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Lyly, John (c. 1554–1606) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

lyly’s court plays paul’s

John Lyly was born in Kent around 1554. Grandfather William Lyly, who published a famous Latin grammar, was the first high master of St. Paul’s School and a friend of Thomas More* and John Colet.* His father, Peter, was a minor ecclesiastical official. Lyly took M.A. degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge. In the late 1570s, he went to London to seek a place at court, hoping that his academic and literary abilities would serve to commend him.

Lyly’s early success as a prose writer brought celebrity but no serious courtly recognition. His two narratives, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1579) and Euphues and His England (1580), were very popular, the first being reprinted five times and the second four times by 1581. Their success brought Lyly to the attention of Lord Burghley, who offered some work; however, not until writing plays for the boys’ acting companies of the Chapel Royal and St. Paul’s cathedral did Lyly gain a notable, if not important, position. The plays were performed at Blackfriars Theater and at court before the queen, and Lyly was appointed “vice-master” of the St. Paul’s company. He remained set on becoming the master of revels, and during the 1590s, as time passed, and he did not get the position, he directly petitioned Elizabeth, declaring his faithful service and unrewarded merit. The letters have a shrill, almost desperate tone and were ignored.

Lyly served in Parliament from 1589. He married and had three children. He died in relative obscurity, not having realized the courtly career he had wanted, his literary and dramatic style superseded and at times a target of parody.


The immediate popularity of Euphues saw Lyly become a topic of critical judgment and opinion. In his 1586 Discourse of English Poetrie , William Webbe rates Lyly as the rhetorical peer of Demosthenes and Cicero. In Palladis Tamia (1598), Francis Meres praises him as one of the most eloquent comic writers. A number of authors, including Robert Greene* and Thomas Lodge,* wrote euphuistic sequels, and in publishing six of his comedies in 1632 Edward Blount declared that Lyly had reinvented English. On the other hand, Philip Sidney* in Astrophil and Stella and The Defence of Poetry , Thomas Nashe* in Summer’s Last Will and Testament , and Ben Jonson in Every Man out of His Humor and Cynthia’s Revels criticize or caricature Lyly’s work. Shakespeare* echoes Lyly in early romantic comedies such as Love’s Labor’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also parodies his stylistic excesses in those plays and has Falstaff voice some satiric versions of euphuistic maxims in 1 Henry IV (2.5.401–22) as excessively courtly.

C. S. Lewis considers Lyly a writer of poetic genius, delicate touch, and stylistic flexibility who marks the shift from “drab” to “golden” literature. Subsequent criticism tends to fall into two camps: one focusing on the potential for romantic and moral complexity realized by Lyly’s generic and rhetorical modes (e.g., Barish, Gannon, Houppert, Meyer, White), and the other considering the texts’ effects and functions in Elizabethan court discourse and politics (e.g., Axton, Bates, Caldwell, Lancashire, Margolies). Extended studies of Lyly’s work such as Hunter’s John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier and Saccio’s Court Comedies combine these perspectives to examine ways in which Lyly’s conscious artistry figures and participates in court relations.

In concluding a bibliography of criticism on Lyly since 1969, Kevin J. Donovan notes “the prominence… of questions of authority and gender” in his work (446). A number of recent studies focus on these topics, especially in the plays, where issues including submission and resistance, gender and identity, and sexual politics are often raised but not decisively resolved. The lack of finality that surrounds Endimion’s and Phao’s unrequited desires or seems glossed over in reconciling Gallathea’s and Phillida’s same-sex passion is considered a sign of complex notions of selfhood and desire at the end of the Elizabethan period (Bevington, Davis, Rackin, Rose).

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