Study Guide

John Lyly

John Lyly Essay - Lyly, John (Drama Criticism)

Lyly, John (Drama Criticism)


John Lyly c. 1554-1606

Lyly was an Elizabethan dramatist and prose writer who composed witty and highly polished works aimed at a sophisticated audience. His earliest works, the treatises Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England, gave the name to the highly elaborate prose style known as euphuism and inaugurated a short-lived but influential vogue for writings in this mode. His dramas, like his prose works, are characterized by rich rhetorical ornamentation and complex structures of balanced antitheses, images, and allusions.


The exact date of Lyly's birth is unknown. The statement by the seventeenth-century writer Anthony è Wood that Lyly entered Oxford in 1569, together with Lyly's application for a bachelor's degree in 1573, suggest that he was born in 1552. However, his name appears on the 1571 entrance list for Magdalen College, Oxford, which points to 1554 as the year of his birth. Since it is known that Lyly's brothers attended the King's School at Canterbury, it is likely that he too received his early education there. He appears to have been a serious student at Oxford but also seems to have gained a reputation as a wit and a carouser. He received a master's degree from Oxford in 1575 and three years later published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. This and its sequel were hugely successful and in the years following appeared in over thirty editions. Around 1580 Lyly entered the service of the Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain. This connection was highly advantageous for Lyly, and his career flourished. He became a partner in the Blackfriars theater, and in 1583 he married Beatrice Browne, a member of an influential family. Lyly's first plays, Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, were both produced at the Blackfriars in 1583-1584. Gallathea was also composed for performance at Blackfriars, but the playhouse closed in 1584, and the play did not receive its first staging until 1588. By this time Lyly seems to have lost Oxford's patronage and to have become associated with the Children of St. Paul's, a troupe of professional boy actors. This company produced four additional plays by Lyly: Endimion, Love's Metamorphosis, Midas, and Mother Bombie. Lyly was elected to Parliament several times, the first in 1589. It was around this time that he composed his last dramatic work, The Woman in the Moon, which was presented at the royal Court. In the 1590s Lyly hoped to receive the Court appointment of Master of Revels, but he appears to have fallen out of favor and did not get the position. From this time on his finances were in a state of decline. He wrote several petitions to Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s and 1600s, asking for a reward for his services, but she died in 1603 without having shown him any preferment. Lyly himself died in 1606.


In keeping with the euphuistic mode, Lyly's plays feature highly stylized scenes organized as series of debates between antitheses. Campaspe examines the problem of the individual in the state, as Alexander, the conqueror of Thebes, falls in love with Campaspe, one of his prisoners. Alexander is torn between his love and his duty to his country. This is allied in the play to a number of related questions, such as the nature of the king's private and public selves, the relationship between monarch and subject, and the individual's responsibility to obey authority. Sappho and Phao similarly revolves around a love between a person of high rank and one of low status. In this drama Queen Sappho falls in love with the beautiful ferryman Phao. The play opposes chastity and eroticism, simplicity and complexity, and life at court versus both an intellectual life and a humble existence. In Endimion Lyly again focuses on love and passion, but this play, perhaps the author's most complex, presents a number of pairs of lovers. Endimion is loved by the earth goddess Tellus, but he is enamored of the moon goddess Cynthia who scorns him. The jealous Tellus casts Endimion into a forty-year sleep. Endimion's friend Eumenides learns that he can be awakened by a kiss from Cynthia, and he persuades her to do so. Eumenides himself is in love with the disdainful Semele. Other relationships include the jailor Corsites' love for Tellus (who loves Endimion) and Sir Tophas' passion for Dipsas. Within this framework Lyly explores a variety of oppositions, including love versus friendship and art against nature. Endimion is also noteworthy among Lyly's plays for its more involved action and greater depth of characterization.


The vogue of euphuism passed quickly, and even within Lyly's own lifetime it became the object of satire. His influence on his fellow dramatists, however, was significant. Robert Greene adapted Campaspe—which had been written for an aristocratic audience—for the popular stage. Ben Jonson admired Lyly's work, and William Shakespeare incorporated elements of his plays into such comedies as As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost, and Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, by the middle of seventeenth century Lyly's plays fell into complete neglect. It was not until 1962, with the publication of G. K. Hunter's John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier, that significant interest in his work was revived. Critics since that time have seen Lyly's plays not merely as assemblages of brilliant images and rhetorical flourishes, but as carefully elaborated demonstrations of a world view based on paradox, opposition, and duality.

Principal Works


A Moste Excellent Comedie of Alexander, Campaspe, and Diogenes [Campaspe] 1583-84

Sapho and Phao 1583-84

Gallathea c. 1585-88

Endimion, The Man in the Moone 1588

Love's Metamorphosis c. 1588-90

Mother Bombie c. 1588-90

Midas 1589-90

The Woman in the Moone c. 1591-94


Euphues. The Anatomy of Wyt (prose romance) 1578

Euphues and His England. Containing His Voyage and

Adventures (prose romance) 1580 Pappe with an Hatchet. Alias, A Figge for My God Sonne (prose pamphlet) 1589

Overviews And General Studies

David Lloyd Stevenson (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Lyly's Quarreling Lovers," in The Love-Game Comedy, Columbia University Press, 1946, pp. 148-73.

[In the following excerpt, Stevenson examines Lyly's comedies in relation to the "sixteenth-century rebellion of common sense against the attenuated sentiments of romantic tradition. "]

Romance had been rejected by [Michael] Drayton and [John] Marston; it had been idealized beyond contamination from real life by Spenser and Cardinal Bembo; it had been described by John Donne as the spiritual half of love, which in normal experience exists on both spiritual and physical levels. John Lyly was the first Elizabethan writer to perceive that the opposed attitudes in this quarrel over romance could be used for another purpose. They could be embodied in a series of characters whose conflicts could be used as the basis of a sustained narrative and at the same time illustrate one of the significant problems of the day. Lyly explores the possibilities of his discovery in the two parts of his novel Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and His England (1580). He turns his back on the bucolic enchantments which sustain Sidney's Arcadia, for example. There is no escaping the realities of the actual world in Euphues; its main concern is to exhibit the perplexities of love as they appeared to the ladies and gentlemen of the sixteenth century.

The plot of Euphues concerns three lovers, each of whom fails in his attempt to experience traditional romantic passion. The most realistic of the three, the one least subservient to the despairing ritual of adoration which convention decreed, is Euphues. This is not to say that he escapes romance. Love enters his heart through the eye and at his first sight of his lady. He is seated opposite her at dinner, and he "fed of one dish which ever stoode before him, the beautie of Lucilla. Heere Euphues at first sight was so kyndled with desyre, that almost he was lyke to burn to coales." He also endures the customary love-sickness for his mistress, crying out in his pain, "can men by no hearb, by no art, by no way procure a remedye for the impatient disease of love?"

But the goal of Euphues's desire is far less exalted than that stipulated by courtly or Petrarchan ideals. He is indifferent to the ennobling power of love and to lovers' spiritual ecstasies. His wooing seeks only sexual union. He presents his suit to Lucilla, after the fashion of Drayton and Donne, by urging the very perishable nature of love. Of obdurate mistresses he says:

When the blacke crowes foote shall appeare in theyr eye, or the blacke Oxe treade on their foote, when their beautie shall be lyke the blasted Rose, theyr wealth wasted, their bodies worne, theyr faces wrinckled, their fyngers crooked, who will lyke of them in their age, who loved none in their youth?

Furthermore, Euphues woos the lady already supposedly won by his friend Philautus, and he justifies his treachery by mocking the idea that love is the one supreme, inviolable emotional experience; "he that cannot dissemble in love, is not worthy to live. I am of this minde, that both might and mallice, deceite and treacherie, all perjurie, anye impietie may lawfully be committed in love, which is lawlesse."

When Euphues finds that Lucilla has forsaken him, even as she did Philautus, he repudiates romance, much as Sidney had done, by crying out against his own practices.

What greater infamye, then to conferre the sharpe wit to the making of lewde Sonnets, to the idolatrous worshipping of … Ladies, to the vaine delights of fancie, to all kinde of vice as it were against kinde & course of nature?

Henceforth he becomes a critic of the very ideals of love to which, despite his sense of reality, he had paid allegiance. On the one hand, he generalizes skeptically from his own experience, finding that the ideals common to his age are remote from actual life. He attacks the principle of love at first sight by pointing out that "Love which should continue for ever, should not be begon in an houre, but slowly be taken in hande." On the other hand, he cannot rid himself of the lingering conviction that all human love is wrong because it is basically carnal. We need not then be surprised that Euphues's advice to Philautus turns into a rehearsal of a kind of dismal, worldly wisdom, a Puritan's cry to avoid the snares of courtly romance: "if thou canst not live chastly, chuse such an one, as maye be more commended for humilitie than beautie … Fond lust, causeth drye bones: and lewd pastimes, naked pursses."

