John Lyly - World Literature

World Literature

John Lyly


BORN: C. 1552, England

DIED: 1606, England


GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction


Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578)

Euphues and His England (1580)

Pappe with an Hatchet, Alias, a Fig for my Godson (1589)

Campaspe (1583-1584)



Together with Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly was one of the most important pre-Shakespearean playwrights of the Elizabethan stage. Lyly was a member of the school of writing called the ‘‘University Wits,’’ and the publication of his prose work, Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) marked the beginning of his literary career, made him a best-selling author, and afforded him a reputation as one of the most prominent prose writers of the era.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Oxford Education. John Lyly was born to Peter Lyly, a minor church official serving the archbishopric of York, and his wife Jane. The exact date and place of his birth are unknown, but records of his years at Oxford University suggest that he was born between 1552 and 1554. By 1562 he evidently resided with his parents and a growing number of siblings in Canterbury.

Like his father and grandfather before him, John Lyly attended Magdalen College at oxford University. However, remarks Anthony a Wood, who reported in Athenae Oxonienses (1691-1692), Lyly was ‘‘always averse to the crabbed studies of logic and philosophy. For so it was that his genie being naturally bent to the pleasant paths of poetry ... did in a manner neglect academical studies.’’ Wood’s testimony is suspect because he wrote at least one hundred years after Lyly's university career and was perhaps influenced by Lyly's more spectacular later career at court, but his remark about the ‘‘crabbed studies'' certainly conforms to Lyly's own criticism of his alma mater and points to Lyly’s developing his writing.

Hoping for a Sure, High Seat at Court. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree and then taking his master’s at Oxford in June 1575, Lyly settled in London. Being disappointed in his pursuit of a fellowship, he apparently decided to pursue advancement at the other venue open to educated gentlemen—the court.

A Turn from Drama to Prose Ensures Literary Success. In 1578, Lyly joined the household of the Earl of Oxford, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorites who served as Lord Great Chamberlain for a time. It was for oxford's players at Blackfriars theater that Lyly wrote most of his plays, including Endimion, Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, and Gallatea. But it was the publication of his prose work, Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, that marked the beginning of his literary career.

The extraordinary success of Euphues persuaded Lyly that there were other avenues to advancement, and he turned again to his fictional hero in Euphues and His England, which was not published until 1580 despite promising a sequel ‘‘within one summer.’’ Lyly completely transformed his story, his tone, and his sense of audience for the later work; the results were apparently worth his efforts, for the two Euphues books were reprinted at an astonishing rate, and imitators were eagerly jumping on the bandwagon. Equally notable is how Lyly’s second Euphues book, with its extravagant patriotism and its lavish praise of Queen Elizabeth in the dedications, secured Lyly's position as court entertainer. Lyly left the Earl of Oxford’s service about 1588. Soon thereafter he obtained a court position as a writer in the Revels office—though he never succeeded in advancing to the more important post of Master of the Revels.

An Anti-Puritan Propagandist. In 1589 Lyly was also apparently engaged as a reader of new books for the Bishop of London. In John Lyly (1905), J. Dover Wilson remarks, ‘‘This connexion with the censorship of the day is interesting, as showing how Lyly was drawn into the whirlpool of the Marprelate controversy.'' The scandalous Marprelate pamphlets were fliers written under the pseudonym Martin Marprelate by radical Puritans making attacks on the clerical hierarchy of the established church. The bishops enlisted writers such as Lyly and Thomas Nashe to try to defeat ‘‘Martin Marprelate’’ at ‘‘his’’ own game. The result in Lyly’s case was Pappe with an Hatchet, Alias, a Fig for my Godson (1589).

With Pappe, Lyly’s career as a prose writer came to an end. The only other writings outside of his dramatic works are his famous petitionary letters to Queen Elizabeth of 1598 and 1601. Elizabeth had apparently led Lyly to believe that he was going to be granted the reversion of the post of Master of the Revels, but the position was instead given to Sir George Buc. Lyly was beside himself with disappointment and frustration, and wrote lifelong letters of appeal that apparently did little to advance his position. This rejection, combined with the decline in favor of his books (which were being neglected as intensely as they had been snatched up, read, and imitated), must have had a sore impact on the writer so eager to advance.

