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the floating island

13 march 2024

The "floating island" in William Strode's 1636 play might be England, or it might be a single human soul.

The Floating Island is a "humours" play, like precursors by Ben Jonson (who wrote plays titled Every Man in and Every Man out of "his Humour," around the turn of the 17th century). King of the floating island is Prudentius, who has passed laws forbidding his subjects to act out their humors. And a good thing, because these impulsive characters have names like Amorous, Melancholico, Audax, Irato, and so forth. The irrepressible courtiers stage a coup; Prudentius is deposed; Fancy becomes queen of the island, and populates her court with favorites like Hilario and Concupiscence.

Of course, it's not long before the boisterous humors fall out with one another in fits of rage and lust.

Ere since Prudentius days, we only toil'd
In wretched mazes of confusion,
Mischief, and discontent. (Act 4, Scene 16)
While things are upside down in the Floating Island, all manner of alternative sex and gender practices are licensed. Concupiscence (a woman) remarks "O that it were / In fashion for my Sex, my Sex, to wooe" (Act 2, Scene 2), and later longs for polyamory: "Hey ho for a husband; Two three, or more, / As many as I meet" (Act 3, Scene 6). Queen Fancy wonders "is't not in Fancie's power to change a Sex, and make some Passion Female?" (Act 3, Scene 3), and her counselor Memor cites the tales of Iphis and Tiresias from Ovid's Metamorphoses. "Wud I could live and turn Hermaphrodite," blurts Concupiscence, and another courtier, Fuga, answers "Wud I could live and be of neither Sex" (Act 3, Scene 3).

One male courtier, Timerous, does change sex to female, and is raped by Audax. He complains to Queen Fancy, who tells him,

I know you well, for all you are a Tortesse,
And have liv'd like a frog in diverse Elements.
Of what Gender are you? Go learn of Proteus
How to do tricks. (Act 4, Scene 15)
I am not sure what "Tortesse" (evidently "tortoise") signifies here. Maybe tortoises and frogs ran together in the early-modern imagination as betwixt-and-between creatures.

Eventually, the madcap characters long for the return of Prudentius. He seizes the wheel again and sorts everyone out.

The Isle is setled, rage of Passions laid,
And Phancy stoopes to Prudence.
Whether the allegory is one of self-control or of good government, its application is obvious.

The title page tells us that The Floating Island was "acted before his Majesty (Charles I) at Oxford, Aug. 29 1636 by the students of Christ-Church." The Dictionary of National Biography in its entry on Strode, says that "The play was reported to be too full of morality to please the court, but the king commended it." It was not printed until 1655, under the Commonwealth, when Strode (a lifelong Royalist) had been dead for ten years, and the theaters long closed.

Would The Floating Island still work on stage? Like many a college production then and now, it has no starring role, but lots of good character turns. A strong company today could keep the good scenes in a cut-down version, and the material on gender and sexuality – though dated in its own way – would show that there is little in the 21st century that our long-ago ancestors didn't contemplate.

Strode, William. The Floating Island. 1636. London: Printed by T.C. for H. Twiford, 1655.