(Originally aired 2022/01/16 - listen here)
The topic of this month’s show was inspired by my youngest brother and the amateur Commedia dell’Arte troupe, the Golden Stag Players, that he performs with. Every winter they adapt a play to perform, and this year they chose John Lyly’s Gallathea, first performed on New Year’s Day in 1588 before Queen Elizabeth I of England and her court. This play is very near and dear to my heart, for reasons that will become obvious.
One of the reasons the Golden Stag Players chose it (*cough* on my recommendation *cough*) is the predominance of female characters, somewhat unusually for an Elizabethan play, but desirable for a modern acting troupe that skews heavily female. This casting challenge played out somewhat differently among that all-male theater companies of the Elizabethan era, and one always wonders how much of the gender-play on stage at the time was influenced by the tangled layers of sexual identities and roles that performances required. Gender disguise and its consequences are the very heart of Gallathea.
So, next week I’ll be part of a select, pandemic-constrained studio audience for the Golden Stag Players performance of Gallathea and in the mean time we can tour through the plot and the unexpected treatment of same-sex love within it. When a video of the performance is available, I’ll link it in the transcript notes.
John Lyly’s play Gallathea is one of the many adaptations of the tale of Iphis and Ianthe, first known from the writings of Ovid in the 1st century CE. In Ovid’s tale, Iphis’s mother conceals her gender at birth and raises her as a boy to avoid her father’s threat of infanticide. Iphis and her childhood companion Ianthe fall in love and the two families are delighted to look forward to their marriage, except for Iphis’s mother, who knows that marriage would reveal her ruse, and except for Iphis, who believes that love between two women (by which we understand sex and marriage) is an impossibility. Ovid’s work is dominated by Iphis’s philosophical and emotional inner monologue over her dilemma. In the end Iphis and her mother appeal to the goddess Isis for assistance. Isis magically changes Iphis into a boy and all live happily ever after.
Every adaptation after that has put its own spin onto the tale, emphasizing some parts, downplaying others, adding in new elements. If you want a survey of those variants, check out my podcast on the topic.Lyly kept the central gender-disguise element, but gave it a different motivation, involving a looming human sacrifice of a beautiful maiden, and then doubled the gender disguise giving us two women, both masquerading as men, each falling in love with the other. There are several subplots as well. The most relevant one is an ongoing feud between, on the one side, Cupid and the followers of the goddess Venus, who are all about romantic love, and on the other side, the followers of the goddess Diana, who reject romantic love. There’s also a comic side plot involving three journeymen exploring new careers who periodically meet to compare experiences. The comic plot only intersects the main story at a couple of points and I’ve left it out of today’s show. (The Golden Stag Players have left it out for similar reasons, but also because it somewhat doubles the playing time of the show.)
There are a lot of nuances of meaning embedded in the play. If you like, you can follow up on some of them in the books and articles blogged for our website, linked in the show notes. I’ll mostly be focusing today on a plot summary and a dramatization of some of the more interesting scenes. We start off introducing the setting and back-story. The father of Gallathea—one of our protagonists—brings her to a tree dedicated to the god Neptune and tells her the history of a particular religious festival. There had been a great marble temple there, but the inhabitants dismantled the temple, angering the god. Neptune caused the seas to threaten to overwhelm the land and when the people begged him to relent, he imposed a harsh condition. As Gallathea’s father explains,
The condition was this, that at every five years day, the fairest and chastest virgin in all the Country, should be brought unto this Tree, & here being bound, (whom neither parentage shall excuse for honor, nor virtue for integrity) is left for a peace offering unto Neptune. …he sendeth a Monster called the Agar, against whose coming the waters roar, the fowls fly away, and the Cattle in the field for terror, shun the banks. …Whether she be devoured of him, or conveyed to Neptune, or drowned between both, it is not permitted to know, and incurreth danger to conjecture; Now Gallathea here endeth my tale, & beginneth thy tragedy.
