Wherein our heroines, on the verge of a death most gruesome and unjust,
instead find love, that most unexpected and unparalleled of elixirs;
and wherein the Gods, conservative yet compassionate,
replace old world rituals with new world reason;
and also wherein nymphs play foul and fair;
not to mention wherein surprises lurk behind every tree;
and in front of them, too; and sometimes even in the grass and the bushes.
Gallathea is an Elizabethan era stage play, a comedy by John Lyly. Gallathea is one of the first Renaissance plays to explore lesbianism. The play is set in a town that depends sacrificing the most beautiful virgin in order to escape retribution from Neptune. This acts as a metaphor for renaissance’s dependence on the sacrifice of virginity in marriage. Without this sacrifice, life would literally cease to exist. The protagonists Gallathea and Phyllida are two of the most beautiful virgins in this village, thus are in danger of being chosen as a sacrifice. Interestingly both girls are willing to sacrifice themselves for their well being of the citizens, but their fathers insist upon disguising them as boys.
A small village somewhere in Lincolnshire is forced by Neptune to sacrifice their most beautiful virgin to him every five years, or he will drown them all. The chosen virgin must be tied to a certain tree to await her fate at the hands of the Agar, a terrible monster. The fathers (Tyterus and Melebus) of the two most beautiful virgins of the village, Gallathea and Phillida, decide to disguise their daughters as boys until after the sacrifice. Both girls are then sent off into the woods.
Meanwhile, in an almost completely unrelated subplot, three brothers, Rafe, Robin, and Dick, set off to seek their fortune. At the same time, the god Cupid is wandering through the forest when he happens upon a nymph of Diana. After a rebuff of his amorous advances, he resolves to trick all of the nymphs into falling in love, despite their vows of chastity. Predictably, all three of the nymphs who appear fall in love with either Gallathea or Phillida, whom Diana has forced to assist in her hunt.
The rest of the plot revolves around the relationship between Gallathea and Phillida, who, each believing the other to be a boy, fall in love with each other. Cupid’s punishment, substitute sacrifices of inferior virgins, brotherly reunions, divine reconciliations, a surprise ending, and the triumph of true love ensue.
In this play both Gallathea and Phillida spot one another wandering in the woods and decide to try to learn masculinity from the other. They both begin to fall in love, though the girls both remain unsure whether the other is really a girl. Phyllida says to herself, “I fear me he is as I am, a maiden.” Interestingly, this lesbian relationship has neither woman usurping the masculine role. In works such as Sidney’s The Old Arcadia there is one character that clearly takes on the male role. In the case of Gallathea and Phyllida, the characters are literally indistinguishable. Their lines mirror one another as much as their situations.
It is eventually revealed that both of the boys are in fact girls, yet their love for one another has not shifted in the slightest. The goddess Venus says she will transform one of the girls into a man so that there can be a marriage, yet the girls are so similar it seems a choice would be impossible. The play ends without either of the girls changing, with Venus saying she will make their marriage possible in the near future.
The play has a third heroin, one named Hebe. Once Phyllida and Gallathea are hidden away, Hebe becomes the top candidate to be sacrificed. The problem? Apparently she is ugly as sin. Neptune, upon seeing her, states: “Take this virgin, whose want of beauty hath saved her own life”.
The play also demonstrates the predatory nature of heterosexual relationship. As Laurie Shannon notes in her essay ‘Nature’s Bias: Renaissance Homonormativity and Elizabethan Comic Likeness’, there are three examples: the monster Agar who terrorizes women, Phyllida’s father who is accused of having displayed and “affection I feare me more than fatherly” and the alchemist who, it is suggested, has an inappropriate sexual encounter with a ‘wench’ whom he ‘plyed’. The men in the play seem to be predators for the most part. There are two side stories, one of an alchemist who hopes to recruit a new apprentice and one of Cupid who quarrels with Diana and her nymphs. Diana places Cupid in servitude for his offences but releases him once Neptune has promised to protect all virgins. The alchemist seems to suggest the malleability of forms, which could be applied to the gender-bending roles that the play orbits around, but the alchemist isn’t successful in what he does so it seems that that is not a potential reading, while the narrative about Cupid and Diana seems to merely serve as a means to the ‘happy’ ending.
Lyly doesn’t simply portray socially ascribed masculine traits as positive and performable by women, but he also, via Phyllida, suggests the socially prescribed feminine traits are equally worthy of praise. Phyllida uplifts what she sees as ‘feminine’ virtue over ‘masculine’ traits, opposing her father’s wish that she dress the part of a boy because she does not want to “be thought.. wanton” , identifying wantonness as an inferior ‘masculine’ trait.
Gallathea and Phyllida seem to serve complementary roles: Gallathea demonstrates that positive attributes that are considered ‘masculine’ can be present in women, whilst Phyllida seems to suggest that there are inferior traits that are inherently ‘masculine’ which are not present in women. In both instances there is a suggestion that women can be not only equal to, but superior to men, as Gallathea adopts a stance that is more heroic than her father, whilst Phyllida suggests feminine virtue is superior to masculine behaviour.
Lyly seems to inspire from Shakespearean style when the two girls fall in love with each other, thinking the other to be a boy, just as Shakespeare has Olivia fall in love with Viola whilst Viola is disguised as a boy in Twelfth Night and just as Phebe, a shepherdess in As You Like It falls in love with Rosalind, who also is disguised as a boy. In each instance women subconsciously fall in love with the female form, preferring it to the male form. It is important to note that during this era all actors on the stage where men, so there is a potential reading that could make such points moot as it is actually the male form on the stage and not the female form, but it is also important to consider the language used in such instances.
It is speculated that Lyly wrote the play as homage to Queen Elizabeth, who was supposedly the virgin queen because she did not marry. Yet the ending seems very complex. It is possible Lyly walked the line between praising marriage and virginity simultaneously. As a result, he created a play that makes lesbian love seem autoerotic.