MIDAS — A Sloppily Scanned Write-Up
Argument.—Bacchus, in return for the hospitality of Midas, king of Phrygia, offers to grant him anything he may desire. Eristus advises him to ask his mistress; Martins, the sovereignty of the world, but Midas prefers the advice of a third councillor Mellacrites, and asks that his touch may turn everything to gold. A brief exercise of this power, which operates on his food, wine, and raiment, reduces him to beg to be released from it. By the god’s advice he bathes in the Pactolus, and transfers to its waters the fatal gift. A mood of sullen discontent follows (iv. i, p. 141, v. 3, p. 159).
As he is hunting in a wood on Mount Tmolus he comes upon the gods Pan and Apollo about to engage in a musical competition, of which the Nymphs are to be umpires. Associated with them in this function Midas decides for Pan, and his crass judgement is punished by Apollo with asses’ ears. For a time he contrives to conceal them beneath a tiara; but the Nymphs have spread the news of his disgrace, and, the words "Midas the king hath asses’ ears," spoken by shepherds, are reproduced by some reeds as they wave in the wind. This prodigy is reported to the king by his discreet and affectionate daughter Sophronia, by whose advice he seeks Apollo's oracle at Delphi. There on his acknowledgement of folly and profession of repentance the curse is removed, and he returns to Phrygia vowing to relinquish those designs of conquest, especially against the heroic islanders of Lesbos, but ill-success in which has supplied the undercurrent of his thoughts throughout the play.
Comic relief is sought in the relations between some Court pages and the royal barber Motto, who, robbed by them of the golden beard he has cut from Midas' chin, recovers it by curing one’s toothache but is afterwards entrapped into treasonable utterance of the secret of the asses’ ears, and compelled to surrender the beard as the price of their silence.
Sources and Allegory — There remains as Lyly’s sole source Ovid’s Metamorphoses, xi, which he closely follows. The only differences are that in Ovid Bacchus is under obligation for a service rendered to Silenus rather than to himself; that in Ovid no motive for Midas’ desire of gold is suggested, while Lyly supplies one in the thirst for conquest -- that after ridding himself of the fatal gift Midas betakes himself to a rural life, represented in Lyly by his hunting expedition; that in the contest between Pan and Apollo, though Nymphs are present, it is Tmolus, the Genius of the mountain, who acts as umpire and whose decision is gratuitously contravened by Midas; that it is Midas’ barber, alone cognizant of the ears, who whispers the secret into a hole he digs in the ground, afterwards filling in (he soil, above which reeds spring up to repeat his words when stirred by the wind; and finally that Ovid mentions no expedition of Midas to Delphi, and no remission of the punishment, nor is any such recorded by Hyginus, whose 191st Fable relates both incidents, with the omission of the barber and the reeds.
Lyly, then, has added the comic elements of the Pages and Pipenetta and the Huntsman, and the contest between the former and the barber for the possession of the golden beard. He has added, too, the characters of Midas' daughter and her ladies, and of Midas' three councillors; and has credited Midas with ambitious designs on the territories of his neighbours, particularly on the island of Lesbos. Dilke was the first to observe that in this respect the play is intended as a satire on Philip II of Spain, representing "the produce of his mines in S. America, by his desire to turn everything about him into gold; and the defeat of the Armada by the fruitless attempts of Midas to subdue the Island of Lesbos."
Hatpin in "Oberon's Vision" (Shakespeare Soc. 1843), offers the following conjectural key:
- Midas, king of Phrygia = Philip of Spain
- Isles north of Phrygia = British Isles
- Lesbos = England,Getulia, Lycaonia
- Sola = Portugal, the Netherlands, and other countries cruelly tyrannized over by Phillip
- Bacchus (the presiding deity of India) = the Genius of the Indies
- The golden gift = the influx of precious metals into Spain
- Pactolus (with golden sands) = the Tagus
- The contest in music = the controversy of the Reformation
- Tmolus = (probably) Trent
- Pan = papal Supremacy
- Apollo (the antagonistic principle) = Protestant Sovereignty
- Syrinx = the Roman Catholic Faith.
- Daphne = the Protestant Faith.
- Motto (who betrays the ears of Midas) = Anthonio Perez, Philip's secretary, banished for betraying secrets.
- Sophronia (daughter and successor of Midas) = Isabella, Philip's daughter, to whom, on her marrying the Archduke Albert, he resigned the sovereignty of the Netherlands
- Martins = the Dukes of Medina Sidonia and D'Alva
- Mellicrates = Ruy Gomez de Libra
Probably most people will think that Halpin carries the allegory somewhat further than the author intended: especially we may note that Philip's decision for Catholicism as against Protestantism can hardly be represented as a secret that Midas long conceals from his daughter and his councillors, a concealment for which, indeed, there is no adequate dramatic motive, seeing that his punishment is soon declared. But there can be little doubt about the identification of Martins, whose "counsell hath shed as much bloud as would make another sea," with the pitiless Alva; and the play abounds in allusions to Phillip’s covetousness, treachery and tyranny, and to current events such as the bloodshed in the Netherlands, p. 130, the defeat of the Armada, p. 131, the expedition of Drake and Norreys.
Date — Obviously the play is written after the defeat of the Armada in 1588, and before its entry in the Stationers’ Register on Oct. 4, 1591. The allusion to Drake and Norreys' expedition to Portugal (Act iv, sc. 4, p. 149) ("suffers the enemies to bid us good morrowe at our owne doors") which sailed April 18, 1589 and returned in the middle of July, enables us to bring the upward limit down to May of that year; while a passage in Harvey’s Advertisement to Rapp-Hatchst, which forms the second Book of Pierces Supererogation, and is dated "At Trinitie Hall: the ninth of Nouember, 1589," supplies us with the downward limit.