The University Wits: In this article, we made some points to understand the literary group of the University Wits who founded the Elizabethan school of Drama. These notes help you solve the questions of the second-semester BA English Students of BBMKU and VBU universities.
The University Wits
These young men, nearly all associated with Oxford and Cambridge, did much to find the Elizabethan school of drama. Their plays had several features in common. They were all more or less acquainted with each other, and most led irregular and stormy lives.
- (a) There was a fondness for heroic themes, such as the lives of significant figures like Mohammed and Tamburlaine.
- (b) Heroic themes needed heroic treatment: great fullness and variety, splendid descriptions, long swelling speeches, and the handling of violent incidents and emotions. These qualities, excellent when held in restraint, only too often led to loudness and disorder.
- (c) The style also was ‘heroic’. The chief aim was to achieve strong and sounding lines, magnificent epithets, and powerful declamation. The result is impressive in the best examples, such as in Marlowe. In this connection, it is to be noted that the best medium for such expression was blank verse, which was sufficiently elastic to bear the intense pressure of these expansive methods.
- (d) The themes were usually tragic, for the dramatists were, as a rule, too much in earnest to give heed to that considered to be the lower species of comedy. The general lack of real humour in the early drama is one of its most prominent features. Humour, when it is brought in at all, is coarse and immature. Almost the only representative of the writers of real comedies is Lyly, who, in such plays as Campaspe (1584), Endymion (1592), and The Woman in the Moone, gives us the first examples of romantic comedy.
George Peele (1558-98)
George Peele was born in London, educated at Christ’s Hospital and Oxford, and became a literary hack and freelance in London. His plays include The Arraignment of Paris (1584), a kind of romantic comedy; The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First (1593), a rambling chronicle-play; The Old Wives’ Tale (1591-94), a clever satire on the popular drama of the day; and The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (1599).
Robert Greene (1558-92)
Robert Greene wrote much and recklessly, but his plays are of sufficient merit to find a place in the development of the drama. He was born in Norwich, educated at Cambridge (1575) and Oxford (1588), and then took to literary life in London. If all accounts, including his own, are true, his career in London must have taken place in a sink of debauchery. He is said to have died, after an orgy in a London Ale-House, “of a surfeit of pickle herring and Rhenish wine.” Here we can only refer to his thirty-five prose tracts, probably the best of his literary work, for they reveal his intense though erratic energy, quick, malicious wit, and powerful imagination. His plays number four: Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587), an imitation of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine; Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay (1589), easily his best, and containing some fine representations of Elizabethan life; Orlando Furioso (1591), adapted from an English translation of Ariosto; and The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth (acted in 1592), not a ‘historical’ play, but founded on an imaginary incident in the life of the King. Greene is weak in creating characters, and his style is not of outstanding merit, but his humour is somewhat genial in his plays and his methods less austere than those of the other tragedians.
Thomas Nash (1567-1601)
Thomas Nash was born at Lowestoft, educated at Cambridge, and then (1586) went to London to make his living by literature. He was a born journalist, but in those days, the only scope for his talents lay in pamphleteering. He took an active part in the political and personal questions of the day, and his truculent methods actually landed him in jail (1600). He finished Marlowe’s Dido, but his only surviving play is Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592), a satirical masque. His The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jacke Wilton (1594), a prose tale, is important in the development of the novel.
Thomas Lodge (1558-1625)
Thomas Lodge was the son of a Lord Mayor of London, was educated in London and at Oxford, and studied law. He deserted his legal studies, took on a literary career, and is said to have been an actor at one time. His dramatic work is small in quantity. He probably collaborated with Shakespeare in Henry VI and other dramatists, including Greene. The only surviving play entirely his own is The Wounds of Civil War(1594), a kind of chronicle-play. His pamphleteering was voluminous and energetic. His prose romances constitute his greatest claim to fame. Though his prose is elaborate in the euphuistic style of Lyly, and the tales are often tedious, they contain exquisite lyrics. The most famous of his romances is Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy (1590), which Shakespeare followed very closely in the plot of As You Like It.
Thomas Kyd (1558-94)
Thomas Kyd is one of the most important of the University Wits. Very little is known of his life. He was born in London, educated probably at Merchant Taylors’ School, adopted a literary career, and became secretary to a nobleman. He became acquainted with Marlowe, and that brilliant but sinister spirit enticed him into composing “lewd libels” and “blasphemies.” Marlowe’s sudden death saved him from punishment for such offences, but Kyd was imprisoned and tortured. Though he was afterwards released, Kyd soon died under the weight of “bitter times and privy broken passions.” Much of this dramatist’s work has been lost. The Spanish Tragedie (about 1585) is the most important of the surviving plays. Its horrific plot, involving murder, frenzy, and sudden death, gave the play great and lasting popularity.
There is a largeness of tragical conception about the play that resembles the work of Marlowe, and there are touches of style that dimly foreshadow the great tragical lines of Shakespeare. The only other surviving play known to be Kyd’s is Cornelia (1593), a translation from the French Senecan Garnier. Still, his hand has been sought in many plays, including Soliman and Perseda (1588), the First Part of Jeronimo (1592), an attempt to write after the success of The Spanish Tragedie, an introductory play to it, and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)
Christopher Marlowe was the greatest of the pre-Shakespearian dramatists. He was born at Canterbury and educated there and at Cambridge. He adopted literature as a profession and became attached to the Lord Admiral’s players. His combination of an inquiring mind and dissolute life led him to be charged with atheism and immorality. Only his sudden death in a tavern brawl enabled him to avoid arrest.
Marlowe’s plays, all tragedies, were written within five years (1587-92). He had no bent for comedy, and the comic parts found in some of his plays are always inferior and maybe by other writers. As a dramatist, Marlowe had serious limitations, though tracing a growing sense of the theatre through his plays is possible. Only in Edward II does he show any sense of plot construction, while his characterization is of the simplest and lacks the warm humanity of Shakespeare’s. All the plays, except Edward II, revolve around one figure drawn in bold outlines.
This character shows no complexity or subtlety of development and is the embodiment of a single idea. Indeed, to appreciate Marlowe properly, we must put aside Conventional ideas of the drama and view his plays as the representation of a poetic vision, the typically Renaissance quest for power- l’amour de l’impossible combined with the quest for beauty. In Tamburlaine the Great, the shepherd seeks the “sweet fruition of an earthly crown,” The Jew of Malta Barabbas seeks “infinite riches in a little room,” while the quest of Doctor Faustus is for more than human knowledge. Each play is the driving force behind this vision, giving it an artistic and poetic unity. It is, indeed, as a poet that Marlowe excels. Though not the first to use blank verse in English drama, he was the first to exploit its possibilities and make them supreme.
His verse is notable for its burning energy, splendour of diction, sensuous richness, variety of pace, and responsiveness to the demands of varying emotions. Full of bold primary colours, his poetry is crammed with imagery from the classics, astronomy, and geography, imagery barbaric in its wealth and splendour. Its resonance and power led Ben Jonson to coin the phrase “Marlowe’s mighty line,” but its might has often obscured its technical precision and admirable lucidity and finish. At times Marlowe degenerates into bombast, and there is little attempt before Edward II to suit the speech to the speaker. Still, his blank verse is unequalled by his contemporaries, except for Shakespeare.