Sapho and Phao by John Lyly – Act 1

Act 1

SAPHO and PHAO – Published 1584

Played before the Queen’s Majesty on Shrove Tuesday [March 3, 1584]
by Her Majesty’s Children and the Boys of Paul’s


Phao, a ferryman
Sapho, princess of Syracuse
Sapho’s ladies-in-waiting
Sybilla, a seer
Venus, goddess of love
Cupid, her son
Vulcan, her husband (a smith)
Calypho, a Cyclops, servant of Vulcan
Trachinus, a courtier
Criticus, servant of Trachinus
Pandion, a courtier and scholar
Molus, servant of Pandion

Scene: Syracusa


Court Prologue; Blackfriars Prologue
Sapho and Phao
Appendix I
     Latin Translations
     Some Sources
     Suggested Reading
Appendix II Connections
Appendix III: Vocabulary, Word Formation

The Prologue at the Court

The Arabians (being stuffed with perfumes) burn hemlock, a rank poison; and in Hybla (being cloyed with honey) they account it dainty to feed on wax. Your Highness’ eyes, whom variety hath filled with fair shows and whose ears pleasure hath possessed with rare sounds, will (we trust) at this time resemble the princely eagle, who fearing to surfeit on spices, stoopeth to bite on worm-wood. We present no conceits nor wars, but deceits and loves, wherein the truth may excuse the plainness: the necessity the length: the poetry the bitterness. There is no needle’s point so small which hath not his compass, nor hair so slen-der which hath not his shadow, nor sport so simple which hath not his show. Whatsoever we present, whether it be tedious (which we fear) or toyish (which we doubt), sweet or sour, absolute or imperfect, or whatsoever, in all humbleness we all, and I on knee for all, entreat that your Highness imagine yourself to be in a deep dream, that staying the conclusion, in your rising your Majesty vouchsafe but to say, And so you awaked.

The Prologue at the Black friars

Where the Bee can suck no honey, she leaveth her sting behind; and where the Bear cannot find origanum to heal his grief, he blasteth all other leaves with his breath. We fear it is like to fare so with us, that seeing you cannot draw from our labors sweet content, you leave behind you a sour mislike and with open reproach blame our good meanings because you cannot reap your wonted mirths. Our intent was at this time to move inward delight, not outward lightness; and to breed, if it might be, soft smiling, not loud laughing; knowing it to the wise to be as great pleasure to hear counsel mixed with wit, as to the foolish to have sport mingled with rudeness. They were banished the theater at Athens and from Rome hissed, that brought parasites on the stage with apish actions, or fools with uncivil habits, or courtesans with immodest words. We have endeavored to be as far from unseemly speeches to make your ears glow, as we hope you will be from unkind reports to make our cheeks blush. The griffin never spreadeth her wings in the sun when she hath any sick feathers; yet have we ventured to present our exercises before your judgments when we know them full of weak matter, yielding rather ourselves to the courtesy which we have ever found, than to the preciseness which we ought to fear.


Scene I.1: [At the Ferry.]
[Enter Phao.]

PHAO: Thou art a ferryman, Phao, yet a free man, possessing
for riches content, and for honors quiet. Thy thoughts are no
higher than thy fortunes, nor thy desires greater than thy
calling. Who climbeth, standeth on glass and falleth on
thorn. Thy heart’s thirst is satisfied with thy hand’s thrift,
and thy gentle labors in the day turn to sweet slumbers in
the night. As much doth it delight thee to rule thine oar in
a calm stream as it doth Sapho to sway the scepter in her
brave court. Envy never casteth her eye low, ambition
pointeth always upward, and re-venge barketh only at … [I.1.10]
stars. Thou farest delicately if thou have a fare to buy
anything. Thine angle is ready when thine oar is idle, and
as sweet is the fish which thou gettest in the river as the
fowl which other[s] buy in the market. Thou needest not fear
poison in thy glass nor treason in thy guard. The wind is thy
greatest enemy, whose might is withstood with policy. Oh
sweet life, seldom found under a golden court, often under
a thatched cottage. But here cometh one. I will withdraw
myself aside. It may be a passenger. [Enter Venus and Cupid.]

