Complete-Lyly

There are so many Early Modern plays, mostly not by Shakespeare, and many playwrights I’ve yet to read so over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to make a concerted effort to read more early modern drama. Not because I have to, or indeed because it will benefit my research – though that will, I hope, be a handy by-product – but because I want to. And if nothing else, these words I read recently by Stevenson certainly endorse reading.

In anything fit to be called the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be wrapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.

– Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’ repr. in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 139-149 (p. 139)

Not too much to live up to then, eh early modern theatre! Reading some criticism on the development of early modern drama recently, I came across some discussion of John Lyly, a playwright marked out by the critic as a playwright who wrote for boys, that is to say it was boys who performed the parts in his plays. Lyly is a playwright who I’ve started to hear a bit about recently, and one firmly on my to-read (and ideally to-watch, but productions of Lyly’s plays are few and far between) list. A quick flick over the title pages of his plays reveals that all bar The Woman in the Moone (which gives no indication) were performed by children.

But there was, I was certain, much more to this playwright than his child stars. It was with such ideas in mind that I set about reading Lyly. In fact I read all of Lyly (that is to say his plays – his canon is far larger than just drama) in a couple of days. On Thursday morning I had read no Lyly, and come early Friday afternoon I’d read the lot. Now in terms of volume that’s nothing like setting down to read say the complete Middleton, or Shakespeare, in a couple of days. Lyly has – according to his Complete Works – nine plays to his name, I wasn’t quite as speedy as I’d intended but on Thursday I read 3 and 1/2 leaving me a hefty 5 and 1/2 to tackle on Friday. Now, a bit of context, I read most of the plays over at Duke Humphrey’s library (for those unfamiliar it’s the library they used to film Hogwarts library in Harry Potter). A beautiful place to study but firmly a silent study space. Lyly is funny, really funny in places, so on several occasions I had to refrain from laughing aloud. It strikes me that there are one of two reactions to someone laughing aloud in a research library: either people think you’re mad or they think you disruptive and shoot glaring glances. Early modern humour is no excuse apparently.

But perhaps a bit of context on Lyly might also be helpful. He, like many early modern playwrights (though he’s not just a playwright I hasten to add), has suffered the detrimental effects of the deification of Shakespeare. Thus, he’s seen (when he’s considered at all) frequently as one of the many who preceded the genius. Madness of course since they, and their works, are very different kettles of fish. But, for the most part, the times I’ve come across him tend to be small references here and there in books dominated by Shakespeare. Even Wikipedia is guilty of this, declaring Lyly to be, ‘remembered as a primary influence on the plays of Shakespeare’. While his influence is important he was, of course, a man and writer in his own right. A recent study on Lyly notes that ‘in the eighteenth century  Lyly is repeatedly described as an infection or disease for which Shakespeare was the cure’ (Kesson, 2013). All in all not great news for Lyly. But tarnished reputation aside, here are a few basic facts about him before I get started on the plays.

  • Dates? 1533/34-1606
  • Works? Poems, Plays, Prose, Entertainments and even a Funeral Oration (written Incognito)

I was working with the texts as printed in Bond’s Complete Works of John Lyly vols. 1-3 (1902).

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First up I started with Campaspe (1584) which I’ve no idea how to pronounce (any suggestions welcomed) in my head it sounded something like camp-ar-spay. I’m sure that’s wrong! I had read The Picture of Dorian Gray the night before and became slightly concerned I was being haunted by pictures which come to life, though the portrait in Campaspe is rather different from the ancient ugly work that the portrait in Wilde becomes. Though, like Wilde, it does involve falling in love with an image. It is at heart a love story. Alexander, in love with a girl he’s taken captive wants to keep it on the down-low, but asks a painter, Apelles, to paint her portrait. Perhaps somewhat inevitably, Apelles falls head over heels for Campaspe too (though he’s aware of Alexander’s feelings – he’s not very good at hiding them). Desperate to take longer with the portrait, he messes it up, so he can spend more time in Campaspe’s company. Finally, he gives it to Alexander but he’s not subtle about his feelings for Campaspe either (in the mean time she’s fallen for Apelles too). Alexander spots the signs and, with great selflessness, resigns his feelings for Campaspe – leaving her to Apelles while he heads off to fight in some more wars. I also (which reveals my complete ignorance) spent a good part of the play wondering why on earth Diogenes only ever spoke to people while in the bathtub. It, of course, wasn’t that kind of tub, something more like this.

