Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Learning Outcomes

Upon the successful completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:

  •  know the process of transformation of education during the medieval period.
  • understand the contributions of the ‘University Wits’.
  • analyse the literary history of the medieval period.


University, Oxbridge , University Wits

5.3.1 The University Wits
The University Wits is a phrase used to name a group of late 16th century English
playwrights and pamphleteers who were educated at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, and who became popular secular writers. George Saintsbury, the literary critic cum historian, was the one who actually coined this term to denote the commonalities among the said people. It doesn’t denote their lifetime or period in an autobiographical sense. But he observed that the “rising sap” of dramatic creativity in the 1580’s showed itself in two separate “branches of the national tree”. The prominent members of this group were Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe from Cambridge, and John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele from Oxford. The drama before Shakespeare found its full flowering with these dramatists.
The members of University Wits have several features in common. They had stormy careers. All of them were actively associated with the theatre. They were usually actors as well as dramatists. They understood the requirements of the stage and felt the pulse of the audience. They often worked in collaboration with each other. Their store material was also common. With these dramatists, English drama reached the highest point of glory. In many ways they developed English drama. Christopher Marlowe was the most famous or shining star among the university Wits.
John Lyly (1554-1606) was considered to be the first English prose stylist to leave an enduring impression upon the language. As a playwright he also contributed to the development of prose dialogue in English comedy. Lyly’s contribution to English drama is very unique. He was considered to be a comic playwright. It was true that he gave shape to romantic comedy. Suitable blank verse was used in his comedies. He added to drama the qualities of delicacy, grace, charm and subtlety. But is mainly remembered as the writer of two prose romances, Eupheus: the Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Eupheus and His England (1580) whose prose style has been called ‘euphuism’.
In 1583 he gained entrance to the first Blackfriars Theatre, where his earliest plays, Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, were produced. All of Lyly’s comedies except The Woman in the Moon were presented by the Children of Paul’s, a children’s company that was periodically favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The performance dates of his plays are as follows: Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, 1583–84; Gallathea, 1585–88; Endimion, 1588; Midas, 1589; Love’s Metamorphosis, 1590; Mother Bombie, 1590; and ’The Woman in the Moon, 1595. Endimion is considered to be the finest of these comedies.
George Peele (1556-1597): Peele was one of the greatest University Wits. His work has great variety. He was one of the first writers to provide pageants for the City of London, a form of entertainment that became standard in the programme of the Lord Mayor’s Pageant. The form was taken up by a series of distinguished playwrights like Thomas Dekker, Munday, Thomas Middleton and Ben Jonson.
His work comprised different kinds of dramatic entertainment catering to the taste of the people of the Elizabethan Age. He wrote pastoral, Biblical, historical plays. His The Old Wives Tales is the first English play of dramatic criticism. His important plays are Arraignment of Paris, The Battle of Alcazar, The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First, The Love of King David and Fair Bathsheba and The Old Wives Tales. The list shows Peele’s versatility as a dramatist. In his plays we notice a high level of poetic attainment. As a humorist, he showed the way to Shakespeare. He widened the range of English dramas.
Robert Greene (1556-1596)
Like Lyly, Greene was both a playwright and novelist. He attained high excellence in both arts. He was an Elizabethan dramatist who experimented in many forms of theatrical art: pastoral, history, melodrama, tragedy, folk play, and pageant. His best plays include The Comical History of Alphonsus, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV. He was a master of his craft in the art of plotting. With him the love story became central to drama. He contributed much to the development of romantic comedy.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593): Marlowe was the central sun of the University Wits. He is the true founder of the popular English drama. At the time when Christopher Marlowe came upon the English stage, the English drama was in a chaotic state. The native dramas, namely the ‘Miracles and Moralities’ still held their sway. Senecan models in tragedy and imitations of Plautus and Terence in comedy were practised by the popular playwrights who counted.
Marlowe was born as the son of a shoemaker. Nothing is known of his early schooling. But in 1584, he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and got his master’s degree in 1587. His contribution to the English tragedy is very vital. It was upon the tragedy that Marlowe gave the impression of his genius and left it ready-made for his great successor, 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.

