Last reviewed: June 2018
English playwright and author
Canterbury(?), Kent, 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.
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.