Authors: John Lyly

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English playwright and author

c. 1554

Canterbury(?), Kent, England

November 1606

London, England


John Lyly (LIH-lee) appeared on England’s literary horizon at the same time as Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and each made important contributions to the literature that followed. In the twentieth century, the works of both Lyly and Spenser fell on hard days, Lyly with more justification, perhaps, than Spenser. However, Lyly influenced such later writers as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson: He showed the importance of prose as an art form, and he made literature of plays. {$I[AN]9810000289} {$I[A]Lyly, John} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Lyly, John} {$I[tim]1554;Lyly, John}

Like most of the literary Elizabethans, Lyly left no information about his childhood. He was the grandson of the famous Latin grammarian William Lyly, whose popular fame lasted long enough for Ben Jonson to use his name in a joke in The Magnetic Lady (1634). John’s father was Peter Lyly, who held a diocesan office at Canterbury. Reckoning backward from the year 1569, when he entered Oxford at age sixteen or thereabouts, according to Anthony à Wood, Lyly’s biographers have assigned his birth to 1553 or 1554. He received his BAfrom Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1573, and his MA in 1575. Accounts of his college life indicate that he was more interested in the creative than the scholarly arts, but these assumptions may be attributable to knowledge of his later life. Lyly’s interest in literature, like Spenser’s, was apparently secondary to his interest in political advancement. Again like Spenser, he suffered much disappointment. It is ironic that the literary activities that failed to gain the desired courtly preferment for the authors gained lasting fame for them.

Lyly’s literary reputation was made in 1578 with Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, a bit of courtly prose fiction. The number of editions and the flood of imitations indicate its impressive popularity, which led to a sequel, Euphues and His England, two years later. Both books contain much philosophizing; both are written in the ornate and distinctive style since known as euphuism, with much alliteration, balanced phrases, artificial images, and frequent references to “unnatural natural history,” such as the Fish Scolopidus, which changes color with the phases of the moon. After these two books, Lyly abandoned the field of the prose novel to his imitators and turned to drama.

Euphues and His England was dedicated to Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, son-in-law of the powerful Lord Burghley. Under Oxford’s patronage, Lyly began to write for the theater, and he established a company of boy actors. Not one of Lyly’s eight surviving comedies appears to have been written for an adult company.

In 1583, Lyly married Beatrice Browne of Yorkshire. In 1584, his theatrical ventures must have failed, for he was imprisoned for debt. Presumably Oxford had him released. His onetime friend, and later enemy, Gabriel Harvey attacked him in one of the pamphlets in the Marprelate controversy, saying: “Would God, Lyly had always been Euphues, and never Paphatchet.” On this information, Lyly has been accepted as the author of Pap with an Hatchet (1589), one of the pamphlets defending the bishops.

Although Lyly held a court position as “esquire of the body” and served in Parliament four times, he never became Master of the Revels, which was the height of his ambition. Several of his surviving letters are devoted to complaints regarding his courtly disappointments.

According to the register of the Church of St. Bartholomew the Less, Lyly had two sons and a daughter. The first son, born in 1596, lived only a year; the second was born in 1600; the daughter in 1603. The church register records Lyly’s burial in November 1606.

Author Works Drama: Campaspe, wr. 1579-1580, pr., pb. 1584 (also known as Alexander, Campaspe and Diogenes) Sapho and Phao, pr., pb. 1584 Galathea, pr. c. 1585 Endymion, the Man in the Moon, pr. 1588 Midas, pr. c. 1589 Mother Bombie, pr. c. 1589 Love’s Metamorphosis, pr. c. 1589 The Woman in the Moon, pr. c. 1593 Dramatic Works, pb. 1858 (2 volumes; F. W. Fairholt, editor) Long Fiction: Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, 1578 Euphues and His England, 1580 Nonfiction: Pap with an Hatchet, 1589 Miscellaneous: The Complete Works of John Lyly, 1902, 1967 (3 volumes; R. Warwick Bond, editor) Bibliography Alwes, Derek B. “‘I Would Faine Serve’: John Lyly’s Career at Court.” Comparative Drama 34, no. 4 (Winter, 2000): 399–421. Alwes examines Lyly’s dramatic works to see how they reflect on Lyly’s career at court, especially how he portrays his relationship to Queen Elizabeth. Fienberg, Nona. Elizabeth, Her Poets, and the Creation of the Courtly Manner: A Study of Sir John Harington, Sir Philip Sydney, and John Lyly. New York: Garland, 1988. An examination of Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with several writers, including Lyly, and of British drama and poetry during her reign. Bibliography and index. Hueppert, Joseph W. John Lyly. Boston: Twayne, 1975. This general review of Lyly’s career contains a brief discussion of euphuism and the prose period preceding dramatic involvement. The plays are analyzed as belonging to Lyly’s early, middle, or late periods of development, and the scholarship is organized into negative and positive sections. Concludes with comments on Lyly’s critical reputation and influence. Messora, Noemi. “Parallels Between English and Italian Courtly Plays in the Sixteenth Century: Carlo Turco and John Lyly.” Theater of the English and Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Places Lyly in an international context. Pincombe, Michael, ed. The Plays of John Lyly: Eros and Eliza. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. Describes the dramatic works of Lyly and details his relations with Queen Elizabeth. Bibliography and index. Saccio, Peter. The Court Comedies of John Lyly: A Study in Allegorical Dramaturgy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Contains an informative opening section on the staging requirements for plays presented at court. Analyzes several plays and includes an investigation of allegory and anagoge. Scragg, Leah. The Metamorphosis of “Galathea”: A Study in Creative Adaptation. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. An analysis of Lyly’s Galathea, containing discussions of the play’s relationship with the works of William Shakespeare and its source, the Greek deity of Galatea. Wilson, John Dover. John Lyly. 1907. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1970. This older work by a notable scholar is intentionally limited to historical rather than aesthetic criticism of Lyly. Wilson traces Lyly’s influence on English prose style, on the development of the novel of manners, and on English comedy. Considers Lyly’s influence and his “dynamical value” to be great. Wixson, Christopher. “Cross-Dressing and John Lyly’s Galathea.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41, no. 2 (Spring, 2001): 241–256. In his examination of cross-dressing in Lyly’s Galathea, Wixson stresses that the subject must be interpreted within the culture in which it existed, rather than interpreted according to the biases of modern times.

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