Biswajit Neog

Although every great writer is unique, yet every writer except when he is deliberately experimenting works in the idiom of his age shows the influence of his contemporary writers and his predecessors in his writings. This is especially true with regard to both drama and William Shakespeare.

Elizabethan drama had already launched in its career by the time Shakespeare was writing his own play. The growing popularity and diversity of the drama, its secularization and the growth of a class of writers and scholars who had no desire to be in holy orders ( as the medieval scholar was bound to be) combined to produce a new literary phenomenon in the late sixteenth century- the secular professional playwright. Saintsbury gave the name “University wits” to this group of young Elizabethan playwrights as they had graduated at Oxford or Cambridge with no patrons to sponsor their literary activities and no desire to enter the Church. They turned to playwriting to make a living and in doing so they made Elizabethan popular drama more literary and in some respects more dramatic. Not all of them turned to the public theatre: in writing plays for the children of the Chapel to present at Court or at Blackfriars there was always the chance of attracting royal attention or achieving a noble patron. The University wits thus had an important influence both on the public and the private theatre; they wrote both roaring popular successes and sophisticated confection for connoisseurs. It can be said that they were the first to associate English drama permanently with literature. David Daiches is very true when he says that  there is no necessary connection between plays and literature, and both in public and private entertainments the emphasis had often been as much on the action or the rout or (in Court performance) the splendor of the sheer show as on the dramatic effectiveness of the language itself. The University wits, educated and ambitious, often reckless bohemians in their personal lives but always professional men of letters, set the course for later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in general and proved the way for Shakespeare in particular. The group consists of John Lyly, Robert Greene, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe and Christopher Marlowe. Thomas Kyd is also sometimes included in the group, through he is not believed to have studied at university. These actors as well as dramatists knew well both the stage and audience and acquired a thorough knowledge of their craft of writing play. They had a common store of material-mythology, legend and history – from which they drew their stories. However, each of them in his own way made significant contribution to the development of the English drama, and in one way or the other, Shakespeare is indebted to each of them.

Before the University wits took to writing, there were two dramatic traditions- the classical tradition and the tradition of the popular theatre. In the classical tradition scholarly plays were written by scholars or humanists for selected cultural audience. They maintained the unities of time, place and action and did not mingle tragedy with comedy. Fighting, blood-shed and other violent events happened off the stage which were merely reported by the messenger. There was little action in classical drama. But the English drama of popular tradition paid no heed to these classical rules of dramatic composition.

The national English drama developed out of the fusion of the classical, the courtly and the popular traditions, and the way to this fusion was first shown by the University wits. As actors they were familiar with the tastes of the people which in turn considerably influenced their art. They disregarded the unities, took into account the popular love for action and tried to present the whole life as it is. “In this way they ensured the triumph of that free and flexible form of drama which Shakespeare was to make his own” (Hudson, 2008: p.54).

It is clear, that in his early years Shakespeare was content to allow his ‘pupil pen’ to be guided; he was apprenticed, so to speak, to Marlowe, Kyd, Lyly, Greene, and others and it was not until he wrote Hamlet and had run almost the last of Elizabethan period, could he be called to stand single. In Greene’s sting at him as “the upstart crow beautified with our feathers” we discover the nature of his study and also the secret of his success. Here is a triple combination of actor, playwright and poet who is pecking at other’s store.

But it was primarily in the field of style that Shakespeare was first serving his predecessors. In his preparatory period he was indebted as a poet to Spenser, Marlowe and Lyly. He put his head and heart to that Elizabethan school proper and like all young writers, put all his goods in the shop window. He coined and compounded words. He accumulated images for their own sake. In his early works there is considerable padding and he follows Spenser and Sidney in his employment of the compound epithet. ‘Water-standing eye’, ‘earnest gaping sight’, and ‘deadkilling news’ expose his practice profusely. But more in his imagery Shakespeare shows his discipleship to convention and masters. Elizabethan imagery was emblematic. Marlowe, Spenser, and Lyly, the singers and sonneteers, all have a stock-in-trade of names and images which are symbols of ideal. In his early period to which belong the poems, most of the sonnets and about a dozen of plays comprising three very successful ones, Love’s Labour’s Lost, a comedy, Richard III, a history, and Romeo and Juliet a tragedy, all of which are as much poems as they are plays he is fed with the current poetic convention.

The credit for evolving a suitable dramatic medium must go to the University wits. John Lyly was the first important dramatist to write wholly prose comedies. He refined the language of comedy and excelled in the use of puns, conceits, witty dialogues and all sorts of word play. From Lyly Shakespeare also learned how to combine as in Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream a courtly main plot with episodes of rustic blunders and clownish fooling.

It is to Lyly that Shakespeare owes his debt for conceit which gives a complex pattern to single imagery.This passion for  either squeezing out an image or accumulating image to illustrate a single idea,fed by the manner of ‘Euphues’, is prominent in Shakespeare’s early work. “A quibble was to Shakespear”, so complains Dr. Johnson, “the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it.”All this like most Elizabethan imageries was a debt to euphuism.In Lyly we find imagery of two kinds.We may find ‘Euphues’ merely quaint but it left its trace on every Elizabethan and on Shakespeare as much as any. Thus, Shakespeare  imitates Lyly ,partly in taking the material, mainly that of high comedy,partly in the use of prose ; and still in the use of punning in The Two Gentlemen of Verona ,  Love’s Labour’s Lost ,Much Ado and down to As You Like It. “In comedy Lyly was undeniably Shakespeare’s first master” (Hudson, 2008: p.55).

