See his complete works edited by R. W. Bond (new ed. 1967); studies by G. K. Hunter (1962 and 1968) and P. Saccio (1970).
After he left Oxford, where he had the reputation of "a noted wit," Lyly seems to have attached himself to Lord Burghley. "This noble man," he writes in the Glasse for Europe, in the second part of Euphues (1580), "I found so ready being but a straunger to do me good, that neyther I ought to forget him, neyther cease to pray for him, that as he hath the wisdom of Nestor, so he may have the age, that having the policies of Ulysses he may have his honor, worthy to lyve long, by whom so many lyve in quiet, and not unworthy to be advaunced by whose care so many have been preferred."
Two years later a letter from Lyly to the treasurer, dated July 1582, protests against an accusation of dishonesty which had brought him into trouble with his patron, and demands a personal interview in order to clear his name. However, neither from Burghley nor from Queen Elizabeth I did Lyly ever receive any substantial patronage. He began his literary career by the composition of Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, which was licensed to Gabriel Cawood in December, 1578, and published in the spring of 1579. In the same year he was incorporated M.A. at the University of Cambridge, and possibly saw his hopes of court advancement dashed by the appointment in July of Edmund Tylney to the office of Master of the Revels, a post at which he had been aiming. Euphues and his England appeared in 1580, and, like the first part of the book, won immediate popularity.
For a time Lyly was the most successful and fashionable of English writers, hailed as the author of "a new English," as a "raffineur de l'Anglois"; and, as Edward Blount, the editor of his plays, tells us in 1632, "that beautie in court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which nowe there speakes not French." After the publication of Euphues Lyly seems to have entirely deserted the novel form, which was much imitated (e.g., by Barnabe Rich in his Second Tome of the Travels and Adventures of Don Simonides, 1584), and to have thrown himself almost exclusively into play-writing, probably still with a view to the mastership of revels. Eight plays by him were probably acted before the queen by the Children of the Chapel and especially by the Children of Paul's between the years 1584 and 1591, one or two of them being repeated before a popular audience at the Blackfriars Theatre. Their brisk lively dialogue, classical colour and frequent allusions to persons and events of the day maintained that popularity with the court which Euphues had won.
Lyly sat in parliament as a member for Hindon in 1580, for Aylesbury in 1593, for Appleby in 1597 and for Aylesbury a second time in 1601. In 1589 Lyly published a tract in the Martin Marprelate controversy, called Pappe with an hatchet, alias a figge for my Godsonne; Or Crack me this nut; Or a Countrie Cuffe, etc. About the same time we may probably date his first petition to Queen Elizabeth. The two petitions, transcripts of which are extant among the Harleian manuscripts, are undated, but in the first of them he speaks of having been ten years hanging about the court in hope of preferment, and in the second he extends the period to thirteen years. It may be conjectured with great probability that the ten years date from 1579, when Tylney was appointed master of the revels with a tacit understanding that Lyly was to have the next reversion of the post. "I was entertained your Majestie's servaunt by your own gratious favor," he says, "strengthened with condicions that I should ayme all my courses at the Revells (I dare not say with a promise, but with a hopeful Item to the Revercion) for which these ten yeres I have attended with an unwearyed patience." But in 1589 or 1590 the mastership of the revels was as far off as ever--Tylney in fact held the post for thirty-one years--and that the evidence for his authorship may be found in Gabriel Harvey's Pierce's Supererogation (written November 1589, published 1593), in Nashe's Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596), and in various allusions in Lyly's own plays. See Fairholt's Dramatic Works of John Lilly, i. 20.
In the second petition of 1593, Lyly wrote "Thirteen yeres your highnes servant but yet nothing. Twenty friends :hat though they saye they will be sure, I finde them sure to be slowe. A thousand hopes, but all nothing; a hundred promises but yet nothing. Thus casting up the inventory of my friends, hopes, promises and tymes, the summa totalis amounteth to just nothing." What may have been Lyly's subsequent fortunes at court we do not know. Blount says vaguely that Elizabeth "graced and rewarded " him, but of this there is no other evidence. After 1590 his works steadily declined in influence and reputation; he died poor and neglected in the early part of James I's reign. He was buried in London at St Bartholomew-the-Less on November 20, 1606. He was married, and we hear of two sons and a daughter.
The proverb "All is fair in love and war" has been attributed to Lyly's Euphues.
Lyly's other plays include Love's Metamorphosis (though printed in 1601, possibly Lyly's earliest play — the surviving version is likely a revision of the original), and The Woman in the Moon, first printed in 1597. Of these, all but the last are in prose. A Warning for Faire Women (1599) and The Maid's Metamorphosis (1600) have been attributed to Lyly, but on altogether insufficient grounds.
The first editions of all these plays were issued between 1584 and 1601, and the majority of them between 1584 and 1592, in what were Lyly's most successful and popular years. His importance as a dramatist has been very differently estimated. Lyly's dialogue is still a long way removed from the dialogue of Shakespeare. But at the same time it is a great advance in rapidity and resource upon anything which had gone before it; it represents an important step in English dramatic art. His nimbleness, and the wit which struggles with his pedantry, found their full development in the dialogue of Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing, just as "Marlowe's mighty line" led up to and was eclipsed by the majesty and music of Shakespearean passion.
One or two of the songs introduced into his plays are justly famous and show a real lyrical gift. Nor in estimating his dramatic position and his effect upon his time must it be forgotten that his classical and mythological plots, flavourless and dull as they would be to a modern audience, were charged with interest to those courtly hearers who saw in Midas Philip II, Elizabeth in Cynthia and perhaps Leicester's unwelcome marriage with Lady Sheffield in the love affair between Endymion and Tellus which brings the former under Cynthia's displeasure. As a matter of fact his reputation and popularity as a playwright were considerable. Harvey dreaded lest Lyly should make a play upon their quarrel; Francis Meres, as is well known, places him among "the best for comedy;" and Ben Jonson names him among those foremost rivals who were "outshone" and outsung by Shakespeare.
Lyly must also be considered and remembered as a primary influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, and in particular the romantic comedies. Love's Metamorphosis is a large influence on Love's Labour's Lost, and Gallathea is a major source for A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 2007, Primavera Productions in London are staging a reading of Gallathea, directed by Tom Littler, consciously linking it to Shakespeare's plays. They also claim an influence on Twelfth Night and As You Like It.
In addition to the plays, Lyly also composed at least one "entertainment" (a show that combined elements of masque and drama) for Queen Elizabeth; The Entertainment at Chiswick was staged on July 28 and 29, 1602. Lyly has been suggested as the author of several other royal entertainments of the 1590s, most notably The Entertainment at Mitcham performed on September 13, 1598.
See Lyly's Complete Works, ed. R. Warwick Bond (3 vols., 1902); Euphues, from early editions, by Edward Arber (1868); AW Ward, English Dramatic Literature, i. 151; JP Collier, History of Dramatic Poetry, iii. 172; "John Lilly and Shakespeare," by C. C. Hense in the Jahrbuch der deutschen Shakesp. Gesellschaft, vols. vii and viii (1872, 1873); F. W. Fairholt, Dramatic Works of John Lilly (2 vols.)