Who and what were the so-called "University Wits" in Elizabethan literature?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The so-called "University Wits" were among the earliest and most important writers of professional drama during the rise of professional theater in Elizabethan England. They were young men who had had the privilege of attending one of the two English universities then in existence: Oxford University and Cambridge University. Most people who went to universities at this time completed extensive study of the Bible and of rhetoric and other aspects of language. They also often studied classical literature as well as history and philosophy. Such training gave graduates of the universities real advantages as writers of plays. When men such as John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe came down to London from Cambridge or Oxford, they had much of the intellectual background to make them sophisticated writers of dramas. Although the idea of becoming playwrights had not been their reason for attending universities, their university training helped them distinguish themselves as writers when professional theaters began to develop in the final decades of the 1500s.

The university wits are often seen as members of the first wave of significant Elizabethan dramatists. Later writers, such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, were very widely read but had spent no time as students at universities. Some of the university wits welcomed and admired these new writers. Thomas Nashe, for instance, had good things to say about both Jonson and Shakespeare. However, at least one university wit (Robert Greene) seems to have felt bothered or even threatened by the emergence of Shakespeare. Whatever their reactions to these newcomers, the university wits -- Marlowe in particular -- had an enormous influence on later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

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