1. 9 February 1608 ended the dramatic festival that had lasted at St. John’s College for several months under the rule of Thomas Tucker, the Christmas Prince (a kind of Lord of Misrule) came to an end, as signalled by the performance of the concluding play of the Christmas Prince cycle as originally conceived, Ira Fortunae. And in the nick of time: today was Shrove Tuesday, and it would not be fitting have the festival continue into Lent. And yet St. John’s College ms. 52.1, that extraordinary manuscript which gives a full historical account of Tucker’s reign and preserves the texts of all but one of the dramatic works produced during it, goes on to include yet one more play. The narrator explains why (ms. pp. 207f.): NOTE 1
Heere wee thought to have made an end of all, and to have puld downe the scaffoldsd and stage, but then many said that so much preparacion was to much for so small a shew. Besides there was an English Tragedy almost ready which they were very earnest should bee performed, but many arguments were alledged against it. First, for the time, because itt was neere Lent and Consequently a season unfitt for plaies. Secondly, the stile for that itt was English, a language unfitt for the Universitie especially to end so much late sport withall. Thirdly, the suspicion of some did more hinder it then all the rest, for that it was thought that some particulers were aimed att in the Chorus which must needes bee distastfull. Lastly the ill lucke which wee had before with English NOTE 2 made many very loth to have any thing done againe in that straine.
But these objections being aunswered as well as might bee, and faithfull promise being made and taken that if any word were thought personall, it should bee presently put out; the Stage was suffered to stand, and the scaffolds somewhat enlarged against the Saturday following. Att which time such a concourse of People from all places, and of all sorts Came together presently after dinner, that itt was thought impossible any thing should have beene done that night for tumults. Yet in the beginning such order and Care was taken (every one being willing att the last cast to helpe towardes the making a good end) that the stage was kept voide of all Company and the scaffoldes were reserved for straungers and men <of a> sorte better then ever they were before so that it began very peacebly somewhat before six a Clocke, and was performed in manner following.
In a limited and provisional way, therefore, Periander deserves to be regarded as the eighth item in the 1607 - 1608 Christmas Prince cycle
2. Periander is preserved by two manuscript sources, the one just described and also Folger Shakespeare Library ms. J.a.1, fols. 134 - 157v. On the cover leaf of the latter is written Periander made bye Mr. Iohn Sansburye. This would appear to indicate that the play’s author was John Sandsbury [1577 - 1610], a product of the Merchant Taylor’s School and currently a Fellow of the college (M. A. 1601, B. D. 1608, appointed vicar of St. Giles, Oxford, in 1607. He also published a hexameter poem Ilium in Italiam, Oxonia ad Protectionem regis sui omnium optimi filia pedisequa (printed at Oxford in 1608) and contributed to the university anthology mourning the death of Elizabeth. NOTE 3
3. The play in question was his historical tragedy Periander, which (like, say, Richard III) might be classified as a tyrant play, dramatizing the career and eventual downfall of a notorious cruel and despotic tyrant. In this case, the protagonist was Periander, tyrant of Corinth in the early sixth century B. C. It is based on two historical sources, Herodotus and the biographical sketch in Book One of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. It would be well to excerpt the more important passages here, so that the reader may see the raw material with which Sandsbury had to work.
As for Periander, the man who gave information about the oracle to Thrasybulos, he was the son of Kypselos, and despot of Corinth. In his life, say the Corinthians, (and with them agree the Lesbians), there happened to him a very great marvel, namely that Arion of Methymna was carried ashore at Tainaron upon a dolphin's back. This man was a harper second to none of those who then lived, and the first, so far as we know, who composed a dithyramb, naming it so and teaching it to a chorus at Corinth.
