The Tragedy of Julia Agrippina, Empress of Rome is a play which if read or performed at present would primarily be very entertaining; however, unless one is knowledgeable about the politics and history of the period then important implications are lost. Thomas May often chose classical stories and characters as a basis for his plays. In The Tragedy of Julia Agrippina, Empress of Rome, he used the historical story of Claudius Caesar and his fourth wife Agrippina. The stories of the Caesars and the Roman Empire were well known to the Caroline audiences and many other plays and pieces of work stemmed from or were influenced by them. Shakespeare was also heavily influenced by them. Even when the play was not directly about the Roman Empire, there were still glimpses of the familiar stories and their images, the most famous scene being when Hamlet stabs Polonius behind the curtain as he thinks it is Claudius; in the histories Claudius hides behinds some curtains when he is being chased. The Tragedy of Julia Agrippina, Empress of Rome is not only influenced by the ancient Roman histories but is a heavily critical comment on the current queen, Henrietta Maria (appendix 1). Therefore to appreciate this play fully, we must try and understand what the feelings and opinions amongst the audience would have been at the time this was performed; the questions they may have asked watching it; and why something so perceptibly political was not treasonable.
May's play follows the histories of the Roman Empire almost exactly; events and characters are generally the same, the main difference being that the plot is built around Agrippina, a female character who is not the most obvious choice to write a play about. Having a basic knowledge of the histories does help in understanding the play; there are many characters and so it can become confusing, especially as some are called by more than one name. Sometimes a deceased family member or a historical figure is mentioned and it is helpful to know who they are and why they have been referred to, therefore to help when reading the play I have included a list of drama personae and also included the Julian Family Tree and the Stuart Family tree to be used for quick reference (appendix 2). For a more thorough background knowledge, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius provides a very good basis.
The most obvious question we ask when we know the story of the Caesars is why did May choose Agrippina? When an understanding of the politics of the seventeenth century is reached, it becomes clear the protagonist in the play represents Queen Henrietta Maria. However Agrippina is not the most obvious female he could have used. The most evil woman in the Roman stories is Livia, Augustus' wife; she is by far the most wicked, followed by Messalina. But May chose Agrippina to epitomize his much disliked Queen. His reasons I believe are many; the most obvious reason for choosing a wife of Claudius and not one of the other Caesars is because Claudius is most similar to Charles I. Both Claudius and Charles had a stutter and limp and when watching the play, the audience would be reminded of their King as they shared the same obvious mannerisms (appendix 3). Depending on how the play is performed it could be made very satirical, which is an interesting idea, as Petronius is mentioned in the play and he is famous for his satirical work; in Act 4 he performs a satirical poem at Nero's banquet. Charles also seemed to suffer badly with finding people loyal to him and Claudius had that same problem. Claudius was also a man who was very influenced by his love and in the end became blinded by this: he allows Agrippina to take some control of the political affairs. Members of the audience at the time might think this a parallel to their king and his wife: she was very influential in his life, and his love for her was extremely strong, causing him to confer with her about everything, even matters of state. It is quite understandable that some Britons were unnerved by a French woman having an influence in the way their country was ran, especially as at one point Britain was at war with France and, to make matters worse, Henrietta was a devout and practising Catholic, creating nerves amongst the protestant public: "It was her Romanism which was disastrous, and which gives Henrietta Maria her peculiar place in the downfall of the Stuart Monarchy" (Hill1965: 52). Claudius was named the 'God of the Britons' and his son was called Britannicus, further reasons to contribute to the choosing of this Caesar to represent Charles I. In the histories and also in the play, Britannicus is wronged by Agrippina: he should be the true heir but Agrippina manipulates Claudius to adopt her son, who is older and he is made Caesar. The name Britannicus obviously will represent Britain to the audience, the character is wronged by Agrippina in the same way that May, and many others like him, felt Henrietta would wrong and lead to the downfall of Britain.
The final reason for Agrippina to be chosen as an alternative to other women from Claudius' life is that she is the great-granddaughter of Livia, who seems to be the most evil and influential woman in the Caesar histories . Livia used her husband's name, Augusta, after he had died; he was called the 'great Augustus', a liked and well respected Caesar. Livia poisoned him in order for her son, Tiberius, to become the next Emperor. Suetonius also describes how it was thought that Agrippina also poisoned her husband in order for her son to be Emperor; we are reminded of the similarities between them further when Agrippina begins to adopt the same name, Augusta. Therefore, May chose Agrippina to represent Henrietta, leading the audience to think about a woman in power before her, whose name she had adopted and actions she might reproduce: Henrietta was given the name 'Queen Mary', a name with a very negative image, since it reminded all the Puritans of Mary Tudor who had the reputation for persecuting the Protestants. May is trying to instil fear and imply that Henrietta would follow Mary's example and therefore the Puritans were in danger as long as she was in power; of course there is no evidence for this possible persecution but all that was needed was the seeds of doubt and possibility.
