The Tragedy of Messalina, Empress of
Tragedy of Messalina, Empress of
There are two texts of the play, both in the B.M. Library: press marks 643.a.37 (A) and 162.b.12(B). Both are dated 1640, and there are only very slight differences between them. B has an engraved portrait as a frontispiece, while A does not. Sometimes one, or another, gives the corrected reading, which Skemp attributes to corrections made during printing.
Messalina is a tragedy, which also falls into a group of plays of the period based on Roman history. Charney defines the genre by its use of Roman costume and the Roman praise of suicide as an act of moral courage and nobility; to this Ronan adds tyrannical rage, war, public quarrels and political debates.  The play is also an anti-Catholic satire.
The ornamental title page of the quarto edition of Messalina,
shown on the front page of this edition, is famous for being what is
quite possibly the only pre-Restoration depiction of a Renaissance stage.
The plate was probably engraved by Thomas Rawlins, one of Richard’s
The engraving also depicts the themes of the play, featuring a goat, to symbolise the lust of Messalina, and a sheep, to represent Silius’s innocence.
Richards’ Messalina is a wildly exaggerated caricature of the historical Empress, who lived from AD 20-48, and married the Emperor Claudius in AD 39. While historians agree that she was ‘[a] woman of unbridled licentiousness and cruelty’ who probably played on her husband’s fear of conspiracy and committed adultery many times, Richards stretches the evidence of his sources to depict a character beyond recognition in the Roman histories. His Messalina is depraved, wicked and utterly irredeemable, qualities which are heightened by deviations from the histories in the presentation of other characters.
Richards insists on Messalina’s beauty, although none of the authorities speak of it specifically; both Silius and Claudius are unable to resist her bewitching eyes, which are demon-like in their power. She employs methods of torture to force men into her bed, threatening If they deny to come, let vengeance fall ( I.iii.26) be merciless and kill ( I.iii.28). Even when she has been condemned to death, she shows no remorse for her appalling crimes. The episode with Scylla, the prostitute whom Messalina was said to have challenged to a contest, has no basis for evidence in either Suetonius or Tacitus, yet is referred to repeatedly in the play.
Messalina is repeatedly linked with imagery of hell, is surrounded by thunder, and ‘horrid’ music, and is increasingly demonic, her speeches like incantations:
Now is the wished for time to crown delight,
Turn night to day and day into the night.
Prepare for stirring, masque, revels
All rare variety to provoke desire
Her power to seduce is repeatedly linked to the supernatural; she summons the Furies to invoke her lust, emphasising her utterly sub-human and barbaric nature.
Richards’s Claudius is more authoritative than the historical Emperor, and devoid of the vices of gluttony, drinking and gambling that the histories portray him as indulging in. Tacitus and Suetonius devote the most attention to his palace intrigues at the expense of his achievements, but he was dominated by ambitious freedmen and scheming wives, especially Messalina.
Despite Claudius’ claim at the end the play that never shall marriage yoake the mind of Caesar / To trust the hollow faith of woman more (V.ii.444-5), the audience was aware that it was a hollow promise: he later married his niece, Agrippina, by whom he was undoubtedly poisoned in AD 54.
Richards opens his play with Silius reading from Seneca, and this depiction of him as a man of precise abstinence (I.ii.91) is continued throughout the play. In Tacitus, he he is tempted by power and influence, and is the instigator of the marriage ceremony; in Messalina he is regarded as inherently virtuous and - in stark contrast to the demonically possessed Emperess - redeeemable. Richards’s simplistic view of his relationship with Messalina is illustrated on the title page of the quarto: under the portrait of Messalina appears the emblem of a goat, symbolising lust, and under Silius, a sheep, symbolic of innocence.
The destructiveness of succumbing to sexual temptation is the clear theme of the play, and references to lust are habitually linked with motifs of poison and disease. The inherent virtue of Silius is emphasised in his speech moralising on the power of lust, which [b]egets murder, makes a man a devil, O’erthrows whole families and [c]orrupt[s] all human sweet society (I.ii.147-50).
