Iphis and Ianthe, or Marriage without a Man

William Shakespeare (attrib.) (unknown date)

Historical Records

Stationers' Register

29 June 1660 (SR2, 2.271, CLIO)

Hum. Moseley
Entred for his copies under the hand of MASTER THRALE warden, the severall plays following that is to say . . . . xiijs

. . .
The History of King Stephen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . }
Duke Humphrey, a Tragedy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . } by Will: Shakespeare.
Iphis & Iantha, or a marriage without a man, a comedy . }

Theatrical Provenance

Unknown; presumably it would have been performed by the Lord Chamberlain's / King's men if it were actually by Shakespeare.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses:

In Crete, Telethusa gives birth to a girl but tells the father, Ligdus, that it’s a son to avoid his wrath. Iphis (a deliberately gender neutral name) is thus raised as a boy, with only the mother and nurse knowing the truth. When Iphis turned thirteen, Ligdus arranged a marriage with the beautiful maid Ianthe. Iphis finds herself attracted to Ianthe and on the verge of marriage, laments her untenable situation, “herself a Mayden with a Mayd (ryght straunge) in loue became” (fol.122). Iphis laments having ever been born:

…A Cow is neuer fond
Uppon a Cow, nor Mare on Mare. The Ram delyghts the Eawe,
The Stag the Hynde, the Cocke the Hen. But neuer man could shew,
That female yit was tane in loue with female kynd. O would
Too God I neuer had beene borne. (fol.122)

She notes that even the unnatural pairing of Pasiphae with the bull was female-male, and queries why Juno and Hymen would come to solemnise such an unnatural wedding “where no brydegroome you shall see / But bothe are Brydes that must that day toogither coupled bee?” (fol.122v). Iphis prays to Isis, who is so moved by the maiden’s plight that she turns him into a boy:

…her face continued not so whyght.
Her strength encreased, and her looke more sharper was too syght.
Her heare grew shorter, and shee had a much more liuely spryght,
Than when shee was a wench. (fol.123)

…and “The vowes that Iphys vowd a wench he hath performd a Lad” (fol.123).

References to the Play

Information welcome.

Critical Commentary

Fleay (BCED 2.335) thought it was "absurdly ascribed" to Shakespeare.

In a variant of the formulation applied to each of the three plays registered by Moseley in 1660, Bentley writes: “It is quite unlikely that this comedy was written by Shakespeare, for no other reference to the title is known. Presumably the story came from Ovid, but I know of no evidence of the date or authorship of the manuscript Moseley had in 1660” (5.1355).

For What It's Worth

It is extremely unlikely that the extant Latin MS play Iphis, by Henry Bellamy, could ever have been mistaken for a Shakespeare play, though Bentley reproduces Moseley’s SR registration in his entry for the comedy from St. John’s, Oxford, on the grounds that the Thomas Percy sale catalogue had suggested the lumping of the MS with the lost “Shakespeare” play (Bentley 3.19-20).

Works Cited

Baker, David Erskine. Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse. New edn. London, 1782. (Internet Archive)
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. 1567. EEBO-TCP open-access

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated 05 March 2015.