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.
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.
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.
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."