Commentary notes can be accessed by clicking on a blue square. The Latin text can be accessed by clicking on a green square.
ACT III, SCENE i
Absalom peacefully enters Jerusalem. Chusai and the priests pretend to take his side.
ABS. You fearsome thunderbolt of Mars, your sails are bellied by a favorable wind. See how Jerusalem freely acknowledges you as its conqueror. It does not befoul its hair with ashes in the manner of a captive, but rather anoints its locks with fragrant nard, rejoicing that it is freed of the yoke under which it had long suffered. See with what friendly arms it embraces its sovereign! I do not wish laurels purchased at the cost of my countrymen’s blood, and I prefer to bind them willingly by means of their affection.
CHUS. August sovereign, a more welcome day has never dawned for this city. Just as the sweet choir of birds greets the commander of the stars when Pyrois snorts forth the day with his ruddy nostril, so your subjects greet your presence.
ABS. Chusai humbly prostrate? Rather you should enter my embrace, breast to breast. Do you too follow my cause?
CHUS. I follow you, whom heaven regards with such a favorable countenance, as my leader.
ABIATH. Mt. Hymettus does not shine so greatly at the return of the new springtime, nor does the ridge of Pindus take such a pride in its garment when the zephyr strews fragrant roses over pleasant Tempe, as Jerusalem smiles, as she adorns her breast with Arabian jewelry, once your face has shone.
ZAD. Venerable sovereign, receive the reins of Jerusalem, and also of our hearts.
ABS. Your love for me is a stronger sword than any bronze forged by the Cyclopes. Why have you cast yourselves at my feet in supplication? It’s me who should be groveling and abasing my head at your feet, fathers. I freely subordinate my royal fasces to your priestly fillets. You must prop up my government by your intellect. Come, what should I do? Should I chase after my father’s runaway bands, or will Jerusalem continue to refresh my soldiers? Achitophel, let whatever your learned wisdom suggests flow from your mouth like the honey of Hybla. (Absalom takes his seat.)
ACT III, SCENE ii
Achitophel urges that David should be pursued. Chusai denies this and Absalom embraces his counsel.
ACH. Why does your father turn tail in disgraceful flight? Do foreign shallows, reefs, wastes and deserts so outshine out city, teeming with men and resources? Evidently so. He takes flight, since no citadel ringed by a series of ditches can protect him unless he enjoys the protection of heaven. An abandoned, nomadic runaway, he roams deserted forests. If the leaves, excited by a light breeze, should rustle, or if some grasshoppers of the thornbrake should sing their song, he fancies your camp to be at hand. The wretch even dreads his own shadow. While your father’s person is surrounded by a miniscule band of soldiers, and while he is resting his weary limbs under the tent of the forest, we should attack him with a sudden onrush. It will be no great task to defeat this king, overcome by hunger and thirst, since you are supported by the virtue of all our kingdom.
ABS. I like that head of yours, teeming with wisdom. But you must speak your mind freely, Chusai.
CHUS. Few men indeed accompany your father in his camp, but they are warlike, the very flower of Lebanon, captains willing to lose their lives. But imagine them to be helpless: does not anger like to kindle even ice-cold souls? They are fighting for their homes and their altars. A lioness does not rage so wildly when her cubs are stolen and her lair groans in complaint when stricken by her savage roar, as does a soldier when he is compelled to change his native soil. What if you father, a great warrior, should kindle new fires in them? When he was a youth, the down not yet on his cheeks, he overcame a great bear in a noble combat, he had no fear of a lion’s erect mane, gaping maw and black throat, he laid low Goliath, as large as a bull, trusting in his light sling. Now that he is a crowned fighting man, so often victorious, is he going to sleep? If he was laden down with so many laurels as a boy, how many triumphs await him in his manhood? Trust me, he is living in a dale full of hiding-holes, where the blind access protects his malign sallies and likewise his heavily armed ambushes. Rather, you should wait until your father’s anger subsides and lessens. If at present your father has a small escort, tomorrow his bodyguards will be even fewer. Countless deserters will prefer the camp of a more successful general. When the whole populace comes a-flocking to you, you may rush to arms with good prospects. Then your father will wish he could grow wings and fly off to the clouds forbidden him, or that the entrance to Acheron would open up so he could hide his head.
