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UNHAPPY AMBITION
OR
ABSALOM

A TRAGEDY

PERSONAE

S. DAVID
ABASALOM, ADONIAS, SOLOMON his sons
NATHAN a prophet
CHUSAI, ACHITOPHEL royal advisors
IOSEPH son of Achitophel
IOAB commander of the army
ABISAI his brother
AMASA cousin to both
ETHAI prince of the Gittites
BANAIAS captain of a fighting band
ABATHAR high priest
ZADOK priest
BENJAMIN son of Amasa
SEMEI kinsman of Saul
GHOST OF AMNON
DEPENDENTS
ANGELS
SOLDIERS
YOUNG MEN

PRELUDE

Judea’s guardian angel congratulates himself on Abaslom’s reconciliation with his father and the happy condition of the kingdom. The angel who is the agent of divine justice announces a new storm.

spacerANGEL 1 Rejoice, Lebanon. Rejoice, you happy ridges of Mt. Carmel. Let prosperity return to your precincts. Fostering peace flies on her snow-white chariot through Jerusalem’s hinterland, spreading your wealth from her bountiful cornucopia, autumn. Tranquility safely slumbers in front of the royal gates. Once more David takes to his bosom his exiled son. blue Our joy is renewed. The father embraces his son, the son his father. Oh happy day, worthy of being marked with a white stone! blue (Enter the second angel, with drawn sword.)
spacerANGEL 2 Oh sorry day, worthy of being marked with a black stone! Alas, Father Jordan, what a whirlpool you are nursing today! How muddied your waters! I see captains sunk beneath your blood-red waters, your corpse-choked stream cannot extricate itself.
spacer1. Who, pray tell, is responsible for such a tempest?
spacer2. The seed of this destruction, the leading man and cause of this slaughter, is Absalom.
spacer1. And whom will the boy damage in war?
spacer2. With his bold arm he will see his father’s guts, but pay the penalty to me.
spacer1. I shall go, I shall go. If there is any room for admonitions, perhaps he will blush at my words.
spacer 2. You will sing your song to a crag of the Caucasus.
spacer1. Youth can be shaped like wax.
spacer2. But Absalom is hard flint.
spacer1. With my shield I shall protect Zion’s citadels, entrusted to my care.
spacer2. Rather you should take to your heels. If Jerusalem could be protected, it would be sheltered safe beneath that shield of yours.
spacer1. I shall protect her.
spacer2. Don’t fight against heaven.
spacer1. Are heaven’s decrees manifest to you alone? I shall protect your person by covering it with my own, Zion, if heaven does not forbid.
spacer2. Heaven has forbidden.
spacer1. I am departing.
spacer2. First have a look at today’s grim aspect. (While David is at prayer Absalom steals his crown.) blue While the father is wearying heaven with his prayers, the son, restless and puffed up with pride, wretchedly piles crime atop crime. See how with a sacrilegious hand he robs his father’s locks of the royal badge of his brow. (He attacks his father with drawn sword.). That’s a trifle. The crazed boy also hastens to do violence to his father’s heart with steel, but he rages in vain. (Joab appears.)
spacer Come out, you royal avenger, and stay the boy’s impious hand. Now wield your three arrows, Joab, innocent blood calls out for blood.
spacer1. Oh hold your hand! [Joab’s killing of Absalom is acted out in dumb show.]
spacer2. He’s taken his fall. Whatever men uncontrolled ambition lifts up, it afterwards crushes in a downfall.
spacer1. I am going, and I freely reverence the decisions of our God Most High.
spacer2. God does not strike save when under compulsion, but He takes delight in the striking. [Exeunt.]

ACT I, SCENE i

Absalom, indignant because of his five years’ exile, decides to seize his father’s throne. Achitophel, a party to his conspiracy, advises him to send Amasa to the neighboring cities to bring them increasingly to his side, and to gain the good-will of the common people.

