‘If the head be evill the body cannot be good’: Legitimate Rebellion in Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s Jocasta

Allyna E. Ward
University Newcastle upon Tyne

Allyna E. Ward. "‘If the head be evill the body cannot be good’: Legitimate Rebellion in Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s Jocasta". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008) 3.1-33<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-1/article2.htm>.

1.   The collaborative translation that was the first English version of Euripides’ play Phoenissae, the tragedy Jocasta, first performed during the Christmas revels in 1566 at Grays Inn , addresses the question of obedience to a tyrant.  The authors, George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe, based their translation on Ludovico Dolce’s Renaissance Senecan-imitation of Euripides’ tragedy as a study in obedience and resistance (1).  The drama was performed in the Great Hall during a period when Gascogine was searching for patronage, but was not printed until 1573 in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres.  In the prefatory matter Gascoigne addresses ‘al young Gentlemen’ and the ‘lustie youthes’ of England and claims the purpose of his text is for moral instruction (2).  Because the play was included in Gascoigne’s prose writings he reached a broader audience than standard playbooks. His address to gentlemen, scholars and general readers (the advertisement begins, ‘To the Readers generally  / a generall advertisement of the Author’), points to the emphasis in the text on the understanding of the language of tyranny and resistance.        

 2.   In turning Creon into a legitimate king, rather than Dolce’s tyrant, the authors condemn tyranny and rebellion while extolling humanitarian qualities over political obligation.  They use the four dumb shows and Jocasta’s dialogue with her sons about tyranny and rebellion to provide crucial keys to understanding the emphasis on passive resistance advocated in the play. 

3.  Like Thyestes, the action in Jocasta is framed by a curse from Hell that is a punishment for the sins of Laius, Oedipus’ father, and places the damnable acts of the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta within this frame.  Jasper Heywood elaborated on the link between tyranny and Hell when he added a final scene to his translation of Seneca’s Thyestes.  The original play opens with the Fury Megeara rousing Tantalus with threatening words to remind him of the consequences of his sins for his descendants:
Onward, damned shade, and goad thy sinful house to madness [furiis].  Let there be rivalry in guilt of every kind; let the sword be drawn on this side and on that; let their passions know no bounds, no shame; let blind fury [caecus furor] prick on their souls; heartless be parents’ rage, and to children’s children let the long trail of sin lead down; let time be given to none to hate old sins – ever let new arise, many in one, and let crime, e’en midst its punishment, increase (Thyestes, 24-32).
By adding an additional scene in which Thyestes, not Atreus, begs for punishment from the infernal deities, Heywood returns the play to Hell, where it began.  The audience is meant to feel uncomfortable with Atreus’ victory over his brother and Thyestes’ passive faith in the heavens.  For Seneca, this difficult end perfectly represents human irrationality and the effects of uncontrolled passions.  But for Jasper Heywood, this moral paradox was not suited to a modern Christian audience; in the added material at the end of the drama he transforms Seneca’s morally unresolved tragedy with Christian eschatology.  All the events in the tragedy are thus framed by the infernal realm and we can map the intrusion of Hell onto the earthly events of the play (3).

4.   The relationship between the brothers Polynices and Eteocles’ actions in Jocasta and Hell is made explicit in the argument at the beginning of the play:
To scourge the cryme of wicked Laius,
And wrecke the foule Incest of Oedipus,
The angry Gods styrred up theyr sonnes, by strife
With blades embrewed to reave eache others life (Jocasta, 244).
Laius was punished because he abducted the son of Pelops (4),
Chrysippus, and raped him.   At the start of Euripides’ play, Jocasta reveals that her husband Laius was warned by Phoebus against having children.  But because he was drunk and full of lust he impregnated Jocasta and tried to hide his sin by disposing of their baby Oedipus.  In Seneca’s play, the exiled, and mad, adult Oedipus swears to his daughter Antigone that he can see his father’s ghost haunting him and seeking revenge:
My Fathers ghost to bidde me come apace, and not to deare.
[.          .           .           ]
And loe, dost thou not plainly see, how he my panting Ghost
With raking pawes doth hale and pull, which grieves conscience most?
Dost thou seene Ghostes in such grisly guyse?
( Newton Thebias 102).

5.   In the English Renaissance retelling of the story, Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe close the argument with a statement about unhappy fortune (Fortunatus Infoelis): ‘Creon is King, the [figure] of Tyranny, / And Oedipus, myrrour of misery’ (244).  Crucially, this mention of tyranny is not a point made in either Seneca or Euripedes and is the first indication of the impetus behind Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s adaptation of the text.  Ironically, it is Creon who is cast as a legitimate king despite Jocasta’s and Antignone’s fears about his character and the identification of him as a tyrant in the Argument.  In the author’s exploration of good kingship and its converse, tyranny, the tragedy shows that Creon wants to rule well but he is, like Sackville’s Gorboduc, mortal and fallible.  When faced with the decision to save his own son for the benefit of the realm or allow Thebes to suffer the curse of Oedipus, he chooses the course best for himself.  But this conflict of interest is not as clear-cut as the Reformation resistance treatises make out: sometimes a decision that may not benefit the commonwealth is still commendable for its humanitarian value.