This Arion, they say, who for the most part of his time stayed with Periander, conceived a desire to sail to Italy nd Sicily; and after he had there acquired large sums of money, he wished to return again to Corinth. He set forth therefore from Taras, and as he had faith in Corinthians more than in other men, he hired a ship with a crew of Corinthians. These, the story says, when out in open sea, formed a plot to cast Arion overboard and so possess his wealth; and he having obtained knowledge of this made entreaties to them, offering them his wealth and asking them to grant him his life. With this however he did not prevail upon them, but the men who were conveying him bade him either slay himself there, that he might receive burial on the land, or leap straightway into the sea. So Arion being driven to a strait entreated them that, since they were so minded, they would allow him to take his stand in full minstrel's garb upon the deck of the ship and sing; and he promised to put himself to death after he had sung. They then, well pleased to think that they should hear the best of all minstrels upon earth, drew back from the stern towards the middle of the ship; and he put on the full minstrel’s garb and took his lyre, and standing on the deck performed the Orthian measure. Then as the measure ended, he threw himself into the sea just as he was, in his full minstrel’s garb; and they went on sailing away to Corinth, but him, they say, a dolphin supported on its back and brought him to shore at Tainaron: and when he had come to land he proceeded to Corinth with his minstrel’s garb. Thither having arrived he related all that had been done; and Periander doubting of his story kept Arion in guard and would let him go nowhere, while he kept careful watch for those who had conveyed him. When these came, he called them and inquired of them if they had any report to make of Arion; and when they said that he was safe in Italy and that they had left him at Taras faring well, Arion suddenly appeared before them in the same guise as when he made his leap from the ship; and they being struck with amazement were no longer able to deny when they were questioned. (Herodotus I.23 - 24, tr. G. C. Macaulay)
4. Now Periander had chosen out the sons of the chief men of Corcyra and was sending them to Sardis to be made eunuchs, in order that he might have revenge; since the Corcyreans had first begun the offence and had done to him a deed of reckless wrong. For after Periander had killed his wife Melissa, it chanced to him to experience another misfortune in addition to that which had happened to him already, and this was as follows: — He had by Melissa two sons, the one of seventeen and the other of eighteen years. These sons their mother's father Procles [Sansbury’s Procus]; who was despot of Epidauros, sent for to himself and kindly entertained, as was to be expected seeing that they were the sons of his own daughter; and when he was sending them back, he said in taking leave of them: “Do ye know, boys, who it was that killed your mother” Of this saying the elder of them took no account, but the younger, whose name was Lycophron, was grieved so greatly at hearing it, that when he reached Corinth again he would neither address his father, nor speak to him when his father would have conversed with him, nor give any reply when he asked questions, regarding him as the murderer of his mother. At length Periander being enraged with his son drove him forth out of his house.
5. And having driven him forth, he asked of the elder son what his mother’s father had said to them in his conversation. He then related how Procles had received them in a kindly manner, but of the saying which he had uttered when he parted from them he had no remembrance, since he had taken no note of it. So Periander said that it could not be but that he had suggested to them something, and urged him further with questions; and he after that remembered, and told of this also. Then Periander taking note of it and not desiring to show any indulgence, sent a messenger to those with whom the son who had been driven forth was living at that time, and forbade them to receive him into their houses; and whenever having been driven away from one house he came to another, he was driven away also from this, since Periander threatened those who received him, and commanded them to exclude him; and so being driven away again he would go to another house, where persons lived who were his friends, and they perhaps received him because he was the son of Periander, notwithstanding that they feared.
6. At last Periander made a proclamation that whosoever should either receive him into their houses or converse with him should be bound to pay a fine to Apollo, stating the amount that it should be. Accordingly, by reason of this proclamation no one was willing either to converse with him or to receive him into their house; and moreover even he himself did not think it fit to attempt it, since it had been forbidden, but he lay about in the porticoes enduring exposure: and on the fourth day after this, Periander seeing him fallen into squalid misery and starvation felt pity for him; and abating his anger he approached him and began to say: “Son, which of these two is to be preferred, the fortune which thou dost now experience and possess, or to inherit the power and wealth which I possess now, by being submissive to thy father's will? Thou however, being my son and the prince of wealthy Corinth, didst choose nevertheless the life of a vagabond by making opposition and displaying anger against him with whom it behoved thee least to deal so; for if any misfortune happened in those matters, for which cause thou hast suspicion against me, this has happened to me first, and I am sharer in the misfortune more than others, inasmuch as I did the deed myself. Do thou however, having learnt by how much to be envied is better than to be pitied, and at the same time what a grievous thing it is to be angry against thy parents and against those who are stronger than thou, come back now to the house.” Periander with these words endeavoured to restrain him; but he answered nothing else to his father, but said only that he ought to pay a fine to the god for having come to speech with him. Then Periander, perceiving that the malady of his son was hopeless and could not be overcome, despatched a ship to Corcyra, and so sent him away out of his sight, for he was ruler also of that island; and having sent him away, Periander proceeded to make war against his father-in-law Procles, esteeming him most to blame for the condition in which he was; and he took Epidauros and took also Procles himself and made him a prisoner.
