As its title and subtitle indicate, the play portrays Lingua, the personification of language, asserting her importance against the traditional personifications of the senses. (Auditus is hearing, Visus is sight; Olfactus, Gustus, and Tactus round out the five.) This allegorical treatment of the five senses reaches far back into the literature and drama of the Middle Ages — though Tomkis departs from the Medieval tradition by depicting the five senses as male rather than female figures. (The change allows Tomkis to cast the play's conflict in an anti-feminist, battle-of-the-sexes context.)
As noted above, the play's plot derives from the story of the Judgement of Paris: like Eris among the Olympian gods, Lingua inspires dissension and competition among the five senses by offering a prize for the worthiest of them. She leaves a golden crown and a royal robe in a grove in "Microcosmus", with this inscription:
- He of the five that proves himself the best,
- Shall have his temples with this coronet blest.
The five quarrel over who should receive the gifts; they go so far as to prepare for physical combat, though "Communis Sensus", the viceregent of Queen Psyche, forestalls that extremity. Like Paris, he presides over the competition, eventually awarding the crown to Visus and the robe to Tactus; the other three receive consolation prizes of offices under Psyche. Lingua's claim to be the sixth sense is rejected — though with a qualification: it is allowed that woman have six senses, the sixth being "the sense of speaking."
Madame Lingua is not willing to accept this status of being "half a sense." At a celebratory banquet she serves the senses drugged wine, which deranges them; but further disruption is suppressed by the charm of Somnus. Lingua talks in her sleep and confesses her plot; she is imprisoned so that she cannot "wag abroad."
The play features a range of other personifications — Terra, Comedus, Phantastes, Lumen (light), Coelum (the sky), and others — even Tobacco, "the king of Trinidado" who has "conquered all Europe." The classical deities Ceres and Bacchus also appear.
Mediveal allegory was a dying form in Tomkis's era, though it still appeared on occasion; Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island (1633) is one late example. Tomkis's play has been praised for the excellence of its style; "Tomkis proves himself a master of polished and flexible dialogue...The wit is sparkling and unforced", delivered "with scholarly grace." The play's comedy often provides a burlesque of famous plays of its era, mocking the heroic speeches of The Spanish Tragedy and offering apparent Shakespearean allusions.
Read more about this topic: Lingua (play)
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“A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame; while allegory is one of many possible representations of an embodied thing, or familiar principle, and belongs to fancy and not to imagination: the one is a revelation, the other an amusement.”
—William Butler Yeats (18651939)