ROMAN THEATRES AND AMPHITHEATRES AS A MODEL FOR THE LONDON PLAYHOUSES
EARLY MODERN PLAYS WITH A ROMAN THEME
This page provides a directory of certain plays written in the period 1580-1630, for performance in the London Playhouses in which at least part of the action is set (or believed to be set) in Ancient Rome. The listing is based on the chronology provided by The Early Modern Drama database. Brief comments on certain of the plays are provided at the foot of the table and serve to illustrate the variety of ways Rome was portrayed, often acing as a proxy for the discussion of matters of pressing concern to Elizabethan and Jacobean society.
COMMENTS ON SELECTED PLAYS
Shakespeare's first tragedy, and first venture into Roman history, features human sacrifice, gang rape, mutilation, mother-son cannibalism as well as numerous everyday murders. It was described by the seventeenth century playwright Edward Ravenscroft as 'a heap of rubbish' and by TS Elliot as 'one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written'. Notwithstanding these comments, it was an immense success in its day and remains a valuable document with respect to the Elizabethan attitude to Roman history.
The general tone is exemplified by the arch-villain, Aaron:
Well, we all have to have a hobby.
In terms of genre, it is a revenge tragedy, a form of play which flourished in Ancient Rome, being particularly associated with the influential playwright Seneca. The only known source of the play is also Roman, the story of Philomel, from Ovid's The Metamorphoses, which is embedded into much of the play, even to the extent of the text making a physical appearance on stage.
The central story, that of Titus, tells how a successful Roman general turned down the opportunity to become ruler, was victimised as a result and then is driven to seek revenge. While it has no basis in Roman history it encapsulates many of the features most probably associated by the Elizabethans with Romanity: disorder, violence, stoicism and government by a mixture of senators, tribunes and patricians.
A quotation form Jonathan Bate (Shakespeare and Ovid, page 108) is illuminating as it raises many of the questions considered elsewhere on this site:
The first of Shakespeare's plays sourced from North's translation of Plutarch's The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans examines the end of the reign of Julius Caesar around 44 BC and the wars that followed his assassination. Plutarch's basic understanding was that history was the record of the lives of great men and this play, like many Shakespearean history plays, follows this pattern. Commoners appear but are politically unsophisticated, readily malleable and liable to turn to random violence when enraged. With the reign of Elizabeth I coming to an end, it is possible to see the reflection of concerns about the English succession. The conflict at the heart of the play is between the intellectual, stoic Brutus and the passionate, indulgent Antony, whose qualities eventually prove better suited to raising popular support.
Set in the court of Augustus, the play concerns the conspiracy of Crispinus and Demetrius (representing, playwrights, Dekker and Marsdon) to defame Horace (who stands for Jonson himself). Augustus acquits Horace and humiliates the conspirators. This is another, albeit minor, example of Elizabethan problems being examined by transplanting them to a Roman setting.
The play deals with the Emperor Tiberius who succeeded Augustus and the rise and fall of his once trusted aide, Lucius Sejanus. Sejanus, a man of low birth, over-reaches himself due to his excessive ambition and it eventually undone by the superior political skills of the Emperor, whose letter to the Senate precipitates Sejenus's execution. The play contains oblique references to the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, whose book about statecraft The Prince , was very influential in late Renaissance Europe.
The play is very rhetorical in style, featuring numerous set piece speeches, a style that can readily be traced to Seneca. The printed version is notable for the number of marginal notes, advertising at every opportunity, the relationship between the play and its Roman sources.
The second Plutarchian rejoins the story of Mark Antony, previously explored in Julius Caesar. The actions begins around 41BC with the Triumvirate of Octavius, Antony and Lepidus in charge of the Roman Empire, Antony being stationed in Egypt with his lover, Queen Cleopatra. The play is frequently interpreted as being a conflict between two worlds; Rome is cold, ruthless, and male, while Egypt is warm, sensual and female. In the play, Antony is sometimes shown as being caught between the two worlds, but there is rarely any doubt as to where his true sympathies lie. Despite the different nature of the East, both Antony and Cleopatra both opt for a Roman death (suicide), allowing Octavius to be left at the end of the play as sole ruler of the empire. He was soon to take the new name of Augustus, institute the 'Pax Romana' and, the play may be suggesting, prepare the world for the birth of Christ.
Drawn from Plutarch, this play contrasts with Shakespeare's earlier two uses of this source by being firmly set in the republican era, around the fifth century BC. The central character of the play is in some ways the ultimate warrior, a man who plays little value by anything other than combat and is even named after his most famous battle, fought over the town of Corioli. He is rejected by the plebeians, partly because they do not share his militaristic values and partly because he refuses to ingratiate himself with them. Eventually, he turns against Rome and the city is only saved from destruction by the intervention of his mother, who alone retains any influence over him.
A late play by Shakespeare it is set around the time of Christ's birth when the British King, Cymbeline, is under threat from the Romans, having refused to pay taxes to Augustus Caesar. Interestingly, Cymbeline's rebellion is inspired by two of the least sympathetic characters in the play, his unnamed Queen and his moronic stepson Cloten, both of whom die in the course of the action. Cymbeline though, is something of an admirer of the Romans, having spent his youth in the Court of Augustus where 'of him I gathered honour' (3.2.68). It is perhaps unsurprising then that having won a battle against the Roman army, he then makes his peace with them, agreeing to pay tribute after all. The play also features a villain in Giacomo who appears to have been drawn from Renaissance Italy rather than Ancient Rome. The thrust of the play's politics is towards compromise and unification, perhaps endorsing James I/VI own ambitions for the British Isles. In stressing the final unity of Britain and Rome, the play's conclusion points to Britain as the heir of Rome's imperial legacy.
A revenge tragedy that deals with the vengeance of Maximus, a general under Valentinian III (ruled 425-455), for the dishonour of his wife by the emperor and her suicide. Both Valentinian and Maximus are poisoned to the accompaniment of music, the latter as he is inaugurated as Emperor.
Recording the events of the year 63BC, the play is concerned with the efforts of the brutal Cataline to overthrow the elected government and institute a reign of terror, secretly encouraged by the young Julius Caesar. The elected Consul, Cicero thwarts the plot, first by a detailed exposition of the conspiracy to the Senate and then by victory on the battlefield at Pertrius.
This play deals with the contention between Caesar and Pompey, the events leading to the battle of Pharsalus (48BC), the murder of Pompey and the suicide of the real hero of the play, Cato, whose motto is 'Only a just man is a free man'.
11. The Roman Actor
Based on the life of Emperor Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD), as recorded by Suetonius and Dio Cassius. Domitian 's wife, Dormitia falls in love with the actor, Paris who is then killed by the Emperor, whose cruelty in the play reaches psychopathic proportions. He is eventually murdered by a collection of his opponents which by now include Dormitia. The play is notable for the speeches of Paris defending the acting profession from its critics, whose views closely resemble those of the English Puritans of the time.