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Nero, a new tragedy
by Matthew Gwinne, Doctor of Medicine
Fellow of the College of St. John
the Baptist, Oxford,
gathered out of Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Seneca
Would that I could be as fortunate as I am pure of heart! - Ovid
DEDICATED TO SIR THOMAS EGERTON, KEEPER OF THE GREAT SEAL OF ENGLAND, RENOWNED FOR HIS PRUDENCE, HONOR, AND EQUITY, TO HIS MOST DISTINGUISHED SON AND HEIR, JOHN EGERTON, AND TO HIS MOST NOBLE SON-IN-LAW FRANCIS LEIGH, ALL THREE BEING RIGHT EXCELLENT PATRONS OF THE MUSES
s I write, the Bacchanalia is being celebrated at London. So should I not write something? As I hear, something of the kind is celebrated at Cambridge. I like the celebration, I also like what I hear. What if I should witness it? “What if I saw the beast itself” (as the man said about Demosthenes)? So that they may be celebrated freely, as is being industriously done today, should I thus free myself during the Saturnalia, I shall not say for a month, but in accordance with its spirit? What indeed? Menedemus said “My leisure is so alien to my practice that I attend to other matters, and to those which have naught to do with medicine.” And, a Chremes, I make answer “I am a man, I deem nothing human to be alien to me.” This is my business while at leisure, lest I become lazy. I fear this does not pertain to my occupation, but I trust that others will find it pertinent. For I am the sort of man who cares for others’ affairs (though not neglectful of his own), because he loves his fellow man, as he ought. Nor am I (as the poet said) a man who neglects his own affairs while attending to those of others, and perhaps to leisure. Let that be far from me which is not common to all mankind. For to furnish light from a lamp, water from a river, is not, nor should it be considered to be, adapting a foreign thing borrowed from an alien source. For if the care of any man’s life, be he even a king, is the doctor’s job, why cannot these things too suit a medical man? If there is a benefit from my work when I ply my practice, I hope there is also a profit in literary works when I read them. But there would be no profit for me to write a medical tome. So many, so great, such men have consigned so many, so great, such volumes to print, that (as the man says) it would be tedious to read them, toilsome to learn from them, and tortuous to put them into practice. To devise more such stuff would be a huge labor, and there would scarcely any need to print them, save perhaps to garner profit for our typesetters. Here I speak not as a learned man, but as a man of experience. But why this poetical stuff? Once I enjoyed writing thus. So why not in the comic vein? At my age, that would not have suited me. Even if I should have some skill in versifying, it would take more wit to write comically than I have the ingenuity to accomplish. So am I up to the tragic vein? Let Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio and Seneca do the speaking for me. For they supply pretty much all the words. I only set them to verse, though I would be no better than an inept flautist when it came to comedy. But is tragedy suitable for anyone to write? Why not? What about a man of my station? Is there any dishonor to the Muses? Unless I am mistaken, he dishonors the Muses who brands with the mark of infamy a chaste offspring of these chaste parents, and I need not add that I protect the Muses rather earnestly and pugnaciously, just as my Pythias protects my Octavia. And would be remarkable that he would not gnaw at this very thing, this carper against everything, this captious critic, who would (I suspect) chew at the body of our Lord, unless this play did not contain more of Tacitus, whom he values highly, than of myself, whom he values not a whit. Under which title, let him hear these words, taken from that very author: “The victories of orators and poets could be expected to inspire genius, nor would it lie heavy on the conscience of any judge to turn a deaf ear to these honest enterprises and sanctioned pleasures.” What that Tacitus adds, in writing of Nero’s quinquennial evening dramatic performances, “The spectacle came off without any scandal”? Nor indeed will he slander Livy’s Aristo with his reeking mouth, or Cicero’s Roscius and Aesopus, so our actors lose their honorable standing, so that they are worthy both of the stage and the Senate, albeit our gentleman-Rosciuses may have more sincerity than technique. As far as I am concerned, even though he is speaking on his own behalf, Pliny, both a studious man and a Senator, is a spokesman for all such: “I sometimes scribble verses, but rarely serious ones, I attend comedies, I watch mimes, I read lyricists, I understand satirists, I laugh, joke and play. And to summarize all such forms of innocent relaxation, I am a man.” What that he adds “It is praiseworthy that the most learned, grave, and pious men have both written and recited, not just serious poetry, but also playful pieces,” supplying the names of more than twenty-four patricians, poets, and emperors so as to crush his detractor. And even concerning Nero he gave this verdict, “[the writing of light verse] is not corrupted because it is occasionally practiced by bad men; but rather remains honorable because it is more often practiced by the good.” Thus he opined, thus he lived. And heretofore more human glory has been achieved by these things which he called toys, than this man’s serious endeavors have ever garnered for him. But he tolerates the writing of plays. So why not read them? If they can be read, why not learn them by heart? If they can be learnt by heart, why not recite them? If they can be recited, why cannot they be heard? If they can be heard, why not be acted? Why not have an audience? If the same intention motivates all these things, it scarcely matters whether or not they be acted. “Reading aloud creates a greater impression” on every side. “For even if the writing is quite vigorous, enunciation, facial expression, bearing and gesture cause it to make a deeper impression on the mind.” I acknowledge that recitation is sometimes frigid and silly, but I would scarcely concede that such recitation can be done by a man whose is not leaden, stodgy, asinine in heart, hand, and head. The Italians, not otherwise than the Romans, use the phrase recitar’ una comedia both of recitation and acting. Then too, honest folk are able to respond with the motto of the Order of the Garter, honi soit qui mal y pense. An ill-disposed mind has an ill-disposed attitude. Good men form no opinions of any thing you can name save good ones; bad men form nothing but bad conjectures, even if they have heard of the good — and then they will form conclusions on the basis of their conjectures, and preach their conclusions from the pulpit. They, who abstain from the theater, perceive more of indecorum, inhumanity, and the illicit (as has always been my experience), imagining these things they rail against, remembering these things they curse, than I, a theatergoer, have ever seen, heard, thought, or (if a wide awake man can be said to be a dreamer) dreamt of. Let those pay heed who keep to themselves in corners lest they keep bad company. And at the theater, lest he desire any evil, let the spectator be ashamed to be seen doing something (to say no worse) in broad daylight. If he should have the desire, he lacks the opportunity, as he pricks up his ears and pays attention lest