Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Princess Ida

Primary tabs

Click a term to expand the definition; Search for a term; Select other Opera Chapters; Go to the Lexicon menu for introductory and afterword content..

Enter part of a term; e.g., "gill" for Gillow's.

About the Opera

Princess Ida

In casting about for a plot that would satisfy Sullivan, Gilbert turned to one of his earlier dramatic works: a play titled The Princess, a gently satiric work based on a narrative poem by Tennyson. (Gilbert described his version as "a respectful per-version.") The story deals with a princess who eschews men and establishes a girls' college -- an innovation that was then still new in England, and not yet widely accepted. Gilbert reorganized his material, and Princess Ida was the outcome. Among the G&S operas, this one claims two distinctions: it is the only one written in blank verse, and it is the only one having three acts. (What is now the first act was originally a prologue followed by two acts.)

Princess Ida opened at the Savoy on January 5, 1884, and ran for 246 performances -- a disappointingly short duration, and one that caught Gilbert and Sullivan unprepared with a replacement. Carte accordingly revived Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer to keep the theater and the Company occupied while he tried to maintain his artistic friends in double harness. In addition to his growing distaste for Gilbertian libretti, Sullivan was suffering from a kidney ailment that was to plague him continually through the rest of his life. Fortunately for us, Carte succeeded in his delicate task -- as we shall later see.

Although Princess Ida ranks among the lesser known of the Savoy operas, it has a strong attraction for many Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados. Ida's three hulking brothers are among the funniest characters in all of comic opera; and musically, Ida's appeal to Minerva is as close as Sullivan ever came to setting Gilbert's words in grand operatic style. Ardent advocates of women's liberation may bridle at Gilbert's views, but his darts are gently tossed and draw little real blood.



A name taken from a character in old German romances, the oldest and wisest of the chiefs and, like Merlin, a magician as well (55).

Adamant [Castle Adamant]

A legendary stone of impenetrable hardness. A derived meaning, which applies here, is "utterly unyielding in attitude or opinion in spite of all appeals, urgings, etc." (250).

Daughters of the Plough

Servant girls, presumably from farming families. Karr (170) suggests that these girls are assigned menial duties not because they are indigent or from the lower classes, but rather because their mental capacities and interests leave them unsuited to academic work. Remember Ida's strictures against "cruel distinctions, meant to draw a line 'twixt rich and poor." Many directors omit the daughters of the plough in actual production. They are not necessary in advancing the plot, nor are there any spare men in the show for them to wed in the end (although some of those "sons of the tillage" sneered at in Ruddigore would seem logical matches.)

Time and Place

Gilbert is delightfully vague about the time and country in which the opera is set. The armor worn by Gama's sons implies a wide range of medieval dates, and there are incidental references to Hungary, but that nation has had wide-ranging borders over the centuries. And no matter what century one suggests, the work is rife with anachronisms (211). Let's just say the opera is set once upon a time in Never-Never Land.

Act I


An open porch, probably under an elaborate tent-like cover. A royal pavilion would be expected to feature lots of colorful pennants, banners, and flags.

Sketch of Panorama

An unobstructed view of the open countryside.


Promised or pledged.

Liege [None, my liege]

A feudal lord.

Betrothed [To whom our son Hilarion was betrothed]

The term clearly means engaged, i.e., promised in marriage. Yet, later in the same act we find Hilarion singing about his "baby bride" and their wedding "twenty years ago." The logical explanation is that, although wed as infants, the marriage remained only tentative, and easily annulled, until consummated. There's an unbounded field of speculation on which I could discourse for hours. But, no; instead of that, see what is revealed about Betrothed in The Sorcerer.

Crumped [crumped it in fitful petulance]

Crunched. (In most editions the word is "crumpled," which seems correct.)

Adder [For, adder-like, his sting lay in his tongue.]

This reflects the old mistaken belief that an adder injects its poison through its forked tongue. It leads up to an overwrought pun, which you can figure out for yourself, in the next line of the libretto.

Corollary [From which I gather this corollary]

An additional proposition that logically follows a proven proposition.


A poetic way of saying "mustache." I can't resist mentioning that Kaiser Wilhelm II (the one who led Germany to defeat in WWI) took inordinate pride in his cocky mustache. In a state visit to Windsor he was accompanied by three valets, a hair dresser, and a hairdresser's assistant whose sole function was to titivate the royal mustache (201). There was an appointment that Pooh-Bah somehow overlooked.

En cavalier [And rides en cavalier in coat of steel]

Astride a horse (and wearing a knight's armor).

Trow [And his daughter, too, I trow!]

Pronunciation: My dictionaries make it rhyme with crow, but Gilbert wants you to rhyme it with how.

Believe, or at least suppose.

Quarter-day [As sure as quarter-day]

One of the four days of the year when rents fall due (75).

Transmutations [What transmutations have been conjured]

Changes from one form or species to another.


Done by magic.


Brewer (56) says the word is taken from the Arabic and means the secret art. Its aims were threefold: the transmutation of baser metals into gold, the search for a universal solvent, and the search for the elixir of life. In broader terms, it can be taken to mean an agent of sweeping change. See also the entry for "Alchemist" in The Yeomen of the Guard.

Baleful [baleful prophecies were rife]

Pertaining to sorrow, misery, and doom.


Abundant and widespread.

Forsworn [Ida has forsworn the world]

Renounced, meaning she has turned her back on worldly affairs.

Bib and tucker [All bib and tucker, frill and furbelow]

A tucker is an "ornamental frill of lace or muslin worn by women of the 17th and 18th centuries round the top of their dresses to cover the neck and shoulders. Hence, with clean bib and tucker, nicely dressed, looking fresh and spruce" (54). Stedman (274) says Louisa May Alcott's girls of the nineteenth century also wore tuckers.


A flounce or wide ruffle (or pleats) used to trim a dress.

Recumbent [recumbent in her foster mother's arms]

Lying on her back.


Wet nurse; i.e., a woman other than the mother who breast-feeds a baby.

Hireling [the hireling mother-for-the-nonce]

One who serves for wages, in this case a wet nurse


For the moment; i.e., temporarily. See also The Yeomen of the Guard.


A room in a church in which ecclesiastical vestments are hung when not in use. In this case, a secluded retreat in which the wet nurse can feed her little charge with all due modesty. After the wedding ritual the register of marriage would be signed in the vestry (245).