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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

§ 7. Introduction to the English stage of High Comedy: its essential features

What, historically, are the essentials of high comedy? It deals with cultivated people in whom education, and refining environment, have bred subtler feelings. These gods and goddesses of Lyly, who have little, if anything, of a classic past, but everything, in thought, attitude towards life and even speech itself, of the courtiers of Lyly’s day, are surely subjects for high comedy. So close, indeed, are these figures of mythology to the evanescent life of Lyly’s moment, that we are constantly tempted to see, in this or that figure, some well known person of the court, to hear in this or that speech, some sentiments according with well known opinions of this or that notability. And what is love in these comedies? Not the intense passion that burns itself out in slaughter—the love of the Italian novelle and the plays of Kyd, Greene and others influenced by them. Nor is it at all mere physical appetite, as it often becomes, in the lesser Elizabethans and, generally, among the Jacobeans. Instead, as in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, it is the motive force behind events and scenes, but not the one absorbing interest for author or reader: it is refined, sublimated, etherealised. Contrasts, delicately brought out, between the real underlying feelings of the characters and what they wish to feel or wish to be thought to feel, all of this phrased as perfectly as possible according to standards of the moment, are what interests Lyly and what he teaches his audience to care for particularly. Certainly, then, we are in the realm of high comedy; for, surely, there can be no laughter from such sources which is not thoughtful laughter, the essential, as George Meredith has pointed out, of this form of drama. From start to finish, Lyly’s comedy is based on thought, and cannot properly be appreciated without thought. At every point, it is planned, constructed, modelled, to suit the critical standards of its author and of an exacting group of courtier critics, both eagerly interested in all that Italy and the continent had to offer them as literary models of the past and present. Lyly especially rested, for his prospective success, on his skill in phrase. It is not merely that he is an artist in the complications of the euphuistic style to which his own Euphues had given vogue, but that he is a student of skilled phrase for dramatic and characterising purposes. And this is of great significance for two reasons: first, because high comedy demands, as a further essential, a nice sense of phrase—witness Congreve and Sheridan among our later masters of it; and, secondly, because this careful phrasing of Lyly emphasises, for the first time in our English drama, the third essential of a perfect play. Story, the first essential, had been crudely, understood so early as the trope in liturgical mysteries. By accretion of episode, constructive story, which is plot, developed. The need of characterisation soon came to be understood in miracle-plays, in moralities and in the interlude of the better kind. Yet phrase, not as a mere means of characterisation, but so treated, from start to finish, that it shall do more than expound plot and characterise, that it shall give pleasure for its own sake by its form or its content, is Lyly’s great contribution to the drama. As he himself said, “It is wit that allureth, when every word shal have his weight, when nothing shal proceed, but it shal either savour of a sharpe conceipt, or a secret conclusion.” More than anyone else before 1587, he raises our English drama to the level of literature; more than anyone else, he creates a popular drama—for the great public liked it—which was also enthusiastically received by audiences at the court as the embodiment of prevailing literary tastes. He bridges from the uncritical to the critical public more successfully than any one of the dramatists, till Shakespeare’s depicting of character, as exhibited universally, revealed to all classes of men their community of experience and emotion. This raising of the intellectual level of the drama Lyly accomplishes, too, by the addition of the feminine qualities of literature—delicacy, grace, charm, subtlety. The English drama was masculine already to the point of swaggering. It was Lyly’s pleasant duty to refine it, to make it more intellectual and thus to win the plaudits of a court presided over by a queen who, if virile in her grasp on affairs of state, was certainly feminine in her attitude towards the arts.