John Lyly Lyly, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Lyly c. 1554–1606

Prose author and dramatist.

Chiefly remembered for his Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580), the latter of which is often considered the first English novel, Lyly was an Elizabethan dramatist who composed witty and highly polished plays aimed at a sophisticated audience. His earliest works, the two parts of Euphues, gave the name to the highly elaborate and elegant prose style known as euphuism and inaugurated a short-lived but influential vogue for writings in this mode, to be supplanted in the late 1580s by the popularity of Philip Sidney's style in his Arcadia. Lyly's dramas, like his prose works, are characterized by rich rhetorical ornamentation and complex structures of balanced antitheses, images, proverbs, and allusions. With plots borrowed from the classics but with personalities recognizable in their day, Lyly's plays are considered to have set new standards for light comedy and to have raised English drama from a crude to a sophisticated level.

Biographical Information

Lyly was born in Kent, England, around 1554. His grandfather was the accomplished and famous grammarian William Lyly. Lyly probably received his early education at the King's School at Canterbury, which his brothers attended, and entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in the early 1570s. 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 degree from the University of Oxford in 1573, followed by another degree in 1575. In 1578 Lyly published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. This and its sequel were very successful; Euphues went through five editions in rapid succession and Euphues and His England went through four editions in its first year. Soon after receiving yet another degree, this time from Cambridge, Lyly entered the household of Queen Elizabeth's Lord High Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Although this connection was advantageous for Lyly, his hope for a career at court was never realized. Devoting his talents almost exclusively to comedy, 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 Sapho and Phao, were both produced at the Blackfriars in 1583-84. Gallathea (finished between 1585 and 1588) was also originally intended for performance at Blackfriars, but the playhouse closed in 1584 and the play did not receive its first staging until 1588. Lyly next became associated with the a troupe of professional boy actors (Children of St. Paul's), and along with this company produced four additional plays: Endimion, The Man in the Moone (1588), Loves Metamorphosis (c. 1588-90), Mother Bombie (c. 1589-90), and Midas (1588-90). Lyly was also elected to serve as a Member of Parliament and did so several times, the first time in 1589. It was around this time that he composed his last dramatic work, his only play not written in euphuistic prose, The Woman in the Moone (c. 1591-94), which was presented at Court. In the 1590s Lyly hoped to receive the Court appointment of Master of Revels (the Court's censor), but he had fallen out of royal favor and did not get the position. From this time on his finances were in a state of decline. He wrote petitions to Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s and 1600s asking for a reward for his services, but Elizabeth died in 1603 without having shown him any preferment. Lyly died in 1606.

Major Works

The word "euphues" comes from the Greek word meaning "well-bred," and the two parts of Euphues are full of advice and lectures on how gentlemen and gentlewomen ought to behave in a graceful manner. There is much critical debate about whether Lyly meant for these works to be taken seriously or as satire. 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. Sapho and Plao similarly revolves around a love between a person of high rank and one of low status. In this drama Queen Sapho falls in love with the beautiful ferryman Phao. The play contrasts chastity and eroticism, simplicity and complexity, and life at court with 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. Within this framework Lyly explores a variety of oppositions, including love versus friendship and art against nature. Endimion is noteworthy among Lyly's plays for its more involved action and greater depth of characterization. The lyrics found in some of Lyly's comedies are not present in the earliest editions and there also has long been debate about whether Lyly wrote them himself.

Critical Reception

The vogue of euphuism passed quickly, and even within Lyly's own lifetime it became the object of satire. Lyly's 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 Lyly's plays into such comedies as As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost, and Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, by the middle of the seventeenth century Lyly's plays fell into complete neglect. It was not until 1962 and 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 worldview based on paradox, opposition, and duality. The very works that made Lyly the most popular writer in England for some years, Euphues and Euphues and His England, have damaged Lyly's standing in the present; modern critics have tended to value his dramas more highly than his prose. Theodore L. Steinberg has written that "John Lyly's reputation, it seems, has suffered unduly for his having written Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a work which is often regarded as a kind of aberration, interesting in its manipulations of the English language and important in its influence on contemporary literature but unimportant in itself as a work of literature." C. S. Lewis has called Euphues Lyly's "fatal success," "a diversion of the author from his true path, which by its unfortunate celebrity confuses our impression of his genius."

