An Interview with Thomas Kilroy

Thomas Kilroy. Photo: Joe Shaughnessy

Thomas Kilroy is one of Ireland’s leading dramatists and the author of a series of important plays, including Double Cross (1986), which juxtaposes the stories of Brendan Bracken (1901-58), Minister for Information during the Second World War, and William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw Haw’ (1906-46), who served as the principal Nazi propaganda broadcaster, and was executed for treason. Both were Irish. He is also the author of Tea and Sex and Shakespeare (1976), about a struggling writer battling his dysfunctional imagination; The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre (1991), a comedy about theatre companies touring Ireland in the Second World War; The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde (1997), and a number of other works. He was play editor at the Abbey Theatre Dublin for much of his distinguished career, as well as professor of English at Galway; was a director of the Field Day Company, which sought to provide imaginative ways of overcoming sectarianism in Northern Ireland, alongside Stephen Rea and Brian Friel, and was director of its touring company. The Abbey Theatre is hosting a week’s development workshop of a new play, The Trials of William Shakespeare, in November, conducted by Max Stafford Clark, and a revival of Double Cross is planned for next year in a joint production of the Abbey and the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. As a young student at University College Dublin he wrote an MA thesis on Thomas Nashe, ‘Satirical Elements in the Prose of Thomas Nashe’ (1959) and he was kind enough to answer my questions on the influence he thinks Nashe had on his writing career


Andrew Hadfield

AH: What inspired you to write on Nashe as a student?

TK: Elizabethan pamphleteering was never part of the curriculum during my student days at UCD.  I discovered it for myself by reading C. S. Lewis. I was immediately taken by this alternative writing with its scabrous, irreverent abuse.  I came to love the world of coney-catching and inkhornism.  I can still remember opening McKerrow for the first time, I believe in the National Library on Kildare street in Dublin.  What drew me to Nashe in the first place was the eldritch quality of the persona behind the writing.  Later, I was to surrender to the style.  I had an unsympathetic professor of English who was also chairman of the Irish Censorship Appeals Board.  He disapproved of my fascination with Nashe.  I crossed swords with him and the college authorities by reading a paper in public on contemporary American fiction, much of which was banned.  Nashe was part of my rebellion.

AH: Were you already interested in drama when you worked on his writing? You had a very successful career working in the theatre in Ireland. Do you think Nashe’s writings ever influenced what you did as a writer or director?

KT: Yes, I was trying to write plays at the time.  My first dramatic work was a radio play which won a BBC prize in 1967, eleven years after my thesis on Nashe.  There could be very little connection between them. Influence, except when direct, is extremely difficult to pin down.  Nashe was more an exemplary figure for me at an impressionable age.

AD: You were a heavily involved in the Field Day Movement. Other writers involved in it – I am thinking particularly of Tom Paulin – were interested in satire and polemic. Did Nashe ever feature in discussions or influence any of the movements’ writings?

KT: No, I never heard anyone in Field Day making any reference to Nashe.  Field Day produced its own pamphlets, of course, but they were not like sixteenth century pamphlets, more like those of the eighteenth century, perhaps, pamphlets of intellectual debate and discourse.  There are elements of satire in some of the Field Day plays, including Double Cross, but I would not say that satire was a favourite weapon of the Field Day writers.

AH: Do you ever return to passages of Nashe? If so, which ones?

KT: The words of Nashe that stay in my mind are from the lyrics, particularly ‘Adieu; farewell earth’s bliss’.  I’m working on a new play about Shakespeare the Papist.  In the play ‘my’ Shakespeare is a compulsive hypochondriac and I am tempted to have him quote from this lyric of Nashe!

AH: Your plays often contain unsettling shifts of tone and style, moving between tragedy and comedy – I’m thinking of ‘Tea and Sex and Shakespeare’ – something I associate also with writers such as Nashe (The Unfortunate Traveller). Is that a connection you made? A similar sort of question – your writing often involves nightmares, ghosts, and characters whose imaginative engagement with the world often destabilises their identities, themes I also associate with Nashe (Terrors of the Night in particular). Was there any influence when you wrote works such as Double Cross?

KT: Yes, there is a kind of desperate comedy that arises in moments of unspeakable distress.  It seems to be a characteristic of the modern and is a blurring  of the traditional distinction between the tragic and the comic.  I think it is there in my work and it is certainly there in Nashe.  It has the appearance of something out of control or almost out of control, an involuntary spasm, a cry in the void.  It is related to light and darkness and this is one of the ways in which it may become theatrical.