ABS. Achitophel advises well, but what Chusai pours forth are oracles better than those that issue from Apollo’s tripod. Tell me, Amasa, who would you support with your vote?
AM. I prefer the safer counsels. Who is unaware of the vicissitudes of doubtful warfare? Soon you will be surrounded by bands assembled from every side, and you can overwhelm your father, wherever he goes.
ABIAT. If hunger is now tormenting your father, just wait a little while. Plague will immediately ensue and conquer your father, even if you yourself do not fight.
ZAD. Unbloodied laurels are more fit for a noble king.
ABS. The gentler foliage of the oak surpasses that of the laurel. I like a bloodless victory-palm. Faithfulness will sing the song of triumph. Let this happy day pass soaked with ruddy wine. (Exeunt omnes except Achitophel.)
ACT I, SCENE iii
Achitophel is indignant that his advice, which the father had revered, is being scorned by the son. Joseph urges his father to put David’s mercy to the test, he pretends to agree.
ACH. (Alone.) Farewell you sinister beacons of the stars, you truly deadly beacons. And you, Father of the stars, always inauspicious, farewell forever. A long farewell to you, Jerusalem. In my unhappiness I have contrived your downfall. But you will not fall unavenged, I shall appease your shades with my blood. An object of pity, you have been set ablaze by my torches, and I shall burn by yours. A single pyre of our blazing nation will burn us both. I cannot survive your burial, Jerusalem. Scorned and mocked, I drag out days that are no days, I live yet am not alive. Slight grief admits some manner of consolation, but my sorrow rejects it all. Shall I seek out lands that rejoice under another sun? He who changes his place of living does not change his character. Shall I humbly embrace David’s knees? He will perhaps forgive me. Let the man who can bend his legs like a suppliant beg for pardon, Achitophel will not. The spirits in this heart burn to hot, and are unschooled in adopting the suppliant’s hangdog aspect. Shall I continue supporting the boy’s side? Indeed: as a joke to his lords, a byword to the common folk, a buffoon to the court. Scylla presses me on one side, irresistible Charybdis looms on the other, but I like the middle way, I shall die. The sleep of a single everlasting night will put an end to my sleepless nights. So let my slumber be the iron slumber of oblivion. (He points a sword at himself. Enter Joseph.)
JOS. Why are you rashly resorting to arms, father?
ACH. I’m cutting my hateful life’s thread.
JOS. Oh, stay your uncontrolled hand! What is the reason that stirs up such a great tempest, father?
ACH. That beardless boy scorns my words, father, words which thus far have been held in honor by your father.
JOS. So for that reason you will cut off the flower of your youth?
ACH. Better to die by my own hand than by the victor’s sword.
JOS. It is a sin to desert your post without heaven’s command.
ACH. The king will bring up his thunderous legions.
JOS. Our walls are not yet battered and shaking.
ACH. Soon they’ll come down in a horrific collapse.
JOS. Be that as it may. And yet he’ll spare you.
ACH. He’ll spare me, when this sword here thirsted for his blood?
JOS. He’ll spare you, Father, if only you beg forgiveness for your crime. I’ve stretched forth my suppliant hands to the king on your behalf.
ACH. My lofty mind cannot lower itself, boy, I’d rather devote myself to my own downfall.
JOS. Put a check on your wild mind, father, oh put a check on it. It is the mark of a brave man to conquer his raging spirits.
ACH. My boy, it is the mark of brave man to shun even the slightest shadow of dishonor.
JOS. Does my great-hearted father fear shadows? Oh what a brave fellow! That brave man is genuinely brave who tames his mind’s indomitable passions.
ACH. My son, by using reason you have overcome my furies. Go back to your peaceful hiding-place, my sword. [He returns it to its sheath.]
JOS. It is better hidden here, Father, than deep within your paternal breast.
ACH. Son, my sense of shame prevents me from approaching the king.
JOS. That sense of shame is shameful, when virtue does the bidding.
ACH. So let’s go to him. Meanwhile, my son, give me some token of remembrance. [He gives his father the purple ribbon from his hat.]
