John Lyly’s Anatomy of Wit as an Example of Early Modern Psychological Fiction

Adele Kudish


John Lyly developed the prose style that would become known as euphuism, named after the main character in his Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580). The term ‘euphuism’ signifies the use of paradoxical and self-correcting language, while its spokespersons express a great deal of self-doubt and contradiction. We can conjecture that Lyly intended his ironic, detailed examination of ‘wit’ to dissect both the intellect and its often-inconsistent maneuverings, revealing a cynical view of human behavior. In this article, I re-read The Anatomy of Wit (1578) in the context of a larger body of what I call proto-psychological fiction. I argue that certain Early Modern texts, of which Lyly’s is a strong example, share tropes and motifs that indicate the author’s interest in the workings of human psychology avant la lettre, and more specifically, of a pessimistic strain of thought that is critical of self-awareness and doubtful of our ability to be guided by reason.


John Lyly; sixteenth century fiction; psychological fiction

Full Text:



Aciman, André, ‘L’Esprit de pénétration: Psyche and Insight,’ L’Esprit en France au XVIIe siècle, ed. by François Lagarde, Paris: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature (1997): 95-111.

Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. by W. D. Ross, The Internet Classics Archive at MIT, by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. World Wide Web presentation is copyright (C) 1994-2000, Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. Last Accessed 15 October, 2015.

Bacon, Francis, Essays, retrieved from Last accessed 16 October, 2015.

Barkan, Leonard, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Bate, Jonathan, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Bradley, A. C., Shakespearean Tragedy (Originally published 1904, retrieved from Last accessed 16 October, 2015.

Chamard-Bergeron, Julia, Le moyen d'etre soi: Psychologie morale du roman classique (Unpublished dissertation, University of Chicago, 2013).

Cuddon, J. A., Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (London: Penguin, 1992).

Fox, Cora, Ovid and the Politics of Emotion in Elizabethan England (New York: Palgrave, 2009).

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000).

Gohlke, Madelon, “Reading ‘Euphues,’” Criticism 19.2 (1977): 105-117.

Hunter, G. K., English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Jusserand, J. J. The English Novel in the time of Shakespeare, trans. by Elizabeth Lee (New York: AMS Press, 1965).

Lear, Jonathan, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lovejoy, A. O., Reflections on Human Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964).

Lyly, John, The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England, ed. by Leah Scragg (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003).

Lyons, John D., ‘From Fortune to Randomness in Seventeenth-Century Literature,’ French Studies, Vol. LXV, No. 2, 156–173.

Marguerite de Navarre, Heptameron, trans. by Walter K. Kelly, retrieved from Last accessed 16 October, 2015.

Moore, Helen, ‘Elizabethan Fiction and Ovid's Heroides,’ Translation & Literature 9.1 (2000): 40-64.

Morely, Henry, English Writers: An Attempt toward a History of English Literature. Volume 8: from Surrey to Spencer [London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassel & Company, Ltd., 1892.

Pascal, Blaise, Pensées. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1995).

Peck, John and Coyle, Martin, A Brief History of English Literature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Salzman, Paul, English Prose Fiction 1558–1700, A Critical History (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1985.

Shakespeare, William, As You Like It, The Arden Shakespeare edition, ed. by Juliet Dusinberre (London: Thomson Learning, 2006).

-------- Macbeth, Barbara A. Mowat (New York: Washington Square Press/Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992).

Snyder, Jon R., Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Steinberg, Theodore, ‘The Anatomy of Euphues.’ SEL 17 (1977): 27-38.

Stephenson, Raymond, ‘John Lyly's Prose Fiction: Irony, Humor and Anti-Humanism.’ English Literary Renaissance 11.1 (1981): 3-21

Watt, Ian, Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).

Wilson, John Dover, John Lyly (Cambridge: Macmillan and Bowes, 1904) (retrieved from Accessed 15 October, 2015).


  • There are currently no refbacks.

All articles and reviews published by Ceræ: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies are published under a CC BY-NC-ND license, unless otherwise specified.