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The University Wits were a group of late 16th century English playwrights who were educated at the universities (Oxford or Cambridge) and who became playwrights and popular secular writers. Prominent members of this group were Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe from Cambridge, and John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele from Oxford. Thomas Kyd is also considered sometimes as one of the University Wits but Kyd did not read in any university. Nevertheless, the plays of Kyd show close resemblance to those of other members of the group.
This diverse and talented loose association of London writers and dramatists set the stage for the theatrical Renaissance of Elizabethan England. They were looked upon as the literary elite of the day, and prepared the way for William Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare never was University educated, and Greene calls Shakespeare an "upstart crow" in his pamphlet Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit.
As Edward Albert says, in his 'History of English Literature' (OUP, 1979), the plays of the University Wits had several features in common:
(a) There was a fondness for heroic themes, such as the lives of great figures like Mohammed and Tamburlaine.
(b) Heroic themes needed heroic treatment: great fullness and variety; splendid descriptions, long swelling speeches, the handling of violent incidents and emotions. These qualities, excellent when held in restraint, only too often led to loudness and disorder.
(c) The style was also ‘heroic’. The chief aim was to achieve strong and sounding lines, magnificent epithets, and powerful declamation. This again led to abuse and to mere bombast, mouthing, and in the worst cases to nonsense. In the best examples, such as in Marlowe, the result is quite impressive. In this connexion it is to be noted that the best medium for such expression was blank verse, which was sufficiently elastic to bear the strong pressure of these expansive methods.
(d) The themes were usually tragic in nature, for the dramatists were as a rule too much in earnest to give heed to what was considered to be the lower species of comedy. The general lack of real humour in the early drama is one of its most prominent features. Humour, when it is brought in at all, is coarse and immature. Almost the only representative of the writers of real comedies is Lyly.
The chief University Wits include:
- "The University standard of judgment. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes.". Bartleby.com. Retrieved 2007-12-26.
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