Terminus et Non Terminus

Thomas Nashe and Robert Mills (c.1587)

Historical Records

Richard Lichfield, The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597)

Thomas Nashe, satirist and pamphleteer, is also linked to various pieces of drama, including his play Summer's Last Will and Testament; his possible or probable collaborations with Shakespeare and Marlowe, 1 Henry VI and Dido, Queen of Carthage; and the lost play The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Ben Jonson. But there is another lost play or show associated with Nashe, and another collaborator: Terminus et Non Terminus, which is credited in early sources to Nashe and to the poet and future schoolmaster Robert Mills.

According to his mock-biographer Richard Lichfield, Thomas Nashe, while a student,

florished in all impudencie toward Schollers, and abuse to the Townsmen; insomuch, that to this daye the Townes-men call euerie vntoward Scholler of whome there is great hope, a verie Nashe. Then being Bachelor of Arte, which by great labour he got, to shew afterward that he was not vnworthie of it, had a hand in a Show called Terminus & non terminus, for which his partener 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 naturall affection, that all the spectators tooke him to be the verie same... (Lichfield, Trimming, G3r).

Bodleian Library: MS Rawlinson Poet. 85

Former St. John's undergraduate Robert Mills, now a schoolmaster in Stamford, Lincolnshire, remembers his undergraduate career in a poem addressed to fellow St John's alumnus John Finet:

O what playes merimentes, conceytes, and pleasure abounded?
O what Musicale arte? and how manye plausible Antik Antiques?
Neuer a day did pass but good recreatione vsed.
Neuer a nyghte did pass but we good company haunted
Neuer an howre did pass but some toy still we deuysed
  [Marginal note:] certayne shewes / of his owne mak / ynge wherin hi[m] / selfe was princi / pall actor:
See how I sitt in royall Chayre enthronissed emprer:
Se how I frowne lyke a prince agaynste Lord Terminus Ireful:
Se how I smyll to see the Iestes of merye Doleta:
Goulden dayes, when Lord Non Terminus hyghly tryvmphed
Now for a scepter I wott I sway a twygg to my subiects
[Marginal note:] being school / maister at St< > / forde:
A Ferula for a sworde from for a crowne a bald grey [interlined] (nightcapp:
[Marginal note:] A / night / capp:
Like to Dionisius throwne downe from throane to a threshould.

Rawlinson Poet 85 fol 77v.jpg Rawlinson Poet 85 fol 78r.jpg
MS Rawlinson Poet. 85, fol.77v MS Rawlinson Poet. 85, fol.78r

(Rawlinson Poet 85, fols. 77v–78r: the poem has never been published in full. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

Theatrical Provenance

Undergraduate entertainment at St. John's College, Cambridge, some time in the period 1586-88. Nashe completed his bachelor's degree in March 1586, and Lichfield's account suggests that Terminus & Non Terminus was probably staged some time shortly after then. Mills completed his BA in 1586/7. By 1588, the fellows of St. John's were looking to ban college drama, requesting "That noe lord of misrule, lottery, or salting be vsed in ye Colledge. Because there is nothing sought herin but disgrace, disfaming, & abuse of some persons" (Nelson, 318).

Probable Genre(s)

Satirical show (Harbage)
Satirical comedy (Nicholl)

See Wiggins 782.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Other Renaissance dramas relating to the succession of the seasons, most obviously Nashe's own Summer's Last Will and Testament.

John Doleta, Straunge Newes out of Calabria Prognosticated in the Yere 1586, vpon the Yere 87. and what shall Happen in the said Yere: Praying the Lord to be Merciful vnto vs. This is a prophecy pamphlet, which prognosticates ten catastrophes for the succeeding year, including floods and flying dragons.