6.   In Euripides’ tragedy, Creon is both grief-stricken by the news of his son’s death, which occurs offstage, and also proud of his son’s sacrifice for the nation: ‘My child has perished, dying for the land. / The name he leaves is noble, but sad for me’ (Euripides 1312-13). But in the Renaissance version of Euripides’ play, Creon finds out about his son’s death onstage, thus giving him a motive for seizing power in Thebes , and he is stirred by the thought of revenge.  The Renaissance authors vilify Creon so that instead of glory being handed to him as in the Greek source, he is made to greedily desire glory.  In Alexander Neville’s translation of Seneca’s Oedipus (1581), Creon at first advises Oedipus on kingship: ‘Who so the cruell tryant playes, and guiltless men doth smight, / Hee dreadeth them that him doe dread, so feare doth chiefly light. / On causers chiefe.  A just revenge for bloudy mindes at last’ ( Newton 215). But in the end Creon is punished for treason and imprisoned.  Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s Elizabethan drama Jocasta addresses the concepts of obedience to a tyrannous sovereign and the Christian duty to obey a rightful king by presenting different degrees of resistance and tyranny and making Creon the most suitable candidate for the throne.  The English authors reveal a concern with the Protestant reformers’ discussions about the complexities of resistance theory in their inclusion of these points that are not primary concerns in the source materials.  In trying to determine whether a king or magistrate could legitimately be resisted, the reformers focused on the perilous consequences of disobeying God’s command and the dramas from the 1560s, such as Gorboduc, Horestes and Jocasta, reflect the distinct attitudes to these Renaissance discussions on tyranny and obedience.  The tragedies’ different perspectives on the nature of tyranny makes evident the anxious atmosphere when Elizabeth ascended to the throne.  The contrast between the stance on resistance in Jocasta and, for example, John Pickering’s Horestes, printed in 1567, is striking: Horestes and Creon are both rewarded in the end for completely opposing forms of obedience.  Horestes obeys the gods and his king by killing his tyrant mother Clytemnestra and in doing so contradicts Nature.  This contradiction highlights one aspect of the fragile political environment inherited from her sister Queen Mary in 1558.  In the three-year period (1555-58) before Elizabeth came to the throne, over 300 martyrs were publicly burned at the stake for heralding Protestant views.  These Protestant martyrs prompted the key Reformers John Ponet and Christopher Goodman to address the diabolical nature of tyranny in the context of Marian Catholicism.      

7.   The English Reformers argued that if God ordained tyrants to reign on earth and men believe it is just to resist them, then we problematically make God the author of evil.  They both resolved this dilemma by suggesting, quite controversially, that not all powers are ordained by God.  The arguments of John Ponet and Christopher Goodman vary in their methodology but in the end they both reach the same conclusions: “When our rulers are tyrants or oppressors, ‘they are not God’s ordinance’, so that ‘in disobeying and resisting such, we do not resist God’s ordinance’” (Cited in Skinner 228).  Tyrannous magistrates, argue Ponet and Goodman, come to their position accidentally – or when the people make the wrong decision.  They determined, from evidence in Scripture, that God preordained magistrates and enabled His people to recognise and accept His choice (by the gift of grace). Ponet and Goodman eventually devised a list of criteria to support deposing a tyrant from office in defence of the private-law argument for resistance.  This was based on different biblical passages and history, but the criteria differed even between the two English Reformers.

8.   Ponet and Goodman supplied lists of criteria for choosing and electing a ruler, demonstrating that if the ruler is tyrannical then it is the fault of the people, not God.  In A Short Treatise on Political Power (first published in 1556) Ponet established how to distinguish a tyrant from a godly magistrate.  Defining the tyrant, he determined, “an evil governor men properly call a tyrant”, he addresses the question of whether it was lawful for men to depose a tyrant.  Both secular and Biblical history, he argued, provided many examples of instances where it was just and lawful to depose or kill a tyrant: “to depose and punish wicked governors has not been only received and exercised in political matters, but also in the church” (Ponet 5, 6). Ponet emphasised how Christians have a duty to uphold God’s commandments even if that means resisting their ruler and his argument for resistance includes positive examples of men and nations who resisted tyranny.  In closing Ponet offers English Christians the following warning:

Read all the history of the Bible, and the prophecies of the prophets, and you will evidently see how people and nations have been destroyed for maintaining such idolaters and wicked men as the papists are, and where such wickedness has been used and not corrected (Ponet 21).
In the 1550s the English Protestant reformers saw resistance to tyranny as an obligation Christians had to their God.  Failure to meet this obligation and permitting tyrants and idolaters to rule leads to the annihilation of nations and people.  