7. When however, as time went on, Periander had passed his prime and perceived within himself that he was no longer able to overlook and manage the government of the State, he sent to Corcyra and summoned Lycophron to come back and take the supreme power; for in the elder of his sons he did not see the required capacity, but perceived clearly that he was of wits too dull. Lycophron however did not deign even to give an answer to the bearer of his message. Then Periander, clinging still in affection to the youth, sent to him next his own daughter, the sister of Lycophron, supposing that he would yield to her persuasion more than to that of others; and she arrived there and spoke to him thus: “Boy, dost thou desire that both the despotism should fall to others, and also the substance of thy father, carried off as plunder, rather than that thou shouldest return back and possess them? Come back to thy home: cease to torment thyself. Pride is a mischievous possession. Heal not evil with evil. Many prefer that which is reasonable to that which is strictly just; and many ere now in seeking the things of their mother have lost the things of their father. Despotism is an insecure thing, and many desire it: moreover he is now an old man and past his prime. Give not thy good things unto others.” She thus said to him the most persuasive things, having been before instructed by her father: but he in answer said, that he would never come to Corinth so long as he heard that his father was yet alive. When she had reported this, Periander the third time sent an envoy, and said that he desired himself to come to Corcyra, exhorting Lycophron at the same time to come back to Corinth and to be his successor on the throne. The son having agreed to return on these terms, Periander was preparing to sail to Corcyra and his son to Corinth; but the Corcyreans, having learnt all that had taken place, put the young man to death, in order that Periander might not come to their land. For this cause it was that Periander took vengeance on those of Corcyra. (ib. III.50 - 53).
8. Then when Kypselos had grown to manhood and was seeking divination, a two-edged answer was given him at Delphi, placing trust in which he made an attempt upon Corinth and obtained possession of it. Now the answer was as follows:
Happy is this man’s lot of a truth, who enters my dwelling,
Offpring of Aetion, he shall rule in famous Corinthos,
Kypselos, he and his sons, but his children’s children no longer.
Such was the oracle: and Kypselos when he became despot was a man of this character, many of the Corinthians he drove into exile, many he deprived of their wealth, and very many more of their lives. And when he had reigned for thirty years and had brought his life to a prosperous end, his son Periander became his successor in the despotism. Now Periander at first was milder than his father; but after he had had dealings through messengers with Thrasybulos the despot of Miletos, he became far more murderous even than Kypselos. For he sent a messenger to Thrasybulos and asked what settlement of affairs was the safest for him to make, in order that he might best govern his State: and Thrasybulos led forth the messenger who had come from Periander out of the city, and entered into a field of growing corn; and as he passed through the crop of corn, while inquiring and asking questions repeatedly of the messenger about the occasion of his coming from Corinth, he kept cutting off the heads of those ears of corn which he saw higher than the rest; and as he cut off their heads he cast them away, until he had destroyed in this manner the finest and richest part of the crop. So having passed through the place and having suggested no word of counsel, he dismissed the messenger. When the messenger returned to Corinth, Periander was anxious to hear the counsel which had been given; but he said that Thrasybulos had given him no counsel, and added that he wondered at the deed of Periander in sending him to such a man, for the man was out of his senses and a waster of his own goods,—relating at the same time that which he had seen Thrasybulos do. (g) So Periander, understanding that which had been done and perceiving that Thrasybulos counselled him to put to death those who were eminent among his subjects, began then to display all manner of evil treatment to the citizens of the State; for whatsoever Kypselos had left undone in killing and driving into exile, this Periander completed. (ib. VI.92).
9. Periander, the son of Cypselus, was born at Corinth, of the family of the Heraclidae. His wife was Lysida, whom he called Melissa. Her father was Procles, tyrant of Epidaurus...By her he had two sons, Cypselus and Lycophron, the younger a man of intelligence, the elder weak in mind. However, after some time, in a fit of anger, he killed his wife by throwing a footstool at her, or by a kick, when she was pregnant, having been egged on by the slanderous tales of concubines, whom he afterwards burnt alive.
