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  • How To Make Love to the Moon:Intimacy and Erotic Distance in John Lyly’s Endymion
  • Gillian Knoll (bio)

In the opening scene of endymion, John Lyly’s protagonist confesses that he has fallen hopelessly in love with the moon, a “dotage” that his friend Eumenides considers “monstrous” (1.1.30).1 Endymion’s passionate desire for the moon is bizarre, to say the least. Indeed, it is “monstrous,” if we take Eumenides at his word: how exactly does one make love to a giant rock in the sky? Most scholars understandably do not take Endymion at his word; instead they construe his odd affection in three more palliative, if less charming, ways. The first variety of interpretation brings Cynthia down to earth by fastening onto her incarnation as Endymion’s queen. David Bevington favors this approach when he writes, “The Cynthia in Lyly’s play is certainly like the moon,” claiming that Endymion creates “an elaborate conceit comparing his mistress to the moon.”2 Most critics share Bevington’s view of Cynthia as more mistress than moon, although the second variety of interpretation specifies that the mistress is Elizabeth I. This, in turn, gives rise to allegorical readings—a regular feature of Lyly scholarship—according to which Endymion is Lyly’s own panegyric to his Queen.3 A fortunate by-product of both of these interpretive stances is that they circumvent the moon problem. [End Page 164]

In the end, we never do comprehend the precise nature of Endymion’s beloved. Endymion never makes Bevington’s comparison. Instead, he avers plainly that he “love[s] the moon,” praising Cynthia’s “settled course,” her “increasing and decreasing,” and her ability to “waxeth young again” (ll. 20–21, 40, 42, 59). She is sometimes called Cynthia in the opening scene, but at other times she is “the moon.” In the same breath, Endymion praises her as a “thing” and “my mistress” (l. 57). This proliferation of names, each with its own sense, suggests not only ambiguity but also multiplicity and abundance.4 It cues the presence of the moon (at times waxing, at times waning) in every utterance of Cynthia’s name, just as it signals the presence of a female body behind each reference to the moon’s celestial one. Still, it is telling that Endymion declares his desire to “possess the moon” (l. 18) some fifteen lines before Cynthia is properly named. If we follow Endymion’s lead, we are forced to grapple with the strange problem that plagues him throughout the play: how does a man make love to the moon?

The third and most popular way around this question is to interpret Endymion’s love as chaste reverence rather than passionate erotic longing.5 These readings often emerge from allegorical readings because such devotion to [End Page 165] Elizabeth is somewhat at odds with staging intense and all-consuming erotic desire.6 As Michael Pincombe notes, “For Lyly, the very creation of the panegyrical figure of Eliza tends to suppress the erotic drama that he was really more interested in and more committed to.”7 But if we loosen our attachment to allegory and take our cues from Endymion’s words, we find that he in no way suppresses the erotic drama. Loving the moon is the height of both eros and drama for Endymion, who specifically rejects the more tepid designations of “loyalty and reverence” and “honour” in favor of “love” and “pleasure” (5.4.165, 172–75). Of course, it is difficult to conceive of any pleasure one can take in the solitary and isolating experience of loving the moon. The erotics of such a fixation easily can be read as one-sided or masturbatory, but I will argue that Endymion finds fulfillment in what by the end of the play develops into a shared erotic relation with Cynthia.

To theorize the unique form of intimacy one can achieve with a majestic, vast, present-but-distant love object such as Cynthia, I turn to Gaston Bachelard’s writings on “the intimate relationship between small and large.”8 In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard describes “intimate immensity” as a special mode of daydreaming in which...


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