To see a commentary note, click on a blue square. To see the Latin text, click on a green square.
ACT II, SCENE i
THE GHOST OF CLAUDIUS
Will no final day dawn on these sufferings? Will peace never be granted, not even to the dead? Is it a trifling thing for tyrants scarce lesser than Jove to die, unless they are punished? Is it even a trifle for them to be punished, unless that eternal rock is to overhang Sisyphus, unless that growing liver is to be eaten daily? Unless there is a punishment which one would choose to suffer? That the gods consume a man - unless he were to prefer the Underworld? For here among the shades this band of senators and equestrians are flaying my back with whips, charging my ministersc savage misdeeds to myself. Take care, princes: you are tortured for your own evils, but are rendered no whit less guilty by those of others. But (oh the anguish!) what great fires and snakes my son-in-law and wife are brandishing at me with their busy hands! But I adore both these great punishments. Who would think it? Claudius adores his punishment! May I be allowed to repeat these agonies, oh may I be allowed, before I see the grim monsters, worse than that night-born crew, than that Stygian hound who gnaws your bones. For these torture the guilty, but they the upright. There is no evil in Hell equal to Agrippina or like to Domitius. Can I but think it an Underworld, or something worse than the Underworld, where such a bitch governs, such a Fury? It is not enough to have administered poison to a Caesar, an uncle, a husband. But lo, I see, I see, and I shudder at the vision. A false Nero invades a kingdom not his own and casts down the true Nero. Nor is that enough. A banquet is prepared equal to the feast of Atreus. Nero, born for murder, returns to poison. For whom is it being readied? Oh, poisoner, stay your evil hand. I am returning as Caesar. I shall prevent this evil. I shall turn and confront you face to face. But the Fates forbid my returning. Oh baleful Fates! But this crime does not belong to destiny. I killed you, my son, in giving you a brother. flee, son, flee your home, flooded with wickedness. Or by the poison follow where your father has led the way. But may a better place await you in your innocence. Hatred of the light warns me to return to the Styx. Now I go, an evil-working father, husband, and father-in-law. Now I go, an evil-suffering father, husband, and father-in-law.
ACT II, SCENE ii
Nero progresses towards the camp with a splendid escort and dressed as an emperor. One of the equestrians in the procession speaks as follow:
EQUESTRIAN Where’s Britannicus? Where’s Claudius’ son? Where’s Britannicus? Will nobody answer? Being one, I shall follow the crowd. Their number excuses their wickedness. I, who am wont to resist no man, will follow that version of events which is offered. ’
Nero enters the camp. Four Roman equestrians remain on the stage.
EQ. 1 What are we doing, fellow citizens? Are we, who are silly in grave matters and grave in silly, to grant the scepter so lightly? Are we thus granting power of life and death? An emperor is life, power, and virtue to his subjects: virtue flows from his mind, power from his hand, life from all his parts. The body’s health depends on the disposition of the head. We ought to deliberate, this business is weighty. Is a citizen to rule citizen, a Nero the Neroes, a boy the Senate? Now we should take action. It is easy to restrain an impulse when it is beginning, hard to cure evil when it has advanced. They obtain the scepter by our will, they retain it by our intimidation.
EQ. 2. You warn us too late. A bull broken to the yoke is over-late in resisting the constraint to which he has already submitted. Now things go better than if Claudius were ruling, a lazy and feckless old man, the subject of his servants.
EQ. 1 Can someone lift up or carry the weight of public affairs, who has scarce passed his seventeenth year?
EQ. 4 Africanus and Corvinus in the flower of their youth, Augustus at age eighteen, and Pompey, younger by a year, waged war as consuls. Virtue, not age, is accustomed to garner honors.
EQ. 3 Rashness is the companion of youth, gravity of mature years.
EQ. 2 Often youths are mature of mind, if not of chin. If you want to give the scepter to a beard, why shouldn’t a billygoat govern? Favorable auspices retain a scepter more than strength; good counsels wage a war better than hands. Seneca will rule the Senate, Burrhus the soldiers, and his resourceful and wise mother will control both him and them.
EQ. 3. So are spineless schoolmasters to wage our battles? So is an arrogant and headstrong woman to rule? Reigns begotten of crime are freighted down by crime. Better for Junius Silanus to wield the scepter, a grown man, innocent, distinguished, and a great-grandson of Augustus.