But Diogenes’ bathing and conversing habits aside, I very much enjoyed my first venture into the Lyly universe. Though I was mightily impressed at how easily Alexander gave up his love, then again perhaps his true heart lay not in women but war, in which case this depiction is entirely in keeping with his nature.

Play number two was Sapho and Phao (1584) whose prologue at Blackfriars I think is interesting in the light of the Shakespeare and Lyly dynamic, though it is in relation to the reception of this particular play I think it makes a useful point overall.

Where the Bee can suck no honney, she leaveth her stinge behinde, and where the Beare cannot finde Origanum to heale his griefe, he blasteth all other leaves with his breath. Wee feare it is like to fare so with us, that seeing you cannot draw from our labours sweete content, you leave behinde you a dowre mislike: and with open reproach blame our good meaninges, because you cannot reape your wonted mirthes.

In other words, don’t go to Lyly looking for Shakespeare, nor is it necessary to always compare the two, but enjoy the play – whoever it may be by. This quotation also makes me feel a little uncomfortable at what critics can be guilty of, going into a text with ready formed expectations instead of reading the text for the text itself, as Stevenson encourages us to do. In fact with that in mind, I read no Lyly criticism before reading the plays; they’ll be plenty of time for that afterwards. In fact I squeezed some in before writing this post. But back to the play in question. There were several references to Vulcan throughout, and as I’ve recently watched Star Trek all I could think of each time the word came up was Spock, and the reasoning logical race he comes from – this shows perhaps how poorly read I am, what I really ought to have been thinking of was the mythological god of fire since this play is after all based on the ancient Greek tale of, you’ve guessed it, Sapho and Phao. It involves again a messy love story, though this time mainly because of the involvement of the gods and cupid. With a few arrow shots in the wrong direction Venus is left to beg Vulcan for a new quiver of arrows for cupid (Venus is the one who made Phao beautiful in the first place, but things don’t quite go to plan and all the ladies at court, especially Sapho, fall head over heels for Phao. Phao also falls for Sapho and there’s an interesting scene in which Sapho claims to be unwell so doctor Phao can fix her. Thanks to social rules they’re way out of each others leagues. Cupid then gets involved and makes Venus fall for Phao. She tries to do a patch up job with these new arrows, but Cupid only partially obeys. He cures Sapho’s love for Phao but then falls in love with her himself). There are also some funny servant scenes too, such as the one when Molus (servant to Pandion) explains the main difference between normal and court life is having to wear slippers – the word for which I mistakenly read as pantaloons initially. Now that would be even more amusing.

This difference: there of litle I had somewhat, here of a great deale nothing, there did I weare Pantopheles on my legs, here doe I beare them in my hands (I.iii.3-5)

Molus’s logic as to why Calypho is the devil is equally ridiculous:

Molus: Calipho, I will prove thee to bee the divell
Calypho: Then I will sweare theee to bee a God.
Molus: The divell is black.
Calypho: What care I?
Molus: Thou art black.
Calypho: What care you?
Molus: Therefore thou art the divell.
Calypho: I denie that.
Molus: It is the conclusion, thou must not denie it.
Calypho: In spite of all conclusions, I will denie it.

It is, in the words of Molus, because he iz black. Sorry Ali Gi, Lyly beat you to the punch.

Next up was Gallathea (1592) which involves some regular virgin sacrifices, and a couple of sneaky fathers who think with a spot of clothing mix-up they can save their daughters and cheat the gods. But something tells me they’d forgotten about the omniscient part of a god’s character. The two daughters – Gallanthea and Phillida – (dressed as men) fall in love, and there’s some hilarious dialogue about what they would do to each other if only they were the opposite sex, although it seems obvious from the start that both suspect that beneath the male attire lies a girl. Nevertheless they fall firmly in love with each other, as this heartfelt speech of Phillida captures:

Poore Phillida, curese the time of thy birth and rarenes of thy beautie, the unaptnes of thy apparel, and the untamednes of thy affections. Art thou no sooner in the habite of a boy, but thou must be enamored of a boy (II.v.1-4)

Now of course Neptune still wants his sacrifice and, in Snow White fashion, wants the fairest of them all. And he can’t possible allow two girls to be in love, so Venus proposes a sex change for one of them, obviously.