anything worth hearing escape him. Or if he does have the opportunity, let it not be permitted him, as the faces, eyes, morals and minds of surrounding spectators should prevent him, should protest, should turn away in aversion. As Aristaenetus said, “let rancor and ill-will depart!” Indeed, in the view of John of Salisbury, “if he performs the office of mime or actor, then if all human life is a comedy, or indeed a tragedy, and if all the world’s a tragic stage, then he is admitted rather than shunned; and if he has already been admitted, he is not shown the door.” If John of Salisbury does not refuse to be such, who then would refuse to be a spectator, a tragic or comic actor, a man of the theater? Who would blame others for being such? He allows himself to be called a wearer of masks, but metaphorically: but doesn’t he really wear a mask, as Epictetus points out? But acting is misrepresentation, and not of a sort where the deception improves either the deceiver or the deceived. But the person whom acting has deceived is not bereft of his senses like a child or a woman, or like a fool-king or an idiot-philosopher, so that he should not be deemed an idiot, child, or fool. Rather those men are “souls who work deception by playing the fox,” they “hide the cunning fox under a bland exterior.” And it is common in human affairs that those who don and put off masks do not conceal the fact that they conceal themselves; they are incited to recite as they, living men, personify the dead, just as actors impersonate upon the stage. I should be just as much aware that it is a boy playing the role of Octavia, who once lived, as that Octavia was once a woman. They who deceive in order to delight are more tolerable than those who delight in appearance so that they may deceive in truth; a man who plays the fox is preferable to a fox who plays the man. But, as I hear, this plague against the theater has once more cooked up (recooking the cookie) the same charges against us, and I fear he has added strange, undeserved, novel ones. What if on the stage they had not just served up ridicule for Socrates, but also the hemlock? If actors had deserved such, if they had done that which these folk unjustly claim? What if they had served up the poison to our actors, who perceive themselves to be more wholesome than these absent Momuses? To bring down such a pestilential curse! “Is the gods’ wrath so great?” Gently, gently! What then? Is it better to rage against our magistrates, to vent spleen on their juniors, hold one’s friends in suspicion, and condemn the rest, “so that one might admire himself and his property in solitude,” and this under the guise of spiritual zeal? And this at doctrinal prompting? And this when it is more suitable to pray in charity than to play the prophet with malice?
Well then, if the tragic mode pleases, does it please to proceed according to the methods of antiquity? What about those poetical laws, “let not a fourth actor speak?” Assuredly “the old things are the best.” I cannot readily say, whether it requires more talent or art to stretch out a slender plot with great ado, or to encompass a large plot while doing little. But these innovations I have devised have pleased me more than the dead hand of antiquity. I live according to old-fashioned standards, but I speak in contemporary language. I do not fit the foot to the shoe but the shoe to the foot. But my effort does not greatly depart from the ancients, and is sufficiently agreeable to our moderns. Possibly I have nodded in Act I, but I have not failed in Act V, which makes no mean tragedy by itself. But (as the man said) the trees of Oxfordshire would scarce suffice for these tragedies which fill our stage. Three (he retorts) might suffice for yours. But why wasn’t this acted? I do not say because it was unsuitable, and possibly it was not written to this end. Even if one asserts that it was both these things, one must consider the multitude of roles, the unequal length of the Act, and the implausibility of producing such an intractable piece. I do not aver that it was not offered. For I should not have failed to, being especially indebted to St. John’s College and to its august Master, to its most learned Fellows, and finally to my particular friend Paddy, who has shown me especial kindness; since it was scribbled in the midst of their company, certainly I should not have failed to offer it. But, I must confess, since it was offered in this spirit, I took its repudiation in better part. I say its repudiation: while one man takes care lest the republic suffer any harm, another fellow looks out for his own affairs — “for better or worse, be it helpful or harmful, he sees nothing but what he wants” — a third, even if he does nothing aright, “thinks nothing done properly unless he does it himself”; but in the opinion of others “this man may do what that one may not, not because the act is different, but because the person who does it is.” In the eyes of yet other men egotism so prevails that the motto is “either Caesar or nothing.” O happy rashness! The abscess is burst: self-love in any man is a destructive emotion, albeit in everybody the most beloved devotion. But if my play has been repudiated, to whom should it bestow itself in marriage? Untouched, unimpaired, unviolated, to whom may it not yield? As he said, “to the degree it finds disfavor among the unlettered, it ought to find favor among the learned.”
On which score, noble pair, when I thought upon your father, “whom nobody has ever mentioned without having first proclaimed his praises,” and considered both my work, and him, I quickly realized that “minor matters are beneath his notice.” “I should be sinning against the common weal, if I were to waste your time with a long speech, Keeper, nor do you have the time to lend an ear to my song.” And I applied to myself the lines “this is beneath the notice of a divine mind, and Jove has no leisure for trifles.” But since in my own right I have long been indebted to him, “to whom no adequate thanks can be given,” and always shall be, I decided to do the next best thing and repay some measure of my indebtedness to you two. And so you, “souls, the most honest the earth has ever borne and the most wellbeloved to me, both distinguished for your magnanimity and prowess at arms,” pray read this small, trifling effort of an idle man, which neither hard work has created, nor careful attention has polished; read it at least (as Ausonius asks) when you have the free time, and, lest you have nothing to do, defend it when you have read it. He whom it displeases need not read it; or, if he has read it, let him forget it; or, if he has not forgotten it, let him forgive it. Salutations, gentlemen bred as specimens of all the virtues!
Written at Gresham College, London, Ash Wednesday, 1603. I remain devoted to your name and obliged to your Order.
TO JUSTUS LIPSIUS ABOUT THIS NERO
Lipsius, now you have a Nero worthy of your desires and your reading. Since you think that Octavia, which the unlearned world bids us ascribe to Seneca, to be puerile stuff, you can substitute the present work in its place. Thus commands angry Seneca. The poor man has experienced his thousandth soul-migration before being able to give his own tongue to his complaints. But at length let him retrieve his former glory through Gwinne’s mouth. Gager, Buchanan, Beza, be not envious. Observe: Gwinne is as Seneca was. You who have judgment, confess it. You who are ignorant, keep still.