spacerABS. (Alone.) Cease singing of Tantalus’ savage thirst, you bards. Cease singing only of his jaws, and of his starvation when his mouth was cheated. The branch, heavy in the autumn, deceived the gaping old man, the tricksy stream of pure water fled and deceived his lips. But it is his father’s scepter that mocks Absalom. I am a genuine Tantalus. How often I snatch at your crown, Father! And how often it eludes my grasp like a shadow! Though I am made a laughing-stock, nevertheless I shall always pursue my quarry, a scepter is a great reward for delay. When shall I give laws to my subject peoples, shining with the blood of the Thessalian blue sea-shell? When will the proud crown bind my locks? Must I first close my dead father’s eyes? Oh what a distant day! Heaven’s charioteer, you must whip your horses more and more, your car creeps along. But why am I railing at Phoebus’ sluggish wheels? It is rather my idleness that is blameworthy. Oh slothful, icebound heart! Have the scars of exile faded? Have I sunk into the waters of oblivion those rocks so often assaulted by my lamentation? Come, my mind, resume your old high spirits. Let my father, deprived of his crown, learn what it is to drag out inglorious days as an exile from one’s native home. (Enter Achitophel.) But see, here’s this man of wise Minerva’s stock.
spacer ACH. Oh hands, far too slow in grasping for the scepter! My prince, do you want to encircle your brow with the crown of kinship?
spacerABS. You ask if I want this? This is the height of my desire. Aetna’s burning chasm scorches Enceladus blue blazing heart more gently than desire for the crown burns me.
spacerACH Mere wishes will never make you a crown. Trust me, you have need of the weaponry of a Pallas.
spacerABS. Speak out, you person second only to Pallas. I shall believe that whatever you say is being poured forth by the god’s tripod at Delphi.
spacerACH. You must particularly cultivate Amasa. The desire for the glory of a Jacob pricks at that young man’s inmost being with no small prompting. His spirit, unschooled at resting still, aspires to lofty, arduous things. And his effort matches his richly-endowed character. Let him be the leader of your captains. How he will triumph when he sees he is Joab’s equal!
spacer ABS. No need for promptings, I am familiar with the young man’s nature. Amasa commends himself well enough. Powerful with the honey of his eloquence he steals the people’s good-will and bring entire cities over to my side. He alone will command my battalions.
spacerACH. Nobody could make better work of presiding over your squadrons. But your ship is not yet grounded in its harbor. Look here, you yourself must also court popular favor. Neither comeliness, nor the splendor of one’s family, nor sweet eloquence supplies the single thing that induces men’s minds to defect. You must always haunt the royal gates, surrounded by a dense wave of the people, always ebbing and flowing. When some man offers a petition, you must first read it and hide it in your breast. Promise him the protection of your tongue. If the wretched crowd complains of poverty, you console their want with a lavish hand. If some men clad in mourning tearfully bewail their misfortune, you join your tears.
spacerABS. I shall heed your advice.
spacerACH. If Amasa is immediately successful in deploying his chariots, today will set your father’s crown upon your head. (Enter a young man.)
spacerY. M. I bring you happy news, my prince. Your Amasa has returned.
spacerABS. He’s returned? Let your heart swell with joy, Achitophel Let him quickly come to my home.
spacerACH. If Amasa’s returned, so has our prosperity. (Enter Amasa.)

ACT I, SCENE ii

Having energetically performed his mission, Amasa tells Absalom and Achitophel about the inclination of the neighboring cities, especially Hebron, to come to their defense. Absalom places Amasa in charge of his forces and binds the citizens of Jerusalem more closely to himself.

