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UNIVERSITY WITS

About twenty years after Gorboduc, in about 1580, the first of the
University Wits appeared on the English stage. The Wits were a group of
seven young writers, bred in the traditions of the classical drama and
educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

(1) John Lyly, the first of the seven to enter the field, stands apart from
the others in that he wrote entirelyfor the court rather than for the
popular stage. Lyly’s eight plays, to which Shakespeare owed a
considerable debt, were court allegories. Their the mes were derived
from classical mythology, and nearly all were in prose, steeped in the
euphuistic style. Two of his best plays are Endymion and Campaspe.

(2) George Peele, another of this group, is remembered chiefly for


his Arraignment of Paris, David and Bethsabe, The Old Wives’
Tale and The Battle of Alcazar. Peele’s work is dominated by courtly and
patriotic themes.

(3) Thomas Kyd, in The Spanish Tragedy, established “the tragedy of


blood”, to which Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus belongs. Hamlet itself
is said to be based upon a horror-play of the same genre—ur–Hamlet
— believed to be written by Kyd.

(4) Thomas Lodge wrote classical plays like The Wounds of Civil War,
and A Looking Glass for London and England in collaboration with
Greene. [Lodge wrote a Defence of Poetry in response to
Gosson’s School of Abuse]

(5) Robert Greene was a man of greater genius but he squandered it in


drink and much second-rate writing. Gabriel Harvey, in Four Letters,
attacked Greene’s waywardness and Nashe defended him in Strange
News. The best-known of his plays are Orlando Furioso, Friar Bacon
and Friar Bongay and James the Fourth. Most of his plays are
dramatized pastoral romances, like As You Like It, and The Winter’s Tale.
Greene is also remembered today for his attack on Shakespeare as an
“upstart Crow beautified with our feathers” in the Groats-Worth of Wit.
His Pandosto was the source of The Winter’s Tale.
(6) One of Greene’s collaborators was Thomas Nash whose extant
dramatic work is slight. [He is remembered for his prose work The
Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton]

The greatest of all University Wits was Christopher Marlowe. The


youngest of the group and born in the same year as Shakespeare,
Marlowe, before his untimely death at the age of 29, had founded
English romantic tragedy and converted the stiff, mechanical blank verse
of Gorboduc into that vital verse form which Shakespeare would later
use in his plays. His plays show only moderate power of characterization
but they carry the reader away by the sheer force and beauty of language
and their imaginative power. In his four great plays the protagonists are
driven by vaulting ambition, inordinate pride, a lust for power and
inhumane cruelty. The tragedy invariably takes the same course—
triumph followed by a mighty fall. Each protagonist is Marlovian in his
masculine prowess which often conceals a sensuous, sensitive
heart. Tamburlaine the Great is his earliest and crudest creation where a
shepherd-robber rises to imperial power through ruthlessly cruel actions
and once appears on stage driving a team of kings before his chariot. His
ferocity is softened only by his love for his captive Zenocrate. In The
Jew of Malta, Barabas, a Jew, is harassed by the governor of Malta for
not paying the tribute; and Barabas, in revenge rises to be the governor
by treachery and the power of gold. But he is punished and killed by the
Turkish commander against whom he plots. The Prologue to the play is
spoken by ‘Machevil’ and Barabas is one of the prototypes for
unscrupulous Machiavellian villains in later Elizabethan and Jacobean
drama. His praise of gold and precious stones as “Infinite riches in a
little room” is often quoted. Doctor Faustus is perhaps the first
dramatization of the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the
Devil and who became identified with a Dr. Faustus, necromancer of the
16th century. Marlowe’s Faustus, unlike the legendary figure who was
merely a magician, is an embodiment of a spiritual thirst for infinite
power, an ambition to rule over the universe. Again, unlike the legend, at
the end of the play, as the hour for the surrender of his soul draws near,
Faustus is depicted as reeling in intense mental anguish. Marlowe’s best
work, from the technical point of view, is Edward II, but it cannot
compare in psychological interest or poetic grandeur with Doctor
Faustus. Like his great hero Faustus, Marlowe also tasted the forbidden
fruit and came to a miserable and sordid end, not indeed torn by devils,
but stabbed in a tavern over a slight dispute.