JOS. Let this be a sign of my love for my father. As often as you look on its red color, it will perhaps impart its color to your paternal cheeks for your sluggish absence.
ACH. As long as I remember myself, my son, you cannot slip from your father’s memory. Farewell. (Exit.)
ACT III, SCENE iv
Benjamin both congratulates Joseph and complains that he could not likewise prevail upon his own father. But on entering the chamber they discover that Achitophel has laid hands on himself.
JOS. How close my father came to seeing the unpleasant waters of greedy Charon! (Enter Benjamin.) Sing a victory-hymn for your friend, Benjamin. I’ve prevailed.
BEN. What is it?
JOS. A monstrous frenzy, a Hydra, a hundred-headed monster, a snake far fouler than the Python, has fallen, shot by my father’s arrows.
BEN. Oh, well done! I congratulate you. Would that my father would return to his proper self. What a monstrous difference between him and my own father! How often he turned a deaf ear to this song! “Have pity on our overthrown house, father! The arms which please you are gravely displeasing to heaven. Can you wage war against the beings of heaven? Father, those who imitate the Giants’ enterprise pile mountains on top of mountains, with which they themselves may be buried.” I would make such complaints, and the north wind’s wings would carry them away. But let us go to your father’s door, Joseph, so that my friendly tongue can say a last good-by.
JOS. Let’s hasten, perhaps Father has left the city. (He sees him sitting in a chair.) Is my father asleep? (He perceives that he is strangled with the ribbon he himself gave him.) A sleep oh far too heavy, alas, an eternal sleep has overcome my father. Is this his son’s gift wrapped around his father’s throat? Has your son’s purple ribbon robbed you of your life? This was not the purpose for which I gave it to you, Father. Why did that tongue of yours, which was wont to pour forth so many true oracles, lie to me? You are indulging in far too grim a joke. What was the point of staying your drawn sword, father, if the noose was hastening, bringing a more bitter doom? I shudder at the unseemly manner of your death. Is this how you chose to go to David, Father? This road does not lead to the king’s friendly camp, but rather to the court of the king of Tartarus. I tied off your neck when I gave you this noose.
BEN. Enough, Joseph? Why persist in mourning your dead father with your lute? Although you may sing songs that Orpheus would envy, you cannot sway Acheron with your sweet lyre. Your father can’t swim over those uncrossable streams.
JOS. [Kissing the corpse.] If any of my father’s soul still struggles on his lips, I’ll gather it in with my mouth.
BEN. Wipe your cheeks with your pretty thumb, Joseph. How long will one drop fall after another?
JOS. Let my sorrow be washed out of me with tears. (The curtains are closed.)
ACT III, SCENE v
Absalom, about to pursue his father but learning of Achitophel’s death, regrets having neglected his counsel. Chusai consoles him. Amasa marches against David, who is coming nearer.
ABS. Fetch your father, Joseph. Why are you staining your cheeks with that rain of tears?
BEN. His grief prevents him from speaking. He is mourning that he is bereft of his father.
ABS. So his father lies dead?
BEN. He has boarded the public ferry of that grim old man.
ABS. By what death?
BEN. He choked off his life with a silken noose.
ABS. Oh what a shameful manner of death!
CHUS. When he saw that his advice was not being preferred to mine he greatly lamented. Shame mixed with chagrin hastened his black doom before his appointed day.
ABS. So a perpetual sleep oppresses my friend? Oh what a glory and light you are losing, Jerusalem! Jerusalem has been, and will continue to be, dear to the beings of heaven. Let your sorrow put a check on its unrestrained reins.
ABS. Would that the stars had given you a better father! Absalom will perform a father’s duties.
JOS. That honor better suits others.
ABS. Go, let his pyre rise to the stars with its lofty top. (Exeunt the boys.) What a pillar was laid low by impatient sorrow! Will Minerva ever find an equal champion? If I had approved the advice Achitophel gave me, the madness of war would be ended.
CHUS. But then you liked mine better. Victory flies across the sky on an uncertain wing. But behold, the trumpet sounds. (Enter Amasa with soldiers.)
AMAS. My sovereign, here you see goodly captains of war, bold hearts that take more pleasure in the bray of bugles than in a lyre played by Phoebus himself. Each man will gladly lose his life in exchange for glory.
