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The term University Wits is applied to a group of Englishmen of letters who flourished in the Elizabethan age under the impact of the Renaissance. The group was more or less constituted of some young  University scholars, highly cultivated literary men who took writing as their profession. It was, for all intents and purposes, a little literary constellation of which Marlowe was the central sun and around him revolved, as accompanying stars, Lyly, Greene, Peele, Lodge, Nashe, and Kyd. Kyd, of course, did not strictly belong to the group, but his innovation and association with them made him one with them.

The University Wits, as already noted, were scholars, and a keen interest in the classical literature of Greece and Rome was particularly shared by them all. The influence of the Renaissance was distinctly felt in their literary activities. They wrote, with equal felicity, verse as well as prose, plays as well as romances. Indeed, they were worthy literary masters of the great age to which they belonged the age that produced Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sidney. 

John Lyly

Though Marlowe was the most dazzling figure among the University Wits, it was John Lyly who represented the group much more and was deemed as its protagonist and pioneer, and also a leader. Lyly, as a literary master, was an innovator, both in dramatic literature and in prose. It was with the publication of his prose romance Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, in 1579, that Lyly rose to eminence and created a tradition in English prose literature. His prose style, better known as Euphuism, formed, along with Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadian style, the model of the English prose style of the age. Euphues and his England was the second prose work of Lyly in which he followed the literary style of his earlier work. In the growth of a felicitous prose style in English, his role is undeniably important. 

Lyly’s prose romances certainly enjoyed tremendous popularity in the Elizabethan age. But his literary genius covered a wide range, and he proved himself a dramatist of note, with the plays, written after the publication of his Euphues. Some of his plays like Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Endymion, Midas, and The Woman in the Moone received a commendation for his age. Of course, Lyly had not much of the sense of the theatre of Marlowe and Kyd. But he had the sense of the literary form and a perfectly polished wit. Moreover, he was the innovator of high comedy as also the prose drama. 

Robert Greene 

Robert Greene, like Lyly, was an original master and showed his proficiency equally in prose romances and in playwriting. He wrote - several romances, like Mamilia, Pandosto, Menaphon, and Arbasto. Greene lacked the brilliance of Lyly’s style, but he attained a greater simplicity, a more penetrating wit, and a livelier plot structure. 

As a playwright, Greene, however, proved himself superior to Lyly, and some of his plays, particularly his comedies, proved to be the just predecessors of Shakespeare’s great works. His plays comprised, Orlando Furioso, Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay, Alphonsus, King of Arragon, James IV, and some others. Shakespeare's indebtedness to him is distinct.

George Peele

George Peele was certainly a minor star by the side of his brilliant companions. He was mainly a playwright and occasionally wrote some poems. His chief plays The Araygnement of Paris, Edward I, The Battell of Alcazar, The Old Wives Tale, King David, and Fair Bethsabe was enacted with success. Among his poetical works might be mentioned, The Fall of Troy, The Honours of the Garter, and A Farewell to Norries and Drake. 

George Peele was certainly much inferior to others, already mentioned, but in one respect, he came closer to the greatest figure of the group  Christopher Marlowe. He shared, with Marlowe, the power to grace blank verse with that musical quality that was to become one of the most characteristic aspects of Shakespearean poetry. 

Lodge and Nashe 

The dramatic works of Lodge and Nashe could not attain any eminence in that great age of English drama. But both of them made themselves conspicuous in the domain of prose fiction. Lodge was the author of Rosalynde, Ephues Golden Legace, which was to inspire Shakespeare in his As You Like ft. Modeled after Lyty, the romance immensely catered to the romantic taste of the age. Nashe was noted for his adventurous romance The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton. Both Lodge and Nashe were possessed of 8 felicitous styles in which poetry, gaiety, wit, and passion were perfectly synthesized. 

Thomas Kyd

But the dramatist, who achieved as much popularity as Marlowe, was Thomas Kyd, whose only known play The Spanish Tragedy characterized the nature of the Senecan influence on the English tragedy. For popularising the blood and revenge theme in the Elizabethan age, Kyd s The Spanish Tragedy stood out prominently. Kyd's contributions to the Elizabethan tragedy are found immense. 

Christopher Marlowe

The greatest of the band the greatest protagonist of the pre-Shakespearean drama  was, however, Christopher Marlowe Marlowe was both playwright and a poet, and his theatre and poetry were all intermingled His plays were somewhat sparkling and exceptional in comparison with the plays, that had preceded them, and marked a new beginning of the English drama The great plays, with which Marlowe triumphed, were Tamburiaine, in two parts

Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward IT. An uncontrollable passion, which characterized Marlowe's nature, could not but be injected into his plays by the dramatist. In Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II, Marlowe attempted to present the violent force of human passion. As a dramatic artist, he occupied the place next to Shakespeare in his great age, and his blank verse was a great contribution to the development of the English theatre of the time. 

The University Wits were, indeed, a band of brilliant literary artists. They were essentially romantic in outlook and humanitarian in spirit. In imaginative excellence and technical mastery, they also stood very high in their age. In fact, they made laudable endeavors to raise the growing literature of the Elizabethan age to the height of imaginative splendor and technical brilliance. They bore out the spirit of the Renaissance that burst out in every direction and revealed its inventive and creative energy.

The University Wits were not merely great masters. They were also innovators and instructors and eminently contributed to the development of the literary ideals of their age. Both in dramatic literature and in fiction, they exerted profound influences on posterity, and even Shakespeare could not ignore their commanding influences. Lyly’s Euphuistic style and Lodge’s romantic story in Rosalynd certainly affected the literary style of the generations of Elizabethan authors. Marlowe’s blank verse, Kyd’s Senecan tragedy, Lyly’s dramatic prose, and Greene’s blending of verse and humourous prose were some of the elements that gave materials as well as scopes to the subsequent Elizabethan and other playwrights, including Shakespeare.

University Wits in English Literature


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