The audience at the time would have been more than familiar with the story of Agrippina and Claudius, and would have been most surprised to find no trace of incest in the play. The historical Agrippina had an affair with her brother, the emperor Gaius Caligula, married Claudius who was her uncle and then had a disturbing relationship with her son Nero. Yet May left out this incest from his play, which is another example of this being a political play about Henrietta; surely he would have included the most famous part of the story had it been just a performance about the Roman Empire. But we know that it was more than that and so too would the audience; he ignored the incest as he did not want to upset Henrietta's brother, Louis XIII, the King of France, and also would not want to discredit a possible future King of Britain by implying that he was sexually involved with his mother.
All the changes, additions and differences in the play from the original history can be questioned. They have all been included for a reason, each adding to the negative picture being created of Henrietta. A difference we see straight away is in the title; 'Julia Agrippina' is what she is called. May chooses to give her a first name and the choice he makes is very interesting. Our immediate thought is of Claudius' mother: one of her names was Julia, which would correspond with some accounts of Henrietta being sometimes quite maternal towards Charles I. (Marshall,1990:55) However I would argue that May chose this name for more than just this reason: Henrietta is looked upon by her opposition and enemies as trying to take over Charles and the throne. This name is similar to Julius, reminding the audience of this Caesar. Julius Caesar had coins made in his life time which had his head on, (appendix 4) something unheard of until Caesar's are dead and made a god; only the Hellenistic Kings were commonly portrayed on their coins and the fact that Caesar does this gives some implication of his Monarchical ambitions (Carson, cited in Suetonius, trans by Graves,1957: 315). The wreath which Caesar wears is quite unlike the wreaths of the Emperors to follow and it has been said to have looked very similar to the golden wreaths worn by the ancient Etruscan kings of Rome; all implying that Julius Caesar wanted to be King. May would argue that this is like Henrietta: she wanted this also, she wanted the control and power of King and used Charles to do so.
Another addition which May makes is to portray Agrippina as a writer, and this
links her directly to Henrietta, creating a negative image of them both. Henrietta
had a circle of friends who were mainly poets, and playwrights and were a centre
of fashion. She visited the theatre weekly, sometimes twice a week, most of
the time with Charles. She was also said to write herself, with the masque Florimène
sometimes attributed to her. She not only wrote literature but also was passionate
about acting. She was said to be a very good actor: she impressed all who went
to her performances but she was quick to be condemned by the Puritans, they
believed "No women should ever appear on the stage, least of all the Queen."
(Marshall,1990: 43). Some of the women dressed as men and wore beards, which
made matters worse. Women writing and acting was something viewed negatively
for many years afterwards. On another occasion when Henrietta acted again, a
criticism was published by William Prynne, a leading barrister. It was a "virulent
attack on female actors"; it was an obvious attack on the Queen. Prynne
was arrested and sentenced to be fined £5000 and stand in the pillory
where he had his ears cropped. Henrietta tried to stop this but she was unsuccessful
(Marshall,1990: 63). The audience would know of Henrietta's passion for literature
and so it is obvious why Agrippina writes in May's play.
The Duke of Buckingham was Henrietta's rival throughout the early years of her marriage. He was Charles's closest and loyal friend; when Henrietta arrived in Britain, Buckingham could see she might be a problem as Charles began to dote on her, and she was not the quiet, subdued wife he was hoping she would be. Marvell states that in order to continue to be Charles' favourite, Buckingham began to stir trouble between husband and wife. But this trouble also added to the public's negative opinion of the new Queen. He told Henrietta that the opening of Parliament was largely a Church of England service, therefore she was advised by the Bishop de Mende that she should not take part. The public and indeed Charles himself was offended by her absence (Marvell,1990: 40). Buckingham took part in and created rumours in numerous schemes, one of which nearly backfired on him: it seems he began the rumour that Henrietta stopped to pray for the souls of the Catholics that had been executed. This upset Charles so much that he was prepared to send her back to France but offending her brother the King was not what Buckingham had intended (Ibid). Buckingham was assassinated in 1628 and no one benefited more than Henrietta; Charles turned to her for support and it is easy to imagine that there would have been vicious rumours of scandal about whether she had a hand in Buckingham's death. Eliminating someone that stands in the way of power reminds us immensely of Agrippina, and it is possible that May is trying to add to the public's doubt about Henrietta as from the evidence it seems that the audience will know who the play is really about.
Although in hindsight when reading about Henrietta she may seem a devout mother and wife and there seems to be no evidence that she was using Charles for a greater purpose or really had any intention to become involved with the politics, the audience at the time will have had a different opinion. They do not have the benefit of the knowledge we now have and their only information to create their ideas would be from hearsay. They really would have little idea as to what truly was happening; it is no surprise that in the 17th century when the information available is limited and accuracy debateable, the public opinion towards Charles and his Queen were manipulated and in this case a negative opinion created.