But why, Gallathea asks, is this a tragedy for her? Because, of course, he believes her to be the fairest and chastest virgin in all the land. And rather than lose his daughter, he plans to save her with a trick. Gallathea is far more noble than her father and protests,
Destiny may be deferred, not prevented; and therefore it were better to offer my self in triumph, then to be drawn to it with dishonor. Hath nature (as you say) made me so faire above all, and shall not virtue make me as famous as others? Doe you not know, (or doth over carefulness make you forget) that an honorable death is to be preferred before an infamous life. I am but a child, and have not lived long, and yet not so childish, as I desire to live ever: virtues I mean to carry to my grave, not gray hairs. I would I were as sure that destiny would light on me, as I am resolved it could not fear me. Nature hath given me beauty, Virtue courage, Nature must yield me death, Virtue honor. Suffer me therefore to die, for which I was borne, or let me curse that I was borne, sith I may not die for it.
But his response is that she’s too young to know what she’s talking about and should follow his advice and disguise herself to escape her fate.
In the second scene, the gods come on stage in the form of Cupid and a follower of Diana, goddess of the hunt and of virginity. Cupid teases her, asking if there are any among the followers of Diana who know the sweetness of love. But Cupid’s description of love doesn’t make it sound very appealing.
A heat full of coldness, a sweet full of bitterness, a pain full of pleasantness, which maketh thoughts have eyes, and hearts ears, bred by desire, nursed by delight, weaned by jealousy, killed by dissembling, buried by ingratitude, and this is love, fair Lady will you any?
Diana’s nymph rejects Cupid’s version of love, with a speech that makes a number of puns between the word “heart” meaning the seat of love, and “hart” meaning a stag to be hunted, as well as word-play contrasting following the “chase” and also being “chaste.”
I have neither will nor leisure, but I will follow Diana in the Chase, whose virgins are all chaste, delighting in the bow that wounds the swift Hart in the Forrest, not fearing the bow that strikes the soft hart in the Chamber. This difference is between my Mistress Diana, and your Mother (as I guess) Venus, that all her Nymphs are amiable and wise in their kind, the other amorous and too kind for their sex; and so farewell little god.
Cupid gets his nose out of joint at being so dismissed and vows,
Diana, and thou, and all thine, shall know that Cupid is a great god, I will practice a while in these woods, and play such pranks with these Nymphs, that while they aim to hit others with their Arrows, they shall be wounded themselves with their own eyes.
Cupid’s arrows, of course, cause people to fall in love. If Diana’s followers reject love, he’ll force them to experience it.
In the next scene we meet the second protagonist, Phillida. She, too, is being instructed by her father to avoid being chosen as the sacrifice to Neptune by disguising herself.
Come Phillida, faire Phillida, and I fear me too faire being my Phillida, thou knowest the custom of this Country, & I the greatness of thy beauty, we both the fierceness of the monster Agar. Every one thinketh his own childe faire, but I know that which I most desire, and would least have, that thou art fairest. Thou shalt therefore disguise thy self in attire, least I should disguise my self in affection, in suffering thee to perish by a fond desire, whom I may preserve by a sure deceit.
When Phillida asks for details, we come to a crux of the internal conflicts that both Gallathea and Phillida will experience. They don’t want to disguise themselves as men. The thought embarrasses them. And further, they are doubtful of their ability to pass convincingly. Here Phillida protests in vain.
Phil. - Deere father, Nature could not make me so faire as she hath made you kind, nor you more kind then me dutiful. Whatsoever you command I will not refuse, because you command nothing but my safety, and your happiness. But how shall I be disguised?
Mele. - In mans apparel.
Phil. - It will neither become my body, nor my mind.
Mele. - Why Phillida?
Philli. - For then I must keep company with boys, and commit follies unseemly for my sex, or keep company with girls, and be thought more wanton then becommeth me. Besides, I shall be ashamed of my long hose and short coat, and so unwarily blab out something by blushing at every thing.
Mele. - Fear not Phillida, use will make it easy, fear must make it necessary.
Philli. - I agree, since my father will have it so, and fortune must.
Gallathea and Phillida, now both disguised as men, are wandering in the forest—the same forest where Cupid and Diana’s followers are roaming. Here the two women meet, in a conversation that involves more private asides than dialogue meant for the other to hear.
Gallathea tells herself - Blush Gallathea that must frame thy affection fit for thy habit, and therefore be thought immodest, because thou art unfortunate. Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit: nor thy sex bear it. O would the gods had made me as I seem to be, or that I might safely be what I seem not. Thy Father doteth Gallathea, whose blind love corrupteth his fond judgment, and jealous of thy death, seemeth to dote on thy beauty, whose fond care carrieth his partial eye as far from truth, as his hart is from falsehood. But why dost thou blame him or blab what thou art, when thou shouldest only counterfeit what thou art not. But whist, here commeth a lad: I will learn of him how to behave my self.