Fig. 5.3.1 Christopher Marlowe

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies.
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in those lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena. Dr Faustus (1594), Act 5

His main works are Tamburlaine the Great (in two parts, performed in 1597 and 1590), Dr. Faustus, Edward II, The Jew of Malta and The Tragedy of Dido. Both parts of Tamburlaine were published anonymously in 1590. His unfinished poem ‘Hero and Leander’ appeared in 1598. With Marlowe the English drama reached the highest point of its glory. He raised the subject matter of drama to a higher level. He gave life and reality to his characters. His achievement was cut short when he was stabbed to death at the age of 29. He was the first great poet in English drama. Marlowe’s characteristic “mighty lines” (in the words of Ben Jonson), established blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) as the medium for dramatic writing for later Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.
Thomas Lodge (1557-1625) and Thomas Nashe (1567-1601): The dramatic works of these authors are almost negligible. Lodge’s ‘The Wounds of Civil War’ contains hardly anything that is new. He gave practically nothing to the theatre. He wrote poems, novels and plays. He is best remembered for the prose romance Rosalynde, which acted as the source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Nashe was a pamphleteer and storywriter. He tried his hand at drama also.He is remembered for an attempt at a picaresque novel, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594).
Thomas Kyd (1558-1594): Although he was very often included among the University, there exists no evidence to show that he went to the University. The English tragedy moves on its way with Kyd. He adhered to the Senecan school. It is he who popularised the blood and thunder element in drama. His only surviving play The Spanish Tragedy was a great success and occupies an important place in English drama . It is a well-constructed play. Kyd brought the revenge theme to the stage. It has been said that he is the first dramatist in English to have written dramatically. His characterisation of Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy prepared the way for Shakespeare’s psychological study of Hamlet. There are several similarities between The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet. Kyd is also believed to have written an earlier version of Hamlet, known to scholars as Ur-Hamlet.
Thus the University Wits contributed much to the English drama. They prepared the ground for drama. In the spheres of comedy and tragedy they made notable contributions and prepared the way for Shakespeare. Now look into other leaders of the literary movement in this period who were usually regarded as the followers of the University Wits.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Fig. 5.3.2 Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser, a postgraduate from the University of Cambridge, was one of the preeminent poets of the English language. His long allegorical poem The Faerie Queene 91590) is one of the greatest works in the English language. It was written in an elegant style which came to be called the Spenserian stanza, a stanza of nine lines, with the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc and the first eight lines having five syllables and the last line with nine syllables . The poem sets out to be a story with twelve Knights of Elizabeth who undertook various enterprises in her honour. The poem is merely a lovely mosaic in which deeds of chivalry and pictorial fantasies are woven. He declares his purpose “to fashion a gentleman in virtuous and gentle discipline”. Along with Sidney, Spenser set out to create a body of work that could parallel the great works of European poets such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio and extend the line of English literary culture begun by Chaucer.
The Shepheardes Calendar (1579-80) can be called the first work of the English literary Renaissance. It is modelled on the artificial pastoral popularised by the Renaissance and inspired by Virgil and Theocritus, Bion and Marot. It is a series of twelve eclogues, one for each month. Spenser’s dominant theme is the unrequited love of Colin Clout for Rosalynde, but the eclogues are also opportunities for comment on political and religious problems of the time. Technically it is a poem of considerable merit and shows great power in dealing with various old- time metres in a fresh and masterly way. His love of allegory leads him to pretty pieces of words. Comparing this poem with the verse preceding it, one realises the richness, the warm pictorial beauty and sense of amplitude hitherto foreign to English poetry. Never before there was an English poem in which the combination of lines and rhymes was so variously rich and novel. It is the first English pastoral composition, and as such exercised a great influence on subsequent literature.
Spenser’s poetical achievements are very great in number and full of variety. He has composed epic, elegy, sonnet and many other forms of poetry. The most outstanding of his other works are “Amoretti”,”Astrophel”, “Four Hymns”, “The Epithalamion” and “The Prothalamion “. His fame and popularity continued to grow till Spenser came to be called the “Prince of poets of his time.” He has influenced many poets who came after him. A host of poets who followed him throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, regarded him as their master. Charles Lamb rightly called Spenser the “Poets’ Poet. He minutely observes his vivid influence on the works of subsequent poets. But we should not forget that Spenser is not a poet for the layman but for poets and scholars. He is the greatest non- dramatic poet of the Elizabethan age.
Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618): Walter Raleigh was one of the last true “Renaissance men,” Raleigh was an explorer, soldier, courtier, author, and sceptic: he is remembered as one of the men-of-letters to not only have written of new worlds but to have actually sailed off in search of them. He was a poet who fought in wars as often as he wrote of them. Raleigh was truly a widely cultured minded man as his varied interests in geography, theology, poetry, and governance.
Being a favourite courtier of the English Queen Elizabeth I, he played a leading part in English colonisation of North America. He served in the suppression of rebellion in Ireland, helped defend England against the Spanish Armada and held political positions under Elizabeth I. Raleigh put together several voyages to explore and colonise the New World. His voyages were funded primarily by himself and his friends instead of by a joint-stock company or state fund. As a result, his colonies never had the steady stream of revenue necessary to support them. In 1584, his plan for colonisation in “Virginia” in North America ended in failure at Roanoke Island, but paved the way for subsequent colonies. The first Roanoke Island colony was forced to abandon because the relations broke down between the settlers and the local native tribes as the colonists placed heavy demands on the natives’ crops.