EQ. 4 That golden bellwether to strut before our flock? Will he rule? Does Agrippina thus command? Will she tolerate it that he wanted to rule? Is this the Nero we know? When the giants build their piles, they build them to their own ruination. But Caesar is leaving the camp for the Senate house.
ACT II, SCENE iii
NERO GOING FROM THE CAMP TO THE SENATE, SENATORS, THE CONSUL LUCIUS ANTISTIUS, THE PRAETORIAN PREFECT BURRHUS, SENECA
NERO Now that the divine Nero has ceased to linger amidst mankind; Nero, distinguished for his Claudian ancestry, distinguished for his own triumphs, famous because of them; Nero, author of Greek and Latin histories, Father of his Country; Nero, the supervisor of the grain supply, in whose reign nothing was unhappy, everything safe; prudent (as was shown by his life under Caius), wise (proved by the very name of empire); Tiberius Drusus Augustus Nero Caesar - let us, Senators, draw him up into the heaven by the hook of our piety, since he has eaten the divine mushrooms, that food of the gods. I grant him an Augustan funeral. And now, inasmuch as by the grace of the gods, by my own will, my mother’s virtue, the unanimous approval of the army, I enjoy the imperial office as Caesar’ s son and heir, I ask your ratification, senators, supreme, favorable, free, unanimous, and weighty. Peace, order, law, authority, usage, and utility ordain that there should be one moon, no matter how the stars may glitter, that there be one Jove in heaven, Underworld, and middle earth, and that there be one head for Rome, lest it breed monsters. See how Jupiter is our single shepherd and father. And here I am before you, a Jupiter for aiding, a father for loving, a shepherd for nourishing, so that I might immediately assume the government of Augustus, although I am scarce his equal in its wielding. And see, an Augustus finally returns. For my youth does not rage with civil war, nor are their any domestic quarrels fostered by me. I have no hatreds, no injuries, no vendettas. Your hatreds, your injuries, and your vendettas are for me to wage. I shall be gentle to everyone else, but severe on myself. I wish you to be as I shall seem, and myself to be no less than I appear. I shall be towards you as I wish the gods to be towards me. In my living I shall provide upright examples, like laws, and the examples contained in the laws will mold my life. I shall bear in mind that I am a man, not a god, nor yet again a beast, and that I preside over men, not beasts or gods. I shall not try all cases as sole judge, lest both accuser and defendant, enclosed in one house, be able to exclaim that a few are getting rich while they are being pauperized. Nothing will be for sale in my house, nothing. Nothing is to be obtained by intrigue, everything by merit. The condition of my household will be one thing, that of Rome another. I desire that subjects should be afraid for me, not of me. It is my desire that the Senate retain its ancient duties. Let all Italy obey elected consuls, let the provinces heed them, let them have right of appeal to the Senate. Let the management of wars be entrusted to me. In peace I shall restrain our soldiers, in war I shall organize them. Thus Caesar becomes a star, thus Augustus is made a god.
L. ANTISTIUS Oh happy we to live under such a prince! Let the god preserve everlasting good for the children of Aeneas. Long live Domitius Claudius Caesar Nero, Augustus, Emperor, indomitable, and pious, Tribune of the People, Pontifex, and Father of his Country. Shout together “long life!”
EVERYBODY Long life, long life for Nero! (Trumpets sound.)
ANTIST. Senators, you know that we must swear by Caesar’s acts.
NERO My colleague, do not give me the title “Father of his Country”, which my youth denies me, nor should you swear by my acts. It is scarcely fitting for me to be more than equal in receiving kindnesses, though your equal in office. Seneca, administer the oath. (The Senate falls to its knees.)
SENECA Tarpeian Father, governor of the sun in heaven; Romulus Quirinus, earth-born inhabitant of the sky; Augustus Caesar, darling of mankind, friend of the gods, judge between vengeful falsifiers and pious witnesses. Unless we regard Nero’s bidding as sanctified, his deeds as ratified, his will as needful to accomplish, that which he rejects as criminal, may Jupiter eject us just as we throw out these stones. May he throw us with greater strength, as being the more powerful.
Let individual senators throw an egg or something similar filled with rose water, as trumpets blare.
BURRHUS What is the password for the night-watch?
NERO Let the watchmen’s password be THE BEST OF MOTHERS.
BUR. Now, Caesar, put your hand to this tablet, a warrant for two thieves bound for the cross.