Phillida enters and mutters to herself, I neither like my gate, nor my garments, the one untoward, the other unfit, both unseemly. O Phillida, but yonder stayeth one, and therefore say nothing. But O, Phillida.
Gallathea, overhearing this, notes, I perceive that boys are in as great disliking of themselves as maids, therefore though I wear the apparel, I am glad I am not the person.
Phillida spots her and immediately notes Gallathea’s gender ambiguity but, assuming she is a man, thinks to learn from her how to behave as one. - It is a pretty boy and a faire, he might well have been a woman, but because he is not, I am glad I am, for now under the color of my coat, I shall decipher the follies of their kind.
Again, Gallathea: I would salute him, but I fear I should make a curtsy in steed of a leg.
Neither of them is directly addressing the other yet. Phillida thinks, If I durst trust my face as well as I doe my habit, I would spend some time to make pastime, for say what they will of a mans wit, it is no second thing to be a woman.
And Gallathea thinks something very odd. All the blood in my body would be in my face, if he should ask me (as the question among men is common) are you a maid?
Do men really ask each other this? How odd. Just as it seems they must finally speak to each other, they are interrupted by the appearance of Diana and two of her followers, as Phillida notes, Why stand I still, boys should be bold, but here commeth a brave train that will spill all our talk.
Diana addresses Gallathea as “fair boy” which she denies but then scrambles to explain that she rejects the “fair” part, not the “boy” part. There is more word-play when the nymphs ask after the deer they were following, meaning the animal, but Gallathea says, I saw none but mine own Dear. Meaning “beloved,” which feels a bit ahead of the game as she hasn’t fallen in love with Phillida quite yet.
When the nymphs address Phillida as “shepherd lad,” she too protests and then backpedals, explaining, My mother said I could be no lad till I was twenty year old, nor keep sheep till I could tell them; and therefore Lady neither lad nor shepherd is here.
Both women are refusing to accept the incorrect gender identity, but use word-play to avoid acknowledging their preferred gender. Diana demands that they accompany the hunt, and Phillida agrees, saying to herself, I am willing to go, not for these Ladies company, because my self am a virgin, but for that fair boys favor, who I think be a God.
There are two interesting things to note here. Normally, Diana’s band is restricted to women. Does her acceptance of the disguised Gallathea and Phillida mean that she sees through their disguises? But I also wonder if Phillida’s comment on Gallathea “who I think be a God” is a deliberate echo of Sappho’s poem 31. Sappho’s work—either in the original Greek or in Latin translation—was being republished by Lyly’s time, and English poets were re-working bits of her themes, although an English translation of the poems themselves was yet to be published. So it’s certainly a possibility.
Diana and the group exit, then Cupid takes the stage, disguised as a nymph of Diana and proclaims his bwa-ha-ha style villain speech, speaking of himself in the third person and once again having fun with puns on harts and the chaste. Cupid will cause the nymphs to fall in love—but very specifically, he’ll force them to fall in love with “their own sex,” believing this to be a double revenge as they will desire “impossibilities.”
Now Cupid, under the shape of a silly girl show the power of a mighty God. Let Diana and all her coy Nymphs know, that there is no hart so chaste but thy bow can wound, nor eyes so modest, but thy brands can kindle, nor thoughts so staid, but thy shafts can make wavering, weak and wanton: Cupid though he be a child, is no baby. I will make their pains my pastimes, & so confound their loves in their own sex, that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities. Whilst I truant from my mother, I will use some tyranny in these woods, and so shall their exercise in foolish love, be my excuse for running away. I will see whither faire faces be always chaste, or Dianna’s virgins only modest, else will I spend both my shafts and shifts, and then Ladies if you see these dainty Dames entrapped in love, say softly to your selves, wee may all love.
Oh, and by the way, Neptune is overhearing all this and lets on that he’s quite aware that Gallathea and Phillida are women disguised as men in order to trick him out of his sacrifice. But he plans to wait and watch and have the last word in the end.
