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.