Summer's Last Will and Testament
Summer's Last Will and Testament is an Elizabethan era stage play, a comedy written by Thomas Nashe. Nashe's sole extant drama, it broke new ground in the development of English Renaissance drama: "No earlier English comedy has anything like the intellectual content or the social relevance that it has."
The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on 28 October 1600, and was published before the end of that year in a quarto printed by Simon Stafford for the bookseller Walter Burre. (Burre is best known for his publication of first editions of the plays of Ben Jonson.) The 1600 quarto was the only edition of the play prior to the nineteenth century.
Date and Performance
No external evidence indicates the date of the authorship or first performance of the play; but the text of the work is rich in allusions and references that bear upon the question of its date. The text refers to a progress through the English countryside by Queen Elizabeth I, and also to an outbreak of bubonic plague and a severe drought that lowered the level of the River Thames to an unusual extreme. Scholars agree that 1592 is the one year that best matches these references.
The play was not performed by professional adult actors in one of the London theatres, which in any case were closed due to the plague epidemic in 1592. References and allusions in the play suggest that the drama was staged in Croydon at Croydon Palace, the manor house of the Archbishops of Canterbury; the Archbishop at the time was John Whitgift. The cast was composed at least in part of amateurs, including boys who served as pages in the Archbishop's household; the cast may have been supplemented by experienced boy actors from the established London troupes, the Children of Paul's or the Children of the Chapel. The performance occurred "in this latter end of summer," probably in the second half of September or the first half of October 1592.
Nashe developed Summer's Last Will and Testament out of the interlude form that was popular in the royal and noble courts of sixteenth-century England; and he anticipates the masque that would evolve during the Jacobean and Caroline eras. The play can be seen as a bridge between the 16th-century interlude and the 17th-century masque; it features personifications of the four seasons, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and "Ver." Summer is the "king of the world," but now old and declining, and ready to make his will. First, all the officers and members of the kingdom are summoned to yield their accounts. The presences of Bacchus, Satyrs, Nymphs, hunters, reapers, maids and clowns and Morris dancers (complete with hobby horse), give the play a strongly pastoral feeling.
The term "summer" in the title has a double meaning: the play is introduced and presented by the figure of Will Summer, or Summers, the jester of King Henry VIII. Summers had an enduring reputation with the Elizabethan public; he would be brought back to the stage by Samuel Rowley in When You See Me You Know Me (printed 1605). The clown-figure of Summers provides a level of satire to the morality-play style allegory of the plot.
In one view, Nashe produced his play by rewriting and expanding an earlier interlude by John Lyly that was performed in 1591. In the play, Will Summers embodies a reaction to the type of overly formal drama represented by Lyly.
The play also contains a poem that later acquired independent fame, 'Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss.' This contains the famous couplet, "Brightness falls from the air, Queens have died young and fair." The lyric 'Spring, sweet spring' has also received attention from critics and anthologists.
In 1936 the English composer Constant Lambert debuted a large-scale orchestral and choral setting of Nashe's play, which has sometimes been judged Lambert's greatest work and Lambert himself considered his best. Lambert employed 'Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss' as the conclusion of his musical setting.
- G. R. Hibbard, quoted in: Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., The Predecessors of Shakespeare: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1973; p. 113.
- E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 3, pp. 451–3.
- Logan and Smith, pp. 112–14.
- Michael R. Best, "Nashe, Lyly, and Summers Last Will and Testament," Philological Quarterly 48 (1969), pp. 1–11.
- G. K. Hunter, ed., The Oxford History of English Literature: English Drama 1586–1642, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997; pp. 136–40.
- Wilfrid Howard Mellers, Between Old Worlds and New, Lewisburg, PA, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997; p. 226.
- Music Web International