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ACT IV, SCENE i
THE GHOST OF AGRIPPINA
A woman than whom nobody has been murdered better (for it was my just deserts), though nobody has been murdered worse (for it was by the wickedness of my son), than whom nobody is a greater object of horror, I bear vengeance. Pious Orestes and pious Alcmaeon wickedly killed their mothers, but this was to gain vengeance for their fathers, killed by their mothers, and under orders. Both paid the forfeit for their mothers’ removal by insanity, and suffered the avenging Furies. But this monster far surpassed those ones. Nero, your father died of sickness when you were three years old, but not before placing a curse on my pregnancy and your birth, thinking that nothing could come from me save an abomination, thinking you to be born for as a public calamity. But my second husband died, though for your sake: he died by your poison, since his death was for your advantage. Do you claim this deed as your own? I inflicted this injury for you, not against you. But alas, having committed no injury I am stricken down by you. Ah, the crime! It pleases this monster to murder his mother. Ah the shame! It amuses this adulterer to gaze at me, murdered. Ah, the evil!. It delights his harlot to sneer at my sight. You incestuous matricide, this is how a son ought to behave? You handle my limbs, criticizing some and praising others, and while gazing at me you soon grew thirsty and take a drink. Drink the gore for which you thirst. Drink down your mother. cIn my innocence I did not know I had so fair a mother.” In your guilt you did not wish to have one so fair. You do not have one, you have got rid of your mother. Even though fair, a mother is a burden and a source of loathing. Oh the sin! My goodwill towards you is deemed a burden, revenge on me is reckoned a profit. Are so great, so many sins to be committed with impunity? Do you not yet rage? Do you not yet experience dread? Indeed, do you not yet experience the Furies’ dire whips, their blazing torches? Is your life still free of terror? Is your sleep free of care? Does your mind not yet agitate you as a source of torment and terror, as a witness buried within your breast? It will agitate you, and you will experience yourself as your own punishment, yourself, a harsher evil than the Eumenides and Nemesis. What about the sack, the home of the living parricide? What about having for companions the dog, the ape, the cock, the snake? What about making your bed in the sea? But let not even these beasts consume him, lest they become more bestial. Nor let the sea purge this evildoer, lest it be polluted. Earth, sun, heaven, sea, from which all is created, may all abandon him who murders the mother from whom he is born, who deserves good of him. May the sea reject him as he floats, may the air reject him as he lives, may the earth reject him as he dies, may the shore refuse him as he washes upon it. But he lives, woe is me, he lives for greater evil. Come now, with his mother killed, what greater evil can he do? What greater evil can he not do? I was worthy to strike, I admit it. But Nero was not worthy to strike his mother. But what did your loyal wife do to be abjured by you? Unless it should not be enough for you to abjure her, unless you are marking her down, undeserving, for an undeserved death. Do you feel no shame? Poppaea urges you, that bold slut, and she feels no shame. Having machinated against me, she wickedly plots death for your consort. She promises herself your bed. But neither she, you, nor Seneca, will accomplish such an evil deed in safety. I am present, and as a bridesmaid I bear these wedding-torches. Perhaps I shall not be able to save your pious wife, but I shall be able to harass your impious one. Burned but not buried, I shall wend my way everywhere. I shall not allow you or her to reap enjoyment from my grief unharmed. Hasten, destroy all you hold dear. Let Burrhus and Seneca deservedly pay the forfeit for their too-great loyalty. Rome will hate you, you Rome. Such hatred will pave the way for ruination for the both of you - and may it bring it! Gods (if the gods have any concern for mankind), mankind (if mankind has any reverence for the gods), Dis (if you give ear to pious men and gods), snatch Nero, snatch the snatcher of everything, an object of hate to the gods, a burden to Dis, a plague upon mankind.
ACT IV, SCENE ii
POPPAEA TERRIFIED, NERO DISTRAUGHT, THE GHOST OF AGRIPPINA
POPPAEA Where are you fleeing? Are you fleeing me? Or I you? Crispinus my husband, Crispinus my son, kiss me as you used to do. This is not allowed? Nero forbids, and hatefully plunges his sword in my throat. Save me, husband! Son, save me! This is allowed. Receive me as a companion. As a flitting shade, I shall accompany your flitting shades. But this torch, this threatening countenance urge me to follow Agrippina. Where are you leading me? I shall follow you, even if you drag me down to Tartarus. Is this a wedding-torch? Does this countenance befit a marriage?
POP. But this voice — whence does it sound, and why?
NERO Sabina, why did you leave my bedchamber? Are you leaving me, my only consolation? Whither do you flee me? Whither are you escaping? Wait, I come. What fear has alarmed you?
POP. Agrippina’s madness. What madness has alarmed you?
NERO Agrippina’s fear. Haven’t you heard the blare of trumpets from the place where my mother has her tomb?
POP. I have heard, as it sang of war with a great noise.
NERO Let us move elsewhere.
POP. You are fleeing like a stricken stag. The wound clings to it, the arrow remains its companion.
NERO We must move our home.
POP. A new home cannot amend your mind, mindful of its blood-guilt.
NERO This murder was done by me, but I can scarce believe that I could have done it. But my punishment shows that it has been done, it proves it, for my witnesses are my eye and mind. I drag out my sleepless nights in panic. Fearfully I await the day, but by day I long for night so that it might conceal my fear. Thus I fear the daytime as the precursor of my downfall. Gloomily, I stare at the sea, the shore, and a feeble lamentation strikes my ears.
POP. And I hear the lamentation of Latin matrons.
NERO What terror oppresses us in our sleep? A ghost, or an illusion?
POP. A ghost, but the kind that existed on the stage, like that of Euryphyle or Clytaemnestra.
NERO Do you not see Agrippa’s torches menacing me. Or do I alone see them?
POP. I see them menacing me.
NERO For me the earth will yawn.
POP. Let it yawn for me.
NERO I seem to be stained with blood.
POP. And you plunge your bloody sword in my bosom.
