University Wits

What was the contribution of University Wits to Elizabethan drama?

The University Wits were a group of men educated at Oxford and Cambridge in theatre and drama who drastically impacted and transformed popular drama in the late sixteenth century. These men included Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Peele, and Thomas Kyd. As playwrights and poets, they improved the language and structure of drama, and plays became more complex, coherent, poetic, witty, and overall well-written.

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In the nineteenth century, scholar George Saintsbury labeled a group of sixteenth-century playwrights as the “University Wits.” Most of the members, including Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Green, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Kyd, had attended either Oxford or Cambridge, and all of them made highly significant contributions to the development of English drama.

These men were looking to write a new kind of play, something quite different from the religious and moral dramas of the medieval period. In the spirit of the Renaissance, they look back to classical styles and themes, those of Seneca for instance, and adapted those styles and themes to their own times and interests.

Hence, these men wrote heroic plays with heroic subject matter and themes. Take Marlowe's Tamburlaine, for instance, which is about Timur, an emperor of Asia. Heroic themes were matched with an heroic style, and these dramatists often created vivid, grand descriptions, soaring speeches, and violent emotions and events. Heroism often involves tragedy, and the University Wits were specialists in that form, believing it to be much higher and more serious than comedy.

Yet the University Wits were not all about turmoil and heroics and histrionics. They also set the stage (pun intended) for witty romantic plays with charming touches of comedy and for the development of realism in drama. Medieval dramatic forms tended toward the noble and the high religious, but the Wits saw the potential for a good story in the trials and troubles of everyday life and of normal individuals, especially in their romantic entanglements. At the same time, some of them (like John Lyly) attempted to write in a more artificial style with high structure and refined language and wit. The blend, however, worked well, and realism and idealism joined together to create some fascinating plays.

The University Wits were masters of their craft, and they paved the way for the likes of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, who would advance English drama to its heights.

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The chief contribution of the University Wits to Elizabethan drama was to revitalize the English stage, paving the way for Shakespeare, who would, in many respects, take their innovations to a higher level.

The most noteworthy aspect of the University Wits's approach to drama was its synthesis of the native tradition of English theatre with classical models. As Renaissance men, the University Wits instinctively looked to the ancient world for much of their subject matter. John Lyly's Campaspe, based on the life of one of Alexander the Great's mistresses, is a case in point.

At the same time, the University Wits infused their plays with the kind of home-grown vigor that characterized the English stage. In The Spanish Tragedy, for instance, Thomas Kyd skillfully combines the high elements of Greek drama with the violence and spectacle beloved by English theatre audiences to create an entirely new genre: the revenge play.

Another University Wit, Christopher Marlowe, revolutionized drama by using blank verse—verse that doesn't rhyme—as a means of tragic expression. Previously, the verse form for drama had been rhymed verse. But Marlowe departed from this tradition—which often served up long and rather tedious passages of dialog—by concentrating on the natural rhythms of human speech, the innate musicality of the English language. In doing so, he brought the action of the drama much closer to the audience.

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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.

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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." 

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