University Wits in English Literature – Characteristics


University Wits is a phrase used to describe a group of late 16th-century English playwrights and pamphleteers who were educated at renowned universities Oxford and Cambridge and went on to become prominent secular writers. Their education influenced their writing and made them distinctive figures in the literary world at the time. They contributed to both English literature and theatre. The University Wits became instrumental in shaping the early English Renaissance period.  Their works aided the progress of English drama and prose. Due to their professional education, the University Wits are identified as among the earliest professional writers in English. They prepared the way for the writings of several well-known playwrights including William Shakespeare.

The University Wits were known for linguistic innovation, bringing classical learning to literature and facilitating a cultural change in the literary landscape of the time. They were known for their fondness of heroic themes and tales. For this reason, several characteristics were commonly found among these writers. Their works tended to have powerful and declarative lines, glorious epithets, and powerful declamation. There was a noticeable lack of humour in these early dramas; if humour was included it was usually coarse and not sophisticated.

Meaning and Origin

These late 16th century writers were called the University Wits since they had all completed professional and sophisticated education from universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This term however was not used during their lifetime.  George Saintsbury, a 19th-century journalist and author coined this term. He argued that the University Wits were inspired by the academic dramas of Thomas Sackville and by the popular but miscellaneous theatre which was written by nameless writers. He said that University Wits gave the English literature its “magna carta”. He did believe that while University Wits with Marlowe at their head managed to contribute to theatre, they failed to achieve perfect lifelikeness. Later “University Wits” was taken up by many writers in the 20th century to refer to the group of authors listed by Saintsbury  


1)      Educational Background: One common element amongst all University Wits was that they received a classical education at prominent institutions like the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  Adolphus William Ward in The Cambridge History of English Literature (1932) in a chapter dedicated to the Wits said that they combined pride in university training which amounted to arrogance” was combined with “really valuable ideas and literary methods”. These influenced their literary explorations.

2)      Classical Influence: Due to their university education, the Wits were introduced to several classics; including ancient Greek and Roman literature as well. As a result, they were inspired by classical literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. They also used several classical myths and stories in their works and incorporated classical themes, allusions, and forms into their works.

3)      Blank Verse: Blank verse is an unrhymed line of iambic pentameter in English drama. Christopher Marlowe an influential University Wit was known to popularize blank verse. Soon these blank verses became standard in Jacobean and Elizabethan drama which allowed for more expressive dialogue.

4)      Influence on Shakespeare: Perhaps the most prominent playwright in English literature, the Bard of Avon himself was influenced by the University Wits. Marlowe particularly had a great impact on Shakespeare. Plays like “Doctor Faustus” by Marlowe and Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy” had influenced some of his plays. Shakespeare himself was born only four months after Marlowe.  

5)      Literary Innovation: Some University Wits were known to have introduced several literary innovations, these literary forms created a characteristic style. For example, John Lyly introduced an innovative prose style “Euphues” known for its elaborate language and parallelism. These innovations were significant in the development of the English prose.  

6)      Prolific Writers: Writers who create several works are labelled prolific writers. Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe were some well-known University Wits who were prolific writers. They produced several works in their time including prose romances, plays and pamphlets. These writers also addressed contemporary and social issues. So not only did they produce a great number of products, their works were diverse and explorative.

7)      Dramatic Innovations: It is well known that University Wits introduced novel styles and forms that moved away from the former medieval morality plays and mystery plays. They played a critical part in the development of English drama by contributing new themes, ideas and styles. University Wits featured characters with complex morals, themes of tragedy, vengeance and elaborate plots.

8)      Themes: The themes used by University Wits differed substantially from their predecessors. Some of the themes that were characteristic of University Wits were:  

Tragedy: Tragedy was at the forefront of dramatic exploration for University Wits. It was prominently journeyed by well-known Wits like Marlowe, Kyd and many others. Most of the plays conclude with the downfall or demise of the protagonists. This reflected the tragic sensibility that was popular in the era.

Political and Historical Themes: Famously University Wits dramatically used historical events. For example, Robert Greene’s “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,” incorporated several political, historical and social themes.

Social Critique: University Wits used their works to provide social critique on society. They offered social commentary by including satirical elements that would point out societal flaws and the follies of human nature. George Peele’s “The Battle of Alcazar” for example served as a commentary on the consequences of war.

Love and Desire: While themes like revenge, political commentary, heroism and retribution were extensively explored by University Wits, desire and love were also a frequented theme. Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” and Thomas Nashe’s prose work “The Unfortunate Traveller” are some examples where these writers explored romantic adventures.

Power and Ambition: University Wits had a known fondness for heroism and heroic tales. Naturally, power and ambition were themes that were explored. Characters often sought power, through memes like military conquest, magic or political invasions. The pursuit of power and the consequences of ambitions were recurring themes in the works of University Wits.

Religion and Hersey: Several diverse themes were included by University Wits including the subject of religion and heresy. For example, Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” questioned the frontiers of faith and the result of challenging religious orthodoxy.

