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John Lyly
from A History of English Literature

1918

by Robert Huntington Fletcher


Preface | How to Study | Tabular View | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Assignments

from Chapter VI. The Drama From About 1550 To 1642 

JOHN LYLY.

The first Elizabethan dramatist of permanent individual importance is the comedian John Lyly, of whose early success at Court with the artificial romance 'Euphues' we have already spoken. From 'Euphues' Lyly turned to the still more promising work of writing comedies for the Court entertainments with which Queen Elizabeth was extremely lavish. The character of Lyly's plays was largely determined by the light and spectacular nature of these entertainments, and further by the fact that on most occasions the players at Court were boys. These were primarily the 'children [choir-boys] of the Queen's Chapel,' who for some generations had been sought out from all parts of England for their good voices and were very carefully trained for singing and for dramatic performances. The choir-boys of St. Paul's Cathedral, similarly trained, also often acted before the Queen. Many of the plays given by these boys were of the ordinary sorts, but it is evident that they would be most successful in dainty comedies especially adapted to their boyish capacity. Such comedies Lyly proceeded to write, in prose. The subjects are from classical mythology or history or English folk-lore, into which Lyly sometimes weaves an allegorical presentation of court intrigue. The plots are very slight, and though the structure is decidedly better than in most previous plays, the humorous sub-actions sometimes have little connection with the main action. Characterization is still rudimentary, and altogether the plays present not so much a picture of reality as 'a faint moonlight reflection of life.' None the less the best of them, such as 'Alexander and Campaspe,' are delightful in their sparkling delicacy, which is produced partly by the carefully-wrought style, similar to that of 'Euphues,' but less artificial, and is enhanced by the charming lyrics which are scattered through them. For all this the elaborate scenery and costuming of the Court entertainments provided a very harmonious background.

These plays were to exert a strong influence on Shakespeare's early comedies, probably suggesting to him: the use of prose for comedy; the value of snappy and witty dialog; refinement, as well as affectation, of style; lyric atmosphere; the characters and tone of high comedy, contrasting so favorably with the usual coarse farce of the period; and further such details as the employment of impudent boy-pages as a source of amusement.


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