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"I would faine serve": John LyIy's Career at Court Derek B. Alwes The most common assumption about John Lyly's court comedies has been that they embody an unproblematic celebration ofQueen Elizabeth and her rule.1 Recent critics, however, have probiematized such a reading by arguing that the apparent allusions to the queen are often remarkablyunflattering.2 Nevertheless, most interpretations ofthe 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 ofLyly'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 LyIy 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 LyIy with Diogenes in Campaspe and with Pandion in Sapho and Phao.0 The argument is that, since LyIy was himself a scholar, a philosopher, any depiction of scholars or philosophers can be read as autobiography. The allegorical impulse that leads to identifications ofthe queen with the monarchs and chaste goddesses in the plays leads also to identifications ofLyIywith specific characters , and LyIy is seen as trying to define the position of the "learned man"or the"artist"at court.4 The problemwith such readings, however, is precisely the same that arises from allegorical readings for allusions to the queen—they are unnecessarily limited and occasionally self contra399 400Comparative Drama dictory. I believe that LyIycreates multiplefictional 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 subde and understated), but I argue thattheydo so primarilybyadvertisingthemanypossibleways in which LyIywaswillingand ableto 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 LyIy 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 ofpatronage at the court: Thirteen years your Highness' servant, and yet nothing; twenty friends that though they say they will be sure, I find them sure to be slow; a thousand hopes, but all nothing; a hundred promises, but yet nothing. Thus casting up the inventory of my friends, hopes, promises and time the summa totalis amounteth in all to just nothing.6 The problem with attempting to assess or understand Lyly's career from the perspective ofhis late letters to the queen (especially the 1601 letter quoted above) is that the pecuniary urgency ofthe letters could lead to the conclusion that LyIy saw his literary career in terms of a purely commercial exchange, that he "attempted ... to make poetry a profession ," rather than as self-advertisement for alternative forms ofservice.7 It is true that in the 1601 letter he acknowledges that he is in debt and asks, if all else fails, to be granted "some lands, goods, fines or forfeitures " from among the properties confiscated from the Essex conspirators , but I believe it would be a mistake to interpret this as evidence that LyIy saw his career at court as that ofprofessional playwright. His humiliation at having to beg for direct monetary reward is revealed at the end ofthe letter when he ironically equates his appeal for "recompense" with "robbery." In the last years of his life LyIy was apparently in desperate financial straits, "his years fast growing on and his insupportable charge of many children all unbestowed, besides the debt wherein he standeth."8 In such circumstances, he was reduced to begging for any kind ofsup- Derek B. Alwes401 port, but the career he had envisioned for himselfwas not simply that of a "hired pen." Fulke Greville's observation about his friend Philip Sidney—"his end was not writing even when he wrote...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 399-421
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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