Study Guide

Iolanthe

by W. S. Gilbert

Iolanthe Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Fairy Queen banishes Iolanthe because Iolanthe marries a mortal. Normally the punishment for such an act is death, but the queen so loves Iolanthe that she is unable to enforce the penalty. Iolanthe is sentenced to penal servitude for life, on the condition that she never see her mortal husband again. The other fairies beg the queen to relent, to set aside this punishment. Iolanthe serves twenty-five years of her sentence standing on her head at the bottom of a stream.

The queen, unable to resist their pleas, summons the penitent Iolanthe and pardons her. Iolanthe explains that she stayed in the stream to be near her son Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd who is a fairy to his waist and a human from the waist down. While they speak, Strephon enters, announcing that he is to be married that day to Phyllis, a ward of Chancery. The Lord Chancellor does not give his permission, but Strephon is determined to marry his Phyllis anyway. He is delighted when he learns that his mother is pardoned, but he begs her and all the fairies not to tell Phyllis that he is half fairy. He fears that she will not understand.

The queen determines to make Strephon a member of Parliament, but Strephon says that he will be no good in that August body, for the top of him is a Tory, the bottom a Radical. The queen solves that problem by making him a Liberal-Unionist and taking his mortal legs under her particular care. Phyllis talks with Strephon and warns him that to marry her without the Lord Chancellor’s permission will mean lifelong penal servitude for him. Strephon cannot wait the two years until she is of age. He fears that the Lord Chancellor himself or one of the peers of the House of Lords will marry her before that time passes.

Strephon’s fears are well founded; the Lord Chancellor does want to marry his ward. Fearing that he will have to punish himself for marrying her without his permission, however, he decides to give her instead to one of the peers of the House of Lords. Two are at last selected, the Earl of Mountararat and Earl Tolloller, but there is no agreement as to the final choice. Phyllis does not wish to accept either, since she loves only Strephon. Then she sees Strephon talking with Iolanthe, who, being immortal, looks like a young and beautiful woman, although she is Strephon’s mother. Phyllis is...

(The entire section is 955 words.)