John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.

In 1744, Robert Dodsley writes about Lyly but very clearly either hasn’t read Lyly or has read the Blount preface much more carefully, and he repeats with outrage how successful and popular Lyly was in the age of Shakespeare.

In 1810, again after a long period in which no-one really looks at Lyly, Walter Scott comes across exactly the same material – both the Blount and the Dodsley – and republishes Dodsley’s edition and its negative assessment of Lyly himself. And then in 1820 Scott writes a novel with a Lyly character in it, someone who has not only read Lyly but clearly is meant to be Lyly. This character has a doubly phallic name, Sir Piercy Shafton, and is constantly trying to flirt and have sex with women in an inept manner while spouting lots of silly rhetoric.

And, from then on, the word euphuism is the lynchpin word for denoting empty popularism, constantly being contrasted, as you can imagine, with Shakespeare’s natural genius. Lyly is affected, and that affectation, unfortunately, was a corruption, to use one nineteenth century word for it, or a poison, an illness. There are no positive terms for it.

So we have this nineteenth century cluster of terms, all of them negative, all about illness, denoting popular literature and popular forms of rhetoric for people to trot out. So there’s quite a specific through-story and it’s still there in Hunter, when he talks about the accumulation of sneers that accompany Lyly’s work, that his work becomes less popular the moment Shakespeare starts writing. There’s no evidentiary basis for any of that, except occasionally in a couple of Jonson plays, where Jonson has people he’s mocking celebrating Lyly. But that of course is another version of his popularity…

ML: But then Jonson also describes him as “our Lyly” in his prefatory poem to Shakespeare’s Folio, which is warm praise coming from Jonson.

AK: Absolutely. That word “our” is very important. That notion of “our Lyly”. And is that Shakespeare and Jonson’s Lyly? Is that England’s Lyly? It’s a very interesting pronoun I think.

ML: I read it as being a writer’s “our”. Digressing to talk about Jonson for a moment though: the idea that hangs around Lyly is the notion of a humanist courtier poet, with courtier being pejorative, yet no-one forced himself into court work as much as Jonson, and he is the antithesis of the kind of person Lyly is projected to be. He doesn’t get tainted with that kind of brush. Is that because he has a defined persona outside of the masque work?

Lyly is caged by the rhetoric that is used to define him. Going back to the popularist tag, there’s a kind of doubleness about it, whether its a term of approbation or condemnation, Hunter seems to be saying, “Lyly was popular which was great; and then he carried on being popular, but in a way that wasn’t great.”

AK: Hunter and a bunch of other scholars made exactly that point.

ML: So what was it that attracted you to Lyly?

AK: I really liked the combination of the rhetorical self-consciousness and the issue of his popularity, both his contemporary popularity and the total spurning from the canon thereafter. It was that cluster of characteristics about not just his work but his work’s reception that really fascinated me.

I started the project with a fairly clear sense that he was probably a playwright who wouldn’t be worth staging today. What I saw when I first started reading Lyly as a lack of linear narrative I now see as rhetorical self-consciousness. I wasn’t very interested in staging the plays; I was simply interested in the plays in their own time. But I learned a very valuable lesson during the process because just from doing some very perfunctory staging I realised that Lyly’s work was fantastic on the stage. I’ve witnessed so many actors and directors fall in love with him over the last four or five years. It’s been an additional, massive bonus to the project and certainly something that I discovered along the way. It’s a great example of how much academics have to learn from theatre practitioners.

ML: Why wasn’t it obvious that it would work well on stage?

AK: In my eyes, it’s because it’s so different to the Shakespearean dramatic paradigm. So it’s in prose. It’s short. And the other thing I always bang on about is the centrality of female characters. Both the number of them and the size and power of their roles. All of those things make Lyly seem very different on stage.

And his use of narrative is really interesting. Sapho and Phao is about a virgin queen whose virginity offends Venus. Venus tries to force her to fall in love with the local boy Phao and at the end of the play, Sapho kidnaps Cupid in order to take control of love. And then the epilogue comes on stage and says, ‘this is the end where we first began’.

People like Hunter say this is typical of Lyly: nothing happens in Lyly. So you get a word like static being a favourite term to describe his dramaturgy.

On the contrary, though, everything has completely changed. Sapho is now in charge of Cupid and, more importantly, Phao goes off into exile at the end of the play, whereas the play begins with Phao saying, ‘I’m very happy, I’m a ferry boy, Everything’s fantastic. Thank God I’m not a courtier.’

