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John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship…

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship (Revels Plays Companions Library)

by Andy Kesson

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[John Lyly and Early Modern authorship] by Andy Kesson
A book of literary criticism that makes a case for John Lyly securing a place in the canon of English Literature. Lyly had two book length novels published in 1578 and 1580 and then turned his hand to playwriting: having nine plays published between 1584 and 1597, he therefore predates Shakespeare, but Kesson argues he has been overlooked in the rush to eulogise Shakespeare and although Lyly was highly regarded during his active writing life and for some time afterwards, he has suffered at the hands of critics since the mid 17th century. There are however good reasons for this which Kesson revisits throughout his book.

Lyly was the most famous and critically acclaimed writer during the period when he was active. He published the first book length novel in 1578: Euphues: Anatomy of Wit. He created a kind of prose fiction that was not only new but which came to define the shape the future novel was to take. He was the first professional Elizabethan playwright to see a succession of plays into print. He created characters, phrases and literary forms that dominated contemporary writing. His style was imitated and lauded at the Court of Queen Elizabeth, but for all of this he is not read much today and his plays are not performed. His reputation has diminished to such an extent that critics in the nineteenth century boasted about not reading him, but still were able to put forward a view of his worth.

In the mid eighteenth century Campaspe one of Lyly’s plays was republished as part of a collection of other plays and the leading critic of the time S T Dodsley wrote a preface that summed up the critical thinking at the time: writing about the novel Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit he said the style of writing was an “unnatural affected jargon in which the perpetual use of metaphors, allusions, allegories and analogies, is to pass for wit and stiff bombast for language and with this nonsense the court of Queen Elizabeth became infected”, he goes on to talk of vile pedantry and attempts to improve on the simplicity of nature. The labelling of Lily’s style as an infection is something that has been repeated ever since. Lily’s cause was not helped by nineteenth century writers who increasingly used the word Euphuism: a corruption of Euphues. Sir Walter Scott used the term Euphuist for one of his characters; not only was his language prone to hyperbolic excess, it was also pervaded by dilettantism and a French influence that was most unmanly. (Scotts Euphuist goes by the name of Sir Piercie Shafton). In the 20th century Euphuism became confused with euphemism further adding to Lyly’s woes, although by this time any connection with Lily’s authorial style would probably not be made.

Lyly was at the start of the times of authorial recognition. His name sold books and plays and the title character Euphues was not only taken up by other writers but helped to sell Lyly’s second book Euphues and his England. The single story book also set a further precedent and Lyly’s books and plays were reprinted several times during the 1590’s with Lily’s name prominent. The subtitle of Kesson’s book is Early Modern authorship and he explores this theme in relation to Lily and his publisher Cawood.

So the question is: was John Lily a writer of excessive hyperbole that caught on in the fashionable world of Queen Elizabeth’s court and is now best forgotten, or is he a writer unduly neglected today, whose distinct writing style can still amuse and entertain and which forms the bedrock of novels and plays that came after him? I won’t know until I read some John Lyly, but it is useful to be aware of the arguments for and against before I start. An interesting read. ( )
  baswood | Nov 13, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0719088240, Hardcover)

During Shakespeare's lifetime, John Lyly was repeatedly described as the central figure in contemporary English literature. This book takes that claim seriously, asking how and why Lyly was considered the most important writer of his time.

Kesson traces Lyly's work in prose fiction and the theatre, demonstrating previously unrecognised connections between these two forms of entertainment. The final chapter examines how his importance to early modern authorship came to be forgotten in the late seventeenth century and thereafter.

This book serves as an introduction to Lyly and early modern literature for students, but its argument for the central importance of Lyly himself and 1580s literary culture makes it a significant contribution to current scholarly debate. Its investigation of the relationship between performance and print means that it will be of interest to those who care about, watch or work in modern performance.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:19 -0400)

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