In 1594, Raleigh set a voyage to “City of Gold” in South America but only contributed to publish an exaggerated account of his experiences in a book that contributed to the legend of “El Dorado”. He described his expedition in his book called The Discoverie of Guiana. Raleigh was imprisoned after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. But in 1616, he was released to lead a second expedition in search of El Dorado. During the expedition, men led by his top commander ransacked a Spanish outpost, in violation of both the terms of his pardon and the 1604 peace treaty with Spain. Raleigh returned to England and, to appease the Spanish, he was arrested and executed in 1618.
As a man who spent most of his life abroad fighting battles and exploring continents, it is understandable that Raleigh did not have the time to author a large body of poetry. Nevertheless, as a member of the English gentry he had received a thorough education in English, European, and classical literature. Throughout his life Raleigh held literary aspirations and continued to write poems until his demise, both at occasions of court and during his adventures abroad. Of these poems, a number have received particular acclaim, among them the short lyric “Even Such Is Time” and the diptych poems “The Silent Lover I & II”:
His poems show a mastery of Elizabeth forms, which were relatively new at that time. The sonnet had been introduced to the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt only a few decades before Raleigh’s birth. Hence, Raleigh’s command of rhyme and metre, his elegant stanza-forms, and his overall knowledge of classical and English literature demonstrated in his poetry is quite a substantial achievement for a man of his time, particularly when one considers all the many other duties which competed for Raleigh’s attention.
His most important work as a writer was The History of the World (1614). However, Raleigh’s legacy to literature and to poetry in particular has much more to do with his own attitudes and character than the actual poems which have come down to us through history. Like Marlowe, he often found himself accused of heresy, and although he always rebuffed these attacks, his poems, such as “The Silent Lover” reveal opinions that are strikingly unsentimental for a man of the Elizabethan era. Raleigh, as a writer and a poet, valued common sense much more than high feeling, and in this regard he registers a break from the overwrought poetry of the medieval periods of English literature.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Benjamin Jonson (11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. He is generally regarded as the second most celebrated English playwright after William Shakespeare during the reign of James I. His best -known satirical plays are Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair and The Silent Woman. A man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for controversy, Jonson had an unparalleled breadth of influence on Jacobean and Caroline playwrights and poets. The University of Oxford conferred an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1619.
He crowned himself among the English dramatists of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. His major comedies express a strong distaste for the world in which he lived and a delight in exposing its follies and vices. Though often an angry and stubborn man, no one had more disciples than he. He was easily the most learned dramatist of his time, and he was also a master of theatrical plot, language, and characterization. Jonson was the first living dramatist to publish his plays in 1616.
His plays held their place on the stage until the period of the Restoration.
Jonson’s chief plays still remain as renowned and celebrated dramas of all time. His insistence on putting classical theory into practice in them has reinforced rather than weakened the effect of his gift of lively dialogue, robust characterization, and intricate, controlled plotting. Jonson’s plots are skilfully put together. The incident develops out of an incident in a consistent chain of cause and effect. Sometimes Jonson’s comedy derives from the dialogue, especially when it is based on his observation of contemporary tricks of speech.
Johnson’s brilliance lies in his method of concentrating character creation which shows how they dominate the personality. Along with a classical conception of art, his clever and shrewd observation of people are the secret of his character creations. In Jonson’s plays both eccentricity and normal behaviour are derived from a dominating characteristic, so that the result is a live, truthfully conceived personage in whom the ruling passion traces itself plainly. The later plays, for example, have characters whose behaviour is dominated by one psychological idiosyncrasy. But Jonson did not deal exclusively in “humours.” In some of his plays (notably Every Man in His Humour), the stock types of Latin comedy contributed as much as the humour theory did. What the theory provided for him and for his contemporaries was a convenient mode of distinguishing among human beings.
During most of the 17th century Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous. Before the civil war The Tribe of Ben touted his importance, and during the Restoration Jonson’s satirical comedies and his theory and practice of “humour characters” was extremely influential, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies. In the eighteenth-century Jonson’s status began to decline. In the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, as the taste for Jonson’s type of satirical comedy decreased. Jonson was at times greatly appreciated by the Romantics, but over- all he was denigrated for not writing in a Shakespearean vein. In the twentieth century, Jonson’s status rose significantly.
William Shakespeare (1564 –1616)
William Shakespeare is widely considered as the world’s pre-eminent dramatist and probably the greatest writer in English. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon” (or simply “The Bard”). His surviving works consist of 37 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into even the vernacular languages of every corner of the world. His plays are performed more than that of any other playwright in English literature.
Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was baptised on April 26, 1564. At the age of 18 he married Anne Hathaway and had three children: Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. He began a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part owner of the playing company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. Later he left for Stratford around 1613, where he died three years later, on April 23, 1616.
Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1590 and 1613. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the 16th century. Next, he wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest examples of tragedy in the English language.