Neptune: An idle choice, strange, and foolish, for one Virgine to doate on another; and to imagine a constant faith, where there can be no cause of affection. Howe like you this Venus?
Venus: I like well and allowe it […] I can turne one of them to be a man, and that I will. (V.iii.128-131;139-40)

Their fathers refuse for it to be either of their daughters so it is left to the wedding day for it to be revealed who will wear the pants in that relationship. Also to be found in Gallathea are some interesting instances of early modern conceptions of astronomy and medicine, see particularly Act 3 Scene 3 as Rafe and the Astronomer discuss medical diagnosis based on the stars, and the time and date of birth and death. If this all sounds a bit far-fetched and fictional to you I can assure you it’s not. This was in fact common practice in the Renaissance as illustrated in works such as John Fage’s The Sicke Mens Glasse, OR, A Plaine Introduction Whereby One May give a True , and infalliable judgement, of the life and death of a sicke bodie, the original cause of the greife, how he is tormented and afflicted, what things are medicinable to the disease person: and the day and houre in which he shall recover, or surrender his vitall breath (London: William Lugger, 1606), and his Treatise of the Four Humours. In these treatises many grids are provided in order to determine disease, whether it will be fatal, and so on from the stars, star signs, and movement of the planets, as well of course as medical observations. In the Renaissance, a doctor always considered the body in terms of its relations to wider factors, and its place in the universe. Our modern retention of this in conventional medicine is limited, but may be seen in diagnoses which consider environmental factors. The patient is no longer, as in the Renaissance, seen as a cog in a greater universe affected by the grand movements of planets (who in turn were associated with diseases). But diseases aside, Gallanthea is essentially about two fathers whose attempt to deceive a god ends in an even greater surprise, and a sex change to boot.

Play number 4 was Endimion (1591) aka. The Man in the Moone. This is a play where a man in quite literally in love with moon – or at least the goddess of the moon, Cynthia. The bad news is he’s already got a lady and she’s not happy and his change of heart. As punishment she puts him into a deep sleep for 40 years. His friend Eumenides is sent on a quest to find a cure for Endimion’s sleep spell. Eumenides is also in love, of course, but sadly his sweetheart doesn’t return his affections. Meanwhile, while the masters are away, the servants play. Sir Tophas appears first of all almost in the manner of a fairy godmother, as Dares and Samias wish for him and up he pops. He comes across as quite the charmer when in his opening lines he declares that ‘commonly my words wound’ (I.iii.58) and later on he declares himself no interested in love ‘because it is not terrible’ (II.ii.153) which sounds like something only ever Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon might say. As they discuss Endimion’s long sleep at the opening of Act 3, Semele accuses Eumenides as as good as having taking a nap with Endimion (because of the heaviness of his speech), which just reminded me of the naps that Ross and Joey love taking in Friends (that is until other people find out). By this point you’re probably wondering whether Endimion ever wakes up. He does. In true romantic fashion in fact. His friend Eumenides looks in to a fountain and discovers sleeping beauty must be awoken with a kiss. So Cynthia kisses Endimion and lo an behold he awakes, she turns him young again. And Eumenides is almost as happy as having sex makes him: he is ‘ravished with a joy matchlesse, saving onlie the enjoying of my mistresse’ (V.iii.198-99). All this time Tophas has fallen hopelessly in love with a toothless woman, we are told that he prefers the older lady, as he declare ‘I love the smoke of an olde fyre’ and ‘I preferre an Old Cony before a Rabbet sucker, and an ancient henne before a younge chicken peeper’ (V.ii.25-26; 30-31). But at the end it is revealed his true love was turned to a tree, and she is returned – by Cynthia – to her former self. Semele and Eumenides are also united in love by Cynthia. But sadly Endiminion cannot marry Cynthia (she is a goddess after all), and so with several marriages the play ends.

Midas (1592) was next which saw one of my favourite words in Lyly, ‘mingle-mangle’ (followed swiftly by the more familiar hodge-podge) in a description the world. I think this should certainly be adopted into everyday usage. Midas tells the tale of the ill-advised king who listens to his gold obsessed friend Mellacrites and thus is given the power to turn everything to gold. The novelty wears off and he begs to be relieved of this gift bestowed on him by Bacchus. After a bath and sacrifices his wish is granted. In the woods he then makes a further error and offends Apollo by preferring the music of Pan. Not a good move and he ends up with ass’s ears as a result. Thankfully his daughter is more sensible and she pleads to the gods for his forgiveness – just as well as news of his ears has spread like wildfire. The once warhungry Midas becomes humble and vows to keep the conditions of his punishment. The ears drop off and the play ends. There is some humour and witty wordplay along the way, it wouldn’t be Lyly without it, it seems. Take this discussion of balls as an example; Licio is describing his mistresses head:

Licio: First she hath a head as round as a tennis ball.
Petulus: I would my bed were a hazard.
Licio: Why?
Petulus: Nothing, but that I would have her head there among other balles.(I.ii.29-33)

It is, in essence, a dramatized telling (though with some differences) of the tale of Midas in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Though we may be more familiar with the tale from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even perhaps Pinocchio.

