Go dare; or, how scholarship lost the plot

Warning: contains plot spoilers

‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful’. These lines were not written to describe the plays of John Lyly, but they would make an effective advertising slogan based on the scholarly consensus on his work. Michael Best was the first to identify the playwright’s work as ‘Lyly’s static drama’, an evaluation so influential that subsequent scholars are rarely able to describe Lylian dramaturgy without using the word ‘static’. (This is typical of scholarship on this playwright, which gets so addicted to particular words affixed to Lyly that they almost always accompany discussion of his work, usually accompanied by the author’s name in the genitive. Compare ‘Lyly’s euphuism’ or ‘Lyly’s court comedies’, phrases used with obsessive confidence despite the fact that euphuism is a nineteenth-century invention and that Lyly explicitly said (twice) that he did not write genre plays.)

A wide variety of Lylian scholars follow Best in describing Lyly’s dramaturgy as static. Peter Saccio, one of Lyly’s greatest scholars, described Lyly as a dramatist ‘avoiding the development of plot’. Another of Lyly’s most astute critics, Jocelyn Powell, referred to ‘stasis’ as ‘Lyly’s great dramatic discovery’, though she paradoxically and usefully defined it in terms of Lyly’s use of ‘a continually changing visual pattern’, ‘the play of sight, solo, ensemble, dialogue; and [. . .] a consequent play of rhythm’. Reviewing these statements about static Lyly, G. K. Hunter claimed that ‘[t]he unusual critical agreement on this point is, fortunately for all concerned, shared by Lyly himself’; and in support of this claim he quoted the epilogue to Sapho and Phao and its reference to the play’s conclusion as ‘an end where we first began’. Best agrees and adds, ‘not only does Sapho and Phao remain static, ending where it began, but Endimion begins and ends with the same complimentary [sic] situation’. And in his edition of the play, David Bevington quotes the epilogue’s ‘labyrinth of conceits’ and calls the play ‘a static drama’, ‘the very opposite of narrative drama’. As Hunter says, scholarly consensus here is unusually strong.

Which would be fine if it were true. But it’s not fine because (put it in neon letters) it is a targeted and deliberate lie. The play’s first and final scenes make explicitly clear that it has not ‘now brought you to an end where we first began’. The play opens with a speech setting out the social role and emotional status of its male protagonist. Here is how it begins:

Thou art a ferryman, Phao, yet a free man, possessing for riches content, and for honours quiet. Thy thoughts are no higher than thy fortunes, nor thy desires greater than thy calling. […] As much doth it delight thee to rule thine oar in a calm stream as it doth Sappho to sway the scepter in her brave court.

The play ends with the same character rejecting everything he was, had and thought at the start of the play. Here is how the play ends:

A ferry, Phao? No, the stars cannot call it a worser fortune. Range rather over the world; forswear affections; entreat for death.

A few lines later, and in the play’s final sentences, Phao asks how ‘will I go to my grave’. How did we get to the point where academics think that being a ferryman is the same thing as not being a ferryman? That being happy with your lot is the same thing as calling it the worst thing ever? That ‘content’, ‘quiet’ and home are comparable to ‘worser fortune’, a death wish and voluntary exile? Since scholars uniformly regard this play as a romantic comedy, for whom is this ending romantic or comic, in any of the senses of those words? And why do scholars privilege that single epilogue sentence when the play’s structure makes sure to advertise its mendacious inadequacy in its play’s first and final speeches? How much more explicit does a play need to be that it has not ended where it first began?