NERO Don’t press me, Burrhus, for I seem to be amputating a limb when I cut off a fellow-citizen, nor do I come to this operation as a cheerful physician.
SEN. Someone who is immoderately diseased makes his doctor severe. Whoever spares the unjust destroys the just. The good are controlled by rewards, the wicked by punishments, unrequited crime provokes a fresh misdeed. If you tolerate vices in others, you will make them your own. He who spares everybody, and he who spares nobody, are equally cruel.
NERO Who orders this quickly, gladly, or excessively, does so unjustly. I wish I had never learned to read!
SEN. Hear his words, Fathers, worthy for all Rome to hear, worthy of this innocent age, worthy of a god! And so let us be grateful.
NERO Feel gratitude, Fathers, when I have deserved it. Now nothing has been accomplished but that I ought, and would wish, to do it better. (Thereupon enter Armenian ambassadors, and then Agrippina with Pallas.) But see, the Armenian ambassadors approach, and then my mother Agrippina arrives.
SEN. But you should go to meet her, emperor, lest your throne be shared with a woman.
NERO [Descending from the dais/] Augusta my mother, there will be another occasion for hearing the Armenians. Now it pleases me to return to the palace.
AGRIPPINA Leave me to myself, Caesar. I shall follow when I wish.
Nero descends from the tribunal. Exit Nero, Senators, Seneca, Burrhus, and the others, save for Agrippa and Pallas.
ACT II, SCENE iv
AGRIPPINA Has he gone? Has he left? Thus? Has Nero gone? Has Domitius departed, scarcely having glanced at his mother, scarcely saying a word? “There will be another occasion for hearing the ambassadors.” Of course, so there will be no place for me in the Senate. Of course, because thanks to me you have the supreme place in the Senate, the supreme place in this world. Ungrateful Domitius, is this how you repay my favors? Is this how your favors return to you, unhappy Julia? Did I provide you the scepter by my great crime, so that you can take it from me by an even greater misdeed? Did I put Nero in Claudius’ place so that Nero might deny her a place, to whom Claudius one? So that your rotten wife might be dearer than THE BEST OF MOTHERS? Jupiter, employ your righteous hand to cast a lightning-bolt at either me or my son. In either case you will strike a guilty party, guilty of a monstrous wrong. We have both deserved this. Let your lightning strike us both, but strike him the heavier, strike the more impious one.
PALLAS Augusta, restrain the impulse of a frenzied mind.
AGRIP. Can I restrain it? Is it a light thing to fall from power? Is it a light thing for the mother who gave her son power to be thrust out by the inhumanity of her sole child?
PAL. You will better retain your grip on power by clasping your son to your bosom than by ranting fiercely like some character in a tragedy. Resist the lad, and this unconquered chick rages. Resist this ruler, and his fearless lightning strikes. You must forgive a young man much, a prince everything.
AGRIP. Nothing is left of my deception, and nothing is sufficient. That virago Semiramis scarcely clung tighter to her adolescent son than I to Nero. But my shame forbids me from saying what my purity has allowed itself to suffer so that I might wield the scepter. Now I have lost both scepter and shame, nor is this enough for Nero, or enough to do against Agrippina, unless Acte is to be transformed from Julia’s freedwoman into her daughter-in-law. This freedwoman - why call her my daughter-in-law? - my rival, will present me with grandsons, with kings. Therefore is the scepter, which I was mad enough to bestow on him, to pass to a serving-girl? Shall Claudius have died for the benefit of a freedwoman? Is his death to be so happy for my rival, unhappy for me? Before that, water will give birth to fire, fire to water, the earth will beget planets and the heavens plants, before a servant will rule while Julia serves.
PAL. When Venus leads a young man on love’s campaign, variety entrances him if some novel love glitters. Satiation follows, even if Love herself be present, and so does the unwelcome pang of love regretted. As flame follows after fire, heat after flame, darkness after heat, and gloomy terror after darkness, so angry love prevails, but happy love exhausts itself. Be patient until he comes to know himself, and he will give himself to you as a son. He will provide his wife with a husband, you with a son.
AGRIP. He rejects that which is licit, while the illicit allures him. I think that the Caesars are fated to crave things which do not belong to them, and to despise their own. But even though he burn with a fickle flame, unless he sticks there, where will he finally rest when his capricious fires subside? What limit is there to his wantonness?