spacerAM. blue My prince, your sail is bellied out by a favoring wind. Your name flies about on everyone’s lips. Men are happy to venerate the rays of the rising sun, but nobody worships a sunset. See how many peoples are eager to expend their lives under your standards. (Gives him a list.) Hebron eagerly awaits the bugle call, and sharpens its sword on a bloodthirsty whetstone, being eager to come to grips.
spacerABS. Your tongue, dripping with Attic honey, attracts the hearts of willing peoples.
spacerAM. Our prince’s divine character attracts them more. Affection is a bond stronger than iron, which no day dissolves.
spacerACH. Our golden prince attracts them, and equally so does Amasa. Let us hasten, while a fair wind beckons our ship.
spacerABS. I have no need to vie with you in merits, Amasa. When I mount my father’s throne, you may rule our leading men as their leading man. You will command my armies, since your spirit is the equal of an entire army.
spacer AM. A stream owes its enduring nature to its pure source, the throng of lesser stars takes its light from their sovereign sunlight. Absalom is my only Phoebus.
spacerABS. Now the youth of Jerusalem summon me. I shall stand at the gates of the royal house, where a dense wave of the people always ebbs and flow.s Meanwhile let leisure console you for such great efforts, Amasa. Let Ceres and Bacchus restore your weakened strength.
spacerACH. He will quaff my fine wine, reserved for him.
spacerABS. My usual place summons me. Now may Attic eloquence sit upon my lips. (Enter a dependant.). blue You may slow your hasty step if you want, my friend.
spacerDEP. Absalom, heaven’s darling, let me kiss your sacred hands.
spacerABS. Rather, you may recline upon my bosom. Tell me what pain is gnawing at you.
spacerDEP. Alas, alas, one brother has despoiled another! He has evicted me from my little farm. It was indeed little, but it never failed me. This unwelcome fellow has gained control of the fruits of my sweat, and has unjustly harvested the corn he did not sow. Perhaps the king’court will return to me the fields taken by force.
spacerABS. The king will grant you no judge. I pity, ah, I pity you. At least take this golden gift of the Pactolus blue until Themis restores your ancestral acres.
spacerDEP. May the Pactolus itself flow through your fields. (Exit. Enter a second dependent.)
spacer DEP. 2 Take pity, prince.
spacerABS. Get up, it is pleasant to heal my nature at the cost of receiving wounds myself. Why stain your cheeks with sad tears? Tell me, for I already feel your pain.
spacerDEP. 2 I am oppressed by my stepmother’s hard hatred. My wealthy father left me as heir to his household, but (who would imagine it?) she has enriched her own sons with my inheritance.
spacerABS. Oh, a bitter lot! Your tears compel me to cry. If my father refuses you your heritage, Absalom will be your patron. (Exit dependent. Enter Adonias.)

ACT I, SCENE iii

Seeing Absalom’s popularity, Adonias denounces him to the king for seeking the crown. His father, imagining that his son’s accusation to be provoked by rivalry, ignores it.

spacerAD. (Alone.) Oh honeyed words! Nectar flows from my brother’s mouth. If a patron refuses you his protection, Absalom will be your father. Absalom is courting the unwary hearts of the common people, and fashioning himself a crown. You’re too hasty, my windbag of a boy. Cold death has not yet shut up Father in his tomb. With a bold hand you’ll snatch our father’s scepter before Libitina blue lays hold of him? Perhaps this man, who governs kingdoms according to his will, has appointed a different heir. My hand is fitter for the scepter, or at least this hand is not stained with a brother’s innocent blood. blue This wound is still deeply engraved on his heart. Leave the robe dyed with its Tyrian purple to me, Amnon will give you one that is blood-red. Go, chase after the common people, more fickle than a wave of water. Meanwhile I’ll hunt after Father’s grace. (He sees his father sitting in his chamber.) blue Perhaps this is not an easy time for talking, Father. (David arises.)
spacerDAV. A father’s door and ears are always equally open for his sons.
spacerAD. I admit I have never received a rebuff, so I’ll speak boldly. Absalom seems to be embracing the common folk excessively. If I’m not mistaken, he’s nursing ambitions to gain your rule.
spacerDAV. Your brother has always had a friendlier nature.
spacer AD. He’s always had a more arrogant nature.
spacerDAV. An arrogant man usually holds an obscure one in disdain.
spacerAD. He also frequently visits their taverns, swollen with yet greater arrogance though he is.
spacerDAV. This young man’s brilliance and the glory of his handsomeness attracts men’s hearts by their sweet power, like a magnet.
spacerAD. But his sweet eloquence attracts them much more sweetly. How often does he sit at your royal threshold, when the crowded surge of your subjects flows there? Here he grieves, he mourns, showing pity on them all. He clasps their hands with his, takes them to his breast, and cannily insinuates himself into the common man’s heart. If misfortune oppresses some men more harshly, he offers them consolation and often bestows his bounty on them with a liberal hand. Whenever they seek the courtroom in some civil dispute, he complains that his father’s stingy tribunal is too silent and promises them the eloquence of his own mouth.
spacerDAV. There’s only a small difference between ambition and affability, and the boy observes the nice distinction. Vice is often a close neighbor of virtue. Perhaps Absalom maintains a guiltless heart. Levity is wont to be youth’s companion. Nature has given us our tongue in a slippery place and it easily stumbles. Youth takes pleasure in its recreation. So brothers ought to have a good opinion of brothers.
spacerAD. May heaven show me to be a bad prophet! (Exit.)

