Endymion was fourth in the series of specially crafted comedies written by John Lyly for performance at court. It belongs by its content to the allegories and Courtly flatteries but in comparison with Sapho and Phao, for example,its plot is more elaborate, showing thus a kind of development in Lyly‟s style. The play provides a vivid example of the cult of flattery in the royal court of Queen Elizabeth I, and has been called “without doubt, the boldest in conception and the most beautiful in execution of all Lyly’s plays.
The main plot of this play is related to the title character of Endymion who devotedly admires the goddess of the Moon, Cynthia, but simultaneously pretends to be in love with Tellus. The opening scene presents a conversation between Endymion and his friend Eumenides, in which Endymion confesses that he has fallen in love with the Moon goddess. Eumenides chides Endymion, reminding him of the Moon’s inconstancy, whereupon Endymion extols inconstancy and change as virtues, attributes of everything beautiful. Convinced that Endymion is bewitched, Eumenides prescribes sleep and rest for the lovesick swain, but Endymion rejects the advice and berates his friend.When Tellus realizes this shift in his affections, she feels betrayed and, as a result, she plots with the witch, Dipsas, to charm Endymion into a deep sleep. As a result, he falls asleep on the lunary bank and cannot be awakened or moved for forty years. Cynthia , who was formerly indifferent or even resentful towards Endymion, now begins to relent and sends her courtiers–among them Eumenides, Endymion’s faithful friend–to find a remedy for Endymion.In the meantime, Tellus, who speaks inappropriately about Endymion in Cynthia’s presence, is sent to be imprisoned in a castle under Corsites, the captain, who later falls in love with her. After several years of his journey, Eumenides meets Geron, an old man, who lives at a magic fountain that can answer any question, but only one, to a true and faithful lover. Thus Eumenides has to decide whether to ask about his love, Semele, who acts very coldly towards him, or about his friend Endymion. His loyalty is so strong that friendship wins over love and, as a result, he learns that Endymion can be awakened by a kiss from Cynthia.On his way home, Eumenides is accompanied by Geron who turns out to be a husband of Dipsas. Meanwhile, Tellus sends Corsites to move Endymion from the bank to a cave, which is an impossible deed, and Corsites is punished by being pinched by fairies that live on the bank. Cynthia and her courtiers happen to be visiting the spot at the same time and laugh at him.However, the sorcerers who have come on Cynthia‟s command from Egypt and Greece are not able to break the spell and awaken Endymion. When Eumenides, who is supposed to be dead, finally returns to the court, Cynthia agrees to kiss Endymion and the remedy turns out to be successful. Endymion wakes up as an old man but eventually his youth is restored by Cynthia who, being the Moon Godess,governs everything. All the couplesare happily united at the end of the play–
- Eumenides will have his Semele
- Tellus agrees to be married to Corsites
- Geron is after fifty years of exile reunited with Dipsas
- Sir Tophas, who is a boaster serving in the play as an object of laughter and mischief of the pages, will have Bagoa, Dipsas’s maid.Only Endymion is left with no wife but still admiring his queen and goddess from a respectful distance.
According to the scholars several types of allegory –a physical allegory, and a allegory of love and a Court allegory.
Light on plot, characterization, and dramatic incident, but verbally rich, the play has more to offer a patient reader than a fan of drama. In the view of one commentator, Endymion, “with its radiating central image, its mathematical elaboration, its receding depths, its near motionless and queer timelessness,” is “more a contemplation than a comedy.” Endymion could be enjoyed for the story itself, excluding the allegory which might not be easily understood by every reader. However, the extent of the implied allegory suggests, that the play would not be as enjoyable as it was for the audience that could understand it.
It is generally agreed that Endymion is the one of Lyly’s plays that had the strongest influence on Shakespeare, most obviously on Love’s Labor’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.