The University Wits was a group of Early Modern English dramatists who were connected by their education – they went to Oxford or Cambridge. These Wits were: Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, John Lyly, George Peele and Thomas Lodge. From these six writers, two were particularly important for their innovations and later influence – John Lyly for comedy and Christopher Marlowe for tragedy.
John Lyly, oftentimes more mocked for his invention of euphuism than praised for his improvements of the genre of comedy, was a courtier. This put him in a specific position – he was writing for the aristocracy and for the Queen. His invention of euphuism was on one hand a source of ridicule even for his contemporaries, but on the other it was a successful (at least in the beginning) first attempt to create a more complicated language to replace Latin – the English of the first vernacular plays and Interludes was criticised for being “crude” – while Lily got carried away in creating an artificial way of speaking overly elaborate, he showed a way of possible improvements for the English drama. Another of his improvements, and particularly important for this thesis, is his targeting women. He acknowledged them as an important part of the audience and tried to please them. One of the ways to gain their favour was introducing romance to comedy. While in earlier comedies the only poetic aspect was the verse and the content was basically farcical, he wrote comedies in prose and added “poetical treatment” (Wilson 82) to the genre. Comedies needed poetic ideas to rise from the low level of farce. While Edwardes, whose work Lyly was familiar with, was getting closer with his Damon and Pythias, he was building the sentimental aspect only on a friendship between two men, and that was an idea not strong enough. Lyly added love and passion to comedy – he added women. He actually did for English comedy what female actresses, such as Vincenza Armani, had done for Commedia dell’Arte – moderating the crude comedy by eliciting “a sweet smile rather than the raucous belly laugh of unadulterated comedy” (Henke 48). Not to go completely against the tradition of his times, he banished the farcical elements to his characteristic subplots full of pages and rascals who existed mainly to balance the sentiment of the main plot, to make the audience laugh. To bring passion and romance to comedy he needed to achieve more than a simple moderation of laughter in the main plot – “it was necessary that both sexes should walk the stage on an equal footing” (Wilson 83). Wilson quotes George Meredith, who said that comedy “lifts women to a station offering them free play for their wit, as they usually show it, when they have it, on the side of sound sense. The higher the comedy, the more prominent the part they enjoy in it” (Wilson 83). As he was the first English playwright to fully acknowledge “that brain forms a part of the feminine organism” when he chose women as the targeted audience for his novels,25 it is not unimaginable that he would be the one who brought proper female characters on the English stage. That his desire for fame and for becoming a trend-setter of his age played an important role in this innovation is without doubts – he wrote his plays mainly to amuse one particular woman in the audience – the Queen.
What makes him different from his contemporaries is the fact that he, as a schoolmaster at St. Paul’s, wrote plays that were performed by choir boys and that enabled him to create more female characters than anyone who wrote before him – while others have usually one more important female character, for example a subject of love of the protagonist, and one or two supporting roles – a nurse, a maid, a sister, Lyly kept this inequality in numbers only in his first dramatic attempt, Campaspe. However, in Gallathea there are ten female characters and two of them are the main protagonists; in Sapho and Phao there are nine women and eight men; in Endimion eight women and thirteen men; in Midas, which is not even a romantic comedy, there are seven female characters; in The Woman in the Moon are also seven female characters and in Love Metamorphoses there are again more female characters (eight) than male (seven).26 Although these women were portrayed on their “social and superficial side” (Bond 2; 282), they are “witty, sprightly, and beneath their euphuism so natural” (Ibid.). Bond argues that “to Mileta, Suavia, Livia, Nisa, and Niobe, the mockers and skirmishers of Lyly’s ante-chamber and woodland, [we are] chiefly indebted for Katharine, Rosalind Beatrice” (Ibid.) and other female characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Even though Bond is in many aspects exaggerating his praise of the playwright – his women were too superficial not only because the young boys of St. Paul’s were not able to properly portray passion and love, but also because “Lyly’s mind was in all probability altogether of too superficial a nature for a sympathetic analysis of the human soul” (Wilson 101) – it is without doubts that Lyly’s “English girl[s]” (Bond 2; 282) represent a very important moment in the evolution of female characters.
