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Updated: Aug 19, 2020

The First:

John Lyly was more than just the first of the Elizabethan University wits, that handful of highly educated writers who emerged on the English literary and theatrical scene in the 1580s. Modern scholars also credit Lyly with numerous other important firsts.

1) He was among the first English writers to view prose (ordinary language, as opposed to poetic verses) as an artistic style, so he is often called one of the founders, if not, the founder of English prose writing.

2) Lyly was also the author of the first novel written in the English language.

3) The first truly professional English dramatist (his predecessors having been part-time amateurs);

4) and the pioneer of the English comic play.

Influential Lyly:

Lyly's plays today are often seen surprised and disappointed by their loose structure and lack of strong characterization and robust humor and emotions. Certainly his plots, characters and dialogue are rarely as developed and effective as those of later Elizabethan dramatists, especially Shakespeare and Jonson. One reason is that nearly all of Lyly's plays were performed in refined courtly settings, often before the Queen herself; and accordingly, almost all are built around the theme of courtly love, which tended to be very mannered, polite, cool, and unemotional. Lyly's literary importance and popularity in his own day were based mainly on his use of the English language. As no one had before him, he made it sound beautiful and harmonious, and this had a strong influence on his successors, including Shakespeare. Lyly's works seem lightweight and detached today may be attributed partly to the fact that they were, in retrospect, prototypes of the more substantial works of those successors. As Thomas Parrot puts it:

“It today Lyly's [Writing] seems outmoded, his wit thin, his frequent puns absurd, we should remember that [in his day] all this was new to the Elizabethan stage”

Lyly's Oxford Years:

Writing for the Elizabethan stage was not Lyly's sole achievement, however, as an examination of his fruitful but ultimately sad and unfulfilled life reveals. The exact details of his childhood are unknown, but the best scholarly estimate is that he was born at Canterbury, London, sometime between October 1553 and October 1554. The family had already achieved a fair amount of social distinction. John's father, Peter Lyly, was a clergyman at the famous Canterbury Cathedral. And his grand-father, William Lyly was the author of the most widely used Latin grammar text of the era.

In 1569, when he was about sixteen John Lyly entered Magdalen College (part of Oxford University), in Oxford, sixty miles northwest of London. He graduated from the school with an M.A. (Master of Arts) degree in l575. Apparently his graduation brought relief to the faculty as some considerable circumstantial evidence suggests that Lyly was something of a disciplinary problem during his stay there. Gabriel Harvey, a noted Cambridge University scholar of that time, later made reference to the young man's “horning, gaming, fooling, and knaving” at Oxford. A long absence from school around 1570-1571 may have been the result of a suspension for bad behavior.

The events immediately following Lyly's graduation constitute more evidence that his schoolmasters were glad to be rid of him. The following year (1576), he decided he wanted to teach at Oxford, and realizing that the university officials would not be receptive, he wrote to a friend and wealthy patron, Lord Burleigh, asking him to go over their heads and petition the Queen to get him a position. Lyly's petition failed. In a huff, the young man left Oxford.

The Invention of Euphuism:

Lyly's revenge was not long in coming and took the form of one of the most important and influential English literary works created up to the time. In 1578 he published his widely popular Euphues: The Anatomy of a Wit, now seen as the first English novel. The simple plot revolves around the character Euphues, a pleasure-loving young man from Athens (which Elizabethan readers recognized as a thinly veiled version of Oxford). Euphues travels to Naples, which stands for London, and there meets the lovely Lucilla, fiancée of his friend, Philautus. In trying to woo her, Euphues alienates Philautus. But then the young woman runs off with a third man and the two friends are reunited. Woven into this thin plot are numerous long dissertations (lectures) on various social and philosophical subjects. In one of these sections, subtitles "On the Education of Youth," Lyly attacks the university in Athens (i.e., Oxford), depicting it as inadequate to the task of meeting the needs of its students.

The reading public was most fascinated and delighted by the author's refined, elegant use of words and phrases. A noted critic of time praised the “great good grace and sweet vogue [style] which eloquence has attained in our speech.” The English language had progressed, he said,

because it has had the help of such rare and singular wits…… among whom I think there is none [more important than] Master John Lyly... as he has stepped one step further therein than any other before or since he first began the witty discourse of his Euphues, whose works [feature]….. apt words and sentences…… fit phrases, pithy sentences…… [and] flowing speech.

The new prose style Lyly had invented subsequently became known as “Euphuism,” after the chief character in the story. Though popular enough to warrant Lyly's writing a sequel, Euphues and His England in 1580, later generations came to view Euphuism as an overly elaborate and artificial use of words, The style consists of repeated phrases utilizing such devices as alliteration (strings of words beginning with the same consonant, e.g., "the sad and silly seamstress"); antithesis (creating contrast between two ideas by balancing them side by side, e.g., “many are called, but few are chosen” and rhyme.