NERO I prefer this be interpreted for the better. In an insubstantial dream sleep fills your bedchamber with what you have brooded about during the day. These eternal dead signify that our marriage-bedchamber will be enduring. The Latin matrons are mourning Octavia’s lost marriage. The resounding trumpet promises my regal rule. These burning torches presage my glorious name. This shade we confront signifies that nothing save shadows stands in our way. I bury my sword in your bosom, Sabina, because it is peacetime. Thus the dead, the lamentations, the trumpet, the torch, the ghost, the sword, everything promises you prosperity.
POP. Thus accomplish it, gods and goddesses. May things turn out well for me.
NERO I promise.
NERO Who calls me? Whence comes this sound?
POP. The sound is coming from the tomb of the Caesars.
NERO I see the doors opened of their own volition, I hear the voice calling, and I shiver all over.
NERO It is my mother’s voice. Why are you calling me? Whither do you hasten me? I am coming. But the shade has vanished. What an evil, neither to be able to enjoy my power with my mother, nor without my mother! But henceforth I was not accustomed to suffer anxiety nor to have dreams. Now there is no sleep for me, or at least it has this baleful dream. With night having fallen, I am steering a ship. The helm eludes me, wrenched out of my grasp. Thrown out of the boat, I am dragged into deep shadows, and borne towards my wife, to places where swarms of ants are flying. And then how many statues surround me, press in on me, like the statues you see set up in Pompey’s theater! The rump of my Spanish steed turned into that of an ape, but it gives forth tuneful whinnies from its head. What a sad, shameful dream!
POP. I shall be your interpreter, reading the omens of this dream for you no less than you have done for me. Your mother, the rudder of our state, has left you, a rudder which hitherto Seneca and Burrhus have been wresting from your control. The night, the anxiety, the shape are the shadows of Octavia. For your shadowy wife is dragging her consort into shadows and into infamy. The black commoners, favoring this dark woman, are attacking you like a swarm of flying ants. The statues are the nations which oppose themselves to you as things of folly, and though they might pluck at the monkey’s rump of your empire, its healthy head, lifted high, will whinny. So grasp your rudder and rule. Destroy these ants, statues, shadows, and apes with merited misfortune.
NERO Sabina, you may be a Sibyl, but the facts show that your mind conceives a wish, not the truth. For Tartarus gapes for me. On every side the Eumenides are brandishing torches, vipers, fires, and torments. And my mother rages, more savage than the Eumenides. She is a fourth Fury to me, and my own mind within makes a fifth. See, the triple judge of Dis has sat in judgment on me, he has condemned me to the vulture, the rock, the wheel, the urn, the eagle, everlasting thirst along with gaping hunger. See, Acheron prepares its aches, Phlegethon its flames, Cocytus its cries, and they are preparing these forever. Nor is this enough for my mind or for my mother. O mother, spare me. If you seek penalties, I shall pay them. Do you require them from me, or more truthfully concerning me? I shall pay them. I shall pay penalties I cannot bear. I am wholly horror, sadness, and trembling. Or does this manner of punishment still fail to please? What earth can hide me? What ocean can cleanse this guilty person? Let deepest earth take me, let the sea wash me away with its deepest Styx.
POP. Spare yourself, Caesar. Beseech the gods, with your prayers petition men and gods, let mages perform rites. Let the shades be summoned, let the ghosts be placated with a pious victim.
NERO The gods will not suffer that mankind suffers me. Or rather men will not suffer that the gods suffer me. A man who escapes his fellow men and the gods does not escape himself. The impious are banned from the gods’ rites. Conscious of my guilt, I shudder at that herald’s proclamation, nor can I bear to visit Vesta’s threshold in worship. When Jove thunders, I fearfully think he is thundering against me.
POP. People report many prodigies.
NERO New reigns are usually announced by prodigies.
POP. The sun stood still, doubting whether to complete its course or that of Thyestes’ day. Whirling on its axis, it destroys the day at midday, on which the stars are seen in the very daytime.
NERO If it should continue in its course, I shall not complain. Let it set on this generation.
POP. And your dinner suddenly burst into flames, just as if a greedy Harpy had snatched away the meal.
NERO My Harpy-mother has died by my lightning.
POP. A woman has struggled with a coiled serpent.
NERO What’s this? Julia has struggled with Nero, a serpent to her.
POP. Another woman is ruined by lightning while sleeping with a man.
NERO Why must I hear that hateful word “lightning” again? It will be a miracle if you are not struck by lightning in my name. But let the Tarpeian Father worry about these things. This is the gods’ business. I fear mankind more than the gods, lest they contrive hatreds against me, and evil born from these hatreds! The remedy is easy, for their smoldering anger annoys the gods. A bitch that has been killed does not bark, much less bite. But now I perceive that mankind, the gods, and I myself are troublesome to me. Would that I could witness both mankind and gods dying along with me! But it suffices that I flee and put to flight the both of them.
POP. Rather you should strive to reconcile both, for there is hope on either side. But see, Burrhus is seeking you.
ACT IV, SCENE iii
Enter Burrhus, and then Seneca, Sophonius Tigellinus, and Fasenius Rufus.
NERO Is he seeking me out with poison or murder? Why, Burrhus, are you seeking me?
BURRUS With glad enthusiasm, Caesar, the troops congratulate you on your salvation, on having escaped your treacherous mother’s savage snares.
NERO Burrhus, are you speaking the truth?
BUR. Give me your hand to kiss, Caesar. I swear by this sacred hand, our militia is as happy that you escaped your malevolent mother as it is about its own prosperity.
NERO So come, I grant each man a mina, on the condition that henceforth they gladly act against their prince’s enemies with equal enthusiasm. But my salvation occurred against my will, nor can I help being sad in the midst of this great good. I weep unwillingly.
NERO I wanted her to die, not to die by my action.
BUR. I myself would prefer that anyone would die before he could kill me.
NERO She had to die this death, unless I were to die before her.
BUR. And so she died beforehand, to the cheers of all our troops.
NERO But I greatly fear how the Senate will receive this. You, Seneca, write them a letter in my name, telling how this criminal woman launched a conspiracy against me. But say that when she was found out, she died by her own hand. Clear my reputation, but slander her by repeating old facts and inventing new ones.