Messalina herself is depicted as a poisonous influence, with a pleurisy of lust (II.ii.39) literally running through her veins, and male characters are repeatedly corrupted by her influence: Silius says that her kiss [p]oisons my blood and brain (II.ii.67), and Narcissus declares that she [p]oison[s].. bloods with her bewitching lust (V.ii.300).
Female sexuality is linked to violence, being more cause of terror than delight (I.i.41); Menester quakes in fear of the tortures Messalina will subject him to.
Richards is praised in the verses that accompany the play for attempting ‘to convert not to corrupt this age’ with his play which ‘can stir religious thoughts, though in a theatre’.
The King’s Revels Company
The cast list attached to the 1640 quarto of the play indicates that it was performed by the King’s Revels Company. The list is one of two which provide the names of the players of the company. The cast of Messalina were: William Cartwright, senior, Christopher Goad, John Robinson, Samuel Thompson, Richard Johnson, William Hall, John Barrett, Thomas Jordan, and Mathias Morris, with the last three assigned boys parts. There are eight or nine unassigned parts, which may have been taken by John Young, George Stutville and Curtis Greville, who are included on the second list, written by Richard Kendall, who was employed as wardrobe-keeper for the company.
The company is variously referred to as ‘the Children of the Reuells’, ‘the Company of Players of Salisbury Court’, ‘the Company of the Revells’ and ‘the Company of His Majesties Revells’. As one implies adults and one implies boys, make-up was probably both adults and children, but with more boys than was usual.
The company was assembled by William Blagrave and Richard Gunnell, possibly for their new Salisbury Court theatre, but it is possible that the theatre was built for the company. The King’s Revels opened at the new theatre and played there a year or so before moving on. Just before December 1631, for unknown reasons, the company was replaced at Salisbury Court by Prince Charles’s (II) company, a new troupe, but they were not very successful. By July 1634, the King’s Revels company had returned.
The company was affected by the plague and the closing of the theatres in 1636, but ‘even before the actual closure the company seems to have started to disintegrate’.
With the break up of Queen Henrietta’s troupe at the
Messalina must have taxed them in both casting and staging. Evidently some of the casting was beyond them: after an elaborate duet between two spirits comes the stage direction After this song (which was left out the Play in regard there was none could sing in parts) (V.ii).
The Salisbury Court was a private Caroline theatre, the last
The theatre itself was a converted barn, with brick walls and more window area than was usual for a private theatre, possibly not even requiring stage lights during months of longer daylight. A new house was erected which was connected with the playhouse, and may have been in part over the stage, although it is not clear whether it was part of the original building of 1629, or a new construction made by Fisher and Silver in 1660. The stage was probably square or rectangular, and approximately 40ft x 55ft long. It stage probably differed little in general terms from those at Blackfriars and the Drury Lane cockpit, although literary references describe it as small.
On 12 May 1636, the order went out to close the theatres as precaution against the raging plague. They remained closed for a year and a half, except for a week at the end of February 1636/7, until early October 1637. Some time between 1635 and 1639, Richard Heton became the new manager, and had complete governance of the troupe at the theatre. It closed again in 1640, from around 11 September to the 1st week of November, due to plague, and there was another intermission in 1641. In September 1642, Parliament issued the order to close all theatres.
The Salisbury Court reopened in 1647. On 24 March 1649, it was raided and pulled down by a company of soldiers.
It is likely that the actors would have worn a combination of contemporary and Roman costume for Messalina: Holinshed’s chronicles (1577) depict a mix of doublet, breastplate, sandals and hose. Inigo Jones more or less established the proper Roman male costume in his masque design, which was the conventional upper-class Roman costume in scarlet and purple.
