John Lyly was born in Canterbury, the eldest of eight children, where his father was a registrar for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He attended Magdalen college, Oxford at the age of sixteen and obtained his BA degree in 1573 and his MA two years later. He is said to have neglected his academic studies in favour of the “pleasant paths of poetry” and would appear to have been rusticated at some point. After obtaining his Masters degree he moved to London to seek a position at the court, attaching himself to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser. He was given the job of private secretary to Lord Burghley’s son-in-law, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, himself a prominent playwright.
In 1578 Lyly wrote Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a didactic romance, dedicating the first part of it to Lord Burghley and the second to Edward de Vere. A sequel, Euphues and His England, interspersed with topics such as love and religion, appeared in 1580. In this same year he was given control of the Blackfriars Theatre where the plays were performed by the Children of Paul’s, a children’s company. Between the years 1584 and 1591 he devoted himself to writing plays, the most popular of which were Sapho and Phao, Endymion, and Mother Bombie. The plots were drawn from classical mythology and legend cleverly interwoven with current events and personalities. Between 1580 and 1602 he served as an MP for several constituencies in Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire and Westmorland.
In 1579 Edmund Tylney, a distant relative of the Queen through the Howard family, was appointed Master of the Revels, responsible for organising Royal entertainments and for stage censorship. Lyly had hoped for this position himself and expected to be given it in Tylney’s retirement but in spite of Lyly’s two petitions to Queen Elizabeth for preferment, this never came to pass as Tylney remained in office for 31 years.
Lyly was married and had two sons and a daughter. He died in 1606, a poor and embittered man. His poems, many taken from his plays, are witty and lyrical and include Sappho’s Song, Cards and Kisses, and Spring's Welcome.
Selected Plays and Other Writings
John Lyly, Leah Scragg (Editor)