I do wonder if there’s something to do with class going on here. Phao is the play’s least powerful figure, so of course it doesn’t much matter what happens to him. But Venus, Cupid and Sappho have changed too. Venus enters the play intending to make Sappho fall in love with a man; she ends the play no longer sure if she’s even still in charge of the power of love. ‘But as for the new mistress of love’, Venus says of Sappho, before turning to Sappho herself: ‘Or ‘lady’ – I cry you mercy, I think you would be called a goddess – you shall know what it is to usurp the name of Venus’. Because yes, Sappho has usurped Venus’ position, and yes, this now means that everything has changed, to the point that Venus no longer knows how to address her (mistress, lady or goddess?). Venus’ words here may be full of sarcasm or bile (a decision for performance), but they still articulate basic narrative truths. When Venus ends her part in the play by speaking to her son, we see how everything has changed:

Venus: Come, Cupid. She knows not how to use thee. Come with me. You know what I have for you. Will you not?

Cupid: Not I.

Venus has been telling Cupid to ‘Come’ throughout this play: ‘Come away’, she says in the first scene; ‘Come, Cupid’, she says at Vulcan’s forge, where she adds, for good measure, ‘Come, sweet Vulcan’. With apologies for unfortunate modern ambiguity, telling people to come is one of Venus’ superpowers, and the play’s penultimate scene stages the loss of this power. There are pauses built into Venus’ lines whilst she waits for ‘Come’ to have its usual effect. Her continuing sentences respond to its effectivelessness. Plot and performance work together here. Venus has lost Cupid; Sappho has gained him and overcome the plot (in the word’s two senses) to force her in love; and Cupid, that erotic atom bomb of human passions, has now been placed in the hands of a woman named after the archetypal lesbian. As we will see later, the play encourages us to think about what that might mean. This is plot, and it means that the play does not bring its audience to an end where it first began. Because of their assumptions about how plot and performance work, Lyly’s greatest scholars have effectively not been reading the play.

It’s possible to sketch out the importance of plot to the play simply by looking at how often characters worry about it. ‘What will you have me do?’, Phao asks Sybilla, about as elementary a meditation on the uncertainties and vicissitudes of a moving and unpredictable plot as one could ask for.  When he meets her again, after falling in love with Sappho, Phao hopes Sybilla’s counsel will ‘defer, though not take away, my destiny’. Finally, presumably in despair, Phao asks ‘What shall become of me?’ Sybilla answers with two monosyllabic, imperative verbs: ‘Go dare’. It is good advice (in general, though perhaps not for Phao), and it makes no sense if the play has, as scholars have insisted, no plot. Even the play’s four songs worry about narrative possibilities. ‘Oh now I well see-a/ What anon we all shall be-a’, goes the boys’ first drinking song. ‘Anon, anon, the trumpets are/ Which call them to the fearful bar’, goes their second. These are anticipations of a future, and their shared interest in that future’s vivid immediacy is articulated by the repetition of ‘anon’. Sappho’s extraordinary erotic lament, delivered from her bedchamber, dwells on curses which ‘shall strike blind the day’ and ‘Hope’ that ‘Mock[s] thee, till madness strike thee dead’, whilst Vulcan’s song at the forge includes the oath that his arrows ‘Shall singing fly/ Through many a wanton’s eye’. (Anyone interested in these songs can hear Kirsty McGee’s versions of them for free here). As with Phao’s questions about what to do, these lyrics worry about impending futures. Characters also repeatedly ask ‘What news?’ in this play (it’s a line the courtly pageboy Criticus teaches the scholar pageboy Molus: ‘I taught thee that lesson, to ask ‘What news?’). In the middle of the play Sybilla prophecies Phao’s future life: as Phao says, her ‘prophecy threateneth miseries, and your counsel warneth impossibilities’. In the play’s last scene, Sybilla asks him the question previously confined to court: ‘What news?’ It’s a question Phao answers by giving her a plot debrief. None of these lines make any sense if the play has no plot.