PAL. Loyal mother-love will return to your son.
AGRIP. The sweet title of parent, which creates love for other mothers, engenders loathing for me. My beauty, the bait of Venus, was ruined when I bore him. The venerable name of mother makes me an object of hatred: it is a word welcome among the commoners, but noxious to the throne. He refuses to fear his mother, whom everybody else dreads, and so the extreme crime I have committed pays the greatest of forfeits.
PAL. Cease harboring these dark suspicions, since of his own free will he has taken the lead in bestowing on you jewels such as other women crave, and has eagerly given you the select garments of previous princes’ women. These gifts show that the receiver is beloved, the donor loving.
AGRIP. I was everyone’s cynosure, I was empress. What am I saying, unhappy me, “I was?” Rather, shall I be able to be one? Why remind me of those gifts? He is giving back some of them to me, after I gave him the lot.
PAL. What you have given him, nobody can gain by complaining. Nero could not have returned these items to you if he hated you.
AGRIP. I was able to bestow them. You ask if I can take them away?
PAL. Fortune denies such powers to a woman.
AGRIP. Industry, wrath, worth, favor, and cunning will gain them.
PAL. Fear the emperor.
AGRIP. Ought I, daughter, sister, wife, and parent to emperors to fear a father, a brother, a husband, a son?
AGRIP. I shall command.
PAL. You are a mother.
AGRIP. See whose mother I am.
AGRIP. I shall prevail.
PAL. You are a woman.
AGRIP. Consider who I am.
PAL. You will die.
PAL. Where are you rushing?
AGRIP. I am pulling down my son.
PAL. Let your chagrin be hidden, if your chagrin wishes to be repaid. Open wrath is an object of ridicule, works injury when hidden. But see, our ruler Nero is approaching. (They retire to the back of the stage. Enter Nero, Burrhus, and Seneca.)
ACT II, SCENE v
NERO, BURRHUS, SENECA, AGRIPPINA, PALLAS
NERO Holy piety! Is my mother thus to begrudge me her honest pleasures, when she herself indulges in ones less tolerable? Is she thus to esteem my deference toward her? Is this the value she places on the favors I have done her? Does she both have and hope? Does she enjoy the fruits, yet still indulge her frets? Unless supreme, is she nothing? Does she rage, unless alone she reigns? Am I always to be a boy, subject to my mother’s law? Ruler of everything, must I obey my mother?
BURRHUS Fear your arrogant mother’s schemes, Caesar. She was always cruel, now she is deceitfully weaving plots.
SENECA Her ostentation is to be cut short, her arrogance diminished. Strike at her ministers, if you abstain from harming your mother. It is permissible to do against them whatever is impermissible to do to a parent.
NERO I shall follow the right advice you rightly offer. And see, the opportunity presents itself for following it immediately. (Turning to his mother.) Venerable mother, glory of the Augustan race, why shun the sight of your son, the grandees in their bevies? What can be sweeter than the kingdom, more beloved than a son? Are you, the Augusta, deserting the kingdom? Are you, a parent, deserting your son? For what do you strive by yourself? What are you plotting in silence?
AGRIP. My Nero, I have been far, far too severe a mother, unaware that this does not suit the times. And now, my delight, if your youth can provoke delight’s stimulus, my heart is bared. From this source I drink the nectar. If the diadem has heaped up piles of wealth, lo, my coffers lie open. From this source I enjoy my fortune, at least equal to your own. I commend to you myself, my people, all that is in my possession.
NERO So why do you associate with freedmen, avoid the Augustus? Does boredom with a son affect a mother?
AGRIP. Rather, a son has been affected with boredom for a mother
NERO Monarchs hold suspect those things which one does by oneself.
AGRIP. This suspicion against an enemy is an easy thing, against a mother it is a wrong.
NERO Whoever does not fear uncertain things takes a fall, being off his guard.
AGRIP. Whoever fears uncertain things is over-fearful.
NERO I prefer to be over-fearful than under-protected.
AGRIP. That fear renders safe things unsafe.
NERO You are asserting that the things which protect me are unsafe for yourself.
AGRIP. Why should the things that protect you not be safe for me also?
NERO Because you value yourself and your people, not me and mine.
AGRIP. I value me and mine? Are not they, together with myself, yours?
