The Possibility of Satire in 'Summer's Last Will and Testament'

If we except his involvement in Dido Queen of Carthage, Summer's Last Will and Testament is Nashe's only surviving play. It was entered in the Stationers' Register in late 1600, at a time when, technically, all of Nashe's work was proscribed. On June 1st of the previous year Elizabeth's chief censor, Archbishop Whitgift, had commanded 'that all Nasshes bookes and Doctor Harveyes bookes be taken wheresoever they maye be founde, and that none of theire bookes bee ever printed hereafter.' This draconian decree was part of an attempt to crack down on the rising trend for 'unsemely Satyres & Epigrams'. That this action was motivated not by prudishness but political anxiety seems evident from the fact that it also stipulated that 'noe English historyes be printed except they be allowed by some of her maiesties privie counsell'. Perhaps as the Queen aged and the inevitable hour of a new succession drew near, the authorities were growing edgy. But apparently Elizabethan censors had a bark worse than their bite. Despite the Archbishop's command, his subordinate Dr. Samuel Harsnett was one of those who allowed the entry of the copy in the SR. There was a kind of fitness in permitting this publication perhaps, because although Archbishop Whitgift had banned Nashe's work, it was for this same Whitgift that the play had originally been performed. Internal evidence leaves no doubt that it was played before him in the Great Hall at Croydon Palace around October 7th-10th, 1592.

Critics have generally found this rather static drama, with its lovely lyrics, hard to classify. It has a homely air: Whitgift's entire household was evidently there to watch it. As Nicholl says

'We must imagine torches, candles, the fire flickering in the hearth, the comfortable post-prandial chat of the audience, the general air of festivity...The whole show is typical Nashe. The nucleus is ancient: harvest home, the seasonal cycle, growth and decay. Around it, Nashe weaves his topical and particular tone.'

Perhaps not surprisingly for a drama written for an archbishop there is almost no sexual comedy, very little double entendre. The morality is simple, even homespun. A series of characters is paraded before us, each exemplifying some common human fault: the puffed-up courtier, the spendthrift, the miser, the drunk. In the background is the timeless story of the changing seasons, as Summer fades and dies. This is the conventional view of Summer's Last Will and Testament But I would like to argue for a very different interpretation. I wish to argue the play is pure satire.

My theory: a personal memoir

No dunghill hath so vilde an excrement
But with his beames hee will forthwith exhale :
The fennes and quag-myres tithe to him their filth :
Foorth purest mines he suckes a gainfull drosse:
Greene Iuy-bushes at the Vintners doores
He withers, and deuoureth all their sap.

These lines from Summer's Last Will and Testament come in a scene where Summer is reviewing the performance of his servant, Sol. When I first read the scene I took Sol to be a composite character, made up of three elements: the classical sun god Phoebus; the upstart courtier beloved of Elizabethan moralists; and the recent spell of very hot weather. He works perfectly well seen that way. But when I read this speech I was a little struck by the last two lines, which to me seemed unsatisfactory. When the sun is being arraigned for drying up rivers and causing outbreaks of plague, drawing attention to the loss of a few pub signs seems to strike a flat note. It is bathetic. This tailing-off was strange, I thought, because on the whole Nashe is an author whose fault lies in forcing too much energy into his work rather than under-writing. The line about the vintners seemed uncharacteristically feeble. I wondered though if it was part of the jokey, blokeish tone that creeps into the play mostly when the character Will Summers is directly addressing the audience. References to drink and over-indulgence form a good part of this.

Then, because I was reading Robert Lacey's biography of Sir Walter Ralegh at the time, I had a sudden wonderful idea. Could it possibly be a sly reference to Elizabeth's recently-fallen favourite, whose clandestine marriage to Bess Throckmorton had resulted in his being sent to the Tower some four months earlier? A major factor in his huge unpopularity, according to Lacey, was his ruthless farming of the monopoly of vintners' licences, which had driven up the price of wine. Then I looked at the two previous lines and got really excited. Sol's greedy exactions not only result in damage to the wine trade, he is also enriching himself at the expense of bogs and mines. According to Lacey, apart from his farm of vintners' licences Ralegh's had two other main sources of income: his vast estates in Ireland, and his Wardenship of the Stannaries - the west country tin mines.

