Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit

by John Lyly

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

John Lyly's Euphues is a proto-novel that depends on a conventional story of romance. In many ways it is like Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Euphues, a young Athenian, travels to Naples where he falls in love with Lucilla, a beautiful and clever woman, already engaged to Euphues's best friend, Philautus. The novel involves discussion of friendship and romantic love, and the fickleness of both. Eventually, Euphues returns to Athens where he writes a series of letters.

The second half of the novel is epistolary in nature, using letters on a variety of subjects. This section, like the earlier exemplum of the dangers a young, wealthy man will encounter if he is not properly grounded, serves as something of a commonplace book. Each letter offers words of wisdom on education, love, friendship, and other topics designed to produce a respectable and happy individual.

Despite the triteness of the plot, Lyly's work was highly influential due to the rhetorical sophistication it displays. Euphuestic style became the fashion, marked by extraordinarily balanced phrasing, antithesis, clever word play, allusive similes, and ornate diction. While the work's popularity faded by the 1590s, we can find its influence in Shakespeare and other contemporary playwrights, who often parody the old style by placing it in foolish characters.

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