He then gets forced into the court and forced to fall in love by Venus and then when he’s spurned by Sapho he’s forced by love into exile. So the play is really bookmarked by the second of the two protagonists clearly having a traumatic life experience. But then the Epilogue says, ‘Nothing has happened in this play, there’s nothing to see here’. It’s a really good example of how Lyly is being clever and careful with narrative. So again that was a big lesson for me. What looks on the page like a lack of narrative turns out to be dynamic and exciting on the stage.

ML: We tend to talk about prose and drama in very different terms culturally. Almost as a hierarchy. How does Lyly sit with that? Does he subvert it, for example?

AK: He only subverts it from a modern perspective. It’s a hard question to answer from Lyly’s perspective. I suppose I think of the forms being in a continuum. It’s an easier question to answer from someone like Greene’s perspective because he’s moving between the two forms all the time. Whereas Lyly does seem to have a structure built into his career: prose fiction and then plays.

But take the example of Galatea, which gets reworks by Lodge as Rosalind which gets reworked by Shakespeare as As You Like It. It’s a great example of a play that becomes a prose fiction which becomes a play, whereas scholarship tends to think of that process as unidirectional: prose fiction becoming a play.

ML: One of the banes of Shakespearean scholarship is the hunt for sources because it’s a very reductive and limiting way of looking at any work, but in particular creative work. And that’s also a unidirectional process: everything ends in Shakespeare. It never adequately reflects any kind of cultural dialogue for want of a better phrase. I really like those kinds of cultural continuities. There’s a resistance to looking at these things as stories, as narratives which might even have a life outside of print.

AK: Absolutely. And the early printed plays look like prose fictions. Very very few plays across the period have a Greek subject matter. But the earliest plays to be printed all have Greek titles: Galatea, Campaspe, Sapho and Phao – and in that sense they look like prose fiction. Euphues, Greene’s Menaphon, Munday’s Zalauto. these prose fictions were characterised by their wacky Greek titles usually followed by a colon and then some explanation of some kind.

Even Tamberlaine looked like prose fiction. These books are all roughly the same size, even, and probably similar in price. This is something I’m suggesting in the book. One of the reasons Euphues was popular is that it’s such a different book to the earlier prose fictions, such as Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, which is a large book compared to a short prose fiction which is about this guy called Euphues or whatever. It’s on this model that plays can start to be published too.

ML: Did people look at a playscript in print and look on it as something different to a dialogue, say?

AK: I suspect different people treated the material different ways. It is like a dialogue. It’s even like a prose fiction. Painter’s Palace of Pleasure has marginalia guiding you from speech to speech. If you want to, you don’t have to read the narrative descriptions between the speeches at all. Very useful if you are dramatising a story of course. Greene’s Pandosto – the source for The Winter’s Tale – actually turns into a script at one point, as if it is recording a moment in Greene’s compositional process where he thinks he’s writing a play. The line between the two forms in print is finer than people like to think of it.

And they can certainly be treated in similar ways. These are fictional stories. They’re usually about class and gender – and transgressions thereof. And that’s really all they’re about. Possibly transgressions of knowledge as well. They are very, very similar forms. And the Greekness of the early printed plays at a time when prose fiction is also Greek – think of Sidney’s Arcadia for example – is very interesting. Maybe they become more distinct as the purpose-built theatres become more self-confident places of business.

ML: So when Euphues appeared in 1578 it was a major innovation?

AK: It was a really new kind of book. And depending on your definition of the novel, it represents a very important stage in notions of the novel. It’s a shorter, smaller book with a longer story about a single person. The Palace of Pleasure is an anthology.

But the response to Euphues is immediate. Within months you’ve got Munday publishing Zelauto, which also has Euphues in the subtitle, and Greene’s Mamilia, and so on. The anthologised story just disappears over night and it is replaced by this new form. You get one further reprint of the Palace of Pleasure in 1584 and that’s it.

ML: Is Euphues a new kind of character too?

AK: Yes, I think so. In the sense that there’s not a lot of character there, in traditional terms. Both he and his narrator seem to really delight in his ability to shift for the moment. There’s quite an early speech where he boasts that he can be any countryman of any nationality and everyone would want him. He can embody any stereotype. He’s a very strange kind of character. A revised version of the book is printed in 1579. Euphues was reprinted four or five times in one year alone and Lyly starts to revise it. And what he does is to take out most of Euphues’ stable characteristics and replace them by celebrating his uncertainty. Then when the sequel comes out, Eupheus is a different character altogether. He is younger and there are lots of strange things going on about identity.

ML: In a period where identities are very structured and people’s identities are very tied up with family, trade, location, gender, and so on, the idea of someone who could be anything is very thrilling: all those frissons of difference.

AK: It’s a bit of a clichéd phrase itself, but Lyly talks of him as being like wax. He could be made into any form he wished. Which is the same thing he said about his actors and his characters in his plays. He’s very keen on that idea.