Christopher Marlowe, Lyly’s contemporary and a fellow University Wit, focused on the genre of tragedy and, although he died quite young, he created several interesting female characters. One of them is, obviously, Dido, the protagonist of Dido, Queen of Carthage. He took the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid and created a tragedy of ill-fated love. His Dido is a powerful woman, even though her personality is rather unstable. This instability lies in her constant moving on the emotional scale from one side to the other – she is a proud queen, but “there are two faces to her sovereign will, [...] one smiling and one angry. She smiles when she proclaims her will but is easily angered if its wisdom or goodness are questioned” (Brodwin 141). She is also a woman in love – at one point she is loving and caring, granting wishes, at another she is angry, wishing Aeneas death on the sea, and yet in another moment she fantasizes how she would fly with the wax wings of Icarus and fall from the sky into Aeneas’ arms and be reconciled with him. The final session of madly changing attitudes and emotions is culminated with her coldblooded lies to Anna and Iarbus, telling them she wants to make a fire to burn all the things Aeneas left behind – and one of these things is herself. When Iarbus finds out, he kills himself because he loved her, and her sister Anna loved him, so she killed herself, too. This ending is typical in revenge tragedies when at the end the avenger, after punishing the villain, has to die as well because otherwise there would be a never ending circle of vice, as it appeared in Greek mythology – for example in the story of Orestes. But in this case it was a romantic tragedy that ended with every character on the stage dead. One of the reasons why Dido commits suicide is because she cannot live without Aeneas – but rather then weeping for a lost love she is aware that her relationship was a problematic and a public one and many neighbouring kings did not approve and her being left by Aeneas will cost her her pride. The other reason is that she wants to punish Aeneas – she wants to ruin his reputation around the whole world by becoming a victim of his cruelty. In Virgil’s story she meets Aeneas in the Underworld and he thus finds about her suicide, so those who knew the original story also knew that Aeneas will find out someday. These reasons then make the play not a tragedy of a lost love but a tragedy of a lost pride – and while Dido resembles more a tyrant king who sets his eyes on a beautiful woman in need of help and decides to have her, she is still a woman in the solution she finds to preserve her dignity – she kills herself and not the disobedient subject of her love.
Another important tragedy written by Marlowe is Tamburlaine. As Dido resembles the classical world, Tamburlaine is set in a world of courtly love: to the men “women are treasures to be won; to the women beauty and virtue are the treasures which purchase honor; and courtship is a barter in which the man bids for the woman as treasure while the woman exacts the highest price possible” (Brooks 3). Courtship is thus a sort of business negotiation – men have to be “worthy to have something to offer, and women have to be beautiful and virtuous to be valuable to worthy men” (Brooks 4). Women in Tamburlaine are not typical romantic heroines – they are “not passively virtuous” but rather “active, striving to attain individual aims” (Ibid). For them their beauty is something they have to use actively and “virtue is something to be attained rather than protected” (Brooks 4). Zenocrate is a princess who happens to be in need for help; Tamburlaine falls in love with her and has to conquer her heart and when she later accepts him, she becomes his mistress. Their marriage appears at the end of the first part of Tamburlaine and she has to deal with her reputation of his unwedded lover. Yet she is modest and humble and feels that she is not worthy of his love. In Tamburlaine there are “familiar Renaissance attitudes toward women, erotic, courtly, romantic, and moral” expressed, but “they do not illustrate a simple code” (Brooks 11). Erotic love is connected to conquering of a symbolic treasure of woman’s beauty and this aspiration makes the feelings “seem noble rather than base” (Ibid.). Thus while a knightly character from courtly love literature “aims to serve” Marlowe’s “heroes aspire to conquer” and also his women “strive vigorously for their own goals, and they are not prizes that are won by lovers who serve faithfully, but prizes that must be seized” (Brooks 11).
Both these University Wits, whose careers ended abruptly – in Marlowe’s case with his death, in Lyly’s case with his falling into disgrace27 – created female characters that were strong and innovative for their time – they became a springboard for the next generation of writers – among them William Shakespeare.