NERO They are not, nor shall I suffer them to be. Look here. I remove from office that familiar of yours, Pallas, your darling, who was unfitly appointed the chief minister of Claudius’ government, so that this position will be vacant for Agrippina.
PAL. Has your mother, the bride of Claudius, deserved this? Nero, do you blame this on the Nero, being his son-in-law and heir? He wanted me to be an equal partner in his government, to have perpetual charge of his accounts, not subjected to audit.
NERO Keep still about what you deserve, about what he tolerated. Neither bars my way. As you have sworn yourself out of office, depart.
PAL. What’s my fault?
NERO That you are Pallas.
PAL. Whom am I harming?
NERO Because you are innocent.
PAL. For what reason?
NERO I command it.
PAL. Judge me.
NERO I have pronounced sentence.
PAL. A hard one.
NERO But one to be tolerated.
PAL. Do my good deeds not favor me?
PAL. Does your mother not —
PAL. Do entreaties have no power?
NERO Leave. Drag away this troublesome fellow.
AGRIP. At least give better repayment for my good deeds.
NERO I have no time.
AGRIP. At lest give me a hearing.
NERO I am unmoved.
AGRIP. But these prayers —
NERO I give no hearing. Drag him away. (Pallas is dragged off by Burrhus and Seneca.)
AGRIP. What’s this? You will hear, like it or not, that which you hate to hear. Nero, do you acknowledge Augusta, and do you acknowledge that she is irate, Nero? Augusta will be able to hinder you, in her anger she will attack you. I swear by Jove above, by Jove of the Underworld, Britannicus still lives, and I pray he will live, grown to manhood, the genuine heir, worthy of the patrimony you hold thanks to my deceit, not foisted into your family by adoption. Alas for your adoption, my deception! Now I make no attempt to conceal all the evils of this house, especially my marriage, my poison - or rather (oh, the wickedness!) your poison. For those crimes are yours from which you benefit. But thanks to me and the provident gods, good care has been taken that my step-son survives and flourishes. I shall hasten to the camp as companion of the true Nero, the son of Caesar, that I might restore him his scepter. Let the Praetorians hear me, the daughter of Germanicus on the one side, and on the other maimed Burrhus with his missing hand, together with Seneca the exile with his lying tongue, claiming power over the human race for you - and for themselves. You shades of my consecrated Claudius, you brothers Silanus, murdered by impious deceit, and all you crimes committed with no good purpose, avenge me, yourselves, and humanity. Let your master, this butcher, this cross I bear, forfeit his life for his crimes, his carcass to the cross. (Exit Agrippina.)
ACT II, SCENE vi
NERO, POLLIO, LOCUSTA
NERO Is this the woman’s audacity? Is this Agrippina’s frenzy? Is this my mother’s rage? Can she, dares she, intends she to oppose me? Agrippina’s handiwork is well known, my mother’s mind is well known, womanly willfulness is well known: that her rage has the desire, her audacity has the ability, her frenzy has the daring. To whom will she yield, who butchered her husband? Whom will she spare, who ruined her family? So shall I, Caesar, imprudently, passively allow this furious, wild woman to level threats against me? Shall I allow this shrewd, bold woman to threaten me? But she is my mother, those words are but threats. What can I tolerate, unless I patiently bear words? Whom can I tolerate, if not my wild mother? But I trust I shall not have to tolerate her or them for long. Claps of thunder frighten, but do not harm. Wind shakes, but does not shatter. See how my mother blusters with thunder, hurls words like wind! Neither strikes, both are to be shrugged off. But a storm is wont to attend upon both: it flashes with thunder, wind brings rain. One needs guard against both, lest there be room for either. What hope have I of harming her? What means? The boy Britannicus lives. He will not live for my harming. Remove him from his mother and you remove her hope, her means of making mischief. He is a boy. His manly bearing contradicts the fact. But he is a boy. An impudent boy is all the easier put down. He is a boy. A future Hector, a source of dread for Ulysses. He is to be feared because of my mother, not his years. He has not earned his death, but she has very much earned it for him. She made him an object for killing when she made him a subject for fear. Monarchs do not tolerate subjects for fear, they remove them. Britannicus, you die for my mother’s sake, innocent as far as you and I are concerned. (To Pollio, a Praetorian tribune.)
Pollio, fetch that convicted poisoner Locusta, whom I was so imprudent as to entrust into your care. (Exit Pollio.)