SENECA Matricide is easy to commit, hard to defend. Nevertheless I obey Nero. (Exit Seneca.)
POP. Why still wear a sad and gloomy look, Nero? It seems that you are triumphing instead, with praises heaped on you in safety. The Hydra, that manifold evil, has died in the person of your monstrous mother, or rather that Hydra’s rival. They say that in your infancy, as you were sleeping in the open air, a snake coiled about you, who frightened off stranglers sent by Messalina to kill you. But now that you are a man, and are wide awake, with your auspicious hand you have killed that she-serpent bent on your death.
NERO I remember, just as you remind me. And I am wearing the snake’s skin enclosed in a golden bracelet on my arm, my mother’s work. But her memory wearies me, and so I am throwing it away, which I have long worn. (Throws away the bracelet.)
POP. Thus you ought to cast aside everything belonging to that hateful woman, or even what bears her image. Emancipated, now you cast off your boyhood, your servitude, a free man and a law unto yourself. Now you, who held your mother in awe, may do whatever you please. Now you rule as an autocrat. You are not a boy, but you are scarce a man. But the Augusta forbids. Your tutors, this one and that, forbid your being a man. Your Juno refuses to let you be a Jupiter. If you are a man, why is your marriage to me being delayed? Does my appearance displease you, though pleasing to Otho, as it used to be to you? Perhaps you are pleased by Octavia’s triumphant ancestors? Or her sincere mind? Or her fruitful womb? Perhaps your consort pleases you, who will never give you a child - more likely she will present one to Eucaerus, that Egyptian virtuoso on his flute. Promise me a wedding, grant me marriage. Now you can grant whatever you wish. Do you not wish? Or do you wish, but cannot? Nero, if you abandon me, I shall cleave to Otho.
NERO Poppaea, I wish the same as you, even more. Grant me a while, until I accomplish my desire. Do you see that girl, Burrhus? Or why not say my girl? Does she please you? You could think her to be Venus, Diana, and Pallas combined in one. Do you not see that she is all things praiseworthy rolled into one? Burrhus, what is there lacking in her for me?
BUR. Assuredly, nothing - save an honest mind.
NERO Except for my bed, you should say, which she will receive.
BUR. But will she take away Octavia’s place?
NERO She will take it away, and if she wants she may deprive her of life.
BUR. Gods forbid. What is the reason for such a great divorce?
NERO That it has pleased me to do so. I suppose divorce is a novelty for Caesars.
BUR. But I would rather attack her regarding some matter in which she has displeased you.
NERO Let her mother show how upright she is. Let her father show how chaste. Her alienated mind, unlovely appearance, her frequent lovers, her sterile belly - do these things satisfy Burrhus?
BUR. You hunt for more reasons. To ignore other considerations, I ask one thing. Does it please you to drive her away in her innocence, with these things unproved?
NERO It pleases me.
BUR. And so give her back her dowry, which consists of your empire.
NERO What are you saying?
BUR. Do not ask me to repeat myself, Nero. It suffices to have said it once.
NERO I can scarcely believe you are in good health. I see your throat is swollen, I hear that your voice is choked. I should imagine you have the quinsy. Or possibly an ulcer?
BUR. I am in good health, Caesar.
NERO I shall send you a throat remedy. You must go and rest. (Exit Burrhus.) If death is repose, then I shall give you rest. I shall put down your high spirits. Is it lawful for Burrhus to disapprove of what Caesar approves? Does he want to? In safety? With impunity? Is he tolerable for me? “Not to be asked twice?” Does he make an ado about her dowry, her honesty? Does he inveigh against me? Does he dare? I, who empowered him, now see he is over-powerful. He alone is in command of those who are masters of the Caesars, who take it upon themselves to grant power and to take it back. He is to be removed cautiously. Why am I hesitating? Shall he fall by the sickness, or by the cure for the sickness - a poison? Thus let my enemies perish. But what might constrain the soldiers? Now who will there be to hold the army in check?
POP. Contrive that there be two commanders for the Praetorians. Two, so that all the favor will not flow to one man, so that either will be the other’s rival and they will pose threats to each other. Thus you can rely on one, if the other becomes a source of fear. Power divided is weakened. Choose yourself Sophonius and Faenus, who is popular with the soldiers and people. The one resembles yourself, the other thrives because of his favoring reputation. Thus you will take precautions for yourself, and at the same time have regard for them.
NERO How prudent! Although I like the one better than the other, I approve them both. Let Tigellinus be Rufus’ partner. I shall make both of them commanders. [Rufus and Tigellinus are brought into Caesar’s presence.] I think you both know my requirements. Let us do this so that nobody holds his property to his own advantage, which should rather be for mine. He who governs everyone will have need of all resources. (Caesar dismisses Rufus.)
TIGELLINUS Burrhus does not live in me, or oppose you, nor do I, like him, cherish expectations contrary to yours. Caesar’s safety is the only thing before my eyes. Being in control, you will guard sufficiently against conspiracies within the city, but take care to suppress external rebellions. See how that man, to whom the great dictator Sulla lends his name, has been fomenting revolution in the Gauls. Care has made his hair prematurely gray. Indigent, and therefore daring, he wears the pauper’s horns. He feigns peacefulness until he can find an opportunity for his rashness. From the direction of Asia, Plautus, his equal in spirits, but possessed of greater honors and great wealth, boasts of his illustrious descent from his grandfather Drusus. Nor does he pretend leisure, but affects the style of the old Romans. He favors Stoic arrogance, their sect, and the manner of life it commends, and he is creating disturbances. You have cause to fear both. And what you fear, you must oppress with your hatred.
NERO Come then, send someone to Asia, and to the Gauls, who will bring both men’s heads to me. My astrologer warns me that, when the stars come to portend evil for the prince, I must expiate the vision of a comet with a distinguished murder, and thus divert heaven’s threats from my head. Perhaps the comet thirsts for great men’s blood. It will drink its fill. Hither and thither its torches will be broadcast, but I shall extinguish these baleful brands with noble blood.
