Authors: George Gascoigne

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet and playwright

c. 1539

Cardington, England

October 7, 1577

Stamford, England


George Gascoigne, who was possibly born in Cardington, was a member of a Bedfordshire family that was in a position to educate him and send him to Trinity College, Cambridge. He does not seem to have been successful there, for he left the university without a degree and entered Gray’s Inn in 1555. From 1557 to 1559 he was a representative for his county in Parliament. While attending Gray’s Inn he joined a small group, and as a part of his initiation he had to compose five poems written in five different meters on five different themes.

George Gascoigne.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

About this time he attempted the expensive life of a courtier, but he ended up deeply in debt, and his father disinherited him because of his riotous living. Giving up this type of life, he returned to Gray’s Inn where his Supposes, a translation of a prose comedy by Ariosto, and Jocasta, the first English-language translation of a Greek tragedy, were performed in 1566.

In 1561 he married Elizabeth Bacon Bretton Boyes, who had been left a wealthy widow upon the death of her first husband, William Bretton, in 1559. She had thereupon married a man named Edward Boyes, but her sons from the first marriage had disputed the legality of the second marriage ceremony. After Elizabeth divorced her second husband, she married Gascoigne, but her sons then questioned the legal date of the divorce.

Gascoigne may at this time have returned to the ways of his youth, for in 1572 a petition prevented him from taking his seat in Parliament, whereby he could have pleaded immunity from arrest by his creditors. The petition stated, among other things, that “he is a defamed person and noted as well for manslaughter as for other greate cryemes,” and referred to him as a “common Rymer” and “notorious Ruffianne.”

Perhaps for these reasons he left the country and became a soldier in Holland, an experience of which he gives a very questionable account in The Spoyle of Antwerpe. In 1573, while he was in Holland, his A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie, the first English sonnet sequence, was published. He returned to England, revised this work, and published it as The Posies of George Gascoigne in 1575. This was more than a revision, for the publication contained some new work. Appended to some copies of this new volume of verses was his “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse,” the first treatise on prosody in English. In April of 1575 he finished The Glasse of Governement, a drama that is typical of the Dutch prodigal son play. In 1575 Gascoigne finished The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle, a record of royal festivities that is surprisingly similar to the kind of masques written several years later. That same year he was inspired to write The Tale of Hemetes the Heremyte for Queen Elizabeth’s entertainment at Woodstock. The following year saw the publication of The Steele Glas, a Satyre and, in the same volume, The Complaynt of Phylomene. Gascoigne’s last work, The Grief of Joye, was written as a New Year’s gift for the queen in 1577. He had been severely ill before writing it and later that year suffered a relapse and died.

It is hard to judge Gascoigne’s work, for only two years after his death Edmund Spenser published his Shepherd’s Calendar and began the great flow of poetry that came in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. Gascoigne is a pioneer who blazed a trail for those who were to follow, but his character was such that even his contemporaries remarked on his vanity and his levity. Gabriel Harvey wrote of him, “In his studdies, and Looves [Gascoigne] thought upon the warres; in the warres, mused upon his studdies, and Looves.” Gascoigne, however, made definite contributions to literature. He was the first to write an English treatise on poetry, the first to stage a Greek tragedy in England. His The Steele Glas, a Satyre is the first original, nondramatic blank verse in English. His The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. is the first original English story in the Renaissance, and some call it the first English novel.

Gascoigne was truly a man of his times. Not only did he contribute to the literature but he was also a member of Parliament, a soldier, and to a lesser degree a painter and composer. He was friendly with other poets and associated with the great courtiers of the day.

Author Works Poetry: A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie, 1573 (poetry and prose; revised as The Posies of George Gascoigne, 1575) The Fruites of Warre, 1575 The Steele Glas, a Satyre, 1576 The Complaynt of Phylomene, 1576 (a companion piece to The Steele Glas, a Satyre) The Grief of Joye, 1576 Long Fiction: The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J., 1573 (revised as The Pleasant Fable of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco, 1575) Drama: Jocasta, pr. 1566 (with Francis Kinwelmershe; translation of Lodovico Dolce’s play Giocasta) Supposes, pr. 1566 (translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s I suppositi) A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute, pr. 1572 The Glasse of Governement, pb. 1575 The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle, pr. 1575 (with others) The Tale of Hemetes the Heremyte, pr. 1575, pb. 1579 Nonfiction: “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse,” 1575 A Delicate Diet, for Daintiemouthde Droonkardes, 1576 The Droomme of Doomes Day, 1576 The Spoyle of Antwerpe, 1576 Bibliography Bowman, Silvia E. George Gascoigne. New York: Twayne, 1972. A fascinating and informative survey, with specific comparisons of Gascoigne and Petrarch and a discussion of The Steele Glas as satire. “The Love Lyrics,” The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J., and Gascoigne’s three plays are also discussed. Supplemented by a chronology, notes, a select bibliography, and an index. Hughes, Felicity A. “Gascoigne’s Poses.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 1-19. Questions the claim that in The Posies Gascoigne corrected his writings in conformity with the wishes of censors who found his writing offensive. Gascoigne did not succumb to the pressure. His “revised” edition of 1575 is no cleaner than the first edition, and it represents an attempt to brazen it out with the censors rather than placate them. Johnson, Ronald C. George Gascoigne. New York: Twayne, 1972. An ample discussion of Petrarch and Gascoigne precedes separate chapters on the love lyrics and the other poems. The Steele Glas is discussed for its satire, The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. for its variety of narrative devices, and the three plays for their relationship to dramatic traditions. Includes a brief biography and a short annotated bibliography. Orr, David. Italian Renaissance Drama in England Before 1625: The Influence of Erudita Tragedy, Comedy, and Pastoral on Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970. Compliments Gascoigne’s skill in Supposes and finds the two plots neatly joined together, with “racy and readable prose.” Recognizes the play’s popularity and comments on Shakespeare’s use of the comedy. Sees Gascoigne’s tragedy Jocasta as neither skillful nor popular. Prior, Roger. “Gascoigne’s Posies as a Shakespearian Source.” Notes and Queries 47, no. 4 (December, 2000): 444-449. Gascoigne wrote a masque to celebrate the 1572 double wedding of a son and daughter of Anthony Browne, first Viscount Montague, and two children of Sir William Dormer. Prior draws many parallels between this masque, published in Gascoigne’s collection The Posies and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Sanders, Norman, et al. The Revels History of Drama in English, 1500-1576. Vol. 2. New York: Methuen, 1980. Of value to beginning students of Gascoigne. Considers three plays in connection with other English and continental plays in the dramatic traditions that they represent. Discusses The Glasse of Government, for example, in the section on prodigal son plays. Contains compliments to Gascoigne’s verse, a record of performances, and a valuable index. Schelling, Felix E. The Life and Writings of George Gascoigne. 1893. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967. A very useful survey of Gascoigne’s life and work and an excellent source of biographical information. Supplemented by a bibliography, an index, and an appendix which contains four previously—to 1967—not printed poems.

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