What was the contribution of University Wits to Elizabethan drama?
The "university wits" were six Oxford- and Cambridge-educated men—Greene, Lyley, Lodge, Marlowe, Nash, and Peele—who "radically transformed" popular drama in the late sixteenth century, the period near the end of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. They improved the quality of drama in terms of both language and structure. The language of plays became more witty, forceful, and poetic, and the plots of popular plays became more coherent, meaning they made better sense. This was a period of flowering and creativity in drama and the stage.
The university wits preferred heroic and tragic subjects and sometimes have been labeled snobbish for their rejection of what they considered "low" comedy. They often had characters declaim long, heroic speeches. Violence was very often a part of the drama. Often this group is considered a prelude, paving the way for the less educated and less snobbish Shakespeare to emerge, towering over all of them. While he borrowed from the foundations they set, he was not afraid to incorporate "low" humor, even into plays about tragic heroes.
The University Wits, who include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Peele, and Thomas Kyd, were English playwrights, poets, and pamphleteers in the late 1500s. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, unlike actor-playwrights such as Shakespeare, some also gathered at the Inns of Court in London (which were cultural and literary centers in those days). The University Wits freed drama of the conventions that it had followed up until that time. Though they were classical in their tastes and training, the University Wits allowed greater freedom in drama and made it more life-like. Christopher Marlowe's play Tamburlaine in the 1580s gave the English theatre at the time the power to withstand its opponents, and his dramas made the English theatre a viable industry, setting the stage (literally and figuratively) for Shakespeare. Marlowe, who was also one of the first English writers to use blank verse, was referred to by the critic Swinburne as the "teacher and guide of Shakespeare."
Among the University Wits of the Elizabethan period, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd stand out as theatrical contributors of great importance, but there were other relatively minor ones like Robert Greene, John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, George Peele and so on. Whether Thomas Middleton was a part of the group is debatable.
The primary contribution they have to the development of Elizabethan drama is that they are the first Oxford and Cambridge pass-outs to take up theatre as a profession. Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy paves the way for the use of the Senecan elements and the more refined and psychological revenge-tragedies by Shakespeare, Webster and Middleton, taking a cue from Seneca. Marlowe's plays, whether it is Dr. Faustus or The Jew of Malta or Edward II, concentrate on the complexity of the moral universe of man, the human dilemma of an anthropocentric Renaissance world, the figure of the overreacher, psychological complications and inner violence. Marlowe is also remembered for his eloquence and dramatic employment of blank-verse.
With Greene and Lyly, we have the mythological and pastoral style of comedy, the prevalence of feminine characters, a kind of slight satirical wit and use of verse--all elements that go on to shape the Elizabethan theatre. The process of collaborative composition is another trend set by these playwrights. The University Wits' significance lies in setting up the Elizabethan theatrical tradition and anticipating the hallmarks of the Shakespearean theatre.