A group of 16th-century young dramatists or English playwrights and pamphleteers who were educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and who became popular secular writers of the English drama are called University Wits.
Prominent members of the University Wits were John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe.
These dramatists have educated scholars who received humanistic education and wrote in the closing years of the 16th century, which are called university wits.
The term ‘University Wits’ was coined by George Saintsbury in ‘A History of Elizabethan Literature,’ 1887.
George Saintsbury was a 19th-century journalist and author. The University Wits came from more or less a humble background and had steady patrons to rely on.
They were witty students. The University Wits led irregular and uncertain life. Edward Albert wrote about the University Wits in his ‘History of English Literature’ and called University Wits as one of the branches of a national tree.
The University Wits could not associate themselves with the church. They were writing for public theatres, courts, and private theatres.
The University Wits combined different styles in their writing, mostly classical influence, courtly influence (associated with the elite class), and popular drama (related to the realities of earning a living).
The University Wits played a formative role in developing the English drama and the English theatre more popular with Renaissance humanism.
The involvement of the University Wits in the theatre was for literary concern, which led to English literature as a whole.
Prominent University Wits
John Lyly (1554-1606)
John Lyly was born in a middle-class family and studied at Oxford University. Later, he came to London to earn his living.
He had a patron named ‘Edward de Vere,’ Earl of Oxford. He was a comic playwright who wrote real comedies.
He was a courtier and wrote for his country. He gave a new shape to romantic comedy.
Hence, his name comes first under the list of University Wits, and he was the only exception who wrote real humor.
The religious sentiment was touched upon in his writing so that it led to contradictions among audiences.
His first prose works are ‘Eupheus: The Anatomy of Wit’ (1850) and ‘Eupheus and His England’ (1850).
Lyly’s euphuistic style, which he used for his prose works, was a highly ornate prose style marked by a few typical characteristics such as the repetitive or excessive use of symmetrical phrases and sentences, use of fantastic similes, and learned allusions taken from national history, mythology or legends, and frequent use of alliteration and antithesis.
‘Campaspe‘ (1582) is an excellent comedy by John Lyly. The theme is rivalry in love between Alexander the Great and the painter Apelles for the Theban captive Campaspe. It is handled with a mixture of mythology and sentiment.
Mythology is more pronounced in ‘Sapho and Phao,’ ‘Endimion’ (1558), and ‘Midas’ (1585), interweaving more realistic subplots.
‘Gallathea‘ (1585), ‘Love’s Metamorphosis’ (1590), and ‘The Woman in the Moon,’ written in blank verse and most satirical in tone, are pastoral plays.
‘Mother Bombie‘ (1589) stands apart from other plays where scapegrace young men and their ingenious servants outfit their more prudential elders in bringing their love affairs to a successful conclusion.
Thus, Lyly’s delicate imagination at work and tedious euphuistic prose gave rise to a new conception of comedy in Elizabethan drama.
George Peele (1556-1598)
George Peele was educated at Oxford University. He moved to London in 1581. He did not write a lot of prose fiction, nor did he experiment much with long narrative verse.
He was involved in the production of civic pageants as courtly entertainments. He did not have a steady patron, so the profession of writing became a viable alternative.
His first play, ‘The Araygnement of Paris,’ was presented at the court. The story is framed in a pastoral setting with several shepherds (influenced upon Spenser’s ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’).
The story is taken as a basis and then twisted to incorporate Queen Elizabeth at the end, celebrating the Elizabethan Era as glory and wisdom.
‘The Old Wives Tale’ (1591-1594) weaves together a bunch of folk narratives. It starts with three wanderers who lost their way in the woods.
They meet a blacksmith who shelters them in her cottage. There is magic and transformation, and a woman is abducted.
There is an elaborate plot of adventure and romance, which have effectively interwoven the story.
‘The Battle of Althazar‘ is based on a historical plot by George Peele, celebrating the nation of England.
The love of King David and Fair Bethsabe and Absalom’s rebellion is richly ornamented in a slow-moving blank verse.
The theme of lust, adultery, murder, incest, and rebellion makes the plot vivid and sensuous in aural ways.
‘The Chronicle History of King Edward I’ is another episodic treatment of history by Peele. Certain critics analyze that Peele was involved in the writing of ‘Titus Andronicus’ by William Shakespeare.
Thus, Peele’s versatility and lyricism brought something new to the Elizabethan drama.