Naturally I then re-read the whole Sol scene and ransacked it for references to Ralegh, and they did indeed seem - to me - to be plentiful. (See here for the entire Sol scene.) Even better, there seemed a possible precedent for the idea. Scholars have long suggested that there are traces of mockery of Ralegh in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, a play whose origin dates from the same exciting moment when the Queen's almighty favourite fell from grace. That play is sometimes considered a 'coterie piece', something Shakespeare first wrote not with the public stage in mind but as a private entertainment for his patron, Lord Strange. Might bold Tom Nashe have done the same? Unfortunately, there was a flaw in this argument. Lord Strange was a carefree young aristocrat, Archbishop Whitgift a privy councillor and chief literary censor. The main check on my excitement was the doubt that a socially-conservative man like Archbishop Whitgift would have permitted Nashe to mock a fellow Privy Councillor, even an unpopular one, even one Whitgift himself didn't care for, in front of the servants. Because although Summer's Last Will and Testament was technically a private entertainment, held in deepest Croydon and with the court safely off on progress, it's clear from Will Summers remarks to the audience that this was not a performance enjoyed just by Whitgift and his scholarly entourage. Pretty much the entire household was present. There were certainly problems surrounding the idea that Sol was in part a joke at the expense of Ralegh.

Was topical satire in drama even possible in the 1590s?

Even a quick investigation into this suggests the likely answer is 'no'. This is not because the 1590s was a time like the 1950s, when society was so quiescent under its rulers that words of real criticism were seldom heard. This was a stressful decade, with many factors combining to make it so. Apart from long-running religious tensions there was real hardship due to poor harvests. Financing foreign wars was putting the economy under strain. The generation of ministers which had served Elizabeth so well was geriatric, and faltering as its ranks thinned. Worse still, the Queen herself was growing closer to the time everyone dreaded, when she would die, the throne would be vacant and no clear heir stood ready to succeed. The mood of the times was changing, and it was reflected in the nation's literature. There was a vogue for satire in the troubled last years of the Queen's long reign, manifesting itself in verse and prose. Hindering its development in drama of course was the fact that political satire in an early modern state was a dangerous undertaking. In Elizabethan times there was no law to protect the satirist from the revenge of those in power, and only a limited sympathy in society at large for the concept of free speech. Verses can circulate in manuscript and so escape the censor, while drama is essentially a public art. In 1589, after some experimentation with the use of plays for propaganda against the puritan agitator 'Martin Marprelate', the government had brought in legislation specifically to forbid political comment on stage. (This rather bolsters my belief that a keen appetite for topical dramatic satire existed: governments don't legislate against things that aren't happening.) Aware of all this, no less an authority than Dr Jonathan Bate has stated " is absurd to suppose that any Elizabethan play might contain satiric references to particular aristocrats of the day." I'm perhaps exaggerating Dr Bate's position somewhat here, since he goes on to make it clear he is really thinking of drama performed in the public playhouses like the Theater, Rose, etc. In general I accept his point. In this particular case however we should bear two reservations in mind, one regarding the work and one regarding the author. Firstly, Summer's Last Will and Testament was not a public play but a private entertainment given at a house in the country; and secondly, its author was involved in what was possibly the only attempt to produce a topical satire on the public stage in the 1590s, 'The Isle of Dogs'.

Would Nashe fit the profile of a writer of satire?

Yes. It's tricky to argue much from a play suppressed so thoroughly no text now exists, but the official response to 'The Isle of Dogs' was so severe that it seems likely it contained reflections on very important people indeed. The Privy Council was the body which ordered its suppression. As a leading authority on Elizabethan literature once pointed out to me, that fact speaks for itself; it suggests the play was objectionable for its political content. Had it been merely scurrilous or salacious (both possible, considering the track record of the author) then the usual London authorities would have been adequate to deal with it. In fact the Privy Council took charge of the affair, and a letter still survives in which it instructed Mr. Topcliffe to arrest the players guilty of performing it, and to seize Nashe's papers.

'The Isle of Dogs' affair is significant to my argument in more ways than one. It shows the author (or part-author, since Nashe later claimed he had only written the first few lines and "the players" had done the rest) was involved in a dramatic production that provoked official wrath at least twice in his life. Because, though 'The Isle of Dogs' came towards the end of Nashe's literary career, he actually seems to have begun it with a similar succes de scandale while still at university. Richard Lichfield refers to a "show" called 'Terminus et non terminus' in which Nashe was involved c. 1587, and which according to Lichfield angered the university authorities so much that one of those responsible for it was sent down, and Nashe himself perhaps encouraged to leave. (At Cambridge by the way a "show" meant a drama which contained personal satire. Nashe uses the term himself in describing plays attacking Gabriel Harvey and his brothers - "there was a Shewe made at Clare-hall of him and his two brothers" and "there was another Shewe made of the little Minnow his Brother"; so perhaps it's worth drawing attention at this point to the remark Will Somers makes about Summer's Last Will and Testament in the prologue: "..nay, 'tis no Playe neyther, but a shewe."

