Sapho and Phao

Sapho and Phao

"Sapho and Phao" is an Elizabethan era stage play, a comedy written by John Lyly. One of Lyly's earliest dramas, it was likely the first that the playwright devoted to the allegorical idealization of Queen Elizabeth I that became the predominating feature of Lyly's dramatic canon.

Performance and publication

"Sapho and Phao" is known to have been performed at Court before Queen Elizabeth, probably on March 3, 1584; it was also staged at the first Blackfriars Theatre. In these respects it resembles "Campaspe," Lyly's other early play; and like "Campaspe," sources conflict on the identity of the acting company that performed the work. Court records credit "Oxford's boys," while the title page of the play's first edition specifies the Children of Paul's, Lyly's regular company, and the Children of the Chapel. The evidence, taken as a whole, may indicate that both plays, "Campaspe" and "Sapho and Phao," were acted by a combination of personnel from three troupes of boy actors — those of Paul's and the Chapel and the young company that the Earl of Oxford maintained in the 1580s. [E. K. Chambers, "The Elizabethan Stage." 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 2, pp. 17-18, 39-40, Vol. 3, p. 415.]

"Sapho" was entered into the Stationers' Register on April 6, 1584, and was first published that year in a quarto edition printed by Thomas Dawson for the bookseller Thomas Cadman — the same men who were responsible for Q1 of "Campaspe," also in 1584. And again like "Campaspe," the first edition of "Sapho" was released in more than one "state" or impression: the two impression of the 1584 "Sapho" are sometimes defined as two separate quartos. [G. K. Hunter and David Bevington, eds., "Campaspe; Sapho and Phao," The Revels Plays; Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1999; pp. 141-5.]

Another distinct quarto edition was issued in 1591, printed by Thomas Orwin for William Broome. The play was also included in "Six Court Comedies," the initial collection of Lyly's plays published by Edward Blount in 1632. [Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 413-14.]


Lyly dramatized the ancient Greek tale of the romance of Sapho and Phao, or Phaon; he was influenced in particular by Ovid's version of the story, supplemented by the work of Aelian. (Abraham Fleming's English translation of Aelian's "Varia Historia" had been published in 1576.) The Greek tale exists in various forms, some of which conflate the famous Sappho, the poet of Lesbos of the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, with a second figure, a courtesan of the same or a similar name. In so far as the strains of the story can be untangled, it was the courtesan, not the poet, who loved a man named Phaon; some of Sappho's poems are addressed to a male, but he is never named.

Lyly does disengage the skeins of the story: his Sapho is based (loosely) on the courtesan and has nothing to do with the poet. Yet Lyly takes the bare bones on the old tale and adapts it into something quite different: his Sapho is a powerful queen of Sicily — who is not implausible as a representation of another powerful queen of another island.


The play is set in Syracuse and the surrounding countryside. Venus, on her way to Syracuse to humble the pride of Queen Sapho, endows a young ferryman named Phao with great beauty. (In some of the myths, Phaon is an old ferryman of Lesbos who is rewarded by Aphrodite with renewed youth and beauty after he transports her from Mytilene to Chios.) The beautiful waiting women of Sapho's court learn of Phao, flirt with and court him; but he is disdainful of them. When Sapho catches sight of Phao she instantly falls in love with him; and Phao in turn is love-struck with her. Sapho hides her infatuation by pretending to be fever-stricken, and sends for Phao, since he reportedly possesses febrifugic herbs. They share a mutual passion, but the enormous gap between their social positions is an insuperable barrier.

Through an accident with Cupid's arrows, Venus herself falls in love with Phao. She has her husband Vulcan (his forge is under Mount Etna) mold new arrows to break love spells; she turns for help to her son Cupid, who in Lyly's hands foreshadows the later Puck in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." [John Dover Wilson, "John Lyly," Cambridge, Macmillan and Bowes, 1905; p. 105.] Cupid performs part of his mother's will, in that he cures Sapho of her love of Phao; but then Cupid succumbs to the queen's charms. The pranksterish god not only fails to make Phao love Venus, but actually inspires him with a revulsion for her.

The play concludes with Phao leaving Sicily; Cupid rebels against his mother's will and remains with Sapho, adopting her as his new mother.

Variety and comic relief are provided by the talk of Sapho's ladies in waiting, by the "Sybilla" whom Phao consults for advice and guidance, and of course by the witty pages who recur so regularly in Lyly's dramas.


Lyly shaped his version of the Sapho and Phao story to form an allegory of contemporaneous events and circumstances at the English royal court; the Prologues published with the 1584 quarto refer to this "necessity of the history." Sapho is made a great queen so that she can represent Elizabeth; traditionally, Phao is thought to stand for François, Duke of Anjou, the man the Elizabethans called the Duke of Alençon. The Duke courted Elizabeth up to 1582, but finally gave up the effort and left England romantically disappointed, as Phao leaves Sicily. Sapho ends the play with a kind of divine love, or idealized love — but no human lover; she is another type of virgin queen.

One writer went so far as to claim that this interpretation had not "been questioned by any sane critic." [C. F. Tucker Brook, "The Tudor Drama," Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1911; p. 175.] Perhaps inevitably, some later commentators have disputed this standard interpretation. [Theodora Jankowski, "The Subversion of Flattery: The Queen's Body in John Lyly's "Sapho and Phao"," "Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England" 5 (1991), pp. 69-86.] [Hunter and Bevington, p. 166.]


External links

* [ The play text online.]

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