In ‘Titus Andronicus’, the first serving specimen of Shakespear tragedy, We find him imitating theme and form of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. The Spanish Tragedy made a hit and set a model which was followed closely for the next twenty years. Shakespeare seemed to follow the pattern with a vengeance. If people relished the horrors of Spanish Tragedy “he would dislocate their jaws.” Far more important than the clock and dagger artifice, Kyd exhibited what could be done in depending the emotions, in attaining that poignancy of horror which was to find its extreme in Webster. It was the darkness, not the glory of tragedy that Kyd brought into the realm of dramas, a darkness made deeper by enlisting thought to reinforce the emotions.In Kyd we get the hesitative type of hero, the first sketch of Hamlet.

Marlowe’s historical influence is even greater. “A man of fiery imagination and immense thought ill-regulated powers, who lived a wild Bohemian life, and while still young was killed in a drunken brawl ,he was by nature far more of a lyric poet than a dramatist;yet his Tamburlaine The Great , Dr.Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II ,despite the bombast and extravagance by which they are frequently marred,give him the place of pre-eminence among our pre-Shakespearean playwrights.In these plays he really fixed the type of tragedy and chronicle play for his immediate successors, and in them also he introduced blank verse(hitherto confined to classic plays and private representations)to the romantic drama and the public stage.That Shakespeare ,who must have known him well,and who probably collaborated  with him,was at first profoundly influenced by him, is evident .His early blank verse is fashioned on Marlowe’s.” In the stormy characters of Marlowe we have had at fever- pitch the same spirit as in Macbeth, Edmund and Iago. His Jew is the model for Shylock and Edward II’s monologue reminds us of Richard II. Between the genious of Marlowe and Shakespeare there is a vaccum, but we see that forms of the national tragedy were ready when Shakespeare appeared, and the national taste prepared for him. Monologues of Richard Platagenet, Duke of York in Henry IV have the accent of Duke of Guise and same lines are written in direct invitation of Marlowe.

We cannot but recognise that Shakespeare was making the dramatic idiom of the age. The Henry VI triology showed in spite of crudities, a graver, more responsible spirit and greater sense of historical destiny than appeared any work of Marlowe’s. Already in these early plays Shakespeare gave evidence of a constructive power beyond that any of his contemporaries and their unity of purpose and design became increasingly apparent the more they were studied. Greene by his taste for the romantic flavor foreshadows Shakespeare as does Lyly by his wit, the author of Arden Of Feversham by his psychological sense, Kyd by his tragic atmosphere, and Marlowe by his lyrical eloquence.Those various gifts had yet to be united in one man and one work.Shakespeare was to gather them together and enhance them.He flourished into a stage with unique creation of his own which transcended the limitation of his age and became beauty and joy forever.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare‘s dramatic genius was all encompassing and all transcending which could not be confused within the limitation of either the stage or the technique or even the theme of the drama .He is free from the artificiality of expression of Lyly, or the undue weakness for horror like that of Kyd or the open defiance for revolt against all morality and religion found in Marlowe. Shakespeare’s humour and pathos can nowhere be found in any of his predecessors. Shakespeare evolved a new technique of the drama, a new outlook on life, a new manner of characterization, a new method of tackling the clown and also a new classification of the English drama into comedies, tragedies, histories and romances. Lyly’s witty dialogue inspired Shakespeare. But he wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost with vigour unknown to Lyly. Richard II is a pendant to Marlowe’s Edward II, but it is also a contrast to it. Shakespeare departs from his model and follows his own genius for character drawing. In King John no reminiscence of Marlowe remains save the eloquence of the tragedies and the sonorousness of the lines.

Regarding his Two Gentlemen of Verona Shakespeare was indebted to Lyly and Greene. From Lyly he must have learned the symmetrical balancing of structure. Greene was the Homer of women. He was the master in the art of delineation of English womanhood. His Margaret in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungey is the first sketch of Shakespeare’s heroines. Every memory of Lyly’s mythological imagination and witty dialogue and Greene’s sustained and tender grace grows dim and fades into oblivion.Before the exquisite fairy piece, A  Midsummer Night’s Dream , and before that marvelous series of romantic plays, packed of feelings and laughter mockery and seriousness, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing , As you Like It and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare could press into unity those divergent gifts which were scattered or isolated in the works of his predecessors.

Summing up Shakespeare’s indebtedness to his predecessors it can be said that it was not the University wits alone from whom he borrowed. He borrowed freely, his sources were more varied than his predecessors. He also borrowed heavily from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles and other classical translations. No dramatist can create live characters save by bequeathing the best of himself into his work of art ,scattering among them his own qualities, his own wit, his comprehensive cogent philosophy, his own rhythm of action and the simplicity and complexity of his own nature. Shakespeare’s predecessors and contemporaries all excelled in one or more of these qualities. But Shakespeare excelled in all of them all the time.

  • D. Daiches. A Critical History Of English Literature. Vol I. New Delhi: Supernova Publishers & Distributors Pvt. Ltd, 2011.
  • H. W. Hudson. An Outline History of English Literature. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2008, pp.54-55 

About The author: Biswajit Neog, M.A (double), M.Phil, is an Assistant Professor and Head of the department of English, Dr. Nobin Bordo;oi College, Jorhat, Assam. Besides attending a number of national and international seminars and workshops in and outside Assam, Mr. Neog has edited two souvenirs and published numerous literary and research articles in a number of research journals. A History of English Society and Culture, Reading Poetry, A Brief History of English Language, Literary Terms and Classical Mythology, Written Communications are the books authored by him.  As a recognition to his contribution to the field of education in particular and to the society in general, ECONOMIC GROWTH FOUNDATION, New Delhi conferred on him the Best Educationist award for Talented Personalities on October 7th 2017 at the Constitution Club of India, New Delhi.

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