John Lyly (Lilly or Lylie) (c. 1553 – 1606) was an English writer and playwright, best known for his prose romance Euphues and his comedic play Endimion. Lyly died a poor and bitter man, neglected by Queen Elizabeth and almost forgotten by most of his peers; his reputation has sadly not fared much better since his death, even though he is without question one of the most important contributors to English drama. Lyly was one of the earliest playwrights of the Elizabethan period, and his innovative contributions to English prose and theater are believed by many scholars to have been the inspiration for a generation of younger playwrights, among them Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and William Shakespeare, who are now remembered as some of the most important writers in the English language.
Lyly's contribution to English literary history is twofold. First and foremost, his Euphues—which was one of the most popular literary works ever published in English at that time, and propelled Lyly to instant fame—had an enormous influence on the style of English prose. Lyly's prose was intricate, and explicitly modeled after the prose of classical and Renaissance European masters; the result was that English prose, perhaps for the first time, was recognized as having literary merit equal to that of verse. After Euphues, however, Lyly focused his attention on the theater, and his play Endimion is now believed to have revolutionized the English theater; Lyly was the first playwright to write dialog in prose, and Edimion's complex and powerful language, combined with its elegantly simple plot, would become a model for dozens of Elizabethan plays. Lyly has been overshadowed by his successors, but his crucial role in the development of English drama and prose cannot be denied.
Lyly was born in Kent in 1553 or 1554. At the age of sixteen, according to Anthony Wood, Lyly became a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he proceeded to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees (1573 and 1575), applying in 1574 to Lord Burghley "for the queen's letters to Magdalen College to admit him fellow." The fellowship, however, was not granted, and Lyly shortly after left the university. He complains about this period of neglect in his address to the gentlemen scholars of Oxford affixed to the second edition of the first part of Euphues, but nothing more is known about its cause. If one is to believe Wood, Lyly never took kindly to the proper studies of the university. "For so it was that his genius being naturally bent to the pleasant paths of poetry," rather than the rougher roads of academia.
After Lyly left Oxford, where he had developed a reputation as "a noted wit," he seems to have attached himself to Lord Burghley. "This noble man," he writes in the Glasse for Europe, in the second part of Euphues (1580), "I found so ready being but a straunger to do me good, that neyther I ought to forget him, neyther cease to pray for him, that as he hath the wisdom of Nestor, so he may have the age, that having the policies of Ulysses he may have his honor, worthy to lyve long, by whom so many lyve in quiet, and not unworthy to be advaunced by whose care so many have been preferred." It is unclear what motivated Lord Burghley's change of heart, or what Lyly's official role under Burghley's patronage was to be.
Lyly began his literary career around this time, composing the first part of Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, which was finished by the end of 1578, and published in the spring of 1579. In the same year, Lyly was incorporated as a Master of Arts at the University of Cambridge, and possibly saw his hopes of being promoted to the royal court dashed by the appointment in July of Edmund Tylney to the office of Master of the Revels—the job promised a long career in writing and producing plays and other entertainments for the royal family, and without it Lyly was unsure of how to go about his future. He continued to write, with Euphues and his England appearing in 1580. Euphues propelled Lyly to fame and critical acclaim.
For a time Lyly was the most successful and fashionable of English writers, hailed as the author of "a new English;" and, as Edmund Blount, the editor of his plays, would later remark, Euphues was so popular that French dramas, which had previously been popular in the court, would never be performed before the Queen again. After the publication of Euphues Lyly seems to have entirely deserted prose—Euphues, some contend, may be one of the earliest novels of English, though this is disputed—although the form and style of Euphues would be imitated by many other authors of his time.
Lyly threw himself almost exclusively into play-writing, probably hoping to someday obtain the post of Master of Revels. Eight plays by him were probably acted before the Queen by the children of the Chapel Royal and the children of St Paul's School between the years 1584 and 1589, with one or two of them repeated before a popular audience at the Blackfriars Theatre. Their brisk, lively dialog, classical color, and frequent allusions to persons and events of the day maintained that popularity with the court which Euphues had won.
Lyly sat in parliament as member for Hindon in 1580, for Aylesbury in 1593, for Appleby in 1597, and for Aylesbury a second time in 1601. In 1589, Lyly published a tract on the Martin Marprelate controversy, called Pappe with an Hatchet, Alias a Figge for my Godsonne; Or Crack me This Nut; Or a Countrie Cuffe, etc. About the same time, one may probably date his first petition to Queen Elizabeth. The two petitions, transcripts of which are still extant, are undated, but in the first of them he speaks of hanging about the court for ten years in hope of preferment, and in the second he extends the period to thirteen years. It may be conjectured with great probability that the ten years date from 1579, when Tylney was appointed master of the revels with a tacit understanding that Lyly was to have the next reversion of the post. "I was entertained your Majestie's servaunt by your own gratious favor," he says, "strengthened with condicions that I should ayme all my courses at the Revells (I dare not say with a promise, but with a hopeful Item to the Revercion) for which these ten yeres I have attended with an unwearyed patience." But in 1589 or 1590, the Mastership of Revels was as far off as ever—Tylney, in fact, held the post for thirty-one years. Lyly continued to write, though as far as scholars can ascertain his works of this period consist of collaborations with other playwrights.