ML It strikes me there are a whole cluster of reasons people get snobby about Lyly. As a general rule, literary scholars don’t feel very comfortable with the idea of fashionability. It automatically connotes a kind of shallowness. And there’s the prose – and the fact he wrote so much for the boy companies is another black mark against him for a lot of scholars.

AK: I’m sure that’s right, although it doesn’t seem to attach to someone like Marston, that I can see.  Certainly Marston isn’t patronised by writing for boys. But the later boy companies had a very different reputation: they are satirical, they are subversive. I think it’s about politics again: Marston doesn’t look like a royalist.  Lyly looks like a royalist to the 19th century and after.

ML I was thinking, coming in on the train, that the Malcontent is kind of like Euphues’ chippier younger brother. He’s really pissed off and sour and sardonic about the world and the smooth manners and cultivated airs of those, such as Euphues, who have succeeded in it…

AK: I really can’t get my head around how the Elizabethan’s read Euphues. I take comfort in the fact that whenever people like Greene and Lodge refer to the Euphues narrative, his fictional story, they always get it wrong. So I think he’s someone who is always being mis-read. When Lodge writes a continuation of the Euphues story, he’s got the characters married to the wrong people and in fact assumes there’s a marriage where there isn’t one.  The point to the story is that Philautus fails to get married at the end of Euphues and his England and Lodge just has Philautus married to his lover in his continuation.

Bo0cMUcIcAAnYWgML What do you think Lyly’s current standing is?

AK Not great, I think. It has perhaps got a little bit better in the last couple of years.

I’ve certainly encountered lots of snobbery and maybe fear is too strong a word – but a sense of worry, condescension or being troubled that anyone would look at Lyly. I get less of that now, but maybe that’s because I’m no longer a PhD student or maybe attitudes are just changing generally. I think the Globe has been formative for that. And Perry Mills’ boys company at the King Edward VI School, in Stratford. And the Revels editions I’m sure have had a big impact too.

My only worry is that in 1902 when R Warwick Bond edited the complete works and in 1962 when GK Hunter published his John Lyly: the humanist as courtier, they both announced that Lyly was being rediscovered and was about to become central again. And both were wrong. So I hope history isn’t about to repeat itself.

ML: It’s hard to see why Hunter wrote the book because he doesn’t seem to like Lyly particularly… Anyway, I’m really pleased you’re now working on the 1580s. I did an English degree and the more I think about it the more wrong-headed it seems to have been. I think the whole idea of close-reading mitigates against an understanding of how literary culture operates. You don’t get to read any stuff in fourteeners; you don’t really get to read much of what writers and their contemporaries themselves were reading. So you have no chance of really understanding how, say, Lodge had his own Euphues. The 1580s is a great lost period.

AK: Yes, I agree. Especially if you’re interested in the theatre. It’s the first decade where we have a significant witness to what was on stage. Lyly is so important because his entire corpus is 1580s so it’s the only surviving corpus of work from one writer from that decade.

ML: I’m quite fascinated by men like Thomas Watson, too – like Lyly an associate of the Earl of Oxford. Watson is invisible to us as a writer really, but I find the idea of someone who was clearly influential but who has to all intents and purposes vanished off the literary map very compelling. I think we don’t pay enough attention to the gaps. Is there much of Lyly’s work lost?

AK: I suspect there is loads. Both of the boy companies he wrote for were closed down. And I suspect there are quite a few works lost certainly from the second company because of the plays they were putting on,. It’s possible, of course, that there are works still to be discovered.

ML: Tell me about Lyly’s later career. He did fade didn’t he?

AK: Well it depends what you mean by ‘fade’. He stopped writing, as far as we can tell. And he becomes an MP. He had four or five different seats around Yorkshire. I suppose I resist the idea that he faded because I don’t know what evidence there is to support it. The work sells better in the 1590s than it did in the 1580s and it’s still selling at a significant rate. By Ian Green’s definition of popularity in Print and Protestantism Lyly was still popular in the 1630s. So his work is still very influential and in print. His work is around.

He dies poor. But then so did almost everyone who wrote for a living apart from Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s money doesn’t come from playwriting. So I’m not sure that he does fade. He does seem to stop writing or to write differently and that seems to be connected to the companies closing down.

ML: Did he ever make any attempts to write for the leading adult companies?

AK: Not that we know of. It used to be thought that Woman in the Moon was an adult play because it was in blank verse…

ML: That’s an interesting assumption.

