Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > The Plays of the University Wits > His position in the group of University Wits
  John Lyly His material, method and style  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits.

§ 3. His position in the group of University Wits.


What, in the first place, is the material? Usually, the slight theme is suggested by some legend of the gods and goddesses; sometimes, as in Love’s Metamorphosis, the source is treated simply for its dramatic value—as Lyly understood drama, of course; sometimes for a fugitive allegory bearing on incidents in the career of the virgin queen, or in national affairs; sometimes, as in Endimion, Sapho and Phao and Midas, for what has been interpreted as complicated allegory; and, rarely, as in Mother Bombie, for mere adaptive fooling. Such material for tenuous plots is not new. Turning the pages of the Accounts of the Revels at Court, one finds titles of plays given by the children’s companies—the choirboys of St. Paul’s, of the Chapel Royal, or the schoolboys of Westminster or of Merchant Taylors’ under Mulcaster—very similar to the names of Lyly’s plays. There are, for instance, Iphigenia, Narcissus, Alcmaeon, Quintus Fabius and Scipio Africanus. We do not know precisely what was the treatment applied to such subjects—in themselves suggesting histories, possibly allegories, or even pastorals—but we do know that, from the hand of Richard Edwards, master of the children of the chapel in 1561, we find plays which, in structure, general method and even some details, provided models for Lyly. 2  For instance, the Damon and Pithias of Edwards, probably produced at court in 1564, deals with a subject of which Lyly was fond—contrasted ideas of friendship, here exemplified in two parasites and the famous friends. The piece is loosely constructed, especially as to the cohering of the main plot and the comic sub-plot. It derives its fun, also, from pages and their foolery. We possess too little dramatic work, especially work produced at court, of the period of 1560–80, to speak with assurance; yet it seems highly probable that Edwards was no isolated figure, but, rather, typifies methods current in plays of that date.   5

Note 2. See, as to the plays performed by the children of the chapel, post Vol. VI, Chap. XI. [ back ]

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  John Lyly His material, method and style  
 
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