Another point to make about Nashe is that though today he is seen as a great prose stylist, proto-novelist and sharply humorous observer of manners, to his contemporaries he was pre-eminently a satirist. From Greene's reference in 1592 to 'iong Iuuenall, that byting Satyrist' to Michael Drayton reflecting on him in 1620, the word repeats:

And surely Nashe, though he a Proser were,
A branch of Laurell yet deserues to beare,
Sharply Satirick was he, and that way
He went, since that his being, to this day
Few haue attempted...

It may be objected that all this may refer to nothing more than a general satire on society and its failings; but the tale of the Bee and the Battledore in Pierce Penilesse is hardly that. And whatever so provoked the London authorities in Christs Teares, and so enraged the Privy Council over The Isle of Dogs, must have been something more than an anodyne attempt at 'reformation of manners'.

Lastly, The Choice of Valentines and other perhaps similar works now lost, show that Nashe had experience in writing clandestine literature. Like the young John Donne and his Metamorphosis of a Soul, Nashe wrote things intended to circulate underground among a restricted readership. I felt, if it were possible for clandestine 'political' drama to exist at all, Nashe would be writing it.

The later emergence of satirical drama [I hope to argue at this point that Cambridge was the home of satirical drama, long before and long after Nashe; that political satirical drama flourished during the Marprelate campaign, perhaps with Nashe/Greene/Lyly involved in showing Kempe how it was done; that it went underground after the 1589 act, emerging briefly and disastrously in The Isle of Dogs; and bequeathed a legacy to the later Blackfriars satires of Jonson and others.
The point of this argument is that if topical satire existed pre-1589, and again post-1600, it's more likely during a time of increasing political tension that it was developing underground rather than going into suspended animation. After all, players frequently played non-public venues - private performances for noblemen and courtiers - where such drama would be particularly welcome. I doubt that after-dinner entertainments at Essex House were as scrupulous in following the 1589 Act as the PC might have wished. I take Elizabeth's complaint to Lambarde about Richard II being played 'forty times in open streets and houses' to be a reference to such performances, rather than anything passing more openly at the Globe.

At this point I felt reasonably confident about advancing the suggestion that Nashe might have included a clever allusion to Ralegh in SLWAT. After a second look at the 'Sol' scene, I thought I could even counter misgivings that it would be psychologically improbable for a man like Whitgift to encourage his assembled potboys to laugh at one of the Queen's favourites in his presence. Immediately at the close of the scene, Will Summers comes on and rubbishes it:

'I thinke the Sunne is not so long in passing through the twelue signes, as the sonne of a foole hath been disputing here about had I wist. Oute of doubt, the Poet is bribde of some that haue a messe of creame to eat, before my Lord goe to bed yet, to hold him halfe the night with riffe raffe of the rumming of Elanor. If I can tell what it meanes, pray god I may neuer get breakfast more, when I am hungry.'

Summers was played by an experienced and popular comedian called Toy. I can think of no better way of distracting any of the less discreet members of the audience from considering the possibility that 'Sol' might be a joke at the expense of Ralegh than having Toy bounce on in his comical short coat, gurning and jeering and telling everybody it was the silliest stuff he'd ever witnessed and that it made absolutely no sense at all. At this point I envisaged Summers as acting both as trouchman and anti-trouchman. His later comment about Sol's 'bushy hayre' could tip the wink to the scholars in the audience as to the real target of the scene, while the unlettered herd were reassured it was all fol-de-rol. The only problem, I had to admit, was that this was not the only time Summers acts this way. He does it pretty much after every scene.

My brilliant theory goes bung

Then a quick succession of re-readings convinced me I had something seriously wrong. Firstly, I read the 'Solstitium' scene and was struck by anomalies in regard to his treatment, compared with the other servants. Solstitium is different. He is summoned into court with respect; is approved and not condemned; but then regretfully dismissed without reward.

For the first point, compare Vertumnus' summoning of the others

    - 'Ver, lusty Ver, by the name of lusty Ver, come into the court! lose a mark in issues'
    - 'Sol, Sol, ut, re, me, fa, sol / Come to church while the bell toll'
    - Orion, Vrian, Arion ; /My Lord thou must looke vpon:/Orion, gentleman dogge-keeper, huntsman, come into the court : looke you bring all hounds, and no bandogges'
    - 'Haruest, by west and by north, by south and southeast,/Shewe thyself like a beast.'
    - Bacchus, Baccha, Bacchum, god Bacchus, god fatbacke...'

