Act I, Scene i The year is 49 A. D. Claudius, a weak and befuddled old man, is emperor at Rome. The audience is told by the ghost of Messalina of a recent development in the imperial household. Claudius’ consort, the nymphomaniacal Messalina, had become so brazen that she openly celebrated a “marriage” with the courtier Caius Silius. Narcissus, an imperial freedman, took firm measures to destroy her before she could play on Claudius’ sympathies.
Act I, Scene ii Foolish, doddering, self-indulgent old Claudius is too uxorious to live without a wife, so another must be chosen. Claudius was the first emperor to delegate the day-to-day business of government to imperial slaves and freedmen as a kind of improvised civil service. The three who appear in this scene (Narcissus, Calistus and Pallas) attained considerable power during his reign. Each has a candidate for Messalina’s replacement: Narcissus supports Claudius’ erstwhile wife Aelia Paetina, whom he had. divorced for trivial reasons. Calistus’ nominee is Lollia Paulina, the widow of Claudius predecessor Caligula. Pallas urges the case of Agrippina, daughter of Claudius’ dead brother Germanicus, an enormously popular war hero who was commonly thought to have been murdered by Tiberius. The three women are produced and, after an initial speech of self-satisfaction, Claudius invites each to state her qualifications to be his new bride. He decides on Agrippina, although he is anxious because he has promised the Praetorian cohort (which had placed him on the throne after Caligula’s assassination) that he would not remarry, and because of the marriage’s incestuous nature. The censor Lucius Vitellius tries to calm his fears, and promises that he will procure the approval of the Senate and people. Agrippina requests two favors of her bridegroom: that he adopt Domitius (the future emperor Nero, now a boy), and that the lad be married to his daughter Octavia. These requests greatly disturb the old emperor: Octavia is already betrothed to the praetor Lucius Silanus, and he would be establishing a rival to Claudius’ own son Britannicus, the heir-apparent. But he concludes by weakly agreeing that these proposals should be decided by the Senate.
Act I, Scene iii Vitellius meets Silanus outside the Senate house and cruelly informs him he is exercising his privilege of office and ejecting Silanus from the Senate, and that the marriage to Octavia has been called off. In a soliloquy, Silanus rails against Claudius, acknowledges his own ruin, and announces that he has decided on suicide. The curtains open to reveal a meeting of the Senate, at which Vitellius fulfills his promise by requesting agreement to the proposed marriage, and Domitius’ adoption and betrothal to Octavia. The fawning consuls and senators (all mere ciphers under the emperors) fall over each other in giving their assent. Claudius appears with Domitius - henceforth Nero — and Britannicus in tow, and receives the Senate’s plaudits. But a contretemps occurs and the two boys display open hostility towards each other. Claudius responds openly by granting Agrippina power over Britannicus, but he urges him to withstand her oppression, voicing the hope that the boy will grow up as the rightful emperor. A tribune appears to inform Claudius that the massacre of senators and equestrians he has ordered is now completed: but old Claudius has forgotten that he issued any such command.
Act I, Scene iv The stage clears, leaving behind Agrippina and Pallas. It is now revealed that they are lovers, and Agrippina forcefully expresses the ambition that her son should be the next emperor. In the previous scene Claudius has foolishly expressed his hope that Britannicus will be the next emperor in a public setting, and Agrippina is alarmed. To accomplish her desire, she will murder Claudius’ murder. The poisoner Locusta will encompass the old man’s death, and she is certain of support from the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor (who is in her debt for recalling him from exile), and from Afranius Burrhus, commander of the Praetorians. When informed of a prophecy that if Nero gains the throne he will destroy his mother, Agrippina responds that she has no concern for her own welfare as long as he rules.
Act I, Scene v Narcissus (who fears eclipse by Pallas), Britannicus, and Octavia, meet and express their alarm that Claudius has fallen ill. Agrippina appears and assures them that he will recover but excludes them from the sickroom. Then in an aside she voices fear that he will not die. But she takes measures to ensure that he does. She hustles the three offstage, learns from Pallas that Claudius is now dead, and exults that Nero is now emperor.