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Euphues. The Anatomy of Wit (prose) 1578

Euphues and His England (prose) 1580

Campaspe (drama) 1583-84

Sapho and Phao (drama) 1583-84

Gallathea (drama) c. 1585-88

Loves Metamorphosis (drama) c. 1588-90

Mother Bombie (drama) c. 1588-90

Endimion, The Man in the Moone (drama) 1588

Midas (drama) 1589-90

Pappe with an Hatchet (prose) 1589

The Woman in the Moone (drama) c. 1591-94

Plays of John Lyly (dramas) 1988

The Complete Works of John Lyly (prose and dramas) 1993

J. J. Jusserand (essay date 1890)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Lyly and His Euphues" in The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare, T. Fisher Unwin, 1890, pp. 103-05.

[In the following excerpt, Jusserand explores Lyly's success and credits it to his "bad style," earnest sermonizing, and his appeal to female readerswriting eloquently of the "knowledge of the heart of woman."]

Lyly and His Euphues.

The romance which, at this period, received a new life, and was to come nearer to our novels than anything that had gone before, has many traits in common with the fanciful style of the architecture, costume, and conversation described above. What have we to do, thought men, with...

(The entire section is 5667 words.)

R. Warwick Bond (essay date 1902)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Introductory Essay," in The Complete Works of John Lyly, Oxford University Press, Ely House, London, 1902, pp. 135-64.

[In the following excerpt, Bond praises Lyly for his constant attention to form, and examines his writing style, its sources, and its influence on Shakespeare and other writers.]

…Euphuism,1 the characteristics and origin of which have just been indicated, is important, not because it eminently hit the taste of its day, but because it is, if not the earliest, yet the first thorough and consistent attempt in English Literature to practise prose as an art; the first clearly-defined arch in the bridge that spans the gulf between the...

(The entire section is 8937 words.)

John Dover Wilson (essay date 1905)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: John Lyly, Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., 1970, pp. 52-84.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1905, Wilson explains the importance of Euphues in literary history, discussing Lyly's emphasis on diction, precision, and lucidity; the significance of Lyly's insistence that Euphues and His England was written "for the eyes of ladies"; and the reasons that, although euphuism itself failed, its influence on English prose was profound.]

The position of Euphuism in the history of English prose.

… A few words remain to be said about this literary curiosity, by way of assigning a place to it in the...

(The entire section is 9566 words.)

Samuel Lee Wolff (essay date 1912)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "John Lyly," in The Greek Romances in Elizabethan Prose Fiction, The Columbia University Press, 1912, pp. 248-56.

[In the following excerpt, Wolff traces Lyly's source for Euphues to Giovanni Boccaccio's Tito and Gisippo, and then continues his exploration of Lyly's derivations.]

John Lyly1

The connection between Lyly and Greek Romance rests partly upon proof, and partly upon probable conjecture. There is proof that the plot of "Euphues" is derived from Boccaccio's tale of "Tito and Gisippo" (Decam., X. 8). There is probable conjecture, by such authorities as Wilhelm Grimm, Erwin Rohde, and Gaston Paris, that...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)

Morris William Croll (essay date 1916)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Introduction—The Sources of the Euphuistic Rhetoric," in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, Euphues & His England by John Lyly, edited by Morris William Croll and Harry clemons, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1916, pp. XV-LXIV.

[In the following excerpt, Croll examines the main characteristics of euphuism, particularly its use of sound patterns, and offers background on the humanistic movement during Lyly's era.]


What is Euphuism?

The form of the Euphuistic rhetoric was finally defined, after much debate, by Landmann in a well-known paper,1 and has since been made familiar by Child's excellent...

(The entire section is 5265 words.)

Samuel Lee Wolff (essay date 1923)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Humanist as Man of Letters: John Lyly," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1923, 8-35.