Messalina was adventurous in its staging, requiring the stage ceiling and descent machinery in Act 5, stage doors, and an area above the stage. Rawlin’s engraving shows a trap door, which must have existed at the Salisbury Court, as it did at most other playhouses. He had probably seen Messalina performed, and his own play, The Rebellion, was staged there. Thomas Nabbe’s Microcosmus, A Moral Masque was presented there in 1637, for which the stage requirements were very elaborate, but Richard Brome, under contract at that time as the regular dramatist, wrote the commendatory verse, and apparently did not consider the masque too much for the Salisbury Court. One of the stage directions reads: The second Scene is here discover’d being a perspective of clouds, the inmost glorious, where Bellamina sits betwixt Love and Nature, behind her the Bonus and Malus Genius.’ The scene for their descent is not dissimilar to the scene in Messalina where Messalina and Silius descend, gloriously crowned in an arch of glittering cloud aloft, courting each other (V.ii).
In ancient times, Seneca’s work was virtually ignored, yet in the Renaissance his influence was widespread: ‘What English tragedy would have been without the example of Seneca, it is hard to imagine’. He was held in the greatest esteem, and playwrights continually imitated and borrowed him. His Latin quotations are embodied in many texts of the period.
Typically, Senecan texts contain reflective passages, highly finished form of dialogue, heavily weighted with philosophic thought, and moral maxims. In Richards’ play the abundance of violent death, the use of the supernatural, the inflated rhetoric of the style – and, most obviously, the inclusion of Seneca’s brother, Mela, as a character - indicate his influence on the play.
Richard’s play based on the immorality of women opens with praise for the most moral of men:
Sola virtus vera nobilitas:
Virtue is only true nobility,
So speaks our times’ best tutor, Seneca,
And ‘tis divinely spoken, like himself.
Silius wants to ‘imitate the good that thou presents’, and he, Valens and Proculus swear on Seneca’s book to be virtuous. Seneca is held up as a moral standard, to which the male characters must endeavour to reach.
Seneca refers to Messalina in Octavia, but the details are all incidental and can be found in Tacitus. Richards may have borrowed from his play Medea, in which Atreus and Medea invoke the Furies to aid them in their revenge, and Medea is spurred on by her murdered brother’s spirit. If he did not borrow directly from his work, he would certainly have been aware of it, and influenced by it indirectly.
The principal sources of the play are, as Richards notes in
his dedication to Viscount Rochford,
He agrees with Tacitus, Suetonius and Juvenal that Claudius was infatuated with his wife, but Richard’s Emperor is weak and feeble, easily led by his followers and duped by his wife. There is no mention of Claudius’s mistresses, Calphurnia and Cleopatra, or his incestuous relationship with his niece, Agrippina, whom Suetonius depicts at length. Richards adds from Pliny the episode where Messalina supposedly bedded twenty-five men in one day and night, and repeatedly refers to it. The murder of the three chaste dames at the Empress’s command and the attempted rape of the virgins are pure invention. Tacitus writes that Messalina forced Silius to divorce Syllana and Richards has her insisting on Syllana’s death, and Richards follows him on this - the proposal comes from Messalina, and she thus incurs the whole blame.
Richards adds characters, some new and some developed from mere hints in Tacitus. Bawd, Hem and Stitch are new, and epitomise the lowest form of villainy. They group around the Empress and flourish, emphasising her foulness. He also adds the vestal virgins, chaste dames who prefer death to shame. Montanus’s resistance is described in one sentence by Tacitus, but at tedious length by Richards, who also gives him a partner in morality, Mela.
The sources, fashionable in Tudor-Stuart scholarship, point the way towards the Roman subtexts recognised by the audience.
Silius’s dying speech has been compared to Webster’s work:
Like a spent taper only for a flash,
I do recover to embrace thee sweet.
Forgive me, injured excellence, constant wife.
Take from my lips, dear heart, a parting kiss,
Cold as the dead man’s skull.