VENUS: It is no less unseemly than unwholesome for Venus, … [I.1.20]
who is most honored in princes’ courts, to sojourn with Vulcan
in a smith’s forge, where bellows blow instead of sighs, dark
smokes rise for sweet perfumes, and for the panting of loving
hearts is only heard the beating of steeled hammers.
Unhappy Venus that, carrying fire in thine own breast, thou
shouldest dwell with fire in his forge. What doth Vulcan all
day but endeavor to be as crabbed in manners as he is crooked
in body, driving nails when he should give kisses and
ham-mer-ing hard armors when he should sing sweet amours?
It came by lot, not love, that I was linked with him. He gives … [I.1.30]
thee bolts, Cupid, instead of arrows, fearing belike (jealous
fool that he is) that if he should give thee an arrowhead, he
should make himself a broad head. But come, we will to
Syracusa, where thy deity shall be shown and my disdain.
I will yoke the neck that never bowed, at which, if Jove repine,
Jove shall repent. Sapho shall know, be she never so fair, that
there is a Venus which can conquer, were she never so fortunate.

CUPID: If Jove espy Sapho, he will devise some new shape to
entertain her.

VENUS: Strike thou Sapho. Let Jove devise what shape he can. … [I.1.40]

CUPID: Mother, they say she hath her thoughts in a string,
that she conquers affections and sendeth love up and down
upon errands. I am afraid she will yerk me if I hit her.

VENUS: Peevish boy, can mortal creatures resist that
which the immortal gods cannot redress?

CUPID: The gods are amorous and therefore willing to be

VENUS: And she amiable, and therefore must be pierced.

CUPID: I dare not.

VENUS: Draw thine arrow to the head; else I will make thee … [I.1.50]
repent it at the heart. Come away and behold the ferry boy
ready to conduct us. Pretty youth, do you keep the ferry that
bendeth to Syracusa?

PHAO: The ferry, fair lady, that bendeth to Syracusa.

VENUS: I fear, if the water should begin to swell, thou wilt
want cunning to guide.

PHAO: These waters are commonly as the passengers be;
and therefore carrying one so fair in show, there is no cause
to fear a rough sea.

VENUS: To pass the time in thy boat, canst thou devise any … [I.1.60]

PHAO: If the wind be with me, I can angle or tell tales; if
against me, it will be pleasure for you to see me take pains.

VENUS: I like not fishing, yet was I born of the sea.

PHAO: But he may bless fishing that caught such an one in
the sea.

VENUS: It was not with an angle, my boy, but with a net.

PHAO: So was it said that Vulcan caught Mars with Venus.

VENUS: Didst thou hear so? It was some tale.

PHAO: Yea madam, and that in the boat I did mean to make … [I.1.70]
my tale.

VENUS: It is not for a ferryman to talk of the gods’ loves but
to tell how thy father could dig and thy mother spin. But
come, let us away.

PHAO: I am ready to wait. [Exeunt.]

Scene I.2: [The same.]
[Enter Trachinus, Pandion, Criticus and Molus.]

TRACHINUS: Pandion, since your coming from the univer-
-sity to the court, from Athens to Syracusa, how do you feel
yourself altered either in humor or opinion?

PANDION: Altered, Trachinus; I say no more and shame that
any should know so much.

TRACHINUS: Here you see as great virtue, far greater
bravery, the action of that which you contemplate: Sapho
fair by nature, by birth royal, learned by education, by
government politic, rich by peace; insomuch as it is hard to
judge, whether she be more beautiful or wise, virtuous or … [I.2.10]
fortunate. Besides, do you not look on fair ladies instead of
good letters, and behold fair faces instead of fine phrases? In
universities virtues and vices are but shadowed in colors
white and black; in courts showed to life, good and bad. There,
times past are read of in old books, times present set down by
new devices, times to come conjectured at by aim, by prophecy,
or chance; here are times in perfection, not by device as fables
but in execution as truths. Believe me Pandion, in Athens you
have but tombs, we in court the bodies; you the pictures of
Venus & the wise Goddesses, we the persons & the … [I.2.20]
virtues. What hath a scholar found out by study that a
courtier hath not found out by practice? Simple are you
that think to see more at the candle-snuff than the
sunbeams, to sail further in a little brook than in the main
Ocean, to make a greater harvest by gleaning than reaping.
How say you Pandion: is not all this true?