JOHN SANDSBURY OF ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE
NEMESIS, TISIPHONE, ALECTO Chorus
THE GHOST OF VALERIA MESSALINA
CLAUDIUS TIBERIUS NERO Emperor
BRITANNICUS son of Claudius by Messalina
OCTAVIA daughter of the same by the same
NARCISSUS freedmen of Claudius
L. VITELLIUS censor
AELIA PETINA divorced wife of Claudius
LOLLIA PAULINA widow of the emperor Caius Caligula
JULIA AGRIPPINA widow of Domitius Aenobarbus, sister of Caius, niece and wife of Claudius
L. SILANUS praetor, betrothed to Octavia
C. POMPEIUS, Q. VERANNIUS consuls
DOMITIUS NERO the Emperor
AGERINUS a freedman of Agrippina
THE GHOST OF CLAUDIUS
FIVE ROMAN EQUESTRIANS
L. ANTISTIUS consul
L. ANNAEUS SENECA philosopher and Senator
AFRANIUS BURRHUS Praetorian prefect
LOCUSTA a poisoner
M. SYLVIUS OTHO husband of Poppaea
THE GHOST OF BRITANNICUS
CHARON the ferryman
POPPAEA SABINA first the wife of Rufius Crispinus, then of M. Otho, and finally of Nero
PARIS an actor
A PAGE BOY
ANICETUS freedman, prefect of the fleet at Misenum
HERCULEUS a ship’s captain
OLOARITUS a centurion of the fleet
THE GHOST OF AGRIPPINA
FENIUS RUFUS S Praetorian prefects
C. VIPSANIUS, FONTEIUS consuls
THRASEA PAETUS father-in-law
HELVIDIUS PRISCUS son-in-law
PYTHIAS Octavia’s maid
THE GHOST OF OCTAVIA
FOUR ROMAN CITIZENS
POMPEIA PAULINA wife of Seneca
CLEONICUS freedman of Seneca
SUBRIUS FLAVIUS a tribune
SULPITIUS ASPER a centurion
ANTONIUS NATALIS an equestrian
C. PISO CALPURNIUS, PLAUTIUS LATERANUS, FLAVIUS SCEVINUS senators
EPICHARIS a freedwoman
MILICHUS a freedman of Scevinus
VOLUSIUS PROCULUS a captain
EPAPHRODITUS secretary to Nero
GRANIUS SILVANUS a tribune of the Praetorian cohort
VEIANIUS NIGER a tribune
MARTIUS FESTUS an equestrian
RUSTICUS ARULENUS a tribune of the people
DEMETRIUS a Cynic philosopher
ARRIA wife of Thrasea Paetus
A CONSULAR QUAESTOR
NEOPHYTUS a freedman of Nero
CALVIA CRISPINILLA a nurse
SPORUS castrated and dressed as Poppaea
GERELANUS tribune of the Praetorian cohort
PHAON a freedman of Nero
TWO ROMAN CITIZENS
MISSICIU Sa Praetorian soldier
A PRAETORIAN CENTURION
OFFSTAGE VOICES OF CITIZENS AND SOLDIERS
After terrific crashes, lightning with thunder, a night-begotten Chorus emerges from the Underworld, consisting of Nemesis and the three Furies. As if presiding over the tragedy, they walk across the stage and take their individual seats in silence. With Lydian music playing in the background, the empress Valeria Messalina appears with her lover Caius Silius, as the Chorus hovers around them, making a din. She wears tragic buskins, carries a thyrsus, and leads the dance; her hair hangs down loosely, and he is crowned with ivy. In the meantime the freedmen who enjoy the greatest prestige and influence with the emperor, Narcissus his secretary, Pallas his treasurer, and Calistus, shudder in amazement and raise an outcry, taking counsel whether to denounce the empress. Out of fear they desist, but Silius hurls himself towards Claudius. Soon trumpets sound and Claudius returns from his sacrifices. Narcissus places himself at his side whispering in his ear that he should give no audience to Messalina. She comes to meet him, accompanied by her son Britannicus and her daughter Octavia; as if about to pray tearfully for forgiveness, she falls to her knees. Narcissus drags her away, and Claudius, unmoved, hastens towards his palace. Narcissus returns to the stage, accompanied by soldiers to perform the execution, and drags Messalina and Silius off to their deaths. When these things have been mimed in silence (save for whatever tragic music is played), Nemesis thus speaks the prologue.
Come forth out of black Dis, composed of the four daughters of murky Night. What does our Chorus promise? Murder, revenge, weeping, slaughter, evil. Night-crimes, hateful things such as are betrayed by light. I, Nemesis, Hand of Justice, mete out well-earned lashings to crimes. If any evil deed impends, as Adrasteia I make my attack, nor does anyone escape. Menacing Alecto tirelessly harries wanton Ambition, Megaera oppresses Hatred, Tisiphone piles killing upon killing, exacting her price. The Furies drive the mad to distraction. And this play is entirely worthy of a hellish chorus: for if a subject is to be sought for tragedy fraught with piteous evils, dire and doleful, has the earth ever sustained, has nature ever begotten, has the sun ever seen, has history ever published Nero’s equal or an equivalent evil? And if there is to be a Chorus to govern these proceedings as judge or narrator, to shun the evil and support the good, rendering both kinds their due, to pray the gods that Fortune return to the wretched but depart from the arrogant, who should it be but us, avengers of crime, dispensers of justice? Do we not know what is to happen, being goddesses? Do we not interpret what has been done, being ministers of justice? Do we leave anything unavenged, past or future? Now I shall tell you whence come the coming crimes. Behold how headstrong is Messalina’s love, or madness! Satires sing of her boldness and lack of shame, how she would be exhausted by men yet remain unsated. Careless of her shame but hitherto false-modest, she burned for Silius. She was ashamed not to make him her husband. She burned, but did not dare. Then she dared to take him as her lover (oh the wickedness!), while her husband still lived, and all but looked. The unhappy woman raged like a Bacchante. Silius thought the one remedy for his peril was to take risks: when evildoing is manifest, let audacious madness come to the rescue, let the innocent devise safe plans. The Augustus, slow to take precautions though quick to anger, ought quickly to be overcome by them. Let they themselves rule as a married couple. Such things were dared and done, and Claudius’ household shuddered. Pallas was at the apex of his influence, but not of his courage. Callistus was clever and powerful, but overcautious. Narcissus persisted. Without delay, he made his accusation. He asked Caesar whether he was aware of the rebellion within his house: this “husband” had control of the city. The foolish, uxorious old man quickly roared — and quickly trembled. Quaking, he asked if he himself were in control of the empire, if Silius was still a private citizen. Hence he stalked away from the sacrifice, a savage whirlwind, and Messalina wished to meet him as a mother, surrounded by their children. But she went unheard by her husband, either because she went unseen or because he was highly displeased. Lest her influence be revived, his freedman oppressed this arrogant adulteress. From this grew the crop of crimes presently to be enacted.
