She’s got it,
Yeah baby, she’s got it
For 1570s and 1580s theatregoers, love was all around. One of the defining characteristics of the earliest surviving commercial plays is the predominance of the character Venus or her allegorical equivalent, Love. “Theaters and curtaines Venus pallaces,” reads a marginal note in Philip Stubbes’s The Anatomy of Abuses (1583), conferring on those two Shoreditch playhouses a telling soubriquet. This post explores the significance and status of Venus in the formative years of the Elizabethan playhouses.
Venus/Love is a central figure in the first surviving play from the playhouses, The Three Ladies of London (1581); Venus emerges onstage to vie for supremacy against the goddess Fortune in The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (it’s in the name!) (1582); and the classical figure intrudes on action in the three children’s plays Sapho and Phao and Galatea (John Lyly, 1584) and The Arraignment of Paris (George Peele, 1584). In the latter, she is initially awarded a golden apple by Paris, and she declares “That Venus is the fayrest, this doth prove, / That Venus is the lovely Queen of Love. / The name of Venus is indeed but beauty, / And men me fairest call, per excellency” (B3v). We know that a children’s company performed a play of Cupid and Psyche in 1581, possibly including Cupid’s mother and/or offering in Cupid an alternative personification of Love (to read about Cupid in this role, see Jane Kingsley-Smith’s Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture). The year 1586 sees George Peele writing what is possibly a play, The Hunting of Cupid, which survives in scraps and notes and includes one of my favourite couplets from the period: “At Venus’ entreaty for Cupid her son, / These arrows by Vulcan were cunningly done” (also printed in the verse anthology England’s Parnassus, 1600, N1r). These lines are themselves an echo of a scene from Sapho and Phao, in which the browbeaten Vulcan, upon Venus’s request, has his apprentices forge arrows for Cupid, the smiths singing as they work. In the years leading up to 1590, Venus also appears in The Woman in the Moon and Dido, Queen of Carthage (both c.1588), and Love reprises her role as one of the three ladies in The Three Lords and Ladies of London (c.1588).
Looking at this list alone, it is difficult not to see Venus as the central figure of commercial drama from these years—she is in many ways its chief recurrent character. Both the plays themselves and commentary on the plays tell us as much…
The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (the second surviving play from the playhouses) begins with an “assembly of the gods” crowding onto the stage bickering among themselves. Jupiter interrupts to ask, “Who are the authors of this mutiny?” Much of this first scene then goes on to set up the premise of the play and the subsequent action. Tisiphone, one of the Furies who is described by Jupiter here as a “foul fiend,” explains what all the fuss is about…
Thy daughter Venus, thy proud daughter Venus here,
Blabs it abroad and beareth all the world in hand,
She must be thought the only Goddess of the world:
Exalting and suppressing whom she likes best,
Defacing altogether Lady Fortune’s grace.
Breaking her anchors down, dishonouring her name,
Whose government thy self, thy self dost know. (A2v)
It is tempting to think that Tisiphone is in this moment not only providing exposition but is also conjuring something like the atmosphere of playhouses in Elizabethan England, particularly in these years following the burgeoning of such buildings.
Across these plays, Venus/Love is integral to the narrative and structure of the drama. Whether as a central character or a secondary figure, it is Venus’s interventions that define these plays. The title figure of Galatea is swept up in a love plot with her fellow maiden Phyllida. In the play’s closing act, gods and goddesses gather in an unlikely concentration in sixteenth-century Humberside and debate alongside Galatea’s and Phyllida’s fathers the legitimacy of the couple getting hitched. Venus enters only in this final act, which sees her declare with firm resolution that they most certainly should. After all, “What is to love, or the mistress of love, unpossible?” (5.3.154).
Venus also appears in Lyly’s Sapho and Phao with an equally can-do attitude. She bemoans her lot at the start of the play in having “to sojourn with Vulcan in a smith’s forge” (1.1.23) and vows, rather, to amuse herself in Sapho’s court at Syracusa in teaching proud Sapho a lesson; Venus’s determination to “yoke the neck that yet never bowed” (ll. 37-38) is the basis for the play’s twists and turns. In Peele’s Arraignment, Venus competes with Pallas and Juno in attempting to convince Paris to judge her the most beautiful; she is initially successful, though is later forced to resign the apple (thinking she would win it back just as easily, with the promise of love…). She is in this sense at the heart of the play’s controversy and subsequent narrative ups and downs, just as in Rare Triumphs.
Indeed, beyond narrative, Venus or Love is integral to the tone and even genre of performance, sometimes either resolving or troubling the final scenes. In Rare Triumphs, Venus’s challenge to Fortune explicitly takes on questions of not only which goddess will triumph, but what generic impulse. Her positive affirmations at the close of Galatea are contrasted by the tonal dissonance and emotional ambiguity (arguably characteristic of Lyly’s endings) generated by Cupid’s rejection of his mother Venus at the very close of Sapho and Phao.
