Book 8: The Anatomy of Wit

John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) is book 8 on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

Described by 1001 as having been “published during the reign of Elizabeth I, for the consumption of a legendarily cultured and leisured audience of courtiers and nobility . . . it is not exactly a novel” (31). The text has been characterized as a “didactic romance” known for its “elaborate style” and examples of the Renaissance dogma that male friendship / platonic love was superior to male and female romantic love. Despite being little read currently, according to the Literary Encyclopedia, over 20 editions were published before 1600, and the text was still available on shelves regularly until 1630. Evidently, “the text was significant enough to conjure an addition to the English lexicon in the word ‘euphuism,’ which means an affected elegance of overwroughtness in language” (31). This style has come to be characterized by excessive use of alliteration, antithesis, and simile.

It is based on North’s Diall of Princes (1557), a translation of Guevara’s Libro del Emperado Marco Aurelio.  According to Samuel Lee Wolff, this text is more interesting than North’s because “Lyly has a good long story to tell. It is a story which, though deficient in action, is full of interesting situations exhibiting contemporary manners; which in its attempts at characterization, crude though they may be, effectively portrays certain universal types—the coquette Lucilla, the perpetual lover Philautus, Euphues the malcontent; and which finally is articulated with real skill, its material being artistically distributed into successive stages and scenes that evolve naturally one from another” (577-578).

It was published originally with a rather lengthy subtitle: “The anatomy of wit very pleasant for all Gentlemen to read, and most necessary to remember: wherein are contained the delights that Wit followeth in his youth by the pleasantness of love, and the happiness he repeat in age, by the perfectness of wisdom.” Richard McCabe writes that this subtitle is important to understanding the purpose of the text, for it was not to tell a story like a modern novel might but to write “an anatomy, or analysis, of a problem central to humanist thought: the relationship between eloquence and truth” (299).  McCabe goes on to argue that the text is meant as educational, examining the crucial importance of eloquence in being heard / or taken seriously. He goes on to compare it to Castiglione’s The Courtier.

Steinberg argues that it is a mistake, though, to simply relegate this text to one of manners and courtesy  because “whereas the true courtesy books describe, define, and often show in action the virtues with which they are concerned, Euphues describes and defines a number of virtuous positions, but never shows these virtues in action” (28).  Steinberg goes on to argue, “By adopting certain elements from his most important predecessors and the combining them in a new form, Lyly created a whole new kind of work, a work which is not, as some have claimed, a romance, the first novel, or simply another courtesy book” (28). He concludes, “Lyly’s creation, if it is not, indeed, a monstrous parody on the educational treatise and courtesy books of his predecessors, is at least by virtue of its ironic treatment of its sources, the first—and perhaps only—‘anti-courtesy book’” (28).

Main Characters:

  • Euphues is beautiful and witty but uses those traits for excess and frilvaty instead of good. Specifically, he steals Lucilla from his best friend Philautus (but she dumps him anyway).
  • Philautus is the courteous friend of Euphues who is furious that his friend stole his bride to be.
  • Lucilla is the fickle woman whose affection moves from man (Philautus) to man (Euphues) to man (Curio).
  • Don Ferarado is Lucilla’s father. He dies, heartbroken over her fickleness, leaving her and Curio his large estate to squander.
  • Curio is Lucilla’s third man, and he is not known for his wealth, class, or wit.

The sequel Euphues and His England was published in 1580.

Works Consulted:

  • “John Lyly: Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit.” Literary Encyclopedia. 21 March 2002. .
  • McCabe, Richard A. “Wit, Eloquence, and Wisdom in ‘Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit.’” Studies in Philology 81.3 (1984): 299-324.
  • Steinberg, Theodore L. “The Anatomy of Euphues.” Studies in English Literature 17.1 (1977): 27-38.
  • Wolff, Samuel Lee. “A Source of Euphues. The Anatomy of Wyt.” Modern Philology 7.4 (1910): 577-585.

 Happy Reading!


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