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AMBITION IS THE WORST OF HUMAN ILLS
Ambition is wont both to destroy the man and the kingdoms it has invaded, after wholesome counsel has been rejected and the yoke of right reason thrown off; abusing bravery for the sake of boldness and prudence for the sake of deceit, a man rushes headlong to his ruin. How it overthrows kingdoms will be shown by the plot of our tragedy, which is as follows. When Basilindus, a very ambitious man, has made up his mind to seize the tyranny after having deposed his brother Basilius, he first does away with Aristobulus, an obstacle to his ambition. Then, having cast the blame for this murder on the king, he arranges for him to be imprisoned and himself to be made king. But soon, after Basilius makes his escape and both sides gather their forces, it happens that, either by violence or thanks to guile and error, the leading men of both factions die. And so I have created a universal tragedy and ended it with a very grievous conclusion. Both are done in accordance with the intentions of Aristotle’s Poetics, and in this way my play has a sadder outcome and ambition is a more hateful plague, thanks to which the loss of life is much more baleful than any of which we have ever heard.
BASILIUS the king (right reason)
BASILINDUS Basilius’ brother (ambition)
THEMISTARCHUS Basilius’ son (justice)
ARISTOBULUS the prime minister (wholesome counsel)
NEOBULUS Aristobulus’ son (imprudence or unripe prudence)
ANDRONICUS Aristobulus’ brother, captain of the guard
PHILOCRATES butler (temperance)
PANUGURUS Basilindus’ servant (treachery)
THRASYMACHUS Basilindus servant (boldness)
YOUNG MAN (curiosity)
HENCHMAN a murderer
ANAXIMANDER Basilius’ friend (royal authority)
The titles pertain to their place in the kingdom, the interpretations to what they represent in a single man.
ACT I, SCENE i
After weighing other pursuits for some time, Basilindus finally makes up his mind to gain control of the kingdom by murdering Basilius, and decides that Aristobulus, the principal obstacle to his ambition, must be removed by means of Panurgus’ scheming.
An alcove is opened to show Basilindus, about to ponder the condition of his life. On the one side are Virtue and Wisdom, the latter contemplating a philosopher’s globe and the former a crucifix. On the other side is Pleasure, playfully tossing a golden apple, and the goddess Money offering bags of gold.
BASILIND. My mind, standing at Hercules’ crossroads, is wavering which way to take. Piety summons me in one direction, Pleasure in the other. Fair Wisdom draws me here, but the golden money-goddess, the daughter of Prosperity, wealthy with all the Indies, pulls me back. Which side will prevail? Neither. Thus I cut short the contest. For what do soft Pleasure, sordid wealth, or a choice glory covered with Minerva’s bookish dust, have to offer that is worthy of a noble mind? Genuine Piety promises me the goods of everlasting glory and true honors. But she would bestow them too late upon my lifeless ashes. I would prefer to enjoy the fruit of my labor here, while still alive. You frown too much, Virtue: you say you are coming and you promise an uncertain laurel as your reward, but your pain is certain and present. I would please the beings of heaven, but as an old man with a heart that had been subject to stings. Neither the one of these divinities, so beloved to the common man, nor the other has the ability to satisfy my thirst for great glory. (The alcove is closed.) Rather this ardor is burning my marrow, great desire shakes my breast. I am being acted upon, I know not by what, but I am being acted upon. (The center curtain is drawn, and on one side can be seen a tyrant, worshipped by his lords on bended knee. A curtain is stretched over the other side alcove, which conceals the rest of the place as if hiding a secret.) What a scene is revealed with this covering removed! Am I mistaken, or do I see a tyrant sitting on a throne, being adored by a bevy of purple-clad lords? I recognize a god on this earth and the harbor of my striving. The brightness of his shining gown feeds my heat, as does the gem-encrusted ivory of his scepter, a weight worthy of the man wielding it and worthy of your hand, Basilindus. But what secret am I to imagine the veil is concealing? Whatever it is, I’d like it to come to light. Great Father of heaven! (The curtian is drawn and he recoils. A throne appears aloft. The way leading to it is splashed with blood, the limbs of dead men strewn about. It is reached by three steps. On the first and lowest lies the body of Aristobulus, on the second and middlemost that of Themistarchus, on the third and highest that of his brother Basilius. The throne itself is set atop of human bones and Pride sits on it, flanked by Treachery and Boldness. Over her head a crown and scepter hang down from the roof).
