John Lyly’s Endymion is a poetically rich but dramatically underwhelming play. Lyly loosely appropriates the Greek myth of Endymion, a man who falls in love with Selena, the goddess of the Moon. While Lyly retains one of the important motifs from the mythology, Endymion’s long slumber, he liberally deviates from the mythos itself. In Lyly’s play it is Endymion who professes his love for Cynthia (i.e. Selena). In addition, Endymion’s sleep is an act of revenge perpetrated by his scorned former lover, comically characterized at the beginning of the play as “a lady-in-waiting,” Tellus. By manipulating the mythology in this manner, Lyly comfortably situates Endymion within an aesthetic of flattery made fashionable during the Elizabethan period. Cynthia—allegorically a proxy for Elizabeth—retains an all-encompassing, transcendent power that eventually frees, rather than imprisons, Endymion.
Fidelity toward one’s beliefs, in stark contrast with the visceral and sexual emotions one feels, is an important theme explored throughout the play. By his own omission, Endymion feelings for Cynthia situate him in a distinctly counter-cultural way:
O fair Cynthia, why do others term thee unconstant whom I have ever found unmovable? Injurious time, corrupt manners, unkind men, who, finding a constancy not to be matched in my sweet mistress, have christened her with the name of wavering, waxing, and waning! (1.1.34-38).
This declaration wrinkles the reader’s understanding of why Endymion loves Cynthia. Endymion is not consumed by an unsophisticated, bestial lust. Rather, Endymion’s love is better characterized as allegiance or reverence epitomized by the courtly ethos Lyly wishes to recreate and subsequently celebrate. In fact, on multiple occasions Lyly constructs a sterile thematic environment throughout Endymion that rewards allegiance over sexual conquest. In 3.4 when Endymion’s friend and compatriot, Eumenides, has the opportunity to either secure his friend’s release from the spell that causes his sleep or increase his chances for sexual conquest, he elects—after a brief moment of vacillation—to assist his friend. Eumenides is persuaded by Geron’s assertion that friendship is:
Of all things the most rare, and therefore most rare because most excellent, whose comforts in misery is always sweet and whose counsels in prosperity are ever fortunate! Vain love, that only coming near to friendship in name, would seem to be the same, or better, in nature! (3.4.142-147)
Geron’s suggestion dismisses the power of romantic love as the primary means of stability even as this play ends with the traditional comedic motif: the marriage ceremony. Nevertheless, what one believes and what one feels are starkly different concepts with the former assuming precedent over the latter.
But unlike the inheritors of this dramatic tradition, Lyly is not necessarily interested in dynamic character development. Cynthia’s strength, resolve, and unrelenting power fit neatly within the play’s allegorical underpinnings (and sycophantic motivations), but this at times leaves the play stale and unsatisfying. Because Cynthia’s power is so formidable, the dramatic action in the play is anticlimactic. Endymion’s eventual release from the confines of his sleep is too predictable. To be fair, complex and rich character dynamics are not Lyly’s intentions. Even though I briefly attempt to sketch a critical reading of this play’s sexual politics in the previous paragraph, such readings may overvalue what this play offers. As the play comes to a close, Pythagoras (subtle, right?) asserts, “I had rather in Cynthia’s court spend ten years than in Greece one hour,” which Gyptes, the soothsayer, follows with, “And I choose rather to live by the sight of Cynthia than by the possessing of all Egypt” (5.4.294-297). As these two lines suggest, the politics of entertaining a queen supersede any truly progressive aesthetic agenda Lyly may have envisioned. Yet, Lyly’s ornate and uniquely eclectic language infuses every moment of the play. In addition, Lyly’s use of oppositions (e.g. sex versus friendship) creates subtlety and nuance. So even if Endymion lacks the character depth and narrative complexity eventually realized by later playwrights, it is a compelling study that informs the origins of the Elizabethan dramatic tradition.