TIGEL. But Seneca comes to be an embarrassment to our interests. This exactor of great interests on his loans has driven the uncouth Britons to arms, so that we are overcome by an unparalleled massacre. So many thousands have been given to death by a woman (oh, the shame of it!) that the sea is awash with our gore. O good Seneca! But in his avarice he continues to heap up great wealth, alluring our citizens’ affections towards himself. With his villas and gardens he even outdoes your own. He claims the palm of eloquence for himself alone. He has acquired the habit of writing poetry now that he has seen you have become a rival, taking great pleasure in versification. But he openly objects to your chariot-driving, and mocks at your singing voice. Do these things befit Seneca? It is as if nothing in the city is brilliant, unless it derives from him. But you have passed the limit of your childhood. Taught by your distinguished ancestors, dismiss this teacher.
POP. Why recite a catalogue of Seneca’s rancor, his enthusiasms, the roles he plays, his wealth? This can stand for all of them: if you desire a woman, he refuses you; if you shun one, he bids you love her. In Julia’s lifetime he tolerated me as your mistress. Now that she is dead, he denies me as your wife. To serve Seneca - and what a humble servant I was! - is to please Caesar. But since this is not of the greatest usefulness to Seneca, it is a crime to be in love with greatest Caesar. Do you thus still tolerate his schoolmaster’s rod? Let Seneca be squeezed, as men squeeze a sodden sponge. This well-pastured ram will yield his golden fleece. You’ll have a sumptuous feast from this well-fattened hog. Let Seneca be of advantage to you, as Sejanus was to your grandfather. Join Pallas to Seneca, whose lengthy old age retains its excessive wealth, and also Doryphorus, an opponent of my marriage. You will be wealthy, being their heir.
NERO How eloquently you express this all! Have no doubt, Seneca will atone for his role as harsh schoolmaster. Raised up to the skies, he will come hurtling down. But we have need of adroitness and delay. Prudent and powerful, he will not fall into our nets easily or quickly. But in the meantime let my consort, sterile and tedious, having been removed from my home by a civil divorce, having been granted the inauspicious gifts of Plautus’ estates and Burrhus’ mansions, be banished and quickly seek out Capua. Let a military guard constrain her lest she attempt anything untoward. You, Tigellinus, must draw up a capital charge. Allege her amour with that vile slave Eucerus. Put witnesses to the question. Apply ropes, fire, and steel so that her handmaids will testify against her, true or falser. Let Anicetus be summoned and bring her to us under indictment. (Exeunt.)
ACT IV, SCENE iv
SENATORS IN THE SENATE HOUSE, C. VIPSANIUS, A CONSUL, FONTEIUS, A CONSUL, THRASEAS PAETUS, HELVIDIUS PRISCUS
VIPSANIUS Senators, Caesar, the ruler of the world, has given letters to be shown you. I shall read them.
May the gods and goddesses wish me to die worse than I am dying, if I know what, or in what matter, to write. It was a serious thing for a son to accuse his mother. It was a more serious, that she should attack this person with her unspeakable crime. My mother died not without great grief on the part of her son. But she died according to his wish, since she wanted to kill him undeservedly. Why say more? My mother (she was my mother, I acknowledge - if a woman who conspired against me was my mother) encompassed a plot against me with the help of her agent Agerinus, with a guilty mind, and so paid the price. She and this would-be assassin were assassinated by their own evildoing, nor was any crime novel for Agrippina. That disgrace to the people and Senate, who had long been over-powerful, hoped that entire military cohorts would swear their allegiance to her. Hostile to you, to the army, to the people, she argued that largess should not be given them. But against you, Fathers, she invented dangerous machinations, which my carefulness disarmed. How much effort it cost me, how much unpopularity, to prevent her from breaking into our sacred Forum and giving responses to foreign ambassadors in place of the Senate! I shall not speak of how people cry out about her guilt in the time of Claudius, but at that time scarce any crime was committed that was not her handiwork. Now you have heard that she had almost been drowned the sea, and I should think it would have been better had she been drowned than killed by her own wickedness, by violence, and finally by her own hand. But neither I, violence, nor her own hand have executed her, but rather the public good fortune. You decide, Fathers, what my merits and those of my mother should bring us.
THRASEAS PAETUS (on the point of departure.) Despite his good reputation, Seneca is insupportable, since for the benefit of this Senate he - but I shall leave in silence.
HELVIDIUS PRISCUS Thrasea, our great example of virtue, why are you leaving?
THRA. Because I cannot say what I wish, and what I wish I cannot. Forgetful of itself, our Senate has become servile, so that you would think it a purchased slave born for submission. If you say something favorable, it is perilous. If you say something unfavorable, it is a crime.
HELV. But now you yourself are creating danger for yourself, nor do you give us a beginning-point so that we can become freer.
THRA. If Nero were to execute me for opposing him, I should congratulate myself and express my thanks to those who flatter Caesar. But if Nero kills even his flatterers - and he will kill them - why should one die a shameful death in vain, when it is permitted to free men to enjoy an honest life - as long as their tongues are cut out? Posterity will speak of me, but what will it remember of these fellows, save that they were rightly slaughtered? Nero can kill Thrasea, but he cannot harm him. What you are hearing, this report of the shipwreck, who can believe all this to be accidental? Or is anybody so obtuse? Could a woman, let alone a shipwrecked woman, dare such a great thing? Could one person mount an attack on Caesar’s armies and fleets? Could one person overpower them? I do accept this, it is not so. If we were to accept this, piety would exist in him, and the iniquity in us. Nor do I blame Nero, but rather Seneca. Did Seneca pen this confession of his own guilt? In his cruelty Nero surpasses all belief, all ability to complain. But you senators act as you wish - absent Thrasea. (Exit.)
FONTEIUS It is decreed thus: that all the gods be supplicated in Nero’s name, and that all the altars of all the gods be visited; and that the festival of Minerva, on which day the conspiracy was detected, henceforth be celebrated with annual games, so that every age will remember this event. Let a golden statue of our prince, and likewise one of Minerva, be set up; let Agrippina’s birthday be enlisted among the inauspicious days. Thus the Senate has sanctioned in regard to the salvation of Nero.
