The University Wits as The Predecessors of Shakespeare

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       The principal Predecessors of Shakespeare plays in the history of the English drama were the "University Wits' as they are called. These were young men who were associated with Oxford and Cambridge universities, that trained their students in rhetoric with the aid of Seneca, Terence and modern Latin imitations. Seneca's Ten Tragedies (1559-1581) were translated and this started the broad stream of Elizabethan translation. The time was ripe for a neo-classical drama in English. But humanism in the theatre was obliged from the first to come to terms with the popular traditions (of the Moralities and Miracles). These University wits did much to found the Elizabethan school of drama. The most notable of these are Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Lyly and Kyd.

The principal Predecessors of Shakespeare in the history of the English drama were the "University Wits' as they are called. These were young men who were associated with Oxford and Cambridge universities, that trained their students in rhetoric with the aid of Seneca, Terence and modern Latin imitations.

      Their plays had certain features in common-namely heroic themes (mostly tragic), heroic treatment (splendid descriptions, long swelling speeches, violent incidents and emotions), heroic style, use of blank verse, and a general lack of humour.

      Marlowe (1564-1593) has been rightly called the 'Father of the English drama'. Of course, he had no arched for comedy and the comic parts found in some of his plays are inferior, probably written by other hands. It was upon the tragedy that Marlowe gave the impress of his brilliance and left it ready-made for his great successor of Shakespeare. Marlowe saw clearly that the Romantic drama, as distinguished from the classical one with its unities and other features, was best suited to the needs of the nation and no other form could best represent its abundant exuberant life. He, therefore, sat down between the classical and native dramas and decided in favour of the latter.

      Marlowe is a poet. He is a poet of passion and pathos. The union of poetry and drama which is one of the glories of Shakespeare is also Marlowe's achievement. It raises crude middle English drama to the realm of high tragedy. The poignantly pathetic death scene of Faustus, the scene of King Edward in Kenilworth castle and the delighted cry over the dying zenocrate are gems or English poetry.

      Marlowe gave to the crude tragedy of mediaeval times a depth and inwardness. In Dr. Faustus he attempted the delineation of a struggle within the mind of the main figure. Marlowe dared to claim admiration even for the blood-thirsty conqueror like Tamburlaine. It is a clear anticipation of Shakespeare's treatment of Richard and Macbeth.

      Greene (1558-1592) Greene commands attention in a more engaging way. Greene 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 satires. Orlando was written after Greene had read Sir John Harrington's translation of Ariosto. Then there followed Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV. Of these Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is the most important, The material seems a mixture of many traditions, of Tanburlaine and Faustus in the verse and of Faustus in the devices of the action. But out and beyond these, not derived but created by Greene is the drama of the English Scene with Margaret, the country girl, all English, despite the fact that she uses classical quotations. This is different from the native elements in the Miracle plays. lt is romanticised and idealised. He devised the ways of keeping the whole play together, the court and the countryside and the world of magic. He introduced suppleness and grace into his comedies. He could describe an idyll with charm. Romance and low humour are mingled in a remarkable manner in the comedy. The cardinal feature of the romantic comedy is precisely the interweaving of diverse moods and surrounding, here princes meet with clowns, and fairies with artisans, added to the presentation of a rural love, usually spiritual in essence. In James IV, there is also a fusion of romantic love and humour. With Greene, we find a dramatic form in which realism and idealism meet. In characterisation too, Greene's contribution to the drama of his age is noteworthy. He is one of the first to draw the Rosalinds and Celias of Elizabethan Times. Margaret and Dorothea are excellent portraits of women conceived and depicted in that romantic light which shone on so many works of the period. Greene, along with Lyly and Peele is the inaugurator of that romantic comedy which culminate in the hands of Shakespeare.

      Greene wrote lively plays for the public theatre and gained personal fame. Greene wrote four plays - Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587), Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589), Orlando Furioso (1591) and James IV (1592). The second of these is easily the best of Greene's, It contains some of the faithful representations of Elizabethan life. Its method of construction (namely weaving double plots) became the common method of the Elizabethans. The diverse elements of Shakespeare's romantic comedies had already been foreshadowed in Greene, including the motif of a heroine disguising herself as a man. lt may be noted that one of his popular novels furnished the plot or Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. "Greene is weak in creating characters, and his style is not of outstanding merit: but his humour is some-what genial in his play and his methods less austere than those of the other tragedians. (Albert).

     Peele (1558-1598): Among Shakespeare's predecessors, a definite place as poet and dramatist is to be assigned to George Peele. Like Lyly, he 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 peoples plays was The Old Wive's Tale which has a perfect charm of romantic humour. Like Shakespeare, Peele could induce laughter of a peculiarly mellowed sort by the juxtaposition of reality and romance, and he could create an atmosphere which united these two worlds in one harmony. The play, The Old Wive's Tale opens with a realistic, contemporary, rustic scene in which Madge, the old wife begins to tell a tale making several false starts. She breaks off as the actors enter to perform the story she is narrating. In contrast to the homely realism of the opening, the tale is romantic and extravagant. Two brothers are seeking their sister who is under the power of a magician. Into this purely romantic fantasy, Peele succeeds introducing an amount of literary satire, Gabriel Harvey's attempts at Latinised verse in English being subjected to the particularly severe ridicule. This is the first dramatic literary satire in English; it is one of the completest expressions of romanticism in the 16th century outside of the works of Shakespeare himself.

