Actors' Renaissance Season 2015

Four controlling fathers attempt to engineer advantageous matches for their respective children, but the children in question have their own ideas about love. Mix in four overly-helpful servants, a slew of disguises, a pair of uncomfortably in-love siblings, and a nurse with a big secret, and the fathers’ best-laid plans quickly unravel in this romantic roller-coaster ride.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • The wealthy Memphio plots to arrange a marriage between his foolish son, Accius, and Stellio’s beautiful daughter, Silena. He sends his servant Dromio to Stellio’s house to negotiate a betrothal.
  • The wealthy Stellio plots to arrange a marriage between his foolish daughter, Silena, and Memphio’s handsome son, Accius. He sends his servant Risio to Memphio’s house to negotiate a betrothal.
  • The middle-class Prisius plans to marry his talented daughter Livia to Accius, and forms a favorable alliance with Memphio’s household.
  • Prisius and Sperantus hide themselves to eavesdrop on Livia and Candius, who profess their love for one another and impatience with their parents. Dismayed, Prisius and Sperantus vow to separate the lovers.
  • Dromio encounters Risio on the road. The two servants are surpsied to realize they have been sent on similar errands. They conspire to cause mischief for their masters.
  • Sperantus’s page, Halfpenny, tells Dromio and Risio that Sperantus and Prisius have separated their children, and plan to marry them to Memphio’s son and Stellio’s daughter. Dromio and Risio conscript Halfpenny to join their knavery.
  • Prisius’s page, Lucio, joins the group, and they head to the tavern to discuss their mischievous plan.
  • Memphio, Stellio, Prisius, and Sperantus separately wonder where their servants have gone and resolve to look for them in the tavern.
  • Candius encounters Silena on the street and attempts to follow his father’s will by engaging her in pleasant conversation. Without her father around to keep her in check, Silena reveals the true simplicity of her brain. Candius abandons her and goes to tell his father that Silena is a “she-fool.”
  • Silena visits Mother Bombie, the local wise woman, to ask her fortuen. Mother bombie riddles: “Thy father knows thee not, falsely bred, truly begot, choice of two husbands, but never tied in bands, because of love and natural bonds.” Not understanding, Silena departs in a huff.
  • Memphio, Stellio, Prisius, and Sperantus arrive at the tavern just after their servants have left. The four fathers exchange pleasantries and leave quickly to find them elsewhere.
  • Poor siblings Maestius and Serena confess to having “affections beyond nature” for each other. Knowing their love is forbidden, they agree to visit Mother Bombie to have their fortunes read and ask for advice. The wise woman riddles them, saying, “You shall be married tomorrow hand in hand, by the laws of good nature and the land.” The siblings leave upset, believing Mother Bombie to be an old charlatan.
  • Dromio and Risio explain their plan to make Accius fall in love with Silena without allowing the two youths to actually speak to each other. Satisfied, Memphio and Stellio agree to implement the plan.
  • Disguises, mistaken identities, incestuous matches, secrets, and stunning revelations ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?
c. 1590

2. Where was the play first performed?
No specific records of performance exist, but the play’s first edition title page states that it was “sundry times” acted by the Children of St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Lyly’s company of child choristers, who occasionally performed at the First Blackfriars. Certainly he wrote the play to be performed in one of the “private” indoor theatres.

3. Who wrote it?
John Lyly (c. 1553 – 1606), born in Kent, was the grandson of William Lily, whose grammar book was the curriculum for every schoolchild in England for over a century. He was an Oxford-educated poet, novelist, dramatist, and politician who for a time had Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as his patron. His pastoral novella Euphues was so popular that Lyly’s florid style full of alliteration and parallel structures became known as “euphuistic.”

4. How is this playwright like Shakespeare?

Only the work of Marlowe seems more to have influenced Shakespeare than that of Lyly. While Marlowe’s “mighty line” showed Shakespeare what might be done with verse, Lyly showed him what might be done with prose. And Lyly’s shameless delight in language for its own sake set a liberating precedent for Shakespeare, especially in his comedies. More importantly, perhaps Lyly, who worked primarily with boy actors, explored the convention of boys playing women with an ease, imagination, and sympathy that seems to have inspired Shakespeare throughout his career.

5. How is this playwright unlike Shakespeare?
Lyly’s characters often speak in long, epistolatory monologues, declaiming their intentions and emotions. Shakespeare knew how to leave things unsaid.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
Among Lyly’s plays, Mother Bombie is the most English, the least pastoral, and, perhaps, the most farcical. Here, Lyly appropriates Roman comedy in much the same way that Shakespeare does in The Comedy of Errors. Not surprisingly, his influence is not the harder edged and formal farce of Plautus, but the plays of Terence, who wrote in prose and who had a greater sympathy for his characters, many of whom are rural.

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
Not really.

8. What characters should I especially look for?
One of the virtues of Lyly’s plays is that he seems to have wanted all the boys to get a good part. Mother Bombie is a tightly woven web of double-crosses and plots in which every character plays a major role. That said, look at how the play deals with the two child simpletons, Accius and Silena.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
The servants’ meeting in Act Three, in which they lay out their plan to make sure that the road to true love runs smooth. These savvy characters blend the high concerns of their masters and their own lesser problems in a quick-witted repartee.

10. What is the language like?
Whimsical and like a storybook.