The “University Wits” and Thomas Kyd.—Five authors, John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Nashe, all graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, were sufficiently versatile to be called “university wits.” Amid various other activities, all of them were impelled by the spirit of the age to write plays. These intellectual aristocrats hurled the keen shafts of their wit at those dramatists, who, without a university education, were arrogant enough to think that they could write plays. Because Shakespeare had never attended a university, Greene called him “an upstart Crow beautified with our feathers.”
On New Year’s, 1584, John Lyly, the author of Euphues, presented in the first Blackfriars Theater his prose comedy, entitled Campaspe. This play relates the love story of Alexander the Great’s fair Theban captive, Campaspe. The twenty-eight characters necessary to produce this play were obtained from the boys of the Chapel Royal and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Two months later Lyly’s Sapho and Phao was given in the same theater with a cast of seventeen boys. It should be remembered that these plays, so important in the evolution of the drama, were acted by boys under royal patronage. Campaspe is little more than a series of episodes, divided into acts and scenes, but, unlike Gorboduc, Campaspe has many of the characteristics of an interesting modern play.
Lyly wrote eight comedies, all but one in prose. In the history of the drama, he is important for (1) finished style, (2) good dialogue, (3) considerable invention in the way he secured interest, by using classical matter in combination with contemporary life, (4) subtle comedy, and (5) influence on Shakespeare. It is doubtful whether Shakespeare could have produced such good early comedies, if he had not received suggestions from Lyly’s work in this field.
The chapel boys also presented at Blackfriars in the same year George Peele’s (1558-1597) The Arraignment of Paris, a pastoral drama in riming verse. In Juno’s promise to Paris, Peele shows how the possibilities of the New World affected his imagination:—
“Xanthus shall run liquid gold for
thee to wash thy hands;
And if thou like to tend thy flock and not from them to fly,
Their fleeces shall be curled gold to please their master’s eye.”
While The Arraignment of Paris and his two other plays, David and Bathsabe and The Old Wives’ Tale, are not good specimens of dramatic construction, the beauty of some of Peele’s verse could hardly have failed to impress both Marlowe and Shakespeare with the poetic possibilities of the drama. Peele writes without effort—
“Of moss that sleeps with sound the waters make,”
and has David build—
“...a kingly bower,
Seated in hearing of a hundred streams.”