Saturday, June 06, 2015

BOOK: Grund (ed.), "Humanist Tragedies"

Humanist Tragedies. Translated by Gary Grund. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 45. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674057258. xlviii + 339 pp.

This book contains five tragedies, originally written in Latin, from the 14th and 15th century. A few years ago I read a similar book of comedies, prepared by the same editor and translator (see my post from back then), and this one is a kind of companion volume to it.

Somewhat surprisingly, I think I liked the tragedies better than the comedies. They weren't quite what I had expected, but perhaps that's because the word ‘tragedy’ didn't always mean quite the same thing than it does now (see the interesting discussion on p. xiv). The plays in this volume are relatively short, and not much happens in them; they include plenty of speeches, but little acting; the translator's introduction (p. xxvii) says that they were “meant to be read in private or recited to an audience” and therefore “neglected stagecraft in favor of a heightened narrative presentation of incidents”. They seemed to be a world away from the things that e.g. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing just 100 or 200 years later. Nevertheless, I found several of them very pleasant to read.

Albertino Mussato: Ecerinis

This delightful tragedy, written in the early 14th century, is loosely inspired by what was to its author fairly recent local history; the titular character, Ezzelino, was a notorious 13th-century tyrant. In some ways, the play is a bit odd; it was really meant to be read, or at best recited, rather than acted out. There is pretty much no action on the stage itself, and very little dialogue; it's more like a series of long speeches by various characters.

And there isn't much of a plot either; the play is basically a brief overview of the life of Ezzelino and his equally evil brother Alberico. Ezzelino makes good use of the turbulent political situation of his time (“In Ferrara alone, a chronicler says, rival parties had expelled one another ten times before 1220” — from the translator's notes, p. 300) and seizes power in Verona, Vicenza and Padua through warfare and trickery; Alberico similarly controls the nearby town of Treviso. But eventually, the fortunes of war turn against them and their long and brutal tyranny comes to an ignominious end.

But the plot is hardly the point here. What made this tragedy such a joy to read is the constant gleeful over-the-top villainy and brutality, described in deliriously purple verse (or prose, in the case of this translation). According to the wikipedia, this was “the first secular drama since Roman times”, and it's as if Mussato was trying to make up for all those missed centuries.

The play opens in high style as Ezzelino's mother Adeleita (who “had the reputation of being a sorceress” according to the translator's note 1 on p. 299) describes how Ezzelino was conceived: while lying in bed next to her sleeping husband, a slavering fire-breathing daemoniac monster from hell shows up and rapes her! “His hairy neck is erect with curved horns [. . .] A bloody liquid drips from both eyes [. . .] his nostrils spew flame. [. . .] the adulterer filled my womb with the deadly seed of Venus, then left the bedroom victorious, wreaking havoc as he went [. . .] the seed I had received held fast and burned within my vitals [. . .] Inside me, madness made intestine warfare against me.” (ll. 40–60). And that's the story of how you were born!

What about Ezzelino's younger brother, Alberico? “[T]he same adulterer, the true father of Ezzelino, raped me again.” (ll. 73–4) This is starting to remind me of the old bear hunter joke (“you aren't in this for the hunting, are you?”). :)))

This is hard to top, but that doesn't stop Mussato from trying :) In the next scene, Ezzelino, delighted to hear about his infernal ancestry, rejects god and dedicates his life to evil (ll. 91–112). Later, Ezzelino's tyranny features such lovely touches as “ordering that babies have their genitalia mutilated, so that the seed of their future offspring may perish, and that screaming women should have their breasts cut off” (ll. 265–9). The author seems to have shocked himself: “Why does the earth not yawn beneath his feet” (l. 276, a nice line which reminded me a little of one from Dante's story of count Ugolino).

In act 3, the two brothers plan their stratagems in a cartoonishly evil style and you can practically see them twirling their mustaches and petting their angora cats. If only the story took place in the south of Italy instead of in the north, we might get an underground volcano lair too :P Next, it's all-out for the evulz as Ezzelino's forces take Mantua: “everything, whether right or wrong, is allowed [. . .] let not sex, age, rank, nor any status of person escape or be exempt from our slaughter. [. . .] let oceans of gore flow, soaking everywhere in the forum, reeking and grisly; let crosses, boasting of bodies, be erected everywhere; let fires be lit beneath to consume them in flames, and let the filthy discharge from their wounds drip down [. . .] ” (ll. 328–37).

