History of English Literature

Who were the University Wits?

University Wits is a term invented by literary historians to identify a handful of writers, some well known, others less so, who first appeared in the early 1580s and had almost completely vanished from the record by the mid-90s.  Some were students together at the Merchant Taylor’s School during the period when the boys performed plays for the Court.  Some were together at Oxford and then at the Inns of Court in the Holborne district of London.  Some wrote poetry, some tales, some plays, some all three.  For some we have almost nothing but their reputations.  All wrote in “pre-Shakespearean” styles that separated them from the writers of the previous “drab era.”  As David Horne, author of the only biography of George Peele, puts it: “All were learned and classical in their tastes and interested in courtly literature” (70).  Several are the accepted authors of works that Shakespeare “rewrote” in the ’90s, and most of them have been assigned an assortment of the many anonymous works of that period.  The only thing that’s clear is that no one is clear on exactly where they functioned, what they wrote, or why.

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