Tamburlaine's Malady: And Other Essays on Astrology in Elizabethan Drama

By Johnstone Parr | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FOUR
ASTROLOGY MOTIVATES A COMEDY

THE COURTLY CIRCLE of Elizabethan theatre-goers probably took exceptional notice when John Lyly personified the seven planets and employed them as the modus operandi of his comedy The Woman in the Moone.1 For this was indeed a novel idea. Not since Robert Henryson's pictorial representations of the seven planets sitting in judgment on the fate of Cresseid in The Testament of Cresseid (ca. 1460?) had anyone given in a piece of literature so large a role to the planets. In using them to motivate the entire plot of his play, Lyly's employment of them was unique and no doubt entertaining.

In Lyly's play the shepherds of Utopia petition Nature to create for them a woman comrade, and Nature endows her creation, Pandora, with all the excellencies of the gods and goddesses in heaven. The seven planets, however, are envious because they have not been consulted in Pandora's creation, and accordingly determine to work her ruin. Each of the planets in turn attempts to bring about Pandora's undoing by subjecting her to its particular influence. Thereupon all of Pandora's actions and relations with the shepherds, caused by these planetary influences, form the simple plot of Lyly's play.

Naturally it is for dramatic purposes that Lyly personifies the planets. But all of the Mediaeval and Renaissance astrologers likewise write of the planets as animate beings; the texts of Albumasar, John Sadeler, and others contain dozens of woodcuts illustrating the persons of Sol, Saturn, Luna, et al. riding across the heavens in chariots.2 They did

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1
The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. W. Bond ( Oxford, 1902), vol. III. I cite throughout from this edition.
2
Albumasar, Introductorium in astronomiam ( Augsburg, 1489), and De magnis conjunctionibus ( Augsburg, 1489); Jan. Sadeler, Planetarum effectus et eorum in signis zodiaci super provincias, regiones, et civitates dominia ( Antwerp, 1585).

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