But Xiphilinus is not silent on this stage, nor does Tacitus remain tacit, or Tranquillus tranquil: you would think that historians are become poets. But what is the point of this passage? What business has our feeble comic troupe playing tragedy? But it counts for something to have had the will. Either lend a friendly ear to our performance, or Nemesis will hound you too.
ACT I, SCENE i
THE GHOSTS OF MESSALINA AND SILIUS
GHOST OF MESSALINA Pitiable mate — and why should I not call you my mate, whom Juno joined to our marriage-bed, the Fates to the funeral pyre? — whom, though the gods did not second our effort, the whole city saw as my second man, my first husband saw as my husband, why rouse me from my Underworldly abode, but nevertheless my abode? Why attack my face with torches, my breast with snakes? Why are you burning, urging, pressing, agitating, raging, insisting, threatening? We ought to suffer the Furies, not be Furies. Are you harassing me as the author and partner of our crime? I committed it, I confess, and I began it. You surpassed me while we sought, a husband for me, a kingdom for you — now do you seek to exact the penalty from me? Have no fear, a great one will be paid. Do you seek vengeance? Have confidence, a horrible one will be given. Or are you seeking the tyrant? Leave off — he will be given to you broken, hated and miserable, fated to perish by a crime equal to that for which we died. What more do you desire? He will be given. You think this slow? He is given. Or is this also slow? Know that he is already given to death, to a death which the daylight will dread, at which Rome will shudder. Leave me to myself, seek out the Styx in peace. [The ghost of Silius goes down.]
I crave revenge on you, you, a lowly emperor, but a savage husband. I search for you, an Argus for my crimes, and blind as a mole for your own: a monster of a man, born either a fool or a king. Such your mother, your sister, your grandmother thought of you. But you first became wise to my anguish: you ordered me, innocent, to be killed, but did not know that I died. Truly? Did I slip your memory? I shall not slip your memory: if I have learned your fate aright, Nero, you will crave Messalina for a consort. I shall come, but as a shade. I call on you, sister-wife of Jove; on you, Trivia in the forest, Luna in the skies, Hecate in the underworld; I call on you, Hymenaeus, patron of marriage: be present at this new wedding, as once you were present at mine. But why high powers? Deep Chaos will sooner come running to these crimes. If I cannot sway the gods above, I shall move the ones below. Come forth, oh avenging goddess of arrogant evildoing. Come forth, Kindly Ones, stained with blood, venom, and gore: come, snake-girt Tisiphone, come Megaera, come, baleful Allecto. Do this, bring evils. Let debauchery become a trifle, lust virtue, fraud loyalty, hatred friendship. Why does Claudius, on the very verge of incest, hide within? Let ambition think nothing forbidden, nothing sacred. Let old crimes be eclipsed by new; let him, flagrantly guilty, purge me of guilt. Let a consort despoil her husband, a niece her uncle, a son-in-law his father-in-law, a son his father — I shudder to say this — of his government — but why am I calling it his government? — and of his life. This, this is the route to take. I bear these nuptial torches for Agrippina — but also these funeral fires. [Exit.]
ACT I, SCENE ii
THE EMPEROR CLAUDIUS WITH HIS RETINUE, CALISTUS, NARCISSUS, PALLAS, VITELLIUS, BRITANNICUS, OCTAVIA, PETINA, PAULINA, AGRIPPINA, DOMITIUS
CLAUDIUS Let whoever fears to govern and, stretched out in contentment on some beach, fanned by a gentle breeze, turns his treacherous back on a destiny that has eluded him, consider you and me, Rome. Scarce any age has produced a similar example of monarchs, those Joves of earth, enjoying a stable fortune. Our august mistress of all things, Europe’s capital, Romulus ’ small foundation, surges up towards heaven, and has been what it is for twice four hundred years. Phoebus has come to know us at his rising, as he runs across the skies, and at his setting; we are known by Syria, powerful in the time of Ninus, Persia in the day of Cyrus, and Greece in that of the Macedonian; the land assigned to the Goat, Asia, belonging to the Crab, the Bear’s Scythia, Africa of the Scales, and the land beyond the borders of Bacchus and the year’s turning, beyond the pillars of Hercules and the pathways of the sun, every land has come to know us, to know our generals. To heaven we extend our glory, our rule to the sea. To heaven we raise our heads, we bestride the earth. With Caesar’s favor, Fortune’s support, and Virtue’s guidance, I conquer what I will, I render it conquered. It pleases me to have conquered, but (forgive me, Rome) it is no cause for shame to be the one to conquer. Still, I am unsure whether I should envy Caesar the more, or Caesar me. He showed us the fierce Britons, I subdued them; he saw them, I defeated them; he suffered a repulse, unavenged; to my renown, I triumphed. Indeed (and I deem this the mark of a blessed ruler), Ocean yielded to me as I sat, consuming towns even as they offered resistance, and brought them within my nets. Nor do I think it a commonplace lot for a man, who by custom must seek a match, to be wooed by rival brides, to be wooed by women fair of form and noble by birth. The world subdued, it pleases me to indulge my need and nature, to wield the thyrsus of Bacchus and the distaff of Hercules. I have this consolation for my consort’s death, that I am a bachelor, free to choose a wife. Be it policy, be it lust, be it ardent love, I am minded to choose. I mislike the widower’s bed, nor does a bull freed from the yoke plough soil already worked. Only the Phoenix is unfamiliar with wedding-torches. Speak to me — a lovely crown is offered to her who prevails.
NARCISSUS Divine emperor, second only to Mars, he seems a fit judge of a good wife who tells the truth, not he who ruthlessly hounds a bad one. Valeria deserved death. You approve it? Petina is worthy of your bed. You deny it? You have divorced her, I confess, but for light causes. Her chastisement will guarantee that she do nothing strange. We cling to familiar evils — so why not to familiar good?