We return to our heroines, each of whom wanders across the stage explaining that she has been falling in love with the other and bemoaning that they can’t do anything about it due to being in disguise as a man. I should note at this point that Phillida is using the male name “Melebeus” and Gallathea the name “Tyterus”. First Gallathea.
How now Gallathea? miserable Gallathea, that having put on the apparel of a boy, thou canst also put on the mind. O faire Melebeus, I too faire, and therefore I fear, too proud. Had it not been better for thee to have been a sacrifice to Neptune, then a slave to Cupid? to die for thy Country, then to live I thy fancy? to be a sacrifice, then a lover? O would when I hunted his eye with my hart, he might have seen my hart with his eyes. Why did Nature to him a boy give a face so faire, or to me a virgin a fortune so hard? I will now use for the distaff the bow, and play at quoits abroad, that was wont to sew in my Sampler at home. It may be Gallathea, foolish Gallathea, what may be? nothing. Let me follow him into the Woods, and thou sweet Venus be my guide.
Poor Phillida, curse the time of thy birth and rareness of thy beauty, the unaptness of thy apparel, and the untamedness of thy affections. Art thou no sooner in the habit of a boy, but thou must be enamored of a boy, what shalt thou doe when what best liketh thee, most discontenteth thee? Go into the Woods, watch the good times, his best moods, and transgress in love a little of thy modesty, I will, I dare not, thou must, I cannot. Then pine in thine own peevishness. I will not, I will. Ah Phillida doe something, nay any thing rather then live thus. Well, what I will doe, my self knows not, but what I ought I know too well, and so I go resolute, either to betray my love, or suffer shame.
In the mean time, Cupid has done his work. The nymph Telusa has been struck by Cupid’s arrow and fallen in love with the disguised Phillida, as Melebeus. There’s a double game going on here, because we know from Cupid’s speech that he knows Phillida-Melebeus’s female gender and that’s part of his spite. But Telusa thinks she’s fallen in love with a man, where both the experience of love and the target of her affection are forbidden to a follower of Diana.
How now? what new conceits, what strange contraries breed in thy mind? is thy Diana become a Venus, thy chaste thoughts turned to wanton looks, thy conquering modesty to a captive imagination? Beginnest thou with Piralis to die in the air and live in the fire, to leave the sweet delight of hunting, and to follow the hot desire of love? O Telusa, these words are unfit for thy sex being a virgin, but apt for thy affections being a lover. And can there in years so young, in education so precise, in vows so holy, and in a hart so chaste, enter either a strong desire, or a wish, or a wavering thought of love? Can Cupids brands quench Vesta’s flames, and his feeble shafts headed with feathers, pierce deeper than Diana’s arrows headed with steel? Break thy bow Telusa that seekest to break thy vow, and let those hands that aimed to hit the wild Hart, scratch out those eyes that have wounded thy tame hart. O vain and only naked name of Chastity, that is made eternal, and perish by time: holy, and is infected by fancy: divine, and is made mortal by folly. Virgins harts I perceive are not unlike Cotton trees, whose fruit is so hard in the bud, that it soundeth like steel, and being ripe, poureth forth nothing but wool, and their thoughts like the leaves of Lunary, which the further they grow from the Sun, the sooner they are scorched with his beams. O Melebeus, because thou art fair, must I be fickle, and false my vow because I see thy virtue? Fond girl that I am to think of love, nay vain profession that I follow to disdain love, but here commeth Eurota, I must now put on a red mask and blush, least she perceive my pale face and laugh.
Her fellow nymph Eurota shows up, who has similarly been induced to fall in love with Gallathea, in disguise as the man Tyterus. The two end up comparing notes on their dilemma.
Eurota acknowledges: I confess that I am in love, and yet swear that I know not what it is. I feel my thoughts unknit, mine eyes unstayed, my hart I know not how affected, or infected, my sleeps broken and full of dreams, my wakeness sad and full of sighs, my self in all things unlike my self. If this be love, I would it had never been devised.
Telusa counters: Thou hast told what I am in uttering what thy self is: these are my passions Eurota my unbridled passions, my intolerable passions, which I were as good acknowledge and crave counsel, as to deny and endure peril.
Eurota: How did it take you first Telusa?