9.   Goodman proposed a slightly altered doctrine for resistance in his treatise, How Superior Powers Ought To Be Obeyed By Their Subjects: And Wherein They May Lawfully By God's Word Be Disobeyed And Resisted, published in 1558.  His proposals differed from Ponet’s because he supported the private-law theory proposed by Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.  With the reissue of Melanchthon’s Epitome of Moral Philosphy in 1546 and Prolegomena to Cicero’s Treatise on Moral Obligation in 1554, the Reformers enforced the theory that when a magistrate behaves immorally and exceeds the limits of his office then he eliminates himself from an ordained position.  The unlawful magistrate reduces himself to a private citizen and therefore is subject to the laws of that society.

10. In contrast to Ponet’s arguments, the popular Tudor document “A Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” defends passive resistance to tyrannous regimes.  The homily, which was printed first in 1547 and then reissued in 1570, states that the only way to overcome the punishment that God sends is to pray for forgiveness so that he may send a good prince, or make a tyrant act like a king. The author offers a warning that men must remain obedient or be condemned to Hell, like Lucifer:
Wherefore, good people, let us as the chyldren of obedience feare the dreadfull execution of God and lyve in quiet obedience to be the chyldren of everlasting salvation.  For as heaven is the place of good obedient subjectes, and Hell the pryson and dungeon of rebels against God and their prince, so is that realme happy where most obedience of subjectes doth appeare, being the very figure of heaven; and contrarywyse where most rebellions and rebels be, ther is the expresse similitude of Hell, and the rebels them selves are the very figures of feendes and devyls, and their captayne the ungratious patterne of Lucifer and Satan, the prince of darknesse, of whose rebellion as they be folowers, so shall they of his damnation in Hell undoubtedly be partakers (Bond 229, My Emphasis).
The threat of damnation for rebels contrasts with the author’s reflections on heaven and obedient subjects so that the reader clearly understands that rebellion should be regarded as a devil’s game and indicative of damnation.


11. As in Euripides, Gascoigne’s Jocasta introduces the play with her version of the story of her past, from the birth of her son Oedipus, the murder of her husband and later marriage to Oedipus, and his eventual discovery of his filial relationship to her, to the present whereby her sons (by Oedipus) are cursed and divided.  These events were all very familiar to both Euripides and Seneca’s audiences, and the English authors place a heightened emphasis on Oedipus’ diabolical nature when Jocasta says,

There buried in the depthe of dungeon darke,
(Alas) [Oedipus] lead his discontented life,
Accursing still his stony harted sonnes,
And wishing all th’ infernall sprites of Hell,
To breathe such poysned hate into their brestes,
As eche with other fall to bloudy warres,
And so with pricking poynt of piercing blade,
To rippe their bowels out, that eche of them
With others bloud might stayne his giltie hands,
And bothe at once by stroke of speedie death
Be foorthwith throwne into the Stigian lake
            (Gascoigne Jocasta, 250-1).     

Here, Jocasta frames the play in the context of a Hellish curse on her family.  Euripides’ text puts it plainly: ‘When [Oedipus’] sons beards had grown, they shut him up / behind the bolts that [his] fate might be forgotten / which needs too much intelligence to explain it.  / There in the house he lives, and struck by fate / he calls unholy curses on his children’ (63-7). In turn, the brothers agree to divide their rule of Thebes by year, in the same way as Atreus and Thyestes fatally, and unwillingly, shared Mycenae. After he has ruled for one year, Eteocles banishes his brother Polynices and refuses to relinquish the throne.  In turn, Polynices appeals to another king, Adrastus, king of Argos, for permission to rebel against his brother Eteocles in Thebes.  Granted assistance by a rightful monarch, Adrastus, the legitimacy of Eteocles’ rebellion is confirmed. The infernal spirits invoked in Oedipus’ curse, although never physically present in the play, anticipate the hellish direction of malice that will affect Eteocles and Polynices.

12.  It was not just the moral character of the tyrant the Elizabethans found noteworthy, but also of the victims of tyranny. The scope of the discussions on obedience and resistance demonstrate that both sides of the debate used the threat of damnation for very different ends: Ponet, for example, said that by allowing a tyrant to reign subjects disobey God and therefore bring their own damnation, but the Homily threatened damnation to those who rebelled against any of God’s magistrates.    

13. The writings of the reformers on the continent and in England and Scotland were mirrored in the political and religious motivations of tragic dramas from the early part of Elizabeth’s reign.  Despite the intense radical debates among the Reformers, English prose writers, poets and dramatists tended to follow the formal stance of the government in representing tyranny and resistance.  Due to the anxious political atmosphere though, this was not easily discernable.  Although there were radical ideas circulating about resistance, they were, at first, restricted to Protestant treatises while poets and dramatists tended to follow what they understood as the homiletic line.  That is not to say that writers began to consciously incorporate this aspect of the argument into their writings or that they did not struggle to point to a specific way of dealing with tyranny and rebellion. 