Human Nature and Morality: The University Wits, particularly Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, probed into explorations of human nature. Their plays displayed the complexities of human deeds and the consequences of moral as well as the inner struggles of their characters.

Revenge: Among the University Wits, Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy” is often quoted as a before time example of a revenge tragedy. This genre would later go on to gain immense popularity. Kyd’s play explored the themes of retribution, righteousness, and the moral complexities of seeking vengeance.

9)      Literary Devices: These are some of the literary devices that were used by University Wits:

Satire and Irony: The Wits employed comedy and humour to remark on political, social, and moral issues of the time. These were used to draw critiques on society and morality.

Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing was used to hint at future events, adding depth to the plot and aiding character development.

Rhetorical Devices: Diverse forms of rhetorical devices such as parallelism, antithesis, and anaphora were employed by the wits to create persuasive speeches and enhance the overall eloquence of the work.

Monologues: The university wits frequently used monologues to create impressive speeches, impactful scenes or engaging dialogues. This allowed for the introspection of the character and conveyed the characters’ internal conflicts, desires, and motivations.

Metaphor: A famous metaphor used by the University Wits is from Robert Greene’s “Pandosto” “Thou whose bright eyes make the dark world double.” Metaphors were a frequently used device to create depth and enhance dialogues.

Wordplay: Wordplay and the use of puns were employed to include humour and increase the depth of the language. Devices of wordplay involved double meanings and witty word choices which contributed to the overall richness of their works.

Soliloquy: A Soliloquy is an elaborate speech that is delivered by a character alone on the stage. Several writers from the Wits included intricate Soliloquies in their works. Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” included a famous soliloquy delivered by the protagonist that revealed his inner thoughts and emotions.

Allusion: The University Wits were the first generation of writers to be professionally educated and hence were exposed to works of classics hence they frequently made references to classical mythology. Allusions added depth and cultural resonance to their writing. It appealed to audiences with a classical education.

Chiaroscuro: A frequently used technique it involves contrasting light and dark elements. It was done not only in the visual aspects of the stage but also in the characterization and moral themes of their works. This contributed depth and complexity to narratives.

Double Entendre: Double Entendre is similar to puns and wordplay where a form of wordplay is employed, to convey two meanings simultaneously. Often one of the meanings is risqué or humorous.

Parallel Plots: Some plays created by the University Wits featured parallel plots. Here two or more storylines ran in tandem. This device was versatile and allowed for the searching of different themes, and character interactions and increasing storyline complexity positively.

Character Foils: The use of character foils is a literary instrument that highlights characters in light with one another. University Wits used this device to contrast characters that highlight each other’s qualities and flaws. This added intricacy to the characters and enhanced the holistic narrative.

Paradox: These self-contradictory statements were used to express a deeper truth by the University Wits. This famous line from Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” is an example of a paradox: “Ere supper and your stomachs served, you’ll swear Your hunger away.”


Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593):

Marlowe was the most prominent of the University Wits. His contributions to English drama are celebrated for their dramatic innovations and moral complexity. His most notable works include “Doctor Faustus,” “Tamburlaine,” and “The Jew of Malta.” Marlowe was skilled in employing blank verse and the use of dramatic and poetic language.

Thomas Kyd (1558-1594):

Kyd is best known for his work “The Spanish Tragedy”. It is considered one of the fist examples of revenge tragedy. His work has been prominent in that particular genre. He explored the complexities of human nature and morality. Kyd focused on revenge, divine intervention, justice and morals.

Robert Greene (1558-1592):

A prolific writer, Greene was known for his prose romances and pamphlets. He dipped into several themes and genres in the wide range of works he created. Greene was one of the earliest professional authors in England. Famous works by him include “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay” and “Pandosto,” both believed to have inspired William Shakespeare.

George Peele (1556-1596):

Peele frequently wrote historical plays and was known for adopting historical tales to context. “Edward I” and “The Battle of Alcazar” are known as his most renowned works. He explored themes like ambition, power, war and authority.

John Lyly (1553-1606):

Lyly’s writings were characterized by an ornate and elaborate style of prose. Exploring themes of love, manners, and wit, he gained great influence at the time. His best-known works include “Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit” and its sequel “Euphues and His England.”

Thomas Nashe (1567-1601):

Nashe engaged themes of love, desire and social satire. He was a satirist, pamphlete, and playwright who contributed immense novelty to English literature. “Pierce Penniless,” a satirical work brought him a lot of acclaim.

Other Writers:

  1. Michael Drayton (1563-1631)
  2. Anthony Munday (1560-1633)
  3. John Lydgate (c. 1370-1451)
  4. Robert Wilmot (c. 1570-1634)
  5. Thomas Middleton (1580-1627)


The legacy of the University Wits is undeniable, as they set the stage for the golden age of English literature, moving away from medieval morality and mystery plays to explore more complex characters and plots the University Wits ushered in a prominent phase in English Literature. They were known for their linguistic innovation, the popularization of blank verse, and a strong influence on their contemporary, William Shakespeare. Their works reflected the moral complexities of human nature while delving into complicated themes.