Her reputation declares her skilled enough, our use of her makes her well-tried. But let her remove him gently, not over-vigorously. (Enter Locusta with Pollio.)
Locusta, when I wished death for Britannicus, you treacherously gave him an antidote for the poison, which he immediately spewed out. Do you thus carry out Caesar’s orders when you hear them? (He strikes her.)
LOCUSTA Forgive me, Caesar. Afraid of the crime’s repugnance, and of ill repute, I wrongly betrayed you.
NERO Am I supposed to think the Julian law ought to be feared by me, is reputation a matter of concern for you? When you see that woman raging, when you prepare your defense, you invent delays for the sake of your own safety. Now, if you do not prepare a poison, lethal and immediate, woe unto you. Kill or be killed.
LOC. But he has a servant who acts as his food taster. If he dies the same death, the crime will be revealed.
NERO But it works less injury on him who swallows less.
LOC. The damage is equal. There are quick poisons which kill by their very vapors.
NERO So let him first drink something warm and strong, but harmless. When LOC asks for water, let him drink the Styx.
LOC. Because you urge, Caesar, watch me. I shall seek poisons from heaven, the Underworld. From the one, I shall seek the Hydra’s venoms, the blood of Nessus, the torch of Althaea; from the other, the banes of the Snake, Scorpion, and Crab. I shall mix the poison of Colchis with hemlock, opium with aconite, viper’s venom with spider’s web, fire with water. I shall add to the poisons spells to make them do their work the worse. May I die if he who drinks these things does not perish on the spot!
NERO Do these things, Locusta, and I shall grant you pupils, immunity, rewards for your good deed. Come, mix your potions in my chamber. Pollio, you test out their powers on a goat. (Exit Locusta and Pollio.)
ACT II, SCENE vii
NERO, AGRIPPINA, BRITANNICUS, OCTAVIA, OTHO
NERO (To himself.) My nets are well spread, I await my prey. But I see him, and women I hate even worse. Let hatred defer to self-preservation. Here he comes, protected by his escort, but he comes completely. His hunger does allow him to linger among these people, so that he might delay. It will be no bad thing for all these people to die. But let their hope perish first, a crop sown for my ruination. I can scarcely repress my loathing, but repress it I shall, so that it can be all the more deadly. [Enter Britannicus, Agrippina, Octavia, and Otho.] Augusta, wife, brother, I rejoice that you come as companions to the feast with equal zest. But to have music while the tables are being set, I ask you, brother, to sing a fine song; I ask as a brother; if you are unwilling I shall command as your Caesar. (The tables are set for a banquet.)
BRITANNICUS Let those oppressed by grief mourn, let the happy sing.
NERO The swan sings, gladsome on the brink of death.
BRIT. Death frees one from grief. On the brink of death, I shall sing.
NERO Sing something cheerful, for our sake, not for yours.
BRIT. Do you, in the pink of fitness, ask a sick man to wish you good health? You are better at singing cheerful stuff, and can sing better.
NERO Who is so stubborn as to refuse a song when bidden?
OCTAVIA Obey him when he bids, brother.
BRIT. Do I hear a bidding? I obey, but let my song suit my mood.
OCT. As a partner I shall join in song with my brother.
THE SONG OF BRITANNICUS AND OCTAVIA
BRIT. Oh the sorrow! My mother murdered by my father: oh the crime! My father murdered by my step-mother: oh the shame! I am born of Caesar, but another man is Caesar’s heir.
OCT. My virtue has suffered worse: I hate. Time will bring me better: I hope. Let him who hopes for few goods not hate the bearing of many ills.
BRIT. I am distressed by my father’s murder: I must bewail it. I am deposed from my father’s throne: I must bear it. I make way lest I be murdered, I must take care for my father’s murder and throne.
OCT. Downfall haunts the high places. Let Claudius’ progeny, destined to perish in a grand holocaust, both bear witness to Claudius’ fate and bear it.
BRIT. How can I sing well of my destiny, accumulating misfortunes? Of myself, cravenly complaining of misfortunes? Of my death, the remedy for misfortunes?
NERO [Aside.] This hope of theirs is to be nourished? I am to tolerate such an attitude in security?
AGRIPPINA How sadly the boy sings of his sorrows!
NERO This undoubtedly doleful song was sung by a boy scarce sorrowful. But now the banquet summons us in our happiness. Let us take our seats, and you be seated with us, Otho — you, if anyone, who are foremost in my affections. (They recline.)