Next was Mother Bombie (1594) in which attempted arranged marriages with two simple children (Accius and Silena) come a-cropper. Plotting fathers are again involved. They plan on focusing on looks before personality in order to marry off their children. Another couple of kids also fall in love, Candius and Livia but the marriage is forbidden – their fathers have better men and women in mind, ironically those two men and women are Accius and Silena. Wealth being the primary factor. While the Accius and Silena match fails, the Candius and Livia succeeds as they marry disguised as Accius and Silena. In the midst of all of this is a fortune teller (who reminded me a little of The Witch in The Witch of Edmonton) whose cryptic messages finally make sense in the concluding act as Vicinia’s baby swapping act is revealed. Lyly’s plays certainly offer a variety. There are amusing lines throughout such as Prisius using his beard as a handkerchief, and halfpenny despairing that he’ll never be a full penny. But this play also reminded me of Wordsworth The Idiot Boy, Lyly paints a strikingly simple yet vivid portrait of the two simple children who act as their parents pawns and only gain agency when someone else inhabits their skin (as the cross-dressing lovers do) until their mother returns and all is revealed.

Back to moons again, with The Woman in the Moone (1597) the planets are upset that Pandora only got the got bits of their characters and so they afflict him with all the bad things, Saturn of course with melancholy, Jupiter with vanity, Venus and cupid cause chaos and so on. Finally, restored to her true self by nature, she is allowed to pick with planet she favours, and selects the moon (despite the lunacy she knows will accompany that decision). Her husband, who she picks up on the way when under the influence of the sun is punished for his easily swayed nature. This play has also recently been performed in London at the Rose Theatre (2014), dir. James Wallace.

The penultimate play was Love’s Metamorphosis (1601) in which three shepherds fall in love with three nymphs, and even leave them love notes on the trees which reminded me of a production I saw last year of As You Like It in which love letters and attempted verse were similarly hung on a tree. The violent Erisichthon chops down the tree which turns out to have been a transformed nymph who he has now killed. Blood spurts out and everything. The lovers are incapable to winning their ladies, thus helpless they appeal to Cupid for assistance. He grants their revenge and they attempt to woo anew. Meanwhile Erisichthon’s daughter escapes her father(dressed as a fisherman). Petulius is in love with her but Siren is persisted in trying to woo him. Protea (dressed as an old man) interrupts her wooing pretending to be the ghost of Ulysses at which Siren flees. Eventually the ladies after kicking up a fuss yield to their gentlemen suitors, and so ‘all ends in kindnesse’ (V.iv.180-81).

Finally, a play which may or may not be by Lyly, but did find place in his Complete works, it is The Maydes Metamorphosis (1600).Lyly it seems was quite the transformer (Optimus Prime perhaps?). In Snow White fashion, a woman (Eurymine) is brought into the woods to be murdered, but her murderers takes pity on her and set her free, taking an animal’s blood as substitute. As she wanders the woods she is discovered and claims she is a runaway bride in order to gain compassion. At this point Apollo has fallen in love with her – though she denies his advances suggesting it would be dishonourable to his status as a deity and begs instead to turned into a man. He grants her wish and as Ganymede she now has the ultimate disguise. Just as well as the woods are full of a search party looking for her. The problem is within that search party is a man she loves (though as she is a man she can’t love him now). Her lover Ascanio talks to a fortune teller and gets a cryptic message – like in Mother Bombie – gradually he understands that his love is now a man. Eurymine prays to Phoebus that she may be transformed again to a maid, and her wish is granted complete with a name change. She is now to be called Atlanta. If that’s not enough to make you want to read it, this play also features a fairy called little little pricke and a ‘your face’ joke, well almost:

Ioculo: Thou dar’st not come and say so to my face.
Eccho: Thy face

That’s it. The complete-Lyly. Or at least the plays, and what a rollicking ride it was. I’m really glad I embarked on the journey and look forward to some more new-to-me Early Modern drama shortly.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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One Response to Complete-Lyly

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