It has been argued it is reminiscent of Flamineo’s in The White Devil. Charles R. Forker also points out that it echoes The Duchess of Malfi. As the Duchess is taking leave of her husband she says:
your kiss is colder
Then that I have seen a holy anchorite
Give to a dead man’s skull (III.v.103)
Macbeth may have been an influence on the play, in particular the songs of the Furies and spirits. A.R. Skemp has suggested that the whole concept of the supernatural passages in Messalina came from Shakespeare’s play:
As the riddling prophecy of the witches drives Macbeth to his crime, and, later, the visions shown them prelude his doom, so - though their interventions are mere incidents instead of vital moments - the Furies rouse in Messalina a pleurisy of lust, and the spirit’s song prepares her for her fate.
Like Richard III, Messalina is visited by the ghosts of her victims, and the play is also suggestive of The Tempest; like Prospero, Messalina is surrounded by enchantments, music and dark magic, thunder and lightening, summoning spirits to her.
The Revenger’s Tragedy (c.1607), commonly attributed to Thomas Middleton, is another likely source. Richards had borrowed from it in The Celestiall Publican and Deaths Masqueing Night, and he was a ‘[f]amiliar acquaintance’ of Middleton. A.R.Skemp also suggests Marston’s The Dutch Courtezan (1605) and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1592) as influences.
Jonson’s Roman plays, Sejanus His Fall, Catiline His Conspiracy and Poetaster were widely imitated; while Richard’s play was more melodramatic than Jonson, the combination of Roman material with a strong moral purpose and the sudden use of the Emperor Claudius in the last act would probably remind the audience of Sejanus.
Richards also works quotations or ideas from his own moral and satirical poems into Messalina.
The Roman Play
The Renaissance audience were familiar with the chief events
of Roman history, and viewed it as the essence of their nation’s roots. Physically and psychologically, early modern
Messalina follows the tradition of other
part-imitations of Ben Jonson’s Roman plays in
portraying a wildly undignified Roman royal.
Thomas May’s Agrippina,
and the anonymous plays Claudius Tiberius
Nero (1607) and Nero (1624) are also among
this tradition. While Jonson was concerned with the
historical accuracy of his plays, some of his contemporaries may have found him
like other plays of the genre, is more concerned with dramatic effectiveness,
and is littered with bad verse, anachronisms and factual errors. As is common
to many of these plays, historical accuracy is of peripheral interest;
anachronisms served to highlight the parallels with seventeenth-century
Early Modern England’s obsession with the rise and fall of
Neither would it take an overactive imagination to link Richard’s portrayal of the Empress Messalina with the French Queen, Henrietta Maria, whose open adherence to Roman Catholicism made her deeply unpopular. In the public mind, Catholicism was linked to Mary, Queen of Scots, the Gunpowder plot, the Armarda, and a dark period of history to which they had no desire to return. In Richard’s heavily anti-Catholic play, Messalina embodies the sin and corruption that was popularly perceived as inherent in the Catholic Church.
Henrietta Maria arrived in England in 1625, in a frame of
mind ‘more appropriate for a missionary than a bride’,
seeing herself as the protector of England’s Catholics, and refusing to be
crowned at the Protestant coronation ceremony. The Court was infiltrated by her
French servants and advisors, and she employed a Catholic nurse to care for her
son, James, born in 1633. Under Henrietta’s influence, the Catholics enjoyed a
relative peace, sparking fears of a possible reconciliation with
Henrietta’s influence on the social scene at Court brought her into further disrepute, and she made no secret of her love of acting and writing at a time when popular prejudice against women on the stage was very strong: a company of French players that included actresses had recently been hooted out of the theatre in Blackfriars. William Prynne’s Histrio Mastix (1632), which denounced the evils of plays and proclaimed Women actors notorious whores, appeared so close to the date of Henrietta’s pastoral The Shepheard’s Paradise that it was undoubtedly aimed at her. He asserted that the frequenting of stage plays by kings and emperors had been the just occasions of their untimely deaths and cited the example of the Emperor Nero, murdered as he left the theatre.