AH: Your thesis concentrates on Nashe’s prose writing, but he also write two important and unusual plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage and Summer’s Last Will and Testament. Did these ever feature in your thoughts about drama? How might we stage such works now? Is there any point in reviving them? And, if so, what might be your advice to anyone wanting to do so?

KT: Summer’s Last Will is a pageant play, isn’t it, with little or no attempt at conventional plotting, a promenade of abstractions or representative figures? Contemporary theatre should be well able to accommodate it but there is the vexed subject of cost. There are two specific areas where contemporary theatre could lift the work: through stage design and musical composition.  I remember, years ago, seeing a production of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine at the Odeon in Paris, with Jean Louis Barrault, directed by Maurice Bejart.  It used masks and parades of the saint’s nightmares with some shocking musical effects.  Clearly a work of modern theatre but with a difficult, classical text.  I could see that kind of production working for Nashe.

AH: Would you advise young writers setting out now to read Nashe? Does he have much to teach us?

KT: I don’t know what to say about the young and Nashe.  In my experience of young writers they appear to accept anything.  This may not always be a good thing but at least it is open.  I’ve been trying to make a case, I think, here for the modernity of some aspects of Nashe.  I wonder if Joyce ever read him?


The Folger’s ‘Pierce Penilesse’

The second guide to digitised copies of Nashe, this time examining the two editions of Nashe’s first big hit, Pierce Penilesse (1592).

While the first guide to Have with you to Saffron Walden identifies some of the visually striking features of that work, today I will make use of the fact that the Folger Library has digitised two different editions of Pierce Penilesse, to illustrate how Nashe and his publishers made changes to the text, over five different editions. These variances between different copies of the same text matter to the Nashe Project, because in each case, the editor will need to decide which choice of words to present in their new edition, and which to relegate to the footnotes, affecting the way that modern readers will be approaching this book.

Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penilesse is a satire in which an unemployed graduate writes to the devil for money, and gives him details of the seven deadly sins of London. It was republished three times in 1592, again in 1593, and once again in 1595. The images below compare pages taken from the first and second edition:

Title page



One of the most obvious differences between the first and second edition is that they have different title pages, even though they were printed within months of each other. The first edition was published by Richard Jones, who had also published Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great in 1590. The second edition was, however, published by another printer, John Busby, and has a shorter and less descriptive title.


                         ‌ ‌

Another major change is the replacement of Jones’ letter to the reader (which he explains was written ‘in the Authours absence’) with a nominally ‘private’ letter written by Nashe to ‘the printer’. In the first preface, Jones is keen to reassure his reader about the lack of a customary dedication or preface. In fact, Nashe had intentionally left his preface till the end of his book, and Jones somewhat undermines the surprise by mentioning it in his letter. In the second preface, we learn a bit more about why Nashe may have chosen a different publisher for his second edition. Nashe claims that he was unaware that Jones had published Pierce Penilesse, as he was indeed absent from London during the plague that summer. He was probably staying at Archbishop Whitgift’s household in Croydon, where he was preparing for his play Summer’s Last Will and Testament to be performed at the Archbishop’s Palace. From the second preface we also learn that Nashe is displeased that the first edition was ‘uncorrected and unfinished’, which may suggest that some of the changes that we will see in the next edition are authorial corrections. Nashe also promises to write additional material for the book: ‘Epistles to Orators and Poets’, but ultimately none of these were ever printed.

Something else to note about the Richard Jones letter, is that the woodcut used for the ornamental letter ‘G’, which depicts a scholar working at his desk, was also used in a book called An astrological discourse (1583), written by Richard Harvey.

(Richard Harvey, Dedicatory letter to An Astrological Discourse (1583) sig. A2. Reproduction of Folger Library copy available on EEBO.)


After the publication of Pierce Penilesse, Nashe would go on to have a long-running feud with Richard’s brother, Gabriel Harvey, who is also the dedicatee of An astrological discourse. The fact that a student writing at a desk is surrounded by the letter ‘G’ for ‘Gabriel’ is likely a coincidence, but in hindsight seems an appropriate choice given that Gabriel Harvey was known as both a scholarly commentator, and Nashe’s nemesis.

Missing marginal notes


(Edition 1, sig.B1v)                              (Edition 2, sigs.A1-A1v)


Here we can see that a marginal note: “Ingenio perij, qui miser ipse meo” which appears at the top of the second page in the first edition, has been left out of the second edition, where it should appear at the bottom of the first page. The quotation is from Ovid’s Tristia (Sorrows) in which the exiled poet curses his muse, and translates as “it was my own talent which brought me into misery”. This  is fitting as the note appears next to the line “Ah worthless Wit, to traine me to this woe” in the first edition.