The play’s plot matters because it is about rape. It’s important to challenge scholarly consensus on its plotlessness for exactly this reason. Venus wants to force Sappho to fall in love because she is ‘fair’ and ‘amiable’. Indeed, as she puts it, ‘she [is] amiable, and therefore must be pierced’. She’s talking about Cupid’s arrows, but we don’t need Sigmund Freud to think that one through. The whole point of this play’s plot, a plot whose existence scholars have vigorously denied, turns on the idea that a beautiful, powerful woman who chooses not to have sex must be forced to have sex. Once Phao is in love with Sappho, he is advised, quite explicitly, to treat courtship as coercion:

If she seem at the first cruel, be not discouraged. I tell thee a strange thing: women strive because they would be overcome. ‘Force’ they call it, but such a welcome force they account it, that continually they study to be enforced.

Even if Sybilla is not recommending rape here (a decision also left to performance), she is certainly endorsing the gender relationships that underpin its logic. It is difficult to imagine a more explicit (and complicit) account of courtship as a justification for rape. And it is delivered by a woman whose life has been ruined by her own experiments with consent. Courted by the god Phoebus, Sybilla consents to his love (using that very term: ‘consenting to his suit’) but then ‘recalled my promise’. Phoebus does not pursue his courtship, but instead punishes Sybilla with a long life of old age. She is a living embodiment of what a modern misogynist might call a cock-blocker. And it is this character who delivers the above speech on consent, force and courtship. Whatever they might say, women ‘study to be enforced’, says this consent-withholding woman.

Since scholarship hasn’t encouraged us to think of Lyly as a playwright worried about rape, calling him instead, horrifyingly, a writer of romantic comedies, it may be worth reviewing the centrality of rape to his work. The plot of Campaspe turns on Alexander’s desire to marry or have sex with his prisoner, Campaspe. ‘Alexander doth love, and therefore must obtain’, he says. ‘I am a king and will command’. ‘You may, to yield to lust by force’, replies his friend, ‘but to consent to love by fear you cannot’. ‘I am a conqueror, she a captive’, Alexander replies, and it may well be that it is her status as captive that makes her so captivating in his eyes. Campaspe is later sent to the king’s painter’s workshop to have her portrait taken, where she discovers that every painting in the shop – paintings presumably produced under Alexander’s patronage – depicts a scene of rape. In a play about a king’s love for a captive, this scene ensures that a previously isolated commission of Campaspe’s portrait suddenly becomes the latest in a series of paintings of rape. ‘What are these pictures?’, Campaspe asks, and on hearing about no less than four scenes of rape by Jupiter, she complains that ‘lust was so full authorised by the gods in heaven’. Elsewhere in Lyly’s plays, Love’s Metamorphosis features a nymph who escapes rape only to be butchered onstage by the play’s archetypal representation of masculine rage. This feels especially important in a play which is about three women’s right to choose, not only to choose their husbands, but whether to marry at all. And this is why it is important to challenge the idea that these are romantic but plotless comedies. Lust may be so full authorised in the world of Lyly’s plays, but the plays stage this situation in order to show us women resisting and contesting it. It is significant that the only central couple to successfully marry in a Lyly play are two women. Neptune famously complains that Galatea and Phillida love each other ‘where there can be no cause of affection’: that is, where there is no penis. In the face of self-righteous patriarchy, love in Lyly’s plays is frequently phallomarginal.

And this is why plot matters in Lyly’s work, and why we need to rethink scholarly obsessions with its plotlessness. Plot matters in Sappho and Phao because it is not a story of rape. Sappho overcomes this attempt to enforce her to fall in love, marry or have sex, to submit to a compulsory and normative sexuality. If Sappho and Phao is a narrative prequel to Galatea (more on this later), it also sets up its conceptual exploration of same-sex desire. If Lyly or his patron or his company wanted to tell a straightforward story about virginity, Sappho is an eccentric choice of exemplar. She was, as I have shown elsewhere, not only famously queer but famously enthusiastic about multiple sexual partners, second only to Helen of Troy as the early modern representative of uncontrolled female lust. When Sappho kidnaps Cupid and becomes some kind of queen of love, she promises to make love ‘a toy made for ladies, and I will keep it only for ladies’. Indeed, by this point in the play her court seems to be entirely homosocial: the male courtiers disappear at the mid-point of the play, and men only enter the stage in the form of the child Cupid and the brief cameos of Vulcan and his ‘shag-haired’ Cyclops. Thus when Sappho tells her female courtier to ‘shut the door’ (her final words in the play), she shuts the door on a heterosocial world. In doing so, this earlier play makes space for the queer love story at the heart of Galatea. It is surely significant, too, that every representation of heterosexuality in Sappho and Phao is miserable and disastrous. Indeed, Venus first proposes forcing Sappho to fall in love in the same speech which makes clear her own marital status makes her (and everyone around her) profoundly unhappy. As I have suggested elsewhere, Lyly repeatedly queers heterosexuality, and this play is an excellent example of this effect.

