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The University Wits

The University Wits come under the first dramatic period of the Elizabethan period. The term was first used by George Saintsbury in his book A History of the Elizabethan Literature. The University Wits are the generation educated at the Oxford and Cambridge Universities who used their poetry to make theatre, breathed new life into classical models and brought a new audience to the issues and conflicts which the stage could dramatise. They gave English tragedy its Magna Charta of freedom and submission to the restrictions of the actual life. The heads of the University wits are: Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, John Lyly and probably Thomas Kyd.

Among these seven, Lyle stands a good deal apart from personally, despite his close literary connection. There is no evidence that he has acquainted with any one of the other University Wits. Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy also has no record for his connection with the Universities. But the other five were closely connected in life, and in their deaths they were hardly divided.

Thomas Lodge, only of the five seems to have freed himself, partly in virtue of a regular profession, and partly in consequence of his adherence to the Roman faith and from the Bohemianism. The atheism of Marlowe rests on no proof, though it has got him friends in his later time. The majority of the too celebrated “jests” attributed to George Peele is directly traceable to Villon’s Repues Franches and similar compilation, and have a suspiciously mythical and traditional air to the student of literary history. The figure of Thomas Nashe is of major importance in the history of narrative. He is credited by some as having ‘invented’ modern narrative, particularly with The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), which he himself described as ‘being a clean different vein from other my former courses of writing’. Greene’s prose pieces and his occasional poems are, no doubt, better than his drama, but the latter is considerable, and was probably his earliest works.

For detailed information on each of the seven University Wits read the Upcoming posts.


A History of the Elizabethan Literature- George Saintsbury

The Routledge History of Literature in English

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