Most Interpretations of the Plays

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The most common assumption about John Lyly’s court comedies has been that they embody an unproblematic celebration of Queen Elizabeth and her rule. (1) Recent critics, however, have problematized such a reading by arguing that the apparent allusions to the queen are often remarkably unflattering. (2) Nevertheless, most interpretations of the plays still rely largely on identifying (or as the Elizabethans would say, “deciphering”) references to the queen, whether positive or negative, as the basis for an understanding of Lyly’s “meaning.” I would like to shift the focus somewhat by looking at the ways Lyly’s plays reflect upon his own career at court: the ways Lyly uses his plays to represent himself and his relationship to Elizabeth and her court.

There are precedents for this approach as well, beginning in 1891 with F.G. Fleay’s identification of Lyly with Diogenes in Campaspe and with Pandion in Sapho and Phao. (3) The argument is that, since Lyly was himself a scholar, a philosopher, any depiction of scholars or philosophers can be read as autobiography. The allegorical impulse that leads to identifications of the queen with the monarchs and chaste goddesses in the plays leads also to identifications of Lyly with specific characters, and Lyly is seen as trying to define the position of the “learned man” or the “artist” at court. (4) The problem with such readings, however, is precisely the same that arises from allegorical readings for allusions to the queen–they are unnecessarily limited and occasionally self contradictory. I believe that Lyly creates multiple fictional self-portraits throughout his plays–as philosopher, as artist, and as courtier but I believe that the most significant and most purposeful self-portrait is as servant. Lyly’s plays do flatter Queen Elizabeth by celebrating her rule (though that celebration is often remarkably subtle and understated), but I argue that they do so primarily by advertising the many possible ways in which Lyly was willing and able to serve his queen–as panegyrist, advisor, courtier, censor, or Master of the Revels.

Those who have attempted to assess Lyly’s courtly trajectory as a career tend to approach it from its end–with the justifiably famous “begging letters” in which Lyly complains about the queen’s failure to reward his loyal service. (5) These are extraordinary documents, revealing both Lyly’s frustration and the complex maneuverings involved in the pursuit of patronage at the court:

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