Parliament, a Prize Marriage, and Penury in the Last Days. It was probably through his friends at court, however, that Lyly was seated in Parliament four times—in 1589, 1593, 1597, and 1601; and as G. K. Hunter rightly points out, ‘‘membership in Parliament was an honour that few Elizabethan writers achieved.’’ It was also probably through his connections at court that Lyly met and married, in 1593, Beatrice Browne, an heiress whom Hunter characterizes as ‘‘quite a prize in the marriage market for the Canterbury registrar’s son.’’

Nevertheless, by the time Lyly died in 1606, heavily in debt, unrewarded by the court he had tried so hard to serve in his own way, and ‘‘all but ignored by the literary world which earlier had acclaimed him as its brightest star,’’ as Joseph Houppert writes in John Lyly (1975), it is hard to imagine him looking back on his life without a measure of disappointment and regret.



Lyly's famous contemporaries include:

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616): A Spanish novelist and poet who wrote what is widely considered the first novel, and is certainly one of the most important literary works in history: Don Quixote: Man of La Mancha (1605).

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): An Italian physicist, mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who was instrumental in the scientific revolution.

Ben Jonson (1532-1637): An English playwright, poet, and actor considered to be one of the most influential writers on the Jacobean and Caroline literature that followed him.

Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587): The Queen of the Monarchy of Scotland, she was also queen consort in France and is best known for her imprisonment and execution for treason.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616): An English (Elizabethan) playwright and poet, he is generally seen as one of the greatest writers of all time.


Works in Literary Context

Lyly is considered a pioneer of English literature who helped make prose a vehicle of art on the same level with poetry. He was especially noted for his artificial, elaborate prose style. Contrasted greatly with his contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s bloody tragedies, Lyly’s dramatic comedies marked an important change in English drama, mixing the pastoral tradition of lyric poetry with elements of classical myth.

Euphuism, or Latin in English. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit is perhaps more accurately remembered for its inflated language known as euphuism, a highly artificial style adopted from Latin prose and never before attempted in English. Despite the disdain euphuism produced after its initial popularity, Lyly’s use of language was a positive influence on the language: His alliteration, punning, and frequent references to Greek and Roman classical literature, for instance, attained great popularity in the pre-Shakespearean Elizabethan court. He heavily influenced writers in his time, who were eager to imitate him, as well as later writers including Shakespeare himself.

The Theater of Ideas. Lyly’s dramas also influenced later playwrights. Not only did he continue to use the euphuistic style he had originated in his first prose, but he helped introduce a theater of ideas to the English court. In Campaspe, for instance, the action of the play is both minimal and predictable. This is because the conflict centers not on the action of the play itself but on the questions that the protagonists have to consider to bring the conflict to a close. The primary female character, Campaspe, is loved by the heroic warrior Alexander and the painter Apelles. The conflict—who will get Campaspe in the end—is resolved when Alexander gives her up to Apelles, but in the process other ideas are introduced: Alexander returns to warfare, which had earlier been criticized, and he renounces Campaspe in scornful, unheroic terms after some serious soul-searching.



Lyly was known for his playful comedies that showed off the linguistic cleverness of his characters. Here are a few works by other writers that also mix comedy with clever language:

As You Like It (1599-1600), a play by William Shakespeare. In this pastoral comedy, double (or even triple) disguises make way for gender reversals and several humorous misconceptions and mishaps.

Barrel Fever (1994), a collection of short stories and essays by David Sedaris. In this selection of humorous stories and essays, the author offers laughs by way of his department store elf, obsessive-compulsive disordered child, and other pitifully hilarious alter egos.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1981), a novel by Italo Calvino. This novel is a comedy, a tragedy, and a thoughtful and thought-provoking experience.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a play by Oscar Wilde. In this comedy of manners, the dialogue is bristling with irony, sarcasm, and social puns.


Works in Critical Context

Lyly’s Euphues books earned both praise and dismissal in his lifetime. They pioneered an influential writing style, but they also garnered Lyly rejection and a poor reputation within years of his writing them—a critical backlash that may have played a role in frustrating Lyly’s hopes for a high position at court.