While this missing marginal note was accidentally removed in the second edition, in the third, fourth, and fifth editions, almost half of the marginalia in the original edition were intentionally removed, either for reasons of censorship, or because the author wanted them removed, or because they took too much effort to reproduce in the age of the manual hand press. The question for the modern editor is: should you include all these marginal notes, or not?


Another question for the editor of Pierce Penilesse, is in some ways more difficult. While the problem of the two prefaces and lost marginalia may be solved by including both prefaces and all the marginalia, so that the reader can see what was removed, the main text has a lot of corrections made between the first and second edition, and even more corrections made between the second and third edition. Does the editor assume that it was the author’s intention to change the text? Nashe did, after all, write in his letter to the printer that he was unhappy that the first edition had been rushed through the press ‘uncorrected and unfinished’. For example, there are some changes to the second edition which seem to be authorial concerns, for example exchanging one name ‘Ladie Manibetter’ with a different one of equal length: ‘Swin-snout’. A change of content like this doesn’t save on space, implying that it is an intentional change made by the author.


(Edition 1, sig.C2v)                                      (Edition 2, sig.B1v)


However, some of the changes may have been made by any one of the various members of the print shop- maybe the typesetter needed to squash in some words into a smaller space on the page, and decided to make certain words or a sentence shorter in order to fit.



(Edition 1, sig.B4)                                    (Edition 2, sig.A3v)

For example, here we have a sentence which in the first edition reads “some two or three hundred Angels”. In the second edition this has been cut down to “by som two or three angels”. Is this intentional, or did the typesetter accidentally skip over the word ‘hundred’? It looks like it may have been an accident, because in the third edition, the amount of angels is re-emphasised: ‘some two or three hundred angels at least.’


Sometimes these corrections are a mixture of authorial changes, and print shop error. For example, at one point the narrator ‘Pierce Penilesse’ is complaining how poorly scholars are paid in comparison to uneducated artisans.


(Edition 1, sig.D1)        (Edition 2, sig.B3)

A humanities education will ‘scarce get a Scholler bread and cheese’ says Pierce in the first edition, however, this is changed to ‘scarce get a paire of shooes and a Canvas-dublet’ in the second. This change makes Pierce’s comment more satirical, as he moves from ‘not enough money for sustenance’ to ‘not enough money for new clothes’; maybe he wants Pierce to sound more pompous. But something seems to have gone wrong at the point where the typesetter is reading Nashe’s correction, because he loses the words ‘a scholar’ in making this change. In the third edition, this new error is corrected, so that it finally reads as we think Nashe intended it to read: ‘the seaven liberall Sciences and a good leg, will scarse get a scholler a paire of shoos, and a Canuas-dublet.’ Ultimately, the modern editor must decide what the most accurate version of the text is.

To take a closer look at the two editions of Pierce Penilesse, you can click here for the first edition  or here for the second edition on the Folger’s LUNA webpage. These images are used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a “Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.”

Exploring “Have with you to Saffron-Walden” online

This is my first guide to the digitised copies of Nashe’s early editions which are available open-access online.

This copy of  Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596) is held at one of our project’s academic partners, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.  Last year I visited the library on a research fellowship, which you can read about here, on the Folger’s blog The Collation. At the bottom of this page, you’ll find a link to Have with you, plus the woodcut of Nashe in The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597), and a few pages from John Danter’s edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597).

Many of the Folger’s resources are available for public users to view open access, via their Digital Image Collection which holds over 70,000 images of books, manuscripts, costumes, and many more Shakespearean artifacts. This catalogue is searchable on, and anyone can register in order to save and share selections from these digitised images, as I have done to show you around their copies of Nashe.

Features to look out for:

As you look through the pages of this take-down by Nashe of his adversary Gabriel Harvey, you may notice some of the following interesting features of this pamphlet, which our editorial team will have to transform into a modern edition:

‘Found’ objects in the text

In this text, Nashe plays with the idea of reproducing other types of texts usually found in the public sphere in his pamphlets. In his mock dedication to the barber Richard Lichfield for example, Nashe pretends to provide Lichfield with “A Grace…[o]n behalfe of the Harveys” (his public enemies and the targets of this pamphlet) which he asks Lichfield to ‘put up’ somewhere in his barbershop.

At the bottom of this ‘Grace’ is an ornamental frame, which has been left empty, which may simply be a way for the printer to fill space, but Nashe goes on to explain that he left that empty frame there ‘Purposely’ so that anyone who sees this and agrees with him that the Harvey are idiots, can use it to fill in their own ‘sentences’ against the brothers, and join Nashe in ‘unhandsoming’ them.