The second lover in Lyly's novel, Philautus, is less concerned than Euphues had been with the physical side of love. He seeks quite candidly the experience that had been described in twelfth-century romance. But Philautus is too ingenuous in his attempt, as his remarks to Euphues indicate:

… let us goe devoutly to the shrine of our Saincts there to offer our devotion, for my books teach me, that such a wound must be healed wher it was first hurt, and for this disease we will use a common remedie … The eye that blinded thee, shall make thee see …

The first woman to receive his attentions, Lucilla, leaves him for Euphues. Her infidelity, however, far from making him skeptical, acts as a spur to send him on still further quests for an earthly ambassadress from the medieval Garden of Love. And he enters England, so Lyly tells us, "carying the Image of Love, engraven in the bottome of his hart, & the picture of courtesie, imprinted in his face." A man under the dominance of such an ideal is immediately reentangled in the same despair over the witty Camilla that he had already suffered for Lucilla. Following his lack of success with Camilla, he proceeds to woo and to wed Frauncis.

He represents the Renaissance in its absurdly determined effort to actualize an inherited theory of love. He is a follower of troubadour ideals, however, rather than Petrarchan, and shows the futility of most attempts to spiritualize passion. In reply to Euphues's philosophy, after the latter's reformation, that "the effect of love is faith, not luste, delightfull conference, not detestable concupiscence," Philautus denies ascetic ideals a place in courtship.

… it would doe me no more good, to see my Lady and not embrace hir, in the heate of my desire, then to see fire, and not warme me in the extremitie of my colde. No, no, Euphues, thou makest Love nothing but a continuali wooing, if thou barre it of the effect, and then is it infinite, or if thou allow it, and yet forbid it, a perpetuali warfare, and then is it intollerable.

The third of these lovers to personify an aspect of the amorous conflict of the Renaissance, Fidus, is the least realistic and the most courtly. In his wooing of Iffida as if she were a lady out of medieval romance he shows that his bondage to idyllic love is almost complete. Of the three, only for Fidus the "measure of love is to have no meane, the end to be everlasting." His final loss of his lady and his discovery that love is subject to the changes of time are not enough to make him disavow it, like Euphues, or to pursue it farther, like Philautus. He retreats from the world of experience and becomes a hermit in order to preserve his illusions. Fidus is not unaware of reality. Like Philautus he wishes the fruition of his idealized conception of love. Fidus is singular only in that he can be content with no less than such ideal fruition. Hence, though he has become one of love's anchorites, he realizes that he cannot escape the penalties of clinging to illusion. For all his fidelity, he concludes that love has "so many inconveniences hanging upon it, as to recken them all were infinite, and to taste but one of them, intollerable."

By means of these three characters in Euphues Lyly suggests some of the difficulties which beset young men seeking the ideals of romance in the real world. Further-more, here and there in his narrative Lyly anticipates the pattern of the love-game comedy by presenting the quarrel over the nature of love as a witty duel between the lovers and their ladies. Euphues and Lucilla, for example, come to accept each other (and romance of a sort) only after a sharp verbal skirmish concerning current and inconsistent attitudes toward love. Fidus, in his duels of wit with Iffida, defends the ritual of courtesy, while she advocates a realistic contempt of it. He is appalled by her refusal to accept either the idealized sentiment of love or the adoration of a would-be suitor and pours scorn upon her skepticism:

Is this the guerdon for good wil, is this the courtesie of Ladies, the lyfe of Courtiers, the foode of lovers? Ah Iffida, little dost thou know the force of affection, & therefore thou rewardest it lightly, neither shewing curtesie lyke a Lover, nor giving thankes lyke a Ladye.

But Iffida is moved only to derision. She mocks Fidus by suggesting: "And to the ende I might stoope to your lure, I pray begin to hate me, that I may love you."

Philautus quarrels with Camilla in a different fashion. Although suffering all the required despair of the aspiring lover, he lets his own common sense triumph. He approaches his lady, not protesting humility and adoration, but, like Berowne and Benedick, almost denouncing that for which he sues. Ladies pretend, he says, "a great skyrmishe at the first, yet are boorded willinglye at the last. I meane therefore to tell you this which is all, that I love you." But he concludes this speech, belying himself, "wringing hir by the hand," and Camilla turns upon him for his lack of romantic pretense, crying, "You fall from one thing to an other, using no decorum, except this, that you study to have your discourse as farre voyde of sence, as your face is of favor."

In these lovers' skirmishes is found a sophisticated banter between courtier and lady like that in Castiglione's treatise [The Courtier]. It was this sort of dialogue, expressing inconsistencies in love, that was elaborated to carry the burden of lovers' quarrels in Shakespeare's comedies. Lyly, both as a stylist and as a Renaissance psychologist, was quite aware that this method of presenting men and women in love was new to his age. He comments that the amorous language of Henry VIII's time is now considered "barbarous": "in tymes past they used to wooe in playne tearmes, now in piked sentences. … And to that passe it is come, that they make an arte of that, which was woont to be thought naturali." Even the despairing Fidus confesses that the one attribute in a woman that most sets his "fancies on edge" is her wit. When he is driven by Iffida's raillery to make a theoretical choice among three possibilities—a witty wanton, a fair fool, and an ugly saint—he chooses the one with wit, because "by hir wit she will ever conceale whom she loves, & to weare a home and not knowe it, will do me no more harme then to eate a flye, and not see it."

Pairs of contending lovers, as they emerge occasionally from The Courtier or from Elizabethan poetry, have been shown neither to solve their own conflict nor suggest a generally acceptable solution. In Euphues, however, wholly imaginary characters are involved in an imaginary narrative. They are free from the restrictions imposed by reality. Therefore Lyly is free, as neither Castiglione nor Sidney was, to harmonize these discordant concepts of love by the final union of the lovers who represent the conflict. He is free to present his characters as concluding their sex duels by accepting each other and therewith the natural paradoxes of idyllic love in a skeptical world. But Lyly, at least in Euphues, only partially realized the dramatic and comic potentialities of this acceptance. The contentions in the two parts of Euphues give dramatic force to the amorous problem they present. But the lovers' quarrels, with the exception of that between Philautus and Frauncis, serve rather to separate the contestants and the attitudes they embody than to bring them together in any kind of harmony (as is done in Much Ado). Fidus accurately summarizes all their sex duels when he describes his own battle of wits with Iffida: "Many nips were returned that time betweene us, and some so bitter, that I thought them to proceede rather of mallice, to worke dispite, then of mirth to showe disporte."

In Euphues, even when diverse opinions are reconciled by the marriage of the two contestants, comedy is not evoked. The ultimate surrender of Camilla to Surius is merely noted by Lyly in passing. It is highly anticlimactic, breaks no tension, comes almost as an afterthought. "By the preamble, you may gesse to what purpose the drift tended," he says. He draws a moral out of that which to be most effective dramatically should be immediately understood by the audience. There should be no such pointed comment as "This I note, that they that are most wise, most vertuous, most beautiful, are not free from the impressions of Fancy: For who would have thought that Camilla, who seemed to disdaine love, should so soone be entangled." The final solution to the difficulties which have beset Philautus in his effort to find an acceptable mistress is presented in a similar manner. Lyly breaks the news of Philautus's successful pursuit of Frauncis in an exchange of letters (between Philautus and Euphues) which are mainly concerned with the lady's dowry and with the requisites of a successful married life.

In Euphues Lyly presents the fact, of which his age was well aware, that men and women in love do not follow any rigidly prescribed code of behavior. The witty, consciously rhetorical dialogues between lovers show Lyly putting legs to a quarrel over romance and making it walk. His lovers' predicaments are not merely the hazards set up by the improbable events found, for example, in Sidney's Arcadian romance. The characters in Euphues dramatize the gulf between the effects of an actual love affair and the supposed effects prescribed by genteel tradition. But Lyly's lovers fail to create the illusion that they have solved the problems which beset them. They illustrate no dramatic and concerted reconciliation, as do the contestants in Shakespeare's Much Ado. For this reason, in Lyly's novel the pattern of the love-game comedy remains incomplete.

Contending Attitudes in Lyly's Comedies

In most of Lyly's comedies (as in Euphues) he creates a series of lovers whose difficulties are the result of the sixteenth-century rebellion of common sense against the attenuated sentiments of romantic tradition. Lyly's presentation of this conflict in his dramas, however, is complicated by the fact that his characters are usually thought to reflect the ever changing infatuations of the queen and her courtiers. Indeed, the allegorical significance of these characters may well have been Lyly's chief personal interest in them, since he hoped to make them appeal eloquently for his own preferment. For example, in Lyly's first comedy, Alexander and Campaspe, Alexander was no doubt meant to be in part a flattering portrait of Elizabeth complacently conquering her desire for an unworthy lover. But he also exists to voice an impersonal protest against those who allow themselves to be overwhelmed by romantic passion. Lyly's prudence, as well as his artistry, dictated that the allegorical meanings of these plays be kept imprecise and the import of their love conflicts general. Although the allusions to specific men and women of his time are too amorphous to make his comedies accurate social history, his presentation of attitudes of actual Elizabethans is important because it emphasizes the very real nature of the sixteenth-century quarrel over romance.

