The Woman in the Moon

"The Woman in the Moon" is an Elizabethan era stage play, a comedy written by John Lyly. Its unique status in that playwright's dramatic canon — it is the only play Lyly wrote in blank verse rather than prose — has presented scholars and critics with a range of questions and problems.

Date and Publication

"The Woman in the Moon" was entered into the Stationers' Register on September 22, 1595, and was first published in quarto in 1597 by the bookseller William Jones. The title page of the quarto states that the play was presented before Queen Elizabeth I, though no specific performance is known. The playing company that acted the work is also a mystery.

The play's Prologue maintains that the work "is but a poet's dream, / The first he had in Phoebus' holy bower, / But not the last...." Nineteenth-century critics took this statement at face value, and considered "The Woman in the Moon" the first of Lyly's plays, written sometime in the early 1580s. As such, it would have been an important early development in English dramatic blank verse. Later critics, however, disputed this conclusion, arguing that the Prologue may only mean that this was Lyly's first play in verse, and that in style "The blank verse is that of the nineties, rather than the early eighties." [E. K. Chambers, "The Elizabethan Stage," 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 3, p. 416-17.] The modern critical consensus tends to favor the view that "The Woman in the Moon," far from being Lyly's first play, was likely his last, written in the 1590–95 period. [Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., "The Predecessors of Shakespeare: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama," Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1973; pp. 135, 137.]

In this view, Lyly, who started out as a novelist rather than a poet like most dramatists of his era, wrote his plays in prose as long as they were being performed by the Children of Paul's, the company of child actors that staged most of his works. Once that company was banned from dramatic performance in 1590, Lyly tried to adapt to the style of popular drama being staged by the adult companies. "The Woman in the Moon" was Lyly's first venture in this new direction; but its apparent lack of success (there is no evidence that the play was popular) brought a close to Lyly's playwriting career.


The play is set in the world of Greek mythology, at the time of the very beginning of the human race, when the first woman was not yet created. A personified goddess of Nature, accompanied by Concord and Discord ("For Nature works her will from contraries"), descends to a pastoral Earth inhabited by four shepherds. At their petition, Nature breathes life into a clothed statue of the first woman. Concord seals her soul to her body with an embrace, and the new woman is given the best gifts of the seven planets of traditional astronomy and astrology. She is named Pandora.

The seven planets, however, are unhappy that Pandora has been given their best qualities, and decide to spite Nature with a malevolent demonstration of their power. Saturn, the eldest, goes first: seating himself on a throne, he afflicts Pandora with his characteristic melancholy. The shepherds meet Pandora when she is suffering this baleful influence; when one tries to kiss her hand, she hits him across the lips. She treats the rest as badly, then runs away. Saturn leaves his throne at the end of the first act, pleased with the mess he's made.

Jupiter assumes the throne at the start of Act II. He inspires Pandora with ambition, vanity, and superciliousness — so much so that she obtains his sceptre and tosses it to Juno when the queen of the gods comes in search of her husband (he hides himself in a cloud). Pandora inflicts her pride upon the hapless shepherds: she orders them to behead a wild boar, promising her glove to the man who brings the trophy to her. Mars takes over from Jupiter, turning Pandora into a "vixen martialist." The shepherds fight over the dead boar and the right to Pandora's glove — but she grabs a spear and bests them all.

Sol, the Sun, takes over at the start of Act III; for a change, his influence is largely beneficial. Pandora becomes "gentle and kind," and chooses Stesias, one of the shepherds, as her husband. But then comes Venus's turn: Joculus inspires dancing, Cupid shoots his arrows, and romantic disruptions follow. Mercury succeeds Venus in Act IV; he makes Pandora "false and full of sleights, / Thievish and lying, subtle, eloquent...." By Act V, under the influence of Luna, Pandora simply runs mad. Stesias is fed up by now, and the other shepherds want nothing to do with Pandora, even when the seven planetary deities have restored her sanity. With no place for her on Earth, the planets vie for the distinction of taking Pandora up to their individual spheres; Pandora chooses Luna, since they are both inherently changeable. [Henry Morley and William Hall Griffin, "English Writers: An Attempt Toward a History of English Literature," Vol. 11., London, Cassell & Co., 1892; pp. 197-200.]


Most crticis have judged the play as "a satire on women," an expression of traditional male chauvinism and sexism — though dissent from this view can also be found in the critical literature. [George Kirkpatrick Hunter, "John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier," Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1962; p. 219.] Lyly's use of astrology has been seen in the context of the craze for horoscope-casting that typified the Elizabethan era. [Johnstone Parr, "Tamburlaine's Malady and Other Essays on Astrology in Elizabethan Drama," Tuscaloosa, AL, University of Alabama Press, 1953; pp. 38-49.]


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