When the son whose name was Lycophron grieved for his mother, he banished him to Corcyra. And when well advanced in years he sent for his son to be his successor in the tyranny; but the Corcyraeans put him to death before he could set sail. [Diogenes Laertius I.vii.94 - 95. tr. R. D. Hicks]
Aristippus in the first book of his work On the Luxury of the Ancients accuses him of incest with is own mother Crateia. [ib. 96]
10. Here we have some potentially useful building blocks for a play, but, clearly, its author will be obliged to supply a goodly amount by his own invention: these historical facts needs to be fleshed out with invented incidents and characters, and, above all, the sources fail to provide satisfactory information about the manner of Periander’s death. In addressing this task, Sandsbury got extra inspiration from a second kind of source-material, other plays. Surely the sequence of scenes in Act III in which Lycophron, now impoverished and bereft, is caught out overnight in a terrific storm is inspired by King Lear, a surmise all the easier to make because the ending of Ira Fortunae, in which the Christmas Prince is deserted one by one by the members of his court and finally left alone with his fool, is also clearly based on Lear. A second dramatic source is another historical tyrant play, Nero, written by Matthew Gwinne, also an alumnus of the Merchant Taylors’ School and St. John’s College. Albeit this huge work was never produced, it was first printed in 1603 and proved popular enough to warrant two subsequent reprintings. Diogenes Laertius’ account of how Periander murdered Melissa suspiciously resembles the way Nero is supposed to have killed his pregnant consort Poppaea by kicking her in the stomach (Suetonius, Life of Nero xxxv.3, Tacitus, Annales XVI.vi), an incident dramatized by Gwinne at Nero V.viii (according to Sandsbury’s account he also threw her down a flight of stairs, perhaps meant to recall the way the Earl of Leicester supposedly murdered his wife). Particularly resembling Gwinne’s handling of this event is the rapid remorse with which Periander is overcome. Indeed, one can generalize on the basis of this observation. One of this stage- Nero’s most salient features is the frequency with which he succumbs to sudden and sometimes murderous mood swings, and Sandsbury’s Periander is credited with much the same character flaw. Sandsbury has, in other words, accepted Gwinne’s understanding that such uncontrolled alterations of mood are an important feature of a tyrant’s psychological makeup.
11. Working with this material, Sandsbury managed to produce a reasonably satisfactory tyrant play, albeit (as will be discussed below) one not lacking in conspicuous flaws. But describing it as a tyrant play manages to gloss over its most salient feature, the one that no doubt will make the strongest impression on a modern reader: all this historical stuff fit for tragic treatment is intermingled with passages of an entirely different stamp. At the beginning of the play, no doubt to the surprise and consternation of the other spectators, a troublemaker seated in the audience begins to heckle the performance, and at the behest of the Master of the Revels, is heaved up onto the stage, where he continues his rude remarks. His name, it emerges, is Detraction, and his objections are countered by a second speaker named Resolution (who sometimes uses the plural “we” — it is not clear whether he is speaking on behalf of the entire company or is Sandsbury himself). Periander was sometimes numbered among the Seven Wise Men of Greece, and we are informed that our play’s Chorus was originally intended to be comprised of the other six. But at this very last moment, it is allegedly agreed to scrap this Chorus and replace it with a series of dialogues between Detraction and Resolution. These occur between the subsequent Acts of the play and serve as a highly unusual framing device. Some, at least, of the points Detraction makes in his running critique of the play and its performance hit home with deadly accuracy. For example, when at 811 he asks with heavy-handed irony, Did not the eldest fool it handsomely? he is pointing out the palpable disparity between what we are repeatedly told about Lycophron’s elder brother Cypselus, that he is feeble-minded, and the character we ourselves see on the stage: some of the things he says (particularly in II.iv) may show him to be occasionally stupid and oblivious, but he is scarcely feeble-minded, “whose brooch is ten times dearer than his brains.” Likewise, when Detraction points out that too much space was lavished on King Tarquin’s history (473ff.) and too little on Periander’s defeat and capture of his father-in-law Procles (1469f.), the reader cannot help but agree.
12. The natural consequence is that, schooled by Detraction’s observations to look at the play with a critical eye, the reader begins to look for further faults. He is not disappointed. Most conspicuously, at 1545ff. we are very briefly informed that Lycophron has been killed by the “vile barbarous ylanders” of Corcyra, and later Periander obscurely says they did this “lest I come to live among them” (1589ff.). Clearly Sandsbury was thinking of Herodotus’ testimony that Periander had proposed swapping places with Lycophron and that the Corcyrans rebelled against this proposition and assassinated Lycophron to forestall it. To be sure, At 1213ff. Resolution says
Ther’s not a man in all this company
But knowes some parrallel parte of history
Which yet perhaps we never sawe nor heard.
The speaker is maintaining that, if the audience already knows the historical facts, there is no need for a playwright to connect the dots and fill in the blanks. But this is scarcely a good formula for writing history plays, surely sound dramaturgy requires more. The death of such an important character in the play, one we have been invited to like and find sympathetic, deserves more emphasis. It deserves, in fact, to be handled in the traditional tragic way, by the inclusion of a so-called messenger speech in which a newly-arrived eyewitness describes his death in an extended word-painting. A similar, albeit perhaps shorter, passage should have described the defeat and subsequent fate of Procles. Periander is not so long that such passages would have extended it unduly. And the play’s ending is perhaps open to criticism. Periander is assassinated by rebels within his palace guard, but their motivation is left unstated. Had Sandsbury portrayed them as sympathizers of Melissa and Lycophron out for revenge, then Periander’s downfall would have grown more organically out of the bad choices he has made in the course of the play, which would have been more “tragic.”
