Unsurprisingly for an Elizabethan, John Lyly’s date of birth cannot be ascertained. From college records, it can be extrapolated back to some time in the early 1550’s, probably around 1554. Lyly was brought up, perhaps also born, in Canterbury, where his father was a cleric attached to the official service of the archbishops. Lyly’s near ancestors and family included central figures in the tradition of Humanism in England.
In the early 1570’s, John Lyly appears on the books of Magdalen College, Oxford. There is evidence that Lyly intended to pursue an academic career. On the other hand, some rather problematic testimony suggests that Lyly at Oxford was most noted for his interest in the fashionable life and recreations accessible to young men there. By the end of the 1570’s, he had moved out of the academic setting and was living in London. His two Euphues books, which he wrote around this time, seem to reflect both an affinity for a Humanistically colored academic world and a certain distance from such a world. The two books were immediately immensely popular, and with their publication, Lyly’s life rose clearly into a new orbit, around the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Lyly became attached to the household of Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, an important courtier; Lyly may have been the earl’s secretary. The connection led into another one, crucial to Lyly’s creative life. Oxford patronized the troupes of choirboy actors that...
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