A line from one of Lucilla's speeches in the first Euphues book illustrates Lyly's use of such devices:

In the coldest flint there is hot fire; the bee that has honey in her mouth has a sting in her tail; the tree that bears the sweetest fruit has a sour sap.”

Here, ‘flint’ and ‘fire’, and later ‘sweetest’ and ‘sour sap’ are examples of alliterations; while the images of ‘coldest’ and ‘hot,’ followed by “in her mouth” and “in her tail." and finally “sweetest” and “sour” balance one another as examples of antithesis. But though they create beautiful phrases, Lyly uses these devices in the book so often that they become, by modern standards forced, highly repetitive, and over-done. Scholar Joseph Houppert points out, Lyly's Euphuism, “is one of the few cases in literary history in which quantity determines quality”.

Moreover, the showiness and pomposity of Lyly's style was compounded by his relentless references to ancient and mythological characters, many of them very obscure. These are “so excessive and on whelming,” writes noted scholar John D. Wilson, “that it is difficult to see how can the idlest lady of Elizabeth's court found time or patience to wade through them.”

Lyly's First Plays:

Yet many courtiers did wade through Lyly's novels. And this gave him mounting hope that he might produce more works, including plays that would become popular in the royal court. The gritty, work-a-day grind of the professional theater interested him much less than the refined, elegant world of Elizabeth's court. More than everything else, Lyly dreamed of becoming a part of that world as her master of revels, the administrator in charge of dramatic and musical presentations for the Queen and her nobles.

Lyly took the first steps designed to achieve his goal in 1580, shortly after the publication of the second Euphues book. He realized that gaining favor a court was dependent in large degree on knowing and exploiting the favors of high placed people. So he took a job as secretary to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford and son in-law of Lord Burleigh. Perhaps at the suggestion of de Vere, who was himself an amateur playwright, Lyly wrote two comic plays, Campaspe and Sapho and Phao in 1583. The following year they were published and, thanks to de Vere's influence, also performed at court by two all-boys’ troupes, the Children of the Royal Chapel and the Boys of St Paul's Choir.

To the Elizabethans, who were used to comedies filled with foul language and having little in the way of structure and elegant phrases, Lyly's plays were a revelation. He eliminated profanity and other base humor and substituted well-worded, witty passages that offered advice on romance and good manners and mocked those who pursued neither. Interspersed within each story line were passages in which the actors sang and danced, always in a refined manner. Also, the plots were usually drawn from classical (Greek and Roman) history or mythology, giving them an air of intellectual sophistication. Campaspe, for example, tells the story of Greek conqueror Alexander the Great's love for a captive girl, Campaspe, and his eventual generosity and self-sacrifice in allowing her to rejoin the man she loves.

Here, too, Lyly displays a theme he would exploit in one way or another in most of his plays, namely, the idea that women were as intelligent and worthy as men. This was already becoming self-evident in a society ruled by a strong and cunning woman. Lyly's contribution was to emphasize the intrinsic worth of women by making them leading characters in drama. “The stage cannot be lighted by women's wit.” Wilson explains,

if the [members of the] audience have not yet realized that brain forms part of the feminine organism. In the days of Elizabeth, this realization began to dawn in men's minds; but it was Lyly who first expressed it in literature. Those who preceded him were only dimly conscious of it, and therefore they failed to seize upon it as material for art. It was at court, the court of a great virgin queen, that the quality of social privileges for women was first established; it was a courtier [Lyly] who introduced heroines into our drama.

Qualities That Could Not Be Ignored:

Lyly naturally saw the performance of his plays at court by the all-boys companies as an opening to exploit in his quest for the position of master of revels. Taking the next logical step, in 1585 he took a part-time position as assistant master of the St. Paul's Choir School. There, he wrote several plays for the young male scholars, staging them himself and perhaps sometimes even acting in them. Gallathea appeared between 1587 and 1588; Endymion in 1588; Midas, Love's Metamorphosis, and Mother Bombie around 1590, and The Woman in the Moon sometime between 1591 and 1595.

Of these, Endymion, subtitled The Man in the Moon, is now viewed as Lyly’s masterpiece. He based it on the story of Endymion, a king in Greek mythology. The moon goddess loved him so much that she could not bear to see him die so she put him into a deep, everlasting sleep. Lyly skillfully built on this simple framework, developing the story into a charming romance. In his version, Endymion rejects his former lover, the maiden Tellus, and makes advances on the moon goddess, Cynthia, who meets them coolly. Meanwhile, Tellus, seeking revenge, obtains the aid of a sorceress; the latter forces Endymion into a deep sleep from which, she claims, no one can awaken him. Cynthia hears what has happened and, taking pity on the young man, sends Endymion's best friend, Eumenides, to find a cure. He consults a magic fountain, which tells him that a kiss from Cynthia's lips will awaken Endymion. She gives that kiss and he wakes, but he suddenly realizes that he can never marry the goddess, whose powers and status are too lofty for the likes of a mere mortal. “None possessed my heart but Cynthia,” he tells her, but “such a difference have the gods set between our states that all [that I feel for you] must be duty, loyalty, and reverence; nothing [that can] be termed love.”