CALISTUS August Caesar, viceroy of Jove on earth, divorces of long standing entail difficult resentments. Return to favor would engender high spirits. Paulina was Caligula’s bride, and presents herself as worthy of Caesar. Let Claudius be heir to throne and bed. She will cherish your children, having none herself. You can say that barren step-mothers are as good as mothers.
PALLAS Invincible prince, pillar of Augustus’ house, to whom fame consecrates the victory-palm, bugles and banners, so that myrtle, interwoven with laurel, might crown your head, famous Thalestris sues for the bed of Alexander. Lo, she is born of your brother, to marriage with you she brings his grandson, born of royal auspices, distinguished among the Claudian clan, beloved to one and all. She is a woman of proven fertility, vigorous in her youth. Take care lest the title of Caesar pass to another clan. Let Juno sleep in the arms of Jove, Venus in the bosom of Mars.
NARC. Aelia, known to her husband, will cherish no other man.
CALIST. Lollia will cherish both husband and children.
PAL. Julia will cherish husband, children, and citizens.
NARC. Petina is a Juno in her wealth. Does Juno please?
CAL. Paulina is a Minerva in her arts. Does Minerva please?
PAL. Agrippina is Juno, Minerva, and Venus. Does she not please?
CLAUD. This one and that one please me. I know not which I like the most, as I crave them both. As a bull standing between two equally fair heifers, turning his eyes now here, now there, uncertain which to choose but lustful for the both, rushes about, so I am a new Alexander with his three goddesses, uncertain which is the fairest, to whom the golden prize should be given. No matter, but nevertheless I hesitate. A ship, driven to the Isles of the Blessed, is greedy if it carries off everything; foolish, if nothing. Helpless in all this abundance, I desire and I enjoy. But first, let the rival goddesses be heard.
AELIA PETINA I have borne it with silent sorrow and due deference that Hercules has abandoned me for the Lydian woman, that you, a Jason, have favored your Theban girl, Paris, your Greekling. Sorrow turns aside the angry, deference sways the savage. I have not resorted to arms, poison, or curses: love is my weapon, tears my potion, pleas my curses. But return, Jove, now that Semele has been struck by lightning. Estranged, come back at last, my Jove. In the name of the sweet person of a mother, the sweeter of a child, of my familiar entreaties and our common household, of the rites and the fires, witnesses of your marriage, take Paetina back into your favor, your government, your bed.
LOLLIA PAULINA Though marriage to Nero might dignify Aelia, though family connection to Nero might ennoble Julia, his marriage to either would not eclipse Lollia. I think, however, this splendor belongs to the Neroes, not to us. But let Caesar love me as he is loved by me, so that I might love the Caesars alone, a loyal stepmother. Thus let the glory of government repose in Nero, thus let it be transmitted from Nero to his dutiful offspring. Thus let Rome live subject to Nero, the world subject to Rome, as Paulina should live subjected to a second Nero, as his consort.
JULIA AGRIPPINA Cupid, who triumphed over Mars, Hercules, and Jove (over Mars by means of Venus, Hercules by the Lydian girl, taking away Mars’ sword, Hercules’ club, Jove’s lightning), cast equal fires on Claudius, who is no less then they. Let Nero love Agrippina’s loving. Why do I foolishly assault the heedless gods with prayers? Rather let the chief god on earth be petitioned, for in my eyes Claudius has always been our supreme divinity. Our victims fill his altars. I swear by the head of thundering Claudius, can a Paetina or a Paulina be compared to me? Are the disdain for all marriages, the divorce of rulers, to be compared to me? If they have been fitly divorced, why do they seek new marriages? If wrongly divorced, they incriminate their consorts. Either course involves wrongdoing, whether they admit their guilt or shift it onto their husbands. As a pious heir, guard the reputation of Caius, ratify your own actions. Nero, do you not appreciate that they are born of consuls, but I of a triumphator, your brother Germanicus? And still you hesitate?
PET. It is sinful to marry a niece, pious to take a wife.
PAUL. It is the glory of a kingdom to cherish a royal widow.
AGRIP. Are this widow, this wife, who have been banished, to reject a niece?
PET. Claudius would be my husband, but your adulterer.
PAUL. Caius clung to me as his consort, he would cling to you as somebody polluted.
AGRIP. Let my brother and uncle love me — and loathe you.
CLAUD. I love you but do not loathe the rest. They please me equally. Beauty is in them, Venus in Julia. Charm is in them, Persuasion in Julia. Splendor is in them, kinship with the gods in Julia. Who prefers me to all other husbands?
ALL THREE I do!
CLAUD. And which of these goddesses should I prefer?
CLAUD. Do you summon, Julia? Take Nero, his empire, his bed.
VITELLIUS May it go well for Nero, Julia, the empire, this marriage.
CLAUD. May it go well, Vitellius. But what’s this? My heart is pounding. I know not why, my spirits fail, but I know they fail. It is something, and that no trifle. What have I done, wretch that I am? I have done something which I might regret, but to my unhappiness I have done it. Storms are blowing up, the sea swells though the wind is slack. These portents frighten me. Now the gleaming fire sinks low, now it blazes up. Am I more sad or horrified? Or does great pleasure have some capacity to make one weep?
VIT. Let no empty dread vex our valiant prince, nor any vain sorrow overwhelm our prince’s consort. Reveal the cause of your fear, and ease yourself by its revelation. A healing hand soothes open wounds.
CLAUD. I both fear many things, and see two that I should fear. Shall I be frustrated in my desire, and will this niece tolerate her uncle? And I have given my word to the Praetorians that I shall marry no woman if the auspices are bad.
VIT. Things which are ill-pledged do not lack an ill outcome.
CLAUD. Good faith is to be upheld by the common people, even more by a Caesar.
VIT. Good faith is a goddess when she brings profit; bringing loss, a crime.
CLAUD. The Praetorians have arms, which punish the guilty.
VIT. The Praetorians have loyalty, which serves their master.
CLAUD. But a niece wed to her uncle is an example of incest, and incest invites divine retribution.
VIT. Jove happens to be Juno’s brother and husband.
CLAUD. The populace will reject this.
VIT. Should the populace reject Caesar? Is he thus ordered about? Does the populace govern Caesar?
CLAUD. The law forbids.
VIT. You are a law unto yourself.
CLAUD. This is without precedent.
VIT. Create a precedent. But it is not unprecedented. Consider barbarian kingdoms.
CLAUD. This reeks of barbarism.
VIT. But what is permissible anywhere is permissible everywhere.