In the second petition of 1593, Lyly wrote "Thirteen yeres your highnes servant but yet nothing. Twenty friends that though they saye they will be sure, I finde them sure to be slowe. A thousand hopes, but all nothing; a hundred promises but yet nothing. Thus casting up the inventory of my friends, hopes, promises and tymes, the summa totalis amounteth to just nothing." What may have been Lyly's subsequent fortunes at court is impossible to tell. Blount says vaguely that Elizabeth "graced and rewarded" him, but of this there is no other evidence. After 1590, his works steadily declined in influence and reputation; he died poor and neglected in the early part of James I's reign. He was buried in London at St Bartholomew the Less on November 20, 1606.
In 1632, Blount published Six Court Comedies, including:
- Endymion (1591)
- Sappho and Phao (1584)
- Alexander and Campaspe (1584)
- Midas (1592)
- Mother Bombie (1594)
- Gallathea (1592)
To these should be added the Woman in the Moone (Lyly's earliest play, to judge from a passage in the prologue and therefore earlier than 1584, the date of Alexander and Campaspe), and Love's Metamorphosis, first printed in 1601. Of these, all but the last are in prose. A Warning for Faire Women (1599) and The Maid's Metamorphosis (1600) have been attributed to Lyly, but this attribution is highly disputed.
The first editions of all these plays were issued between 1584 and 1601, with the majority of them between 1584 and 1592, in what were Lyly's most successful years at the height of his popularity. His importance as a dramatist has been disputed by scholars, and it is perhaps because of this continually changing scholarly interpretations of Lyly that he has never benefited from popularity among contemporary audiences. Lyly's dialog is still a long way removed from the dialog of Shakespeare; Lyly's dialog is often criticized for lacking the power and imagery of the greater Elizabethan playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe. Still, Lyly's dialog was a great advance in rapidity and resource upon anything which had gone before it; he is one of the first playwrights of the Elizabethan period to write in what was, at the time, "plain English," and this represents an important step in the evolution of English dramatic art. Lyly's nimble plotting, and his pedant wit would in fact be rather openly imitated by Shakespeare in his Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing; the imitation of Lyly would have been quite clear to Shakespeare's audience.
One or two of the songs introduced into his plays are justly famous and show a real lyrical gift. Here, for example, is one of Lyly's more charming songs, sung by four characters in Campaspe:
- Gran. O For a Bowle of fatt Canary,
- Rich Palermo, sparkling Sherry,
- Some Nectar else, from Iuno's Daiery,
- O these draughts would make vs merry.
- Psyllus. O for a wench, (I deale in faces,
- And in other dayntier things,)
- Tickled am I with her Embraces,
- Fine dancing in such Fairy Ringes.
- Manes. O for a plump fat leg of Mutton,
- Veale, Lambe, Capon, Pigge, & Conney,
- None is happy but a Glutton,
- None an Asse but who wants money.
- Chor. Wines (indeed,) & Girles are good,
- But braue victuals feast the bloud,
- For wenches, wine, and Lusty cheere,
- Ioue would leape down to surfet heere.
In estimating Lyly's dramatic position and his effect upon his time it must not be forgotten that his classical and mythological plots, flavorless and dull as they would be to a modern audience, were charged with interest to those courtly hearers who saw in Midas Philip II, Elizabeth in Cynthia, and perhaps Leicester's unwelcome marriage with Lady Sheffield in the love affair between Endymion and Tellus, which brings the former under Cynthia's displeasure. As a matter of fact his reputation and popularity as a playwriter were considerable in his time. Francis Meres, as is well known, places him among "the best for comedy;" and Ben Jonson names him among those foremost rivals who were "outshone" and out sung by Shakespeare.
- Arber, Edward. Euphues. 1868.
- Bond, Warwick, ed. Lyly's Complete Works. 1902.
- Collier, J.P. History of Dramatic Poetry.
- Fairholt, F.W. Dramatic Works of John Lilly.
- Hense, C.C. "John Lilly and Shakespeare," in Jahrbuch der deutschen Shakesp. Gesellschaft.
- Ward, A.W. English Dramatic Literature.
All links retrieved May 18, 2018.
- Luminarium: John Lyly Life, works, essays.
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