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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits

§ 6. Authorship of the songs in Lyly’s plays

Nor, of course, is Lyly at all an innovator in his free use of the lyric. From the miracle-plays downward, the value of music both as an accompaniment for strongly emotionalised speech, and as a pleasure in itself, had been well understood: the direction in the Chester series “then shall God speak, the minstrels playing” proves the first statement, and the gossips’ song in the Chester Noah play proves the second. The presence, later, of choirboys in the miracle-plays and their performances at court, tended to maintain the lyric in the drama; for their clear boyish voices were particularly suited to the music of the time. Often, too, young actors were probably even better as singers, for singing was their vocation, acting only an avocation. Lyly, as the chief of those who, at one time or another, wrote for choirboys, merely maintains the custom of his predecessors as to lyrics. Perhaps, however he uses them rather more freely.

That these charming songs in Lyly’s plays are really his has lately been doubted more than once. Certainly, we do not find them in the quartos: they appear first in Blount’s collected edition of 1632, nearly thirty years after Lyly’s death. Yet Elizabethan dramatists in general seem never to have evaded any metrical task set them; and, usually, they came out of their efforts successfully. It proves nothing, too, that we find the song “What bird so sings yet so dos wayl?” of Campaspe in Ford and Dekker’s The Sun’s Darling (1632–4), or another, “O for a bowl of fat canary,” in the 1640 quarto of Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters. With the Elizabethan and Jacobean latitude of view toward originality of material, with the wise principle cherished in this age that “we call a thing his in the long run who utters it clearest and best,” there was no reason why a dramatist should not omit quotation marks when using the work of a previous songster. On the other hand, when we recall the collaboration in the masques of Ben Jonson, not long afterwards, of Gyles as master of song, Inigo Jones as architect, and Ferrabosco, as dancing-master, there is no reason why Lyly should not have called in the aid of any of the more skilled composers about the court of the city. Words and music may have been composed by the music-master of the boys of Paul’s. Though we have no verse certainly Lyly’s which would lead us to expect such delicacy as he shows in “Cupid and my Campaspe played at cards for kisses,” or juvenile bacchanalia like “O for a bowl of fat canary,” yet, in the material from Diogenes Laertius which is the source of the scene in Alexander and Campaspe where the song of the bird notes occurs, there is certainly a hint for it. Therefore, as Bond has pointed out, though this song may have been written at Lyly’s order, it may equally well have been a part of his usual skilful creative use of material thoroughly grasped by him. When all is said, however, it is not wise, in the light of present evidence, to rest any large part of Lyly’s claim to the attention of posterity on his authorship of the songs in his plays. In all these respects, then—of material, method and attitude—Lyly, while genuinely of the renascence, is far more the populariser and perfecter than the creator.

What, then, justifies the increasing attention given to Lyly’s work by historians of English drama? Wherein consists his real contribution? It is a time-honoured statement that he definitively established prose as the expression for comedy, that his success with it swept from the boards the vogue of the “jigging vein” of men who, like Edwards, had written such halting lines as these:

  • Yet have I played with his beard in knitting this knot;
  • I promised friendship, but—you love few words—I spake it but I meant it not.
  • Who markes this friendship between us two
  • Shall judge of the worldly friendship without more ado.
  • It may be a right pattern thereof; but true friendship indeed
  • Of nought but of virtue doth truly proceed.
  • For such cumbrous expression, Lyly substituted a prose which, though it could be ornate to pompousness at his will, could, also, be gracefully accurate and have a certain rhythm of its own. But his real significance is that he was the first to bring together on the English stage the elements of high comedy, thereby preparing the way for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Whoever knows his Shakespeare and his Lyly well can hardly miss the many evidences that Shakespeare had read Lyly’s plays almost as closely as Lyly had read Pliny’s Natural History. It is not merely that certain words of the song of the birds’ notes in Campaspe gave Shakespeare, subconsciously, probably, his hint for “Hark, hark, the lark”; or that, in the talk of Viola and the duke he was thinking of Phillida and Galathea; but that we could hardly imagine Love’s Labour’s Lost as existent in the period from 1590 to 1600, had not Lyly’s work just preceded it. Setting aside the element of interesting story skilfully developed, which Shakespeare, after years of careful observation of his audiences, knew was his surest appeal, do we not find Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, in their essentials, only developments, through the intermediate experiments in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Two Gentlemen of Verona, from Lyly’s comedies?