Sixe court Comedies. Often presented and acted before Queen Elizabeth
After completion of his studies at Cambridge, John Lyly arrived in London seeking a position at the court. He was an immediate sensation with publication of Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its sequel Euphues and His England (1580). Lyly entered into the service of Edward de Vere of Oxford in 1580, and his literary attention turned to plays to be performed by companies of children before the Queen. Becoming more “professional” at this time, some combination of boys from the Children of St. Paul’s and the Children of Chapel Royal began staging performances at Blackfriars in addition to the court. Lord Oxford and Lyly had a hand in this until the theater closed in 1584.
By engaging in the writing and staging of comedies, Lyly had hoped to become the Queen’s Master of Revels. He worked with the Children of St. Paul’s—perhaps with the title of vice-master (under master Thomas Giles)—with the hope that the position would be a stepping-stone to greater responsibilities. Under his tutelage and Lord Oxford’s patronage, the Children of St. Paul’s and/or the Children of the Chapel performed each of the printed “sixe court comedies” before the Queen in the 1580s.
Court performances by the Children of St. Paul’s ceased in 1590. A contributing cause might have been Lyly’s entanglement in the Marprelate controversy with Pappe with an Hatchet, the tract he wrote in 1589 defending the bishops. (He also entered Parliament in 1589 and served into the 1600s.) With no “stage presence” at the court, Lyly saw his hope fade of becoming Master of Revels upon the retirement of long-serving Edmund Tylney. He petitioned the Queen in 1595 and again in 1598 without receiving an answer.
Lyly’s comedies represent a significant advance over those written by his predecessors. Largely drawn from classical mythology, the comedies had thin but cohesive plotlines and brought together characters of differing social strata with witty dialogue. Through allegory the plays were topical but touched on eternal themes, and they served to praise the Queen and her court. By 1600, however, when companies of children regained the stage, a new generation of playwrights had taken over.
Each of the six comedies had been published individually but without the added lyrics, which are now thought not to be the original songs. The contents of verso Cc9 and recto Cc10 are transposed, and verso O7 and recto O8 are printed as verso O9 and recto O10 and vice versa (as issued).