ACT IV, SCENE v
OCTAVIA GOING INTO EXILE. SENECA THEREAFTER
OCTAVIA Since I was born for suffering, why should I complain? Why should I not complain? I would like to complain, if plaints would somehow profit. And I would do so avidly, if allowed. A crop of complaints confronts me, but I am barred from the harvesting. When he oppresses us with ills, who but a tyrant would forbid us from lamenting what he has done? I am uncertain whether I am more overcome by sorrow or fear, whether my fear should add to my sorrows or conceal them. Grief for my mother, father, and brother is now an old thing. My guilty mother removed my guilty father, she gave my brother poison when she gave him a brother. She gave me a husband - and death to herself. Nor is a husband given me, such as would crave love, but bitter hatred, which eats at my heart. This was not the first day of my marriage, but of my death. Nothing is not mournful, sad, doleful. Agamemnon’s daughter and Orestes’ sister is nothing, mourning her two men, if I consider my own sorrows. Miserable and piteous, I am a daughter, a sister, and a wife also. A daughter and a sister weep for others, but a wife for herself. Acte, that maid more powerful than her mistress, dared to commit naughtiness, and showed that I was naught. But Poppaea, that bride taken for a wife’s destruction, expelled her, or rather her and me. But now I shudder at something worse. Is there worse? Has fear overwhelmed all my sufferings? Am I afraid lest I die? Not this. Lest I be banished? Not that. Lest I be banished and put to the torture? Nor that. But slander is worse than any death I might suffer. As long as slander is absent, let death visit me. And death will be at hand, since my exile impends. Not to blanch at any accusation, to feel responsible when there is no guilt, this is my brazen bulwark. The innocent fears fate, the guilty dreads the law. But let ill repute be absent. This one thing I ask from the gods. [Enter Seneca.]
SENECA Augusta, where are the Fates dragging you in your grief?
OCT. Seneca, I are going into exile. You may philosophize at home. But is this what the philosophers preach regarding wives, to banish the modest, and to keep your whores at home? Is this what you preached? Is this what Nero learned? The both of you are evil, let the both of you pay the penalty for your evil. A philosophical courtier is a monstrosity. I believe that one can be neither, when he strives to be both, for the two things do not harmonize. Capua receives me, the Court receives you in your power. Capua does not receive me in the manner it received Hannibal. But you must be on your guard lest the Court receives you as its prisoner and puts you to death, as the leopard kills its prey, caught by its sweet odor. I would wish better for you, for Nero, for the city. As long as good reputation, chastity, piety and modesty remain with me, let woes, torments and death come. (Exit.)
SEN. (Alone.) O woman worthy of the highest praises, of marriage to Jove! Unworthy of such murders, of such savage deeds! A woman, you defeat the philosophers; a heroine, you surpass the men. In your banishment you can bear witness that the gods have joined you in exile, that nothing remains here save debauchery, murder, and wickedness. When I see her bear these things, what hope of good have I? My talents are not being employed for useful arts, as before. That other, who was a general for good purpose, has been lost. I am ruined by Burrhus’ death, so that I am no longer powerful. Naughty Nero turns to naughtier advisors. Men accuse me, men who delight in slandering honor. Those who have any care for the truth betray these slanders to me, and - and I am ashamed to say this - there are few such at Court, or rather none at all. The pious man departs the Court. You should depart, Seneca, and return to yourself. I do not seek a place to hide. I do not depart helpless or as a refugee. Should there be signs that I could return safely, I would retrace my steps. I am returning from the city to the world, for the world is my fatherland. A great part is being abandoned, but a greater remains. Do not admire the highest station in life, nor yet the lowest. Dare the highest, scorn the lowest, but bring yourself up short. Let there be a limit to your power, an end to your authority, lest you become a weight for yourself, just as you are a burden to others. Descend with care, lest you take a fall for being uncareful. Great fortune is a great servitude. Shun the great things. Take thought lest the multitude of wicked men make you wicked. Retire inside yourself. The Court is a game, it cheats and cozens. See it. The Court is a siren: it sings, it sings incantations. Fear it. The Court is a cavern: it shuts and locks you within. Guard against it. The court is a hyena: it captures and kills you. Flee it. Either the Court is nothing, or it is crime, deception, and treachery. It makes few glad, many sad, but it destroys those whom it gladdens. Retire from Court. Do you grasp this, courtier-Seneca? You must tolerate reproaches, give thanks for them. I have lived long at Court, far too long. I carry off two prizes: repentance and wisdom. I have sinned enough, I have played the courtier enough. Live for yourself, Seneca, and be wise. To cultivate the powerful may be sweet for the inexpert, but for the experienced it is a bitter thing. It brings either dread or disaster. What is the ruler’s favor? It is as short-lived as a breeze, a calm sea, a dream, a phase of the moon. Nero is like a fire, neither to be kept too near nor too far. Will he be sparing of you, he who has cast his lightning against Juno? I see the fiery signs of his rage. (Enter Nero, holding Plautus’ head in his hands.)
NERO Hey, have you arrived, kinsmen, rival for the empire? Hail, Emperor! Is not Nero preparing to hasten his wedding to Poppaea, postponed out of fear of you? Is he not banishing Octavia from his bedchamber, albeit she is modest, a threat because of her popular support, and the high title of the Claudian house? Hey, Seneca, Plautus is here, albeit he is a bit abridged, and he is more welcome than Plautus the actor upon the stage.
SEN. I am shuddering. Are such things fitting to do to such a man?
NERO I appreciate it: how much a man was he! But now he’s a head shorter. And, being that sort of man, he’s come into my hands. By God, I must confess I never knew how big a nose the fellow had. Oh, how huge it was! Possibly my diadem would decorate his head. Yes, here’s your triumph, I crown your head with laurel.
SEN. The civic crown is given for saving a citizen’s life, not for killing one.
NERO But a dead enemy will earn you a crown.
SEN. Surely Plautus was not an enemy?
NERO Let Plautus and anybody else who wants to snatch away my laurels thus make his exit. (He tramples on the head.)