14. Criticism of Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s translation points to the text as an English imitation, rather than a translation from either the Greek or the Italian.  The tragedy is made particularly English when the authors transform the tone by including a comment on divine order in the ‘Argument’; which effectively alters the political tenor of the play.  David Bevington comments that the tragedy is evidence for a specifically Elizabethan anxiety concerning tyranny:

Jocasta reveal[s], in the translator’s marginalia and prefatory material, a preoccupation with defining the ‘tyranny’ of Creon and the laudable resistance of Antigone, in seeming disregard for the play’s original theme of conflict between a religious code and the needs of a secure state (Bevington Tudor Drama, 164).
Bevington’s remarks are somewhat over-zealous and suggest his own agenda to place the play in the category of what he calls, ‘tyrant plays’.  The play does certainly fit into this category but Bevington does not account for the Italian influence of Ludovico Dolce.  Furthermore, there is minimal evidence in the play for Antigone’s actions being rewarded; despite her steadfastness she still loses out in the end by being banished along with her father (5).  As Bevington notes, the play is concerned with the tyranny of Creon and resistance to it, but, importantly, in light of the fact that the brothers are bad rulers. 

15. The gloss emphasises the point about bad kingship, ‘if the head be evill the body cannot be good’, but the Dumb Shows, of the authors’ own invention, reveal a preoccupation not just with degrees of tyranny, but bad kingship and ambition.   The play proper begins with an explanatory ‘Argument’, that details the events of the play, together with the dumb show that introduces ambition as a primary theme in the play.  The first dumb show presents an allegory for ambition: ‘[this spectacle] representing unto us Ambition, by the hystorie of Sesostres king of Egypt, who [. . .] did in like maner cause those Kinges whom he had so overcome, to draw in his Chariote like Beastes and Oxen, thereby to content his unbrideled ambitious desire’ (246).  From the meaning of the dumb show the audience anticipates a spectacle of unbridled ambition in the first act, especially when Jocasta mentions her warring sons and Servus comments: ‘Oh thunbridled mindes of ambicious men’ (251).  Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe show this ambition to command two distinct political paths: one towards rebellion and one towards tyranny. 

16. In the tragedy Jocasta manipulates her speech in order to comment on the difficulty in trying to determine to what extent an official king or magistrate may be considered a tyrant. Her advice to Eteocles about his ambition and desire to rule is contrasted with Polynices’ introduction of a foreign threat to Thebes yet both types of behaviour are condemned in the context of rebellion and obedience.  Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe complicate the question of obedience even further with their glosses that point to Creon as a tyrant yet also an obedient subject: Creon’s obedience is rewarded when he refrains from participating in the struggle between one tyrant and one rebel for the throne in Thebes.  The English tragedy Jocasta presents the possible pitfalls in trying to determine whether a magistrate may be considered a tyrant and, further, if it is lawful to resist that magistrate.

17. Dermot Cavanagh examines the language of counsel during this significant period and his reading of Sackville and Norton’s drama Gorboduc places the play in a tradition of reshaping England ’s consciousness of historical process.  Cavanagh shows how Sackville and Norton use historical drama to a moralistic purpose, and through the language of counsel the authors explore the limits of worldly power:

The capacity of speech to destroy (and to order) society is a central aspect of [Sackville and Norton’s] historical concerns, but again the capacity to distinguish between these forms of language and to extinguish (or sustain) their use is far from assured (Cavanagh 37).
18. According to Ponet and Goodman, if a prince, such as Eteocles, fails to protect his people and works for his own personal glory instead, then that ruler reduces himself to the status of an ordinary citizen and ought to be punished accordingly.  Both English reformers based their arguments on the contention that not only are all rulers ordained by God but also, that rulers are ordained in order to uphold goodness, not evil.  The discussions between Jocasta and her sons is crucial to our understanding of the play because she casts Eteocles as morally culpable for the ruin that befalls Thebes by emphasising his desire for personal satisfaction over the concerns of the people.   The Chorus at the end of the first act stress the lesson about sovereign obligation that Jocasta tries to teach Polynices regarding his actions against Thebes:
Yet Polynices, with signe of lesse disdaine,
Against this land hath brought from countries farre,
A forraine power, to end this cruell jarre,
Forgetting quite the dutie, love, and zeale,
He ought to beare unto this common weale (260).

By introducing the foreign threat, Polynices is as guilty as his tyrannous brother Eteocles and both sons are cast in culpable roles. 

19. Although Jocasta’s condemnation of Eteocles casts him in the perpetrator role, it does not necessarily cast Polynices as a victim.  Jocasta asks her rebellious son what glory he can hope to achieve by attacking his own country:

What spoyles?  what Palmes? what signe of vi[ct]orie
Canst thou set up to have thy countrie woonne?
What title worthie of immortall fame,
Shall blased be in honor of thy name?   (Gascoigne 274).

Crucially, Polynices is not actually a ruler.  He should be in charge of Thebes at the time of the dispute but his brother never yielded his power to him.  The Chorus condemn him because when he asks for assistance from the Greeks he introduces a foreign threat to Thebes and in doing so should not be regarded as a lawful magistrate.  The converse of this is that he has approached a lawful magistrate to counter the tyranny of his brother and in doing so legitimises his rebellion. 