Act II, Scene i The ghost of Claudius foretells the murder of Britannicus.
Act II, Scene ii Four anonymous equestrians witness Nero’s progress towards the camp of the Praetorians, and debate the wisdom of appointing such a young man emperor (he is now seventeen years old).
Act II, Scene iii Returning from the camp, Nero delivers to the Senate a very moderate and conciliatory speech. They hail him as emperor (the closest thing the Romans had to a coronation ceremony). By an awkward coincidence his mother and an Armenian embassy arrive simultaneously. At Seneca’s advice, Nero politely stalls the ambassadors so that she cannot mount the dais and greet them as his equal.
Act II, Scene iv Everybody else departs, leaving behind Agrippina and Pallas. She is furious at what she regards as Nero’s insulting treatment: did she murder Claudius to suffer such insults? Pallas tries unsuccessfully to calm her. In her rage she expresses anger that Nero has acquired a mistress, Acte, and broadly hints that she and her son have been lovers. Another thing increases her anger: Nero has given her some jewels from the imperial treasury, but she resents not having being given the entire collection. She will undo what she has done and destroy Nero. Pallas urges caution.
Act II, Scene v Seneca and Burrhus (Nero’s advisors during his minority) urge him to fear Agrippina’s plots. She arrives, and after some verbal fencing he announces that Pallas is to be stripped of his powers. Agrippina berates him and threatens that since she is Germanicus’ daughter the Praetorians will support her when she deposes him and sets up Britannicus in his stead.
Act II, Scene vi Nero’s alarmed reaction is to plot the murder of Britannicus. Locusta is summoned and instructed to poison him.
Act II, Scene vii During a holiday banquet of the imperial family Nero forces Britannicus and Octavia to sing for his amusement. Poison is then administered to Britannicus who dies before the horrified eyes of Agrippina and Octavia. The banquet continues. One of the guests, M. Salvius Otho (the future emperor), foolishly praises his wife Poppaea to Nero. Nero expresses a keen interest in meeting her.
Act II, Scene viii The two women are left to console each other as best they can.
Act III, Scene i In a dialogue between Charon and the ghost Britannicus, the audience is told of Britannicus’ hasty, shabby funeral and of how Nero had sexually corrupted the boy. More murders are predicted.
Act III, Scene ii Nero woos Otho’s wife Poppaea, promising to divorce Octavia. Poppaea expresses anxiety about Agrippina. Nero reveals that he has stripped her of her bodyguard and relegated her to obscurity. If necessary, he will kill her.
Act III, Scene iii The actor Paris bursts in on Nero with the news that Agrippina intends to marry Rubellius Plautus, a great-grandson of Augustus, and set him on the throne. Poppaea urges Nero to murder her. He turns to Seneca and Burrhus for advice. Seneca equivocates and Burrhus advises that she should not be condemned unheard. They leave and Poppaea continues to urge a vacillating Nero that he kill his mother. Nero’s chief objection, it emerges, is doubt about how the murder might be achieved. Also present is the freedman Anicetus, prefect of the fleet. In the amphitheater he has seen a trick ship that falls apart upon command. He suggests that Agrippina be placed aboard a similar vessel and drowned at see. Nero expresses his pleasure with this device.
Act III, Scene iv Seneca and Burrhus confront Agrippina with Pallas’ accusations. She indignantly denies them. Nero enters, and she turns to him for help. He hypocritically claims to believe her, feigns indignation, and condemns her accusers. He pretends to want a reconciliation and urges her to take ship for Baiae to a banquet.
Act III, Scene v A little boy sings a song of happiness, but is frightened by an apparition of the Furies.
