The University Wits were a group of English playwrights and poets in the late 16th century, known for
their academic backgrounds and contributions to the flourishing Elizabethan drama. Comprising figures such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, and Robert Greene, they were educated at universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This cadre of intellectuals played a crucial role in shaping the theatrical landscape, bridging medieval and Renaissance traditions. Marlowe, for instance, pushed the boundaries of dramatic expression with works like “Doctor Faustus.” Their influence extended beyond the stage, contributing significantly to the development of English literature. The University Wits laid the groundwork for the golden age of Elizabethan drama, paving the way for the remarkable achievements of later playwrights, including William Shakespeare.
1. Intellectual and Academic Background:
The University Wits were so named because of their shared academic backgrounds, having studied at prestigious institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. This academic foundation brought a higher level of sophistication and intellectualism to their works.
2. Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama:
The University Wits played a crucial role in transitioning English drama from medieval morality plays to the more sophisticated and humanistic forms of the Renaissance. They moved away from the didactic and allegorical nature of medieval drama, embracing classical influences and exploring complex human emotions.
3. Introduction of Blank Verse:
Christopher Marlowe, one of the prominent University Wits, is credited with popularizing the use of blank verse in English drama. Blank verse, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, became a hallmark of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, providing a more flexible and natural rhythm than the rhymed couplets of earlier plays.
4. Tragedy and Historical Themes:
Marlowe’s contributions to English drama include groundbreaking tragedies like “Doctor Faustus” and “Tamburlaine.” These plays delved into themes of ambition, power, and the consequences of unrestrained desire. Marlowe’s exploration of historical and mythological subjects set the stage for the grand historical plays that followed.
5. Innovation in Comedy:
John Lyly, another University Wit, made notable contributions to the development of English comedy. His plays, such as “Endymion” and “Gallathea,” were characterized by witty dialogue, sophisticated wordplay, and a focus on courtly manners. Lyly’s influence can be seen in the later romantic comedies of Shakespeare.
6. Popularization of the Sonnet Sequence:
The University Wits contributed to the popularity of the sonnet sequence, a form that gained prominence in Elizabethan poetry. While not confined to the stage, the sonnet form found its way into dramatic works, influencing the structure and expression of emotions within plays.
7. Exploration of Psychological Complexity:
Thomas Kyd, known for his play “The Spanish Tragedy,” made strides in exploring psychological complexity in characters. The play is considered a precursor to the revenge tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, where characters grapple with moral dilemmas and internal conflicts.
8. Influence on Shakespeare:
The University Wits laid the groundwork for William Shakespeare, who emerged shortly after their time. Marlowe’s dramatic achievements, Lyly’s comedic innovations, and Kyd’s exploration of psychological depth influenced Shakespeare’s own masterpieces, demonstrating a continuity in the evolution of English drama.
In summary, the University Wits were pivotal in the transition from medieval to Renaissance drama, introducing new forms, themes, and linguistic innovations that enriched the theatrical landscape of their time. Their intellectual rigor and creative experimentation set the stage for the golden age of Elizabethan drama, leaving a lasting legacy that resonates in the works of Shakespeare and beyond.