University Wits: A Note
The drama before Shakespeare found its full flowering with the dramatists called the University Wits. These dramatists were well-educated scholars. They wrote in the closing years of the 16th Century. This name of University Wits was given to them because they were nearly all educated at Oxford or Cambridge University. Wit was the synonym for scholar.
All the University Wits have several features in common. They had stormy careers. All of them were actively associated with the theatre. They were usually actors as well as dramatists. They understood the requirements of the stage and felt the pulse of the audience. They often worked in collaboration with each other. Their store material was also common. With these dramatists English drama reached the highest point of glory. In many ways they developed English drama.
Christopher Marlowe was the most shining star among the University Wits. Others were Lyly, Peele, Greene, Lodge, Nash and Kyd.
John Lyly: As a dramatist Lyly occupies a peculiar position. He selected classical themes and stories for his plays. He wrote eight plays in all. They are - Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Gallathea, The Man in the Moon, Midas, Mother Bombie, Love's Metamorphosis and The Woman in the Moon. Lyly's contribution to English drama is very important. He was a comic playwright. He gave shape to romantic comedy. Suitable blank verse was used in his comedies. He added to drama the qualities of delicacy, grace, charm and subtlety. He is well known as originator of Euphustic style of prose writing.
George Peele: Peele was one of the greatest University Wits. His work has great variety. His The Old Wives’ Tale is the first English play of dramatic criticism. His important plays are Arraignment of Paris, The Battle of Alcazar, The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the first, The Love of King David and Fair Bathsheba and The Old Wives Tales. The list shows Peele's versatility as a dramatist. In his plays one can notice a high level of poetic attainment. As a humorist he showed the way to Shakespeare. He widened the range of English dramas.
Robert Greene: Like Lyly, Greene was a playwright and novelist in one. He attained high excellence in both arts. His best plays are – Orlando Furioso, The Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Looking Glass for London and England, George-a-Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield and Pandosto. He was a master of the art of plot construction. With him the love story became central in the art of drama. His contribution to the portrayal of women characters is noticeable. Margaret and Dorothea are excellent portraits of women. In short, he contributed much to the development of romantic comedy.
Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nash: The dramatic work of Lodge and Nash is almost negligible. They are inferior to their contemporaries. Thomas Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War contains hardly anything that is new. He does not rise above mediocrity. He gave nothing to the theatre. He wrote poems, novels and plays. Nash was a pamphleteer and story writer. He tried his hand at drama also. He collaborated with Marston in his Dido and in The Isle of Dogs.
Thomas Kyd: The English tragedy moves on its way with Kyd. He adhered to the Senecan school. It is he who popularised the blood and thunder element in drama. His The Spanish Tragedy occupies an important place in the development of English tragedy. It is a landmark in English tragedy. It is a well-constructed play. Kyd brought the revenge theme to the stage.
Christopher Marlowe: Marlowe was the central sun of the University Wits. He is the true founder of the popular English drama. His contribution to the English tragedy is very vital. His main works are Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, Edward II, The Jew of Malta and The Tragedy of Dido. With Marlowe the English drama reached the highest point of its glory. He raised the subject matter of drama to a higher level. He gave life and reality to his characters. He made the blank verse smoother and gave unity to drama. Thus in many ways he showed a path to William Shakespeare.
Thus the University Wits contributed much to the English drama. They prepared the ground for drama. In the spheres of comedy and tragedy they made notable contribution and prepared the way for Shakespeare.