CLAUD. Nature rebels.
VIT. The hardhearted law ordained marriage. Nature makes no distinctions, but rather invites kinsmen to love each other.
CLAUD. You urge a thing scarce sanctioned by custom.
VIT. Let it be sanctioned by love.
CLAUD. Do you urge this speaking as censor?
VIT. I urge it. I shall arrange for the Senate and people to approve.
CLAUD. I shun the Senate, not being its equal, nor can I stand the people.
VIT. Leave to me whatever you shun, my emperor. The people will command this marriage, the Senate will recommend it.
CLAUD. Provident man, you have brought this wind- and wave-tossed ship in to the longed-for haven from the storm.
AGRIP. I have nothing to request for myself, having attained the pinnacle. You who have granted me yourself retain nothing which you could deny. But so that this plant might drive its roots the deeper, but that this new marriage might be knotted the tighter, my son exhorts me to ask two things of Caesar: that my son be created your son-in-law, that my son be called a Nero.
CLAUD. Though I desire nothing be denied Agrippina, much less anything which my consort should be forward in asking, yet of these two things I do not know but that I should deny the one, or perhaps the both. In fact, I refuse the both.
AGRIP. Why deny your wife and son-in law?
CLAUD. You have the both. For Silanus is your son-in-law, and here’s your son. [Pointing at Domitius].
AGRIP. So you prefer Silanus to my son, and you reject my boy as Octavia’s helpmate?
VIT. Silanus is an unworthy husband for your daughter. You can match Domitius against ten of Silanus. There is nothing in him, save that he is your son-in-law. There is nothing wanting in Domitius, if only he becomes your son-in-law.
PAL. A tree-propped vine grows lofty and flourishes. Your son will thrive thanks to Domitius’ strength. Augustus had beloved grandsons, yet he embraced his step-sons with equal affection. Tiberius had a son, Drusus, yet he received Germanicus as his equal in government.
CLAUD. It is a hard to thing to deny your suit, but harder yet not to deny it. If I refuse, I am harsh to my wife, but harsh to my children if I do not. What should unhappy piety do? So let the Fathers decide both these questions for us.
ACT I, SCENE iii
SENATORS ENTERING THE SENATE BUILDING BY ONES AND TWOS; SILANUS AND VITELLIUS MEETING EACH OTHER; THE CONSULS CAIUS POMPEIUS AND QUINTUS VERANNIUS
VITELLIUS Where are you hurrying, Silanus?
SILANUS Straight to the Senate, grave Censor.
VIT. It is forbidden.
SIL. Why is it forbidden?
VIT. I remove you from the Senate.
SIL. You may be the censor, but I am a praetor and (which arouses envy) son-in-law to Caesar.
VIT. Assuredly you were both. You shall be neither.
SIL. What’s this?
VIT. Caesar and censor remove you from Senate, office, and position as son-in-law.
SIL. On what grounds?
VIT. They have so decided.
SIL. You think that sufficient cause?
VIT. It suffices. And you did not sufficiently clear your sister of her mark of infamy. SIL. Mark of infamy? My sister?
VIT. I have spoken and, this having been said, good-bye. (Exit into the Senate house.)
SIL. What words, what laments, what plaints can I utter? Hear me, lands, Underworld, heaven, sea! Cheating Nero has dissolved our marriage-pact, lying Nero has expelled an innocent son-in-law. You see and hear — and Nero lives? Let this unspeakable father, this hateful father-in-law live, this husband who cannot live in harmony with his wife, this abomination of our age, let this Procrustes, or monster-born man, consume a son-in-law, devour a father-in-law, a parent, a wife, a brother. [Octavia ’s marriage procession crosses the stage.] See, see how this procession passes in its lengthy column, bringing marriage to Octavia, but death to me. Her wedding-torch is kindling my funeral pyre. Die, Silanus, die! Let this bridal bed be your tomb. Slaughter the victim for the rites. Sorrow stays my timid hand. But my hand is not stayed — it chooses the day for the slaughter, on which to increase Caesar’s unpopularity because of this marriage. Follow me, Caesar, thus your son-in-law leads the way. (Exit Silanus. Enter Vitellius and the Senators.])
VIT. Forgive me, Conscript Fathers, that we must consider a vital matter of state. Our prince’s great labors, by which he guides the world, require no small assistance, so that, liberated from family concerns, he may be free for his nation. What better relief can be given his mind than a consort in the good times, a companion in the bad? To her he might confide his thoughts, on her he might confer loyal offspring, given neither to celibacy or to wantonness, he who from first youth has deferred to the law.
THE CONSUL POMPEIUS A single summit ill serves two hills, by himself an Atlas can scarce uphold both city and world. Husbands live for many, celibates for themselves. Caesar is prudent to wish a wife. Because he loyally cleaves to one woman, o may he speedily wed!
VIT. Since you Fathers are urging divine Nero to wed, it is needful to choose a woman for the marriage who is known for her fertility, good breeding, and fidelity. Why say more? Lo, Agrippina excels as such a one. It does not happen without divine blessing that a widow marries a prince who is only familiar with marriage to her. We have heard from our fathers’ generation, and have ourselves seen, chaste wives dragged to serve the base lust of the Caesars. How different that was from this present modesty! Caesar, quite to the contrary, humbly takes a wife according to the will of the Senate. I admit that marriage to a brother’s daughter is a new thing at Rome. But elsewhere it is familiar, nor do the laws forbid it. Custom is unfair: marriage to a cousin was once unknown, but the passage of time removed this obstacle. Customs become accommodated to human needs, and things now once familiar were once novelties — as will this innovation, thanks to their example.
THE CONSUL VERANIUS Let Julia wed Nero, oh let her wed him swiftly! If Caesar hesitates in this matter, let us Fathers compel him, and let us so vote.
VIT. Cease. I see him, willing. (Enter Claudius.) August Caesar, may it go well for the empire and yourself. The Senate votes, the people unanimously urge, that you take pious Julia in an auspicious marriage. They wish that Julia should bear the name of mighty Augusta; that Domitius, adopted into the Claudian clan as a Nero; be son-in-law of Nero and bridegroom of your Octavia; be consul in his twentieth year; and meanwhile that he rule outside the city as Prince of Youth.
