During the 16th century English drama settled into a regular entertainment. The stage offered massive opportunities for the dramatists, but it remained in a state of chaos. In the 1580s group of playwrights, who had their education either from Oxford or Cambridge, stepped into the theatre as professional playwrights and reformed it for once and all. They are known as University Wits. The group includes—John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Kyd and Marlowe. With their professionalism, while they rescued English drama from the medieval mire of religion, they also paved the way for Shakespeare. John Lyly was the leader of the group. His receptive mind was hospitable to the more delicate graces of literature. In a series of witty comedies –Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Endymion, Midas he addressed Elizabeth in delicate flattery praising by turn the charms of the chastity of the woman, the chastity of the virgin, the majority of the queen. It was Lyly who was largely responsible for the first elaboration of romantic sentiment.
Lyly wrote in Euphuistic prose, artificial in structure and language, but refined in manner, witty and graceful. Lyly’s plays with their sparkle and courtly air the first artistic plays. They made ready the way for Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.
Like Lyly, George Peele flattered Elizabeth in his graceful pastoral, The arraignment of Paris. He used the same ornate manner in his scripture drama The Love of David and Fair Bathsabe in which he followed closely the Bible record. In his play Edward I, he turned to national history. He parodied the romanticists in The Old Wive’s Tale. By far the most original of the peoples’ plays was The Old Wive’s Tale which has a perfect charm of romantic humour.Robert Greene was a member of both the universities. He tried an imitation entitled Alphonsus after Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. His second play was written with Lodge and entitled The Looking Glass for London and England. It is a mixture of elements from the moralities and modern Elizabethan satire. Then there followed Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV. With Greene, we find a dramatic form in which realism and idealism meet.
Thomas Lodge was educated at Oxford. He was a facile writer and in a quick succession wrote two plays The Wounds of Civil War and A Looking Glass for London and England. But he is better known as the writer of euphuistic prose romance Rosalynde, the source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. another University Wit, Thomas Nash is known for his Summers Last Will and Testament and The Unfortunate Traveller.
Among Shakespeare’s predecessors, Thomas Kyd and Marlowe occupy a permanent place. They were both influenced by Seneca, at the same time contributed something of their own towards the development of English tragedy. Though Kyd does not seem to have any of the universities, his contribution to drama is intrinsically as well as historically important. His Spanish Tragedy established itself as a lasting genre in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre in the form of revenge tragedy. [The central motive in the drama is the revenge of Hieronimo for the murder of his son, Horatio. The play is a well constructed; and Seneca’s ghosts and revenge themes have freely been borrowed.] He wrote forceful and capable dialogue. He also presented in the hero a new type of vacillating tragic hero.At the time of Marlowe’s arrival upon the English stage, the English drama was in a chaotic stage. It needed a great genius who could give the drama its shape, direction and stability. And this was fulfilled by Marlowe. In the first place, he raised the subject matter to a higher level. He provided heroic subjects which appealed to his imagination. In his person the spirit of Renaissance—boundless passion or knowledge, power and beauty was incarnated. His heroes are Tamberlaine, Dr. Faustus, Barabas, embodying passion for world conquest, knowledge and wealth respectively. He gave life and reality to these characters. In the next place , he gave the approval of his authority on the blank verse of the classical school and put aside the old rhyming lines of the Romantic or native drama, “ jigging veins of Rhyming mother-wits”, as he says in the Prologue to Tamburlaine.Marlowe also added to the conception of tragedy. He broke, partly with medieval conception in which tragedy was the fall of a great man. With him, as later with Shakespeare, tragedy results in catastrophe from some overweening feature of weakness of strength in the character himself. Here we see the medieval conception of the royalty of tragedy being supplanted by the Renaissance ideal of individual worth—virtue. Marlovian heroes are all governed by this virtue which leads them to ultimate tragedy. Marlowe was a great poet. His poetry raises crude medieval drama to the realm of high tragedy. The poignantly pathetic death scene of Faustus, the scene of King Edward at Kenilworth castle and the rapturous cry over the dying zenocrate remain permanently in the mind of the reader.