In short (very short), John Lyly (c.1554-1606) was one of the star playwrights of the late 1500s. Nearly all his plays were written for the Children of Paul’s, perhaps the most important boy theatre company in early modern London. Many of his characters are women, nymphs, or fairies; at the time, these were roles for young men and boys. Lyly appealed to Queen Elizabeth for patronage for many years but was never rewarded. He died relatively poor and unknown. (More information on Lyly can be found here and here.)
Galatea was entered into the Stationers’ Register in 1585. Like Lyly’s other plays, it is heavily influenced by Greek mythology. Its forest setting is important, as it brings together humans and gods in a space often considered a threshold between two worlds. In many early modern plays, a pastoral or forest setting signals a place of transition or freedom, especially from the strictures and hierarchy of the Court — think of Rosalind and Celia in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, or the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with AYLI, Galatea’s setting is pastoral, but Lyly’s realm is more liminal than Shakespeare’s: not-quite-human, but not-quite-myth. Much like Dream, this brings the people who enter it face-to-face with gods/goddesses, nymphs, and fairies.
The main plot involves two girls disguised as boys by their fathers. In their fathers’ minds, the male attire will help their daughters escape being selected as a virgin sacrifice. The girls each hide in the forest, and when they meet, things get interesting. A subplot has Cupid dallying in the same wood and deciding to have some sport with Diana’s nymphs, who live and hunt in the forest. Another subplot is the story of three shipwrecked brothers who end up in the vicinity and attempt to find a way to easy fortune. All three plot lines converge in the final scene.
Here are the characters, with a short explanation of who (and what) they are:
- AUGUR: An oracle who warns the citizens of their debt to Neptune and interprets the outcome of the sacrifice.
- ALCHEMIST: The first of Rafe’s new masters.
- ASTRONOMER: The second of Rafe’s new masters.
- CUPID: Venus’s son. Likes to wander about in disguise and cause trouble with his arrows of love.
- DIANA: Goddess of the hunt. She places a high value on chastity, both for herself and the retinue of nymphs who accompany her. Diana has no time for the silliness of love.
- DICK: One of three shipwrecked brothers attempting to improve their situation either by finding a sympathetic master or by cunning and cozenage.
- ERICTHINIS: Accompanies the sacrificial virgin to the fateful tree.
- EUROTA: One of Diana’s nymphs, and a victim of Cupid’s tricks.
- GALATEA: A fair maiden. Her father Tityrus disguises her as a boy so she will not be selected as the sacrificial virgin, causing confusion and unexpected results.
- HEBE: The maiden selected to be the sacrificial virgin.
- LARISSA: Another of Diana’s nymphs. She also gets caught up in Cupid’s mischief.
- MARINER: Comes to shore with the three brothers but doesn’t put up with them for long.
- MELIBEUS: Phillida’s father. He decides dressing her in boy’s clothes is a way to keep her safe from Neptune’s sacrifice.
- NEPTUNE: The god of the sea. Requires a virgin be sacrificed to him every five years to make up for the citizens’ previous neglect of him and the destruction of his temple.
- PETER: Apprentice to the Alchemist, and just as crafty.
- PHILLIDA: Melibeus’s maiden daughter. Like Galatea, her father disguises her as a boy so she will not be sacrificed to Neptune (again, with unforeseen consequences).
- RAFE: Another of the shipwrecked brothers. We follow him in his attempts to find a master that will improve his fortune.
- RAMIA: Another of Diana’s nymphs who feels the effect of Cupid’s fun.
- ROBIN: The last of the three shipwrecked brothers.
- TELUSA: Another of Diana’s nymphs on the receiving end of Cupid’s sport.
- TITYRUS: Galatea’s father. Like Melibeus, he decides dressing Galatea as a boy will save her from the virgin sacrifice.
- VENUS: Goddess of love and Cupid’s mom.
Lyly’s afore-mentioned debt to myth is obvious from these characters, and the forest setting has been discussed. What else is notable? Cross-dressing, disguise, and mistaken identities are extremely important. These devices are the play’s lifeblood, and many characters are garbed as, or attempt to pass themselves off as, something they are not. “Cozenage” or “cheating, deception, fraud” (per the Oxford English Dictionary) is another type of disguise seen throughout. Who is being authentic? Is anyone? Are they doing it of their own accord, or do they have no choice? What is their agenda? How does disguise allow (or hinder) the idea of self? Finally, there’s the question of fate. Can it be controlled, directed, or avoided? Are you fated to love? To live a certain way?
Looking at the text from a literary standpoint, Galatea is filled with repetition and wordplay. There are the requisite dirty jokes and double entendres (mostly from the three brothers), but there are also words and phrases that appear frequently. “Wanton” is one example. “Wanton,” sometimes defined as “unchaste,” (or “undisciplined, ungoverned; unmanageable, rebellious” per the OED) is used no less than ten times, mostly by Telusa and Diana. It’s apparent Lyly found this word especially useful, or descriptive, for this particular tale. Other intriguing structural aspects of Galatea are its heavy use of asides and direct addresses to the audience. Lyly uses them to show interiority, but they also engage the audience and create dramatic impact. The soliloquies and lengthy monologues Lyly gives many of the characters are used to similar effect.
There aren’t a lot of clips of Galatea online, but Rider University posted their 2016 production on YouTube. Before Shakespeare did a wonderful blog on a workshopping of the play and is an excellent resource on early modern drama in general. There’s also a rather different Lego version available, if that’s your thing.
For this blog and my other work on the play, I relied on the excellent Revels series version edited by George K. Hunter and David Bevington (Manchester UP, 2000). For all Shakespeare references, I used the Arden editions (the Third Series when available). The text of Galatea can also be found (free) on The Folger’s Early Modern English Drama (EMED) website: https://earlymodernenglishdrama.folger.edu/gal
So, off we go into Lyly’s world of gods and goddesses, disguise, and realization…