SEN. Many deaths do not befit a doctor, nor do many punishments befit a mighty Caesar, the father of his country.
NERO An unruly patient makes his doctor severe. A wretched pity harms him who pardons readily. But I have no interest about whether this befits me: it is enough that I am free to do it.
SEN. Physicians are accustomed to cauterize even the ill with caution. Being gentle, they want to cure, not amputate.
NERO But in these men’s case rotten limbs, or rather contagious limbs, are being cut off, so that their other parts will not receive the infection.
SEN. It is better that ill men have diseased limbs than none at all.
NERO If you amputate the diseased parts of the healthy, it renders them all the sounder. It should be both permissible and fitting to cut out the cancer. This removes enemies.
SEN. Rather, it creates enemies. Merciful Augustus attained to the stars, and to glory.
NERO The triumvirs’ execution-list showed how merciful he was.
SEN. He spared Cinna.
NERO Cinna tried by treachery to destroy the man who had just spared him.
SEN. He spared him nonetheless.
NERO But the Fathers’ vote removed this man from the Senate.
SEN. These things are farces, not serious evils.
NERO Anyone suspected of wishing to take away my power, even in a dream, will die beforehand.
SEN. No matter how many men you kill, you will never be able to kill your successor beforehand.
NERO “No matter how many men you kill, you will never be able to kill your successor beforehand?” You destroy my frantic mind with this dictum. My successor cannot die - save in a general massacre. Oh that such a massacre would erupt!
SEN. Rather let your dynasty be established by a lasting line of children.
NERO And may Poppaea give me such.
SEN. Rather your wife.
SEN. What one year has not given you, more will.
SEN. Only love’s affection endures.
SEN. Fidelity will overcome love for another.
SEN. But unconvicted.
NERO My consort should not only be free of disgrace, but also of any suspicion of SEN.
SEN. Who suspects her?
NERO Caesar, who has divorced her in her guilt.
SEN. The people are angry.
NERO Let the people worry about that.
SEN. Everywhere you can hear the common people complaining.
NERO The people are light-minded.
SEN. But heavy-handed, as they are angry. By the merits of your deified father, by your popularity, by the sacred hand of your rule, by the gods of wedlock, Caesar, I pray, let her be given a hearing, then afterwards be repudiated if guilty.
NERO Come, let her be recalled. But if Tigellinus establishes her guilt in questioning her maids, then she will die a worse death, both in terms of her place of execution, and the means.
SEN. And now, Caesar, let my cause be pled, if you have the time. This is the eighth year of your reign, and the fourteenth in which I, inspired by hope for you, have received abounding wealth and honors, so that there is nothing lacking to my prosperity, save a limit. These things are a great document, not of my good fortune, but of yours. Augustus kindly granted Agrippa Mitylene as a place of retreat. With Caesar’s permission and intervention, Maecenas enjoyed a visitor’s leisure in the city itself. Agrippa had been his comrade in war, Maecenas in peace, and they received great rewards for their great services. I have received greater rewards for smaller services. I admit that as a newcomer I have enjoyed precedence over nobles, magnates, and equestrians. But these are your gifts, Caesar. We have both filled up the measure. You have granted me all a prince can bestow on a friend, and I have received all that a friend can take from a prince. Hence a certain unpopularity has been my lot, though less so for you. Now I ask for relief, worn out by my career, an old man, unequal even to light duties. Let your quaestor take away all my wealth for your use. Hence I shall not be a pauper, but rather a free man, and I shall return to you those things which dazzle by your brilliance. Let the leisure time I have for my villas and gardens be leisure for my mind. At your age your vitality is unbroken, and you still have your vigor. We old men can still advise you as friends, though in retirement. The fact that I, whom you raised to the heights, can tolerate moderation, will redound to your credit.
NERO Seneca, you have taught me how to talk on my feet. Augustus was an elderly man when he granted retirement to those old men. But neither of them gave back the wealth they had amassed. They had served him in a great war, for such was the need. He who educates a boy with reason, who instructs him in his youth, performs no less a service. Your services and labors for Nero are enduring. You have much from me. Although there are those who have more, they are scarcely your equal. It shames me that my freedmen are wealthier than you. Since you are first in my affections, why do you not occupy the first place? Your age is still hale. I am still taking virtually my first steps as a ruler. If I slip, you may guide me. If you were to abandon me, giving back your wealth, it is both my tyranny and my avarice that would become common talk, not your leisurely mind and the limit you put on your wealth. Granted, self-control is highly praiseworthy. But this source of wealth is unworthy of a wise man, and it is disgraceful in a friend - and this is what gains glory. Why say more? If you are in my debt, Seneca, do not remove yourself from me, who needs you. Should Atlas remove his shoulders from under the globe, the weight would crush Hercules. Receive these tokens of my affections, my kisses, my embrace, my hand. Seneca, I shall die before I harm you.
SEN. May Jupiter grant that our good fortune be perpetual!
NERO Trust, and enjoy. (Seneca is dismissed, enter Anicetus ). Thus I hide my hatred behind pleasantries, thus I am born and bred. Lo, another man comes, Anicetus, a man I regard with great disliking, but possibly also with a small amount of gratitude, after that crime. As the agent of that great deed, his sight is troublesome, as if it reproaches me. Nor is a creditor welcome to his debtor. His kindnesses to me are welcome, as long as they can be repaid. When they become too great for repayment, my feeling turns to hatred. (Turning to Anicetus.)
Anicetus, I need not say how mindful I am of your previous accomplishment. You are my only aid, salvation, life, and security. You alone routed the conspiracy concocted by my mother against my person. But now a matter is at hand that can earn you no less gratitude, if you can drive hateful Octavia from my bed. There is no need, as before, for violence or arms. It would be useful if you would confess to adultery together with plotting revolution. For the moment you will receive secret rewards. Later you will receive greater ones, and a pleasant place for your retirement. If you refuse, you will justly earn a sentence of death.
