John Lyly was born in 1554. He was the grandson of William Lily. He was educated probably at the King’s School, Canterbury, then at Magdalen College, Oxford. He served as secretary to Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford, was MP successively for Hindon, Aylesbury, and Appleby (1589- 1601), and supported the cause of the bishops in the Martin Marprelate controversy in a satirical pamphlet, Pap with an Hatchet (1589).
John Lyly who had sprung at a bound into fame by the publication of his prose romance Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, had a successful dramatic career, too. An Oxford scholar and highly cultivated gentleman, Lyly was the author of several popular comedies as
- A moste Excellent Comedie of Alexander, Campaspe and Diogenes (1584),
- Sapho and Phao (1584),
- Gallathea (1588)
- Endymion, the Man in the Moone (1588),
- Midas (1589-90),
- Mother Bombie (1590),
- Loves Metamorphosis (1590) and
- The Woman in the Moone (1594).
Lyly’s subjects are found mostly drawn from mythologies and legends, foreign as well as native, such as Sir Thomas North’s The Diall of Princes (1551) and George Pettie’s The Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576). His plays, however, reveal his interest, skill, and originality in the treatment of traditional themes. Of course, these plays reveal nothing of his remarkably structural command over plot or dramatic probe in the representation of characters. His plays are found to have reposed mainly on the lively invention of situations, the flight of fancy, and the dazzle of dramatic dialogue.
Lyly’s importance in the sphere of the comic drama lies also in his innovation of love as the thematic material for his plays. His comedies are pivoted by love in which romantic men and women participate, and here Lyly appears a potent influence on Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. The romantic comedy is found to originate with him in the Elizabethan age.
Yet, Lyly’s significance is nothing ignorable and his contribution to the English drama is an admitted fact. He is given the position of an innovator in the dramatic history of England for three specific reasons. As one of the early comic authors, Lyly is an innovator, and his contribution to the development of the English drama, particularly the English comedy, is surely immense.
In the first place, he is found to have introduced prose for the first time into the original comedy. Except for the play The Woman in the Moone, his other plays are all written in prose. Of course, Gascoigne’s Supposes, a prose play, was written before. But this is actually an adaptation from a Latin play. The establishment of prose, as the right medium of dialogue for comedy, is definitely an act of literary originality for the theatre of the age, depending solely on the blank verse. To pass from the doggerel of the early popular comedies to the polished conversation in prose is to enter a new world of expression.
Lyly’s next contribution is the establishment of the high comedy, as a form of drama, highly appealing to the people of breeding and culture. The previous farcical comedies, produced by physical sensationalism, is found replaced by the intellectual comic sense, so wonderfully exhibited in Lyly’s plays, designated as high comedies. The true comic spirit depends not on the forced laughter, provoked by farcical situations and characters, but on the intellectual understanding of the contradiction of life and the creation of pleasurable sensation out of this. Lyly’s plays bear out this effectively.
In the third place, Lyly, as the first master of a grand prose style, is found to have enriched the English play with his Euphuistic style, somewhat novel for the then dramatic world. His nice sense of dramatic dialogue and the application of words, sophisticated and artificial no doubt is found to have added delicacy, grace, charm, and subtlety to the dramatic expression, so sorely missing in the roughly masculine tone of the previous plays.
The pastoral comedy is found a popular form with the Elizabethan dramatists. The origin of this pastoral comedy may be traced also in Lyly’s comedies which are found to have a pastoral background with meadows, woodlands, shepherds, and
shepherdesses. Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies owe to him here.
John Lyly, George Peele, and Robert Greene, along with Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Lodge, formed the famous University Wits in the literary circle of the Elizabethan age. All of them had a University education and classical scholarship. There was a singular resemblance in their lives and careers. They were all of the good birth and social position. They were university scholars, members of learned societies, well-cultivated by foreign travels. They had adequate training to give an enduring force to the English drama that was then struggling hard for its very survival and finding its range of expansion.