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John Lyly: Secret Ally?

Monday, August 26, 2019 - 07:00

I am, of course, quite familiar with John Lyly’s delightfully queer play Gallathea, in which we have two--count them, two!--cross-dressing heroines who inadvertently fall in love with each other. And who still proclaim their devotion and intent never to be parted after they find out their beloved’s true identity. But I hadn’t been aware that Lyly made a career from framing heterosexual marriage as a dispreferred alternative. This article situates it in the political context of Queen Elizabeth I’s singlehood.

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Full citation: 

Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. 2003. “A Strange Hatred of Marriage: John Lyly, Elizabeth I, and the Ends of Comedy” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

A Strange Hatred of Marriage

Comic drama traditionally relies on and enforces the stereotypes and norms of heterosexual marriage. Most Elizabethan comedies do not present female singlehood and independence as a viable option, even when used as a transitional motif in the plot. Comedic resolutions overwhelmingly require the pairing off of single women into heterosexual marriages. Female resistance raises the questions: Must women marry? And must women marry men? Rarely are those questions answered in the negative. John Lyly stands out in offering a negative response. The pairing and marriage of two women (one to be magically transformed into a man) in Gallathea is as close as he comes to offering marriage as a desirable goal for women.

Although anywhere between 5 to 27% of early modern English people remained unmarried, singlewomen received little representation in literature. Lyly is the only early modern playwright who regularly features them. Comedic works are more likely than other genres to acknowledge singlewomen, as they represent an essential conflict in the plot. At the same time, comedy has the potential to highlight the absurdity and artificiality of compulsory heterosexuality. In Lyly’s court plays (Campaspe, Sappho and Phao, Gallathea, and Endymion), only the first involves the central female character marrying a man. His single female characters fall in various categories: chaste goddess, unmarried virgin, old hag. The attitudes he displayed toward these characters is similarly varied, from admiration to sympathy to contempt. He acknowledges the understanding of heterosexual marriage as both compulsory and a patriarchal structure that subjugates women.

These plays were all performed for Elizabeth I, who was the ultimate role model of the time of a powerful singlewoman, though scholars typically focus on how this affected men, not how it could have inspired women. Descriptions of Elizabeth’s reaction to romantic comedies often noted that she took dramatic debates over the desirability of marriage personally. (And, no doubt, many of them were intended to convey a personal/political argument to her.)

Moralists viewed unmarried women as inherently wanton and sexually uncontrolled. The politics of the question of the queen’s marriage was complicated in that her sister Mary had been married (the approved state) but was massively unpopular, while Elizabeth, though single, was loved. Moralists’ arguments that women should obey and serve their husbands complicated the case of a female ruler. Either that position argued against female rulers marrying, or it argued against having female rulers at all.

Earlier in Elizabeth’s reign, drama was a medium for courtiers to comment on Elizabeth’s unmarried state. By Lyly’s day, the marriage debate was essentially over. But drama still had a role to play in making sense of that situation. The role of “virgin goddess” was an obvious one, but Lyly’s works go beyond that to normalize female singlehood. He focuses on issues of subject and sovereignty, and the negative potential: rape, exile, death, and virgin sacrifice.

Lyly’s Venus sees heterosexual love as being about the (desirable) subjugation of women. For her, singlewomen are an affront to be conquered. Lyly’s Sappho finds the resolution of her desire for (the male) Phao untenable and remains single, thus conquering Venus. Similarly, Cynthia in Endymion, will not countenance marriage to her lower status suitor, though multiple secondary characters in Endymion are married off at the end in a resolution imposed punitively by Cynthia. The individual pairings represent negative tropes about marriage.

In Gallathea and Campaspe, the characters avoid the fate they are initially presented with. In Gallathea this fate is to be a virgin sacrifice, in Campaspe, the heroine is a prisoner threatened with rape by the conqueror Alexander and this situation is equated with the essence of marriage. In Gallathea, the two women at risk of virgin sacrifice instead fall in love with each other in an egalitarian desire not paralleled in heterosexual relationships. Instead of accepting marriage/sacrifice, they escape the system entirely. The marriage that concludes the play reveals gender to be arbitrary and capable of being chosen, rather than an essential characteristic. Their love is entirely symmetric and reciprocal. And despite Venus’s promoise to change one of them (randomly) into a man, the play ends at a point when both are still women. The running theme in Lyly’s heroines is that love demands this equal and reciprocal relationship and cannot thrive in a hierarchical and asymmetric coupling.

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historical