Act III, Scene vi Nero lovingly bids farewell to his mother as she departs for Baiae. After she leaves he delivers a soliloquy hoping for her swift death, and expressing agonies of waiting. Anicetus returns and reports bad news: the scheme went awry, and Agrippina managed to swim ashore, injured but alive. She now is resting in her villa. He bids Anicetus and picked men go finish the job. The destruction of Agrippina’s freedman Agerinus is accomplished.
Act III, Scene vii Anicetus and his henchmen appear at Agrippina’s villa and kill her.
Act III, Scene viii Nero is alone, waiting for news of his mother’s death, tortured by the suspense of waiting. Anicetus enters with the good news that the deed is done.
Act IV, Scene i The ghost of Agrippina predicts the murder of Octavia.
Act IV, Scene ii Poppaea and Nero are terrified by Agrippina’s ghost and by nightmares they have had; they try to buck up each other’s courage.
Act IV, Scene iii Burrhus and Seneca arrive to congratulate Nero on his salvation from Agrippina’s machinations. He throws away a lucky bracelet he has worn since childhood. Poppaea points out that save for one thing he is now an absolute ruler: Octavia still lives. Burrus demurs and Nero dismisses him. Poppaea suggests that he be replaced as commander of the Praetorians with more pliable men: the nonentity Faenius Rufus and the unprincipled and debauched Sofonius Tigellinus. They are summoned, and Tigellinus demonstrates his loyalty by urging that two traitors be condemned: Cornelius Sulla Felix, governor of Gaul, and Rubellius Plautus, governor of Asia (whom Agrippina had threatened to marry). When Nero assents to their condemnation, Tigellinus goes further by denouncing Seneca. Poppaea chimes in, pointing out that Seneca is wealthy and can be fleeced. Convinced, Nero agrees that Seneca’s destruction must be arranged. Meanwhile, he commands that a spurious charge of adultery be leveled against Octavia.
Act IV, Scene iv At a meeting of the Senate the consul Gaius Vipsanius reads a letter from Nero justifying the death of Agrippina. Two virtuous senators, Thrasea Paetus and his father-in-law Helvidius Priscus, express their disgust, but the rest of the Senate votes that the gods should be thanked for Nero’s salvation.
Act IV, Scene v Octavia is being sent into exile, and laments her misfortune in a soliloquy. Seneca joins her and commiserates. In a soliloquy he ruefully denounces the courtier’s life. Nero enters, carrying the head of Rubellius Plautus. To Seneca’s horror, he ridicules it and then dances upon it. The philosopher points out that Nero has reached his maturity, that he himself has grown old in his service, and that it is time for him to go into retirement. He offers Nero his wealth. Nero generously refuses these offices and pledges eternal friendship. Seneca departs, and Anicetus enters: he is told he must invent a way of achieving Octavia’s final destruction.
Act IV, Scene vi Tigellinus is torturing Octavia’s slave Pythias in the hope of extracting evidence that her mistress has been guilty of adultery. Pythias bravely refuses to comply. Anicetus volunteers to allege that he himself has been Octavia’s lover, and that she has had an abortion.
Act IV, Scene vii Nero is again beset by his mother’s ghost and hears the gibes leveled against him by the common people for killing her. In terror Poppaea informs him that the citizens of Rome are rioting because Octavia has been deposed and banished. He commands Tigellinus to take revenge on the populace. Then he orders Octavia’s death.
Act V, Scene i The ghost of Agrippina predicts Nero’s downfall.
Act V, Scene ii The citizens of Rome are in turmoil because the city is afire. Nero’s agent forbids them to put out the flames. Nero appears on a balcony and ecstatically sings a song about the sack of Troy. The citizens curse him, and then he announces that the city will be rebuilt, finer than before — but that heavy taxes will be imposed to achieve this.