13. The interesting paradox here is we are able to detect such faults in Sandsbury’s play because Sandsbury himself has taught us how to spot them by reading critically. His Periander may have the outward look of a standard tyrant play, but in actuality it is a remarkably self-subverting one. His frame alters the way we react to its contents. Experiencing tragic drama requires a suspension of disbelief and some kind sympathetic involvement with the characters in their predicaments, but thanks to its ironizing effect Sandsbury’s frame encourages a very different attitude of critical detachment. If, as taught by Sandsbury, we detect faults not remarked by Detraction, we begin to harbor the suspicion that they have been deliberately planted for our detection so that we may have the fun of joining Detraction in subjecting this play to an analytic reading. What we appear to be dealing with, in short, is a daring and highly original experiment in metatheater. Periander is certainly not a comedy or even a tragicomedy, but it is something rather more ambiguous and complex than a straightforward tragedy. Whether or not it the experiment is successful is a question for the individual reader to decide. But, at the very least, surely Sandsbury deserves credit for attempting a brilliant tour de force of genre-bending.
14. As stated above, Periander is preserved by two manuscripts, one still owned by St. John’s College and identified here as J and another by the Folger Shakespeare Library, here called F. A diplomatic text of J has been been published by Boas and Greg. The present critical edition is founded on a collation of both manuscripts. I take this opportunity to thank the authorities of the Folger Shakespeare Library for supplying me with a photographic transcript of F. These two manuscripts were evidently descended from a common ancestor (as is suggested by the shared mistakes at 285, 478, 554, 986 and 1504), but the fact that both of them omit lines present in the other shows that neither is derived from the other and both are independent witnesses to the history of the text. Of the two, for our purposes J is preferable insofar as the copyist of F either accidentally, or more likely deliberately in order to produce an abridged version for an actual or at least proposed revival performance (in which case some of F’s variant readings may represent Sandsbury’s second thoughts) omitted a huge number of lines. F also contains a considerably smaller set of stage directions. Since the object of the exercise is to present the play as it was performed on 13 February 1608, J serves as the basis for the present edition. Nevertheless, at many points F serves as a useful corrective.
NOTE 1 A full transcription of the manuscript was published by Frederick S. Boas and W. W. Greg, The Christmas Prince (Malone Society, Oxford, 1922); the text and pertinent narrative material for Periander occupy pp. 227 - 287. A photographic reproduction is also available in the form of Marvin Spevack and J. W. Binns (edd.), The Christmas Prince (Acted 1607 - 1608) (Renaissance Drama in England series 1, Hildesheim, 1983).
The debate whether or not Periander should be performed appears to show that the play’s contents were already fairly common knowledge. Line 255 of the interlude The Seven Dayes of the Weeke, part of the Christmas Prince cycle, But peace, Detraction, thou base gruntinge curre, invites interpretation as an allusion to the character in our play.
NOTE 2 An allusion to the disastrous performance of another interlude belonging to the cycle, Time’s Complaint, which had been ruined by its actors’ incompetence; its failure cannot be blamed on its author, and much less on the fact it was written in English. The Seven Dayes of the Weeke, performed a few days later, had been particularly well received.
NOTE 3 A couple of prominent authorities have been reluctant to give full credence to the evidence of the manuscript (presumably because of doubt whether “made” necessarily means “written by”) and place a question mark after Sandsbury’s name: John Elliott et al., Oxford (Records of Early English Drama series, Toronto, 2004) II.818, and Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533 - 1642: A Catalogue (Oxford, 2015) V.487. Other modern scholars do not share this hesitation: John Elliott writing in Nicholas Tyacke (ed.), Seventeenth-century Oxford (vol. IV of the The History of the University of Oxford series, Oxford, 1997) p. 657, and Elizabeth Goldring et. al. (edd.), John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford, 2014) IV.601 n. 217. The evident discrepancy of Elliott’s views in these two publications is presumably to be explained by the fact that, after ill health obliged Elliott to relinquish the editorship of the REED volumes, the question mark was added by their subsequent editor, Alan H. Nelson. Goldring et al. are the most recent of a long series of writers to claim that Sandsbury also wrote Latin tragedies, now lost. No evidence is ever cited for this assertion, and evidently does not exist.
Those who entertain any doubt that Sandsbury was Periander’s author presumably think that “made” might alternatively mean “this manuscript was executed by.” Can they produce any similar usage of “made” in similar manuscripts? In my own view, the fact that Sandsbury was otherwise engaged in literary activity (although not in the writing of Latin plays) weighs heavily in the scales in favor of his authorship of Periander.