ABS. I appreciate that these warriors are sons of Mars. It is pointless to give wings to a man already in flight. Each one carries in his hand our flocks of children, our nation and our homes, and has his spirit is its own bulwark. Come, see how your captain is eager for grater tasks, and for you to fight alongside him. We are seeking no small things: we are seeking the untouched wealth and treasuries of the kingdom. These are the rewards that await warlike captains of Mars. Now let the martial trumpet whet you for war with its resonant brass, this is the only song we like. (The trumpet sounds. Exeunt.)
ACT III, SCENE vi
When the battle has been joined, Absalom is routed and killed. The ghost of Amnon jeers at the dead Absalom.
Fighting behind the curtain.
JOAB Strike them in the front, soldiers.
ABS. Amasa, protect our left flank.
AMAS. Stay. Why is your wing collapsing, its ranks in disarray? Are you fleeing? Oh the foul crime! (He runs across the forestage.)
ETHAI Follow them, soldiers. Strike their backs as they flee.
SOLDIER 1 Back, back, Amasa is mowing down our companies with his lightning-like sword.
ETH. Stay, you have conquered. So your safety lies in your feet? By myself I shall fend off their warrior-bands. Shall I die here? You are abandoning your captain, you runaways.
JOAB Rush forward, Amasa’s shattered battle-lines are unsteady.
BAN. Absalom’s taking flight. Hooray for victory!
ETH. He’s seeking the thick of the forest. Press the runaway.
AMAS. (Enters on the forestage.) So what land holds my Absalom? What cave? You haunts of the Dryads, you branched homes of the Fauns, you dwellings of the Nymphs, tell me what recess of the forest is holding my sovereign in its silent bosom? Our fighters, the equals of the beings of heaven, are fallen, befouling their cheeks and likewise their hair with bloody dust. (He hears the groans of the dying.) What groans, fetched from deep within their breasts! Their souls are resisting, thinking it unworthy to die.
SOLDIER 2 I see that Absalom’s hair is entangled in the foliage of an oak.
SOLDIER 3 I see that Amasa is also in a state of consternation.
AMAS. You are mistaken. Noble virtue never quakes. I’ll go. Bent on death, I’ll burst through the middle of my enemies.
AMAS. The king is calling me with his dying tongue. I am coming, but far too late. I am coming, my pitiful sovereign. [Exit Amasa. Enter Joab, who kills Absalom.]
JOAB He’s shot through, he has it. (Shows the hanging Absalom.) Behold Absalom, my soldiers! He is destroyed by his procrastination in this fearful war. This new Icarus has been ruined, falling from the stars. Those who walk about in heaven in their proud robes will give him such a catastrophe. His head is ill-shaded by a civic crown, since he did not spare the blood of his own father.
ETH. He should not have stained his hand with royal blood.
JOAB He should not have threatened his father’s life. It is not enough for him to spew forth his life a single time. He should have died repeatedly.
MESSENGER 1 I’ll tell the king.
MESS. 2 Allow me to accompany him.
JOAB The news you will brinjg to the king is far from happy. (Exit messengers.) Who will place his faith in quickly-passing youth, when the life of kings hangs by a single hair? (Exeunt omnes. Enter the ghost of Amnon.)
GHOST The stage is now cleared for me. Oh you fratricide! My death has left me this single word for you. Was it not enough to make your hand guilty with my blood, unless you also stabbed our father’s guts with your sacrilegious sword? Now you gain the name of a parricide. Do you crave your father’s throne? You shall sit above the other shades on a flaming dais, a crown of truly fiery gems will char your temples. A robe red with a brother’s blood will cover your shoulders. Come, the full chorus of the Furies has readied a proud kingdom for you. Pluto will toast you with bumpers overflowing with my blood. (Exit.)
ACT III, FINAL SCENE
David bitterly bewails the death of Absalom. Adonias consoles his father. Joab boldly rebukes the king for his excessive grief. The king conceals his grief and thanks his captains for their strenuous exertions.