Let these happy goblets of heated wine be quaffed. Let Bacchus crown Ceres, Ceres crown Bacchus, and Venus crown the both. Let this day pass joyfully, the festival of Salvation, confirming my reign. Mother, wife, brother, let Ceres, Bacchus, and Venus bring you joy. What sorrow makes you frown?
AGRIP. I crave to be joyful, but joys are forfeited by those who crave them. I do not know what vexes me. Whatever it is, I know it vexes. Is it sorrow? Or fear? Away, my sorrow, away, my fear! If you fare well, Britannicus, I shall fare the better.
BRIT. I fare well, if the Fates grant welfare to a miserable man. And my spirit yearns for something ineffable, as if it were flying free of its bonds. Whatever it is, I know it yearns.
OCT. Let this omen be a happy one! But my breast is heaving, my knees are shaking, my heart palpitates, I grow faint.
NERO Womanly anxiety is a wonderful thing. Let us be happy. Our cup invites us to be gay. (Trumpets sound.)
BRIT. [To his food taster.] Hand me a drink, boy, as usual. Bring it warm. But what’s this? My hand shrinks, although you have had a taste and there’s no poison. It’s too hot, pour some water into this boiling stuff. That’s good, that’s plenty. I pour a libation to Jupiter the Avenger. Ah! (Britannicus drinks the poison and dies.)
AGRIP. Ah, he’s fallen!
OCT. Alas for me, he’s fallen!
AGRIP. Ah, he’s dead!
NERO What’s this? He’s fallen? He’s always been prone to suffer from epilepsy, and as a child he often had lapses. But he will gradually regain his senses. In the meanwhile, carry him away, nor let this incident impede our cheerful dinner.
AGRIP. [Aside to Octavia.] You must pretend happiness, girl, and hide your sorrow.
OCT. [Aside to Agrippina.] I have learned to dissimulate, but I have not learned to rejoice at evil. How horrible to have to tolerate that about which you cannot complain!
NERO Such are women - if you are sad they rejoice, if you want to rejoice they sadden. They always cleave to the contrary. But, Otho, I see your expression is also downcast.
OTHO May I have your permission to retire, Caesar?
NERO Does my Feast of Salvation displease you? Are you sad? Horrified? Afraid? Or are you shunning me?
OTHO No, I am hastening to the joys of the blessed, the object of everyone’s desire, the star of beauty, the glory of her famous family, in whom are combined the three Graces, who is altogether Venus. For me, in her absence, living is scarcely life
NERO Who is this girl who is worth so much?
OTHO She is of a sort that the more one knows her, the more he praises her. But she is of a kind that nobody can praise enough, though he knows her as being the embodiment of all praises.
NERO Tell me who she is.
OTHO Poppaea, my darling. Did I say mine? I should have said she belongs to the heaven, the earth, mankind, the gods. But by the law of marriage she is my darling.
NERO You tell me wonderful things, things that do not invite trust unless I see her. And indeed, a desire overcomes me to discover without delay whether your love is blind and deceiving.
OTHO This is love, I confess, but it is not deceiving love, nor blind. But I fear it was incautious to reveal all my good fortune to a man more powerful than myself. But why should anything that is mine be concealed from my Nero?
NERO You are wise. But in delaying you put off your pleasure - and mine, since I wish to see her, and I greatly wish to see her. (Exit Nero and Otho.)
ACT II, SCENE 8
OCTAVIA Flow now, my tears, as the rain pours from the clouds, and as water floods everything when the dam has broken.
AGRIPPINA Pour forth now, my groans, as winds rush through the sky, and as fire burns whatever withstands it, when the embers have been scattered.
OCT. Now that Phaethon has died let the sun turn into amber; when Caunus has fled let Byblis dissolve into a fountain.
AGRIP. With Memnon dead, day by day let Aurora shed her dew. With Polydorus killed, let weeping Hecuba become a bitch.
OCT. Do I, a tender girl, witness the death of my mother, father, and brother? Can I witness these things, and not die in the seeing?
AGRIP. Have I, a mature woman, encompassed the ruin of my uncle, husband, and son? I grieve to have encompassed these things: do I, a mother, not die?
OCT. I shall die. He who was so savage against my brother will not spare me. Or if he does, I shall not spare myself.