To make sure that nobody would mistakenly accuse him of being subtle, our playwright next includes a scene in which Ezzelino talks to a friar, thereby giving him a few more opportunities to defy god and indulge in all-round blasphemy :)) On a slightly more serious note, I'm not quite sure what to make of this scene. I suppose Mussato included it to build up Ezzelino's hubris to the maximum in preparation for his fall in the next act, but the friar's part in this scene is so inane that it ends up making you feel that Ezzelino has a point after all. Ezzelino asks, very reasonably, why god doesn't do something to restrain him, and the friar can only reply weakly that god is waiting for Ezzelino to stop raging by himself, since god loves nothing better than a sinner who has repented, etc. “So the salvation of one man destroys many men. Who is this God to whom I am dearer than many?” says Ezzelino (ll. 372–3), and again he has a point. He also claims to be an instrument of god's wrath, citing various examples of disasters from the Old Testament and of tyrants from actual history.

There's another curious thing in the passage where Ezzelino compares himself to previous tyrants. He starts with “Nebuchadnezzar, the Egyptian Pharaoh, Saul, and [Alexander the Great], all in remotest times; and in our own times the noble house of the Caesars [. . .] from which Nero of happy memory arose”. He lived about 1200 years after Nero, and yet counts this as ‘our own times’; but the extra 400 years between Nero and Alexander suffice to make this ‘remotest times’. I knew that the Italian humanists had a strong feeling of continuity with ancient Rome, but this is the first time I've seen one go so far as to claim it as ‘our own times” :)

After all this, Ezzelino's death is positively anticlimactic; his forces are defeated in battle and he is taken prisoner, but an enemy soldier breaks his skull in the process and he dies soon as a result of the injury (ll. 513–20). His brother's end is more melodramatic and helps ensure that the play ends in the same style in which it began. Alberico's three little sons are killed first; Mussato is in top form here and makes this stuff seem like passages that got cut out of the script of a Quentin Tarantino movie for being too gruesome and bloody. “One soldier seized an infant by the feet, tearing it from its mother's breast, and dashed its tender head against an oak beam; the gore splattering from the baby's brains marked his mother's face” (ll. 552–5; I love the careful attention to detail here!). Next, Alberico gets to watch as his wife and “their five virgin daughters” (l. 575 — by this point I was honestly surprised that Mussato missed the oppotunity to get the daughters raped before their deaths) are burnt alive (“The abominable brute rolled his head, nodding as though in mockery, to show he didn't care”, ll. 604–5), and finally the enemies hack him to death in a highly filmic way: “his head fell with a thud, and for a long time the trunk of his body stood reeling, ready to drop, until the mob tore it apart, limb from limb, throwing the pieces to greedy dogs” (ll. 612–5). You can practically see the slow-motion shot, with blood spurting from the neck and pompous music in the background.

Wow! I don't know what to say — I suppose that officially, Mussato's point in this play was that villainy and tyranny will eventually get their just punishment, and indeed the chorus in this play explicitly says something like that at the end, following the description of Alberico's death (ll. 616–29). Mussato was crowned poet laureate in Padua and “a statute was passed that the play should be recited every Christmas season to strengthen the patriotism of the citizenry” (p. xxi). Nemesis comes after hubris, like you expect in a tragedy, and so on. And I suppose that all the gruesome, over-the-top violence was meant to be cathartic.

And yet, and yet — at some point, if the violence and brutality of a story or movie or something like that rise beyond a certain level, you can't take it seriously anymore. You have to either start laughing at it, or get traumatised. I felt that Mussato crossed that line early on and never looked back. When reading this play, questions of morality and justice, crime and punishment, struck me as nothing but a flimsy pretext to enjoy some good old-fashioned gore. Reading this play felt like watching a horror movie where you munch popcorn, try to guess what will happen next, and get a thrill every time a new spurt of blood shoots across the screen. I absolutely loved it, and I couldn't help wondering if maybe that's the effect that Mussato really wanted to achieve. Or maybe I just don't have the right perspective. Perhaps the author and his contemporaries, living in a time of permanent warfare and brutality, were so accustomed to this sort of stuff that anything less than the gruesomely over-the-top violence of this play would not have made any impression on them at all. Be that as it may, it was a joy to read — an experience I have all too rarely in the ITRL series :)

Antonio Loschi: Achilles

This tragedy is a bit more conventional than the previous one, and not nearly as luridly violent. There is more dialogue, the speeches are fewer and shorter; on the other hand, much of the story is still told in long speeches by messengers and choruses (there are in fact two different choruses in this play, a Greek one and a Trojan one).

The story was inspired by the Trojan war, although it differs a bit from my usual understanding of the events. Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy, turn out to have considerably more children than I remembered. Two of their sons, Hector and Troilus, have already been killed by Achilles by the time this play begins. Another son, Paris, is still alive, and they also have two daughters, Cassandra (that's the one with the unlucky prophetic gift: she can see the future but nobody believes it) and Polyxena.

Hecuba is of course devastated by the loss of two sons and wants revenge. Fortunately, a good opportunity presents itself: Achilles has fallen in love with Polyxena and wants to marry her. In fact this would be a good way to end the war altogether, provided that Priam would pass the sceptre of Troy to Achilles after this marriage (ll. 345–6). But what Hecuba has in mind is something else: they would just pretend to accept Achilles's proposal, invite him to a temple where the wedding would supposedly take place, where the Trojans could then ambush him and kill him.