References to the Play

Possibly a passage in The Anatomy of Absurdity, where Nashe is attacking the opinionated ignorant in language which combines Term, Vacation, and Doleta:

Who made them so priuie to the secrets of the Almightie, that they should foretell the tokens of his wrath, or terminate the time of his vengeaunce? But lightly some newes attends the ende of euery Tearme, some Monsters are bookt, though not bred against vacation times, which are straight waie diuersly dispearst into euerie quarter, so that at length they become the Alehouse talke of euery Carter: yea, the Country Plowman feareth a Calabrian floodde in the midst of a furrowe, and the sillie Sheephearde committing his wandering sheepe to the custodie of his wappe, in his field naps dreameth of flying Dragons, which for feare least he should see to the losse of his sight, he falleth a sleepe; no star he seeth in the night but seemeth a Comet; hee lighteth no sooner on a quagmyre, but he thinketh this is the foretold Earthquake, wherof his boy hath the Ballet. (Nashe, Anatomy, in Works, 1.23).

Also, possibly, a passage in Strange News where Nashe refers to the controversy caused by Doleta's pamphlet. Here Nashe is attacking Gabriel Harvey, attempting to portray him not as a figure of gravity and responsibility, but as a fool. Nashe says of Harvey’s pamphlets:

…hee will haue at you with a cap-case full of French occurrences, that is, shape you a messe of newes out of the second course of his conceit, as his brother is said out of the fabulous abundance of his braine to haue inuented the newes out of Calabria (Iohn Doletas prophesie of flying dragons, commets, Earthquakes, and inundations.) I am sure it is not yet worne out of mens scorn, for euery Miller made a comment of it, and not an oyster wife but mockt it. (Nashe, Strange News in Works, 1.289).

Critical Commentary

The Trimming

The allusion in The Trimming of Thomas Nashe has been known about since at least the nineteenth century, although often misattributed to Gabriel Harvey. It has formed the sole basis for most subsequent discussions of this play.

The Trimming of Thomas Nashe is a pamphlet by Richard Lichfield, barber-surgeon of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a figure on the fringes of several pieces of Cambridge University satire. (For an overview, see McKerrow: for more detail on Lichfield himself, see Griffin). Early biographers of Nashe, often misattributing the pamphlet to Nashe's enemy Gabriel Harvey, tended to accept all of the details in the account as necessarily true. Indeed, some went further, asserting that, in spite of Harvey's not saying so, the play might actually have caused Nashe to be expelled from Cambridge.

Working solely from the Lichfield allusion, Nashe's biographer Charles Nicholl offered some guesses at the content of Terminus & Non Terminus:

the play was probably in Latin, and undoubtedly satirical. The title is puzzling, almost Beckettian: 'The End and Not the End'. One wonders who Nashe's 'partener in it' was, presumably the main author as he and not Nashe was expelled for it. Could it possibly be Everard Digby, the mutinous fellow of St. John's, who was indeed expelled in 1587?
(Nicholl, 37)

RP85 and Robert Mills

Little is known about the life of Robert Mills. He matriculated in Lent Term 1582/3 as a pensioner at St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1584 he was elected to a Lady Margaret scholarship at St. John's, and in 1585 he was one of eleven scholars from the college to contribute Latin verses on a theme from Ecclesiasticus for a presentation manuscript. Among the other contributors to that manuscript was Nashe. Mills completed a BA in 1586/7, and moved to Stamford in Lincolnshire, becoming Master of Stamford Grammar School, in which capacity he is mentioned in parish records in 1592 and 1593. Mills has not been traced later than 1593. (All details from Steggle, pp.30-32).

Poems by Mills, including the one in question, are preserved in a manuscript now in the Bodleian Library, MS. Rawlinson Poetical 85 (hereafter, RP 85). RP 85 is a particularly rich anthology of lyric poems, "the best such miscellaneous collection in England between Tottel's in 1557 and England's Helicon in 1600 or the Poetical Rhapsody in 1603" (Lawrence Cummings, qtd in Marotti, 63-4), and studied for that reason in recent years by scholars including Hilton Kelliher, Arthur Marotti, Steven W. May, Joshua Eckhardt, and Randall Anderson. Steven W. May, for instance, comments that it provides a valuable record of an entire network of writers at St. John's, some at least with court connections. May adds: "These are companion poems, written in rivalry or imitation of one another; they testify to a common scribal community" (32).