In Campaspe Lyly presents love as a quarrel of impulses within the mind of the protagonist, Alexander, who suffers for his Theban captive the languishing despairs of the courtly lover. His problem is whether he shall possess her against her will and be recreant to all the ideals of romantic love or conquer his passion and so deny love itself. Hephestion, who acts as Alexander's moral counselor, insists that romance is mutable and merely a delusion arising from sexual desires. He cautions Alexander that "time must weare out that love hath wrought, and reason weane what appetite noursed." He defines love as "a word by superstition thought a god, by use turned to an humour, by selfwil made a flattering madnesse." Lays, the courtesan, acts as Alexander's realistic counselor. She suggests ironically that the achievement of worldly ambition is for Alexander more important than his realization of a romantic idyl: "You may talk of warre, speak bigge, conquer worldes with great wordes: but stay at home, where in steede of Alarums you shall have daunces, for hot battelles with fierce menne, gentle Skirmishes with fayre womenne."

Alexander finally extricates himself from his entanglement in about the same manner as did Euphues, by accepting asceticism as "reasonable." He is thus enabled to contradict in jocular fashion conventional descriptions of love. Henceforth, he concludes, he will use "fancy as a foole to make his sport, or a minstrell to make him mery. It is not the amorous glaunce of an eie can settle an idle thought in the heart; no, no, it is childrens game, a life for … scholers (who) picking fancies out of books, have little els to mervaile at." Alexander does not come to terms with romance, but eludes it, as his final comment illustrates: "It were a shame Alexander should desire to commaund the world, if he could not commaund himselfe … good Hephestion, when al the world is woone, and every country is thine and mine, either find me out an other to subdue, or of my word I wil fall in love."

In Sapho and Phao, Lyly's second play, Phao, the humble lover of Sapho, was probably meant to suggest the Duc d'Alençon, in whom Elizabeth pretended a teasing sort of interest. Phao also represents the naïve lover, unaware of the actual nature of the world in which he is seeking romance. His love for Sapho follows courtly tradition. He is stricken nearly speechless at his first sight of her, finally declaring: "Madame, I crave pardon, I am spurblinde [i.e., purblind] I could scarse see." He exhibits all the physical anguish that was part of the pattern, only to be refused by Sapho at the end of his wooing. Then he turns from her court back to his ferrying, to endeavor, as he says, "with mine oare to gette a fare, not with my penne to write a fancie." Yet like Fidus, Phao can neither reject romance nor accept a less ideal reality. He finally admits that "loves are but smokes, which vanish in the seeing, and yet hurte whilest they are seene." But he remains faithful to his ideal: "This shal be my resolution, where ever I wander to be as I were ever kneeling before Sapho, my loyalty unspotted, though unrewarded."

Mileta of this play, the lady-in-waiting to Sapho, represents (in contrast to Phao) the unadulterated skepticism of the Renaissance. To her feminine companions she cries out her protests against the courtly tradition which Phao dramatizes: "I laugh at that you all call love, and judge it onely a worde called love. Me thinks lyking, a curtesie, a smile, a beck, and such like, are the very Quintessence of love." She finds the sighs and sonnets of a lover quite as ridiculous as, a decade later, did such satirists as Marston and Donne. She assumes the regular anti-Petrarchan attitude when she describes these conventional courtiers as "wearing our hands out with courtly kissings, when their wits faile in courtly discourses. Now rufling their haires, now setting their ruffes, then gazing with their eies, then sighing with a privie wring by the hand, thinking us like to be wowed by signes and ceremonies."

In Lyly's third play, Endimion, as Bond suggests, "the allegory is the plot." Indeed, the Elizabethan audience could scarcely have failed to look for hidden significances in Endimion, since it was warned not to do so by the author in his prologue. Again the characters reflect both court intrigues and the more general conflict of Renaissance attitudes toward love. Endimion, whose name gives title to the play, is probably meant to be Leicester, languishingly but ascetically devoted to Cynthia, or Elizabeth, "the Ladie that hee delightes in, and dotes on every day, and dies for ten thousand times a day." He is also the perfect Petrarchan lover; all his amorous thoughts "are stitched to the starres." Eumenides, his friend and rescuer, seems to be something like Sir Philip Sidney. The sharp-tongued Semele, whom he woos, may very well have suggested Penelope Devereux, or "Stella." But these contrasting pairs of lovers also dramatize the general difference between a Platonic respect for one's mis-tress and a courtly solicitation of her favors.

Endimion, in his absolute devotion to Cynthia, is the romantic lover incarnate. To him love is the only significant human experience. He cries:

There is no Mountain so steepe that I will not climbe, no monster so cruell that I will not tame, no action so desperate that I will not attempt … Beholde my sad teares, my deepe sighes, my hollowe eyes, my broken sleepes, my heavie countenaunce. … Have I not spent my golden yeeres in hopes, waxing old with wishing, yet wishing nothing but thy love.

Like Fidus, like Phao, Endimion becomes one of love's anchorites, "divorsing himselfe from the amiablenes of all Ladies, the braverie of all Courts, the companie of al men … accounting in the worlde (but Cynthia) nothing excellent." And like Phao, Endimion is untouched by skepticism, although his only reward for his fidelity to Cynthia has been a single kiss.

The attitude of Eumenides, on the other hand, is that of a matter-of-fact lover who is content to have his fortunes "creepe on the earth." He lightly mocks the Petrarchan amorist when he warns Endimion that sleep will do him more good than his ecstatic reverie. Eumenides, like Philautus, seeks a substantial reward for his wooing. To him the goal of courtesy is the yielding by a virtuous lady to her lover. Indeed, he is so much a virtuoso in sensuality that his imagined delight at Semele's final surrender almost overcomes him. He cries out, "I pray thee, fortune, when I shall first meete with fayre Semele, dash my delight with some light disgrace, least imbracing sweetnesse beyond measure, I take surfit without recure. …" His only difficulty is that the object of his devotion, like Sidney's "Stella," refuses to conform to his realistic conception of love.

In portraying the character Sir Tophas in this play, Lyly goes beyond a commonsense realism and actually derides romantic ideals. Sir Tophas is a braggart, a pedant, a social climber, and a foolish amorist. His courtship of the old hag Dipsas is a gross parody of the proper ritual of adoration. It may have been meant merely to ridicule some unlucky Elizabethan would-be courtier. But the conduct of Sir Tophas is also a violent caricature of the lover's pageant of woes. Like the neophyte in a twelfth-century romance, Sir Tophas first scorns love before he is caught by it. He ridicules passion by a foolish quarrel with his servant over the physiological origin of love. His servant suggests, "love, sir, may lye in your lunges, and I think it doth, and that is the cause you blow, and are so pursie." Tophas replies, mocking the Elizabethan complimentary sonneteer, "Tush boy! I thinke it but some devise of the Poet to get money." But the caricature goes deeper, and Lyly seems to anticipate for a moment the satiric view of Marston. Conventional conceits of the Petrarchan, or the Provençal lover are burlesqued in Sir Tophas's description of his passion for Dipsas:

I feele all Ovid "de arte amandi" lie as heavie at my heart as a loade of logges. O what a fine thin hayre hath Dipsas! What a prettie low forehead! What a tall & statlie nose! What little hollowe eyes! What great and goodly lypes! Howe harmlesse shee is beeing toothlesse! her fingers fatte and short, adorned with long nayles like a Bytter! In howe sweete a proportion her cheekes hang downe to her brests like dugges, and her pappes to her waste like bagges! What a lowe stature shee is, and yet what a great foote shee carryeth!

The Woman in the Moone, the last but one of Lyly's comedies which treat the Renaissance complexities of love, has been called "a mirthless and bitter denunciation of woman" [by Violet Jeffery, in John Lyly And the Italian Renaissance]. Possibly it portrays Lyly's conception of the fickleness of a specific woman, Elizabeth, Indeed, as Feuillerat has pointed out [in John Lyly], its original audience could scarcely have failed to think of the queen even if Lyly had conceived the central character in this drama, Pandora, impersonally. Whatever the implied meanings, the import of the play is not limited to them. It contains a somewhat sardonic presentation of lovers' perplexities, which had already been dramatized in Lyly's other plays. The only difference is that here a conflict of attitudes is dramatized as moral allegory. A single woman, Pandora, is sent to Utopia to become the lady of one of the four shepherds who live there in rustic peace. Her response to her wooers is controlled in turn by each of the seven planets. Therefore she represents all the variations of temperament of an actual person in conflict with the shepherds, who voice the sentiments of confirmed idealists. Gunophilus, her servant, makes this clear when he describes his passion in terms of the time-worn idea that the first glance of the mistress pierced the heart of the recipient through his eye.

As I beheld the glory of thy face
My feeble eyes admiring majestie
Did sinke into my heart such holly feare
That very feare amazing every sence,
Withheld my tongue from saying what I would.

Stesias, whom Pandora under the influence of Sol has chosen as her husband, represents the lover who thinks for a moment that he has realized his idyllic desires. When he has first won Pandora, he cries out:

O Stesias, what a heavenly love hast thou!
A love as chaste as is Apolloes tree:
As modest as a vestali Virgins eye,
And yet as bright as Glow wormes in the night,
With which the morning decks her lovers hayre
O fayre Pandora, blessed Stesias.

Pandora, who has been alternately melancholy, disdainful, raging, chastely coy, is seen in clearest conflict with the romantic ideal envisaged by the shepherds when she is under the influence of Venus. The scorn of this goddess for Pandora's proposed union with Stesias, expressed somewhat in the spirit of the "ars amatoria," is in defiance of all conventional conceits:

Away with chastity and modest thoughts
'Quo mihi fortunam si non conceditur uti?'
Is she not young? then let her to the world:
All those are strumpets that are over chaste,
Defying such as keepe their company.
Tis not the touching of a womans hand,
Kissing her lips, hanging about her neck …
That men expect …

And Pandora solicits successfully, in turn, the three shepherds she had dismissed to marry Stesias, crying:

A husband? What a folish word is that!
Give me a lover, let the husband goe.

This is no misogynic tract (as Violet Jeffery, for one, would have it), since the shepherds are as willing to play traitor to Stesias as is Pandora. Like the other comedies, this is a study of the contrasts between the idealized pretensions of lovers' desires and the dismal realizations.

Lyly's Resolution of Controversy

Alexander and Hephestion, Sapho and Mileta, Endimion and Eumenides show how Lyly turns to dramatic use incompatible attitudes toward love already established for Elizabethan thought. But Lyly goes farther in the direction of "love-game comedy." Pairs of lovers in some of his comedies dramatize the intellectual conflict between different ideas of love as a witty duel between a courtier and his lady. In Campaspe, for example, there is a mild skirmish of wits between Alexander's successful rival, the painter Apelles, and Campaspe. Apelles is traditionally correct when he suggests to Campaspe that the source of his desire for her is in the glance of her eyes. As a romantic lover, he believes that she is to be won by a ritual of humble adoration, by "praier, sacrifice and bribes," at the shrine of Venus. But he is also sufficiently realistic to wish to possess his lady. In his quarrel with Campaspe he represents the Renaissance attempt to possess its ideal woman, and she represents the attempt to keep love an untouchable ideal. They quarrel first because Campaspe has scornfully rejected Apelles, romantically prostrate before her beauty. He then mocks her, suggesting that she is both coy and lustful.

Mistresse, you neither differ from your selfe nor your sex: for knowing your owne perfection you seeme to dispraise that which men most commend, drawing them by that meane into an admiration, where feeding them selves they fall into an extasie; your modestie being the cause of the one, and of the other, your affections.

In their second duel of wits Apelles is finally driven to teasing protest that the real Campaspe is incredibly hard to bend to his preconceived ideal: "It is not possible that a face so faire, & a wit so sharpe, both without comparison, should not be apt to love."

Their skirmish has an air of reality. It is presented as if it had arisen from the lovers' desires and had been mutually contrived. It actually draws the lovers together instead of separating them (as such duels had done in Euphues and in The Courtier). Out of their final witty game of disagreement comes Campaspe's confession of surrender, though she quibbles with Apelles even as he swears the eternal nature of his passion, mocking him with, "That is, neither to have beginning nor ending." But she immediately relents and admits, "but this assure your self, that I had rather bee in thy shop grinding colours, then in Alexanders court, following higher fortunes." Thus these lovers, like Berowne and Rosalind, like Beatrice and Benedick, do work out their conflict of attitudes after a fashion.

But neither Apelles nor Campaspe is the subtle creature of later comedy, neither one personifies an aspect of the quarrel over love with sufficient clarity to make his compromise or betrayal of his point of view dramatically effective. Each acknowledges his acceptance of the other too soon. Furthermore, narrative events impede the climax to their verbal combats. It is Alexander who finally decides their fate, not they themselves. Their union signalizes less an accommodation of common sense to romantic theory than, like the marriages in pastoral romance, an escape into an unashamedly idyllic world. The benediction pronounced over them by Alexander does not settle their quarrel in a way to satisfy either dramatic or comic considerations: "Two loving wormes, Hephestion! I perceive Alexander cannot subdue the affections of men, though he conquer their countries … Well, enjoy one another, I give her thee franckly, Apelles."

In Sapho and Phao there is a fragmentary appearance of a sex duel, but it bears no integral relation to the play. Mileta, the vitriolic denouncer of all manifestations of love, falls its momentary victim in the presence of the amorously chivalric Phao. She suggests to him, as she summons him to the bed of Sapho, "Were I sicke, the verye sight of thy faire face would drive me into a sound sleepe." To which Phao replies, in ironic dismissal, "Indeede Gentlewomen are so drowsie in their desires, that they can scarce hold up their eyes for love." She continues to woo him by praising his extreme beauty; to which he retorts, in derision, "Lady, I forgot to commend you first, and leaste I shoulde have over slipped to praise you at all, you have brought in my bewtie, which is simple, that in curtisie I might remember yours, which is singular."

In this exchange of wit Mileta not only repudiates her own convictions, but woos Phao. Their union, however, is never further suggested by Lyly. Like the contention between Fidus and Iffida, this skirmish between Phao and Mileta parts the two antagonists. The suggested solution to the difficulties experienced by the characters in this play does not come from this minor sex duel at all. It is made by Sybilla, whose dramatic purpose is to comment on the nature of love. She cautions Phao, who has asked her advice on the ways of courtesy, not to miss the possession of his lady by following too closely the romantic conventions of courtship. She emphasizes the mutability of that charm which creates love. Her suggestion is to observe in detail the courtly ritual of adoration as a mere means, to the end that he may achieve the less ideal rewards of sensual pleasure. "Love, faire child, is to be governed by arte … Looke pale and learne to be leane, that who so seeth thee, may say, the Gentleman is in love." Rosalind was to give Orlando the same advice, but not in shrewd earnest.

In Endimion Lyly gives the quarreling lovers a more important role in the dramatic action than they had had in either Campaspe or in Sapho and Phao. The participants, Eumenides and Semele (the one guided by the ideals of romance, the other controlled by an unyielding sense of reality), never meet, but like Beatrice and Benedick they exchange "unseemely and male-part over-thwarts" (i.e., repartee). As in Campaspe, the lovers' quarrels in Endimion bring about no dramatically effective reconciliation. By his fidelity to Semele "the very waspe of all women, whose tongue stingeth as much as an Adders tooth," Eumenides receives a single wish from a fountain for faithful lovers. At the precise moment when he is given opportunity to ask possession of his lady, however, he reverses his attitude and becomes suddenly skeptical of the entire tradition of romance. He becomes acutely aware that Semele is "of all creatures the most froward" and that he has been "of all creatures the most fond." Like the sardonic Fulke Greville, Eumenides (or Sidney) suddenly sees his love as an illusion, as a mere "golden dreame." Therefore he chooses to release Endimion from his spell, and he lets a cynical sense of fact and his affection for his friend triumph over his romantic desires. Benedick, in Shakespeare's Much Ado, forced by Beatrice to make a similar choice, turns against his friend. Benedick thus helps to contrive his ultimate union with Beatrice. Eumenides's decision, on the contrary, turns Semele completely against him. The comic delight of a sudden concord of lovers' wills is therefore impossible to achieve in this play. It is by the command of Cynthia that Semele grudgingly accepts Eumenides. In this fashion Lyly destroys the dramatic effect of the long anticipated surrender of his lovers.

In Lyly's The Woman in the Moone no sex duel appears. This play is far too didactic an allegory for witty repartee to reconcile the inconstant Pandora and the faithful shepherds. Stesias, the courtly bucolic lover whom Pandora has agreed to marry, comes to scorn her when he finds how far she is from his exalted conception of woman. He wishes to destroy Utopia, his rustic garden of love, crying:

Curst be Utopia for Pandoraes sake!
Let wilde bores with their tuskes plow up my
Devouring Wolves come shake my tender lambes,
Drive up my goates unto some steepy rocke,
And let them fall downe headlong in the sea.
She shall not live …

But Stesias is not allowed to flee Pandora, who represents the reality of passion, or to possess her. He is translated to the moon, where he is destined to follow her always, however repulsive she has become to him as a caricature of the mistress of romance. Shakespeare did better in As You Like It, presenting a less bitter, a kindlier, acceptance of the conventional illusions of love.

Only in Lyly's final play, Love's Metamorphosis, is the conflict over the nature of love dramatized solely by pairs of quarreling lovers. The foresters in this comedy defend romance and the nymphs treat it with derision. Moreover, Lyly creates the impression that the battle of wits is mutually contrived. Both his lovers and their ladies are presented as if they were conscious that they are playing parts in a game in which neither the pretensions nor the denunciations of love are fully justified. Thus, when alone the foresters Ramis, Silvestris, and Montanus are themselves somewhat skeptical. They are willing to follow the ritual of the enamored courtier, to play at being in love, in order to gain their ladies. They do not disavow the precepts of formalized passion, they merely wish to apply them, somewhat crassly, for their own purposes. As Silvestris states it,

I doe not thinke Love hath any sparke of Divinitie in him; since the end of his being is earthly. In the bloud he is begot by the fraile fires of the eye, & quencht by the frayler shadowes of thought. What reason have we then to soothe his humor with such zeale, and folow his fading delights with such passion?

And Ramis replies that romance should be accepted with a great deal of reservation, "since it will aske longer labour and studie to subdue the powers of our bloud to the rule of the soule, then to satisfie them with the fruition of our loves, let us bee constant in the worlds errours, and seeke our owne torments."

When their ladies, Nisa, Celia, Niobe, are alone, they spend no time analyzing romance. Nisa is the most scornful of the three in her ridicule of Cupid: "What should he doe with wings that knowes not where to flie? Or what with arrowes, that sees not how to ayme? The heart is a narrow marke to hit, and rather requireth Argus eyes to take level, then a blind boy to shoote at randome." These nymphs are scornfully amused by their wooers' attempts to play the role of lover in the traditional drama of courtship. They read the poems which the foresters have hung on trees, and Nisa comments on their assertions that they suffer the usual physical languishings of love: "they have eaten so much wake-Robin, that they cannot sleepe for love." Niobe indicates the nymphs' share in the contrived, witty sex duels to come, when she argues, "Give them leave to love, since we have libertie to chuse, for as great sport doe I take in coursing their tame hearts, as they doe paines in hunting their wilde Harts."

When these three sets of lovers meet, it is to release the antagonism that has been carefully built up by the foresters' pretense of accepting idyllic romance and the nymphs' pretense of complete skepticism. Each set of lovers quarrels, in turn, and each of the foresters retires, vanquished in wit, but not in impulse to love. Ramis maintains the immutability of his passion, despite Nisa's scorn, crying after her that he will "practice by denials to bee patient, or by disdaining die, and so be happie." Montanus stresses both his fidelity to Celia and his languishing grief in his petitions to her to "yeelde to love, sweete love." She tempts him into rebuking her for her obdurate pride, and then reduces him to a greater confusion of self-contradiction. He suddenly ceases to be the humble prostrate lover and asserts his independence. But it is only for a moment, and he returns to his pretended humility. Celia dismisses him, crying, "You want wit, that you can be content to be patient." Silvestris, reversing the order of procedure in his conflict with Niobe, begins by suggesting that she is not qualified to play the lady of amorous courtesy. But she soon brings him to despair by her mocking. He begs off, suggesting that when he has but heard her sing he will be content to die, and she replies, "I will sing to content thee."

Even in this final play of Lyly's, however, the lovers do not quite solve their own destinies. Despite their nimble fencing, these characters never come to full dramatic realization. Once more Lyly contrives his denouement by using the device of divine intervention. His foresters are allowed to reach an agreement with the nymphs only by an appeal to Cupid. They offer at his shrine, in evidence of their plight, all the courtier' s symbols and symptoms of love. They prevail upon the god to force the nymphs to yield, and therefore the story ends in no swift surrender, in no sudden concord of lovers' conflicting wills to give a comic release to the built-up tension. Lyly himself was aware of this lack, for he makes Silvestris cry, "what joye can there be in our lives … when every kisse shall bee sealed with a curse … enforcement is worse than enchantment."

There is little comic triumph here, because the play ends in a forced compromise between an idealistic and a realistic attitude. Ramis expresses this play's equivocal conclusion when he suggests that the delights of actual possession will mitigate some of the unpleasant consequences of an inharmonious and forced love. "Let them curse all day," he says, "so I may have but one kisse at night." And to his lady he cries, "O, my sweete Nisa! bee what thou wilt, and let all thy imperfections bee excused by me, so thou but say thou lovest me." But such a terminus does not carry any illusion of momentary belief. Rather it suggests that Lyly regarded the two worlds of romance and real life as irreconcilable. As such, it is more ironic than comic. It may be a revelation of his acute pessimism, but not of his sense of comedy.

In his novel and in his comedies, the play of ideas is like that found in Elizabethan poetry. These comedies represent something new in literature. Lyly did what had not been done before, he brought to the stage the complexities of Elizabethan amorous thought. But even more important than this, Lyly depicts a kind of miraculous adjustment of contradictory theories of love, by a final union of warring lovers. Aesthetically this advances him at once beyond the mere presentation of unsolved dilemma in The Courtier, and in Elizabethan poetry. Lyly, however, failed to see all of the comic implications to be derived from a dramatized conflict of attitudes. Drama could do more than relate romantic pretensions to less exalted fact in an incredible and magical fashion. It might lend belief to the resolution that serves to bring the play to an end. Lyly's dramas, therefore, are but a link in the series of literary expressions of the Renaissance love dilemma. They stand somewhere between the recognition and analysis of the problems found in The Courtier and the comic solution of the problem portrayed in Shakespeare's love-game comedies.

R. Warwick Bond, in his essay on Lyly as a playwright [in The Complete Works], states that Lyly's importance lies in the fact that he wrote a kind of comedy which Shakespeare imitated. Bond remarks,

Lyly's farcical scenes are undoubtedly the model for the similar scenes in Shakespeare's early work … for the wit contests between Boyet and the French ladies, the Two Gentlemen, Romeo and Mercutio; while he is indebted also to Lyly's example of graceful and witty interchange between ladies and courtiers, nymphs and foresters, for many a gentle and pretty scene between Julia and Lucetta, Portia and Nerissa, Rosalind and Celia, Hero and Ursula, and for the witty war between Benedick and Beatrice, and others.

This is all true, but one must add that what Shakespeare borrowed from Lyly's comedies was not only a method of characterization. Shakespeare also borrowed a method of reducing an intellectual conflict between different ideas of love to the form of a witty verbal combat. In the antagonisms that Lyly dramatizes, the lovers never come completely to life. His characters merely voice current attitudes toward love, whereas Shakespeare's characters express these ideas as if they were their own. It is something, no doubt, that Lyly was able to present in dramatic form the complex love dilemma of which ladies and gentlemen of his age were acutely aware. He developed comedy to the stage where its characters exist not merely to relate a story but also to act out the Elizabethan critical revolt from romance. Yet Lyly never turns these intellectual materials into high comedy, because his characterization does not entirely grow out of them. Lyly's characters remain strictly under his control, Shakespeare's characters seem to create their own destiny.

Jonas A. Barish (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "The Prose Style of John Lyly," in ELH, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, 1956, pp. 14-35.

[In the following essay, Barish comments on Lyly's employment of the techniques of euphuism in his prose romances and demonstrates their use in his plays as well.]

Lyly's prose style, especially that of Euphues, has been studied so often and so exhaustively in the past that further observations on it are likely to appear impertinent, especially if they attempt no radical reformulation. However, the major work of description has been complete for some decades now, and little has been added except for occasional further explorations into the literary origins of Euphuism. It may, therefore, be useful to glance once again at this familiar territory, with two objects in view: first, to try to correlate certain categories of Lyly's style with categories of meaning, and second, to restate some general principles governing all of his prose which may help to erase the sharp line customarily drawn between the style of Euphues and that of the plays.

Clarence Child and Morris Croll, whose studies of Lyly [in their editions of Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England] climaxed those of nineteenth century investigators like Landmann, defined Euphuism primarily as an ornamental verbal pattern, characterized by the use of the so-called "figures of sound" rather than by "figures of thought." Croll's description may serve as a basis for comment:

Euphuism is a style characterized by the figures known in ancient and medieval rhetoric as schemes (schemata), and more specifically by the word-schemes (schemata verborum), in contrast with those known as tropes; that is to say, in effect, by the figures of sound, or vocal ornament. The most important of these figures are three which can be used, and in Euphuism are often and characteristically used, in combination in the same form of words: first, isocolon, or equality of members (successive phrases or clauses of about the same length); secondly, parison, or equality of sound (successive or corresponding members of the same form, so that word corresponds to word, adjective to adjective, noun to noun, verb to verb, etc.); thirdly, paromoion, similarity of sound between words or syllables, usually occurring between words in the same positions in parisonic members, and having the form either of alliteration, similarity at the beginning, or homoioteleuton (similiter cadentes or desinentes), similarity at the end, or, as often in Euphuism, of both of these at once. Other schemata are also frequently and characteristically used, such as simple word-repetition, and polyptoton (the repetition of the same stem two or more times within the same clause or sentence, each time with a different inflectional ending); but these need not be detailed. The essential feature of the style—to repeat—is a vocal, or oral, pattern, and all its other characteristics, such as the use of antithesis, and the constant use of simile, are only means by which the Euphuist effects his various devices of sound-design.

This account sums up concisely most of the obvious features of the Euphuistic style. Nevertheless, both its mode of classification and its implied theory of style seem more likely to blur issues for a contemporary reader than to clarify them. It seems peculiar that Croll should have lumped together parison and paromoion as devices of sound-design. Parison, the matching of equivalent parts of speech in parallel clauses, is directly and intimately involved with syntax; it is, indeed, a syntactic procedure, and hence involved with logical structure, at the center of thought. To describe it as "ornamental" is to suggest that thought itself is ornamental. As for paromoion, whether it occurs between words in the same position in parisonic members or not, its effects are primarily alogical, to borrow a term from W. K. Wimsatt [in The Verbal Icon], and not directly implicated in logical structure. But even paromoion has its effect on meaning, though the effect be alogical. To regard it as nothing more than vocal ornament appliqué may be a convenient way of referring to a psychological fact—that a writer sometimes chooses one word over another for the sake of its sound—but is of little help in determining how such a word functions once it is chosen. On the whole, a contemporary reader is likely to be disturbed by the earnestness with which Croll propounds the Renaissance distinction between "figures of thought" (tropes) and "figures of sound" (schemes). This distinction, which drives a wedge between style and content, and treats them as though they enjoyed separate and independent existence, if it interferes even with objective descriptions of style, interferes still more with any effort to get at the heart of a writer's artistic universe, where style and meaning interpenetrate. The fact is that parison, far from being merely a superficial device of sound-design, is, one might almost say, an instrument of thought whereby Lyly apprehends the world, and from which he cannot escape. It is intimately related, among other things, to his use of antithesis, and since Croll has challenged the validity of the term "antithesis" as applied to Lyly, his caveat must be examined briefly.

To the view that Euphuism is characterized above all by its use of antithesis (a proposition offered by other students of Euphuism), Croll replies by distinguishing between antithesis used as "a figure of words, or sound, on the one hand, and a figure of thought (figura sententiae), on the other," and announces his intention to limit the use of the term "antithesis" to those cases where it is a figure of thought and to exclude it from those cases where (as in Lyly) it remains a figure of sound. But, one is obliged to ask, how does one distinguish a "thought" from the "words" in which it is expressed? How separate an idea from the structure which embodies it? Croll's example of a "genuine" antithesis merely intensifies one's distrust of his dichotomy. "In Lyly's use of it … antithesis is purely a 'scheme,' that is, a figure of the arrangement of words for an effect of sound. It is not meant to reveal new and striking relations between things; and it is as different as possible, for instance, from such a use of it as in Bacon's saying that 'revenge is a kind of wild justice.'" The implication here appears to be not merely that antithetic schemes of words need not involve any corresponding antithesis of meaning, but that they probably will not, that no self-respecting antithesis would be caught decking itself out in parison or paromoion, and that it ought to be well satisfied if its honesty is glimpsed through its plain clothes. And again, one can only reply that syntactic formulae are not the clothes of thought, they are of its essence; they are not mere schemes imposed on meaning, they are the determinants of meaning. Bacon's statement that "revenge is a kind of wild justice" does indeed reveal a new and striking relation between the concepts of revenge and justice. It does so, however, not by establishing an opposition, but by taking two notions ordinarily felt as contradictory and showing that in fact they are not contradictory at all. By placing the epithet "wild" before the noun "justice," Bacon indicates how the two apparently dissimilar ideas may be thought of as related. The very grammar of the statement, with its linking verb "to be," is an assertion of likeness, of identity, rather than of unlikeness. It might well be regarded as a kind of synthesis. But antithesis necessarily involves unlikeness, the setting of things in opposition to each other, and only by ignoring the basic sense of the term as established by etymology and custom can one apply it to Bacon's aphorism. In Lyly, on the other hand, oppositions of every sort play a paramount role. The soundest approach to a study of Euphuism remains Feuillerat's remark [in his John Lyly] that Lyly "ne peut concevoir ses idées qu'au choc de deux oppositions; il ne les associe qu'au travers de contrastes," and his further statement that Euphues, in aim and in structure, "n'est en somme qu'une antithèse longuement prolongée." Even the false antitheses that abound in Euphues (of which Croll was surely thinking) only testify further to Lyly's pursuit of antithetic meaning, since they exhibit him in the act of forcing two ideas not in themselves necessarily antithetical into a syntactic arrangement which implies that they are. A final objection to Croll's criterion—that antithesis should reveal new and striking relations between things—is that it introduces normative considerations into what has always been a descriptive term. We cannot, that is, refuse to call a trite antithesis an antithesis simply because it is trite, any more than we can refuse to call a mediocre play a play just because it is mediocre.

For purposes of discussion Lyly's antitheses may be broken down roughly into three types, according to the force of mutual attraction and repulsion between the terms. This is relatively weak in the first type, stronger in the second, and decidedly potent in the third. Antithetic terms thus considered resemble atomic particles or heavenly bodies: the gravitational pull between them varies inversely as the square of the distance. The simplest type occurs when a thing is defined by its opposite, or when the mention of a thing evokes the mention of its opposite. This is the case with figures constructed on the model "more x than y," or "rather a than b," where in the process of making an affirmation about something, one simultaneously makes a denial of its opposite. The walls and windows of Naples, for example, demonstrate that town "rather to bee the Tabernacle of Venus, then the Temple of Vesta," and its court is "more meete for an Atheyst, then for one of Athens, for Ouid then for Aristotle, for a gracelesse louer then for a godly lyuer: more fitter for Paris then Hector, and meeter for Flora then Diana." Such a description emphasizes at least as strongly what Naples ought to be but is not as that which it actually is. The procedure conforms to that recommended by contemporary rhetoricians, who urged the use of opposing terms to intensify the terms under consideration. If one wished to depict chastity, one did so by contrasting it with foul harlotry; if one wished to praise liberality, one might do so by disparaging misers. To know a thing fully, in short, was to know its opposite. And in the power to recognize opposites lay the power to make discriminations. "Hee coulde easily discerne Appollos Musicke, from Pan his Pype, and Venus beautie from Iunos brauerye, and the faith of Laelius, from the flattery of Aristippus."

However, to say that a thing is "more x than y" or "rather a than b" is to imply that it might have been otherwise. The description of Naples intimates that the city preferred its own mode of existence to another. Callimachus, entering the hermit's cave, thrusts in his head "more bolde then wise," and proceeds to show himself "delyghted more then abashed at this straunge sight." By using the antithetic pair "more bolde then wise" instead of the simple adverb "boldly," Lyly underscores the fact that Callimachus might have behaved otherwise than he did, that the situation contained equivocal possibilities. Similarly, Euphues, choosing to speak to the ladies of love rather than of learning, declares, "I had rather for this tyme be deemed an vnthrift in reiecting profit, then a Stoicke in renouncing pleasure," where he signifies his awareness that to accept one alternative means to decline its opposite.

The elements of choice submerged in such a formula as "rather a than b" becomes explicit in the second type of antithesis, which proposes alternatives but does not resolve them. Here, instead of one term being asserted and the other denied ("rather a than b," "more x than y"), the two are held in equilibrium: "either x or y," "whether a or b." Eubulus, meditating on the ambiguous potentialities of Euphues' talents, "well knewe that so rare a wytte woulde in tyme eyther breede an intollerable trouble, or bringe an incomperable Treasure to the common weale: at the one hee greatly pittied, at the other he reioysed." He not only envisages two possible futures for Euphues, he indulges simultaneously in the emotions appropriate to both. Similarly, he speculates on the possible causes for Euphues' present disordered existence: "I am enforced to thincke that either thou dyddest want one to giue thee good instructions, or that thy parentes made thee a wanton wyth to much cockeringe, either they were too foolishe in vsinge no discipline, or thou too frowarde in reiecting their doctrine, eyther they willinge to haue thee idle, or thou wylfull to bee ill employed." Not each of these pairs is strictly antithetical, but Eubulus treats them as though they are, proposing alternative explanations but according no preference to one over another.

Lyly, in his capacity as author, sometimes hesitates between two interpretations of one event. The friendship between Euphues and Philautus is noncommittally ascribed either to Philautus's courtesy or to the workings of fate, "I know not for certeyntie," and when Euphues visits Lucilla for the first time, "The Gentlewoman, whether it were for nycenesse or for niggardnesse of curtesie, gaue hym suche a colde welcome that he repented that he was come." Thus this second type of antithesis tends to reflect an awareness of ambiguity of interpretation, of potential doubleness of cause or effect. A thing not merely suggests its opposite, but may be traced to one or another contrary origin, may entail one or another consequence or corollary.

The third kind of antithesis asserts the actual co-existence of contrary properties in one phenomenon. A great many of Lyly's celebrated similitudes fall into this category, and perhaps they are best understood as variations on this theme. The range of syntactic formulae here is wide, but characteristically we find those which emphasize duality: "as well x as y," "both a and b." In the following instance, Lyly suppresses the sign "both" and allows the unaided grammar, the linkings of subject, verb, and object, to tell its own story:

Though all men bee made of one mettali, yet they bee not cast all in one moulde, there is framed of the selfe same clay as well the tile to keepe out water as the potte to containe lycour, the Sunne doth harden the durte & melt the waxe, fire maketh the gold to shine and the straw to smother, perfumes doth refresh the Doue & kill the Betil …

Here the reigning idea is that similar substances may have differing qualities, that the same cause may work not merely varying, but contrary effects. The notion that things contain within them their own contraries, or the power to work contrary effects, occurs so often in Euphues and in its sequel that by virtue of sheer frequency of repetition it comes to be felt as a major insight. It is an insight to which Lyly's disjunctive imagination is peculiarly sympathetic, and to which his analytic syntax admrably lends itself. The grammatical subject may be made to govern two verbs, each expressing a contrary action ("the Sunne doth harden the durte & melt the waxe"), or one verb may control two antagonistic object phrases ("fire maketh the gold to shine and the straw to smother"). In each case a thing splits up into its mutually antipathetic halves.

Many of Lyly's antitheses take the form of paradox, either in the sense that they propose an idea repugnant to common sense or in that they point out mutually conflicting properties in the same thing. Such paradoxes range from the banal to the startling. When Euphues tells his companions that "The foule Toade hath a fayre stoane in his head, the fine goulde is founde in the filthy earth, the sweete kernell lyeth in the hard shell," he is uttering commonplaces, but he is also directing our attention to a series of logical incongruities. If one expects like to follow like, similars to accord with similars, if one expects things to be all of a piece, then Lyly's kind of simile tends to deceive normal expectations. You may think that the toad, because it is ugly, is ugly all over, but no, it has a precious stone in its head, or you may think, if you think about it, that what comes from the dirty earth must itself be dirty, or that what comes from a tough shell will itself be tough. But no, things seems to engender their contraries rather than their likenesses. The earth discloses gold, and the tough shell conceals a sweet nut. If they do not actually produce their own contraries, they co-exist with them, like the toad with his jewel. Nothing is uniformly of one property. Everything contains within it the seeds of self-contradiction: "Venus had hir Mole in hir cheeke which made hir more amiable: Helen hir scarre on hir chinne which Paris called Cos amoris, the Whetstone of loue. Aristippus his wart, Lycurgus his wenne."

Lyly, who is fascinated by this elementary paradox, is at pains to make it as extreme, as outré, as possible. Grammatically, he does so by making his antitheses sharp, by pitting every term as rigidly as possible against its mate. Two comparatives are better than two positive adjectives, because they double the distance between the antithetic terms, and superlatives are best of all, since they drive the terms as far apart as they will go:

The fine christall is sooner crazed then the harde marble, the greenest Beeche burnetii faster then the dryest Oke, the fairest silke is soonest soyled, and the sweetest wine tourneth to the sharpest vineger, the pestilence doth most ryfest infect the cleerest complection, and the Caterpiller cleaueth vnto the ripest fruite …

Here, underneath the not necessarily in itself paradoxical idea that the most precious things are also the most perishable, lies Lyly's paradoxical principle that like engenders unlike: the fairest silk lends itself more quickly to soiling, the sweetest wine is ready at a moment's notice to become the sharpest vinegar, and the greenest beech defies all natural law by burning faster than the driest oak, because in Lyly's world if things do not already defy the proprieties they must be made to do so. The precarious closeness of extremes must be constantly stressed, and it does not much matter whether the illustrative instance conforms to everyday experience or violates it. Both kinds of instance, in fact, are necessary in order to establish precedents on a sufficiently massive scale. If we recognize the illustration as a commonplace, we are being reminded that even humdrum things contains the principle of self-contradiction within them. If the example strikes us as exotic, we are being reminded of the extremes to which nature will go in the propagation of paradoxes.

Such paradoxes often turn on the antagonism between substance and appearance. A recurrent figure is the one contrasting an ugly exterior with a precious interior or the reverse, a fair face with a vile heart, an outer semblance belied by an inner essence, as in the cases of the gold, the kernel, and the toad. The moral is always the same: that the more absolute of its kind a thing may appear to be, the more certain it is that somewhere within it lies its own antithesis, its anti-self.

Doe we not commonly see that in paynted pottes is hidden the deadlyest poyson? that in the greenest grasse is the greatest Serpent? in the cleerest water the vglyest Toade? Doth not experience teach vs that in the most curious Sepulchre are enclosed rotten bones? That the Cypresse tree beareth a fayre leafe but no fruite? That the Estridge carryeth fayre fethers, but rancke flesh?

Bond [in The Complete Works of John Lyly] points out that the analogy of the serpent comes from Pettie, "'vnder most greene grasse, lye most great Snakes, and vnder entising baytes, intanglyng hookes,' which means no more than that snakes are found in grass. There is no authority for Lyly's perversion." Lyly's perversion, of course, lies in his having taken Pettie's general intensives, "most greene grasse" and "most great Snakes," and turned them into real superlatives. Instead of telling us, as Pettie does, that snakes are found in grass, he tells us that the "greenest grasse" conceals the "greatest Serpent," a characteristically drastic antithesis, where the very intense greenness of the grass, its apparently supreme innocence, becomes the guarantee that it conceals the profoundest corruption.

To say this much is not, of course, to say that Lyly ignores the more straightforward relations between things. The interpretations of nature on which he drew—encyclopedic, or fabulous, or occult—all emphasized the multitudes of correspondences that were supposed to govern the natural world, the mysterious sympathies as well as the mysterious antipathies between things. But where his predecessors had aimed at exposing a hidden consistency in the workings of nature, Lyly ranged the affinities and the antipathies side by side so as to unveil the contradictions in nature, the infinite inconsistency of the world. Such glimpses as he does provide of the direct correspondences between things tend again to emphasize their paradoxical character. They reveal a nature who is as resourceful in effecting affinities between dis-similar things as she is in engendering disaffinities between similar things. "The filthy Sow when she is sicke, eateth the Sea Crabbe and is immediately recured: the Torteyse hauing tasted the Uiper, sucketh Origanum and is quickly reuiued: the Beare readye to pine, lycketh vpp the Ants and is recouered." Such correspondences are in themselves a defiance of the expected order.

It remains only to mention the thing to which Lyly's exempla always return, that for which they exist, their application to human conduct. G. Wilson Knight [in "Lyly," Review of English Studies XV, April 1939] has described their function as the attempt "to read the human mind in terms of the living physical universe, and see that universe and its properties—including inorganic matter … as a vital extension of the human mind." Lyly peoples creation with bizarre phenomena in order to provide a system of analogies for human behavior. When he does not find the analogy he needs in Pliny the Younger or in Erasmus, he improvises for himself, and his improvisations, like his borrowings, tend to perpetuate contraries and paradoxes, like the "riuer in Arabia which turneth golde to drosse & dust to siluer," where contradictory effects proceed from the same cause, or like the magic herb Araxa and the magic stone Tmolus, the one protective of chastity, the other destructive of it.

To repeat, Lyly prefers the kind of natural curiosity that challenges common sense. The contradictions in human feeling must be illuminated by reference to a universe which displays its own kinds of contradictions. "For neyther is ther any thing, but that hath his contraries." And part of the effect of Lyly's instances depends on one's starting with a differing set of assumptions: that like follows like, that predictable correspondences exist between shape and function, appearance and essence, part and whole. Lyly's favorite procedure is to overthrow such assumptions. The result of overthrowing it so many scores of times is to establish a new assumption, a kind of grand paradox emerging from the countless minor ones: that things are not what they seem, that like allies itself with unlike, that fair and foul, precious and worthless, hurtful and beneficent co-exit in perpetual and inseparable intimacy. And this whole system of contradictions is Lyly's way of expressing the perpetual ambiguities of human sentiment, and above all, of the most ambiguous of all human sentiments, love. Lyly turns the well-worn Petrarchan paradox into the capstone of a whole view of life. The lover, freezing in flames and burning in ice, joyful in grief and grievous in joy, becomes merely e pluribus unus, the final and most perfect expression of a universal paradox. This commanding insight is perhaps the chief thing that distinguishes Lyly from his predecessors in Euphuism, and one of the chief things he passed on to his imitators. Pettie's Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, whose style contains so many elements otherwise Euphuistic, uses this figure only tentatively, and couples it with others of a quite different character. The early romances of Robert Greene, on the other hand, which owe their existence to the success of Euphues, swarm throughout with similes exactly in Lyly's manner, some pilfered from Euphues and others improvising on Lyly's master principle of contraries.