Robert Greene (1558-1592)
Robert Greene was educated at Cambridge University. He settled in London and did not have a patron.
He was a prolific writer who wrote several proses, romances, pamphlets, and plays. His rate of productivity was higher. He was called the “first notorious professional writer.”
His prose romances were modelled after Lyly’s Eupheus. Some of his prose romances are ‘Arbasto’, ‘Philomela’, ‘Pandosto’ and ‘Menaphon’.
‘Pandosto’ is renowned since it provided Shakespeare with the plot of ‘Winter’s Tale’. He wrote a large number of 35 pamphlets with a wide range of themes.
Some of them are ‘The Repentance’ (autobiographical of the dissolute lifestyle, ‘The Kony Catching’ pamphlets deal with the criminal underworld of London.
Greene’s ‘Groatsworth of Wit’ is one of the Repeatence pamphlets having reference to William Shakespeare showing him as an upstart crow, who thinks that he can write blank verse as well as plays.
‘The Comical Revenge History of Alphonsus’, King of Aragon, this play is strongly influenced by ‘Tamburlaine.’
Greene’s play is like a heroic romance, with strongly comic elements. ‘Honorary History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’ deals with Bacon’s proof of his magical powers before King Henry III and the emperor of Germany and combines with colloquial humor and a love idyll between Margaret, the fair maid of Fressingfield and Lacy, Earl of Lincoln.
In ‘The Scottish History of James IV’, the king engages in various wrong deeds and is finally transformed out of love.
‘A looking glass for London and England’ by Robert Greene, written in collaboration with James Lodge; a biblical story of Jonah and Nineveh that focuses on the city’s corruption and sin.
Greene was writing for public theatres and combined verse and prose. He laid strong emphasis on romantic comedy, double plots are interwoven together with talent, sophisticated approach to characterization, and women sometimes using disguising identity and are vividly fleshed out.
Thomas Lodge was educated at Oxford University. He was fairly prolific, and he wrote satires, romances, pamphlets, lyrical poetry, and plays.
Thomas Lodge also translated works of medical philosophy and many more. ‘A Looking Glass of London’ was written in collaboration with Robert Greene.
‘The Wounds of the Civil War’ was the first commercial chronicle play in England to draw directly from Roman Classical History (The tragedy of Marius and Scylla). He wrote a collection of love poems- Phillis contained several sonnets.
Lodge’s important work is a pastoral romance written in prose named ‘Rosalynde’ (the source of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’), which shows the rivalry between two brothers Saladyne and Rosader, forms the central character of the plot.
Two courtly ladies Rosalynde and Alinda, were introduced who is banished from the court and thereby go on a pastoral setting.
Thomas Nashe was educated at Cambridge and moved to London. He pursued patrons and created an early form of journalism, some of his earliest works were literary criticism.
He wrote a preface on ‘Menaphon‘ and a pirated edition of ‘Astrophel and Stella‘. Nashe was also a pamphleteer- ‘The Anatomy of Absurdity’ (1589) and ‘Peirce Penniless’ (his supplication to the devil, 1592) are two of his major pamphlets.
Nashe is primarily associated with prose fiction. He combined colloquial language and rhetoric.
His most notable prose work is the ‘Unfortunate Traveller’ or ‘The Life of Jack Wilton’ (1594) – a picaresque novel, is a farcical, melodramatic parody having a picaresque or roguish character at the centre.
It helped in the formation of the English book in English literature.
Nashe depicted European life in an episodic narrative. ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’ are a kind of courtly show or entertainment where four seasons are being personified, summer is presented as a dying old man.
Will Summer is another character who was a jester in the court of Henry VIII. Summer has a double connotation here.
There is a tendency towards satire and also have a pastoral setting. Nashe collaborated with Marlowe in ‘Dido Queen of Carthage’. He also collaborated with Ben Jonson in ‘Isle of Dogs’– this play was suppressed being too much seductive.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
Christopher Marlowe won a scholarship in Cambridge. He is the most popular and most famous dramatist among the University Wits.
He has a humble background and was associated with many patrons. He is renowned for writing complex commercial dramas.
He translated the works of two Roman poets from Latin to English- ‘Amores’ also known as Elegies (erotic lyric poems’ collection) and the first book of Farzelia by Lucant, based on events of Roman history.
‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ is a pastoral lyrical poem by Christopher Marlowe.
