The Interplay of Genders in Lyly's Galatea

Spring 2013
Elizabeth Perry

Elizabeth Perry is a senior English major at Vassar College. Her interests include literary criticism, theory, and composition, on such subjects as American and British modernism, Victorian literature, Shakespeare, poetry, and prose. After Vassar, she plans to continue pursuing writing, through criticism, arts writing, and her own creative endeavors in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

Taking into account the strict codes of both play-making and gender that abounded in Renaissance England, it may be surprising to consider how much cross-dressing and gender bending occurred in the theater. In John Lyly’s late sixteenth-century play, Galatea, we see two women, played by boy actors, disguise themselves as men and fall in love. Given Galatea’s plot, it is unsurprising that the gender issues of the period pervade it. As critic Stephen Orgel suggests in his essay, “The Performance of Desire,” one of the most significant gender issues of the period involved the tension between gender as an exterior phenomenon and gender as an interior phenomenon.[1] This tension is certainly at play in Galatea in the way Phillida and Galatea struggle while disguised as men. Amidst this struggle, we witness the blurring of gender distinctions as both women perform maleness and femaleness in different ways, and ultimately enact a simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual relationship. The blurring of gender boundaries within and between Phillida and Galatea, therefore, suggests, as Orgel does, that gender in Renaissance England was not fixed, but rather fluid and ambiguous, and that Galatea is a good example of this fluidity of gender.

As Orgel suggests in “The Performance of Desire,” much of the attention that Renaissance England devoted to gender emphasized it as an exterior phenomenon. Orgel points out that in Elizabethan England “children of both sexes were dressed in skirts until the age of seven or so,” after which boys became “breeched”; they transitioned out of skirts and into breeches, thus marking their “formal move out of the common gender of childhood,” which was largely female, “and into the world of men” (15). The Elizabethan custom of “breeching” boys, in other words, suggests that maleness is somehow contingent on outward appearance, specifically clothing. The common biological understanding of gender in Renaissance England also frames maleness as a matter of exteriority.[2] As Orgel explains, “the most persistent line of medical and anatomical thought,” in regards to the biology of gender, “cited homologies in the genital structure of the sexes to show that male and female were versions of the same unitary species,” and claimed that “the female genitals were simply the male genitals inverted, and carried internally rather than externally” (20). In other words, the crucial anatomical difference that distinguishes maleness from femaleness is the exterior presence of the genitals: maleness versus femaleness becomes, quite literally, a matter of exteriority versus interiority. Even the emphasis on behavior and gender in this period highlights gender as an exterior phenomenon, since Renaissance England largely considered “manhood” as “a quality to be striven for and maintained only through constant vigilance,” rather than as “a natural condition” (Orgel 19). The similar emphasis in cultural traditions, anatomical theory, and behavior in regards to gender, therefore, indicates that Renaissance England at least partially understood gender as an exterior phenomenon.

There was also, however, a strong inclination for English Renaissance thinkers to believe that gender was an internal phenomenon. To consider gender as largely exterior introduces the possibility that gender is changeable—the possibility, for example, that women can “complet[e] the physiological process [of development] and [turn] into men under the pressure of some great exertion or excitement” that forces their genitals outside of their bodies (Orgel 20). While many Renaissance thinkers accepted the reality of such transformations as a necessary consequence of the homology theory, others felt quite uncomfortable with them, especially because they introduced the possibility of a much more terrifying transformation, as Orgel explains: that of men into women. The gender theory that combats this conclusion stems from Platonic and Puritanical beliefs that emphasize gender as a matter of God-given essence (Orgel 26). According to this view, regardless of the exterior aspects of gender, there is something essential and internal about maleness versus femaleness, to which end the exterior manipulation of gender distinctions is a kind of sin. The understanding of gender as interior, as a matter of essence, provided a tense contrast against Renaissance England’s understanding of gender as a matter of exterior appearance.

We see the tension between exterior and interior understandings of gender play out in Galatea through the two women’s struggles while cross-dressing. When Phillida and Galatea dress ‘in the habit’ of men, they cannot help but express their discomfort. For example, when Phillida’s father proposes she dress as a man to avoid being a sacrifice to Neptune, she says “it will neither become my body nor my mind…for then I must keep company with boys and commit follies unseemly for my sex, or keep company with girls and be thought more wanton than becometh me” (1.4.16-21). In this passage, Phillida draws a distinction between the male clothing her father has suggested she wear and her own female person, comprised of body and mind, and claims that when the two are confused, she will neither fit in male nor female spheres: in the “company [of] boys” she will fit in externally but not internally and in the “company [of] girls” she will fit in internally but not externally. Galatea expresses a similar sentiment when she first appears disguised as a man: “Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit, nor thy sex bear it. Oh, would the gods had made me as I seem to be, or that I might safely be what I seem not!” (2.1.3-6). In this remark, Galatea distinguishes between what she “seems” to be, male, and what she “seems not” to be, female, and expresses a wish that the gods could make her fully one or the other. She finds it a miserable pity, in other words, that her gender and her outward appearance cannot be in accordance with each other: “Miserable Galatea, that, having put on the apparel of a boy, thou canst not also put on the mind” (2.4.146-148). In their struggles, Phillida and Galatea embody the tension between the exteriority and interiority of gender in the period.