PANDION: Trachinus, what would you more? All true.

TRACHINUS: Cease then to lead thy life in a study, penned
with a few boards, and endeavor to be a courtier to live in
embossed roofs. … [I.2.30]

PANDION: A labor intolerable for Pandion.


PANDION: Because it is harder to shape a life to dissemble,
than to go forward with the liberty of truth.

TRACHINUS: Why, do you think in court any use to dissemble?

PANDION: Do you know in court any that mean to live?

TRACHINUS: You have no reason for it, but an old report.

PANDION: Report hath not always a blister on her tongue.

TRACHINUS: Aye, but this is the court of Sapho, nature’s
miracle, which resembleth the tree salurus, whose root is … [I.2.40]
fastened upon knotted steel, & in whose top bud leaves of
pure gold.

PANDION: Yet hath salurus blasts and water boughs, worms
and caterpillars.

TRACHINUS: The virtue of the tree is not the cause but the
easterly wind, which is thought commonly to bring cankers
and rottenness.

PANDION: Nor the excellency of Sapho the occasion: but the
iniquity of flatterers, who always whisper in princes’ ears
suspicion and sourness. … [I.2.50]

TRACHINUS: Why, then you conclude with me that Sapho
for virtue hath no copartner.

PANDION: Yea, & with the judgment of the world that
she is without comparison.

TRACHINUS: We will thither straight.

PANDION: I would I might return straight.

TRACHINUS: Why, there you may live still.

PANDION: But not still.

TRACHINUS: How like you the Ladies: are they not passing
fair? … [I.2.60]

PANDION: Mine eye drinketh neither the color of wine nor

TRACHINUS: Yet I am sure that in judgment you are not so
severe, but that you can be content to allow of beauty by day
or by night.

PANDION: When I behold beauty before the sun, his beams
dim beauty; when by candle, beauty obscures torchlight: so
as no time I can judge because at any time I cannot discern,
being in the sun a brightness to shadow beauty and in
beauty a glistering to extinguish light. … [I.2.70]

TRACHINUS: Scholarlike said. You flatter that which you
seem to mislike and [seek] to disgrace that which you most wonder
at. But let us away.

PANDION: I follow. And you, sir boy [To Molus.] go to Syracusa
about by land, where you shall meet my stuff, pay for the carriage,
and convey it to my lodging.

TRACHINUS: I think all your stuff are bundles of paper; but
now must you learn to turn your library to a wardrobe, &
see whether your rapier hang better by your side than the
pen did in your ear. [Exeunt Pandion and Trachinus.] … [I.2.80]

Scene I.3: [The same.]
[Criticus and Molus, remaining.]

CRITICUS: Molus, what odds between thy commons in
Athens and thy diet in court, a page’s life & a scholar’s?

MOLUS: This difference: there of a little I had somewhat;
here of a great deal, nothing. There did I wear pantofles on
my legs; here do I bear them in my hands.

CRITICUS: Thou mayst be skilled in thy logic but not in thy
liripoop; belike no meat can down with you, unless you have a
knife to cut it. But come among us, and you shall see us once
in a morning have a mouse at a bay.

MOLUS: A mouse? Unproperly spoken. … [I.3.10]

CRITICUS: Aptly understood, a mouse of beef.

MOLUS: I think indeed a piece of beef as big as a mouse serves
a great company of such cats. But what else?

CRITICUS: For other sports: a square die in a page’s pocket is
as decent as a square cap on a graduate’s head.

MOLUS: You courtiers be mad fellows. We silly souls are only
plodders at ergo, whose wits are clasped up with our books;
& so full of learning are we at home, that we scarce know
good manners when we come abroad. Cunning in nothing
but in making small things great by figures, pulling on with … [I.3.20]
the sweat of our studies a great shoe upon a little foot, burning
out one candle in seeking for another; raw wordlings in matters
of substance, passing wranglers about shadows.

