Wednesday, 9 March 2016

9 March, 1592 - Zenobia

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

Henslowe writes: R at senobia the 9 of marche 1591 ... xxijs vjd

In modern English: Received at Zenobia, 9th March, 1592 ... 22 shillings and sixpence.

Today, Lord Strange's Men performed Zenobia. This play has not survived, but it is based on a well-known story, so we can guess at its content. It would have been a spectacular tale about the exploits of the warrior queen Zenobia, who became Empress of the Orient and challenged the Roman Empire. This is the play's only appearance in Henslowe's Diary, so it may have been an old play that was being phased out.

Zenobia, from a c.1440 manuscript
of Boccaccio's On Famous Women 
Zenobia was a well-known and much-admired figure in the Renaissance; her story can be found, for example, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (within the Monk's Tale), and in Boccaccio's On Famous Women. She was praised by writers of the period for her military successes, her chastity, and her wisdom and learning.

I'm going to follow other scholars in assuming that the play of Zenobia was based on William Painter's retelling in his The Palace of Pleasure (1566), an anthology that was frequently used by Renaissance dramatists in search of a good story (it had already supplied the plot of Bindo and Ricciardo, performed last week).

The legend of Zenobia

In Novel 14 of Volume 2 of The Palace of Pleasure, William Painter describes the Roman forces in the East falling into disarray under the poor leadership of Emperor Galienus. But a brilliant Roman captain-general called Odenatus, King of the Palmerines (from the city of Palmyra in modern day Syria), restores order. The Roman army in the East is so impressed that they make Odenatus 'Emperor and Lord of All the Orient', in effect creating a separate empire from that of Galienus in the West. But then Odenatus is assassinated. The army chooses one of his sons as the new Emperor of the Orient, but since the boy is only a child, Odenatus's wife, Queen Zenobia, is chosen to be Protector.

Tiepolo, Queen Zenobia Addressing her Troops (c.1725)
Zenobia is a noblewoman descended from the Ptolemies of Egypt. She is both wise and beautiful, and finds herself, as Painter puts it, "regent of an empire, and captain-general of the army". Painter praises Zenobia at length for her hands-on approach in military adventures: she wears armour, is present during battles, and is tougher and braver than many men. Her only flaw is ambition; for example, she styles herself Empress rather than mere "governess or regent".

Back in Rome, Galienus dies and the more competent Aurelianus becomes Emperor. Aurelianus declares war on Zenobia in order to retake the Orient for Rome. But Zenobia's troops know the country well and repeatedly defeat the Roman army. Eventually, Aurelianus writes to Zenobia, offering gold and permitting her to remain Queen of Palmyra if she will give up her claim to be Empress of the Orient. But Zenobia writes a defiant reply, insisting that the gods have made her Empress, and challenging Aurelianus to defeat her in battle if he wants her land.

Aurelianus is so outraged by this letter that, despite the weariness of his troops, he is fired up and successfully defeats Zenobia's army. She is captured and humiliated by being led in triumph through Rome. But the women of Rome are impressed by her, and she lives the rest of her days "in the company of these noble matrons".

Zenobia Before Emperor Aurelianus by Tiepolo (1717)
If you would like to read William Painter's tale of Zenobia, you may do so here. Alternatively, if you prefer something more trashy, you could hunt down the obscure 1959 Italian film The Sign of Rome, which stars Anita Ekberg as Zenobia (incidentally, the English dubbed version is retitled Sheba and the Gladiator, even though it's not about the Queen of Sheba and there are no gladiators in it...).

Anita Ekberg as Queen Zenobia in Sheba and the Gladiator (1959)

What we learn from this

This is the first play in Henslowe's list to feature a female protagonist who was represented in a positive light. In their book on Lord Strange's Men, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth Maclean suggest that Zenobia may have been envisaged as a direct contrast to their play about the scandalous Pope Joan (indeed, the two women appear next to one another as contrasting opposites in Boccaccio's On Famous Women).

The 'Armada Portrait' of Queen Elizabeth I (1588)
Furthermore, Martin Wiggins observes that a tale about a warrior queen taking on an empire would have made for a very obvious parallel with Queen Elizabeth I's contest with Spain, and might conjure patriotic memories of the recent defeat of the Spanish Armada. However, Wiggins notes that if the company did emphasize this parallel, they would have needed to rewrite the ending...


Zenobia information

  • Christopher Matusiak, "Zenobia", Lost Plays Database (2012). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 889.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 147-9.

Henslowe links


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

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