Gallathea by John Lyly


Gallathea is one of the first Renaissance plays to explore lesbianism. The play is set in a town that depends sacrificing the most beautiful virgin in order to escape retribution from Neptune. This acts as a metaphor for renaissance’s dependence on the sacrifice of virginity in marriage. Without this sacrifice, life would literally cease to exist. The protagonists Gallathea and Phyllida are two of the most beautiful virgins in this village, thus are in danger of being chosen as a sacrifice. Interestingly both girls are willing to sacrifice themselves for their well being of the citizens, but their fathers insist upon disguising them as boys. 

Gallathea and Phyllida spot one another wandering in the woods and decide to try to learn masculinity from the other.  They both begin to fall in love, though the girls both remain unsure whether the other is really a girl.  Phyllida says to herself, “I fear me he is as I am, a maiden.”  Interestingly, this lesbian relationship has neither woman usurping the masculine role.  In works such as Sidney’s The Old Arcadia there is one character that clearly takes on the male role.  In the case of Gallathea and Phyllida, the characters are literally indistinguishable.  Their lines mirror one another as much as their situations.

It is eventually revealed that both of the boys are in fact girls, yet their love for one another has not shifted in the slightest. The goddess Venus says she will transform one of the girls into a man so that there can be a marriage, yet the girls are so similar it seems a choice would be impossible. The play ends without either of the girls changing, with Venus saying she will make their marriage possible in the near future.

It is speculated that Lyly wrote the play as homage to Queen Elizabeth, who was supposedly the virgin queen because she did not marry. Yet the ending seems very complex. It is possible Lyly walked the line between praising marriage and virginity simultaneously.  As a result, he created a play that makes lesbian love seem autoerotic. 


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