The University Wits


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THE UNIVERSITY WITS: The growing popularity and diversity of the drama, its secularization, and the growth of a class of writers who were not members of holy orders led in the 16th century to a new literary phenomenon, the secular professional playwright. The first to exploit this situation was a group of writers known as the University Wits, young men who had graduated at Oxford or Cambridge with no patrons to sponsor their literary efforts and no desire to enter the Church. They turned to playwriting to make a living. In doing so they made Elizabethan drama more literary and more dramatic--and they also had an important influence on both private and public theaters because they worked for each. They set the course for later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and they paved the way for Shakespeare. The decade of the 1590s, just before Shakespeare started his career, saw a radical transformation in popular drama. This group of six feisty, well- educated men chose to write for the public stage, taking over native traditions. They brought new coherence in structure, and real wit and poetic power to the language. Of this little constellation, Marlowe is the central sun, and around him revolved as minor stars, Lyly, Greene, Peele, Lodge and Nash.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) was the greatest of the pre-Shakespearean dramatist. He was born in Canterbury and educated there at Cambridge and adopted literature as a profession. Marlowe's plays, all tragedies were written within a short span of five years (1587-92). He had no bent for comedy and the comic parts found in some of his plays are always inferior. As a dramatist Marlowe had serious limitations. Only in "Edward the Second" does he show any sense of plot construction, while his characterization is of the simplest and lack the warm humanity of Shakespeare. All the plays except "Edward the Second" revolve around one figure drawn in bold outlines. Indeed to appreciate Marlowe properly we must put aside conventional ideas of the drama and view his play as the representation of a poetic vision, the typically Renaissance quest for power combined with the quest for beauty. Each of his plays has behind it the driving force of this vision, which gives it an artistic and poetic unity. His verse is notable for its burning energy, its splendor of direction and its sensuous richness. Full of bold primary colours, his poetry is crammed with imagery from the Classics.

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"Tamburlaine the Great" centered on one inhuman figure, is on a theme essentially undramatic in that the plot allows no possibility for complication. The play is episodic and lacking any cohesion. Yet it contains much of Marlowe's best blank verse. "The Second part of Tamburlaine the Great" is inferior to its predecessor. It contains still less plot and far more bombastic. Its plot is skillfully woven and the material neatly compressed from Holinshed's "Chronicles", shows a sense of dramatic requirement, new in his plays. The play has less poetic fervour than some of the others and its hero is not great enough to be truly tragic, but it works up to a fine climax of deep pathos. "Dr. Faustus" has a good beginning and an ending, which is Marlowe's supreme achievement, but the comic scenes in the middle are poor and may be by another hand. The play contains some interesting survivals of the Miracle plays in the conversations of the ‘Good and the Evil angels'.
George Peele (1558-98) was born in London, educated at Christ's Hospital and at Oxford and became a literary hack and a free-lance in London. His plays include "The Araygnement of Paris", a kind of romantic comedy, "The Famous Chronicles of King Edward the First", a rambling chronicle play, "The Old Wives Tale" a clever satire on the popular drama of the day and "The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe" Peele's style can be violent to the point of absurdity, but he has his moments of real poetry. He is fluent; he has humour and a fair amount of pathos. In short he represents a great advance upon the earliest drama and is perhaps one of the most attractive among the playwrights of the time.
Robert Greene (1558-92) wrote much and reckless, but his plays are of sufficient merit to find a place in the development of the drama. He was born in Norwich, educated at Cambridge and at Oxford, and then took to a literary life in London. We can refer only to his thirty-five prose tracts, which are probably the best of his literary work for; they reveal his intense though erotic energy, his quick malicious wit and his powerful imagination. Among his plays are "Alphonsus", "King of Aragon", easily his best work and containing some fine representations of Elizabethan life. "Orlando Furioso", adapted from an English translation of "Aristo". Greene is weak in creating characters and his style is not of outstanding merit. But his humour is somewhat genial in his plays and his methods less austere than those of the other tragedians.
John Lyly (1554-1606) was an Oxford man. He graduated B.A. in 1573, and M.A. in 1575, and, in 1579, was incorporated M.A. at Cambridge. By precedence in work and, probably, in actual historical importance, he is the leader of the group. Lyly's dramatic works have a certain similarity of texture, notably in euphuistic dialogue and in the use of Classical mythology. The plays of Lyly were written after the publication of "Euphues", and were acted by ‘the children of Paul's before her Majesty'. In character they were mythological of pastoral, and approximated to the Masque rather than to a narrative drama of Marlowe. They were written in prose intermingled with verse, and whereas the verse is almost wholly charming, the prose is often marred by the fantastic conceits that weary the readers of "Euphues". Nor had Lyly that sense of the theatre displayed by many of his contemporaries, who lacked his sense of literary form and polished wit. Among his plays are "The Woman in the Moon", "Compaspe" and "Love's Metamorphosis".
As a group, then, these contemporaries illustrate well the possible attitudes of an educated man of their time toward the drama. Midway between Lyly and his successful practice of the drama, which for the most cultivated men and women of his day, maintained and developed standards supplied to him, at least in part, by his university, and Thomas Lodge, who put the drama aside as beneath a cultivated man of manifold activities, stand Nash, Peele and Greene. Nash, feeling the attraction of a popular and financially alluring form, shows no special fitness for it, is never really at home in it and gives it relatively little attention. Peele, properly endowed for his best expression in another field, spends his strength in the drama because, at the time, it is the easiest source of revenue, and turns from the drama of the cultivated to the drama of the less cultivated or the uncultivated. Greene, from the first, is the facile, adaptive purveyor of wares to which he is helped by his university experience, but to which he gives a highly popular presentation. Through Nash and Lodge, the drama gains nothing. Passing through the hands of Lyly, Greene and even Peele, it comes to Shakespeare something quite different from what it was before they wrote. University-bred one and all, these five men were proud of their breeding. However severe from time to time might be their censures of their intellectual mother, they were always ready to take arms against the unwarranted assumption, as it seemed to them, of certain dramatists who lacked this university training, and to confuse them by the sallies of their wit. One and all, they demonstrated their right to the title bestowed upon them—"university wits."


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