The Euphues Books. From the books’ title and character name, Euphues, Lyly’s adversary Gabriel Harvey coined the term euphuism. This new word was and has been a term of great disapproval or even disgust for most of the four hundred years of its existence. In 1887 critic George Saintsbury characterized it as ‘‘eccentric and tasteless.’’ In 1890 critic J. J. Jusserand called Lyly’s style ‘‘immoderate, prodigious, monstrous.’’ Much later, C. S. Lewis described Euphues as a ‘‘monstrosity’’ and a ‘‘fatal success.’’ As Walter N. King more recently asserted, ‘‘Lyly has ... become a major whipping boy in English literature.’’

The decline in popularity of the Euphues books that began so abruptly in his own lifetime has continued to a large extent to the present day. Even those who succeed in reading the first volume are rarely motivated to proceed to the sequel. Yet the current fascination with Elizabethan power politics of courtship and patronage (and the writing style strategies those politics demanded) would suggest that Lyly is ripe for reassessment.


Responses to Literature

1. Euphuism—a sophisticated and ornate prose style— originated with John Lyly. The writing was highly technical, with a set structure the author popularized to the point of influencing Shakespeare. Consider the following Lyly techniques, and compare a Lyly work or passage with a Shakespeare work or passage. Where can you identify similarities? What characteristics of the writing do you surmise Shakespeare ‘‘imitated’’?

In Euphuism:

• There is a distinctive pattern.

• There is a strict balance.

• A line will have two phrases of equal length, and the phrases will match in grammar or sentence structure but not in meaning.

• A line will have a matching of sounds and syllables—using such devices as alliteration (matching consonant sounds) or assonance (matching vowel sounds).

2. Both of Lyly’s Euphues works were hugely popular when they were first published. In both style and content they depicted the intellectual preferences and favored themes of Renaissance society. Considering the Euphues works, how would you characterize their first readers? What can you deduce about sixteenth-century tastes, values, and desires? What was important to Renaissance men and women?

3. Given the unique style of Lyly’s euphuism, find one passage you see as particularly striking, and try to imitate Lyly’s style. The theme can be the same or you can devise your own. Include at least one Lyly characteristic, such as alliteration or assonance. Then, ‘‘modernize’’ the piece by writing in your own style, as you would write a poem or lines of dialogue today for your modern audience. How do the two styles compare? How are they different? What does this tell you about audience preferences in Renaissance times and audience preferences today?




Houppert, Joseph W. John Lyly. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Jusserand, J. J. The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare. Unknown Binding, 1890.

Lawlis, Merritt, ed. Elizabethan Prose Fiction. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1967).

Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

Saintsbury, George. A History of Elizabethan Literature. London: Macmillan, 1887.

a Wood, Anthony. Athenae Oxonienses: an Exact History of all the Writers and Bishops who have had their Education in the University of Oxford from 1500 to 1690. London: R. Knaplock and J. Tonson, 1721.


Barish, Jonas A. ‘‘The Prose Style of John Lyly.’’ ELH, 23 (March 1956): 14-35.

Bates, Catherine, ‘‘‘A Large Occasion of Discourse’: John Lyly and the Art of Civil Conversation.’’ Review of English Studies, 42 (November 1991): 469-486.

King, Walter N. ‘‘John Lyly and Elizabethan Rhetoric.’’ Studies in Philology, 52 (April 1955): 149-161.

Knight, G. Wilson. ‘‘Lyly.’’ Review of English Studies, 15 (April 1939): 146-163.

McCabe, Richard A. ‘‘Wit, Eloquence, and Wisdom in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit.’’ Studies in Philology, 81 (Summer 1984): 299-324.

Ringler, William. ‘‘The Immediate Source of Euphuism.’’ PMLA, 53 (September 1938): 678-686.

Steinberg, Theodore L. ‘‘The Anatomy of Euphues.’’ Studies in English Literature, 17 (Winter 1977): 27-38.

Web sites

Luminarium. John Lyly (1554—1606). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

Project Gutenberg. John Lyly by John Dover Wilson. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

Representative Poetry Online. Selected Poetry of John Lyly (1554—1606). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from