John Lyly Essay - Critical Essays


A sense of the Elizabethan literary environment suggests one appropriate overall comment on John Lyly’s work. The 1580’s, the decade of Lyly’s principal achievements on the stage, were years of extraordinary literary ferment. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser were decisively altering values in poetry. Almost doctrinaire neoclassic drama lingering from the 1560’s gave way not only to Lyly but also to the violent tragedy of Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) and Christopher Marlowe. Lyly’s drama corresponds to its transitional, eclectic times: His work made use of change as a chance for variety, instead of suffering from it as disorienting or disintegrating. Juxtapositions of Lyly to Shakespeare are likely to be odious, but Lyly may not be harmed by the recognition that, like Shakespeare, he profited from his historical moment. Lyly, like Shakespeare, grew toward a capacity to merge diverse elements in his plays and to hold together in suspension tints of different kinds of awareness and experience—Humanistic and Neoplatonic, lightly comic and seriously problematic. In Lyly’s earlier works, the multiplicity of available influences helps create disunified writing; later, it yields writing that is rich and experimental.

Linking this literary-historical pattern mechanically with the content of the work would be a mistake, in Lyly’s case as much as in Shakespeare’s. Still, Lyly’s greatest works celebrate change and greet it as comic growth through which people become more fully human. Galathea, Endymion, the Man in the Moon, and Love’s Metamorphosis especially should still be enjoyed for their adult gentleness, consciousness, and openness.


Campaspe, Lyly’s first play, is closely related to the Euphues works in several respects, first of all in its Humanism. It shares with segments of the Euphues writings a typical Humanistic source, Plutarch. The work is to a large extent one of ethical counsel, specifically of counsel to the ruler. The boy actors produced the play before Queen Elizabeth, and much of it constitutes an image of wise conduct by an exemplary ruler from the past, Alexander the Great.

For critics such as Hunter and Peter Saccio, Campaspe is a major instance of lack of plot development or even sequence in Lyly’s dramaturgy. Some scenes in the play, such as a meeting of Alexander with the philosophers of Athens, are detached set pieces not meant to advance any plot line, and involve characters who appear nowhere else in the play. Lyly regularly breaks the continuity of such actions as do develop in the play and thus denies the audience any steadily growing involvement with them. An action begun in one scene will not be resumed until several scenes later, after one’s attention has been diverted and diverted again by different bits of other material. Characters’ motives shift without explanation from one scene to another.

The point seems to be that Lyly’s sense of construction is not based on the wholeness of a realistic action but, in this case, on a doctrinal picture. The interrelatedness of many of Campaspe’s scenes arises not from their placement in a plot but rather from their function as sections of the image of Alexander that the play is putting together. The scenes show the different characteristics (or characteristic modes of behavior) of Alexander as the good king: his benevolence toward the weak, his regard for the learned, and so on. Much of the play builds less by a process of sequential development, in which each new scene depends on previous ones for its full significance, than by additive composition, in which each scene is discrete, making its separate contribution to the total construction.

To the extent that Campaspe is more Humanistic picture than plot, it resembles the many images of model human figures in Renaissance literature such as Desiderius Erasmus’s Christian knight in the Enchiridion militis christiani (1503), Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528), and Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour (1531). Like much Humanistic writing, Campaspe is concerned with the function of the prince but also, as an important corollary, with the prince’s relationship to his counselors (in Renaissance terms, to Humanistically educated subjects). Campaspe’s picture of Alexander is complemented by its picture of the Cynic Diogenes, an embodiment of an extreme claim for the virtuous counselor’s status in the polity. One of Alexander’s most exemplary decisions is his drafting of Diogenes for attachment to the court: Alexander wants to listen to a voice that speaks only for virtue, without regard for power.

In addition to these model figures, the Humanistic aspect of Campaspe involves sketches of moral tales. The prodigal-son narrative structure that critics have recognized in Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit also seems related to the rather minimal sustained sequence of actions in which Alexander does become directly involved: his experience of love for Campaspe, the realization that she loves the painter Apelles, and Alexander’s final renunciation of her. Campaspe, humbly born, is clearly inappropriate as a match for Alexander; Hephastion moralizes on Alexander’s love for her as a tempting detour from the course of honor.

