(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 Story:

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.


(The entire section is 1366 words.)