Fig. 5.3.3 Shakespeare’s handwriting
The scholars have categorised Shakespeare’s writing career into four stages. The first stage is up to mid-1590s where he wrote mainly comedies influenced by Roman and Italian models and history plays in the popular chronicle tradition. His second stage began in about 1595 with the tragedy Romeo and Juliet and ended with the tragedy of Julius Caesar in 1599. During this time, he wrote what are considered his greatest comedies and histories. The third stage, from about 1600 to about 1608 was regarded as his “tragic period”. He wrote mostly tragedies, and from about 1608 to 1613, the fourth stage consisted mainly of tragicomedies, also called romances.
It is observed that Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI, written in the early 1590’s were the first recorded works of Shakespeare. Even though it was difficult to date, studies suggest that Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona were also among his earliest works. His first histories dramatise a justification for the origins of the Tudor dynasty. This, in turn, was influenced by the works of other Elizabethan dramatists, especially Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe, by the traditions of medieval drama, and by the plays of Seneca. Great history plays that followed this period include Henry IV Part I and II and Henry V.

Fig. 5.3.4 Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare’s early classical and Italianate
comedies, containing tight double plots and precise comic sequences, give way in the mid- 1590s to the romantic atmosphere of his greatest comedies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a witty mixture of romance, fairy magic, and comic low-life scenes. Shakespeare’s next comedy, the equally romantic The Merchant of Venice, contains a portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock which reflected Elizabethan views but may appear prejudiced to modern audiences. Other great comedies of the period include Twelfth Night, As You LIke It and Much Ado About Nothing.This period begins and ends with two tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, the famous romantic tragedy of sexually charged adolescence, love, and death; and Julius Caesar—based on Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives—which introduced a new kind of drama. According to Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, in Julius Caesar “the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare’s own reflections on the act of writing, began to infuse each other”.