CRITICUS: Then is it time lost to be a scholar. We pages are
politicians: for look, what we hear our masters talk of, we
determine of: where we suspect, we undermine; and where
we mislike for some particular grudge, there we pick quarrels
for a general grief. Nothing among us but instead of good
morrow, what news? We fall from cogging at dice to cog
with states: & so forward are mean men in those matters, … [I.3.30]
that they would be cocks to tread down others before they be
chickens to rise themselves. Youths are very forward to
stroke their chins — though they have no beards — and to lie
as loud as he that hath lived longest.

MOLUS: These be the golden days!

CRITICUS: Then be they very dark days, for I can see no gold.

MOLUS: You are gross-witted, master courtier.

CRITICUS: And you, master scholar, slender-witted.

MOLUS: I meant times which were prophesied golden for
plenty of all things: sharpness of wit, excellency in knowledge, … [I.3.40]
policy in government, for —

CRITICUS: Soft, scholaris. I deny your argument.

MOLUS: Why, it is no argument.

CRITICUS: Then I deny it because it is no argument. But let
us go and follow our masters. [Exeunt.]

Scene I.4: [The same.]
[Enter Mileta, Lamia, Ismena, Canope, Eugenua and Favilla.]

MILETA: Is it not strange that Phao on the sudden should be
so fair? [See note, end of scene.]

LAMIA: It cannot be strange, sith Venus was disposed to
make him fair. That cunning had been better bestowed on
women, which would have deserved thanks of nature.

ISMENA: Haply she did it in spite of women, or scorn of

CANOPE: Proud elf! How squeamish he is become already,
using both disdainful looks & imperious words: insomuch
that he galleth with ingratitude. And then ladies, you know … [I.4.10]
how it cutteth a woman to become a wooer.

EUGENUA: Tush! Children and fools: the fairer they are, the
sooner they yield; an apple will catch the one, a baby the other.

ISMENA: Your lover, I think, be a fair fool: for you love nothing
but fruit and puppets.

MILETA: I laugh at that you call love and judge it only a
word called love. Methinks liking, a curtsy, a smile, a beck,
and such-like are the very quintessence of love.

FAVILLA: Aye Mileta, but were you as wise as you would be
thought fair, or as fair as you think yourself wise, you would … [I.4.20]
be as ready to please men as you are coy to prank yourself,
& as careful to be accounted amorous, as you are willing to
be thought discreet.

MILETA: No, no, men are good souls (poor souls), who never
inquire but with their eyes, loving to father the cradle
though they but mother the child. Give me their gifts, not
their virtues. A grain of their gold weigheth down a pound of
their wit. A dram of ‘give me’ is heavier than an ounce of
‘hear me.’ Believe me ladies, ‘give’ is a pretty thing.

ISMENA: I cannot but oftentimes smile to myself to hear men … [I.4.30]
call us weak vessels, when they prove themselves broken-
hearted; us frail, when their thoughts cannot hang together;
studying with words to flatter and with bribes to allure,
when we commonly wish their tongues in their purses (they
speak so simply), and their offers in their bellies (they do it
so peevishly).

MILETA: It is good sport to see them want manner; for then
fall they to good man-ners, having nothing in their mouths
but ‘sweet mistress,’ wearing our hands out with courtly
kissings, when their wits fail in courtly discourses. Now … [I.4.40]
ruffling their hairs, now setting their ruffs, then gazing
with their eyes, then sighing with a privy wring by the
hand, thinking us like to be wooed by signs and ceremonies.

EUGENUA: Yet we, when we swear with our mouths we are
not in love, then we sigh from the heart and pine in love.

CANOPE: We are mad wenches if men mark our words. For
when I say ‘I would none cared for love more than I,’ what mean
I but I would none loved but I? where we cry ‘away!’, do we
not presently say ‘go to’: & when men strive for kisses, we
exclaim ‘let us alone’, as though we would fall to that ourselves. … [I.4.50]

FAVILLA: Nay then, Canope, it is time to go — and behold Phao.

ISMENA: Where?

FAVILLA: In your head Ismena, nowhere else. But let us
keep on our way.

ISMENA: Wisely. [Exeunt.]