‘Hero and Leander’ is a narrative poem with an erotic component, the story of love between the two. His poems do not tell the entity of the story.
‘Dido Queen of Carthage’ is an early play, a dramatization of the story of Dido and Aeneas, from the first four books of Virgil Aeneid.
A story where Aeneas goes to Carthage and falls in love with Dido. Dido commits suicide out of pain and suffering after Aeneas leaves Carthage. ‘The Massacre of Paris’ is written from some French history.
‘Tamburlaine’– The English tragedy is in two parts; performed by admiral’s men- an adult acting company.
Tamburlaine is a Scythian Shepherd, characterized by his thirst for power, his boundless ambition to become the master of the world, or the emperor Zenocrate, a daughter of an Egyptian king.
His thrust of power is extremely unquenchable, and he engages himself in acts of cruelty and savagery.
Tamburlaine falls ill, which is to reach beyond ordinary human limits is showcased in the play. Marlowe gave them blank verse a power and resonance.
In ‘Doctor Faustus’, an English tragedy by Christopher Marlowe, where the doctor’s ambition is for learned knowledge, a kind of knowledge not available to ordinary human beings.
Faustus wants to be a demi-god and wants to know everything. He turns to magic and sells himself to Mephistopheles- a devil for 24 years of power and knowledge.
Later, in the play, Doctor Faustus has passed through many uncertainties and intellectualities. He has a good angel and a bad angel in him.
He goes way beyond the suspense throughout the play; the possibility that Faustus might repent is kept alive. Faustus is a complex character. His fate is tragic, and we feel attracted towards him as a character.
‘Jew of Malta’ has Barabas, a wealthy Jew who lived in Malta and has a thirst for money. Barabas’ property is confiscated, and he takes revenge upon him, who crossed his path.
He murders a large number of people and also poisons his daughter. He takes a certain delight in his crime and wickedness. He has a violent end.
‘Edward II’ who was a king of England, Marlowe dramatizes certain aspects of turbulent reign. The principal book of the play was ‘The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland‘ by Holinshed (also a source of ‘Macbeth‘).
It was a historical play. Edward’s relation with Gaveston is highlighted. The king places his love for Gaveston at the peak, and this ignores his responsibilities.
There is a strong element of love and desire in the relationship. Mortimer turns into a full-fledged villain, and Edward III executes him. He is a weak king and irresponsible, having a tragic downfall.
Marlowe’s heroes are usually daring and bold character marked by overreaching ambition. The heroes are larger than life.
Both their merits and falls are far apart from ordinary people. His plays are full of spectacular actions. Mastery of Marlowe’s blank verse and plot construction captivates the audience by its energy.
The hero possesses a Renaissance spirit– that man can achieve his full potential.
There is no evidence whether Thomas Kyd went to any university, but he is also considered under the university wits, though there are several controversies on it.
‘The Spanish Tragedy was one of the most commercially successful plays, extremely popular by Kyd. Thomas Kyd was popular for romantic tragedy, mingling love, conspiracy, murder, and revenge.
Seneca’s revenge tragedies influenced Kyd’s play. Three conventions borrowed from Seneca are- a figure of the ghost, theme of revenge, and usually, many speeches and soliloquies by the main characters.
This becomes the theme of Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy. ‘The Spanish Tragedy‘, a revenge play, has a major influence on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet‘.
Kyd’s blank verse gives a rhetorical effect on the play. Thomas Kyd translated another play, ‘Cornelia’.
Rise of English Drama
This notable group of late 16th-century pioneer English dramatists or University Wits introduced new styles and concepts in Elizabethan or English drama.
The most prominent features of the early drama, which created mere bombast in English literature, were lack of real humor, magnificent epithets, their chief aim to achieve strong and sounding lines, long swelling speeches and tragic themes.
The University Wits were great figures who helped to boast Shakespeare with their principally dramatic composition. The University Wits mostly wrote classical plays, courtly comedies, chronicle plays, melodrama and so on.
The University Wits fondness of heroic themes, usually tragic in nature, handling of violent incidents and emotions, heroic themes of heroic treatment, greatness, splendid descriptions, strong and sounding lines and variety are some of the main aspects where these playwrights or University Wits focused on.
Hence, the University Wits, who led irregular and uncertain life, have a great contribution in shaping up the backbone of the English drama, namely later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
Hence, these witty students (wise band) or young dramatists added a new dimension to the growth of English literature with their dramatic creativity.