John Lyly’s Gender Bending Gallathea

Gallathea and Phyllida?  Perhaps is Hugh Hefner, Larry Flint, or Bob Guccione were to cast a contemporary staging of the play.

Gallathea and Phyllida? Perhaps is Hugh Hefner, Larry Flint, or Bob Guccione were to cast a contemporary staging of the play.

John Lyly’s Gallathea is an Elizabeth play performed initially by one of the boys acting companies in London.  I’m not generally a fan of comedies and though I wasn’t particularly drawn into Gallathea in terms of its narrative, it is certainly not without its merits as the play examines gender constructs and debunks what has been perceived to be innate characteristics of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and shows them to be performative in nature.

 

The Mermaid Tavern.  I could not find a potrtait of John Lily, but this painting is said to include Lily along with several other major playwrights of the English Renaissance.

The Mermaid Tavern. I could not find a potrtait of John Lily, but this painting is said to include Lily along with several other major playwrights of the English Renaissance.

The play tells the story of a town where every five years the most beautiful virgin must be sacrificed to Neptune.  Neptune though, being a god, can’t be bothered to collect the virgin himself (except in this instance), so he normally sends a monster named Agar.  Nobody knows for sure what becomes of the virgin.  She may simply be consumed by Agar, or ravaged by him, or Agar may leave her untouched and simply deliver her to Neptune who may ravage and/or kill her or keep her in a life of servitude.  Needless to say, few fathers want their daughters to be the most beautiful virgin in town.  The young women of the play on the other hand are all eager to be the sacrificial lamb, the title character perhaps most of all.  By Gallathea’s father chooses instead to disguise her as a boy and send her off into the forest where she runs into Phyllida, whose father has likewise disguised Phyllida as a boy.  One might assume that the androgynous behaviour begins once the girls take on the garb of young boys, but this is not the case.  It actually begins much earlier when Gallathea challenges her father’s request to disguise herself and she adopts a voice that would have been socially ascribed as masculine in the era which it was written.  Gallathea proclaims that “it were better to offer [herself] in triumph than be drawn to it with dishonour” (1.1.71-72), going onto state that “an honourable death is to be preferred before an infamous life” (1.1.75-76).  Such dialogue seems more fitting for a Spartan soldier than an adolescent girl, but here Gallathea demonstrates that such characteristics are not exclusive to the ‘masculine’ realm, which leads a reading to the play that whilst perhaps not fairly called ‘feminist’, as that expression would have certain been anachronistic in the era, can fairly be called proto-feminist. As for the process of cross-dressing, Grace Tiffany notes in her monograph Erotic Beasts and Social Monster, that it “explode[s] gender categories by illuminating stereotypically male behaviour as fictive role-play, performable by either sex” (Tiffany, 93), and though Tiffany is speaking specifically to Shakespeare work in this instance, it can also be applied here to Lyly.

 

Though Agar, Neptune's monster, does not appear on the stage, I would imagine that if he did, he would look a lot like the Rancor from Return of the Jedi.

Though Agar, Neptune’s monster, does not appear on the stage, I would imagine that if he did, he would look a lot like the Rancor from Return of the Jedi.

Lyly doesn’t simply portray socially ascribed masculine traits as positive and performable by women, but he also, via Phyllida, suggests the socially prescribed feminine traits are equally worthy of praise.  Phyllida uplifts what she sees as ‘feminine’ virtue over ‘masculine’ traits, opposing her father’s wish that she dress the part of a boy because she does not want to “be thought.. wanton” (1.3.20), identifying wantonness as an inferior ‘masculine’ trait.  Gallathea and Phyllida seem to serve complementary roles: Gallathea demonstrates that positive attributes that are considered ‘masculine’ can be present in women, whilst Phyllida seems to suggest that there are inferior traits that are inherently ‘masculine’ which are not present in women.  In both instances there is a suggestion that women can be not only equal to, but superior to men, as Gallathea adopts a stance that is more heroic than her father, whilst Phyllida suggests feminine virtue is superior to masculine behaviour.

 

Gallathea is a woman who displays heroic qualities and has helped to pass down the tradition of brave women that go as far back as the Amazon women, all the way up to Wonder Woman.

Gallathea is a woman who displays heroic qualities and has helped to pass down the tradition of brave women that go as far back as the Amazon women, all the way up to Wonder Woman.