The relevance of it here, though, is that Mills's poem provides an important new window on Terminus & Non Terminus.

Seasonal entertainments

Mills's allusions to Lord Terminus and Lord Non Terminus help to establish that the title does not mean "the end and not the end", but rather "Term and Vacation". The entertainment, then, seems to have dramatized the reign of Lord Terminus and his succession by Lord Non Terminus. Steggle compares the play to other Renaissance English dramas about the succession of the seasons, including the Induction to Michaelmas Term, which features a personified Term. Particularly interesting are the links to Nashe's own Summer's Last Will and Testament, which revolves around Summer, personified as an ailing ruler, reluctantly preparing to hand over his kingdom to his successor Autumn. Steggle argues:

This is particularly the case since so much of the entertainment is about the contrast between the serious, work-minded Summer, and the festivity of characters such as Bacchus and Ver, who celebrates the fact that "Cicero saith, summum bonum consistes in omnium rerum vacatione" [the highest good is leisure from all concerns] (Steggle, 40).

Independently, and working from a different angle - looking at the pattern of sources from which Nashe borrows - Rita Lamb has recently made the argument that parts of Terminus & Non Terminus may survive, as a palimpsest, inside Summer's Last Will and Testament.


Mills alludes to the entertainment having contained a character called "merry Doleta". As Steven W. May observes, "Doleta" surely takes his name from the supposed author of a pamphlet printed in 1586 and attributed to a "learned man, named maister Iohn Doleta": Straunge Newes out of Calabria. The pamphlet predicts several disasters which will happen in the following year.

The ESTC comments that Doleta "may be a fabrication". In fact, he is certainly a fabrication. His prophecy had already enjoyed at least five pamphlet printings in Germany and Holland in the 1580s, under the name "Johannes Doleta", before the English version of 1587. Jonathan Green observes that most of the material in those Doleta pamphlets is actually from the Toledo Letter, an apocalyptic prophecy which had been circulating around Europe, in one form or another, since 1184. The Toledo Letter was sometimes attributed to Johannes of Toledo, and thus Doleta’s name is an anagram. Steggle traces numerous other allusions to Doleta in the works of Nashe and other writers through the period, in which Doleta becomes a byword for a foolish astrologer, and argues that: "Doleta is actually a slightly ambivalent figure for Nashe, a shorthand for a form of misplaced, irrepressible invention which Nashe cannot help but admire even while mocking" (38).

The varlet of clubs

Some scholars, working solely from Lichfield, have attempted to make something of Lichfield's description of Nashe playing "(as I suppose) the Varlet of Clubs". F. G. Fleay took this remark literally, and attempted therefore to connect Terminus & Non Terminus with a lost play mentioned by Sir John Harington, The Play of the Cards (Fleay, BCED, 2.124). However, as R. B. McKerrow notes in his edition of Nashe, this seems untenable, since Harington calls that latter play a 'London comedie' (Nashe, Works, 5.10). More recently (and more cautiously) Alan Dessen has observed that "[o]ther pieces of evidence point to the existence of dramatis personae derived from the deck of cards", and suggested that Terminus & Non Terminus may have contained some kind of estates satire which alluded to a deck of cards. This is not impossible, although Lichfield's remark might equally well be purely metaphorical, a comic periphrasis for a role containing horseplay and violence.

English or Latin?