AK: Yes. But Leah Scragg has shown convincingly that it was for the boys company.  I’m also fascinated by the fact that he doesn’t continue to write prose fiction. Those two prose fictions are the best-selling fictions of the period. There is nothing that challenges them. And there are so many sequels and spin-offs being written by Munday, Greene, Lodge and so on. Why doesn’t Lyly write more? Given that he dies poor. So the move away from the theatre and from prose fiction is very interesting. And I suspect reflects a typical unease about a writing career.

ML: So he died in 1606 and his work was still selling. Would he have known that?

AK: He seems to be involved in the process of printing his works, perhaps even as late as 1601. Lyly’s hand feels to be quite close to the plays that are in print. Everyone of his editors has suggested that this is material that has been looked at in press by the author.

ML: When did the plays get into print?

AK: Between 1584 and 1601, which is Love’s Metamorphosis. But in particular through the 1590s. He may have been involved in the 1601 production, but certainly up to 1594 he seems to have been involved in the printing of his plays. And again I’m arguing in the book that those editions of the plays are really significant, that those are the beginning of the market for print plays.

So Alan Farmer and Zachary Lesser have been trying to work out where the market for printed plays come from in their work on the popular play, and they can’t work out why 1594 is such an important year. And neither could Peter Blayney and neither could Pollard all those years ago.

Farmer and Lesser call it a boomlet – which may be my favourite word ever – but none of them think to look before 1594. They are all looking for reasons for this explosion of plays in 1594 itself. So they say that the reopening of the theatres meant that the theatres want to readvertise their wares. That might explain why the theatres want anything out there, but it doesn’t explain why the publishers do.

And I think what is happening is that in 1591-2 and again in 1594 loads of Lyly play editions come out – five editions of Campaspe and Sapho and Phao and five new plays in 1591-2. Along with the 1590 edition of Marlowe’s Tamberlaine and a couple of other plays that seems to be the beginnings of this market. It’s a really important moment.

ML: What’s the relationship between his contemporary reputation and the print market? Euphues was a big hit, but how popular were the plays in print?

AK: Hunter would say not popular.Whereas I would say they were very popular given the lack of market for that kind of book. So Hunter and after him David Bevington both note that the prose fiction is sold and resold – republished – and the plays tend not to be.

But for my money what’s significant is that the same publisher is publishing a series of Lyly plays and in fact Joan Brome, the 1591-2 publisher, specifically says in the first publication that she is going to publish a series of Lyly plays: ‘see what you make of them’, she tells her readers. So she thinks of them as a series. Some of Lyly’s plays get reprinted – and are the first to be reprinted in this manner – and even when some of the plays aren’t reprinted, they represent new investments in the author himself at a time when other playwrights simply aren’t being printed at all. The fact that she’s still investing in Lyly plays through that period, that seems to be where the significance is.

And Campaspe is the first Elizabethan play to be reprinted, Its reprinted three times in one year. There’s nothing else like that until Jonson comes along with Every Man In His Humour nearly twenty years later.

ML: Was that success something to do with his works having been written for the boy companies and therefore being seen as more exclusive. Almost as if there were an aspirational market for the plays?

AK: Boys, Elizabeth and Lyly are what’s selling those plays I suspect. Boys and Elizabeth get advertised on the title page. Interestingly they were published anonymously, but there’s loads and loads of evidence that people knew who wrote the plays. And it’s only Lyly’s plays that are getting printed and reprinted. Again, I’ve made the argument in the book that bibliographical anonymity is not the same as cultural anonymity. I could be wrong about that but it looks to me like Lyly is an important part of selling these plays.

For example, there’s a moment in Menaphon, the 1589 Greene prose fiction, where the narrator says a girl had studied Euphues and Sapho and Phao in order to learn how to flirt. So there’s a continuum between the two works. Lyly is the place to turn to in order to engage in convincingly sexy language, even where his works appear, on the title page, to be anonymous.

ML: What did Greene think of Lyly? Do we know?

AK: Well, we know how Greene represented himself thinking of Lyly. Greene wrote the most number of Euphues spin-offs. And even in his prose fiction which isn’t a spin-off he’s using Lyly work again and again and again. So he’s steeped in it. I think there’s a prefatory poem to Menaphon in which he says ‘Of all the flowers a Lyly once I loved’ which is always trotted out by the Hunter brigade to represent Lyly dropping off. But that is in a book subtitled Camilla’s Alarum to Slumbering Euphues in his Melancholy Cell at Silexedra, where ‘slumbering’ refers to Euphues not only sleeping but about to die: Greene is trying to kill off Euphues even as he reuses him. So there’s an anxious relationship with Lyly. It’s important to the composition and marketing of the book. And it’s also something that Greene is repudiating and trying to show that he has moved beyond.

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship is currently available in hardback from Manchester University Press.

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