Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Endimion by John Lyly.

First page of Lyly'sEndimion (1858 edition).
Endimion (also spelled Endymion) is a play by John Lyly, first published in 1591 and first performed a few years earlier in 1588. It was performed at Greenwich Palace in front of Queen Elizabeth I by the Children of Paul's, a group of boy actors who would also often perform female roles in Medieval and Renaissance plays (actresses were then very few and far between). 

Endimion, subtitled The Man in the Moone draws upon the Greek myth of Endymion who was in love with Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon: the only other time I've come across this myth is in the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, in which Selene remarks,
"Not I alone then stray to the Latinian cave, nor do I alone burn with love for fair Endymion; oft times with thoughts of love have I been driven away by thy crafty spells, in order that in the darkness of night thou mightest work thy sorcery at ease, even the deeds dear to thee. And now thou thyself too hast part in a like mad passion; and some god of affection has given thee Jason to be thy grievous woe. Well, go on, and steel thy heart, wise though thou be, to take up thy burden of pain, fraught with many sighs."
Lyly's play begins with Endimion confessing his love for Cynthia (an alternative name for Selene) to his friend Eumenides (not to be confused with Aeschylus' The Eumenides):
O fair Cynthia, why do others term thee unconstant whom I have ever found unmovable? Injurious time, corrupt manners, unkind men, who, finding a constancy not to be matched in my sweet mistress, have christened her with the name of wavering, waxing, and waning! Is she inconstant that keepeth a settled course, which since her first creation altereth not one minute in her moving? There is nothing thought more admirable or commendable in the sea than the ebbing and flowing; and shall the moon, from whom the sea taketh this virtue, be accounted fickle for increasing and decreasing? Flowers in their buds are nothing worth till they be blown, nor blossoms accounted till they be ripe fruit; and shall we then say they be changeable for that they grow from seeds to leaves, from leaves to buds, from buds to their perfection? Then why be not twigs that become trees, children that become men, and mornings that grow to evenings termed wavering, for that they continue not at one stay? Ay, but Cynthia, being in her fullness, decayeth, as not delighting in her greatest beauty, or withering when she should be most honored. When malice cannot object anything, folly will, making that a vice which is the greatest virtue. What thing (my mistress excepted) being in the pride of her beauty and latter minute of her age, that waxeth young again? Tell me, Eumenides, what is he that, having a mistress of ripe years and infinite virtues, great honours and unspeakable beauty; but would wish that she might grow tender again, getting youth by years and never-decaying beauty by time, whose fair face neither the summer's blaze can scorch nor winter's blast chap, nor the numbering of years breed altering of colors? Such is my sweet Cynthia, whom time cannot touch because she is divine nor will offend because she is delicate. O Cynthia, if thou shouldst always continue at thy fullness, both gods and men would conspire to ravish thee. But thou, to abate the pride of our affections, dost detract from thy perfections, thinking it sufficient if once in a month we enjoy a glimpse of thy majesty; and then, to increase our griefs, thou dost decrease thy gleams, coming out of thy royal robes, wherewith thou dazzlest our eyes down into thy swath clouts, beguiling our eyes.
Eumenides believes him to be bewitched, but Endimion is unpersuaded, and to persuade everyone that he is not mad he falsely professes love for Tellus, the earth goddess with whom he was once in love. Tellus consults her friend Floscula, and plots to use magic to make him fall back in love with her, but Floscula warns against this course of action, and Dipsas, an sorceress, tells her she is unable make Endimion fall back in love with her:
I am not able to rule hearts; for, were it in my power to place affection by appointment, I would make such evil appetites, such inordinate lusts, such cursed desires as all the world should be filled both with superstitious heats and extreme love.
And so instead Dipsas puts him into an enchanted sleep:
Thou shalt sleep out thy youth and flowering time and become dry hay before thou knowest thyself green grass, and ready by age to step into the grave when thou wakest, that was youthful in the court when thou laidst thee down to sleep. The malice of Tellus hath brought this to pass, which if she could not have entreated of me by fair means, she would have commanded by menacing; for from her gather we all our simples to maintain our sorceries. [To Bagoa, her servant] Fan with this hemlock over his face and sing the enchantment for sleep, whilst I go and finish those ceremonies that are required in our art. Take heed ye touch not his face, for the fan is so seasoned that whoso it toucheth with a leaf shall presently die. and over whom the wind of it breatheth, he shall sleep forever.
Cynthia discovers what has happened to Endimion and she sends Eumenides in search of a cure, and imprisons Tellus. Eumenides, meanwhile, falls in love with Semele, one of the ladies of Cynthia's court. Whilst searching for the cure he comes across a magical fountain where he is told "for whoso can clearly see the bottom of this fountain shall have remedy for anything." He is torn: does he seek the answer on how win Semele's affections, or does he find out how to awaken Endimion?

I loved reading Endimion. As ever, I didn't find it an easy read (still I struggle with Renaissance works) but this is so beautiful and elegant, as magical and sweet as A Midsummer Night's Dream, my favourite Shakespearean comedy. It's hugely flattering to Queen Elizabeth, of course: the play is possible allegorical with Cynthia as Elizabeth, Endimion perhaps Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and Tellus a Mary, Queen of Scots figure. That is uncertain: it's said this would be quite a risk for Lyly to take. Whatever the case, it's a lovely play and I'm eager to read more of John Lyly, particularly Euphues: The Anatomy of Wyt, which I've read is his most famous work.


  1. I haven't thought about this one in years! Probably not since my Master's studies, when I wrote a paper/presented on the University Wits. Loved this post... I need to get back to reading some of these more obscure & less appreciated writers, although I've been trying to focus more on women and minorities lately.

    1. I do love reading Shakespeare's contemporaries. Looking forward to more Lyly, got a couple I must get to... Meanwhile I'm trying to read more world lit instead of my usual England / France lit. I say "France", it's usually only Zola!


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