Telusa: By the eyes, my wanton eyes which conceived the picture of his face, and hanged it on the very strings of my hart. O faire Melebeus, o fond Telusa, but how did it take you Eurota?
Eurota: By the ears, whose sweet words sunk so deep into my head, that the remembrance of his wit, hath bereaved me of my wisdom, o eloquent Tyterus, o credulous Eurota. But soft here commeth Ramia, but let her not hear us talk, wee will withdraw our selves, and hear her talk.
Ramia, another nymph, relates how all the rest of Diana’s followers are similarly stricken with love for the disguised women.
If my self felt only this infection, I would then take upon me the definition, but being incident to so many, I dare not my self describe it, but we will all talk of that in the Woods. Diana stormeth that sending one to seek another, she loseth all. Servia of all the Nymphs the coyest, loveth deadly, and exclaimeth claimeth against Diana, honoureth Venus, detesteth Vesta, and maketh a common scorn of virtue. Clymene, whose stately looks seemed to amaze the greatest Lords, stoopeth, yieldeth, and fawneth on the strange boy in the Woods. My self (with blushing I speak it) am thrall to that boy, that faire boy, that beautiful boy.
They bemoan “would I were no woman, would Tyterus were no boy,” which, of course, he actually isn’t.
But now Phillida and Gallathea are confessing their love for each other, dancing around the problem that each of them believes the other a man but dare not confess that she is a woman. Let’s follow the conversation, first Phillida then Gallathea, distinguished in voice since you have only myself on the stage.
Phil. - It is pity that Nature framed you not a woman having a face so faire, so lovely a countenance, so modest a behavior.
Galla. - There is a Tree in Tylos, whose nuts have shells like fire, and being cracked, the kernel is but water.
Phil. - What a toy is it to tell me of that tree, being nothing to the purpose: I say it is pity you are not a woman.
Galla. - I would not wish to be a woman, unless it were because thou art a man.
Phil. - Nay I doe not wish to be woman, for then I should not love thee, for I have sworn never to love a woman.
Galla. - A strange humor in so pretty a youth, and according to mine, for my self will never love a woman.
Philli. - It were a shame if a maiden should be a suitor, (a thing hated in that sex) that thou shouldest deny to be her servant.
Galla. - If it be a shame in me, it can be no commendation in you, for your self is of that mind.
Philli. - Suppose I were a virgin (I blush in supposing my self one) and that under the habit of a boy were the person of a maid, if I should utter my affection with sighs, manifest my sweet love by my salt tears, and prove my loyalty unspotted, and my griefs intolerable, would not then that faire face, pity this true hart?
Galla. - Admit that I were, as you would have me suppose that you are, and that I should with entreaties, prayers, oaths, bribes, and what ever can be invented in love, desire your favor, would you not yield?
Philli. - Tush you come in with admit.
Galla. - And you with suppose.
Philli. - What doubtful speeches be these? I fear me he is as I am, a maiden.
Galla. - What dread riseth in my mind, I fear the boy to be as I am a maiden.
Philli. - Tush it cannot be, his voice shows the contrary.
Galla. - Yet I doe not think it, for he would then have blushed.
Phill. - Have you ever a Sister?
Galla. - If I had but one my brother must needs have two, but I pray have you ever a one?
Philli. - My Father had but one daughter, and therefore I could have no sister.
Galla. - Aye me, he is as I am, for his speeches be as mine are.
Philli. - What shall I doe, either he is subtle or my sex simple.
Galla. - I have known divers of Diana’s Nymphs enamored of him, yet hath he rejected all, either as too proud to disdain, or too childish not to understand, or for that he knoweth himself to be a Virgin.
Phill. - I am in a quandary, Diana’s Nymphs have followed him, and he despised them, either knowing too well the beauty of his own face, or that himself is of the same mould. I will once again try him. You promised me in the woods, that you would love me before all Diana’s Nymphs.
Galla. - I, so you would love me before all Diana’s Nymphs.
Philli. - Can you prefer a fond boy as I am, before so faire Ladies as they are.
Galla. - Why should not I as well as you?
Phillida - Come let us into the Grove, and make much one of another, that cannot tell what to think one of another.
And then they exit, presumably to go “make much of one another” offstage.
Meanwhile Diana has discovered the to-do among her nymphs and instantly suspects the strange nymph—that is, Cupid—who has been seen wandering the woods.
