Shakespeare read Holinshed, North, Greene, Sidney, and Lodge and turned some of their suggestions into poetry, which we very much prefer to their prose. We are nearly certain that Shakespeare studied Lyly’s Euphues, because we can trace the influence of that work in his style.
It was the misfortune of Elizabethan prose to be almost completely overshadowed by the poetry. This prose was, however, far more varied and important than that of any preceding age. The books mentioned on page 123 constitute only a small part of the prose of this period.
Lyly, Sidney, Hooker.—In 1579, when Shakespeare was fifteen years old, there appeared the first part of an influential prose work, John Lyly’s (1554?-1606) Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, followed in 1580 by a second part, Euphues and his England. Much of Lyly’s subject matter is borrowed, and his form reflects the artificial style then popular over Europe.
Euphues, a young Athenian, goes to Naples, where he falls in love and is jilted. This is all the action in the first part of the so-called story. The rest is moralizing. In the second part, Euphues comes to England with a friend, who falls in love twice, and finally marries; but again there is more moralizing than story. Euphues returns to Athens and retires to the mountains to muse in solitude.
In its use of a love story, Euphues prefigures the modern novel. In Euphues, however, the love story serves chiefly as a peg on which to hang discussions on fickleness, youthful follies, friendship, and divers other subjects.
Lyly aimed to produce artistic prose, which would render his meaning clear and impressive. To achieve this object, he made such excessive use of contrast, balanced words and phrases, and far-fetched comparisons, that his style seems highly artificial and affected. This quotation is typical:—
“Achilles spear could as well heal as hurt, the scorpion though he sting, yet he stints the pain, through the herb Nerius poison the sheep, yet is a remedy to man against poison... There is great difference between the standing puddle and the running stream, yet both water: great odds between the adamant and the pomice, yet both stones, a great distinction to be put between vitrum and the crystal, yet both glass: great contrariety between Lais and Lucretia, yet both women.”
Although this selection shows unnatural or strained antithesis, there is also evident a commendable desire to vary the diction and to avoid the repetition of the same word. To find four different terms for nearly the same idea “difference,” “odds,” “distinction,” and “contrariety,” involves considerable painstaking. While it is true that the term “euphuism” has come to be applied to any stilted, antithetical style that pays more attention to the manner of expressing a thought than to its worth, we should remember that English prose style has advanced because some writers, like Lyly, emphasized the importance of artistic form. Shakespeare occasionally employs euphuistic contrast in an effective way. The sententious Polonius says in Hamlet:—