Love’s Metamorphosis is a witty and courtly pastoral play by John Lyly. It is last play by him and possibly his shortest (1,150 lines) with the fewest characters (fifteen) in the fewest scenes (eleven). It seems like a deliberate signature piece by Lyly, bringing together all his interests and contributions to Elizabethan drama: a love comedy mixing gods and humans in parallel situations which is dense, choric, and transparent, memorably unfolding in pattern, structure and tone that give even its moral candour a haunting sense of beauty: It surely is one of the most unjustly neglected plays in English literature.
Play is set in Arcadia, and is about Ceres and three of her nymphs, Nisa, Celia, and Niobe; the three foresters or shepherds who love them, Ramis, Montanus, and Silvestris; and Cupid. Cupid punishes the nymphs for their disrespect of the shepherds, by transforming them into a rock, a rose, and a bird.
The subplot involves the rude and brutal peasant Erisichthon, who chops down a sacred tree and thereby takes the life of Fidelia, a transformed nymph. Ceres punishes him with famine, and he responds by selling his daughter Protea to a merchant. Protea escapes her servitude via a prayer to Neptune and a disguises as a fisherman; she returns home, and masquerades as the revenging ghost of Ulysses to rescue Petulius, her beloved, from a Siren.
Ceres appeals to Cupid to release her nymphs; Cupid agrees, if Ceres will pardon Erisichthon. (The faithful love of Protea for Petulius has earned her Cupid’s protection.) The nymphs are restored to their original forms once they agree to accept the three humans as husbands; the quadruple wedding is held at the house of Erisichthon.
Love’s Metamorphosis is different from most of Lyly’s plays in that it lacks the overtly comical and farcical elements that Lylian dramas normally possess. Strikingly, the play does not features witty pages which are standard for Lyly. As a result, some critics have speculated that the extant text is a revised version of a more typical Lyly original.