University Wits in English Literature

The term “University Wits” is related to an association of English writers who thrived during the 16th and the early part of the 17th century under the influence of the Renaissance.

The writers who were part of this University Wits were Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nash, and Robert Greene. Although at times Thomas Kyd was not considered part of this group but his novelty and connection with them made Thomas Kyd one with them. All these University Wits had taken university education and had a good knowledge of classical learning as well. Marlowe, Kyd, and Greene were from Cambridge University; and Peele and Lodge were from Oxford University. They were all of noble birth and high status. It is noteworthy to mention that they did not employ the term “University Wits” in their lifetime but was formulated by George Saintsbury, a 19th century English writer and critic.

Contribution of University Wits in British Drama:

Christopher Marlowe: Marlowe was the greatest artistic persona and the most imposing playwrights among the University Wits. Although Marlowe’s dramatic career was very short but was illuminated with monumental accomplishments. Marlowe’s dramatic career begins with “Tamburlaine the Great”, which he wrote in his early twenties. After his first play, he wrote three memorable plays one after the other, such as “The tragicall history of the life and death of Doctor Faustus”, “Edward the Second”, and “The Jew of Malta”. Through these tragedies, we can learn about his dramatic talent. There is significant diversity in his subject matter, for example, history in “Edward the Second”, magic in “Doctor Faustus”, tragedy in “The Jew of Malta”, etc. His style is dynamic, energetic, and extremely poetic. If we talk about Marlowe’s one achievement, then it was his ability to combine drama and poetry. Marlowe’s dramas are rich with his dominant notion of tragic protagonists and presentation of the powerful internal conflict as also with moving poetry. The blank verse that was also used in “Gorboduc”, the first tragedy of English, was handled very well by Marlowe in his plays. 

Read More: Doctor Faustus as a tragedy

Thomas Kyd: Thomas Kyd was one of the prominent personalities in the progress of Elizabethan drama. Kyd is remembered as the author of the revenge play “The Spanish Tragedy”. He followed Seneca and his model of tragedy and brought the revenge tradition into the English drama. His efficient utilization of the Senecan revenge tradition has filled the stage with supernatural elements and gory scenes. Kyd used blank verse skillfully in accordance with the thrilling and terrifying theme of dread and revenge. The supernatural feeling is also created by presenting ghosts and spirits of the dead.

John Lyly: John Lyly was known for his prose romance “Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit”, but he had authored many comedies too. He was an Oxford scholar, and his well-known comedies were “Alexander”, “Sapho and phao”, “Endymion”, “The Woman in the Moon”, and so on. Lyly’s chief addition is the starting of high comedy as a kind of drama, hugely fascinating to the civilized and people of culture. The earlier comedies made by physical sensationalism are found substituted by Lyly’s high comedies.

Read More: Doctor Faustus as a Renaissance Man

Robert Greene: As a dramatist, Robert Greene was more successful than John Lyly. His famous dramas include “The History of Orlando and Furioso”, “The Comicall Historie of Alphonsus”, “King of Aragon”, and so on. Greene presented his characters and dramatic situations very skillfully through his plays, which was not the case with John Lyly’s plays. 

George Peele: As a dramatist, George Peele was unquestionably mediocre to both John Lyly and Robert Greene. His play “The Arraignment of Paris” was staged before the Queen and the Queen was quite impressed with it. Peele’s other main works include “Old Wive’s Tale” and “David and Bathsabe”. It is believed that Shakespeare wrote his play “The Winter’s Tale” after being influenced by Peele’s “Old Wives Tale”

Read More: Hamlet as a revenge tragedy

Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe: Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe were the most inferior dramatists from the group of University wits. Talking about the plays of Thomas Lodge “The Wounds of the Civil War” and “A Looking Glass for London and England” are notable. Like Lodge, Nashe also does not have any such play which is worth mentioning except one “Summer’s Last Will and Testament”.  Nashe was basically a journalist and most of his prose works were related to politics and also satirical. 

Impact of the University Wits on Shakespeare:

Needless to say, Shakespeare’s originality is beyond doubt, but the impact of the earlier dramatists on him is also distinctly visible. We can see glimpses of Marlowe in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Certainly, Marlowe’s tragedies do not exhibit the powerful internal conflict of Shakespeare’s famous protagonists like Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and so on. Nonetheless, Marlovian plays convey an outlook of the inner conflict to which a character is administered. It is believed that Marlowe’s “Edward II” has an explicit manifestation in Shakespeare’s “Richard II” particularly its dramatic tension and external conflict. 

Read More: Shakespeare as a dramatist

We can see the influence of Thomas Kyd in the revenge tragedies of Shakespeare particularly in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is found conspicuously owing to Thomas Kyd’s famous revenge play “The Spanish Tragedy”. The main theme of both the plays was revenge, apart from this, supernatural elements, madness, gory scenes, murder, etc. were dominated both the plays. 

In the realm of romantic comedy, we can see the influence of John Lyly in Shakespeare’s plays such as “The Tempest” and “Love’s Labor Lost”. There were certain aspects of Lyly’s comedies that perhaps found in Shakespeare’s romances such as woods as places for self-realization, imps with an ability to interact, a story revolving around marriage, and so on. 


There is no doubt that as a playwright Shakespeare is a genius but it is also true that there is no artist who is not inspired or influenced by anyone. Shakespeare was also influenced by his predecessors, whom we also call University Wits. So in the end we can say that English Drama started with University Wits and later Shakespeare took it to a level that was not exceeded in any other period. The University Wits transmitted poetic charm and elegance to British drama.

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