In Rare Triumphs, the strength of both of the play’s eponymous goddesses is illustrated by their wresting of power from the ostensibly superior male deity, Jupiter. We are told from the outset that Jupiter “governest every thing that Gods & men attempt,” and when Mercury explains in act five that Jupiter has had enough of the triumphs and they should now be resolved, we are encouraged to see divine patriarchal authority in supremacy. Yet after the first scene, Jupiter never appears in the play again. It is left to Mercury to solicit the consent of Love and Fortune (rather than command them), and it is Love and Fortune who join in union and end the play in praise of their own powers.
Rare Triumphs illustrates in its overarching structure many of the questions of power and plot that surround Venus at all levels across surviving contemporary plays. Her arresting statement in Galatea, “I like well, and allow it” (5.3.143), defies Neptune in recognising and affirming the love between the central female characters, Galatea and Phyllida. Her presence in Sapho and Phao follows hot on the heels of Love’s claim in Rare Triumphs to control the action of the play’s mortal characters. Consequently, she prompts us to ask questions about human agency and our own relationship to the forces of love and desire. Yet by the end of Sapho and Phao, Venus has lost authority over her son Cupid, who has defected to Sapho’s court. Cupid begins the play firing his arrows at Venus’s behest; by the end, he is doing so of his own inclination. Sapho and Phao therefore also asks questions about the agency and authority of Love in multiple personifications (in Venus and in Cupid).
While dominating the narrative and action of these early plays, commentary upon the playhouses makes explicit reference to their Venus-centricity. We are beginning to get used to seeing antitheatrical writers as “critics” and their texts as “criticism” in the widest senses of those words—as analysts of literature and drama. Stephen Gosson’s complaints about The Three Ladies of London in 1582 contain the earliest response to a surviving commercial stage play; he also describes a scene now lost and missing from the extant printed quarto. In that scene, Gosson tells us, the three ladies discuss their opinions of plays; Love claims to “detest” them, “because her guts are turned outward, and all her secret conveyance is blazed with colours to the people’s eye” (D2r). The sentence can be taken metaphorically, but it can also, in the light of Venus’s secret conveyances in the plays named above, be taken quite literally indeed as a comment upon stage action and plotting.
The following year, Philip Stubbes picks up Gosson’s critique of Love and makes it a metonym for playhouses themselves. He characterises theatres by way of the figure and offers a triple-whammy of alignment: in the margin and the running index (where the houses of love are synonymous with houses of plays) and in the text itself, where he deems a visit to a playhouse equivalent to a visit to “Venus’s palace” (and his phrasing here makes it both a parallel and a conflation):
Stubbes’s comments might simply be a pointed use of the mythological association of Venus with loose love, but they are also particularly canny literary criticism. His upbraiding words hit the nail on the head by showing an awareness of current theatrical fashion: judging from surviving plays, playhouses were indeed Venus’s palaces. Indeed, Stubbes is writing a year after Rare Triumphs was performed at court and most likely in London (and printed) and two years after the first performances of The Three Ladies, and his obsession with Venus in this attack is dramatically topical.
The relationship between court and city performance testifies to Venus’s popularity in the early to mid Elizabethan age. An early inventory of costumes from the Office of the Revels survives in the Loseley papers at the Folger Shakespeare Library. These papers document the uses and adaptations of clothing for various performances, plays, and masks at court from the mid 1550s to about 1560. The second featured category listed under costumes used for “women’s” masks is “Venusses.”
The list of Venusses, “or Amorouse Ladies” includes the description of costumes seemingly employed across numerous performances. It states (in modernised English):
6 upper bodies [bodices] with bases of red cloth of gold ruffed and turned in, guarded with a broad guard of cloth of gold embroidered upon Crimson Satin taken out of the hangings.
The Forestocks of the Sleeves of the same guard ruffed in panes pulled out with white Sarcanet.
Th’under Sleeves and nethe[r] parts of parti-panes of White Cloth of Silver, purple velvet, pinked rue with Silver threads, yellow cloth of gold cut compass-wise, guarded with cloth of gold, chevered[?] with black velvet.
A note in the following column explains that these outfits “being often translated, transformed, and disguised are so forworn and too much known, as now any more [i.e. so that they are henceforth]: not serviceable, nor chargeable.” Venuses are so much in demand at court in the mid-century that they are “forworn.” Perhaps over the following decades the likes of Stubbes and Gosson would wholeheartedly agree that they are “too much known.”