20. The authors complicate any coherent understanding of resistance theory by presenting the audience with this difficult problem of judgement.  So far the audience’s sympathies lie with Polynices because his brother behaves tyrannously and deprives him of his legitimacy and he is seeking justice.  His error is a methodological political one, not an ethical error; instead of listening to his mother’s advice to make peace he actively rebels against Eteocles’ rule and introduces the foreign threat.  His obstinacy against Jocasta’s counsel marks him as a bad candidate for leadership in Thebes because he cannot distinguish between good and bad advice. But Jocasta sees a problem in both her sons’ decisions, including the fact that Eteocles approached a foreign king for assistance, and she constantly implores them both to reconsider their actions for the benefit of the realm.  Eteocles replies that he enjoys his powerful position and has no desire to share it with his brother:

Then thinke you now, that I can give consent
To yeld a part of my possession,
Wherin I live and lead the monarchie (271).

Eteocles’ desire to rule and deafness to his mother’s pleas and counsel cast him as both ambitious and as a bad ruler.

21. At one stage Jocasta offers her obstinate son Eteocles a warning about ambition and evil desire when she compares him to a tyrant:

If so thou nill O sonne, O cruell sonne,
In whose high brest may justice builde hir boure
When princes harts wide open lye to wrong?
Why likes thee so the tipe of tyrannie
With others losse to gather greedy gaine?         (273).

The authors’ gloss clarifies Jocasta’s connection between the tyrant and his people, ‘If the head be evill the body cannot be good’, and corresponds to the advice in the Prologue of Cambises when Preston cites the philosopher Seneca: ‘The honest exercise of kings, men wil insue the same’ (12).  In Act II Jocasta tells her son Eteocles that his ambition and desire to rule are tyrannous and evil modes of behaviour before turning to Polynices and reprimanding him for his act of rebellion.  The gloss in the marginalia clarifies the meaning in Jocasta’s point: ‘Small glory for a rebel to see his owne country spoyled’ (274).  With Eteocles cast as a rebel and no suitable candidate to reign, the play changes direction and the focus shifts to cast Creon, earlier identified as a tyrant, as the only legitimate ruler. 

22. At the beginning of Jocasta the ‘Argument’ revealed that the gods are angry for the wicked crimes of Laius and the incest of Oedipus.  As punishment, the gods cause the fatal strife between Eteocles and Polynices and replace them with Creon, ‘the [figure] of tyranny’ (Gascoigne Jocasta, Argument 244).  Creon’s tyranny is commented on by his concerned niece Antigone before he ever appears on stage.  Speaking with her brothers’ advisor Bailo, Antigone admits her distrust of her uncle:

Besides all this, a certaine jelousie,
Lately conceyved  (I know not whence it spring)
Of Creon, my mothers brother, appaules me much,
Him doubt I more than any danger else (257).
23. The Renaissance imitators still recalled Euripides’ emphasis on Creon’s tyranny but Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe never show him behaving as a tyrant.  Instead the Elizabethan authors depart from their source material, merely alluding to Creon’s tyranny and making him the only suitable candidate to govern Thebes when Polynices and Eteocles are dead. Later, the Chorus at the end of the second act invokes the wrathful god of war:
O Fierce and furious Mars, whose harmefull harte,
Rejoyceth most to shed the giltlesse blood
[. .          .]
Father of warre and death, that dost remove
With wrathfull wrecke from wofull mothers breast,
The trustie pledges of their tender love
                      (Gascoigne 282).
In this invocation to Mars, the Chorus blame the god of war for replacing fraternal love with wrath.  Following this the Chorus chastise the gods for creating a mirror of Hell on earth by causing the brothers’ discord:
Wherwith thou raisest from the depth of Hell,
The wrathfull sprites of all the furies there,
Who when they wake, doe wander every where,
And never rest to range about the coastes,
Tenriche that pit with spoile of damned ghostes 
(Gascoigne 282).
After blaming Oedipus (for the curse), then Mars, the Chorus’ excitatio reproaches the furies for coming up from Hell to increase their kingdom (‘[to enrich] that pit’) (6).  Gascoigne’s trope (he is identified at the end as the author of this passage) imprints a link in the audience’s mind between the brothers’ actions on earth and Hell; looking ahead to the villainy of Marlowe’s bombastic conqueror Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, who boasts to the Soldan, ‘Hell and Elysium swarm with ghosts of men / That I have sent from sundry foughten fields / To spread my fame through hell and up to heaven’ (I Tamburlaine V.i.466-7).

24. Gascoigne’s Chorus concludes with a prayer to God to end the misery in the city:

And thou great God, that doest all things decree,
[.             .           .]
Regard not [Oedipus’] offence but heare our cries,
And spedily redresse our miseries
For what can we poore wofull wretches doe
But crave thy aide, and onely cleave therto?
                      (Gascoigne 283).