Amidst the girls’ struggles, we see both Phillida and Galatea perform both male and female aspects          of gender; for example, the two women perform femaleness by embodying a crucial aspect of feminine virtue: chastity. In Renaissance England, a woman’s—specifically an unmarried woman’s—virtue, honor, and reputation depended on her chastity.[3] Galatea expresses the value of chastity through its representation of Diana—the goddess of chastity—and her nymphs; when the nymphs fall in love, Diana considers it a “great[] dishonor” to her and she chastises them for corrupting their virtue with “love’s desire”: “the birds ibes lose their sweetness when they lose their sights, and virgins all their virtues with their unchaste thoughts” (3.4.21, 52, 39-41).[4] Both Phillida and Galatea embody the notion of feminine virtue as chastity that prevailed in Renaissance England. The very danger that both women face is a result of their chastity, since Neptune seeks the sacrifice of the fairest virgin, and they constantly conceptualize themselves in reference to their own virginity: “Why did nature to him, a boy, give a face so fair, or to me, a virgin, a fortune so hard?”, “Suppose I were a virgin…” (2.4.8-10; 3.2.19). Phillida and Galatea’s chastity, in other words, is one way in which they successfully perform femaleness.

Phillida and Galatea also express feminine virtue when their fathers first confront them with their plans: Phillida in her obedience to her father and Galatea in the way she resists transgression. When Phillida’s father suggests that she dress up like a man to avoid being sacrificed to Neptune, she wonders how she will be disguised and claims that it will not “become” her, but first relinquishes all authority to her father: “Whatsoever you command I will not refuse” (1.4.12). Phillida, in other words, represents the typical “dutiful” daughter in this scene, obeying the power of her patriarch (1.4.11). When Galatea’s father proposes that she dress up as a man to avoid a similar fate, Galatea is not as obedient, but she does represent feminine virtue by resisting transgression. In response to her father’s plan, she says she would rather die an honorable death than live by infamous means: “it were better to offer myself in triumph than to be drawn to it with dishonour…Virtues I mean to carry to my grave”; she considers the deceit “hateful” and only reluctantly agrees to take part (1.1.78-79, 85-86, 96). Phillida and Galatea’s performance of femaleness, therefore, extends from chastity into other feminine virtues, namely obedience and honor.

While the two women express femaleness, they also perform maleness at various moments by echoing certain male virtues in the play; for example, Phillida performs maleness through her boldness. When Phillida first encounters Galatea dressed as a man and begins to learn from ‘him’ how to behave like a boy, she says to herself, “Why stand I still? Boys should be bold” (2.1.34). Since English Renaissance society relied on patriarchy, men dominated women and took on the responsibility of being active versus passive, and Phillida expresses this prevailing understanding in her claim. Moreover, she—perhaps more successfully than Galatea—enacts this boldness. For example, she shows a weaker resistance to transgression than Galatea exemplifies; while fretting over her love for Galatea, a seeming-boy, she says to herself, “Go into the woods, watch the good times, his best moods, and transgress in love a little of thy modesty” (2.5.6-8). In this comment, Phillida shows she is willing to sacrifice a little of her modesty in favor of more boldly engaging with her love interest, and, even though in subsequent lines she continues to be conflicted over whether or not she should take this risk, she knows that she does not want to be passive: “Ah, Phillida, do something—nay, anything, rather than live like this” (2.5.11-12). Phillida, therefore, embodies maleness through her boldness.

Galatea also performs maleness, in her case through her deep sense of duty and self-sacrifice. When Augur, the village representative and a strongly male figure in the play, calls upon the villagers to volunteer their most beautiful virgin for sacrifice, he emphasizes the villagers’ obligation to cooperate as part of their duty to their country and says to the village parents, “If you think it against nature to sacrifice your children, think it also against sense to destroy your country” (4.1.4-6). Phillida and Galatea’s fathers, other ostensibly male figures, echo this sentiment, albeit disingenuously: “It is a thing holy to preserve one’s country, and honourable to the cause,” “I hope you are not so careful of a child that you will be careless of your country” (4.1.24-25, 28-29). Even Neptune himself, the ultimate figure of male power in the play, repeats this emphasis on one’s duty to his country when he says, “so overcareful are fathers to their children that they forget the safety of their country, and, fearing to become unnatural, become unreasonable” (4.3.3-6). This understanding of duty suggests it is more honorable—and even necessary—to sacrifice oneself rather than one’s country. Galatea, even though she is a woman, adopts this aspect of male ideology. Not only does she resist transgression in initially opposing her father’s plan, but she also prefers self-sacrifice: “Nature hath given me beauty, virtue courage; nature must yield me death, virtue honor. Suffer me therefore to die, for which I was born, or let me curse that I was born, sith I may not die for it” (1.1.87-91). Whereas Hebe, a decidedly female figure, resigns to her alleged fate as the sacrifice to Neptune because “destiny alloweth no dispute,” Galatea is willing to embrace her fate and sacrifice herself as a consequence of her male sense of duty (5.2.25-26).