DAV. (At prayer.) Oh great God of kings, great God of warriors, Who is present to bear off captains either on their bier or their triumphal chariot, I do not ask that the victorious wreath shade my hair. I am no spendthrift purchaser of the laurel. Let those men prevail who like the quickly-passing victory palm, red with the blood of their fellow citizens. I shall gladly groan under the weight of chains in a dungeon, as long as Absalom survives. (Enter the first messenger, bearing a laurel in his hand.)
MESS. 1 You see these venerable leaves of laurel, my sovereign?
DAV. Is my Absalom alive, or is he perchance dead?
MESS. 1 Whoever wages sinful war against the beings of heaven takes a fall like that youth of Thessaly. (Enter the second messenger.)
MESS. 1 Great king, heaven binds your locks with the conqueror’s laurel.
DAV. Does my boy survive?
MESS. 2 In his lungs he has an arrow such as he had destined for the target of his king’s heart. (Shows the arrow with which he was shot.)
DAV. So my son has fallen?
MESS. 2 When your son was hanging, caught by his hair in the branches of an oak tree, Joab shot his heart with this missile. Nor was this enough. He shot another, and then a third, until three were quivering in a single breast. (David takes the arrow.)
DAV. Give me this token of a too-cruel hand, boy. Let this place be cleared of onlookers. (Exeunt the messengers.) Dire arrow! What black yew, what cypress destined for a funeral pyre was your mother? Do I see your blood, my son? I see the blood of my son, and also of his father. Precious purple, more costly than the blood of the Tyrian shell! What iron-hearted Gete could drink you? The steel itself blushes at its fearful crime. Tell me, cruel Joab, does such purple befit the son of a king? Is this the shaft and the sign of your love? Were you unmoved by his locks, caught up in the foliage of the oak tree, which rivaled the gold of the Tagus, by his lips, which surpassed the roses of Paestum, by the snow-white of his brow? At least it was your duty to show reverence for his royal stock and his father’s royal commands. But why am I railing at undeserving men? My son, it was this hand that killed you. Joab did not leave three arrows in your heart, my son, these arrows were mine. Uriah’s spilt blood is a fountain of bloodshed. A too-deadly victory! Should a father triumph over the killing of his son? No, it is my destruction and not a victory-palm that has been purchased by my son’s death. Keep far, far away, you laurel. Come, cypress, you companion of sad death, you will shade my temples. Or, you sad oak, you will give me a garland spattered with the blood of my son. (Enter Adonias.)
AD. How long will you give free rein to your constant mourning, father? The proud boy received the fitting reward for his ill deserts.
DAV. Forbear to rebuke your brother’s wretched shade. You rail at him too much.
AD. Unless heaven is to fulminate against the sinful, at whom is it to aim its forked lightning?
DAV. And who is free of guilt, my boy? Nobody. (Enter a young man.)
Y. M. Joab is marching his victorious armies in this direction. He seeks an audience with his king. (Exit.)
DAV. Let the doors of the royal court stand open.
AD. Now, father, it is fitting for you to choke back your tears. (Enter Joab.)
JOAB My sovereign, victory crowns your locks with laurel, as is its wont. Banish your sorrow to far-off Thule.
DAV. I have conquered, but I am far more wretched than those I defeated.
JOAB What, you look down with disdain on those who purchased your life by their death? I swear by the homes of the blessed citizens of heaven, a new Absalom will arise, fearful with his armament, unless you greet your battalions.
DAV. Joab, I desire to see these victorious battalions of mine.
AD. This heated passion must be broken off, Father. Master your great spirit.
DAV. I must serve the time. (Joab shows the soldiers.)
JOAB You see the fine mainstays of your tottering empire.
DAV. I see that every man’s a Hercules, with spirits to match. You support my realm like Atlas. It is your doing that Pallas sets down her blazing spear and wreathed her staff with her olive, and that prosperity has returned and blessed the happy fields of Jordan. (He wipes away his d\tears.) Had my son survived, if he breathed the air, I would be very, very happy. And yet in honoring him well, I do ill in renewing this ulcer. David deserved arrows sharper than the three by which his son died. (Wipes.). Empty all your quiver if you will, heaven, my breast is bared for the wounding. It is pleasant to be stricken often, so that you don’t perish once and for all.