ANICETUS How easy it was to accomplish the foul tasks you previously commanded! But the one you impose on me is less difficult. My crimes teach me how to proceed. And not just my wickedness, but also my sense of self-preservation, urge me on. I shall manufacture lies, I shall confess more than you command, Caesar. I have proven myself with respect to my action. Don’t doubt my words. I am not free to corrupt her body? I can corrupt her name.
NERO Then come, present yourself as a confessing sinner to the inquisition of her handmaids which you see Tigellinus to be conducting.
<ACT IV, SCENE vi >
TIGELLINUS, PYTHIAS, ANICETUS
TIGELLINUS Maid, now you are sufficiently tortured, will you betray the accused?
PYTHIAS A serving-girl should betray her mistress?
TIG. If the mistress is guilty.
PYTH. But if innocent?
TIG. Proceed. Or pain will compel you.
PYTH. No pain will compel me to betray an upright woman.
TIG. Does a woman have such courage?
PYTH. I am softer than a man, but I have courage.
TIG. Somebody bring fire.
PYTH. Fire proves pure gold.
TIG. More likely adulterated gold.
PYTH. But who’s the adulterer?
PYTH. Go on — he’s a servant.
TIG. But still an adulterer.
PYTH. Your mouth is filled with lies, cruel torturer. You can just as easily join crow with dove, boar with lamb, wolf with hind, a satyr with Diana, the Stygian hound with Pallas, as this slave with my mistress.
TIG. Let fire be applied to her breast. (Her breast is burned.)
PYTH. Ow, what do you want me to say?
TIG. Tell me what she is.
PYTH. Chaste, divine, innocent.
TIG. Like her mother, I suppose.
PYTH. Like the forest-goddess, like Vesta.
TIG. You persist? Burn the other one.
PYTH. Ow, what am I to say? She’s so chaste.
TIG. Like you, virgin.
PYTH. As much as wife can be. My mistress’ womanly parts are chaster than that mouth of yours, with which you slander an innocent woman. (Spits in his face.)
TIG. Let that mouth of yours be shamefully gagged. But many witnesses affirm what you alone deny.
PYTH. And so why is it that you seek further?
TIG. That you, a party to her wickedness, condemn the guilty woman.
PYTH. Damned torturer, my mistress is guilty of no crime, nor am I a party to her wickedness. Who then is the witness?
TIG. The rest of her serving-women.
PYTH. Does servants’ testimony against a mistress have any credit?
TIG. Are not serving-women credible?
PYTH. Are they? Why should they not be, regarding a woman who deserves such? Why place trust in liars, if they have none?
TIG. Then what about you? Your mistress? Do you have any loyalty? Or rather disloyalty?
PYTH. I am a slave, but one to whom loyalty is dearer than life.
TIG. Who’d believe that?
PYTH. Everyone who knows she’s untouched.
TIG. An untouched Amazon!
PYTH. You sneer, butcher?
PYTH. I shall not keep silence.
TIG. If you don’t, I’ll rip your tongue out. When you babble you keep your PYTH, but silenced you will babble quite eloquently.
PYTH. I suppose I’d say those things which impudent Tigellinus wishes.
TIG. Whatever is dragged out of you by tortures, fire, steel, and starvation.
ANICETUS How insolently the bold hussy speaks these things! She is striving for a reputation for wit and courage.
PYTH. Bloody prizes. Such is your praise.
PYTH. I have been tortured for holding my silence.
TIG. Will you not keep silent? Rip out her tongue.
ANIC. (Interceding.) No, she must be given a hearing, so that she will hear to what I am about to say. Let the suspicion be validated, that scarcely prevails in a servant. I myself confess that the guilt is all mine. I saw that Octavia hates her husband, and this hatred furnished me with a way to his wife. I saw that this consort is hostile towards her husband. What will a hostile consort not contrive against her husband? I saw her to put up a front of modesty and misery but, miserable and modest, she managed to seduce me. She saw that I was a leading admiral, and the idea of winning over the fleet gave her a new hope for fomenting revolution. She perceived how I had removed her step-mother, and because she rejoiced at this removal, the deed made me dearer to her. She perceived that I was powerful, and that I was enamored with her. What will power and love not win from a woman? We both perceived these things, we joined our intrigues, our plotting, our forces - and our bodies. What more can be said? But to conceal her wiles, since the necessity arose, she resorted to an abortion.
PYTH. Fine! Continue with your lies about an abortion. A barren woman receiving an abortion? Aren’t you ashamed?
TIG. She is regarded as barren, because her childbearing is concealed.
PYTH. That he, that he would make her . . .
TIG. Won’t you be silent? Aren’t these things sufficiently proven? Or do I not know what is sufficient? This more than suffices. This accused, a free man, has freely testified against himself. Drag her off. Caesar awaits us.
ACT IV, SCENE vii
NERO, THE GHOST OF AGRIPPINA, AN OFFSTAGE VOICE, POPPAEA, TIGELLINUS
NERO Whither am I summoned? Who calls?
GHOST Your mother.
NERO I know, I am coming. What’s this? (Stumbles over a baby boy as he goes out.) A boy exposed in the Forum? What a pretty little boy. What new thing does this placard proclaim? I DO NOT TAKE YOU UP, LEST YOU TAKE OFF YOUR MOTHER. But you should take her off, lest she takes you off, as you fear to be taken up. If your father had wished to take you off, you should not exonerate him. Somebody take this boy away. (The boy is carried off.)
VOICE Nero removed his mother.
NERO Suppose I did? Whoever you are, I am not troubling you.
VOICE He murdered his mother.
NERO What business is it of yours? Nero did not kill your mother, but his own. I am not pursuing you. [Aside.] I shall not admit how much these gibes pain me. The reproaches appear to be acknowledged, if you show pain. If you show no hurt, they are rejected and grow stale. Pointless pain provokes these overleisured wits. The reputation gets around, if punishments are dealt out. The remedy for slander is to ignore it. I feel no shame. I have no higher praise to give my mind than that it is shameless. But what’s that? (He sees a sack suspended from a statue.) A sack affixed to my statue? Well, I have earned the sack. But this tablet bears inscriptions in both Latin and Greek. (He reads the tablet’s inscriptions):
NERO, ORESTES, ALCMAEON, MATRICIDES ALL
Because the same madness came over me and them?