While both Phillida and Galatea perform aspects of femaleness and maleness they create a simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual dynamic between them. On the most basic level, Phillida and Galatea are two women who fall in love, which suggests a homosexual relationship: even in their disguises they enact a homosexual relationship since they both seem to be men. The two characters’ interactions, however, suggest there is also a heterosexual dimension to their relationship. When Phillida and Galatea engage in their strange form of ‘courtship,’ Phillida takes on the male role through her boldness and Galatea the female role in her virtue. For example, in their first courtship scene, Phillida begins by saying, “it is a pity nature framed you not a woman, having a face so fair, so lovely a countenance, so modest a behavior” (3.2.1-3). Phillida is bold in her initiation of the conversation here but also in the forwardness of her complimentary remarks. Galatea, in turn, responds in a typically female way—evasive and coy in order to protect her virtue: “There is a tree in Tylos, whose nuts have shells like fire, and being cracked, the kernel is but water” (3.2.4-5). Galatea is also femininely flirtatious in this comment; she suggests a double meaning by self-deprecatingly relating herself to the nut—all outward appearance with no substance—but also playfully implicating that Phillida is the nut—all outward appearance with no substance. Phillida’s responses are, again, masculine, as she draws attention to Galatea’s coyness and repeats her original claim: “What a toy is it to tell me of that tree, being nothing to the purpose? I say it is pity you are not a woman” (3.2.7). A strikingly similar exchange goes on in the two lovers’ second courtship scene:

Phillida: I pray thee, sweet boy, flatter not me. Speak truth of thyself, for in mine

   eye of all the world thou are fairest.

Galatea: These be fair words, but far from thy true thoughts. I know mine own

    face in a true glass, and desire not to see it in a flattering mouth. (4.4.6-10)

This scene is also initiated by Phillida, and in it we again see the heterosexual flirtation they create, in which Galatea, the virtuous, self-deprecating female, reacts to Phillida, the bold and complimentary male. What is more, in other instances the two lovers conceptually create a heterosexual relationship between them by imagining themselves in one; first Phillida imagines herself “a virgin…utter[ing] affections” to Galatea, the male, and then Phillida imagines Galatea as the woman: “let me call thee mistress” (3.2.19, 21; 4.4.18). Phillida not only takes on the male role by orchestrating these fantasies, but also, significantly, creates heterosexual fantasies. In other words, Phillida becomes the more “successful” male in the play by more successfully enacting masculine boldness, and Galatea becomes the female by more completely enacting feminine virtue. The play ends, moreover, with the claim that one of the women—we can only assume it is Phillida—will become a man so that their love can be fulfilled, creating a literal heterosexual relationship between them. Within Phillida and Galatea’s complicated performance of gender, therefore, they create a simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual dynamic.

The fact that both women perform contrasting aspects of gender and create a simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual relationship indicates the extent to which Galatea expresses the fluidity of gender. On one level, Phillida and Galatea are literally two women dressed as two men who express homosexual love for each other; we see this play out in the ways in which they both perform femaleness and maleness. Their relationship, however, has a distinctly heterosexual dynamic, given the ways they interact and the extent to which they fulfill male and female roles, respectively. Orgel, therefore, seems right to raise the question of just how different men and women were in Renaissance culture and to claim that “the distinctions of gender [in the period] are fluid and unclear” (13). We may be inclined to think that our late modern perspective on gender is broader, more inclusive, and more subject to change than the early modern perspective and its attempt to fix gender, but that very attempt—and the period’s strict regulations on gender in theater and in life—could have been a reaction to the very lack of fixity that gender had then and still has now. In other words, the questions the play raises for us today—questions of what constitutes maleness and femaleness and of what exactly it is that Phillida and Galatea fall in love with—may stem from tensions embedded within the text itself and in the time period that gave rise to it.



[1]  This issue of the exteriority and interiority of gender is not necessarily reminiscent of the explicit way Orgel frames his argument, but it is the angle from which I would like to focus on his discussion.

[2]  In defining maleness, Renaissance England also intended to define femaleness, since “women [were] defined in this culture by their relation to men” (Orgel 13). For the purposes of reconstructing the English Renaissance understanding of gender as exterior, therefore, I will stick to maleness for now, but I will delve more deeply into the English Renaissance conception of femaleness—in terms of feminine virtue—further on.

[3]  In the case of a married woman, the emphasis on chastity would more likely shift onto fidelity (versus promiscuity and adultery), but since the play focuses on virgins, we will stay within that realm.

[4]  The play, of course, represents a complicated view of chastity, specifically in regards to love, and questions whether chastity is really more of a punishment than a virtue and love more a kind of divinity than a corruption. However, for the purposes of presenting Phillida and Galatea’s feminine virtue, we will stick to the prevailing notion of feminine virtue in the form of chastity.

Works Cited

Lyly, John. Galatea and Midas. Ed. George K. Hunter and David Bevington. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2008. Print.

Orgel, Stephen. “The Performance of Desire.” Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 10-30. Print.