This depiction of an ordinary man worshiping a superior woman was no accident. All who watched the play unfold realized that the character Cynthia represented Elizabeth, the virgin Queen whom none of her male subjects dared to dream of wooing. In a similar vein, this and Lyly's other plays, written for performance at court as well as in the schools, are filled with indirect compliments to the Queen.

Endymion and Lyly's other plays also feature the refined and elegant speech that was his trademark, although the flowery Euphemism, so pervasive in his novel is significantly toned down in his dramatic works. One of Endymion's opening speeches, extolling Cynthia's virtues, illustrates how his alliteration and other literary devices are better integrated and less artificial sounding:

O fair Cynthia, why do others term you inconstant, whom I have never found unmovable? Injurious time, corrupt manners, unkind men, who finding a constancy not to be matched in my sweet mistress, have christened her with the name of wavering, waxing, and waning!...... There is nothing thought more admirable or commendable in the sea than the ebbing and flowing; and shall the moon, from whom the sea takes this virtue, be accounted fickle for increasing and decreasing.

Modern readers unfamiliar with the works of other Elizabethan playwrights besides Shakespeare would likely assume that the preceding speech had been taken from one of his plays. And this is a tribute to Lyly's influence and importance in his age. Indeed, Wilson suggests, an attempt to trace Influence on later writers “would be to write a history of the Elizabethan stage.” Shakespeare and the others could not ignore his beautiful use of English prose, nor his liberal use of classical stories and themes, nor his dreamlike romantic settings and atmospheres. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labor's Last, As You Like It, and other romantic comedies reverberate with prose writing, characters, and situations modeled on scenes from Lyly's plays.

Dreams Unfulfilled:

Somehow during these busy years of writing Endymion and other plays, as well as producing them for private audiences, Lyly found the time to get married and have six children; to serve as a member of the British legislature, Parliament, and to help the bishop of London read and censor new books.

It was probably through his association with the bishop that Lyly became involved in the infamous "Marprelate" controversy. It was essentially a war of anonymous pamphlet writers that took place from the fall of 1588 to the summer of 1589. At least seven tracts appeared by someone who called himself Martin Marprelate, each attacking one or more well-known Episcopal bishop of the day or the Episcopal Church in general. It was clear to all who read the tracts that a Puritan had written them. At the time, the Puritans were a small, unpopular religious sect that the archbishop of Canterbury had been attempting to censor. To counter Marprelate's poisoned pen, several anti-Puritan pamphlets were issued in 1589; and scholars believe two of these Pappe with a Hatchet and A Whip for an Ape were composed by Lyly.

Unfortunately, none of these jobs secretary to de Vere, assistant master at St. Paul's, censor and pamphlet writer for the bishop, and other odd endeavors paid very much. Consequently, Lyly increasingly had trouble supporting his family and making ends meet. His dream of attaining the queen's well-paying, prestigious revels post always seemed to loom on the horizon; but for reasons uncertain, it always stayed out of reach.

Then, in 1591 came a new disappointment and personal setback for Lyly. The government shut down the all-boys’ companies, and to make money, Lyly was forced to make his plays available for performance in the professional theater. Even this avenue earned him little, however, as playwrights did not make much income from the rights to their plays at that time. Exactly how Lyly earned a living in the 1590s is unclear. More certain is his extreme bitterness over his waning fortunes, especially his inability to gain the title of master of revels. In 1598, he wrote a sad and strongly worded letter to Elizabeth expressing his disappointment.

Evidently, the Queen never answered. Lyly, who after that sank still further into poverty and despair. Perhaps one last ray of sunshine for him followed her death in 1603. The following year, the bishop of Durham petitioned an official of the new ruler King James, on Lyly's behalf. Recalling that the Queen had made many promises to the playwright and broken them all, the bishop asked the government to act quickly because of Lyly's “years fast growing on [i.e., his increasing age] and his unsupportable charge of many children…… besides the debt in which he stands”. The king may have indeed responded to this plea for some evidence suggests that the crown granted Lyly a small grant of land in 1605.

If it happened, this gesture proved too little, too late Lyly died the following year in obscure circumstances, still poor and bitter. If it is possible to poetic justice to make up for the unfulfilled dreams of such an individual after his passing, the courtly dreamer John Lyly, received his just rewards in the end. Regarding his contributions to the emerging English-speaking theater, “it is almost impossible to overestimate his historical importance,” Wilson eloquently points out.

This [is] not because he was a great genius or possessed of any magnificent artistic gifts, but for the simple reason that he happened to stand upon the threshold of modern English literature and at the very entrance to its splendid Elizabethan anteroom, and therefore all who came after felt something of his influence .


Great Elizabethan playwrights by Nardo, Don.

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