With their call to Mars and prayer to God, the Chorus place the tragedy of Thebes within a providential framework but make a distinction between the angry gods’ involvement in the tragedy and their prayer for divine assistance.  The Chorus beg for God to relieve them from their misery, ‘[we] crave thy aide’ (Gascoigne 283). Even though the force of the infernal gods is destroying Thebes, the Chorus advocate passive resistance in the form of prayer to defeat evil tyranny (as suggested in the ‘Homily’).  In the ‘Homily’, the author argues that God ordains both evil princes and good princes and consequently to rebel against any prince only provokes God to punish the people more.  Instead of active rebellion, the ‘Homily’ states that prayer will rouse God to improve the evil prince: ‘let us according to the counsell of the Holy Scriptures pray for the Prince, for his continuance and increase in goodnesse, yf he be good, and for his amendment yf he be evill’ (‘Homily’, 215). 

25. When both of Oedipus’ sons are cast in the roles of villains, one a rebel and the other a tyrant, the authors then attempt to vilify Creon who uses the internal chaos in Thebes to his advantage.  Creon’s defining moment is morally ambiguous however; his refusal to sacrifice his son for the benefit of the commonwealth casts him as an enemy to Thebes but, at the same time, stresses his humanitarian character. Although the blind prophet Tyresias says that the recovery of the commonwealth now relies on both the human sacrifice of Meneceus and the banishment of Oedipus, Creon refuses to give up his son for the nation.  Tyreseias begs with Creon to reconsider because the pain of one will lead to the benefit of many: ‘For c[omon] weale, were well, that one man waile’ (Gascoigne 288).  In his steadfast determination to execute his own free will, this dramatic situation serves to place Creon’s actions in the context of contemporary discussions of tyranny and emphasise the gravity of royal responsibility over personal motives.  Creon’s determination to fulfil his own will here recalls the advice to the Queen at the end of Gorboduc.  Eubulus’ poignant speech summarises the moral of Sackville and Norton’s play:

Hereto it commes when kinges will not consent
To grave advise, but followe wilfull will.
[  .           .           .           ]
These mischiefes spring when rebels will arise
To work revenge and judge their princes fact.
This, this ensues when noble-men do faile
In loyall trouth, and subjectes will be kinges
(Gorboduc, V.ii.234-245).

Here, Eubulus’ lines allocate the blame for the misfortunes in England to everyone: the king is guilty because he did not listen to good advice; the rebels are guilty for rising up against the king; and the nobles are guilty for failing to maintain order.  The moral, that good rule is a collaborative effort necessary to avoid the pitfalls of tyranny and rebellion, is directed gently to the audience.  

26. Rather than sacrifice his own son, Creon insists that Meneceus leave Thebes so that he will be safe because he does not think men should necessarily follow prophecies as the word of Jove (292).  This provokes varied responses in the play; in contrast to his father Creon, Meneceus understands that his personal sacrifice is a political duty and an honour: ‘Ne can I purchase more prayse worthy death / Than for my countries wealth to lose my breath’ (Gascoigne 290).  The Chorus, however, interrogate this decision, contrasting Creon’s desire to fulfil his personal will with his desire to benefit the commonwealth:

Will might duke Creon driven by destinie,
(If true it be that olde Tyresias saith)
Redeme our citie from this miserie,
By his consent unto Meneceus death,
Who of himselfe wold faine have lost his breth:
But every man is loth for to fulfill
The heavenly hest that pleaseth not his will (294).

The Chorus interpret Creon’s actions according to a crucial ‘if’, thus making it entirely ambiguous how the audience should regard his motives.  Creon’s challenge against Tyresias’ prophecy as the word of Jove contrasts with Horestes, who believes the malicious advice of a Vice figure and proceeds to kill his mother. 

27. The concluding lines of the Chorus serve to highlight the political lesson of resistance:

That publique weale must needes to ruine go
Where private profite is preferred so.
Yet mightie God, thy only aide we crave,
This towne from siege, and us from sorowe save (294).
In light of Creon’s unwillingness to sacrifice his son, the Chorus say that the only way to save Thebes is through prayer.  This is simply a repetition of Jocasta’s earlier advice, ‘pray unto the Gods / For our redresse’ (277), and an earlier Chorus, ‘O mightie Gods [. . .] set desired peace / Betwene the hearts of these two friendly foes’ (275).  Both the Chorus and Jocasta are mouthpieces for passive resistance by their insistence to pray to God rather than engage in active resistance (7).  The tragedy casts Jocasta as a good advisor, despite her sex, and Creon is absolved from wrong doing because in the end he resists passively and peacefully takes political control without having to put his personal motives against royal responsibility. 

28. Meneceus, like his father, is strong-willed, but, unlike his father, he considers the commonwealth before his personal comfort.  Before leaving the city, Meneceus dies as a result of a self-inflicted wound to his heart and asks a messenger to tell his father his dying words: ‘(sith Jove will have it so) / To save your lives, I may receive my death’ (304).  In light of his son’s sacrifice and Tyresias’ prophecy, Creon accepts that it is his destiny to rule Thebes and his motivation for seizing power is couched in these terms. 

