in a Ballad then they will dig for the wealth of wit in any ground they know not. Lowbrow, ballad-loving ears would likely treat these sonnets like Aesop’s cock had the jewel, which the fable tells us the bird discarded as being totally useless. But for Nashe, Sir Philip’s ‘poetic fame’ could not be allowed to lie imprisoned in Ladies’ casks & the president books of such as cannot see without another man’s spectacles. This hit at elitism is palpable. The close proximity of ‘lady’ and ‘president’ may have escaped the notice of some but Lady Mary and her husband, the Lord President of Wales, would have personally felt the sting. It would appear that their ‘Midas ears’ are here joined by ‘other men’s glasses’ suggesting that, according to Nashe at any rate, their eyesight was none of the best either. Despite the fustian, the upshot was that the Pembrokes here stood accused of hoarding something the value of which they themselves could not appreciate. Nashe betrays by this his total ignorance of the countess.

     Although this is typical Nashe, never before had he assailed one of the nobility. Given how taboo this was, it must be wondered if his fustian was not augmented by the even greater protection of some very strong patron. Whatever his relationship with the Earl of Oxford had been, the man who was best positioned to protect him in this dangerous pursuit here was John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose episcopate Nashe had helped save during the Martin Marprelate crisis of 1589–90. Whitgift, who probably accounted Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, as having been his number one enemy, could not but have enjoyed this engaging call for ‘Leicester’s daughter’, Mary Sidney, to desist from her too bold theatrical intrusions.

    Nashe is aware that the countess is driven by a larger purpose: the Laurel Garland which thy Brother so bravely advanced on his Lance is still kept green in the Temple of PallasBut here in Minerva’s temple Nashe would direct the countess to pursue such (feminine) recreations as religious meditation, spreading largesse and being an inspiration to (men) artists: thou only sacrificest thy soul to contemplation, thou only entertainest empty handed Homer, & keepest the springs of Castalia from being dried up.