What monstrosities do I see? These dismembered limbs portend the cruel omen of doubtful murder — what is it? My mind shudders, I see a crime worthy of foul Thyestes. Is this how a throne is gained? The entire way to the scepter is red with blood. These mutilated limbs, this spilled blood shows that ambition makes its bloody way even through the guts of one’s brother, it severs limbs and with its savage transmutation throws a dismembered empire into confusion. Let its ignoble foot enjoy its mastery, let it wear its badges of rule with its head bared and its body turned aside. (Pride comes down, passing by the bodies of the slain with her arrogant steps, in the middle between Treachery and Boldness.)
PRIDE Away with these womanish words! What fears are you manufacturing? Basilius pollutes his court with this slaughter, while in his slothful hand he wields his accursed scepter. A diseased world seeks you as its healing Apollo. Rejoin the kingdom’s, restore its scattered parts, for which you yourself should be the head. Why is your mind idle? If you know no kingdom, seek one. Here you see the Hercules-like pillars of your throne. (She points to Treachery and Boldness. She exits with great strides. Panurgus and Thrasymachus attach themselves to Basilindus’ side.)
BASILIND. Come here, my companions, you excellent guides to my counsel, you fellows fertile in frauds, a pair worthy of the Styx. Untie my mind’s doubtful knot, Thrasymachus. Does a strong arm or a heart full of deceits mount the throne by a securer route?
THRAS. Seize the scepter, my prince. Even if the Gorgon stands armed with her Medusa’s snakes, even if the three-headed hound of the Styx should gape and bark, I’ll find a way.
PAN. You should make your attack by cleverness. You behold an artist of fraud. Mighty with his double tongue, Ulysses scarcely worked his savagery worse than Panurgus. Cunning Sinon was scarcely worse when he deceived the feasting Phrygians with his nation’s artfulness.
BASILIND. The lion will lend his strength to the wily fox. My ardor revives, once more I am set afire as my heart burns with indomitable fire and I am ashamed to tolerate my brother’s chain on my enslaved neck. Nature created us equal, by rights I ought to be equal or better in ruling, this is fixed in my mind. So will your savage axe drink a king’s royal soul? As a brother can you dispatch your brother to the shades? I can. Let a check be imposed on your desires. This burning desire for honor knows no limit on bloodshed, even on that of one’s father. Whoever seeks the crown for his head must sail on a sea of blood. Let redness dug out of royal guts soak the starry gems of the crown and the robe of Spartan purple. Panurgus.
PAN. My prince.
BASILIND. Bestir your bosom, rich in fraud. This great matter has need of your heart’s wise treasury. Aristobulus throws a wall of protection around the royal household and supports the weight of the realm upon his shoulders. If you remove Atlas, at a slight shove the whole sky will collapse.
PAN. Have no fear, prince. Soon this Atlas-like pillar of the royal court will come tumbling down, together with the entire structure.
ACT I, SCENE ii
Aristobulus puts his servant’s loyalty to the test and employs the fear of death to compel Panurgus to reveal Basilindus’ plans.
ARIST. Nobody knows full well who has not learned by experience the cares the royal court breeds and what a weight burdens the arms of its leading men. The safety of the realm depends on me alone. The common folk are constantly dinning in my ears. I alone stay vigilant in every respect, hunting out future developments, seeing if somebody is seeking power, striving to gain the lofty throne with the king deposed. That man would mark me down for death first. At the moment the company of the Furies, bursting forth from their Stygian confinement, and a mad thirst for reputation are provoking Basilindus with an impious love for the purple, and he intends to carve his bloody way through my guts to the thrown. I am familiar with the unmanageable character of this puffed-up fellow. For a long time he has wanted to be “either Caesar or nobody.” This why we empurpled ministers require the foresightful mind of a Solon, and your hand, Caesar, and as many eyes as Jove’s consort gave to Argus. (He beckons to the boy that he should come closer.) Are you loyal in your mind or with your tongue, boy?