CLAUD. I am pleased by your great concern for me, nor is my concern any the less that this thing should be pleasing to you. But let this boy, raised into my family’s heaven, take care lest he set the world afire, lest he strike with lightning when enraged. Nobody has heretofore been adopted into the Claudian clan. But henceforth Nero, wed to the Augusta, so proclaims, and henceforth he will be my daughter’s beloved helpmeet. (Enter Nero, Agrippina, Britannicus, Octavia, Pallas.)
NERO Nero bids his brother Britannicus fare well.
BRIT. Receive, Domitius, the same welfare you wish for me.
NERO “Domitius?” What’s this? Am I not Nero, mother?
CLAUD. With his own titles Caesar honors Nero, Caesar honors the Augusta.
AGRIPPINA Caesar honors his kinsmen, but this boy scorns his adoptions. He rejects whatever the Fathers and the people have ordained for this family. And he makes this rejection, not out of any personal initiative, but under instruction. If those who have taught him are not quickly repressed, see how swiftly they will fuel his fires.
CLAUD. Fires consume the wood that feeds the fire, these noxious counsels will rebound on their very authors. Let the punishment of these advisors frighten his shallow mind. Though you may determine exiles and executions as you choose, let a sound guardian of his step-mother’s choosing be appointed for this boy. But why is this centurion hastening hither? (Enter a centurion.)
CENTURION Caesar, I am reporting that the order you have ha
been accomplished. Thirty-five Senators and three hundred knights have fallen as noble sacrifices to your wedding.
CLAUD. I gave the order? I swear by eternal Jove that I gave no such order. What penalty will you pay for this, wretched man?
PALLAS Rather, Caesar, you should give your protection to soldiers who spontaneously rush to avenge you. These folk were your enemies.
CLAUD. Then thus let my enemies die, let them be dragged off. The feast awaits me.
BRITANNICUS So, kind father, is it a small thing for a brother to be adopted, unless he is also given preference? Is it a small thing for me to know a step-mother, unless she is granted power over me? To be sure, I am granted the toga of a free-born boy, but he is awarded that of a triumphator. So is he to be emperor, though a boy is born of you? You are a shepherd who entrusts his lamb to the wolf for the guarding — rather for the rending! Rather, father, be a merciful parent and kill me like a beast. See, I cheerfully bare my neck, throat, and breast. Death is to be craved, when you die by the hand you choose.
CLAUD. Great hope of your father, example of a noble spirit, trust nothing overmuch, nor yet fear much. Though it be impudent, this marriage of mine will not go unpunished. Desire compels me. Be watchful, boy. Grow, grow, be blessed in your famous virtue, so that the citizenry will at last know you are the genuine Caesar. Suffer this harsh step-mother, fear her as a mistress. The gods have given me a destiny of first tolerating my wives’ sins, and then of punishing them. Being agreeable, you drink your brother’s nectar; being disagreeable, you drink poison. Compete so that the better gains the rule, not the stronger. Sacred Fathers, I present both these boys to you. Love, adore, cherish the race of the Caesars. The Fate does not spare my life’s thread.
VIT. We pray she spares it. May his grandchildren come to know their grandfather Claudius, may death come late for this old man! (Exeunt omnes except Agrippina and Pallas.)
ACT I, SCENE iv
AGRIP. Darling Pallas, you whom I love above all others, did you hear the threats he leveled against his poor wife? Who can await the outcome of royal threats in security? Who would not forestall them? If necessary, you should cheerfully commit a crime rather than suffer one. Prudent sovereigns, guard against making arrogant threats: they arm us, they whet us, they impede their own progress. For whoever threatens evil advises me to caution. I shall forestall crime by crime; in the face of evil salvation lies in evildoing. Let him be put down lest he put me down unawares.
PAL. Augusta, you should sway your husband by yielding.
AGRIP. You advise me obey, when I should rule?
PAL. You are an empress.
AGRIP. At Claudius’ whim.
PAL. Your empire even rules him.
AGRIP. The lion allows himself to be toyed with for a moment. Soon he rips you. I fear Claudius’ claws. Do you not hear his threats?
PAL. Deference, not bluster, deflects threats.
AGRIP. Let timid women be compliant. I shall accomplish my threatened crime.
PAL. You yourself speak of crime?
AGRIP. Aye, and a great crime.
PAL. You will kill your husband.
AGRIP. Yes, he dies lest he kill.
PAL. An emperor die?
AGRIP. Yes, that I may enjoy his empire.
PAL. What hope have you?
AGRIP. Why are you hesitant? Woman is irate and powerful. Think that Joves’ thunder and lightning are here. For wrath and power are Jove’s thunder and lightning — and Woman is an even greater thing.
PAL. Have you power over Nero?
AGRIP. Yes, that which Nero has conferred on me. Burrhus controls the army, Seneca the council.
PAL. Will you invite these two, noble in their virtue, to share your crime?
AGRIP. But both, mindful of whose support allowed them to grow, will bring the soldiers and Fathers over to me.
PAL. Soldiers are bought at a price, and Fathers at theirs.
AGRIP. I have collected the price of a kingdom as my support — and I shall pay it.
PAL. But who will —
AGRIP. Let them leave Caesar to me.
PAL. By what manner of death —
AGRIP. By poison.
PAL. The quick or the slow?
AGRIP. The speedy one betrays the crime, treachery works through the slow. The one would earn me hatred, by the other his love for Britannicus might return. I want a drug that will derange his mind while drawing out his death.
PAL. And what woman is to be the artist?
AGRIP. Locusta, already convicted of evildoing.
PAL. And her assistant?
AGRIP. A very Ganymede, the eunuch Halotus.
PAL. And the point of all of this?
AGRIP. That my son may rule.
PAL. May the gods favor this!
AGRIP. You will learn what the gods want. See, Agerinus is now returning from the auguries. (Enter Agerinus.) What did the soothsayer tell you? Speak up. Why are you silent? Will my boy rule?
AGERINUS Would that I could remain silent!
AGRIP. Tell me, will Nero rule?
AGER. He will rule, but if he reigns he will fall upon his mother.
AGRIP. Let the sky fall on her too. What does this concern me, as long as he reigns? Let us go, Pallas. This business admits no delay. [Exeunt].
