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Thomas Nashe as Jailbird


Thomas Nashe woodcut c.1597  This is the only surviving "portrait" of Nashe and it's really just a malicious cartoon. It's a cheap woodcut printed in a hostile pamphlet which came out in 1597, The Trimming of Thomas Nash Gentleman. This was the work of downmarket humorist Richard Lichfield, whose real job was barbering at a college in Cambridge (hence the "trimming" joke). But he also had some local reputation as a kind of humorous speaker. 

It may be that Nashe triggered Lichfield's angry pamphlet himself, as the previous year he'd dedicated a pamphlet to him in a way which sounded respectful but really wasn't. Or perhaps Nashe's great enemy Dr. Gabriel Harvey incited Lichfield to do this hatchet job. He may have wanted Nashe trashed in front of the fellows and students of his old university.

If so, the ploy didn't work. A play put on at Cambridge three years later features a bohemian ex-student who's getting by as a writer in London. He talks just like Nashe writes, loves wine and tobacco and is extremely rude about stingy patrons. And he's clearly a bit of a hero to the lads at Cambridge...
At least the woodcut tells us a little bit about Nashe's appearance. For an Elizabethan gentleman he's very raffish - long straggling hair, no hat, floppy collar, doublet left unbuttoned. Even more surprisingly, he has no beard. That odd mouth is probably an attempt to depict what evidently was a feature of Nashe's real appearance; he had buck teeth. (Lichfield also insists he had a hook nose.)

Of course Nashe is shown in the most discreditable light possible, as a jailbird. And it's true Nashe did actually see the inside of a jail, at least once. In 1996 a letter was discovered in an English archive which mentions Nashe had been jailed in Newgate for writing against the London authorities. He was hardly a "jailbird" in the usual sense though. His main crime was writing as if Elizabethan England had free speech (it hadn't).

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