Justifying Lyly

In the late 1570s as a new set of purpose-built playhouses opened in London, Edmund Spenser published his first collection of poems and Sir Philip Sidney was working on his pastoral Arcadia. In 1578 and 1580, John Lyly published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and his England, and the two works were to outsell and determine the literary output of his contemporaries for sixty years.

These prose narratives immediately established Lyly as the dominant literary voice of his generation, and he was hired by the Earl of Oxford to front a new company of choirboys to perform before the Queen. Lyly rose to the challenge of entertaining the monarch by writing a series of plays that explored the nature of monarchy itself, and in particular the status of love within the court. In this way Lyly actively used the forum of performance before the queen to discuss the sex life of the queen herself, at a time when Elizabeth’s child-bearing years were coming to an end and she was beginning to nurture the image of the Virgin Queen.

Galatea is the only one of Lyly’s first five plays not to feature a monarch, although authority figures are present in the shape of the Greek gods Neptune, Venus and Diana (mysteriously on holiday in Lincolnshire).  It is not these figures, however, that are in love; that emotion falls to Galatea and Phillida.  Their wanderings through the forest anticipate the antics of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It, and the forest itself clearly prefigures A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.  At the end of his career, Shakespeare can still be seen recalling Galatea in The Tempest.

Our perception of Lyly’s writing has been forever skewered by the subsequent canonisation of Shakespeare as the great writer of his (or all) time. This occurred, however, in the eighteenth century, and as Shakespeare began to be celebrated for his patriotism, chauvinism and natural genius, Lyly became berated for his foreignness, femininity and artifice. This is a process of canonisation that tells us little about either writer’s merits in their own time or in ours, and in the past decade Lyly’s work has started to be performed by theatre professionals who have discovered a very different kind of writer: lively, immediate, clear, challenging, fresh.

Lyly was the dominant literary force of Shakespeare’s time. He was the first English writer to employ prose as his default medium for dramatic composition, the first literary best-seller, the first to privilege female characters, the first to see a series of his plays into print. These characteristics all set him apart from our usual assumptions about early modern theatre, as does his tendency to write relatively short plays, as opposed to Shakespeare and Jonson’s bladder-busting epics. The stylistic devices he employed helped to give the English sentence its current clarity and caused a sensation in early modern England.  Sixty years later his first editor was to remember his style as ‘a new language’ he had introduced to the court.  By discussing the queen’s conduct in front of her and infiltrating the court with his discourse, Lyly transformed the power of the English language, and the language of English power, forever.


Dr Andy Kesson
University of Roehampton