Shakespeare’s Predecessors– The University Wits

The University Wits were young scholarly playwrights from Oxford and Cambridge who were pioneering in secular drama, breaking with the tradition of the ecclesiastical plays of medieval England. Not only were these playwrights attempting the secularization of drama, they were also writing plays professionally for the first time for financial support. The University Wits were collectively called so because the term ‘wit’ refers to scholars – group of six men writing by way of professional choice. These include Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nasche. They were precursors of Shakespeare.

John Lyly was a practitioner of drama in prose who lived from 1554-1606. His plays reflect the Elizabethan culture i.e, courtly culture which patronizes theatrical art. His themes were all concerned with the intellectual life of London as is best expressed in his novel called Eupheus. Lyly’s prose style also finds expression through drama and one of his most popular plays is the comedy, Campaspe. The euphemistic language meant that Lyly used language that was rich with words of many colours, that apparently seem ridiculous, but was somehow stately and engaging. Lyly’s treatment of the English language was perhaps the first experiment made with diction in the Elizabethan era. He was extremely loyal to the early Elizabethan tradition of moral comedy. However to moral soundness he also added a delicacy that made plays suitable for the gentlefolk of England. Human figures live and move side by side with deities of classical mythology. Some of his other plays include Endymion, Midas and The Woman in the Moon, and the very classical play in treatment but contemporary in presentation, Mother Bombie. The proverb “All is fair in love and war” has been attributed to Lyly’s Euphues. In fact, Lyly was a major source of inspiration for A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare.

Of all the dramatic predecessors of Shakespeare, George Peele is perhaps the only unredeemed playwright and he is the only one except Marlowe to whom the word ‘genius’ can be seriously applied. He witnessed the squalor and filth of London life as he had spent his nascent days in abject poverty. One of his most significant plays is The Arraignment of Paris (The Judgement of Paris). This play was presented in front of the Queen by the children of the chapel, and has a strong mythical connection to the Trojan War. The playwright uses the theme very interestingly by presenting the mythical situation in which Prime Paris was asked by the three goddesses (Aphrodite – Venus – Hera, and Diana – Artemis) to judge the fairest of them all. He judged in favour of Venus and incurred the wrath of Hera and Diana. The Arraignment of Paris is a play which envisions the simple loveliness of the Golden Age, i.e, pre-Homeric Greece. Peele therefore combines speeches with songs and introduces the interactions with intermingling between Gods and Shepherds. His other play, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe, takes us into a totally different world which is the oriental world of King David – a world of opulence and also a world of crime and penitence. Yet another play by Peele is The Old Wives’ Tale, which takes readers into the nursery of children. Here Peele effectively mixes satire with the simple tales narrated to children. The situation of the play is that of a dreamy child who is full of such nursery tales narrated by the old wives. This particular play of Peele would create the best impact when enacted on stage. However, his greatest contribution to the Elizabethan drama remains The Arraignment of Paris in which he was able to recreate the world of magical vision and wonder which created tremendous appeal amidst the readers and the audience.

Of the bulk of Robert Greene’s plays, much was comedy. In his experimentation with the genre of comedy, his play titled Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, is a masterpiece. Greene presents rural scenes mixed with an abundance of magical and comical situations. There are devices like interludes involved in the play and there is quite a quantity of folklore introduced in the plotline. Greene delves into the history and art of sorcery and black magic, common superstitions and ominous forebodings that the Elizabethan audience was deeply interested in. Greene also composed a historical play titled, The Scottish History of King James IV. The play is authenticated by the use of real historical data combined with his skill as a playwright. Greene’s influence was immense on Shakespeare’s romantic comedies which are found to be based on much of the same premises and materials. He also wrote The Looking Glass for London and England with Thomas Lodge.

The genre of tragedy was perhaps most skilfully and artistically treated by Thomas Kyd in the Elizabethan age. The Spanish Tragedie is a masterpiece created by Kyd to represent the essential concept of tragedy in the Elizabethan era. It has been acclaimed as the “good theatre” as it includes certain essential requirements of Elizabethan tragedy. The Spanish Tragedie is modelled on the Senecan tragedies of blood and revenge. In his play, Kyd is exploring the idea of revenge as a moral duty or a justified act that has to be solemnly resolved. It is methodically executed by the protagonist of the play, Hieronimo. Hieronimo is the avenger who seeks revenge on Lorenzo and Balthazar for the conspiracy and murder of his son Horatio. In order to create this plot line Kyd has extensively borrowed from Senecan tragedies replete with the idea of retributive justice. Kyd employs several tragic devices to popularize the essential ideas of his play. One such device is the use of a personified figure of revenge who comes on stage at the beginning of the play to announce to the audience how revenge is an act of moral compulsion incumbent on the avengers. Kyd employs soliloquies which highlights the mission of revenge. The play – within – play technique was introduced by Kyd to exact his revenge upon the criminals. In a nutshell, The Spanish Tragedie sets the tone and direction of the Elizabethan revenge tradition which was to be followed by successive playwrights. Another play is Ur-Hamlet. This is the source of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Plays attributed in whole or in part to Kyd include Soliman and Perseda, King Leir, Arden of Faversham and Edward III. He is also the presumed author of a pamphlet in prose entitled The Murder of John Brewen (1592), a grisly report on murder in a family, in which a goldsmith is murdered by his wife.

Christopher Marlowe has been termed as the “Father of the English Drama” and his evolution of writing made him the most popular University wit of his time. Marlowe stormed into popularity with Tamburlaine, the Great– the story of a shepherd boy who rises to power and becomes a world renowned conqueror. Other notable plays by Marlowe include Doctor Faustus, Dido: Queen of Carthage and The Jew of Malta. Furthermore, Marlowe also composed a play of great historical merit titled Edward II. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe attempted to portray the struggle between an individual’s thirst for acquiring forbidden knowledge and his yearning for maintaining the essence of his existence. Faustus is not merely a man who seeks the practical fruits of knowledge. He aspires for the ultimate understanding for the truths of life. There are allegorical representations in the play of the good and bad angels as it was done in morality plays. The good angels urge Faustus towards repentance while the bad angels urge him towards damnation. His first play to be written was Dido: Queen of Carthage. It is popularly believed that it is based on the 1st, 2nd and 4th books of Virgil’s Aeneid. Edward II is a historical play in which Marlowe explores the life and death of a monarch alluding to his weak and ineffectual rain, his affinity for his friend Gaveston, the repeated uprsings of the Barons and the final brutal torture that he was subjected to. Marlowe provides yet another dimension by portraying the Machiavellian figure of Barrabas.

Thomas Lodge’s most important work Rosalynd is commonly believed and critically observed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Lastly, the most significant extant play by Nasche is Summer’s Last Will and Testament. It is an allegorical play which makes satire with courtly compliment. Another important work by this playwright is a picaresque tale titled The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack.

Drama in the Elizabethan age was particularly conscious of technique and stage craft which were rapidly developing to leave a greater visual impact on the audiences of the time. Great works of English literature flourished during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I; art, poetry, drama, and learning in general germinated as the English confidence and nationalism she inspired, spilled from the economic sector to cultural achievements. The Elizabethan Age is generally considered to be one of the golden ages in English literature and the University Wits are primary contributors to this legacy.

Picture Courtesy- politicworm

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