What news have we here Ladies, are all in love? Are Diana’s Nymphs become Venus wantons? Is it a shame to be chaste, because you be amiable? Or must you needs be amorous, because you are faire? O Venus, if this be thy spite, I will require it with more then hate, well shalt thou know what it is to drib thine arrows up and down Diana’s leies. There is an unknown Nymph that straggleth up and down these woods, which I suspect hath been the weaver of these woes, I saw her slumbering by the brook side, go search her & bring her, if you find upon her shoulder a burn, it is Cupid: if any print on her back like a leaf, it is Medea: if any picture on her left breast like a bird, it is Calypso; who ever it be, bring her hither, and speedily bring her hither.
She scolds her ladies for abandoning chastity and honor for the court of Venus. And when Cupid is captured and brought before her, Diana takes her revenge on him.
And thou shalt see Cupid that I will show my self to be Diana, that is, Conqueror of thy loose & untamed appetites. Did thy mother Venus under the color of a Nymph, send thee hither to wound my Nymphs? Doth she add craft to her malice, and mistrusting her deity, practice deceit: is there no place but my Groves, no persons but my Nymphs? Cruel and unkind Venus, that spiteth only chastity, thou shalt see that Diana’s power shall revenge thy policy, and tame this pride. As for thee Cupid, I will break thy bow, and burn thine arrows, bind thy hands, clip thy wings, and fetter thy feet. Thou that fattest others with hopes, shalt be fed thy self with wishes, & thou that bindest others with golden thoughts, shalt be bound thy self with golden fetters. Venus rods are made of Roses, Diana’s of Briars. Let Venus that great Goddess, ransom Cupid that little God. These Ladies here whom thou hast infected with foolish love, shall both tread on thee and triumph over thee. Thine own arrow shall be shot into thine own bosom, and thou shalt be enamored, not on Psyches, but on Circes. I will teach thee what it is to displease Diana, distress her Nymphs, or disturb her Game.
Now we return to the problem of the sacrifice to Neptune. The fathers of Gallathea and Phillida point fingers at each other. You boasted of having a fair and chaste daughter, each says to the other, where is she now? And each answers, alas, my daughter died long ago. Meanwhile, Neptune is biding his time to see how far they’ll go.
Gallathea and Phillida resume their verbal jousting, this time regarding which of them would have been the appropriate sacrifice, had they been a maiden.
Phill. - I marvel what virgin the people will present, it is happy you are none, for then it would have fallen to your lot because you are so faire.
Galla. - If you had been a Maiden too I need not to have feared, because you are fairer.
Phill. - I pray thee sweet boy flatter not me, speak truth of thy self, for in mine eye of all the world thou art fairest.
Galla. - These be faire words, but far from thy true thoughts, I know mine own face in a true Glass, and desire not to see it in a flattering mouth.
Phill. - O would I did flatter thee, and that fortune would not flatter me. I love thee as a brother, but love not me so.
Phill. - Seeing we are both boys, and both lovers, that our affection may have some show, and seem as it were love, let me call thee Mistress.
Galla. - I accept that name, for divers before have called me Mistress.
Phill. - For what cause?
Galla. - Nay there lie the Mistress.
Philli. - Will not you be at the sacrifice?
Galla. - No.
Philli. - Why?
Galla. - Because I dreamt that if I were there, I should be turned to a virgin, and then being so faire (as thou sayest I am) I should be offered as thou knowest one must. But will not you be there.
Phill. - Not unless I were sure that a boy might be sacrificed, and not a maiden.
Galla. - Why then you are in danger.
Phill. - But I would escape it by deceit, but seeing we are resolved to be both absent, let us wander into these Groves, till the hour be past.
Galla. - I am agreed, for then my fear will be past.
Phill. - Why, what dost thou fear?
Galla. - Nothing but that you love me not.
With that, Gallathea exits, leaving Phillida to worry over her growing certainty that she has fallen in love with a woman in disguise.
Poor Phillida, what shouldest thou think of thy self, that lovest one that I fear me, is as thy self is; and may it not be, that her Father practiced the same deceit with her, that my Father hath with me, and knowing her to be fair, feared she should be unfortunate, if it be so, Phillida how desperate is thy case? if it be not, how doubtful? For if she be a Maiden there is no hope of my love, if a boy, a hazard: I will after him or her, and lead a melancholy life, that look for a miserable death.