BOY With both.
ARIST. Prudently said.
BOY I would like you to put both to the test however you want, my prince.
ARIST. A spirited youth. All right, this little casket will be a fine test of your faithfulness, it is not shut up by any seal. But be sure to keep it closed. If the facts show you to be untrustworthy, I’ll inflict a severe punishment on the guilty party. (Enter Panurgus.)
BOY You can put me to death if by my deeds I fail to prove the truth of what I say. (Exit.)
PAN. (Aside.) Come now, Panurgus. You see the man you’ve been wanting to find. So it can be forecast that an effort of false-heartedness is required. (Aloud.) O great pillar of the king, salvation of our people, thanks to whom Themis may be recalled and return to earth and Peace settles the realm in a blessed condition, my prince, don’t refuse a refugee a kindly home. (Aristobulus makes this response leaning on his staff.)
ARIST. What reason compels a refugee to make his way here?
PAN. I’m fleeing the yoke of my haughty master Basilindus. The insane ambition in his inmost self makes him mad, and his household servants cannot stand the puffed-up spirits of their arrogant master. For them there is always some new toil joined to toil, and neither sleep or daytime gives surcease to their weary limbs. They seek you as a more pious master, being a man on whose mouth Grace has sprinkled the fifth part of her nectar, whose heart holds the scales of Astraea in even balance, in whose mind dwells Pythian Apollo, whom Minerva, that mother of rich wit, has made the home of all the arts, having sprung from the brain of Jove.
ARIST. Unless my mind deceives me, there’s some artifice hidden here. (He puts down his staff and takes Panurgus by the arm.) Are these things confected by Greek artfulness? Are you lying in accordance with Basilindus’ invention or on your own initiative?
PAN. May I be burned by forked lightning if I’m telling lies. (Aristobulus produces a dagger that had been hidden in his clothing.)
ARIST. This blade will serve instead of lightning. You see this edge? This knife cuts through iron. If you don’t tell the truth I’ll cut into your inmost guts quicker than the telling. Tell me what schemes Basilindus has in motion against me, and what crime he is scheming against his royal brother.
PAN. Spare me. Beware lest you stain your hand with innocent blood. If I were to be of an evil mind and manufacture destructive artifices, Basilindus would be the first to suffer thanks to my cleverness.
ARIST. Fraud swims in your eyes, deception is betrayed by your face. I swear by the grim lakes of dark Avernus, if you hold your silence I’ll make you die by extreme torments while you’re being pulled apart limb from limb.
PAN. You’re killing an innocent man, I swear.
ARIST. Confess your deceits, traitor, or you die right now.
PAN. (Aside.) Alas, my lips block the way for the words I start to speak. I’m driven into the treacherous nets I myself have spread.
ARIST. You’re muttering? I’ll read about these crimes in your carved-up guts. Fetch a sword.
PAN. Stop, you’ll learn of the scheme. Basilindus seeks his brother’s kingdom and has decided to cut off your head, prince, and also the king’s, so that he might pave his way to the lofty pinnacle of the throne.
ARIST. These things you say are truthful, you Ithacan. Oh, the dire crime! Is this the fate of kings? Can Basilindus stain his brotherly hand with fratricide? What monstrosities, what amazing things cannot be hatched by a breast that has been invaded by the hellish lust for power. (A crowd announces the king. He hides Panurgus in a secluded side alcove. The king enters to the music of a trumpet, surrounded by his lords.) But the king approaches. Take care not to move a step from here. I must fit my words and expression to the occasion.
ACT I, SCENE iii
Basilius discusses the proper government of the kingdom with his lords, and in a brotherly way warns Basilindus lest he allow himself to be overcome by ambition.
BASIL. Greetings, you lights of the realm, whom I acknowledge to be the glittering gems of my crown. It is thanks to you that Basilius occupies his place. But the glory of Aristobulus gleams the most, just as the moon outshines the lesser stars. As long as he exists, so will the safety of the realm, but, should he take a fall, so likewise would it.