29. In the closing scenes of the play, Creon learns that all the possible candidates for the throne, his sister Jocasta and nephews Eteocles and Polynices, are dead.   He approaches Oedipus and Antigone with news that he was named as the heir before Eteocles died, that Antigone will marry Haemon and that Oedipus must leave the city walls so that the curse on Thebes will be removed:

Tyresias he that knoweth things to come,
By trustie tokens hath foretolde the towne,
That while thou didst within the walles remayne,
It should be plagued still with penurie  (318).
Here Creon finally attempts to fulfil the role of king by addressing the safety of the commonwealth by banishing Oedipus.  Neither a rebel like Polynices nor a tyrant like Eteocles, his claim is legitimised and he is now cast as a suitable king.  His rule came to him only by the unfortunate events between his nephews and therefore, by exercising a form of passive resistance and as a named heir, in the eyes of the law, Creon is a legitimate ruler. 

30. The final stages of the play complicate any sense of legitimacy that has been established through the contrast between Oedipus’ rebellious and tyrannous sons and the obedient Creon.  On one hand Creon must banish Oedipus for the safety of Thebes and, to some extent, he is right to forbid funeral rights to Polynices because he brought the threat of a foreign power to the nation.  The crucial quality that points to Creon as a suitable king for Thebes is that he listens to Antigone’s response and in the end offers her banishment instead.  His ability to make informed decisions in light of his subjects’ requests distances him from the mistakes of Cambises and Gorboduc and consequently casts Creon, the tyrant, as the rightful king (8).  Even Oedipus, who has lost the most in the tragedy, praises the new ruler in Thebes: ‘Deare citizens, beholde your Lord and King / That Thebes set in quiet government’ (324). 

31. At the end of the play the rebels are either dead or banished and the obedient subjects are rewarded.  The Chorus and the Epilogue offer the tragedy of Thebes as a warning against ambition, which the author of the ‘Homily’ identifies as one of the two main causes of rebellion: ‘the principall and most usuall causes [of rebellion], [are] ambition and ignoraunce’ (‘Homily’, 236).  The ‘Homily’ further identifies the two sorts of men who instigate rebellion: ‘so are there specially two sortes of men in whom these vices do raigne, by whom the devyll, the aucthour of all evil, doth chiefely stirre up all disobedience and rebellion’ (‘Homily’, 236). In the fourth dumb show, the authors highlight the importance of unity: ‘[Here] was noted the imcomparable force of concorde betwene bretheren, who as long as they holde togither, may not easily by any manes by overcome, and being once disservered by any meanes, are easily overthrowen’ (295).    The final dumb show provides a clear clue as to why the authors turn Creon into the suitable ruler despite earlier fears that he is ambitious, and a ‘figure of tyranny’, by presenting their interpretation of the goddess Fortuna, stripping away the crowns of two kings and handing them over to two slaves.  The action is explained after Fortuna leaves the stage:

a plaine Type or figure of unstable fortune, who dothe oftentimes raise to heighte of dignitie the vile and unnoble, and in like manner throweth downe fr[om] the place of promoti[on], even those wh[om] before she hir selfe had thither advaunced (308).
The point about Creon’s variable fortune is made by both the link with the lines of the argument: ‘[Antigone] a lothesome lyfe doth leade, / Yet rather chose to guide hir benisht sire, / Than cruell Creon should have his desire.  / Creon is King, the type* of Tyranny’, where the gloss for the word ‘type’ is ‘Figure’, and by the action that follows the lesson about Fortune: ‘after hir departure came in Duke Creon’ (308).  Creon is identified as a suitable, and legitimate, king in the end because he does not actively rebel or resist Polynices or Eteocles.  That events turn in his favour before he acts is wholly outside the scope of resistance theory and are attributed to Fortuna’s unexpected blessing, indicated in the final dumb show. 

32. Contemporary discussions of tyranny and obedience were complex and under constant revision; where once it was morally wrong to resist a tyrant, it later became morally wrong to endure the reign of a tyrant.  Creon is a complex character; although he is identified as a tyrant at the start of the play, he proves to the audience and the people of Thebes that he has royal virtue.  The drama presents one way of looking at tyranny and rebellion while the glosses, and Antigone’s comments, offer a different perspective. In the prose writings on the same subject, polemicists often introduced a threat of damnation to emphasise their point:  In ‘An Exhortacion concerning Good Ordre and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates’, printed in 1559 and 1574, the author states, ‘that whosoever resisteth shall get to themselfes dampnacioun’ (Bond, 164).   The concern with rebellion and obedience in tragedies performed in the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign is evidence of the extent to which these discussions influence culture and politics.