Campaspe’s resemblance to the Euphues books involves factors besides Humanism. Much of the play is overlaid by a euphuistic style; the style sometimes works positively to give dialogue epigrammatic pointedness. The love of Apelles and Campaspe is a very different matter from that of Alexander, and one that can be related not to the Humanistic but to the novella pattern lying behind Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit. Apelles and Campaspe’s scenes, though other kinds of scenes are interspersed between them, themselves follow a perfectly regular rhythm, in which scenes of dialogue alternate with soliloquies by the two lovers; dialogue and soliloquy were the major frameworks in which emotion could be explored in the Euphues books and the narrative tradition anterior to them. The love portrayed in the scenes is not a distraction from honor or serious matters; rather, it is personal feeling that seems to be central to the psychic lives of the two people involved, and it grows. Unlike the Humanistic picture scenes with their additive interrelation, the scenes of Apelles and Campaspe dramatize an intelligible development, through which the characters move continuously from the first sense of love toward more ample realization and expression of it.

As in the Euphues books, Humanism and this other narrative component coexist uneasily in Campaspe. The motif of Apelles and Campaspe’s kind of love, virtually absent from the play’s first two acts, weighs heavily in the last three, receiving about eight of their thirteen scenes. The large influx of romantic feeling produces an unbalancing shift in the whole mood of the play.

Along with the pictures of Alexander and Diogenes and the love story of Apelles and Campaspe, there is one further set of scenes in the play, which is of a kind different from anything in the Euphues books and which became increasingly important in Lyly’s playwriting as it progressed. In Campaspe, there are only two or three scenes of high-spirited page comedy, in which servants of the play’s major figures meet on some pretext, exchange jokes, mock their masters, and express unflagging appetites for food and drink. Such scenes sometimes culminate in the singing of drinking songs. It seems reasonable to relate this kind of material to two circumstances of the production of Lyly’s plays. As court entertainment for holidays such as Christmas and Twelfth Night, Lyly’s plays belonged to the Saturnalian context that C. L. Barber described in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (1959), in which rule for the moment was to be made light of and appetite gratified even to excess. As plays performed by choirboys, Lyly’s works gained dimensions when their comedy projected standard boys’ appetites and smart-aleckism, and when they exploited the boys’ musical talents. Among the other constituents of Campaspe, the festive, disrespectful page comedy attaches itself most strongly to the characterization of Diogenes, the disrespectful satirist, but the pages completely lack Diogenes’ will to make moral judgments; their mockery is for the sake of having a good time. In fact, the page comedy seems extraneous both to the play’s nobler Humanistic themes and, certainly, to Apelles and Campaspe’s love.

Campaspe is a rich combination, but the continued lack of integration of the work’s elements makes it a noticeably less impressive play than Lyly’s more mature and mythic works. The play’s proportion of success is connected with the appeal or impact of certain moments—bits of incisive dialogue such as that between Parmenio and Timoclea in the play’s first scene, which, even more than the language of Diogenes, has the excitement of truth spoken to force; the last line, in which Alexander charmingly warns Hephestion that when he has no more worlds to conquer, then he may yet fall in love.

Sapho and Phao

Sapho and Phao involved a new source for Lyly, Ovid, whose potential impact, however, was not fully realized until Galathea. Lyly was remarkably successful in adapting his source material to a generally Humanistic pattern. The Sappho of Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), whose whole character is that of a passionate lover, becomes in Lyly’s play the queen of Syracuse, controlling a court and herself conditioned by social and political duties and norms. Phao becomes a figure like Campaspe, an inferior love. The play ultimately dramatizes Sapho’s taking control of erotic power (personified as Venus and Cupid), which had sought to rule her. The parallel between Queen Elizabeth’s chastity and Sapho’s is obvious; the triumphant establishment of the latter becomes clear praise of the former.


Roman mythography became a potent influence in Lyly’s work in Galathea. Ovid was Lyly’s source for this symbolic drama in which actions clearly have significance as they refer to an underlying dynamic pattern. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) contains many incidents, through each and all of which the reader looks toward the underlying universal process of metamorphosis itself, the...

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