      George Peele is more of a poet and a man of theatre, though less of a story-teller than Greene. His plays are: The Araygnenient of Paris (c. 1584), a kind of romantic comedy; Edward I (1593), a rambling chronicle play; The Old Wive's Tale (C. 1593), a lively and clever satire on the popular drama; David and Bethsabe (1599), a dignified Biblical tragedy. The plays of Peele mark a definite advance upon the earlier drama and pave the path for Shakespeare. "Peele's style can be violent to the point of absurdity; but he has his moments of real beauty; he can handle his blank verse with more ease and variety than was common at that time; he is fluent; he has humour and a fair amount of pathos." (Albert).

      As a dramatist, Peele lacks power, but he is a true poet. In all his plays, we note a high level of poetic attainment. At his best he rises to a perfect height of lyric diction. Sometimes poetry overrides drama. It is, however, his comedies that will prove his most lasting claim in fame.

      Lyly (1554-1606): The Elizabethan comedy was enriched by the contributions of Lyly, Greene and Peele. Lyly is the foremost among university wits. Lyly's dramatic works have a certain similarity of texture notably in Euphuistic dialogue and in the use of classical mythology. They are all modelled for a courtly audience. 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 woman, the chastity of the woman, the chastity of the virgin, the majority of the queen. To these court comedies may be added the more disinterested mythological pastorals; Galathea, the subject of which is love; Love's Metamorphosis, a lively satire on women; The Woman in the Moone; and Mother Bombie, a comedy with an Italian plot.

      It was Lyly who was largely responsible for the first elaboration of romantic sentiment. He found on the stage the abstractions of the moralities; he found also the crude comedy of realistic types; he found the crude mingling of tragedy and of comedy. His plays made a fine blend of romance and humour. The romantic fancy is with him more idealistic than it is with Peele and Greene, and makes his plays move on a plane somewhat removed from terrestrial existence. In his comedies there is a melowed spirit under which seriousness and laughter meet. As a matter of fact, he is the inaugurator of romantic comedy of high comedy. Lyly refines and intellectualize the drama. He gave it grace, delicacy and charm. Human figures live and move side by side with the deities of classical mythology. 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.

      Lyly is the foremost among the University wits. In his plays - Compaspe, Sapho and Phao, Endymion and Midas, he shows his romantic fancy which is more idealistic than that of Greene and Peele. His plays made a fine blend of romance and humour.

      Kyd (1557-1595): Among the predecessors of Shakespeare, Kyd and Marlowe were the most outstanding dramatists who were influenced by Seneca and at the same time gave something of their own towards the development of English tragedy. Kyd had no great gift of vision and poetry which Marlowe possessed abundantly. But he was a skilful man of theatre. He was the author of The Spanish Tragedie which was the most popular and effective of the early tragedies. The central motive is the revenge of Hieronimo, Marshal of Spain for the murder of his son Horatio. The problem for the dramatist, as in Hamlet (Shakespeare's tragedy) is how the interval between the murder and its discovery can be filled. This Kyd achieves by showing the moods and frenzy of Hieronimo and by arranging theatrically effective devices for exposing the murder. Hieronimo appeals to heaven for justice. He then appeals to the king. Having failed to get justice, he takes upon himself the task. The characters of Hieronimo, Lorenzo and Bel-Imperia, Horatio's beloved are firmly drawn. It is true that the play is full of horror and melodrama, but it has a romantic daring and a certainty of effect that made its popularity deserved. The play is well-constructed; and Seneca's ghosts and revenge themes have freely been borrowed. Kyd knew the taste of the audience and his tragedy is like Shakespeares plays full of strong external actions. Kyd knew the theatre so well that he could make fullest use of all the opportunities it has to offer. He wrote forceful and capable dialogue, though, he could not rival Marlowe in writing the high astounding lines. He had taken over the Senecan type as it appeared in Gorboduc; he made it thrillingly effective; had breathed into it the passion of fine blank verse. Moreover, he contributed a new type of tragic hero, the hesitating type so magnificently seen in Hamlet, Shakespeare combined and perfected the traditions of Kyd and Marlowe.

      Kyd had not attended any university, although he matriculated from a school. He was however influenced by Seneca. Much of his dramatic work is lost. Of the surviving plays the most important is the Spanish Tragedie, It is a revenge tragedy, with its conventional elements like ghosts clamouring for revenge, feigned madness, bloody and sensational situations etc. Shakespeare is much indebted for the machinery of the plot of his famous Hamlet to this tragedy of Kyd. Kyd's dramatic style, though ranting, has occasional flashes of rare beauty which foreshadows the great tragical lines of Shakespeare. He is an artist of genius.

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