In Midas of a covetous wretch the image we may see
Whose riches justly too himself a hellish torment be,
And of a fool whom neither proof nor warning can amend,
Until1 he feels the shame and smart that folly does him send.
Midas is an Elizabethan era stage play by John Lyly. It is taken from two separate tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses XI– the Golden Touch and the Ass’s Ears. The play first portrays Midas’s mistaken choice of a private end, the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and as a means of financing lechery and aggression, and then suggests the difficulties this causes in the governing of his kingdom.
Bacchus, the god of wine, rewards the hospitality of Midas, king of Phrygia, by offering him anything he desires. The king’s three courtiers, Eristus(love), Martius(war and control), and Mellicrates (wealth) gives advice; Midas accepts the advice of Mellicrates and asks that everything he touches turn to gold.
(In the classic legend, Midas is motivated simply by greed; in Lyly’s play, Midas wants gold partly to finance his planned invasion of the island of Lesbos, a theme that runs throughout the play.)
Midas’s intelligence backfires and misfortunes with his golden touch follow; his clothes, food, wine, and even his beard all turn to gold. Midas eventually cures himself by taking the advice of Bacchus and bathing in the river Pactolus, which becomes gold-producing as a result.
In the second phase of the king’s adventures, Midas, hunting in a wood on Mount Tmolus, encounters Apollo and Pan, who are preparing to engage in a musical competition. Midas thursts himself into the role of judge, and decides in favor of Pan; Apollo responds by giving the king the ears of an ass. Midas conceals his affliction at first, but the news passes from nymphs to shepherds, and is eventually whispered by reeds to all over the world.
Midas’s sensible daughter Sophronia (a Lylian addition) appeals to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi for guidance. Midas goes to Delphi, admits his foolishness and expresses repentance; his auricular affliction is cured, and a newly humbled Midas renounces his plans for conquest, especially against the stalwart islanders of Lesbos.
The play has a more overtly comic subplot focused on Motto, Midas’s barber. Motto comes into possession of Midas’s golden beard after removing it from the king’s face; but the beard is stolen from him by the mischievous pages that are a standard feature of Lyly’s drama. Motto recovers the beard by curing a case of toothache (barbers doubled as dentists in Lyly’s era and for long before and after). But the pages exploit Motto’s role in spreading the news about the king’s ass-ears: they accuse him of treason, and demand and obtain the beard as the price of their silence.
Midas displays Lyly’s rare mastery of plot construction. Critics commonly assert that the play takes on more force as a guarded analogy between Midas and the aggressive Philip II of Spain whose Armada had only just been defeated by the English and the island of Lesbos that he longs to conquer is Elizabeth’s England.
In this play Lyly is not striving to impose a meaning, but invites a variety of interpretations. The plays signify ‘what you will’ and should be taken ‘as you like it’. The audience’s demands, however various, ‘will all be met’? Midas is arguably the most overtly and extensively allegorical of Lyly’s allegorical plays.