British and Irish Literature John Lyly
Chloe Porter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0088


John Lyly (b. 1554–d. 1606) is often famed for his precarious hold on fame; he was a contemporary of Shakespeare and a literary celebrity in his own lifetime, but he has fallen, by comparison, into considerable obscurity. Lyly’s celebrity grew rapidly with his first two publications, the prose works Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), and Euphues and His England (1580). These hugely popular prose fictions told of a prodigal Greek scholar named Euphues, and introduced euphuism, the highly patterned prose style in which the adventures of Euphues are narrated. Euphuism became immediately fashionable and much imitated as a mode of courtly, witty expression, and shapes the prose style deployed by the author in his subsequent works for the stage. Lyly produced eight plays, most of which were probably performed at court, by the troupe of boy actors known as the Children of Paul’s (also referred to as Paul’s Boys); some of the plays were also performed at the Blackfriars theater. The Children of Paul’s ceased playing amid controversy in 1590, and for a long time critical opinion held that Lyly’s career spiraled into crisis after this date. The last of Lyly’s plays to be published, The Woman in the Moon, printed in 1597, is the only play by Lyly written in blank verse, rather than prose, and so was taken as evidence of Lyly attempting, and failing, to write blank verse drama of the sort performed by the adult theater companies. This interpretation of the performance contexts for The Woman in the Moon has been convincingly challenged, although the precise stage history of this play remains elusive. Lylian scholars have also dislodged the narrative of Lyly as a literary and courtly failure, pointing to the frequent printing of both parts of Euphues in the 17th century, and to the publication of a collection of Lyly’s plays in 1632. Lyly’s works are a rich source for scholars of early modern literature, intersecting with the period’s major preoccupations, movements, and figures. Lyly’s grandfather was the grammarian William Lily, and the prose works and plays are steeped in humanist learning; Lyly was also a political satirist, contributing the pamphlet Pap with an Hatchet (1589) to the Marprelate Controversy. Depictions of same-sex desire in Lyly’s plays have fascinated scholars, and euphuism has proved receptive to analysis from a range of historical and theoretical perspectives. The publication of accessible editions of Lyly’s works has enabled their more frequent inclusion on university syllabi, and, after years on the margins, Lyly is finally being recognized as a pivotal figure in early modern literary and theater history.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

A number of critical studies and biographies of Lyly were published in the early 20th century; these remain useful and of interest as sources of information on Lyly’s life and writing, and as evidence for studies of Lylian reception history. Wilson 1905, the earliest critical study, discusses Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit as “the first English novel.” and emphasizes Lyly’s significance for the Renaissance and the “rise of the novel.” Biographical studies are presented in Bond 1902, and Feuillerat 1910 is a highly detailed biography that resolves ambiguities concerning Lyly’s parentage in Bond 1902. Hunter 1962 was the first critical biography to discuss Lyly in his own right, rather than because of his perceived influence on Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture more generally, and this study remains a seminal Lylian text. Hunter characterizes Lyly’s career as marked by failure and frustration, a narrative challenged convincingly by Scragg 2006. Scragg 2005 contributes to the revival of Lyly as an important voice in early modern drama through a discussion of the political language of the plays. Kesson 2014 is the first book-length study of Lyly since Hunter 1962 to consider both the prose works and the plays, and it contributes to the recovery of Lyly’s significance as a major writer of the early modern period. As critical interest in Lyly continues to grow, Lunney 2011 functions as a useful resource for scholars new to Lyly, bringing together important essays on most aspects of Lyly’s work.

  • Bond, R. Warwick, ed. The Complete Works of John Lyly. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1902.

    The first volume of this edition of the prose and plays includes a biography of the author and a critical introduction to euphuism; considers Lyly’s influence on Shakespeare. See also Editions.

  • Feuillerat, Albert. John Lyly: Contribution à l’histoire de la Renaissance en Angleterre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1910.

    Detailed and still authoritative biography that laid the foundations for later 20th-century Lylian scholarship. In French.

  • Hunter, G. K. John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

    Seminal critical biography that remains essential reading for scholars new to Lyly; the first study to consider Lyly worthy of discussion in his own right. Discusses Lyly’s prose and drama.

  • Kesson, Andy. John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014.

    First major single-author, book-length study of Lyly’s works to be published in the 21st century. Builds on work on early modern print culture to argue for new connections between Lyly’s prose works and plays. Also presents new arguments concerning the marginalization of Lyly in early modern literary studies.

  • Lunney, Ruth, ed. John Lyly. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Substantial collection of essays by prominent scholars of Lyly, including Jonas Barish, Leah Scragg, and Michael Pincombe; essays mostly date from the late 20th century. Usefully brings together work on the most significant themes in Lylian studies, including gender, Elizabethan court culture and politics, and questions of performance.

  • Scragg, Leah. “John Lyly and the Politics of Language.” Essays in Criticism 55.1 (2005): 17–38.

    DOI: 10.1093/escrit/cgi02

    Complex and important critical discussion, influenced by post-structuralist approaches to language. Highlights the political significance of Lyly’s language in a number of his plays, including Campaspe, Galathea, Sappho and Phao, The Woman in the Moon, and Midas.

  • Scragg, Leah. “The Victim of Fashion? Rereading the Biography of John Lyly.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism and Reviews 19 (2006): 210–226.

    Corrective to Hunter 1962, arguing that Lyly was not a “victim of fashion” whose drama failed to transfer to the public stage in The Woman in the Moon. Scragg argues that this play is an example of Lylian experimentation, not necessarily written for adult players.

  • Wilson, John Dover. John Lyly. Cambridge, UK: Macmillan & Bowes, 1905.

    The earliest critical study of Lyly, focusing on the writer for his significance in literary history. Mainly discusses Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England, while a more limited section considers the plays.

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