The play is sometimes referred to in critical sources as "Terminus and Non Terminus", and sometimes as "Terminus et non Terminus". In fact it is unclear which is correct, since Lichfield's ampersand could indicate either a Latin or an English title (and hence a Latin or an English play). It is also unclear whether it was a single play (as has generally been thought) or, as Mills's account rather suggests, the linking device for a set of "shows", perhaps on the pattern of entertainments such as The Christmas Prince, The Prince of Purpoole festivities at the Middle Temple, or the Prince D'Amour entertainments at the Inner Temple, all of which revolve around a fictitious royal figure connecting the separate elements together. Other material from sixteenth-century Cambridge certainly speaks to the existence of college festivities associated with a Lord of Misrule figure. Since Mills talks about sitting "enthronized" and watching Doleta's "merry jests", Steggle suggests that perhaps one should imagine a loosely linked series of modules for this "show" rather than a fully realized interlocking plot.

Relationship to other Cambridge drama

F. S. Boas (322) writes:

there arose at Cambridge in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign a remarkable species of vernacular drama akin in spirit and method to the Old Comedy of Aristophanes.

Boas considers Terminus et Non Terminus in this group alongside personally satirical Cambridge comedies of the period, including Pedantius and the lost plays "Duns Furens" and "Tarrarantantara Turba", both mentioned elsewhere by Nashe. In a similar vein, M.C. Bradbrook notes a possible link between Terminus et Non Terminus and the Parnassus Plays, which mention Nashe: "the three Parnassus Plays, given at St John's College, Cambridge... are written in the style of the College's most popular writer, Thomas Nashe, and could be modelled on his lost merriment, Terminus and Non Terminus" (270).

For what it's worth

Dramatis Personae

Lord TERMINUS, Lord of Term Time
Lord NON TERMINUS, Lord of Vacation, played by Robert Mills, with a throne, sceptre, sword and crown
DOLETA, a foolish astrologer

Works Cited

Anderson, Randall Louis. "’The Merit of a Manuscript Poem’: The Case for Bodleian Rawlinson Poet. MS 85", in Arthur F. Marotti and M. D. Bristol, eds., Print, Manuscript, & Performance: The Changing Relations of the Media in Early Modern England (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000), 127-71.
Boas, Frederick S. University Drama in the Tudor Age. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914. Online facsimile at http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.79260
Bradbrook, M. C. The Rise of the Common Player: A Study of Actor and Society in Shakespeare's England. London: Chatto and Windus, 1962.
Dessen, Alan C. "The 'Estates' Morality Play", Studies in Philology 62 (1965): 121-136.
Dessen, Alan C. "Jonson's 'Knaue of Clubs' and 'The Play of the Cards'", Modern Language Review 62 (1967): 584-5.
Doleta, John. Straunge Newes out of Calabria Prognosticated in the Yere 1586. London: G. Robinson, 1586.
Eckhardt, Joshua. Manuscript Verse Collectors and the Politics of Anti-Courtly Love Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
Green, Jonathan. "Toledo, Toledo Letter, am Toledosten", Research Fragments blog post; http://researchfragments.blogspot.com/2010/11/toledo-toledo-letter-am-toledosten.html.
Griffin, Benjamin. "Nashe's Dedicatees: William Beeston and Richard Lichfield", Notes and Queries 44 (1997): 47-49.
Kelliher, Hilton. "Unrecorded Extracts from Shakespeare, Sidney and Dyer", English Manuscript Studies 2 (1990): 163-87.
Lamb, Rita. "Aside", The Thomas Nashe Fan Site, http://www.members.tripod.com/sicttasd/aside.html
[Lichfield, Richard]. The Trimming of Thomas Nashe Gentleman. London: Philip Scarlet, 1597.
Marotti, Arthur F. Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.
May, Steven W. "Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney and—Abraham Fraunce?" Review of English Studies 62 (2011): 30-63.
Nashe, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, rev. F. P. Wilson, 5 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1958.
Nelson, Alan. Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, 2 vols. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1989.
Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: the Life of Thomas Nashe. London: RKP, 1984.
Steggle, Matthew. Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England: Ten Case Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.

Page created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, Sheffield Hallam University. Updated 6 June 2017.