The people have found a maiden to sacrifice, who rages against the practice of sacrificing someone in the promise of youth, while also noting that she knows she is not the fairest in the land and it’s totally unfair that she has to be sacrificed. And then on top of that, the monster that’s supposed to carry off the sacrifice doesn’t show up because she’s not good enough. She is rejected and humiliated. Gallathea and Phillida encounter her as she flees and worry about what’s going on. They hear the assembled gods approaching and hide to overhear.
Neptune rages that since the humans refuse to offer their chaste daughters, he’ll slaughter all the maidens in the land and make it a shame to be a virgin. Diana shows up all: Hey, let’s not get too hasty. Why should my followers be punished for being virtuous and chaste? Then Venus steps in saying, You go get ‘em Neptune. Let’s go after those coy bitches who are torturing my poor innocent boy Cupid. You make Diana give him back! The goddesses argue, Diana calling Venus unruly and the causer of quarrels, Venus calling Diana a hater. And Neptune going all: whoa, I don’t want to be in the middle of this! So he offers to rescind his vengeance against chaste virgins if Diana releases Cupid back to his mother. Deal! Says Diana.
Now the fathers of our two heroines show up to apologize to Neptune and admit the deception. Where are your daughters? He asks. Why, there they are, coming now. Here’s my daughter Phillida, one says; and here my daughter Gallathea says the other. The two women face each other, their secret fears confirmed.
Galla. - Unfortunate Gallathea if this be Phillida.
Phill. - Accursed Phillida if that be Gallathea.
Galla. - And wast thou all this while enamored of Phillida, that sweet Phillida?
Phill. - And couldest thou dote upon the face of a Maiden, thy self being one, on the face of fair Gallathea?
The answer, of course, being “Yes, duh!” Neptune asks, Doe you both being Maidens love one another?
They answer again in the affirmative. Diana, not being attuned to the power of love, tells them, Now things falling out as they doe, you must leave these fond affections, nature will have it so, necessity must.
Gallathea protests, I will never love any but Phillida, her love is engraven in my hart, with her eyes.
And Phillida, Nor I any but Gallathea, whose faith is imprinted in my thoughts by her words.
This is the moment that makes John Lyly’s play a marvel for its age. Two female characters, knowing each other to be women, declare their romantic love for each other in public and swear they will never love anyone else. Neptune can’t quite get his brain around how this is possible, but Venus is totally on their side.
I like well and allow it, they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow love, and Faith. Is your loves unspotted, begun with truth, continued with constancy, and not to bee altered till death?
Gallathea vows, Die Gallathea if thy love be not so.
Uh, so now what? Diana asks. Well, says Venus, I can turn one of them into a man.
What is to love or the Mistress of love unpossible? Was it not Venus that did the like to Iphis and Ianthe; how say ye, are ye agreed, one to bee a boy presently?
Phillida answers, I am content, so I may embrace Gallathea.
Gallathea agrees, I wish it, so I may enjoy Phillida.
In the original tale of Iphis and Ianthe, which Venus just referenced, the two were differentiated by gender performance: Iphis having been raised all her life as a boy, and Ianthe always identifying as a girl. But Gallathea breaks with this source material and offers a different scenario. Both Gallathea and Phillida consistently identify as women. They express either interest in or acceptance of a male identity only as the means of having their relationship made possible and acceptable. And even when gender change is offered, neither has a preference to be the one who becomes a man.
Their fathers, on the other hand, immediately start quarreling over which one of them gets to continue having a daughter. Because it’s all about them, right? But in the end, all agree to leave the choice in the hands of Venus. Then let us depart, neither of them shall know whose lot it shall be till they come to the Church door. One shall be, doth it suffice?
Gallathea gets the final speech, urging all women to yield to love and allow their hearts to be conquered. This is an ambiguous message, since her heart was conquered by love for a woman. At the final curtain, the transformation is yet to come. In that eternal moment, Gallathea and Phillida remain women in love with women. And so they will always be for me.
In this episode we take a tour through John Lyly’s late 16th century play Gallathea which includes an unexpected depiction of same-sex love.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online