    '- Solstitium, come into the court. [Without] Peace there below! make roome for master Solstitium'.
Solstitium enters with a train of shepherds, dressed 'like an aged Hermit'; he bears balances, in which are black and white hour-glasses, and is praised for his temperate, unambitious character. A loyal and longstanding servitor, he has been elbowed aside by greedier, younger men. And he's dead. Only of course he isn't dead, he's a season, dismissed to 'returne vnto thy country bowres' and presumably come round again in due course. But somehow, although Summer can dispense punishments to the other servants for their failings, he can no longer reward Solstitium:

I grieue no more regard was had of thee:
A little sooner hadst thou spoke to me,
Thou hadst bene heard, but now the time is past:
Death wayteth at the dore for thee and me:
Let vs goe measure out our beds in clay;
I began to suspect that Solstitium was, like Sol, both a seasonal character and a real man. If so, there wasn't much question who. Aged hermit; train of shepherds; black and white; remarkably mild temper; supplanted by later favourites; loved and respected; deceased. It could only be Sir Christopher Hatton, Whitgift's dearest friend, Bancroft's former master, dead ten months before. Unlike other favourites, Hatton never married. He was a noted patron, 'of singular bounty to men of learning'. He had adopted the Queen's personal colours. There are many testimonies to his mildness, including this from a contemporary letter: 'I will not forget to commend, both to God in my prayers and to all men in speech, that rare conquest that by great wisdom you have had over your affections...' (Bishop Aylmer, grateful that Hatton was ready to overlook a political gaffe.) The same impression of Hatton's habitual calm is supported more inelegantly by three of Elizabeth's nicknames for him: 'Sheep', 'Mutton' and 'Belwether'. His star of course had faded as Ralegh's rose. As for being insufficiently rewarded, he doesn't seem to have done that badly out of Elizabeth to me, dying some 42,000 in debt to her. But she was pushing for repayment when he died, and to such a dear friend as Whitgift it may have seemed that compared to upstarts like Ralegh he had been shabbily treated.

All this could be accommodated, just about, in my theory. Nashe had written a morality play about the changing seasons, cleverly inserting some wicked (but well-disguised) satire on the unpopular Ralegh, and also a damply panegyric scene on Hatton. Whitgift could hide a smile at the first and dash away a tear at the second. It could happen.

Then I began to look at the rest of the play with a suspicious eye, and at once the house fell in. There are two 'actions' going on in this remarkably slow-moving play. Summer is reviewing the performance of his servants; but also deciding who will succeed to the throne. In fact, at its core this play has a succession problem. A much-loved, long-reigning benevolent monarch is dying ('Fayre Summer droops, droope men and beasts therefore : So fayre a summer looke for neuer more.') Having no heirs of his body, Summer's deepest concern is the problem of who shall succeed to supreme power. ('Had I some issue to sit in my throne / My griefe would die, death should not heare mee groane') Throughout the play Summer is trying to decide who best should succeed. Should it be Autumn? Though next in line, there are questionmarks against Autumn's ability to rule. He is desperate to succeed ('Hold, take my crowne:- looke how he graspes for it!') but the objection made against Autumn is that he is unfit to rule, being weak and easily pushed around. ('A weather-beaten banckrout ass it is...Eche one do pluck from him without controll'), although intellectuals apparently admire him ('He and the spring are schollers fauourites.') Nevertheless, for want of a better, Autumn gets the crown in the end: ('Autumne, be thou successor of my seat')

And who has objections to Autumn taking power? Winter, Summer's valued associate. He considers himself better qualified to rule than Autumn, and Summer appears to agree, at least in part: Winter may not inherit the crown, but is allowed power to moderate and guide Autumn ('I graunt his ouer-seer thou shalt be'). Winter is dignified in appearance ('a iolly milde quiet olde man'). Well-educated, he has a very long speech expressing utter contempt for scholars. He is personally austere, but criticised for keeping too much in his own hands and excluding others from a share in Summer's bounty ('He ouer-bars the christall streames with yce,/That none but he and his may drinke of them'). He does all this for the sake of his beloved younger son, Back-winter. ('All for a fowle Back-winter he layes vp.') And here I have to mention a peculiarity of Winter. Unlike Summer, who has no heir, Winter has been blessed with two. His elder son is an embarrassment, a stupid churl, unworthy of the position he holds. He is little more than a joke. His younger son Backwinter however is a power-crazed psychopath who appears to have some insane grudge against the world. He is feared as potentially much more tyrannical than his father. Nevertheless his father dotes on him, even when forced to acknowledge his son's real nature. Instead of being banished, as he richly deserves, the appalling Back-winter is condemned to - help his father rule. ('Winter, imprison him in thy darke Cell.../Ne're to peepe foorth, but when thou, faint and weake /Want'st him to ayde thee in thy regiment.')

