Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen

By Philippa Berry | Go to book overview

Chapter five

Chastity and the power of interior spaces: Lyly’s alternative view of Elizabethan courtiership

The debate articulated in the courtly pastimes, concerning the modes of courtiership appropriate to the servants of an unmarried queen, reveals that the discourse of Elizabethan courtliness was the site of a contest for sexual as well as political authority. But in a series of courtly comedies by John Lyly, written and performed during the decade of the 1580s, the grounds of this courtly conflict shifted. Lyly’s plays reaffirmed the thesis which was promoted in entertainment and tilt, that Elizabeth’s absolute power was founded in her unmarried situation. Yet the combination of his own aesthetic interests with the political and religious concerns of the Burghley faction (to which he was allied by ties of patronage) produced significant alterations in the original formulation of Elizabeth’s courtly cult.

Lyly’s version of Elizabethan courtiership was a mysticism of contemplation rather than of action; it was in these terms that he defined the roles of both female monarch and male courtier. And although this shift of emphasis (which paralleled but did not exactly resemble the formulation in Spenser’s April eclogue) can be related to the views of certain courtiers, these plays rejected the pastimes’ definition of the queen’s chastity. She was no longer represented as either miming or passively acquiescing in the heroic fantasies of the Leicester-Walsingham faction. Lyly explored the private rather than the public meaning of Elizabeth’s unmarried state, by relating it to a secluded and interior mode of courtliness. Like Spenser, he focused upon the space which the female monarch shared with other women, and from which the courtier who defined himself in terms of a phallic sexuality—as a wild man—was excluded. Thus in Endimion: or the Man in the Moone, the male courtly lover was called upon to imitate his queen, through a meditative withdrawal into the private, emotional and feminine sphere of experience symbolized by the moon—the planet which was now becoming the privileged emblem of her courtly cult. Yet while its superficial message is one of exaggerated courtly compliment, Lylyan drama is also marked by a distinct unease about the implications of this gynocentric definition of

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