Sapho and Phao is the first allegorical play written by John Lyly. This play is written after Campaspe. It mostly consists of flattery and love or courtship counselling. It is likely the first play by Lyly devoted to the allegorical idealisation of Queen Elizabeth I that became the predominating feature of Lyly’s dramatic style.
The play is set in Syracuse and the surrounding countryside. Venus,the Goddess of Love, on her way to Syracuse to humble the pride of Queen Sapho. The main plot concentrates around Venus, and her plotting against Sapho, the Queen of Sicily. Sapho is virtuous and refuses love and courtship, so Venus, who is jealous of Sapho‟s beauty and virtues, changes a mere ferryman, Phao, into the fairest man among all, assuming that Sapho will not be able to resist the temptation and will fall in love with him. And thus when Sapho and Phao meet, they fall in love with each other.


Phao then seeks advice from Sybilla, on old wise woman living in a cave. She tells him to flatter his queen and woo her with gifts. In the meantime, Sapho has fallen ill from her passion and cannot fall asleep. She commands her lady in waiting, Mileta, to go and find Phao, because he is well acquainted with healing effects of various herbs and could thus help her to find a remedy for her sleeplessness–this being apparently an excuse for seeing Phao, because for a lover the best remedy is to set eyes on her or his beloved. When the two lovers meet, they indirectly talk about their affections and possibly understand each other’s uneasiness concerning their social rank.


When leaving, Phao meets Venus, who as a goddess of love, but mainly of passion, cannot resist Phao’s beauty and thus falls in her own trap. She decides to have Phao for herself and plots against his love for Sapho. The goddess plans to use her son, Cupid, to make Sapho despise Phao and change the object of Phao’s affections to herself. But Sapho, being the virtuous queen, wins over Cupid and he decides to become the son of the queen instead of the goddess.


The result of Venus’s plotting is in the end very disappointing to her: Sapho is relieved from her affections towards Phao but he is still in love with Sapho and even despises Venus. At the end, Phao desperately leaves the country saying:
Lyly dramatised the ancient Greek tale of the romance of Sapho and Phao, or Phaon; he was influenced in particular by Ovid‘s version of the story, supplemented by the work of Aelian. Lyly morphs the story: his Sapho is based (loosely) on the courtesan and has nothing to do with the poet. Yet Lyly takes the bare bones on the old tale and adapts it into something quite different: his Sapho is a powerful queen of Sicily — who is not implausible as a representation of another powerful queen of another island.

One comical subplot is created within the play around the characters of three servants:Calypho, Vulcan‟s servant; Criticus, a servant of Trachinus, a courtier; and Molus, a servant to Pandion, a scholar who has recently come to Sapho’s court from a university. Another subplot concerns six ladies in waiting and could be perceived as satirical because it seems very believable that the ladies used to spent their time in such idleness as it is described in this play, merely gossiping or interpreting their dreams.

Elizabeth-Alençon allegory:

Sapho and Phao is a play constructed mainly to flatter the Queen after the cancelled wedding negotiations with the heir of the French throne, Duke d‟Alençon, in 1582. It is generally accepted by the theorists that Sapho and Phao is associated with the period of Duke d’Alençon’s wooing of the Queen Elizabeth I. The end of the play seems to be composed exactly in accordance with the real events. The queen changes in her affections after Cupid’s intervention and Phao, still deeply in love with Sapho, says that he will always be loyal to the queen, wishes her nothing but happiness and then leaves Sicily for ever. Sapho’s last words in the play are:

“I will wish him fortunate. This wil I do for Phao, because I once loved Phao: for never shall it be said that Sapho loved to hate, or that out of love she coulde not be as courteous, as she was in love passionate”




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