The drama before Shakespeare found its full flowering with the dramatists called the University Wits. These dramatists were well-educated scholars. They wrote in the closing years of the 16th century. This name was given to them because they were nearly all educated at Oxford or Cambridge University. Wit was the synonym for scholar.
All the contributors of University Wits have several features in common. They had stormy careers. All of them were actively associated with the theatre. They were usually actors as well as dramatists. They understood the requirements of the stage and felt the pulse of the audience. They often worked in collaboration with each other. Their stored material was also common. With these dramatists English drama acquired the highest point of glory. In many ways they developed English drama.
Christopher Marlowe was most shining star among the University Wits. Others were Lyly, Peele, Greene, Lodge, Nashe and Kyd.
John Lyly: As a dramatist Lyly occupies a peculiar position. He selected classical themes and stories for his plays. He himself was a courtier. He wrote eight plays in all. They are- Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Gallathea, Endymion,The Man in the Moon, Midas, Mother Bombie, Love's Metamorphosis and The Woman in the Moon. Lyly's contribution to English drama is very important. He was a comic playwright. He gave shape to the romantic comedy. Suitable blank verse was used in his comedies. He added to drama the qualities of delicacy, grace, charm and subtlety. He is well known as an originator of Euphuistic style of prose writing.
George Peele: Peele was one of the greatest University Wits. His work has great variety. His The Old Wives Tales is the first English play that satirizes the romantic dramas popular at the time. His important plays are Arraignment of Pairs, The Battle of Alcazar, The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe and The Old Wives Tales. This list shows Peele's versatility as a dramatist. In his plays we notice a high level of poetic attainment. As a humorist he showed the way to Shakespeare. He widened the range of English dramas.
Robert Greene: Like Lyly, Greene was a playwright and novelist. He attained excellence in both the arts. His best plays are - The Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV. He was a master of the art of plot making. With him the love story became central in the art of drama. He contributed much to the development of romantic comedy.
Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe: The dramatic works of these authors are almost negligible. Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War contains hardly anything that is new. He gave practically nothing to the theatre. He wrote poems, novels and plays. Nashe was a pamphleteer and storywriter. He tried his hand at drama also.
Thomas Kyd: The English tragedy moves on its way with Kyd. He adhered to the Senecan school. It is he who popularised the blood and thunder element in drama. His The Spanish Tragedy occupies an important place in thi hostory of English drama. It is a landmark in English tragedy. It is a well-constructed play. It was Kyd who brought the revenge theme to the stage.
Christopher Marlowe: Marlowe was the central sun of the University Wits. He is the true founder of the popular English drama. His contribution to the English tragedy is very vital. His main works are Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, Edward II, The Jew of Malta and The Tragedie of Dido. With Marlowe the English drama got the highest point of its glory. He raised the subject matter of drama to a higher level. He gave life and reality to his characters. He made the blank verse smoother and gave unity to drama. Thus in many ways, he showed a path to Shakespeare.
Thus the University Wits contributed much to the English drama. They prepared the ground for coming drama. In the spheres of comedy and tragedy they made notable contribution and prepared the way for Shakespeare.