1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gascoigne, George
GASCOIGNE, GEORGE (c. 1535–1577), English poet, eldest son of Sir John Gascoigne of Cardington, Bedfordshire, was born probably between 1530 and 1535. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and on leaving the university is supposed to have joined the Middle Temple. He became a member of Gray’s Inn in 1555. He has been identified without much show of evidence with a lawyer named Gastone who was in prison in 1548 under very discreditable circumstances. There is no doubt that his escapades were notorious, and that he was imprisoned for debt. George Whetstone says that Sir John Gascoigne disinherited his son on account of his follies, but by his own account he was obliged to sell his patrimony to pay the debts contracted at court. He was M.P. for Bedford in 1557–1558 and 1558–1559, but when he presented himself in 1572 for election at Midhurst he was refused on the charges of being “a defamed person and noted for manslaughter,” “a common Rymer and a deviser of slaunderous Pasquelles,” “a notorious ruffianne,” an atheist and constantly in debt. His poems, with the exception of some commendatory verses, were not published before 1572, but they were probably circulated in MS. before that date. He tells us that his friends at Gray’s Inn importuned him to write on Latin themes set by them, and there two of his plays were acted. He repaired his fortunes by marrying the wealthy widow of William Breton, thus becoming step-father to the poet, Nicholas Breton. In 1568 an inquiry into the disposition of William Breton’s property with a view to the protection of the children’s rights was instituted before the lord mayor, but the matter was probably settled in a friendly manner, for Gascoigne continued to hold the Walthamstow estate, which he had from his wife, until his death. He sailed as a soldier of fortune to the Low Countries in 1572, and was driven by stress of weather to Brill, which luckily for him had just fallen into the hands of the Dutch. He obtained a captain’s commission, and took an active part in the campaigns of the next two years, during which he acquired a profound dislike of the Dutch, and a great admiration for William of Orange, who had personally intervened on his behalf in a quarrel with his colonel, and secured him against the suspicion caused by his clandestine visits to a lady at the Hague. Taken prisoner after the evacuation of Valkenburg by the English troops, he was sent to England in the autumn of 1574. He dedicated to Lord Grey of Wilton the story of his adventures, “The Fruites of Warres” (printed in the edition of 1575) and “Gascoigne’s Voyage into Hollande.” In 1575 he had a share in devising the masques, published in the next year as The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelworth, which celebrated the queen’s visit to the Earl of Leicester. At Woodstock in 1575 he delivered a prose speech before Elizabeth, and presented her with the Pleasant Tale of Hemetes the Heremite in four languages. Most of his works were actually published during the last years of his life, after his return from the wars. He died at Bernack, near Stamford, where he was the guest of George Whetstone, on the 7th of October 1577. George Whetstone wrote a long dull poem in honour of his friend, entitled “A Remembrance of the wel-imployed life and godly end of George Gaskoigne, Esquire.”
His theory of metrical composition is explained in a short critical treatise, “Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English, written at the request of Master Edouardo Donati,” prefixed to his Posies (1575). He acknowledged Chaucer as his master, and differed from the earlier poets of the school of Surrey and Wyatt chiefly in the added smoothness and sweetness of his verse. His poems were published in 1572 during his absence in Holland, surreptitiously, according to his own account, but it seems probable that the “editor” who supplied the running comment was none other than Gascoigne himself. A hundreth Sundrie Floures bound up in one small Posie. Gathered partely (by translation) in the fyne outlandish Gardens of Euripides, Ovid, Petrarke, Ariosto and others; and partely by Invention out of our owne fruitfull Orchardes in Englande, Yelding Sundrie Savours of tragical, comical and moral discourse, bothe pleasaunt and profitable, to the well-smelling noses of learned Readers, was followed in 1575 by an authorized edition, The Posies of G. G. Esquire . . . (not dated).
Gascoigne had an adventurous and original mind, and was a pioneer in more than one direction. In 1576 he published The Steele Glas, sometimes called the earliest regular English satire. Although this poem is Elizabethan in form and manner, it is written in the spirit of Piers Plowman. Gascoigne begins with a comparison between the sister arts of Satire and Poetry, and under a comparison between the old-fashioned "glas of trustie steele," and the new-fangled crystal mirrors which he takes as a symbol of the "Italianate" corruption of the time, he attacks the amusements of the governing classes, the evils of absentee landlordism, the corruption of the clergy, and pleads for the restoration of the feudal ideal.