The plot and stage effect of Sappho and Phao was so powerful that it spawned at least two sequels that tried to continue or unpack it. Lyly’s own Galatea is a sequel to Sappho and Phao in the most basic narrative sense: having been separated from his mother in the earlier play, Cupid is now ‘truant from my mother’, and when they are finally reunited, Venus asks, ‘Sir boy, where have you been? Always taken, first by Sappho, now by Diana. How happeneth it, you unhappy elf?’ (That last question inaugurates a brief plot summary from Cupid and underlines once again the importance of plot for Lyly). In narrative terms, Galatea needs Sappho and Phao to have already happened, and repeatedly says so. Marlowe and Nashe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage is a sequel in a rather different way, in that it tries to work through the earlier play’s penultimate stage image. ‘How now, in Sappho’s lap?’ asks an astonished Venus as Sappho cuddles Cupid. Dido, Queen of Carthage opens with Ganymede cuddled in Jupiter’s lap, and the centre of the later play hinges on a succession of part-erotic, part-maternal cuddling. Dido continues Lyly’s exploration of lap-based love and its implications for parenting and love, both heterosexual and queer.

It’s possible to see Lyly’s Sappho story impact contemporaries in other ways. As I said above, Sappho was previously an early modern exemplar of female lust, but in the wake of Lyly’s play, she suddenly becomes an exemplar of chastity. Robert Greene, for example, compares Sappho to the courtesan Lais and contrasts her to the virtuous Lucrece in his Mamillia, written before Lyly’s play was onstage. He also thinks of her as a poet. After Lyly’s play appears not only onstage but as only the second playhouse play to go into multiple reprints, Greene shows his view of the character has been transformed. A character in Arbasto is advised to ‘strive not with Sappho against Venus’, which looks an awful lot like a plot summary of this apparently plotless play. In his sequel to Mamillia, we are told that Sappho ‘was both learned, wise, and virtuous, and yet the fire of fancy so scorched and scalded her modest mind, as she was forced to let slip the reins of silence to crave a salve of Phaon to cure her intollerable malady’. Once again, this is a plot summary of Lyly’s play. In later works, Greene adopts entire speeches from Lyly’s plays: ‘Sappho a queen loved Phao a ferryman; she beautiful and wise, he poor and servile; she holding a scepter, he an oar’ (this from Alcida, reworking the first speech of Lyly’s play). By the time he wrote Menaphon, one of his greatest accomplishments, Greene was using extended meditations of Lyly’s Sappho – not Ovid’s – to depict his central lovers and their flirtation. Scholars tell us that this play has no plot, but Lyly’s contemporaries couldn’t get it out of their heads. The previously insatiable poet has become a queer, powerful monarch (no one tell Venus). Lyly’s play replotted Sappho’s identity in early modern English culture.