Elsewhere, Nashe reproduces some of Harvey’s words in block Roman capitals, in order to give them the appearance of the marketplace sign of a dyer, in order to accuse Gabriel Harvey of selling out:

For more on this, see Neil Rhodes’s article on Nashe and the modern critic of media theory, Marshall McLuhan, here:

The Printer’s Devices

These are the motifs used to decorate early printed books which, as well as showing the embellished nature of Elizabethan texts that we are unused to seeing in our modern editions, can also give us clues to how these various devices identify different printers, and how they were passed on through different generations.

For example, these two devices, the owl:

and the two men:

belonged to the printer of many of Nashe’s works, John Danter, and reappear in many of his other works (such as Nashe’s Terrors of the Night, 1594), including some copies which we would otherwise not know were printed by Danter from the lack of information on their title pages. The owl device may have been an anti-Papal reference to a story from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments in which an owl (which was understood to be a bad omen in this period) caused a disturbance in the Papal Council.

The device with the two men used to have Danter’s initials (J.D) in the middle, but according to J.A. Lavin, these dropped out during the printing of Robert Wilson’s The Cobbler’s Prophecy (1594). You can read Lavin’s article on Danter’s devices here:

A year after publishing Have with You to Saffron-Walden, Danter would use both of these devices on the 1597 edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as well as a woodcut for its title-page, which he had previously used for Nashe’s Strange Newes (1593) and Terrors of the Night, depicting Opportunity standing on a wheel floating in the sea, with the motto ‘aut nunc aut nunquam’ (now or never).

You can see the relevant images from Danter’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of the Have with You to Saffron Walden photographs at the bottom of the page.

These devices were passed on after Danter’s death to another printer, Simon Stafford, who published Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1600) and used the ‘Opportunity’ woodcut on its title-page.

Representing different voices

Nashe regularly represents competing voices in his texts, but Have with you to Saffron-Walden is probably the best example of this. For example, while Nashe uses the margins to explain certain words, he subverts the reader’s expectations by explaining everyday practices and objects– like the advertisements put up on door posts or the napkins used by barbers– rather than writing conventional citations of biblical or foreign texts.

He also uses the margins as a space in which he can give a conspiratorial and literal ‘aside’, to his reader:

Nashe also presents his attack on Harvey in dialogue form, and in the Letter to the Reader asks us to imagine that he and four of his friends are meeting in a corner of the upmarket Blackfriars area of London, to pick apart Harvey’s previous assaults on Nashe, Pierces Supererogation and New Letter of Notable Content (both 1593).

Nashe alternates between italics and roman type to indicate when he is speaking in his own voice, or in the voice of one of his interlocutors, and when they are reading aloud certain sections of Harvey’s writing, which the various speakers repeatedly interrupt.

The woodcut of Harvey

Probably the most noticeable feature of this text is the ‘portrait’ of Harvey which Nashe claims to have created himself, though it seems likely that this woodcut is taken from an already existent woodcut of a generic man, especially as Nashe has to explain why he has presented his opponent in a different costume to Harvey’s, who usually wears ‘Venetians’, or knee-length breeches.

Above the woodcut is the description of Harvey ‘as hee is readie to let fly upon Ajax’ which is a pun on the word for a toilet, ‘A-jax= a jakes’, and was itself taken from the title of John Harington’s The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) which describes a precursor to the flushing toilet. Nashe is portraying Harvey here as being so scared by Nashe’s attack that he runs to the jakes.

The writer of a response to this text, called The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597) because it was presented as a response to Nashe by the barber Richard Lichfield, contains an even larger woodcut portraying Nashe in manacles, after his involvement with the Isle of Dogs scandal. This image of Nashe would itself be recycled and re-appears in a ballad ‘My Bird is a Roundhead’  from 1642, which you can read about in ‘Blogging the Renaissance’

We’ll be featuring the brilliant Trimming on this website soon, but till then, you can take a look at the Folger’s copy of Nashe’s caustic attack on the Folger’s LUNA page. The images in the slideshow are used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a “Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License”.



Mapping Nashe

Nashe may have written his most famous work The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) about the dangers of continental travel, but his own travels were limited to England, as this interactive map shows.

You can zoom in and out of the map (using the buttons on the lower left corner) and click on the pins to find out more about Nashe’s published texts and significant life events. The pins are colour-coded to indicate different years, from dark maroons and reds at the start of his writing career, through to blue in his final years.

Or you can trace Nashe’s life in and out of print, by clicking on the  button on the top left corner, which will bring up a time-line of Nashe’s career.

Making a personalised map of a historical figure is surprisingly easy, if you want to give it a go yourself! Just go to the ‘my maps’ feature on Google maps for instructions. You can suggest any additional Nashean adventures that I could add to this map in the comments.