AGRIP. I shall perish. Nor will he who showed an example of his handiwork in the case of his brother hesitate to do so regarding his mother. If he hesitates, he will be guiltless.
OCT. Busiris stained his altars with foreign blood, not that of his nation, and assuredly not with that of his brother.
AGRIP. Diomedes fed his monstrous horses on human blood, but that was the blood of grown men, and he shuddered at that of children.
OCT. O empty aspirations, hopelessness, fragile safety! When my brother perished, hope, safety, and aspirations perished with him.
AGRIP. Oh vain endeavors, blind intentions, cheating faith!. When my son took a fall, intentions, faith, and endeavor fell with him.
OCT. Rome, born under an unlucky star, greedy for power by lawful and unlawful means, from your very foundation you drip with fraternal bloodshed.
AGRIP. Rome, growing under an unlucky star, because of power you witness the murder of fathers, brothers, grandsons, sons.
OCT. Such greed, such bloodthirsty greed for ruling!
AGRIP. Such long-standing hatreds ruling brothers cherish!
OCT. You see these things, Phoebus, and do not hide the day?
AGRIP. You allow these things, king of gods, and withhold your lightning?
OCT. Leave me, life, avoid these evils in death.
AGRIP. Depart, soul, and flee the crimes at hand.
OCT. Step-mother, do you mock me in my misery, or do you mourn for your daughter-in-law?
AGRIP. May I be yet more miserable, if I do not suffer the same as you! But what woman could be more miserable?
OCT. Your daughter-in-law is your rival in this one thing.
AGRIP. I allow her to rival me, as long as she yields to the more wretched. She falls the harder who planted her foot the higher. I have fallen from higher hopes, and so I grieve the more. My highest ambition has failed in Britannicus. This, however, survives, dearer than him, and dearer than life - hatred of Nero. I scarcely have many accomplices against him. I have you, but none your equal. Revenge is a second life, I crave to be revenged. But for you, daughter of Caesars and glory of your nation, I shall pray for as many good things as misfortunes for my Nero, and I shall pray on my own behalf. Nor shall I offer prayers in vain, but my arts shall serve as prayers, my powers as my arts. You must live worthy of a Caesar-husband, choose a man your equal in virtue, love, breeding, and power. Time, or virtue, will lessen your sorrows
OCT. My virtue is feeble, time’s salvation is late in coming.
AGRIP. Virtue is not easily overcome, time flies.
OCT. It flies amidst my sorrows, it limps along when bringing happiness.
AGRIP. A distracted mind thinks time protracted, but it will come, it will come. Consider me: either my hand will put him down, or his hand will carry me off. I seek allies against him, and leaders for these allies. Cleave to me, daughter, the avenger of your sufferings.
What does accursed hunger for power hold forbidden? What holy things does it fail to pollute with its wild onrush? What laws does it not trample underfoot in its evil ambition? Mounting upward, it piles Pelion atop the Alps. It contends with the gods in the Giants’ manner. Through the legal and the illegal, it rushes headlong. When it ascends, it teeters on the slippery pinnacle, peering downward from the summit into the abyss. In its impatience, it despises and destroys a partner. It crushes whatever meets its glance. It culls the heads of the flowers within its reach.
But the greedy ocean devours the rivers. The sons of Oedipus were killed by mutual wounding, nor did Romulus suffer a brother as rival, and the Triumvirs attacked each other with no less slaughter - until the seats of the Duumvirs were emptied. How many tragedies have been written by baleful suspicion, how many by hidden slander, creeping along, harming masters and servants? Let servants sow no crop of suspicion against their masters, lest the masters cut down this suspect crop, since this harvest is reaped only for straw. The vine-master lops whatever grows too luxuriant, and even a good king cuts down those greedy for his throne.
A ruler, whether good or bad, is sent us by Jove. The bad is sent for chastisement, the good as a reward. Our Father’s right hand is good, his left bad. Praise him if good, tolerate him if bad. For both the good and the bad are under God’s special protection. Jupiter tolerates no scheming against the good, for he defends him who is like himself. Nor does he aid us against the bad, for revenge belongs to Jove, not to mankind. It is a rare rebellion that is fortunate, loyal, and decent. Betrayal, confused by great perils, disperses hither and thither in panic, and becomes manifest. Thus the traitor, hastening to betray, betrays himself.
Go to Act III