Monday, 21 March 2016

21 March, 1592 - Constantine

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at constantine the 21 marche 1591 ... xijs

In modern English: Received at Constantine, 21st March, 1592 ... 12 shillings

Today, Lord Strange's Men staged a lost play called Constantine. This was the first time they had performed it since Henslowe's records began in mid-February. It did very poorly at the box office and this is the only record of its performance. It was thus probably an old play that was at the end of its stage life.

Unfortunately, the play's title is not very illuminating as to its subject, because there have been numerous Constantines in history and literature. In his catalogue of British drama, Martin Wiggins proposes that in the English Renaissance, the two most famous Constantines would have been the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and the mythical King Constantine of Britain. Let's briefly and cautiously imagine those possibilities.

Detail from The Baptism of
Constantineworkshop of
Raphael, c.1520
Constantine the Great was a 4th century Roman Emperor. He is most famous for being the first Christian Emperor of Rome, having converted after experiencing a dream or vision on the eve of a battle. The dramatist might have been able to turn this event into a pious play, and might also have been able to work in some patriotism, given the fact that Constantine visited Britain on more than one occasion.

Stonehenge, from Joan Blaeu's
Atlas Maior (1660s)
King Constantine is a figure largely invented by the medieval pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey writes that Constantine was the successor to King Arthur but his reign did not match that of his illustrious predecessor. He successfully suppressed a revolt by the two sons of Mordred, but when they both took refuge in different churches, Constantine broke the law of sanctuary and killed them in front of the altars. Four years later, he was "struck down by the vengeance of God" but was still honoured with a burial alongside Uther Pendragon within Stonehenge. This story reminds me of another lost play, Harry of Cornwall, which Strange's Men performed back in February; it too featured an impious murder in a church, against a backdrop of rebellion.

This is all guesswork, and the myriad other Constantines in history mean that it's futile to ponder further. It's a reminder to all playwrights to use specific titles; come on, how hard can it be?


Constantine information

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin, 1966), 262.
  • P.J. Casey, 'Constantine I', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009).
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 890.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

No comments:

Post a Comment