WHO CAN DENY THAT NERO IS BORN FROM AENEAS ’ GREAT STOCK? THE ONE TOOK AWAY HIS FATHER, THE OTHER TOOK OFF HIS MOTHER.
He on his shoulders, I by death. This ironic epigram pleases me. Let the author present himself, he may have this laurel-wreath (points to the bag.) I’ll drag him right through the fire, just as Aeneas removed his father - but so that I may destroy my wife. But why does Poppaea come outside in terror?
POPPAEA (Falling to her knees.) Caesar, my situation is not such that I am arrogantly contending for your marriage-bed (though it be dearer to me than life), but my very life is put at greatest peril by my rival Octavia’s savage servants, who have arrogated to themselves the name of the people, and in peace they have attempted things which are scarcely wont to happen in war. Now that Octavia has been recalled, they rush to her in throngs, they resound with their rioting. Everywhere they are dragging down my effigies and rolling them in the mud; if any image of Octavia stands gleaming, they carry it on their shoulders with shouts of triumph, strew it with flowers, stand it up in the temples. They shout, they roar, they bawl I know not what - and neither do they. They chatter about myself, you, her, the court, rattling arms, weapons, steel, and fire. He is no free man who does not chatter freely. Indeed, he may rail at us freely and curse us. This abandoned mob prates about the true race of Mars, it recalls the banished kings and humbled leaders. It remembers the cruel debaucheries of Tarquin the tyrant, and soon thereafter of the decemvir Appius, how by the harsh decision of the Roman people the one was banished, the other killed. Riotous violence is called by the novel name of Roman virtue. The populace is issuing orders. It orders the woman it despises to be banished, the woman it favors to be taken back. And the frenzy feeds on itself. As it goes along it gathers strength, and frenzy furnishes the weapons; if a bystander is unwilling, he is forced to join in by the willing, then he runs along with a will. The mob is armed, unsure why it should bear arms. But it is clear that these arms are being taken up against the prince. No courage is wanting, but they still lack a leader. Nor will be a leader long be wanting for this revolution. Otherwise, why accuse me? Whose mind have I ever offended, save that I am about to give Caesar legitimate offspring, while the populace prefers to place the bastard of an Egyptian flute-player on the imperial throne? If this suits your affairs, come, freely summon your mistress Octavia, being under no compulsion. Or else let justifiable vengeance guard your security. The people have been somewhat lenient, as long as there was hope for your reconciliation with Octavia. If this hope were to disappear, they will give her a husband, and the throne as her dowry. Me, support me, Nero. Caesar, take care for yourself and for me, if only because I am bearing the pledge of your love in my womb.
NERO Poppaea, don’t throw yourself at my knees. You have always pressed me with your hatreds, and now in your cruelty you press me with your fear. You kindle hates with hate, you multiply fears with fear. My affection conquers her loathing, the loyalty displayed towards me banishes fear. Do you dread the people? Indeed it is a dreadful Hydra, the Hydra of Hercules is not to be feared so greatly. Supposing that there were one head. How easily it would pay the price! Oh, would that this were so, so that a single stroke could cut it off! Will this bold rabble, belonging to the lowest dregs, dare wage war against the gods? Why are the lightning-struck mountains not falling in ruins? They will crumble. This Hydra is to be subdued by fire, if steel fails to do the job. Let it be overcome by steel, ruination, and fire. Is the armed populace raging? Let arms crush them as they rage.
POP. But who can repress such a multitude?
NERO Let this task belong to trusty Tigellinus. Armed troops easily subdue an unarmed rabble.
POP. Perhaps the many can more easily subdue the one, than the one the many. Perhaps they will sooner set fire to the palace.
TIGELLINUS The die is cast. “After I am dead let the earth be confounded by fire.”
NERO And in my lifetime. This unique slaughter shall have glorified my times as no other, save for that of the distant Britons, so that a future age will remember me and sing of it. And there will come a day on which I shall extinguish ruination with the torch, and the torch with blood. Meanwhile let bands of our soldiers be sent against them; let them demolish, pull down, plunder, and slay. Come, go against them. Go, cruel prefects. [Exit Tigellinus.]
POP. But will that female agitator, the head of these mobs, the plotter of revolution, now branded and notorious for abusing Caesar’s bed, remove herself in safety? So that she can maliciously stir up new mobs? Cut off the cause of this evil, as you cut off the evil. Take this sister away from the mob, as you once removed a brother from her mother. Then you can govern in security.
NERO It is a serious business to remove a woman born of the distinguished ancestry of the Claudian race. It is a serious business to remove an empress, and also a wife.
POP. It is no serious business to remove her, who is a serious threat to you.
NERO Hence public hatred is created. But let the people hate me, as long as it fears me. I want the woman I love to be dreaded. Poppaea persuades me, seduces me. Let the people grumble, let them burst their sides. Come, let my wife be expelled far away to the isles of Pandateria. Let her be stricken and die. As long as Poppaea shines on me, let heaven fall.
The Fates beset a tyranny. No tyrannical rule is as savage as that of guilt-stricken mind. Nobody terrifies it, but it feels dread. It flees, while nobody pursues, but in its flight it does not escape itself, when it flees others. This is like the Stygian hound, with its three heads of Wrath, Luxury, and Hatred. This is as like the three Furies, hostile, avenging, malevolent. Like the three streams of Dis it burns, it hurts, it howls. Many external evils beset the offender, but it is the internal ones that oppress him. He bears a thousand witnesses within his breast, nor is acquitted when he himself sits as judge. He turns pale, he quakes, he burns, he shudders, he groans. With miserable cares he gnaws his heart. Sleepless, he imagines things that which could occur to have been brought to pass. He becomes entirely pain and fear, wholly suspicion and madness. Hateful to the gods, to himself, he often wishes for death, yet dreads it, enduring a living death. He quickly wishes them alive whom he had wanted to die, but does not call them back. Such are the evil fruits of an evil mind.
Go to Act V, part 1