ACT I, SCENE iv

Because of this development, David commends fraternal love to Solomon, and Solomon to Nathan.

Enter Nathan with Solomon.

spacerNATH. Behold, I bring you Solomon, just as you bade me. What is your command, my sovereign?
spacerDAV. My son, do you love your brothers?
spacerSOL. Why do you doubt it? This is heaven’s mandate, this is mandated by the law engraved in the fiber of my being.
spacerDAV. Continue to share your love with the both of them. You should adore your elder brothers. God will cherish you with His heart, as long as you share yours with both your bothers. So let quarrels, commotion, and envy be kept at arm’s length. Heaven punishes brotherly quarreling with avenging fire.
spacerSOL. I’ll heed your admonitions, Father.
spacerDAV. But so you might better cleave to fair virtue’s delightful camp, lo, I am giving you a tutor.
spacerNATH. Why bid me sail the deep sea in a small skiff? Great sails will overwhelm my tiny craft.
spacerDAV. Your hull is constructed of sturdy oak, it scorns the anger of the roaring sea. Happy the ship that has great-hearted Typhusblue for a captain, for it the gale howls in vain.
spacerNATH. If my sails are driven by a fair royal wind, although I am unskilled, nevertheless I willingly take the uncertain helm of his young age.
spacerSOL. Look at me, I am a tender young plant. If my shoots grow too luxuriously, you may prune them with your artful hook.
spacer NATH. Thus one can also engraft happier fruits. An eagle cannot beget soft doves, nor can virtue engender vice. In Solomon’s face I discern the image of his father’s nature.
spacerDAV. Rather let him display the image of his tutor. Nathan is the living portrait of virtue. Be docile and imbibe with eager ear whatever he says.
spacerSOL. I shall take in his words like jewels.
spacerDAV. Do so and I’ll embrace my son tight to my breast. (Exit David.)

ACT I, SCENE v

Nathan puts his ward’s character to the test.

spacerNATH. Noble prince, after your father’s death who will assume the reins of state?
spacerSOL. Heaven bestows the scepter. The King of Kings Himself will give the kingdom to the man of His choosing.
spacerNATH. Don’t you envy Absalom his lot for seeing the sweet light of day first?
spacerSOL. He was the first to seize our mother’s kisses. Perhaps I will be the first to seize the scepter.
spacerNATH. You are the youngest brother.
spacerSOL. That means little. Father was the last to receive Saul’s sunlight, but now he sits on the throne.
spacerNATH. What laws will you write for Jerusalem if your father gives you the reins of government?
spacerSOL. First I shall establish myself as king over my own person. Who governs others who does not know how to control himself? Let piety support my throne as a pillar. As long as it stands, so will Zion, but if it falls, she will suffer an equal collapse. God sets kings atop a lofty mountain where their vice cannot hide itself in a dark cloud, nor can their bright virtue conceal its rays. Subjects honor their ruler’s deeds as if they were laws.
spacerNATH. My prince, you have no need of an instructor. Wealthy of intellect, you teach your very tutor. But come, do you prefer the laurel of Mars or the olive-branch of Minerva?
spacer SOL. My sword will not be drawn save under compulsion, I shall wage war against warfare. With me the general, stubborn Rage, conquered and bound, will regret playing her bloody game. With me the general, the soldier will willingly exchange his menacing sword for a plowshare. Tigers compete with bloody battle, men do so with reason, for heaven has given us the weaponry of intellect, by which the anger of the warlike African lion is subdued. In one’s mind one should foster peace. In peace the field abounds and Ceres, heavy with her sheaves, makes the barn bulge. Peace feeds the countryside, in peace governments better observe piety. If I am permitted to enjoy peace, I shall build a temple for God, proud with its heaven-threatening roof, rich in cedar and gold, an object of envy even to my own successors.
spacerNATH. Thus, thus you should build your highway to heaven. If you grant these gifts to God, with kindly interest He will pay you back with better. If you ever wield the scepter at Jerusalem, you must remember your admonitions.
spacerSOL. No, I shall rather recall the precepts of my tutor. Show me the way when I go astray, give me friendly hand when I stumble. (Exeunt.)

Go to Act II