[In the following excerpt, Wolff considers the various influences on Euphues, including Puritanism. The critic downplays Lyly's importance as an influence on later writers, but praises his comedies.]

We all remember Lyly very much as Mr. Brooke remembered human perfectibility or Adam Smith. We "went in for that at one time", and from some college Survey of English Literature we have preserved a dim reminiscence of the Euphuist and the dramatist—the writer of an impossible style soon displaced in vogue by that other impossible style of Sir Philip Sidney's...

(The entire section is 6876 words.)

Walter N. King (essay date 1955)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "John Lyly and Elizabethan Rhetoric," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 52, No. 1, 1955, pp. 149-61.

[In the following essay, King examines the formal attributes of Lyly's arguments in Euphues.]

Study of Elizabethan rhetoric often seems to balance upon two "indispensables": some sort of consideration of euphuism, based upon analysis of isolated passages in Euphues, and pejorative comment upon John Lyly. Lyly has in fact become a major whipping boy in English literature. Whipping boys are a convenience, of course. Easily distinctive examples of the stylistically poor or over-developed help us to speak with confidence about the better aspects of Elizabethan...

(The entire section is 5442 words.)

Jonas A. Barish (essay date 1956)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Prose Style of John Lyly," in ELH, Vol. 23, 1956, pp. 14-35.

[In the following essay, Barish contends that Lyly's novels and plays are stylistically linked by his use of parallel sequences and logicality.]

Lyly's prose style, especially that of Euphues, has been studied so often and so exhaustively in the past that further observations on it are likely to appear impertinent, especially if they attempt no radical reformulation. However, the major work of description has been complete for some decades now, and little has been added except for occasional further explorations into the literary origins of Euphuism. It may, therefore, be useful to glance...

(The entire section is 8439 words.)

Richard Helgerson (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Lyly," in The Elizabethan Prodigals, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 58-78.

[In the following excerpt, Helgerson analyzes the character of Euphues, whom he deems "one of the most consistently unsympathetic figures in English literature."]

In 1595, seventeen years after Euphues established his reputation, a decade after Elizabeth advised him to "aim all his courses at the Revels," John Lyly acknowledged defeat. "If your sacred Majesty think me unworthy," he wrote the Queen, "and that, after ten years tempest, [I] must at the Court suffer shipwreck of my times, my hopes, and my wits, vouchsafe in your never erring judgment some plank or rafter...

(The entire section is 7667 words.)

Madelon Gohlke (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Reading Euphues," in Criticism, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 103-17.

[In the following essay, Gohlke describes Euphues as an example of mannerist art, written with "deliberately obstructive qualities" which challenge its readers to interpet meanings and resolve ambiguities.]

Anyone who reads Euphues knows that it is hard, and that what makes it hard is the peculiarly obstructive nature of its style. Euphuism describes not only the manner in which the tale is written, but also the dominant form of communication within the fiction.1 What is most striking about this form of communication, moreover, is not what it most...

(The entire section is 6321 words.)

Richard A. McCabe (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Wit, Eloquence, and Wisdom in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXI, No. 3, 1984, pp. 299-324.

[In the following excerpt, McCabe describes how Lyly demonstates that Euphues's wit hinders his self-knowledge and is ultimately destructive.]

Discussing Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, C. S. Lewis remarks that "it is no kindness to Lyly to treat him as a serious novelist; the more seriously we take its action and characters the more odious his work will appear."1 The modern reader is inclined to agree, but Lyly's contemporaries might not. Lewis' observations contain a certain amount of truth, but truth of a rather...

(The entire section is 7303 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Bates, Catherine. "'A Large Occasion of Discourse': John Lyly and the Art of Civil Conversation." The Review of English Studies N.S. XLII, No. 168 (1991): 469-86.

Contends that Euphues fits better into the courtly tradition than it does into a bourgeois literature pattern.

Houppert, Joseph W. John Lyly. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975, 169 p.

Analysis of Lyly's prose narratives in terms of his "ironic vision" and of his plays in terms of dramatic tradition.

Hunter, G. K. John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,...

(The entire section is 544 words.)