The King and Queen’s shared love of the theatre fuelled
fears that their prolonged contact would allow her to further influence his
governance. During the first 15 years of Charles’s reign, 401 dramatic
performances were staged at court, including 25 masques and 368 plays. Both
acted in masques put on at Court:
The Queen’s relationship with her circle of male followers
raised further suspicion; it was feared that, like Messalina,
she would use her sexuality to seduce them to her way of thinking. She was
often left with them at Court when her husband travelled, and in May 1633 they
endured their longest separation to date when Charles left for the north for
his Scottish coronation. Messalina’s marriage to Silius takes place when Claudius is away at
Richards’ withering depiction of the vices of the rich and powerful, and the debauched pleasures of the Court, are Puritan in tone and a clear and direct attack on the English Court. In Messalina the Emperor is surrounded by men of machiavillian darkness (V.i.80) at the Court of shame, Where mischiefs hourly breed( III.iii.3). Evil counsellors flourish there, Them there, whose paltry puling honesty /Merits no favour but a world of mischief,/They must live at Court, and greed and corruption are rife: Bawd escapes punishment for murder by paying a servant for his silence. Charles gave rise to suspicion about his personal use of the highly unpopular Ship Money. By highlighting the contentiousness of Rome’s political life, Richards makes a damning comment on contemporary politics, going so far as to warn that kingship is precarious: Silius grows popular, and the people / As ‘tis their nature, ever covet change (IV.ii.18-19).
As Ann Thompson has shown, editors of Renaissance drama have consistently overlooked issues of importance to women. Messalina, which has been described as ‘a play of Strindbergian misogyny’, exemplifies the inability of Early Modern culture to treat women as people, objectifying them as objects of lust and presenting them as emblematic of undesirable traits.
There is little to praise in Richards’ female characters: aside from Messalina, whom I have already discussed in detail, his principal women, Lepida and Syllana, are unbelievable incarnations of female virtue: the perfect mother and wife. The model for marriage is the patriarchal union of Syllana and Silius, and Syllana’s end, dying for her virtue, is one to be desired. Women are repeatedly referred to as the dark, hidden dimension of man that threatens to overtake them.
Richards’ play, based on the adultery of the Roman Empress (which Suetonius writes was of less concern to the Emperor Claudius than the possibility of losing his Empire to Silius) is revealing of attitudes towards women and female sexuality in the period, and must therefore be situated firmly within its cultural climate.
The front matter to Messalina declares that the play hath been acted with general applause, and Richards himself says that includes the general applause as well of honourable personages as others. However, his repeated justifications of the play, and those of his friends in their commendatory verses, suggest that he expected criticism, and it was probably received. There is no record of it having been censored, but Richards was sensitive to its possibility, beginning his prologue with mention of the ignorance of some censors, and ending in his epilogue with a direct challenge that they must declare themselves either with or against art. The fact that Richards was so insistent as to the morality of a play which so strongly denounces immorality, suggests that he was concerned about the reaction to his attack on the Queen.
Richards proclaims in his Epistle dedicatory that the sole aim of my discovery herein, no otherwise tends then to separate souls from the discovered evil, the suppression of vice, and exaltation of virtue, flight from sin for fear of judgement, and he receives praise in the accompanying verses for his denunciation of lust. His contemporary audience would undoubtedly have enjoyed the spectacle of the performance, during which eleven characters are slain on stage, one dies broken-hearted on stage, four are slain offstage, Menester is tortured onstage and Lepida goes mad. Bentley has described the play as a melodrama on the havoc wreaked by lust .. an odd combination of moralizing and spectacle scenes.
The play was obviously, as Bradwell writes in his verse, current coin, but its engagement with contemporary politics and its deeply rooted misogyny confines it to the period in which it was written, and he was too optimistic in his declaration that it will endure the test.
The story of Messalina has had a rich afterlife and has been the subject of novels, films and a popular television series.