ARIST. My greatest reward is to have pleased almighty God, my prince, and my secondmost praise is to have pleased you, who are a personage next only to God.
NEOB. I pray that Basilius may govern the world forever, whose kindred blood will always flow within our veins.
BASILIND. Nor has nature given birth to Basilindus as a degenerate member of his stock. Let the heaven be ever so often wrenched from its hinges, I shall be the hinge to bear up the fragile sky so that, as a brother, I may protect my brother.
ANDRON. Although the dusky ruler of the darkling shades should call his conspiring Hellish legions to arms, routed by this hand of mine he would return to his pools, foul with boiling sulphur.
BASIL. I like your faithful ardor. I acknowledge you are the makers of my golden good fortune. While favoring Peace makes my palace sail along in blessedness, it behooves me to shore up the strength of my empire. A sailor is too late in taking precautions against a cloudy storm when his shattered prow goes a-floating away as a plaything for the gales. I am eager for the oracle of your voice, Aristobulus. Who would you call a king?
ARIST. Any man who is a devotee of Astraea and plants his foot firmly in the path of righteousness, and is the first to cultivate in his own life the morals he legislates for others. This royal style of life holds up a torch to be followed by the hesitant common man.
THEAG. Religion is a great support for scepters, it restrains people by its fear and its ceremony. In this way you may enjoy sunny, cloudless days.
BASIL. What virtue kindles the fickle populace with a love for its king?
ARIST. As long as you wield your scepter with an unstained hand and blood profusely shed from the veins of your subjects does not delight your eyes, and if you manage much by inspiring a fear of penalties and feigning anger, but little by imposing punishment, the people will be prompt to tolerate any command you issue.
THEM. What effort engenders high repute for your name? Neobulus, I am asking you for your opinion.
NEOB. You may think that the honors created by virtue are true and genuine praise.
THEM. No praise is ever given a king that is not false.
BASIL. Because fear compels you to praise him, while a mind’s true praise is freely given.
THEM. What’s the price of a grade of honor?
NEOB. Favor is never on sale for money. Don’t barter for the royal court with money, let virtue procure it for you.
BASIL. But suppose that the rebellious common folk refuse to follow their leader’s example
ARIST. Drag them where you cannot lead them.
BASIL. Is any fault entirely unpardonable?
ARIST. Only ambition. Whatever prince allows it to rage throughout his realm unpunished will struggle over-late to cast off from his neck the yoke he carelessly submitted to out of flattery. Other vices require a lesser punishment. When ambition seeks to lay hold on the badges of government, you destroy both king and subjects if you do not eradicate it. Here you hold the essence of ruling. For everything else will come following along as an afterthought.
BASIL. The condition of your realm will flow on its prosperous course, Basilindus my brother, if only you subdue the virulent fires of your youth. I bear a scepter that does not lie heavy on my brother. Phaethon’s fire warns you to rest content with your lot and not to seek higher things.
BASILIND. Have no fear, brother. Anxious dread assaults a royal breast. Neither the purple of your robe nor the brilliance of the crown upon your head, so rich in light, create hatred in my inmost being, but rather love.
ARIST. (Aside.) How the fox hides his criminality under a garment made of words!
BASILIND. For who is jealous that Phoebus brings back the day to the golden sky or that God governs the heavenly halls? A kingdom cannot contain two kings.
BASIL. Except for love’s kingdom, this contains two kings equal in their piety. (He embraces Basilindus.) Let loyalty bind us, who nature has conjoined, in its Gordian knot.
ACT I, SCENE iv
Aristobulus discloses Basilindus’ plans to the king, obtaining from a warrant for Basilindus’ imprisonment.
When the rest have departed in their due order, Basilius, who was going to be the last to leave, is held back by Aristobulus, the next to him in line.
ARIST. Your majesty! (Why do you stop me from speaking, my great sorrow?)
BASIL. What concern troubles your mind?
ARIST. Sorrows abound in my teeming mind.
BASIL. Tell me what wounds you.