Finally we have the last of the seasons, who is not a potential heir at all but merely Summer's servant, the first to be summoned, scolded and dismissed. Spring, or 'Ver' as he is called throughout, is, like Autumn, a favourite with scholars. Certainly his speeches, with their lavish use of Latin tags, suggest he is something of a scholar himself. Unfortunately his scholarship only allows him to present a specious argument in favour of being a sponging wastrel ('I will proue it, that an vnthrift, of any, comes neerest a happy man...'). He's essentially trivial-minded, indeed 'silly' would hardly be too strong a word. Having received enormous revenues from Summer, he's squandered them all on various self-indulgent pursuits ('giving of green gowns') and arty-farty entertainments. He is abandoned to the beggary his behaviour has deserved ('Ryote may flourish, but findes want at last').

If there was anything at all fishy about this play - if we were to take Will Summers' remark at face value and treat it not as a play but a 'show', - then there would be no difficulty in identifying this situation, these Four Seasons, and especially Winter's psycho son. Unfortunately, to do so crushes my theory under its own weight. There's all the difference in the world between a play which took a little pop at a fallen favourite and paid a tribute to a dead friend, and one which actually discussed the Succession. Mocking the mighty Cecils? A play like that simply could not have been written for Whitgift. Despite what seemed to be striking coincidences, the brilliant theory was wrong.


1. Harsnett was the man who later faced trouble for allowing Hayward's alleged pro-Essex propaganda through, disguised as a history of Henry IV. Harsnett went on to a distinguished career in James' reign, ending as Archbishop of York.

2. McKerrow gives the entry in the SR as follows:"28 octobris [1600]:master burby/Walter burre:Entred for their copie vnder th[e] handes of master harsnet and the Wardens. A booke called Sommers last Will and testament presented by William Sommers...vjd" I don't know if this is the full entry, but if it is then it's interesting that it doesn't mention Nashe, and might be construed as giving the impression that the author is one 'William Sommers'. When printed however the play was identified on the title page as 'Written by Thomas Nash.'

3. Lichfield's reference goes:

'...being Bachelor of Arte(i.e. c. 1587)... to shew afterward that he was not vnworthie of it, had a hand in a Show called Terminus & non terminus : for which his partner in it was expelled the Colledge: but this foresaid Nashe played in it (as I suppose) the Varlet of Clubs ; which he acted with such natural affection, that all the spectators tooke him to be the verie same.'

For the full text of 'The Trimming of Thomas Nash Gentleman', click

4. C. Moore Smith: '"a show" represented the mediaeval tradition of a disguising...and probably relied for its success largely on its topical allusions and satire'.

5. Sorry, should have checked this instead of relying on my useless memory. I meant The Progresse of the Soule or Metempsycosis. Poema satyricon. I now know (having just belatedly checked on the net) that the MS is dated 1601, and that composition date fits with a mood of post-Essex-execution rage. All the same, I wonder if a version didn't circulate earlier since
a) the viewpoint is very Catholic, whereas by 1601 Donne seemed to have moved on
b)Jonson, who seemed sure the target was meant to be Elizabeth, said that Donne had written all his best stuff by 25, and
c) Nashe refers to 'Iohn Davies soule' in his epistle dedicatorie to Strange Newes (1592). McKerrow very properly relates this to an early MS version of Nosce Teipsum, 'Sir John Davies' poem on the Immortality of the Soul'. I prefer to think Davies was showing round a copy of Donne's 'Soul' to disaffected outsider types like Nashe and Beeston, and perhaps letting them think it was his. Yes, an outrageous speculation. Right, forget that and just accept Valentines as proof of clandestine tendencies.

6. The description of Winter's sons reads:

O, but two sonnes he hath, worse then himselfe,
Christmas the one, a pinch-back, cut-throate churl,
That keepes no open house, as he should do,
Delighteth in no game or fellowship,
Loues no good deeds, and hateth talke,
But sitteth in a corner turning Crabbes,
Or coughing o'er a warmed pot of Ale :
Back-winter th'other, that's his none sweet boy,
Who like his father taketh in all points;
An elfe it is, compacte of enuious pride,
A miscreant, borne for a plague to men,
A monster, that deuoureth all he meetes: