Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
Lyly’s primary effort in his writings was to refine the rude speech of the Elizabethan age. In CAMPASPE (also titled ALEXANDER AND CAMPASPE) this effort is clearly evident. The play lacks many of the qualities of great drama—character development, careful plotting, and a dramatic climax, for example—but its diction is elevated and graceful, of a piece with the nobility of the characters and their sentiments. Another noteworthy feature is the inclusion of several charming lyrics, including the famous “Cupid and my Campaspe played/ At cards for kisses.” Despite the lack of dramatic unity, as exemplified by the absence of interaction between the main plot and the subplot, this play, along with Lyly’s other dramas, helped to supply the greater playwrights to follow with a delicacy of language and sentiment that greatly enriched English drama.
The great King Alexander had conquered the city of Thebes and taken prisoner the beautiful and virtuous Campaspe, whom he promised to treat gently.
In Athens, at that time, was Diogenes, the ill-tempered philosopher. His servant Manes complained to the servants of Plato and Apelles, the painter, that Diogenes was a man of exceedingly frugal habits and that his servant, in consequence, often went hungry.
Also in Athens were Plato, Aristotle, and several other great philosophers whom Alexander had called to his headquarters. The great thinkers disputed the difference between divine and natural causes until Alexander came to them and asked each a difficult question about such things as animals, gods and men, life and death, and the composition of the world. After each philosopher had answered wisely, Alexander departed, satisfied with their sagacity. Then Diogenes entered and berated them for toadying to the king. Upon the entrance of Manes and his fellow servants, after the departure of the philosophers, there ensued a witty exchange between Diogenes and the servants, in which Diogenes abused them all.
During a long dialogue in the market place, Alexander admitted his love for Campaspe, at which Hephestion was horrified. While his loyal general decried love as a weakener of men, Alexander defended the passion and told Hephestion to allow him to love in peace.
Alexander, seeing Diogenes in his tub, went to him and asked if he had no reverence for kings, to which Diogenes replied that he had none and wished nothing from anyone. Apelles entered and said that the portrait he was painting of Campaspe was not quite finished.
While Campaspe posed for the painting, Apelles praised her beauty, but Campaspe, saying that she did not believe men’s flattery, cut short the painter’s questions about her feelings toward love with a request that he get on with the painting.
Although several of Alexander’s lieutenants declared their concern for the king’s martial inactivity, Alexander was planning a campaign against Persia. After telling Hephestion that he wished only a brief respite from war, the conqueror went to talk with Apelles and Campaspe about the painting. Apelles excused his delay by saying that Campaspe was so beautiful that it was difficult to paint her as she really was. Alexander was pleased with the work, and his love for Campaspe grew even greater, despite Hephestion’s warnings against love.
Returning to his house, Apelles, in a long soliloquy, revealed his despair over his hopeless love for Campaspe, whom he knew he could never obtain because she was loved by a king. In a melancholy song he praised her beauty and bemoaned his helpless condition.
Several of the servants met in the market place to witness a strange event: Diogenes had said that he would fly. Manes entered, followed by a crowd of citizens, and they all approached Diogenes’ tub. It soon became apparent that Diogenes had made the promise so that he could gather a group of Athenians about him and berate them for their lack of virtue and wisdom. After a heated debate, the citizens left in disgust. The servants, however, were amused by the philosopher’s biting criticisms.
Alone in the palace, Campaspe debated with herself whether she preferred Apelles to the great Alexander. Apelles entered, and in a veiled dialogue revealed his love for her. Later, at Apelles’ studio, he and Campaspe vowed their love for each other, but their feeling of mutual devotion was mixed with fear of Alexander’s displeasure. A page entered and told Apelles that Alexander wished him to take the painting immediately to the palace; the conqueror suspected, rightly, that the painter had finished the portrait but did not wish to part with it.
When Sylvius, a citizen, brought his sons to Diogenes to be educated, the father made his three sons dance, do acrobatics, and sing. Diogenes, unimpressed, criticized the boys’ performances and called them trivial. Neither the boys nor Diogenes wanted anything to do with the other, and Sylvius departed in anger.
A short time later two of Alexander’s soldiers, accompanied by a courtesan, passed by Diogenes’ tub. Bent on pleasure, they paused to ask him what he thought of their intention, and he insulted them harshly. One offered to strike him, but, afraid of being found by Alexander, they left after singing a short song.
Soon Alexander and Hephestion approached the tub. Alexander, believing that Apelles was in love with Campaspe, told his page to summon Apelles and then to cry out that his studio was on fire. The page left, and the two great warriors talked with Diogenes about love, which the philosopher scorned.
Soon Apelles appeared. While he was talking with Alexander about a new painting, the page entered and shouted that Apelles’ studio was afire. The painter revealed his love for Campaspe by being concerned only about her portrait. Alexander then told him of the ruse and had the page call Campaspe. After he had forced the two lovers to admit their true feeling for each other, Alexander, in a sudden burst of generosity, ordered them to marry.
Alexander then commanded the page to summon his generals so that they could prepare to invade Persia. When Hephestion praised the king’s conquest of his feelings, Alexander replied that a man should not wish to command the world if he could not command himself, and that he would fall in love when there were no more countries to conquer.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
John Lyly is remembered primarily for the prose style of his “Euphues” novels, in which the balanced construction, rhetorical questions, and multiple similes which had previously been added to English prose style were combined and intensified. This style, known as euphuistic, is used throughout CAMPASPE, as, for example, when Hephestion asks Alexander, “Will you handle the spindle with Hercules, when you should shake the spear with Achilles?”
The plot of this play is a slender one, consisting almost wholly of two events: Alexander falls in love, and Alexander resists love. It is not for stage action that one turns to CAMPASPE, but rather for lively and thoughtful dialogue, quick thrusts of cynical retorts and artfully designed orations in defense of one opinion or another.
Diogenes is the master of the curt reply, as in this example: Alexander: “How should one learn to be content?” Diogenes: “Unlearn to covet.” Hephestion, Alexander, Apelles, and Diogenes all deliver set speeches against love, for love, on Campaspe’s beauty, and on the moral ills of the Athenians.
But the spine of the play is the point of its debate. The central question is: should men live in the world or above it? Living in the world would include the food which Diogenes denies himself and his slave, as well as the woman whom Alexander covets. Living above the world, according to Lyly, would seem not only to include Diogenes’ life style, but also Alexander’s life as a full-time conqueror, and Apelles’ life as an artist.
Lyly’s taste for balanced antithesis is as evident in his contrast of Alexander and Apelles as it is in his prose style: as Alexander moves away from his recent attraction to the life of the flesh, Apelles moves toward it. Most Elizabethans would have regarded Alexander’s final decision as the best one for all concerned.
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