ARIST. A lowering cloud, which I have often feared would threaten your kingdom if the weather turned stormy. Pregnant, it gathers the darkness and threateningly produces pitch-black balls of waters throughout the sky.
BASIL. What labyrinths of words our doubts do weave! I hope this cloud will not envelop my royal home with its dark cloak.
ARIST. By his unspeakable crime, your unyielding brother seeks your scepter, crown and robe, and also your royal life.
BASIL. Sewage of Dis, Stygian ambition, sister of the Furies! Could my brother contrive this felony against a brother?
ARIST. If his doubtful loyalty should waver. Panurgus is present. I just used my drawn steel to make him reveal the crime.
BASIL. So this hydra, lurking within my bosom, kills me with his pleasant words? (Panurgus is led forward by Aristobulus.) Come, tell me, does my bloody brother arm rebel bands against me?
PAN. He’s arming them against your royal person.
BASIL. Is the haughty tyrant nursing this passion in his unquiet heart?
ARIST. A flame needs to be snuffed out, so that it does not become a dire bane that gathers strength as it goes along. When Vulcan ranges victoriously, having slipped his bridle, all Thetis cannot restrain him in his fury.
BASIL. Me stain my brothers hand with my blood, Aristobulus?
ARIST. Put an end to this incurable wound with the steel. You scarce ever breathe in security, since ambition sits at the royal threshold.
BASIL. Many things recommend the man, as do the immense glories of his praiseworthy deeds. Worldwide fame proclaims him as an ornament of Mars. He is said to be the darling of our leading men, the jewel of our people.
ARIST. But this same man is disqualified by his maelstrom of deceits. If you do not quickly pluck off his untamed head, soon all your royal court will be awash in a sea of blood. Be careful not to be too late in being wise.
BASIL. Just as a wandering ship is swept along on an unsteady course when the winds are savagely battling each other and changing the current, so in my doubtfulness I am borne in all directions: now fraternal love urges me one way in my anxiety, now anger sweeps me in another. Why hesitate, my mind? Knowing and seeing, do you abandon the ornament of your royal hair, which God Himself has set upon your head? I abominate this crime. By the Thunderer, being stern with a steely chill I swear, let this due sacrificial victim be offered up to the avenging fire. Let my son quickly get his summoned feet a-moving. (Exit one of the young men. Meanwhile a side-curtain is drawn and there appears a table outfitted with ink and other things. A chair is placed on either side, in which the king and Aristobulus take their seats. While the king writes out a warrant in his own hand, Themistarchus appears and occupies an empty chair, so as to address the king as he writes.)
A great matter is at stake, my son. This is how I punish wrongdoing. My traitor of a brother is striving to gather the world’s reins in his bloody hand.
THEM. Basilindus is going astray?
ARIST. His deceits have been revealed. His intention is known and this Ulysses is caught by his own artfulness.
BASIL. He’ll pay the price, one worthy of his crime. I like my decision. (He shows them the warrant, which Themistarchus reads.)
THEM. “Either let Basilindus, that plague upon the court and bane of the Peerage, that traitor to the realm, submit his neck to the yoke and his hands to chains, or his head to the steel.” Whatever my father has decided is a settled thing for his son.
BASIL. Let my son add his signature to that of his father. (Themistarchus puts his name beneath his father’s. Then it is handed back and the royal seal is affixed by Basilius himself. It is given to Aristobulus to be put into execution.) Aristobulus, you must sit as judge of life and death, and as a punisher of deceits.
ARIST. I shall shore up your scepter. (Exeunt. Aristobulus returns and retrieves Panurgus.) Panurgus, do you want to be safe?
PAN. My prince, I have always wanted my skin to be safe and my head to be sound.
ARIST. You are wise. But salvation will protect your skin and your head in this way and no other, if Basilindus obeys the royal summons and comes to court before Phoebus’ descending chariot touches the western sea.
PAN. Order me to do greater tasks, this one will be easy. You’re standing on the final threshold of your life, Basilindus. (He pronounces this verse loudly as he follows behind the departing Aristobulus so that he might be clearly heard, although by his gestures he signifies something entirely different to the audience.)
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