Act V, Scene iii A freedman brings Seneca poison from the emperor. His wife Paulina convinces him that premature suicide would be unphilosophical. The Faenius Rufus, Subrius Rufus, and Sulpicius Asper enter and urge him join the conspiracy against Nero that is being hatched by the nobleman Caius Calpurnius Piso. Seneca politely declines and leaves. Piso himself enters with other conspirators, including Antonius Natalis, Plautus Lateranus, Flavius Scevinus, Subrius Flavius, Sulpicius Asper, and the freedwoman Epicharis; they discuss plans for Nero’s assassination. Epicharis undertakes to bring the fleet over to the rebels’ side. When everyone else has left, Scevinus bids his freedman Milichus bring him his testamentary ledgers, sharpen a dagger, and prepare salves for wounds.
Act V, Scene iv Epicharis attempts to suborn Volusius Proculus, a captain of the fleet. But he realizes that there is more advantage in displaying loyalty to Nero, so denounces her. Nero is unconvinced, but has Epicharis arrested and interrogates her. Not learning much, he tells Tigellinus to examine her under torture. Then he orders spies to find out the truth. Milichus and his wife decide that they owe greater loyalty to Nero than to Scevinus, and so they denounce him and Natalis to Nero. They are arrested and their attempts to deny the charges soon fail. They too are dragged off for examination. Tigellinus produces Epicharis: even on the rack she has bravely refused to confess. She is brought in, bound in a chair, but rather than admitting her guilt she strangles herself in her bonds. Natalis, however, has chosen to confess, and denounces Piso and other members of the conspiracy. In the course of his confession he mentions Seneca, and Nero leaps to the conclusion that the philosopher too is party to the plot. Others denounced include Seneca’s nephew, the poet Lucan, Quinctianus, and Senecio. Nero instructs Granius Silvanus to order Seneca to commit suicide. Fenius Rufus, Flavius Subrius, and Sulpicius Asper are denounced and confess, and the first wave of executions follows.
Act V, Scene v Piso’s friends urge him to save himself. He refuses and commits suicide.
Act V, Scene vi A centurion from Nero bids Seneca commit suicide. His wife Paulina decides to join him. They botch the job. Seneca takes poison, but Nero’s agent intervenes and forestalls Paulina’s death.
Act V, Scene vii Distraught because in a moment of cowardice he betrayed his mother, the poet Lucan commits suicide.
Act V, Scene viii Poppaea, now tormented, is summoned by Agrippina’s ghost. When Nero returns from the theater, she berates her and he responds by kicking her in the belly. She dies. In a fit of remorse he orders a lavish funeral for her. Then he sends his freedman Epaphroditus to see if Claudius’ daughter Antonia will marry him. When she refuses, he orders her killed. So as he will have a wife, gives orders that the catamite Sporus be castrated and dressed up like Poppaea. He and Tigellinus compile a list of further men to be executed. Among them are the writer Petronius Arbiter and the noble senator Thrasea Paetus.
Act V, Scene ix As ordered by Nero, Petronius commits suicide.
Act V, Scene x Surrounded by his wife Arria, his father-in-law Helvidius Priscus, and his philosophically inclined friends, Thrasea Paetus commits suicide, issuing a dying man’s curse against Nero.
Act V, Scene xi Nero is in the company of Epaphroditus and his eunuch “wife” Sporus. After a brief apparition by Agrippina’s ghost, he is informed that Vindex, the current governor of Gaul, has risen against him. He hatches plans for retaliation, imagining leading a fantastic campaign against Vindex. But when he discovers that Galba, the military governor of Spain, has also revolted, he is prostrated with despair and remembers various prophecies of his downfall. A further despatch announces that Galba and Vindex have condemned him as a public enemy. After a brief fantasy about flight to the East, he asks Locusta for some poison. The scene ends with a description of Nero’s followers and the Praetorians.
Act V, final scene Nero is abandoned in the palace. His freedman Phaon offers him sanctuary at his suburban home. They go there, accompanied by Sporus and Epaphroditus, and Nero suffers various indignities. As hostile troops approach, he commits suicide.