It seems that on first glance of this history, Henrietta's only faults were that she was French and Roman Catholic. However, taking into consideration the alleged contributions from the Duke of Buckingham it begins to become clear why her public image became very negative. For instance in addition to the many reasons previously mentioned, there are also other incidents which will not have helped her popularity, the most obvious being her lack of appearance at Charles' coronation. It was hoped by the French that she would also be crowned but as the ceremony was a Church of England service she could not attend and like the opening of Parliament, her absence offended the British public (Marshall,1990: 42). The image surrounding Henrietta is one which if we consider carefully is understandable: All of the negative stories surrounding her create suspicion. If we consider what the public reaction would be today if our potential King or Queen married someone of a country we were potentially at war with and were regarded by some groups of the population as a dangerous religion, I doubt the reaction would be that different than the one towards Henrietta in the 17th century.
Throughout this play there is a noticeable lack of violence. During this time it became fashionable on the French stage for there to be no violence during the performance; May could have chosen to adopt this as a way of highlighting the French connection, pointing to more evidence that the play is about Henrietta Maria. Or it could just be non-violent as more women were attending the theatre and it seems they had quite an influence; their emergence within the Caroline theatre no doubtedly helped shape the taste. It seems that although women were addressed as early as 1597 it was only after Henrietta and her circle began to attend regularly that other respectable women began an important part of the audience (Neill,1978: 343). Shirley in his prologue to the Coronation (1635) believes the women to be "a civilizing presence who have contributed to the much vaunted 'purity' of language and action of new drama" (Ibid). Violence was regarded by some, like Shirley not to be fit for women to watch and this was welcomed by others as they thought the theatre should be pure and about the art of writing.
May's play would have been performed in one of the Caroline private theatres. At the time these generally had a bad press. Neill describes them as "An upper class coterie", and claims that the writers anticipated "the critical response of the highly sophisticated audience" (Neill,1978: 341). They were small indoor playhouses, and especially during the period when there was no Parliament, they became mini private cabinets. The theatre became a way of expressing views which under other circumstances would be treasonable. They were artificially illuminated, and the costumes were much grander than the ones in the other theatres, and particularly in this play the costumes could be very relevant; if English clothes were used, which is most likely, then Agrippina would have to be more extravagantly dressed than the other characters as she is the empress and so she would straight away remind the audience of their queen. The dramatists increasingly grew in confidence and "saw themselves as artists supplying demonstrations of their individual genius" (Neill.1978: 346). They worried what the reaction would be from the audiences and increasingly began addressing them in a prologue, which apart from obviously quietening them before the play begins also served another purpose; epilogues also became popular and the two functions work together to create an argument. The play creates an example and then the epilogue wraps everything up so they remind us of the medieval moral plays. It is interesting that unusually May includes a prologue in this play but does not write an epilogue. This could be because simply it has been lost, or it could be that May chose not to include one as he did not want to tell the audience any answers, he wanted them to come to their own conclusions; he just planted the little seeds of possibilities and left their own minds do the work. As the Caroline audiences were very knowledgeable we can be certain that they knew about the Roman histories and certainly of the dislike for the Queen. Plays like this, and there were many, were used as a way of continuing parliament. The theatre became somewhere that had a freedom to talk about issues that were possibly radical points of view: "Theatres were staging politically dangerous material with increasing frequency and freedom" (Butler,1987:135). It is very surprising to us reading them now that they did not become censored or the dramatists punished; however Charles is again like Claudius in this matter, both are blind to the truth. Everybody else can see what is happening except the men in power.
So the court stage, despite the narrow constraints under which it customarily operated, was still able to become the vehicle of that courtly feeing which was severely critical of official policies and to play host to plays by professionals or academic dramatists that gave voice to radical attitudes with a freedom more native to the non-courtly theatre, during the period of greater court receptiveness to 'opposition' points of view caused by the queen's political intriguing. (Butler.1987: 54)
The reasons I have discussed all contribute to the idea that this play by May was certainly a political jibe at Charles I and his disliked French wife. When we consider the feelings towards Henrietta and the negative image surrounding her then we are able to understand why our author chose this as a topic to voice his obvious opinion; as the cabinet was not available the theatre took its place. But besides the political connotations that The Tragedy of Julia Agrippina Empress of Rome creates, it can just be read for what it is, an interesting and enjoyable play.
About this Edition
The problems and challenges with editing form a debate very topical and highly discussed at the moment; I was very aware of this when I was making any changes I thought necessary. I have modernised the spelling throughout and amended punctuation. Odd italics and capitalization in the middle off sentences have been largely eliminated except in cases I felt important. Obvious errors have been corrected for example, I changed 'Vnto' to 'Unto' or 'Shoice' to 'Choice'. Some words frequently came to my attention, the words 'e're', 'o're' and 'ne're', however in this situation I did not change them to the words we recognise, 'ever', 'over' and 'never', as this would have made the iambic pentameter incorrect. The word 'then' was often used when it should have been 'than'. Often the word 'too' would be said twice but I felt this was not a mistake and so left the repetition. All of the changes I made were all carried out whilst always considering what I thought the first text would have been. My aim was to try and recreate a modernised but correct version of Thomas May's original play.