1. The story of Absalom’s fatal attempt at rebellion against his father David, told in II Samuel, attracted a certain amount of attention from English playwrights in the Renaissance. The Latin Absalom play preserved in British Library ms. Stowe 957 is commonly, albeit not universally, understood to be the one by Thomas Watson produced at Cambridge ca. 1540. NOTE 1 George Peele included the story in his David and Bethsabe (printed 1599), and the play Absalom’s Conspiracy or The Tragedy of Treason (printed 1680). And then there is the present, very workmanlike, dramatization, Ambitio Infaelix sive Absalon, produced at the English College of St. Omers in 1622 and preserved by Stonyhurst College Library ms. A.VII.50 (2), fols. 102r - 121v. NOTE 2
2. This is not the only Jesuit Absalom play. One had already been produced at Mainz in 1571, NOTE 3 and another (unless it was a revival of the present play, a possibility that cannot be excluded) was performed at the English College at Rome in 1646. NOTE 4 If we ask why this subject aroused such interest, at least in the present instance one possibility can be ruled out. The story of Absalom is easily adapted as an allegory for some contemporary political situation. Peele’s treatment has been read as a political satire in which David and Bathsheba represent Elizabeth and Leicester, and Abalom Mary Queen of Scots. Even more transparently, the play Absalom’s Conspiracy or The Tragedy of Treason (printed 1680) was inspired by the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against Charles II, as of course was also Dryden’s satire Absalom and Achitophel. But allegorical literature contains signs inviting such a reading, and there are none in our play that suggest it was intended as any kind of commentary on a contemporary political situation.
3. Somebody who has read a couple of St. Omers plays already included in The Philological Museum (Basilindus sive Ambitio Summum Gentis Humanae Malum, in which a king’s younger brother organizes a rebellion, then kills and replaces him, and a very intrusive scene (III.ii) in the 1614 Magister Bonus sive Arsenius in which Arcadius expresses jealousy of his older brother Honorius and reveals his desire to supplant him, might wonder if the dramatic situation of contention for a crown within a single family had some special significance for Jesuits. I do not think this is the case, and an attractive alternative explanation suggests itself. Tragic playwrights naturally gravitate towards situations of conflict within a single family. Since the use of female parts in plays had been forbidden by Rule 13 of the 1591 Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, in Jesuit drama the varieties of familial strife that could be dramatized was consequently restricted to father - son and brother - brother conflicts. And, given the standard convention that tragedies should be about royalty and comedies about commoners, what more obvious object of contention could there be than a crown? On the other hand, the Absalom story is very amenable to another kind of allegorical interpretation, which may indeed have recommended it to Jesuit authors. Like the classical myth of the revolt of the Giants against the Olympian gods (which is in fact mentioned in the present play at 741ff.), the story of Absalom’s rebellion can be read as a metaphor both for tragic hubris and Christian sin. Being a rebel both against a father and an anointed king, Absalom is a fine symbol of a sinful soul, and with his persistent lovingkindness in the face of his son’ revolt David is an equally excellent symbol of the way the Christian God reacts in the face of human sin. Viewed in this way, the Absalom story makes a highly effective exemplum for moral teaching.
4. I would like to thank Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for drawing this play to my attention and supplying me with a photograph of the manuscript.
NOTE 1 It has been edited as such by John Hazel Smith, A Humanist’s ‘Trew Imitation’: Thomas Watson’s Absalom (Urbana, 1994).
NOTE 2 The existence of this play has been noted by Alfred Harbage, “A Census of Anglo-Latin Plays,” PMLA 53 (1938) 627, Alfred Harbage, Silvia S. Wagonheim, and Samuel Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama 975 - 1700 (London, 1989) 118, and William McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the English Jesuit Theatre (St. Louis, 1983) 83f. McCabe quotes archival evidence that establishes the dating.
NOTE 3 McCabe, p.40.
NOTE 4 Suzanne, Gossett, “Drama in the English College, Rome, 1591 - 1660,” English Literary Renaissance 3 (1973) 72.