Lyly seems to mimic, or perhaps appropriate, or perhaps pays homage to a Shakespearean blueprint when the two girls fall in love with each other, thinking the other to be a boy, just as Shakespeare has Olivia fall in love with Viola whilst Viola is disguised as a boy in Twelfth Night and just as Phebe, a shepherdess in As You Like It falls in love with Rosalind, who also is disguised as a boy.  In each instance women subconsciously fall in love with the female form, preferring it to the male form.  It is important to note that during this era all actors on the stage where men, so there is a potential reading that could make such points moot as it is actually the male form on the stage and not the female form, but it is also important to consider the language used in such instances.  The playwrights often describe feminine feature through their dialogue.  It is possible that such dialogue is meant to be tongue and cheek and in turn uplift the male form, or even a boy’s form, but at the same time it is hard to believe that every playwright wrote with such intentions and that many playwrights were simply working with a construct they had no authority over.  There female characters may have been written as women, or they may have been written as women played by boys/men.  Most playwrights did not provide critical notes or introductions to their work explaining their intent, so it is hard to say definitively which is the case in a given circumstances.  Both readings are viable, but being a student of literature and not of theatre, I find it more fitting to read the characters as they appear on the page and not how they appeared on the stage.  The intent of the author, after all, is usurped by the reader according to Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death Of the Author’.   Still, it is important to acknowledge other possible readings.

 

I'm not sure why Neptune feels the need to turn one of the two girls into a man, because this wedding looks like it would be one of the best ever!  Who needs a man to have a wedding?

I’m not sure why Neptune feels the need to turn one of the two girls into a man, because this wedding looks like it would be one of the best ever! Who needs a man to have a wedding?

The play has a third heroin, one named Hebe.  Once Phyllida and Gallathea are hidden away, Hebe becomes the top candidate to be sacrificed.  The problem?  Apparently she is ugly as sin.  Neptune, upon seeing her, states: “Take this virgin, whose want of beauty hath saved her own life”.  Ouch!  This is a girl who has just made the longest soliloquy of the play professing her willingness to die and then Neptune tells her she’s not hot enough?

 

Then there is the conversation between the Gallathea’s father and Phyllida’s father.  One father accuses the other of an incestuous desire for his own daughter.  When the two girls arrive, profess their love for each other, despite the fact they both know now the other to be a girl, the god Neptune agrees to resign his reign of terror on the town and turn one of the two girls into a man that they might be together, though the sex change is not consummated before the end of the play and so we do not know which of the two girls becomes a man.

 

Laurie Shannon suggests that heterosexual sex is portrayed as predatorial in Lyly's Gallathea.  This is the least offensive image I could find of a monster engaged in such sexual relations.  It is frightening how many options I had to choose from when I Googled it.  As a rule, it may be good practice to avoid all videos title "tentacle rape".

Laurie Shannon suggests that heterosexual sex is portrayed as predatorial in Lyly’s Gallathea. This is the least offensive image I could find of a monster engaged in such sexual relations. It is frightening how many options I had to choose from when I Googled it. As a rule, it may be good practice to avoid all videos title “tentacle rape”.

The play also demonstrates the predatory nature of heterosexual relationship.  As Laurie Shannon notes in her essay ‘Nature’s Bias: Renaissance Homonormativity and Elizabethan Comic Likeness’, there are three examples: the monster Agar who terrorizes women, Phyllida’s father who is accused of having displayed and “affection I feare me more than fatherly” (Shannon, 200) and the alchemist who, it is suggested, has an inappropriate sexual encounter with a ‘wench’ whom he ‘plyed’ (200-201).  The men in the play seem to be predators for the most part.  There are two side stories, one of an alchemist who hopes to recruit a new apprentice and one of Cupid who quarrels with Diana and her nymphs.  Diana places Cupid in servitude for his offences but releases him once Neptune has promised to protect all virgins.  The alchemist seems to suggest the malleability of forms, which could be applied to the gender-bending roles that the play orbits around, but the alchemist isn’t successful in what he does so it seems that that is not a potential reading, while the narrative about Cupid and Diana seems to merely serve as a means to the ‘happy’ ending.  Why the two girls didn’t simply have sex to avoid having to be sacrificed is beyond me.  It seems like things could have been resolved much earlier in the play.

 

 

Neptune: "I can't be bothered with ugly virgins.  I want beautiful virgins.  And Lyly, why did you give me such a small role in this play?  I am a god!  I should be giving to billing!"

Neptune: “I can’t be bothered with ugly virgins. I want beautiful virgins. And Lyly, why did you give me such a small role in this play? I am a god! I should be giving to billing!”

It is an interesting work that serves at once to promote what might fairly be called proto-feminist ideals, and also lends itself to a queer-theory reading as it promotes homosexual attraction as normative behaviour, even if the end of the play attempts to define the homosexual relationship as a heterosexual one.  Not the most entertaining narrative, but one that is fun to analyse.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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