John Lyly c. 1554-1606
Lyly was an Elizabethan dramatist and prose writer who composed witty and highly polished works aimed at a sophisticated audience. His earliest works, the treatises Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England, gave the name to the highly elaborate prose style known as euphuism and inaugurated a short-lived but influential vogue for writings in this mode. His dramas, like his prose works, are characterized by rich rhetorical ornamentation and complex structures of balanced antitheses, images, and allusions.
The exact date of Lyly's birth is unknown. The statement by the seventeenth-century writer Anthony è Wood that Lyly entered Oxford in 1569, together with Lyly's application for a bachelor's degree in 1573, suggest that he was born in 1552. However, his name appears on the 1571 entrance list for Magdalen College, Oxford, which points to 1554 as the year of his birth. Since it is known that Lyly's brothers attended the King's School at Canterbury, it is likely that he too received his early education there. He appears to have been a serious student at Oxford but also seems to have gained a reputation as a wit and a carouser. He received a master's degree from Oxford in 1575 and three years later published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. This and its sequel were hugely successful and in the years following appeared in over thirty editions. Around 1580 Lyly entered the service of the Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain. This connection was highly advantageous for Lyly, and his career flourished. He became a partner in the Blackfriars theater, and in 1583 he married Beatrice Browne, a member of an influential family. Lyly's first plays, Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, were both produced at the Blackfriars in 1583-1584. Gallathea was also composed for performance at Blackfriars, but the playhouse closed in 1584, and the play did not receive its first staging until 1588. By this time Lyly seems to have lost Oxford's patronage and to have become associated with the Children of St. Paul's, a troupe of professional boy actors. This company produced four additional plays by Lyly: Endimion, Love's Metamorphosis, Midas, and Mother Bombie. Lyly was elected to Parliament several times, the first in 1589. It was around this time that he composed his last dramatic work, The Woman in the Moon, which was presented at the royal Court. In the 1590s Lyly hoped to receive the Court appointment of Master of Revels, but he appears to have fallen out of favor and did not get the position. From this time on his finances were in a state of decline. He wrote several petitions to Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s and 1600s, asking for a reward for his services, but she died in 1603 without having shown him any preferment. Lyly himself died in 1606.
In keeping with the euphuistic mode, Lyly's plays feature highly stylized scenes organized as series of debates between antitheses. Campaspe examines the problem of the individual in the state, as Alexander, the conqueror of Thebes, falls in love with Campaspe, one of his prisoners. Alexander is torn between his love and his duty to his country. This is allied in the play to a number of related questions, such as the nature of the king's private and public selves, the relationship between monarch and subject, and the individual's responsibility to obey authority. Sappho and Phao similarly revolves around a love between a person of high rank and one of low status. In this drama Queen Sappho falls in love with the beautiful ferryman Phao. The play opposes chastity and eroticism, simplicity and complexity, and life at court versus both an intellectual life and a humble existence. In Endimion Lyly again focuses on love and passion, but this play, perhaps the author's most complex, presents a number of pairs of lovers. Endimion is loved by the earth goddess Tellus, but he is enamored of the moon goddess Cynthia who scorns him. The jealous Tellus casts Endimion into a forty-year sleep. Endimion's friend Eumenides learns that he can be awakened by a kiss from Cynthia, and he persuades her to do so. Eumenides himself is in love with the disdainful Semele. Other relationships include the jailor Corsites' love for Tellus (who loves Endimion) and Sir Tophas' passion for Dipsas. Within this framework Lyly explores a variety of oppositions, including love versus friendship and art against nature. Endimion is also noteworthy among Lyly's plays for its more involved action and greater depth of characterization.
The vogue of euphuism passed quickly, and even within Lyly's own lifetime it became the object of satire. His influence on his fellow dramatists, however, was significant. Robert Greene adapted Campaspe—which had been written for an aristocratic audience—for the popular stage. Ben Jonson admired Lyly's work, and William Shakespeare incorporated elements of his plays into such comedies as As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost, and Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, by the middle of seventeenth century Lyly's plays fell into complete neglect. It was not until 1962, with the publication of G. K. Hunter's John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier, that significant interest in his work was revived. Critics since that time have seen Lyly's plays not merely as assemblages of brilliant images and rhetorical flourishes, but as carefully elaborated demonstrations of a world view based on paradox, opposition, and duality.