This inventory also includes a range of clothing used for different purposes and characters, and as such it offers a clue to the circulation of material and costume from the court to the playhouse. A few pages after the Venus descriptions is an entry detailing a “great pair of Allmayn sleeves and again translated into torchbearers for the Mariner’s Masque.” This costume is, it is made quite clear, “often used by players and so known and worn as now thereof.” The re-use of these materials by commercial players raises the tantalising possibility that the details described for the costumes of “Venusses, or Amorouse Ladies” might well indicate something of Love’s visual presence in London’s playhouses—which are, after all, “Venus’s Palaces.”
Looking at playhouses through the lens of the most powerful recurrent character in early Elizabethan commercial drama offers one angle on contemporary reactions to these unusual and controversial buildings. It opens up a critique based upon the questionable associations with Venus: lasciviousness, loose living, unchaste desire. In Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon, the first female human is “created” on stage by Nature to the envy of the different planets—Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury, Sol, Venus, and Luna—whose qualities are “robbed” to adorn this central character, named Pandora. They then take turns “controlling” her temperament throughout succeeding acts, in an attempt to mar Nature’s greatest creation. At the end of the play, Nature asks Pandora to judge each planet’s sway over her before selecting the one she wishes to remain with for eternity. She remarks disapprovingly of Venus’s influence: “Thou Venus made me love all that I saw” (G1v).
Venus herself declares, when she takes control of Pandora’s mood, “Ile have her witty, quick, and amorous / Delight in revels and in banqueting, / Wanton discourses, music, and merry songs”—all of which would serve as descriptions of playgoing, at least to certain sections of Elizabethan society.
Perhaps the fashion for Venus-related subject matter underscores associations in the 1570s and 1580s that link playhouses to prostitution and sexual promiscuity; Antony Munday calls the Theater “an appointed place of Bauderie” (A Second and Third Blast, 1580, E3r), for instance, and T. F. allies the Theatre and the Curtain with “heaving houses” and “kissing booths” (1579, F4r). Those within earshot of the Bridewell court and its dealings might point out that these claims are not entirely unfounded; there are a handful of instances from across fifty or so years that link sexual activity with the sites and people of playhouses:
21 March 1578:
Stephen Coke, cobbler
A harlot taken at a barnside near the Theater suspiciously
by the constables and brought hither; she confessed to
the constable that he would have abused her if time had
served . . . .
(London Metropolitan Archives MS 33011/3 Bridwell Court Book Minutes, fo. 379r)
Venus is particularly bawdy in Lyly’s play, insisting, “Away with chastity and modest thoughts . . . Is she not young? then let her to the world, / All those are strumpets that are over chaste . . .” (C3r-v). It is this brashness and brazenness that leads writers such as Gosson and Stubbes to exclaim against her influence in the playhouses. Perhaps to their taste, Venus doesn’t ultimately succeed in The Woman in the Moon, but she does govern for the good part of one act filled with sexual indulgence and abandon. During her ascendancy, Pandora is charged with a striking and perhaps surprising frankness in expressing and engaging in carnal desire.
Yet, whether Venus or Love, throughout the earliest plays surviving from the playhouses this character has proven her powers: she kickstarts the action or resolutely wraps things up, turns things from disaster to delight, or sits in the complicated middle. Indeed, Venus’s loss of her son at the end of Sapho and Phao creates a fascinating complexity to this powerhouse of 1580s drama. Watching Emma Pallant as Venus process her rejection at the end of the play during our Read Not Dead staged reading, as she stood on stage both fuming and trembling, we saw two sides of playhouse Venus: the arch dissembler contemplating revenge and a wounded and weakened mother. Perhaps in this play Lyly charts a course to her ultimate rejection in The Woman in the Moon. Either way, the image seems to me a fitting one on which to end our season of staged readings and with which to wrap up this post: Venus stood on the playhouse stage, pondering her place in her erstwhile “palace.”
Bridewell Court Book Minutes. 1578. MS 33011/3. London Metropolitan Archives, London.
England’s Parnassus. London, 1600. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
Gosson, Stephen. Plays confuted in five actions. London, 1582. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
Loseley Papers. c.1560. L.b.42. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC. LUNA. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
Lyly, John. Galatea. Ed. Leah Scragg. Manchester UP, 2012.
—. Sappho and Phao. Ed. David Bevington. 1991. Manchester UP, 2007.
—. The Woman in the Moon. London, 1597. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
Munday, Antony. A Second and Third Blast of retrait from plaies. London, 1580. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
Peele, George. The Arraignment of Paris. London, 1584. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune. London, 1589. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
Salkeld, Duncan. Shakespeare Among the Courtesans. Ashgate, 2012.
Sapho and Phao. By John Lyly. Dir. James Wallace. Perf. Emma Pallant, Emma Denly. “Read Not Dead,” Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London. 27 Aug. 2017.
Smith, Jane Kingsley. Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture. Cambridge UP, 2010.
Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomy of Abuses. London, 1583. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
T. F. Newes from the North. London, 1579. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
The Three Ladies of London. London, 1581. Early English Books Online. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.