What all of these earlier scholarly pronouncements are really saying, or what I presume they are prompted by, is that plot in this play happens differently to plot in the works of Shakespeare. It is worth comparing this situation to the scholarly reception of Webster’s work in this regard. From the nineteenth century onwards, commentators complained that nothing much happens in Webster’s plays. For Charles Kingsley, ‘There is no trace of that development of human souls for good or evil which is Shakespeare’s especial power’. For Travis Bogard, ‘the great individuals of Webster’s tragedies do not change’. For William Archer, rather fabulously, Webster’s plays ‘are not constructed plays, but loose-strung, go-as-you-please romances in dialogue’. This is an odd thing to say about a writer much taken with form (‘a very formal Frenchman in your habit’; ‘such superficial flashes hang on him, for form’), and it is useful that Kingsley makes the comparison so explicitly to Shakespeare. Despite Bogard’s statement, characters do change in Webster’s plays (one of them ends up thinking he’s a wolf, which seems pretty changeful), but they don’t change in quite the way Shakespeare’s do. Similarly, plot happens in Sappho and Phao in a non-Shakespearean way, and indeed in a way that Lyly himself would later depart from. In this play, plot often happens offstage, and characters often exit to do something formative to the play. Cupid first strikes the lovers offstage, Phao is given his celestial beauty makeover offstage and the final sequence of unlovemaking also occurs offstage. Often what we see onstage is the effect of such offstage plot movement. But not always: Phao’s meeting with Venus and Cupid, Sappho’s large-scale outdoor court encounter with Phao (the busiest scene in the play) and the extraordinary crossfire between Sappho and Venus battling over Cupid all take place onstage.

Michael Best described ‘Lyly’s static drama’ as being rooted in an ‘inconclusive plot’, rather than moving from an opening ‘motivation’ towards a ‘conflict which is [then] resolved in action’. Best’s evaluation has been so influential that subsequent scholars are rarely able to describe Lylian dramaturgy without using the word ‘static’, which is strange because the plot of Sappho and Phao works in exactly the way Best thinks it ought, moving from Venus’ promise to ‘yoke the neck that never bowed’ (that is, make Sappho fall in love) to a series of conflicts (Sappho with her own desires, the lovers with one another, and Sappho again with Venus) in which a penultimate scene resolves these conflicts in action (to use Best’s terms). One of the reasons scholars haven’t spotted this plot is that it goes against everything Shakespeare would go on to do: instead of marriage, we have separation; instead of heterosexual union, we have virginity-that-celebrates-love-only-for-ladies.

All of this makes me wonder how underdeveloped scholarly understandings of theatrical narrative are, and how tainted they might be by our collective familiarity with Shakespeare’s work and our tendency to treat it as normative. That of course is to the detriment of our understanding of Shakespeare as much as it is of his contemporaries. I’m also struck by this scholarly readiness to pronounce judgments on the stage effects of a play they have never seen, and therefore never seen affected by the stage. Do we even have a narrative theory of early modern drama? Have we asked how story happens on (and off)stage? Despite scholarly fixation on the one reassuring line in this play’s epilogue, the rest of the epilogue focuses on disquiet and disorientation, describing the play as an exhaustive labyrinth, from which the audience is offered one possible reprieve:

But if you accept this dance of a fairy in a circle, we will hereafter at your wills frame our fingers to all forms. And so we wish every one of you a thread to lead you out of the doubts wherewith we leave you entangled.

Doubts, dances and supernature: this is a deeply kinetic and challenging play that wishes (but does not promise) each audience member a thread to help them escape. If we’re at an end where we first began, why would we need that? I warned at the start of this blog post of plot spoilers. Thank goodness there was a plot to spoil.

When listening to Sybilla’s advice and prophecy, Phao promises that ‘I have brought mine ears of purpose, and will hang at your mouth till you have finished your discourse’. Stories matter in Lyly, whatever scholars might think. Let’s all bring our ears of purpose and hang at the mouth of early modern drama. It hasn’t finished teaching us its discourse just yet.

Andy Kesson



4 thoughts on “Go dare; or, how scholarship lost the plot

  1. Very good work, Andy. Another way to put one of your major points here (and I’m not offering this as a correction, but rather as a complementary or even complimentary comment) is that our sense of plot is almost always understood through the lens of heterosexuality. As you demonstrate, this has prevented scholars from even recognizing other plots. Don’t get me started.

    Liked by 1 person

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