A defense of John Lyly against his detractors

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1972

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John Lyly’s best-known work, the two-part prose narrative Euphues, gave name to a style which, despite its vogue in Elizabethan England, has since been severely criticized. Nineteenth-century investigations of Shakespeare’s works developed an intriguing secondary consideration—the suggestion that criticism of euphuism, particularly that focussed on Lyly himself, requires reexamination. It is a fact that Lyly enjoyed a widespread, though brief, popularity with Elizabeth’s courtiers both for his sophisticated narratives and his court comedies. Later critics were to catalogue the rhetorical schemes they employed, and characterize their author as affected, pedantic, and humorless. The Euphues was the principal target of attack, while Lyly’s plays were generally unnoticed. Critical censure, exaggerating form while neglecting content, concentrated on the structural devices of the Euphues, Reexamination of Lyly’s works in the integrity of their matter and form suggests a different evaluation. His most criticized rhetorical devices, antithesis and simile have a demonstrable supportive relationship to his narratives and dramatic dialogues• And the combined effect of style and content is often surprisingly playful and facetious. This combination may appeal to twentieth-century readers as much as it did to those in Elizabeth’s court.

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