Jack Oleck’s lesser-known novel Messalina: A Magnificent Novel of the Most Wicked Woman in History (1959/60) depicts a woman who is ‘beautiful…tantalising…deadly…one of the most depraved, unscrupulous women in all history’. The novel depicts – often in graphic detail – Messalina’s liasions with Isaax, her slave, Decimus, Caligula and Vitellius.
The most well-known re-telling of the story is Robert Graves’s follow up to his novel I Claudius, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, and its hugely popular television dramatisation, starring Derek Jacobi. Both are largely based on Suetonius, and portray Claudius with sympathy, duped by a scheming and manipulative wife.
 See Bentley, Gerald Eades (1941) The King's Revels Company pp. 283-301
in The Jacobean and Caroline Stage Vol I: Dramatic
Companies and Players
 See Richards, Nathaniel
(1640) The Tragedy of Messallina, The Roman Emperesse
(ed. and intro) Skemp, A.R. (1910)
 For a
fuller discussion, see Astington, John H. (1991) The
'Messalina' Stage and Salisbury Court Plays pp.
141-156 in Theatre Journal 43/2
in Scullard, H. H. (1959, 1982) The Gracchi to Nero: A History of
 In the
Bible, Revelations 17, the Whore of Babylon is described as wearing purple and
scarlet; if Richard’s play was performed in traditional Roman costume, the
resemblance would be striking. The woman
is also described as holding a golden cup; to further emphasis Messalina’s likeness to her, Richards may have had his
character hold a golden cup in I.ii, which she then
drinks from. Like the biblical Whore of Babylon, Richard’s Messalina embodies
all the vices of
 pp. 193 in
 Gurr (1996) p. 385-6 quoted p.15 in ‘Licensing…’
 pp. 108
in Bentley, G. E (1968) The
 Forker, Charles R. (1976) Nathanael
Richards, 'Messalina' and 'The Duchess of Malfi' pp. 221-222 in Notes and Queries for Readers
and Writers, Collectors and Librarians 23
 pp. 40 in Richards,
Nathaniel (1640) The Tragedy of Messallina, The Roman Emperesse
(ed. and intro) Skemp, A.R. (1910)
 Ibid. See the introduction.
Ronan, Clifford (1995) ‘Antike Roman’:
Power Symbology and the Roman Play in Early Modern
 Ibid. This is Ronan’s figure.
Universal History, cited pp.5 Scullard Scullard, H. H. (1959,
1982) The Gracchi to Nero: A History of
Ronan, Clifford (1995) ‘Antike Roman’:
Power Symbology and the Roman Play in Early Modern
 pp.2 in
 pp. 156
 Tiberius Claudius Drusus Caesar (3) in Suetonius (1997 edition) Lives of the Twelve Caesars (trans. Bird, H.M.) Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Bernini’s comment was made in
relation to Van Dyck’s triple portrait of Charles.
See pp. 136 in Hibbert, Christopher (1968) Charles
 Tiberius Claudius Drusus Caesar (10) in Suetonius (1997 edition) Lives of the Twelve Caesars (trans. Bird, H.M.) Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
 pp. 137 in
 p.144 in Plowden, Alison (2001) Henrietta Maria: Charles I's Indomitable Queen Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd.
 p.150 Ibid.
 Cited p.118 in Plowden, Alison (2001) Henrietta Maria: Charles I's Indomitable Queen Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd.
 p.123 in Plowden, Alison (2001) Henrietta Maria: Charles I's Indomitable Queen Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd.
pp. 23 in
 Thompson, Ann (2001) Feminist Theory and the Editing of Shakespeare: 'The Taming of the Shrew' Revisited pp. 49-69 in Chedgzoy, Kate (ed.) Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender Hampshire: Palgrave
 pp. 78
 pp. 1002 in Bentley, Gerald
Eades (1956) Nathanael
Richards pp. 999-1004 in The Jacobean and Caroline Stage Vol V: Plays and Playwrights