Monday, 11 April 2016

11 April, 1592 - Titus and Vespasian

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: ne ... R at tittus & vespacia the 11 aprell 1591 ... iijll iiijs

In modern English: New. Received at Titus and Vespasian, 11th April, 1592 ... £3 and 4 shillings.

Today, Lord Strange's Men unveiled a brand new play: Titus and Vespasian. The play is lost, but its title suggests that it told the story of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. It was extremely successful at the box office, just like the company's previous new play, Harry VI, which premiered over a month agoand it made almost as much money. Apparently, mass audiences could be attracted to the Rose by the promise of a new play.

16th century illustration of Vespasian's
forces sailing for Jerusalem
The events of the 1st century Jewish rebellion against Rome, and Titus's subsequent siege and destruction of Jerusalem, were well-known and much retold in Elizabethan England. The basic outline of this story is simple: some of the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem revolt and overthrow the Romanized rulers; Titus and his Roman forces arrive and besiege the city until its people begin to die of starvation; and the Romans then invade and massacre the inhabitants.

If this plot sounds familiar, it's because just over two weeks ago, Lord Strange's Men performed a lost play called Jerusalem, which was probably about the eleventh century siege of the city and the eventual expulsion of its Islamic rulers by Godfrey of Bouillon. Clearly, sieges of Jerusalem were popular in the theatre, and it's easy to see why. A play about the capture of Jerusalem would depict holy war in the starkest and most direct terms: in Jerusalem, the audience watched Christians purging non-Christians from the Holy City.

But the story told in Titus and Vespasian - in which pagan Romans capture Jerusalem from Jewish rebels - might have seemed less straightforward in its moral framework to Elizabethan audiences, as it's not immediately obvious which side should receive the sympathy of a Christian audience.

Nicholas Poussin, The Destruction and Sack of the Temple at Jerusalem (1637)
It was certainly possible to defy history and turn the story into a symbol of Christian triumphalism. In one medieval tradition, the tale begins with Vespasian being miraculously cured of a disease; he is converted to Christianity as a result, and orders the taking of Jerusalem in order to revenge the death of Christ, thereby giving the war a religious motivation.

But Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley have shown that the lost play was more likely related in some way to Peter Morwen's History of the Latter Times of the Jews' Commonweal (1558) and other works deriving from it, including Richard Legge's Latin play Solymitana Clades (c.1590), Thomas Nashe's prose work Christ's Tears over Jerusalem (1594) and William Heminges' play The Jews' Tragedy, or their Fatal and Final Overthrow by Vespatian and his son Titus (c.1628-30). In these works, the villains are not the Jews as such, but rather the Zealots, a fanatical sect who rise up against the Romanized king Agrippa.

In the various versions of this story, the Zealots occupy the Temple and start performing human sacrifices to God. In his retelling, Thomas Nashe revels in the disgusting imagery of mass sacrifice:

The marble floor of [the Temple] they made so slippery, with their un-respited, and not so much as Sabbath-ceased, bloodshed and bowel-clinging fat of them that were slaine, that a man might better swim then walk on it.

Sixteenth century illustration of
the Romans destroying Jerusalem
When the Romans arrive to recapture the city, the various Jewish factions try and fail to unite against the Romans. The siege results in famine, causing terrible suffering; as Nashe writes, "every corner of Jerusalem" was ringing with "the howling, wringing of hands, sobbing and yelling of men, women, and children". In one famed sequence, a high-born mother, Miriam, becomes so crazed with starvation that she cooks her own child; in his version, Nashe implores the reader to sympathize with and understand her actions:

Mothers of London, each one of you to yourselves, do but imagine that you were Miriam; with what heart, suppose you, could you go about the cookery of your own children? Not hate but hunger, taught Miriam to forget motherhood.
Titus then invades, executes the Zealot leaders, and marches in triumph through the ruined city. In one sequence that appears in a number of the retellings, Titus is horrified at the actions of the Zealots. In his version, Nashe addresses the city of Jerusalem and describes how:

Titus (an infidel), understanding the multitude of thy profanations and contumacies, was afraid to stay in thee, saying, "Let us hence, lest their sins destroy us."

The tale of the siege of Jerusalem is thus a grim one, with much opportunity for onstage violence and horror. The evidence seems to suggest that the lost play was at least partly sympathetic toward the Romans and the ordinary Jewish citizens, while condemning the religious extremism of the Zealots. Indeed, Manley and MacLean note that the image of the Zealots could have been used to satirize extremist Puritans in England.  This is all speculative, but the popularity of this subject in Elizabethan England, the range of works inspired by it, and the impressive box office of the play's debut at the Rose, suggest that there was something about this story captured the imagination of readers and audiences at the time.



Titus and Vespasian information

  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 923.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 128-33.
  • David McInnis, "Titus and Vespasian", Lost Plays Database (2015). 


Henslowe links


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