Fig. 5.3.4 A quote by Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s “Tragic Period” lasted from about 1600 to 1608. He also produced the “problem plays” Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That Ends Well during this time. Many critics believe that Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies represent the peak of his art. The hero of the first, Hamlet, has probably been more discussed than any other Shakespearean character, especially for his famous soliloquy “To be or not to be; that is the question.” Unlike the introverted Hamlet, whose fatal flaw is hesitation, the heroes of the tragedies that followed, Othello and King Lear, are undone by hasty errors of judgement. Overweening ambition is the cause of the downfall of the hero of Macbeth.The plots of Shakespeare’s tragedies often hinge on such fatal errors or flaws, which overturn order and destroy the hero and those he loves. His last major tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, contain some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry and were considered his most successful tragedies by the poet and critic T. S. Eliot.
The ‘tragicomedies’ represents his final stage and includes Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Some critics have seen this change in mood as evidence of a more serene view of life on Shakespeare’s part, but it may merely reflect the theatrical fashion of the day. Shakespeare is believed to have collaborated on two further surviving plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably with John Fletcher..
Shakespeare’s Poems: In 1593 and 1594, when the theatres were closed because of plague, Shakespeare published two narrative poems on erotic themes, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. In Venus and Adonis, an innocent Adonis rejects the sexual advances of Venus; while in The Rape of Lucrece, the virtuous wife Lucrece is raped by the lustful Tarquin. Influenced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the poems show the guilt and moral confusion that result from uncontrolled lust. Both proved popular and were often reprinted during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Sonnets were the last of Shakespeare’s non-dramatic works to be printed (1609). Scholars are not certain when each of the 154 sonnets was composed, but evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote sonnets throughout his career for a private readership. Few analysts believe that the published collection follows Shakespeare’s intended sequence. He seems to have planned two contrasting series: one about uncontrollable lust for a married woman of dark complexion (the “dark lady”), and one about conflicted love for a fair young man (the “fair youth”). It remains unclear if these figures represent real individuals, or if the authorial “I” who addresses them represents Shakespeare himself, though Wordsworth believed that with the sonnets “Shakespeare unlocked his heart”. Critics praise the Sonnets as a profound meditation on the nature of love, sexual passion, procreation, death, and time.
Shakespeare’s Influence: Shakespeare’s work has made a lasting impression on later theatre and literature. In particular, he expanded the dramatic potential of characterisation, plot, language, and genre. It was true that until Romeo and Juliet, romance had not been viewed as a worthy topic for tragedy. Soliloquies were used mainly to convey information about characters or events during his time. But Shakespeare used them to explore characters’ minds.
His work heavily influenced later poetry. The Romantic poets attempted to revive Shakespearean verse drama, though with little success. Critic George Steiner described all English verse dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson as “feeble variations on Shakespearean themes.” Shakespeare influenced novelists such as Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Charles Dickens. Dickens often quoted Shakespeare, drawing 25 of his titles from Shakespeare’s works. The American novelist Herman Melville’s soliloquies owe much to Shakespeare; his Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is a classic tragic hero, inspired by King Lear.
Scholars have identified 20,000 pieces of music linked to Shakespeare’s works. These include two operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Otello and Falstaff, whose critical standing compares with that of the source plays. Shakespeare has also inspired many painters, including the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites. The Swiss Romantic artist Henry Fuseli, a friend of William Blake, even translated Macbeth into German.
The classical psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud drew on Shakespearean psychology, in particular that of Hamlet, for his theories of human nature. In Shakespeare’s day, English grammar and spelling were less standardised than they are now, and his use of language helped shape modern English. Samuel Johnson quoted him more often than any other author in his A Dictionary of the English Language, the first serious work of its type. Expressions such as “with bated breath” (The Merchant of Venice) and “a foregone conclusion” (Othello) have found their way into everyday English speech.


  • University Wits is a phrase used to name a group of late 16th-century English playwrights and pamphleteers who were educated at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, and who became popular secular writers.
  • The prominent members of this group were Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe from Cambridge, and John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele from Oxford.
  • Christopher Marlowe was the most famous or shining star among the University Wits. The members of University Wits share several features in common.
  • Walter Raleigh was one of the last true “Renaissance men.”