His dramatic work belongs to the period of his residence at Gray’s Inn, both Jocasta (of which Acts i. and iv. were contributed by Francis Kinwelmersh) and Supposes being played there in 1566. Jocasta was said by J. P. Collier (Hist. of Dram. Poetry iii. 8) to be the "first known attempt to introduce a Greek play upon the English stage," but it turns out that Gascoigne was only very indirectly acquainted with Euripides. His play is a literal version of Lodovico Dolce’s Giocasta, which was derived probably from the Phoenissae in the Latin translation of R. Winter. Supposes, a version of Ariosto’s I Suppositi, is notable as an early and excellent adaptation of Italian comedy, and moreover, as "the earliest play in English prose acted in public or private." Udal's Ralph Roister Doister had been inspired directly by Latin comedy; Gammer Gurton’s Needle was a purely native product; but Supposes is the first example of the acclimatization of the Italian models that were to exercise so prolonged an influence on the English stage. A third play of Gascoigne’s, The Glasse of Government (published in 1575), is a school drama of the "Prodigal Son" type, familiar on the continent at the time, but rare in England. It is defined by Mr C. H. Herford as an attempt "to connect Terentian situation with a Christian moral in a picture of school life," and it may be assumed that Gascoigne was familiar with the didactic drama of university life in vogue on the continent. The scene is laid at Antwerp, and the two prodigals meet with retribution in Geneva and Heidelberg respectively.
The Spoyle of Antwerpe, written by an eyewitness of the sack of the city in 1576, has sometimes been attributed to Gascoigne, but although a George Gascoigne was employed in that year to carry letters for Walsingham, internal evidence is against Gascoigne’s authorship. A curious editorial preface by Gascoigne to Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Discourse of a Discoverie for a new Passage to Cataia (1576) has led to the assertion that Gascoigne printed the tract against its author’s wish, but it is likely that he was really serving Gilbert, who desired the publication, but dared not avow it. The Wyll of the Devill . . . (reprinted for private circulation by Dr F. J. Furnivall, 1871), an anti-popish tract, once attributed, on slender evidence, to Gascoigne, is almost certainly by another hand.
Gascoigne’s works not already mentioned include: "G. G. in commendation of the noble Arte of Venerie," prefixed to The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting (1575); The Complaynte of Phylomene, bound up with The Steele Glas (1576); The Droomme of Doomes-day (1576), a prose compilation from various authors, especially from the De contemptu mundi sive de miseria humanae conditionis of Pope Innocent, III., printed with varying titles, earliest ed. (1470?); A Delicate Diet for daintie mouthde droonkardes ... (1576), a free version of St Augustine’s De ebrietate. The Posies (1572) included Supposes, Jocasta, A Discourse of the Adventures of Master F[erdinando] J[eronimi], in imitation of an Italian novella, a partly autobiographical Don Bartholomew of Bath, and miscellaneous poems. Real personages, some of whom were well known at court, were supposed to be concealed under fictitious names in The Adventures of Master F. J., and the poem caused considerable scandal, so that the names are disguised in the second edition. A more comprehensive collection, The Whole Workes of G. G.... appeared in 1587. In 1868–1870 The Complete Poems of G. G.... were edited for the Roxburghe Library by Mr W. C. Hazlitt. In his English Reprints Prof. E. Arber included Certayne Notes of Instruction, The Steele Glas and the Complaynt of Philomene. The Steele Glas was also edited for the Library of English Literature, by Henry Morley, vol. i. p. 184 (1889). A new edition, The Works of George Gascoigne (The Cambridge English Classics, 1907, &c.) is edited by Dr J. W. Cunliffe. See also The Life and Writings of George Gascoigne, by Prof. Felix E. Schelling (Publications of the Univ. of Pennsylvania series in Philology, vol. ii. No. 4 [18941); C. H. Herford, Studies in the Literary Relations of England and Germany in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 1 49164 (1886); C. H. Herford, "Gascoigne’s Glasse of Government," in Englische Studien, vol. ix. (Halle, 1877, &c.).
- Printed in 1579 in a pamphlet called The Paradoxe, the author of which, Abraham Fleming, does not mention Gascoigne’s name.
- Reprinted in vol. ii. of J. Haslewood’s Ancient Critical Essays (1811–1815), and in Gregory Smith’s Elizabethan Critical Essays (1904).
- “Againe I see, within my glasse of Steele
But foure estates, to serve each country soyle,
The King, the Knight, the Pesant, and the Priest.
The King should care for al the subjects still,
The Knight should fight, for to defend the same,
The Pesant, he shoulde labor for their ease,
And Priests shuld pray, for them and for themselves.”—
(Arber’s ed. p. 57.)
- The influence of this play on the Shakespearian Taming of the Shrew is dealt with by Prof. A. H. Tolman in Shakespeare’s Part in the Taming of the Shrew (Pub. of the Mod. Lang. Assoc. vol. v. No. 4, pp. 215, 216, 1890).