Contrary to the common ideology during the British Renaissance which encouraged women to be quiet, mild, modest and agreeable (as a reflection of their supposedly inherent inability to be as cerebral as men), Gallathea portrays women as intellectually and spiritually superior to men. Both of the daughters possess a spiritual wisdom that their fathers don’t have. The men throughout the play seem to be rather dumb and clueless, and the women are clearly smarter and more calculating. All of the proverbial strings are being pulled by the females in the play.
From scene one in the opening act, we see that Gallathea is not a soft-spoken, meek girl. She is confident and expresses the ability to think for herself when she questions her father about why he has dressed her like a boy. After he explains that it is because of his own fears that she will be taken by the God Neptune or devoured by the monster Agar, she wisely replies that such deception will not work, and tells him that his wishes are contrary to her own spiritual desires. “Destiny may be deferred, not prevented, and therefore it were better to offer myself in triumph than to be drawn to it with dishonor,” Gallathea says (9, Hoy). Despite being a young, teenage girl, she clearly has a more broad and wise understanding of spirituality and life than her father, whose “blind love corrupteth his fond judgment” (18, line 6-7).
Similarly, Phyllida has a more inherently sophisticated knowledge about human nature and the realities of life than her father does. Instead of outright disagreeing with him as Gallathea does with her father, Phyllida placates Melebeus by seeming more agreeable, but very logically explains to him that it’s illogical for him to think she could fool anyone into believing she’s a boy. “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” she explains (12, lines 18-20). Even after she abides by her father’s wishes, and has taken on the outward appearance of a boy, internally she does not waver in having her own set of beliefs and sense of pride and strength in being a woman. “For say what they will of a man’s wit, it is no second thing to be a woman” she says (19, lines 26-27).
The majority of the men in the play–both of the fathers (Tityrus and Melebeus), and the sons of a miller in particular–seem to be dim-witted in comparison to the women. Diana projects an aura of regal authority (and even instills fear in her entourage) throughout the play, and is said to represent Queen Elizabeth at the time. In “Cross-Dressing and John Lyly’s Gallathea,” Christopher Wixson notes that “Indeed, as Anne Lancashire makes clear, a degree of light criticism of Elizabeth exists in the representation of Diana in the play” (244). Lyly communicates the complex dichotomy between what was being suggested in the popular literature and guides on household conduct–which expressed the desire for women to be docile, subdued and sober–with the realities of living a society living under the rule of an authoritative and intriguing female figurehead.
- 1. Gallathea by John Lyly, Regents Renaissance Drama, edited by Cyrus Hoy.Lancashire.
- 2. Christopher Wixson, “Cross-Dressing and John Lyly’s Gallathea” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41:2 (2001), 241-256.