The device of the soliloquy, of course, has a closely related function. What the simile does obliquely, by way of poetic analogy, the soliloquy does more discursively. It permits the examination of a single mind possessed by contrary passions, the contrary passions sharpening each other by their proximity to one another. Lucilla, when she retires to lament her infatuation for Euphues, enters into "termes and contrarieties" with herself, expressing the "doubtfull fight" in her heart "betwixt faith and fancie … hope & feare … conscience and concupiscence." And so with Euphues, in his turn, torn by "extremityes betweene hope and feare." In Lyly's monologues, every claim begets its counterclaim, every argument breeds its counterargument, and every "ay" produces its "but." The nature that decrees that "daunger and delight growe bothe vponn one stalke, the Rose and the Canker in one bud, white and blacke … in one border" decrees that this universal law shall prevail in the microcosm of man. The soliloquy then becomes the instrument for dissecting the paradoxes of the mind.

One would scarcely need to go further for the moral of Euphues than the style, which offers for our inspection the world as antithesis. Contraries, potential or realized, lurk everywhere in nature and in human nature. Right action consists in the power to perceive them and to choose the worthier alternative: "If witte be employed in the honest study of learning what thing so pretious as witte? if in the idle trade of loue what thing more pestilent then witte?" The two halves of the story unfold before us these ambivalent possibilities: we observe wit's pestilence in the first or narrative part, where Euphues plays the wastrel; we discover its preciousness in the tracts and letters of the second part, where Euphues turns sermoneer.

But antithesis, habitual and even obsessive as it is in Lyly's thought, may be regarded as simply one aspect of a more comprehensive stylistic phenomenon, logicality. Scrutiny of the world may disclose contraries, but it may also disclose component elements that differ without being mutually exclusive. Parts of a whole may complement each other as well as conflict. Motivation may be composite as well as contradictory, and so may consequences. Some of the excerpts already quoted tend to approach simple parallel rather than strict antithesis; it is only Lyly's zeal for antithetic structure that has disguised them as antitheses. When Lucilla dismisses Euphues with the announcement that "fancie giueth no reason of his chaunge neither wil be controlled for any choice, this is therefore to warne you, that from hencefoorth you neither sollicite this suite neither offer any way your seruice," the correlatives "neither … neither" would seem to imply an antithesis which the explicit meanings do not at all support; indeed, the terms come close to a tautology, differing from each other by scarcely a hair.

Non-antithetic parallels find less eccentric embodiment in such formulae as "the one … the other," "as well x as y," and the like. Cassander has amassed wealth "aswell by his being a long gatherer, as his trad being a lewd vsurer"; the two explanations for his wealth complement each other without conflicting. Euphues acknowledges that Fidus has placed him and Philautus under a "double chaine" of obligation: "the one in pardoning our presumption, the other in graunting our peticion." Here Fidus's bounty analyzed into two stages, the second of which depends on the first.

Once the analytic mind has started decomposing its material and distributing it in series, as the logicians and rhetoricians of the period tirelessly recommended it should be, and as grammar-school training had taught writers to do, there is no necessary limit to the number of subdivisions that may be found in any phenomenon. Fidus explains to Euphues and Philautus that he has spoken harshly "not, that either I mistrust you (for your reply hath fully resoued that feare), or that I malice you (for my good will may cleare me of that fault), or that I dread your might (for your smal power cannot bring me into such a folly), but that I haue learned by experience, etc."—thus examining in turn three possible grounds for his own behavior, rejecting each in turn, and settling on a fourth and correct explanation. It is scarcely necessary to insist on the tendency of this kind of logical subdivision to promote exact correspondence of parts. Each of Fidus' three tentative reasons observes the same grammatical form, as does each of his parenthetical explanations.

Iffida's discourse on the composite nature of love provides a more extended example:

… in perfect loue the eye must be pleased, the eare delighted, the heart comforted: beautie causeth the one, wit the other, wealth the third.

To loue onely for comelynesse, were lust: to lyke for wit onely, madnesse: to desire chiefly for goods, couetousnesse: and yet can there be no loue with-out beautie, but we loath it: nor with-out wit, but wee scorne it: nor with-out riches, but we repent it. Euery floure hath his blossome, his sauour, his sappe: and euery desire should haue to feede the eye, to please the wit, to maintaine the roote.

Iffida rings the changes on the triple power of love over eye, ear, and heart. Each effect is traced back to its cause in some quality and then considered in itself apart from the other two. All three are finally brought together again in the analogy of the flower. The exactness of correspondence between the parts approaches the diagrammatic.

As Lyly uses antithesis to show the contradictory nature of experience, so he makes use of this more general logicality to express the composite nature of experience. His syntax aims at unravelling the complexities that in-here even in apparently simple things. And if such complexity seems more than a little schematic, it may be recalled that for the first time, in the sixteenth century, native prose was shouldering the burden formerly carried by the learned languages. The excessive logicality of Lyly's style is merely one issue of a process that had been going on for decades: the search for a structural principle in English which would enable the language to deal adequately and in an ordered fashion with complex material, and thus do the work formerly done by the inflected endings of Latin.

If this logicality is once recognized as the basic principle of Lyly's style, the old difficulty of viewing the plays and the novels as part of a single stylistic system vanishes. Nothing has been said up to this point of the style of Euphues and Euphues and his England that could not be said with equal justice of the style of the plays. The older generation of critics, exemplified by Croll, defined Lyly's prose chiefly in terms of its devices of sound-design. Quite naturally, when they observed the gradual disappearance of these devices in the prose of the comedies, they tended to think of the later manner as drastically different in kind. So did Lyly's own contemporary, John Hoskins [in Directions for Speech and Style], and so does a more recent student of prose style, George Williamson, who [in The Senecan Amble] posits for Lyly two separate (though related) styles: the "schematic," an antithetic style...

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G. K. Hunter (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "An Introduction to Campaspe," in "Campaspe": "Sappho and Phao," by John Lyly, edited by G. K. Hunter and David Bevington, Manchester University Press, 1991, pp. 1-43.

[In the following excerpt, Hunter examines the source materials and traditions Lyly utilized in Campaspe.]

The historical occasion for the action of Campaspe was found by Lyly most probably in a source he employed several times in his play: Plutarch's life of Alexander, used apparently in the translation by Sir Thomas North. Plutarch tells us of Alexander's savage destruction of the city of Thebes and of the shock waves...

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Sappho And Phao

David Bevington (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "An Introduction to Sappho and Phao," in "Campaspe": "Sappho and Phao, " by John Lyly, edited by G. K. Hunter and David Bevington, Manchester University Press, 1991, pp. 141-95.

[In the excerpt below, Bevington discusses Lyly's employment of allegory and the tradition of the comedy of courtship in Sappho and Phao, as well as his use of language in the play.]


Lyly plainly intended his dramatic portrait of Sappho as a compliment to Queen Elizabeth, before whom the play was presented at court; although the play has other interests as well, Lyly's dramatic...

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Joseph W. Houppert (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Middle Plays," in John Lyly, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 84-113.

[In the excerpt below, Houppert provides a structural and thematic overview of Endimion.]

Endimion is Lyly's comedy of ideas. Except for some antics, the play offers little action: Dipsas casts a spell, Eumenides journeys to a strange land, Endimion falls asleep, and Corsites is pinched black-and-blue by fairies. There is some slapstick and horseplay, but the comedy is basically an abstract drama which explores the relationships of five different groups of characters. The effect of love on human character provides the...

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Further Reading


Tannenbaum, Samuel A. John Lyly: A Concise Bibliography. New York: S. A. Tannenbaum, 1940, 38 p.


Best, Michael R. "Lyly's Static Drama." Renaissance Drama n.s. I (1968): 75-86.

Argues that Lyly's plays characteristically contain, "seemingly arbitrarily," both "complex motivation leading to nothing and action without apparent or adequate motivation."

Hunter, G. K. Lyly and Peele. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1968, 52 p.

Studies the influence of Humanism on the work of Lyly and one of his fellow "University Wits."

Huppé, Bernard....

(The entire section is 156 words.)