Scene One: Galatea’s father explains to her why he’s dressed her as a boy; he’s attempting to keep her from being selected as Neptune’s sacrificial virgin. He recounts to her the history of the virgin sacrifice. Galatea is uncomfortable being disguised as a boy and protests that destiny cannot be changed or avoided.
The 1.1 plot exposition not only provides the backstory for the virgin sacrifice and consequently, why Galatea is dressed as a boy, it situates the play in its forest setting. Galatea and her father Tityrus rest and talk under the same tree where every five years a virgin is bound and left for the sea monster Agar. Galatea protests being garbed as a boy and against attempts to avoid her destiny (“Destiny may be deferred, not prevented” 1.1.76-77), but the location is just as important as her disapproval. Galatea, although protesting her disguise, possesses an agency the virgins tied to the sacrificial tree did not/will not have: she can walk away from the tree at will. As the plot unfolds, Galatea realizes this agency and proves more philosophical, and wiser, than her father (as does Phillida). This realization gives the girls’ eventual relationship a gravitas and solidity it might not have had if they been less thoughtful or mature.
The 1.2 exposition from The Tempest, written much later in 1610-11, is similar in many respects to Lyly’s opening scene. In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero (like Tityrus) tells his tale to his daughter Miranda, who (like Galatea) listens intently and exclaims in wonder as it unfolds. Prospero and Tityrus both employ forms of deception in their attempts to direct their daughters’ destinies, and both stories involve danger from the sea (Tempest has the titular storm; Galatea has a flood legend and a sea monster).
Scene Two: Cupid encounters one of Diana’s nymphs in the wood. She is less than impressed by him, and by love in general, which angers him and leads him to begin his mischief.
At the end of Scene One, Tityrus and Galatea remark on the gods “hav[ing] taken shapes of beasts” (1.1.97) in their quest for love. Five lines later, Cupid makes his entrance at the start of Scene Two. He encounters one of Diana’s nymphs, who has no interest in him or love. She brushes his hints and suggestions aside and exits the stage, calling him a “little god” (1.2.32). The antagonized and offended Cupid then vows to cause trouble among the nymphs so they will know he is a “great god” (34).
With the introduction of Cupid and the nymph, Lyly introduces puns and wordplay. In the previous scene, the discussion between Galatea and Tityrus was straightforward, reflecting their simple pastoral (read: non-courtly) life. The nymph’s first lines in Scene Two launch the wordplay (“There is none of Diana’s train that any can train” [1.2.6-7]) and it picks up twenty lines later (“I will follow Diana in the chase, whose virgins are all chaste, delighting in the bow that wounds the swift hart in the forest, not fearing the bow that strikes the soft heart in the chamber” 25-28). This punning, twisting, and turning of words will be a staple of the text from this point on. Note that wordplay enters the text with Cupid, and therefore with the idea of love and physical attraction. It also implies that the appearance of a god signals a portal or threshold between the rustic and the courtly (or, the simple and the wittily deceptive).
Scene Three: Phillida’s father Melibeus explains to her that he’s dressed her as a boy to protect her from Neptune’s sacrifice. She, like Galatea, is not comfortable with the disguise.
The difference in the girls’ responses to their fathers’ disguising them is worthy of note. In Scene One, Galatea’s protestations were premised on her belief that destiny cannot be avoided or delayed. In Scene Three, Phillida’s argument is that it is not becoming, or virtuous, for her to wear male clothing. She argues that she “must keep company with boys and commit follies unseemly for my sex…and be thought more wanton than becometh me” (1.3.18-21). Phillida is the first character to use the word “wanton,” which as mentioned before, is used frequently throughout the play. Does this connect to the wearing of gendered clothing and its perceived effect on behavior and virtue? The recurrence of “wanton” is an interesting detail to keep in mind.
It is also helpful to consider the manner of the girls’ responses. Both are obedient to their fathers’ wishes, but it can be argued that Galatea pushes back more forcefully against her father’s directive. Her stance on destiny and virtue relies on reason, and her appeal is longer in length and more direct than that of Phillida. Phillida’s response is more submissive, her few lines of argument based on others’ perception of her honor, behavior, and appearance. Galatea’s reply to her father is three times longer than Phillida’s (fifteen lines vs five), and Scene One closes without a clear resolution to Galatea and Tityrus’s disagreement. Phillida, by contrast, states “I agree, since my father will have it so, and fortune must” (26-27), and the scene ends almost immediately. The glimpse into their personalities situates them for growth and change as the plot unfolds.
Scene Four: Three brothers, Rafe, Robin, and Dick, are cast ashore after being shipwrecked. They begin quests to find employment or new masters.
With the entrance of Rafe, Robin, and Dick, Lyly introduces more blatant sexual innuendo and punning along with themes of cunning and cozenage. The brothers are clown figures, and revel in making saucy, sarcastic remarks. One of the recurring puns is on the word “points,” which were the “tag ends of the laces that held upper and lower garments together” (Hunter and Bevington 42, n.44-5). “For you see betwixt us three there is not two good points” (1.4.44-5); “Well, begin with your points, for I lack only points in this world” (53-54). As the scene ends, the three sing a song about shipwreck and fate that includes the verse “For being well manned / We can cry ‘Stand!’” (94-95). For the audience, these bawdy lines might gesture to Galatea and Phillida, dressed as boys but not “well-manned” in any sense of the word.
Once more, the sea is shown to be important to the action of the play. Here, rather than flooding the village, it casts the brothers and the Mariner ashore after a shipwreck. Traditionally, the sea and sea voyages were associated with fortune (the rise, fall, and ebb of tides corresponding with its fickleness) and the fact that the three brothers are shipwrecked hints that fortune is not on their side. Their first attempt at a new master is with the Mariner, but they cannot grasp the basics of navigation, so he leaves them to shift for themselves. Their inability to understand the secrets of navigating the sea also suggests their poor fortune: the Mariner has the knowledge and canniness to ply the sea (fortune), but the brothers do not. They must now scheme, cozen, and use cunning to get ahead.