33. Due to the varying degrees of resistance theory it is evident that Elizabethans, as one might expect, struggled to adopt a consistent approach to dealing with a tyrant.  The discussions on resistance and obedience alternated between supporting a theory of resistance and totally condemning resistance in favour of complete obedience at all times.  Creon passively watches the events in the political arena, only expressing his condemnation of Polynices and Eteocles on a verbal level, and refuses to act until he is handed the throne peacefully and his adversaries are punished for their transgressions.  Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s tragedy illustrates a point about unquestioning faith:  Creon’s refusal to sacrifice his son for Thebes marks his absolute faith that God will relieve Thebes from Eteocles’ tyranny and Polynices rebellion.  Despite the complexities of the political situation, Creon at least, makes the right decision and is rewarded in the end.  Throughout the 1560s the orthodox line on resistance theory was repeatedly adjusted but with none of the anxieties resolved, yielding a feeling of uncertainty and tension about the origin of evil and sin.  


1 For over a century critics have recognised the distance between the Elizabethan text Jocasta and the Euripides’ Greek drama, Phoenissae and the English authors’ debt to Dolce.  See, for example, Foster.  For a detailed discussion of Dolce’s translation and its similarities to Seneca’s Oedipus see Terpening; especially 92ff. 

2 Further analysis of the printing industry in the 1570s also points to the text’s value as  a literary document rather than a drama solely for the theatre.  By the time Jocasta was printed the publishers were looking to appeal to a wider market than just academics and gentlemen.  Greg Walker summarises this new trend in printing history: ‘printers would have been wise to attempt to sell their playbooks to a wider market than players alone.  And there is evidence that they did so [. . .] By the 1570s at the latest it is clear that a number of plays were being printed primarily for readers.  [. . .] it is clear that printers were aware of and seeking to exploit a market among private readers beyond schools in universities’ (Walker, 29-30).

3 Similarly, Seneca’s version of Phoenissae, called Thebias by the Elizabethan translator Thomas Newton in 1581, is also framed within Hell.  Some scholars believe that Seneca’s play was left unfinished since it does not follow his traditional five act-structure and is without a chorus.  Additionally, the Latin text is unusually short at just 664 lines.  R.J. Tarrant contests this and argues that the play is complete and represents a new form for the Roman writer.  See Tarrant. 

4 Pelops was the son of Tantalus and Dione.  Tantalus cut Pelops into pieces and made his flesh into a stew, then served it to the gods, for which he was punished.  This is the subject of Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes. 

5 Bruce R. Smith explores the combined affect of sensation and sententiousness that occupies the play both verbally and visually.  Renaissance authors (including Dolce) depart from Euripides, and render the play ‘modern’ by emphasising the moral justice of the situation.  In contrast Euripides emphasised the irony and the incongruity between human suffering and the ineluctable plans of the gods.  Like Smith, Robert S. Miola is also concerned with the way the Elizabethan imitators altered the Greek play.  He focuses on the process of Christianising the ancient pagan text.  See Miola and Smith, especially, ‘Tragedy’. 

6 On how much of this invocation to Mars can be attributed to the Elizabethan imitator, rather than Euripedes or Dolce, Cunliffe states that all the material that diverges from the Greek source can be found in Dolce.  On the invocation to Mars Cunliffe comments, ‘Gascoigne has totally deserted the rich imagery of Euripides, yet has found means to form an original ode, which is by no means destitute of pathos or imagination’ (Cunliffe lxxxiv).  He goes on to credit the English imitators with the ‘smoothness of the English rendering’. 

7 See also e.g., 278, 282-3, 294, 300, 307. 

8 See Cavanagh’s argument that Sackville and Norton were interested in the importance of opening issues up to debate in the political arena in order to carefully consider all sides before making a decision, and hence the importance of counsel in Gorboduc, 45-52.  For the relationship between the discourse of counsel and virtue see 52-7.  


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  • Cavanagh, Dermot.  Language and Politics in the Sixteenth-Century History Play. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Cunliffe, John.  Introduction.  Early English Classical Tragedies.  Ed. John Cunliffe.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912. 
  • Forster, Max. ‘Gascoigne's Jocasta a Translation from the Italian’.  Modern Philology 2 (1904): 147-150.
  • Euripides.  The Phoenician Women, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff.  Euripides V: Electra, The Phoenician Women, The Bacchae.  Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959.
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  • Miola, Robert S. ‘Euripides at Gray’s Inn: Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s Jocasta’.  The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama, ed. Naomi Conn Liebler.  Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002: 33-50.
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  • Ponet, John.  “Proper Responses to Unjust Tyrannical Governments.” A Short Treatise of Political Power [1556].  Menston: The Scholar Press, 1970.
  • Skinner, Quentin.  The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume Two: The Age of Reformation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. 
  • Smith, Bruce R. Ancient Scripts & Modern Experience on the English Stage 1500-1700.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Tarrant, R. J. ‘Senecan Drama and Its Antecedents’, Harvard Studies 82 (1978): 213-263.
  • Terpening, Ronnie H. Lodovico Dolce, Renaissance Man of Letters, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Vocht, H. Jasper Heywood and his Translations of Seneca’s Troas, Thyestes, and Hercules Furens, Edited from the Octavos of 1559, 1560 and 1561.  London: David Nutt, 1913.  Thyestes pp.91-195.
  • Walker, Greg. The Politics of Performance in Renaissance Drama.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).