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Losing the Plot: Reflections on the Thomas Nashe Symposium

May 26, 2017

DARREN FREEBURY-JONES

On May 20th 2017 I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a symposium on Thomas Nashe at Shakespeare’s Globe. It was wonderful to spend a day discussing the exuberant dramatist and pamphleteer. The papers were thought-provoking and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with some colleagues, and meeting in the flesh, as ’twere, scholars whose work I have long admired. I am very excited for the significant, forthcoming six volumes of Thomas Nashe’s work being published by Oxford University Press (further information on this critical edition can be found here: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/thethomasnasheproject/).

Of all the excellent papers delivered at this event, Matthew Dimmock’s piqued my interest in particular, for he discussed the authorship of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dimmock considered some reasons why the play has been seen as anomalous in Christopher Marlowe’s canon, and explored the ways in which Nashe might have had a hand in the text. Nashe’s name appears alongside Marlowe’s on the 1594 Quarto title page, but scholars since the early nineteenth century have regarded the play as being almost entirely by Marlowe; they have debated the extent to which Nashe contributed, and indeed whether he contributed at all. Some scholars have explored dramatic inconsistencies in the text, characterization, vocabulary, use of sources, and so forth, in order to suggest that the play was composed by two authorial hands. Others have argued that Nashe merely made a few superficial changes and prepared the play for the printers. Modern attributionists often attempt to identify co-authors’ writing stints, and they do this for a variety of reasons: yes, to give each playwright credit (we might note that Aston Cokayne complained in 1658 that the 1647 Folio of John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont’s works did not ‘give to each his due’), but also to broaden our knowledge of the ways in which early modern authorship teams and companies operated, and so forth. Dido, Queen of Carthage seems, in many respects, to defy attribution analysis. I have never discerned any patch of text indicative of Nashe’s verse, though I cannot say I’ve subjected the text as a whole to a sustained examination.

Following Matthew Dimmock’s paper, I offered an alternative hypothesis for Nashe’s involvement: I suggested that Nashe had supplied the plot, and that this might account for any perceived anomalies in the extant text. We have evidence that authors were commissioned to write detailed plots, and that they sometimes showcased these plots before the company prior to the treatments themselves; other dramatists could easily write plays from such scenarios (to instance just one example, in 1598 George Chapman was commissioned to write a play based on a plot by Ben Jonson). Such author plots would likely contain, at the very least, a list of dramatis personae assembled for each scene, and could even contain elaborate sequences of stage business.

As far as I am aware, I am the first to suggest that Nashe supplied the plot for Dido (perhaps an ominous sign!), and I did so in my PhD thesis, ‘Kyd and Shakespeare: Authorship, Influence, and Collaboration’ (p. 129). By curious coincidence, I discovered that Brian Vickers subsequently made the same suggestion in volume II of The Collected Works of John Ford, elaborating that Nashe probably prepared the plot or scenario from Book IV of the Aeneid (p. 10). This is not a suggestion I feel strongly about, nor, despite my facetious comment at the symposium, would I care to engage in ‘an attribution debate’ on the subject. However, I was pleased that Dimmock said he would give it further thought. But Jennifer Richards considered the hypothesis unlikely, for Nashe was ‘not a plotter’. Conversely, Richard Proudfoot thought the suggestion warranted further attention. Richards may very well be right, but I should like to take this opportunity to expand ever so slightly on the thinking behind my suggestion.

We might ask ourselves, for example: how, in terms of drama, can we establish what Nashe was NOT? Can we compare Nashe’s meandering through episodes, anecdotes and descriptions irrelevant to the narratives of some of his prose works to his ability to compose a scenario designed for the stage? We have just one extant sole-authored play written by Nashe: Summer’s Last Will and Testament. Indeed, C. L. Barber has noted that the pageant ‘lacks the control provided by plot, by events inside the fiction’, but this is partly ‘because the event it was designed to express was the occasion of its performance’ (p. 64). Barber concludes that Nashe was a responsive writer rather than a masterful one. Nashe himself tells us that he supplied the induction and the first act of The Isle of Dogs, but that play is lost. We have just one other play containing Nashe’s hand, if we accept that Nashe wrote the opening act of the play known as Henry VI Part One in Shakespeare’s First Folio (a play co-authored, by my argument, with Thomas Kyd, not Marlowe, for Lord Strange’s Men, and adapted by Shakespeare at some point after the formation of the Chamberlain’s Men in 1594). Perhaps Nashe wasn’t a plotter, but there seems to be a discernible pattern in these two collaborations. Nashe was entrusted with beginning co-authored plays: introducing the characters to audiences and setting the events in motion. Some of the startling inconsistencies between the opening act of Henry VI Part One and the remainder of the chronicle history play suggest that, as in The Isle of Dogs, Nashe did not have ‘the least guesse of my drift or scope’ when it came to composition of the remaining four acts. However, the play’s opening act, despite being considered rebarbative by certain scholars, is, in my view, well-constructed, a point that even John Dover Wilson, who criticized Nashe’s ‘dull, miserably commonplace, and often unmetrical verse’ (p. xxvii) in 1952, conceded. Nashe certainly understood how integral the author’s plot was to fashioning a play, for he praised Robert Greene as a master craftsman in Have with You to Saffron-Walden. Notably, Nashe’s acknowledgement that Greene was a master of drawing up plots is comparable to Francis Meres’s praise for Henry Chettle in his Palladis Tamia.

There is compelling evidence in favour of Jennifer Richard’s argument that Nashe was not a plotter. But I do not think we should wholly dismiss the notion that Nashe at least had a hand in the drafted scenario behind Dido, Queen of Carthage, nor do I think we should overlook this aspect of early modern dramatic composition (hence the awful punning trigram in the title of this blog post, ‘Losing the plot’) in attribution studies. Questions of how, or why, we can/should establish Nashe’s hand in the scenario behind Dido, I leave to other un/fortunate travellers, if they decide to pursue this avenue.

Works Cited:

Brian Vickers, ed., The Collected Works of John Ford: Volume II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Cesar Lombardi Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011)

Darren Freebury-Jones, ‘Kyd and Shakespeare: Authorship, Influence, and Collaboration’ (Doctoral dissertation: Cardiff University, 2016)

John Dover Wilson, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1952)

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