John Lyly

John Lyly was probably born in Canterbury in 1553 or 1554. He took his B.A. at Oxford in 1573 and his M.A. in 1575, and was made an M.A. by Cambridge University also in 1579. Late in 1578 his Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit was issued, a work intended to set a pattern for English prose, in which he wove into a thin thread of fiction dissertations on such subjects as education and contemporary manners. A second part, Euphues and His England, appeared in 1580. In spite of the vogue of Euphues, whose style was imitated in a series of romantic novels for many years to come, Lyly turned from fiction to devote himself to drama, possibly under the influence of the Earl of Oxford. Beginning about 1580 as his secretary, Lyly served the earl at least until about 1585. He was esquire of the body to Elizabeth in 1588, probably wrote a pamphlet and plays for the bishop's party in the Marprelate controversy of 1589-90, and secured election to parliament on four separate occasions. Disappointed of his chief hopes, however, he died in 1606, after a decade marked for us only by some petty records of his family life and some letters complaining of failure and neglect.

Lyly's dramatic work was part of his disappointing effort to advance his fortunes at court, especially in connection with the office of the revels, but it was also designed for the professional theater. The records of the activities and interrelations of the boy companies by whom his plays were acted are complicated and often obscure. Campaspe and Sappho and Phao were printed in 1584 as having been acted early in the year at court, by the Children of the Chapel and the Boys of St. Paul's Choir School, but official payment for the two performances was made to Oxford's "servants" under Lyly. Possibly the boy company under Oxford's patronage was combined with the other two companies in this year to perform at court plays written by Lyly and Oxford. According to the prologues, however, Lyly's two plays were also publicly acted at the "private" theater of Blackfriars, where the Children of the Chapel had given periodic performances for profit since 1576. Apparently Lyly and Oxford acquired an interest in this playhouse just as it was closed by a suit in 1584. Later Lyly wrote plays for Paul's boys, as the title-pages show, clearly for both court and public performances, until the public acting of the boys came to an end in 1591. These plays, with the dates of publication, are Endymion (1591), Galathea (1592), Mother Bombie (1594), and Love's Metamorphosis (1601). The Woman in the Moon (1597) has no indication of the company, and may have been the result of some other connection.

It is in keeping with this effort to please the court and the public that Lyly's dramatic work marks the first stage in the development toward the Elizabethan popular drama of superb literary quality which was to follow. In the words of Bond, Lyly struck a "balance between classic precedent and romantic freedom." Titles of lost plays suggest that court taste had turned from the stricter classicism of academic circles to romance, sometimes disguised by the use of classical story. Lyly used as a basis of his plots love stories drawn from ancient history or mythology, most often from Ovid, adding at times pastoral or sylvan settings, and always reflecting the ideals of courtly circles. Indirect effects of classical influence, possibly in part derived from Italian influence, are seen in both structure and style. There is good motivation of action, variety and skillful complications of incidents, and suspense, especially in the love story. A simplified form of the famous euphuistic prose style, with new elements of conceit and wit appropriate to brisk dialogue, makes Lyly's dramatic prose significant for the future of Elizabethan drama. In his pages, with their quotations from the classics and their parody of the forms and devices of logic, Lyly developed roles appropriate to his actors as school boys, and the amount of singing in the plays gives scope for them as choir boys. Probably his style and his reflection of court life and taste account for the early printing of his plays, which in turn probably led to the printing of other romantic plays written for the London stage, especially those of the University Wits.

In Endymion the main incidents of the long sleep and the kiss of Cynthia, drawn from Ovid and Lucian, furnished a basis for Lyly's best blend of classic story, love intrigue, courtly and sylvan setting, satire, and wit. A long tradition of interpreting classic myth freely as shadowing historical events or embodying allegory was responsible for popularizing in the Renaissance the use of myths for presentation of contemporary events or figures, either for flattery or for satire, in poetry generally but perhaps chiefly in pageants and plays. Lyly availed himself of the fashion to flatter Elizabeth boldly as Cynthia and possibly to glance at events in the court. Many attempts have been made to read the apparent allegory of the play. In 1843 Halpin argued that Endymion's story represents Leicester's love for Elizabeth and his relations to others at court. Other interpretations of the play as personal allegory have been advanced by various scholars. P.W. Long argues, however, perhaps correctly, that the allegory is primarily one of Platonic love, in which Endymion passes from love of Tellus (Earth), or earthly beauty, to adoration of Cynthia as a symbol of heavenly beauty.

Endymion, probably composed some time between 1585 and 1588, was entered in the Stationer's Register on October 4, 1591, and published anonymously later that year. The play was printed as Lyly's by Blount in Six Court Comedies of 1632. The style, however, would leave no doubt as to Lyly's authorship.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays Ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. pp. 171-72.

Lyly's Plays  |  Biographies/Studies


Lyly's Plays


Related Sites

John Lyly

John Lyly: Poems

British Theatre

Related Playwrights

George Chapman

Thomas Dekker

John Ford

Ben Jonson

Thomas Kyd

Christopher Marlowe

Philip Massinger

Thomas Middleton

George Peele

William Shakespeare

James Shirley

John Webster

Other Playwrights



Samuel Beckett

Aphra Behn

Bertolt Brecht



Henrik Ibsen

Arthur Miller

Bernard Shaw


August Strindberg

Frank Wedekind

Tennessee Williams

Moonstruck Drama Bookstore  |  Theatre News  |  Theatre Links  |  Email Us