ACT I, SCENE v
NARCISSUS, BRITANNICUS, OCTAVIA
NARCISSUS [Alone.] Oh harsh fates! In my misery, of what should I first complain? Of you, Caesar, or you, Rome, in servitude to this hard-hearted Medea? Or of you, boy, or you too, sister, subjected to a harsh step-mother? Or should I complain about myself? My lot demands perpetual tears. Whether Messalina or Agrippina’s son wields the power, I am faced by certain ruin. But let it be at hand, let it come. You have merited it, Caesar, that I have expended on you my wealth, my honor, my life. I have lopped a head from off this wanton Hydra, but with one cut off a new head has grown up. But not one in place of another: it does not remain a mere goat, but becomes a lion-faced, snake-tailed Chimera. So a new crop of suffering grows up, new monsters arise, one evil grows out of another. I have wasted my effort, now I damn my hands. For I removed that harlot, but a fierce woman has arisen for whom corrupted shame is the least of evils. Adulterous Aegisthus set Clytaemnestra against the son of Atreus; to his dominion yielded right, trust, life, and honor. Grow, Orestes, grow. May mature strength be added to your years, may you rout your father’s enemies, may you avenge your mother’s murder, and me in them! Scatter these insubstantial mists. For the sun at length to shine its light throughout the sky — what better to ask of you, of mankind, of the gods?
BRITANNICUS Narcissus, I fear such great prayers. You seem forgetful of me, asking such ambitious things. Orphaned by my mother’s killing, bereft of protection on all sides, subject to my step-mother, unequal to my brother, deprived of a father, am I to think of ruling? Life is more than enough — if I live. Life is more than enough, but death is blameless, dying comes as a boon. Their great aspiration for power banishes the less strong from the empire — it banishes us from light, life, and hope.
OCTAVIA Oh brother, dearer than daylight, even though my soul aspires as long as it has spirit, hope alone remains on earth after all the other good things have escaped from mankind and the world. The fact that our father clings to life and power gives me hope.
BRIT. Our life and power are sinking along with our father. Narcissus, do you know if our father is alive?
NARC. He is alive but ailing.
BRIT. And so let us visit our ailing father, if it is allowed.
NARC. Stop, your step-mother comes flying. (Enter Agrippina and Xenophon, a physician.)
AGRIPPINA [To herself.] I am ruined! He will puke up the swallowed poison. Words of wrath have been spoken to the man trying to hasten him off. Why shrink, my spirit? Hasten, while your hands are hot. Come, Augusta, hasten, hasten. Unless you make haste you are dead. Seek the ultimate cure for this ultimate disease. Xenophon, you are party to my crimes, you must help. I shall assist spewing Claudius — let him spew up his soul. Help him vomit with a feather, but a feather dipped in poison. Often poisons take the place of medicines. Great crimes entail no small peril, but when at length completed they bring no less profit. Go to him, accomplish this. (Exit Xenophon. Agrippina catches sight of Britannicus.) [Aside.] Poor me, what did I do? His children heard - rather let them hear that I am loyal. [Aloud.] Oh world’s eye and soul, god of medicine, arch-doctor born of Phoebus, father of healers, and Health, no less great than your father, direct the hand of this healing doctor, lest my Claudius feel any pain, lest my Claudius taste any pain.
But here’s his son. Oh true offspring of your father, in whom resides your mother’s beauty, your father’s glory, how sweet to embrace your neck! Oh dear pledge, how sweet to shower you with welcome kisses, to shed happy tears on your bosom!
NARC. Oh, what evil is overwhelming us, with Agrippina wailing? But why does she wail? This step-mother’s new love is weaving deep tricks. I fear her even when she is friendly.
BRIT. O Mother, may I visit my ailing father?
AGRIP. What is not allowed you, sole hope of your mother? But the disease is abating and his health returns.
BRIT. I am happy, and I want to visit him even more, now that he is mending.
AGRIP. And I’d like to also, but the doctor forbids a crowd, so that deep sleep may restore his afflicted frame. Let time be given for slumber, and his health will come back. Duty is fruitless if it does not heed the time. Narcissus, entertain my children in their chamber as best you can with that tomfoolery of yours. (Exit Narcissus, Britannicus, and Octavia.)
Like Ulysses, shut with in the belly of the Trojan Horse while raging Laocoon brandishes his weapon, fearing treachery in his inmost heart, so I trembled when my son probed the horse’s guts (and, Laocoon, soon he will perish by your snake), lest the sound betray the ill-concealed scheme and I run aground in the very harbor. Now I have been placed in the citadel, and I am waiting for Sinon to undo the latches. And see, Pallas is making happy signs. (Enter Pallas.)
PAL. Destiny is accomplished, and Claudius lies in death.
AGRIP. My wishes are fulfilled, joy overwhelms Julia.
PAL. Nero, emperor of Rome and master of the ocean, Nero, conqueror of the Britons, ruler of the world, like a tall pine struck by many blows, groaned his last, and lies a lifeless trunk.
AGRIP. Now all Troy is aflame, now Priam is ashes. Go now, and threaten to punish your wife. Or rather, go now, and tell your wife in Hell, tell her that revenge has been taken in both our names. She dared no crime, she suffered one; I have suffered none, because I am daring. Fortune afflicted the timid one, lifted up the bold. Now my Nero ascends to the pinnacle of empire, born of me, master because of me, Nero thanks to me. The passing of Claudius must be kept concealed, so that Nero might live, that Augusta might live, that Augusta and Nero might reign. After many centuries, Destiny has produced me, uniquely a daughter, sister, wife, and mother of rulers.
Lo, violent murder invites murder. The querulous, restless shades demand that the murderer be stricken and die, that blood be expiated by blood.
You sin out of ignorance? You were wrong to be ignorant. You do so out of carelessness? You were wrong to be careless. You are no innocent. Pay the price, perpetrator who worked harm unawares.
But you say your killed a guilty person, deservedly. Judge and condemn: you act to kill an innocent woman, not a guilty one. But therefore you will be killed by a guilty one, deservedly.
Hercules killed faithful Megara, but he was raving. Let no guilt attach to his madness. Then Deianira, either deceived or raving, killed Hercules.
Thus one wave draws along the next, fire draws fire. Thus crime pays for crime, wrath provokes wrath. Just vengeance is the companion of unjust vengeance.
Sometimes heaven allows the just to be murdered by the unjust. I admit it — but it marks them for another existence, to everlasting Gehenna.
Punishment comes slowly but surely on her limping foot, the irrepressible avenger oppresses the sinner from behind. Nemesis cheats nobody, nor does anybody cheat her.
Go to Act II