Hecuba wants Paris to lead this effort and thus avenge his brothers; he seems to think this plan somewhat dishonorable (“Betrayal doesn't fit a king”, l. 197; not that I necessarily disagree, but where were his scruples when he was eloping with another king's wife?), but eventually agrees to do it. Achilles has a few misgivings at first, but he accepts the offer and is duly slaughtered, though he puts up a good fight (ll. 657–72). I vaguely remember Achilles as being invulnerable everywhere except on his heel, but we see nothing of the sort in this play; he is a good fighter, but vulnerable like anyone else (“one breast is not proof against so many wounds”, ll. 680–1). Paris does eventually kill him with an arrow (ll. 695–6), but the play doesn't say where exactly the arrow hit him.

This leads to much jubilation in Troy (ll. 529–532); and I loved Priam's comment upon hearing of Achilles's death: “Go, my son-in-law Achilles, teach the infernal regions how to celebrate a wedding; to be sure, show your kinsman Hector your marriage bed.” (ll. 494–7). Revenge is sweet :)

Meanwhile, the Greeks are surprisingly demoralized by the news. I always imagined Agamemnon as a power-hungry wanna-be empire-builder for whom the whole business with helping his brother recover Helen was just a convenient excuse to do what he wanted to do anyway: assemble a huge army from all over Greece and conquer a good chunk of Asia Minor. Perhaps I was too much under the influence of the recent Troy movie (the one with Brad Pitt), which I liked a great deal for trying to present the Trojan war in a realistic way, with characters' behavior motivated by normal human instincts without any interference from gods and the like.

Anyway, here in Loschi's play, Agamemnon comes across as someone who was unwillingly dragged into this whole war by the duty to help his brother, and upon hearing of Achilles's death he's just about ready to quit and return home: “What gain does the land of Greece seek in this war? I came hither by the spilling of the blood of my own child [i.e. he had to sacrifice his daughter so that the Greek fleet could set sail for Troy at all]; by shedding the blood of Thetis' son [i.e. Achilles] shall I return. What reason is there for this war?” (ll. 828–30) He is however somewhat comforted when Calchas the seer foretells that Achilles's son Pyrrhus will eventually conquer Troy (ll. 856–7). The play ends with the Greeks' lamentations for Achilles.

I liked the parallel structure of this play. In some acts we are among Trojans, in some among the Greeks, seeing the events now from one side and now from the other. Each side has its own chorus and its own seer (Cassandra for the Trojans, Calchas for the Greeks). At the beginning of the play, the Trojans were demoralized and the Greeks were in high spirits, at the end of the play it's the other way around. Both sides end with a chorus which comments on how the fates of people are governed by the unstable Fortune.

One thing that bothered me about this play is how utterly alien these characters and their behavior are compared to normal people and modern times. I guess to some extent that's normal and indeed expected in a tragedy. A power-hungry, empire-building Agamemnon makes a certain amount sense to our modern minds; but the sort of Agamemnon that we see here, who assembled an army (and sacrificed his own daughter) just to help his brother get his wife back, is completely impossible. Nowadays this sort of things are handled by lawsuits and divorce proceedings, not by wars.

Likewise, there's the idea of Achilles falling in love with Polyxena. Can you imagine something like that happening today, a general of one country's army falling in love with the daughter of the enemy country's president or something like that? The closest we got to this in modern times is the late Col. Gaddafi's highly peculiar infatuation with Condoleeza Rice :)))

I couldn't help noticing that there is no clear division between good and bad characters; each of them is a mixture of good and bad traits and actions. I'm not entirely sure if I like this, though it certainly seems more realistic that way. Achilles for example is an arrogant asshole and the way he treated Hector's corpse is despicable, but on the other hand I couldn't help sympathizing with him when I saw him betrayed and killed in an unfair fight. Paris caused the war by running away with Menelaos's wife (bad); he has scruples about the whole plan of betraying Achilles's trust (good); but then he carries it out anyway (bad); but by doing so, he has revenged his two brothers (good).

I don't remember who it was that described the Iliad as ‘the greatest anti-war book of all time’. I have some doubts whether Homer intended it that way, and whether his original audience perceived it that way, but all depictions of the Trojan war tend to do that for me, and this play is no exception. What a bunch of assholes these characters are, stabbing and killing each other over some dinky bit of dried-up land somewhere on the Turkish coast. Bah.

Gregorio Correr: Procne

Greek mythology had a fondness for explaining even the most harmless natural phenomena with the most gruesome stories, and this tragedy is based on one of them. King Tereus of Thrace gets married to an Athenian princess named Procne. After a while, she begins to miss her sister Philomena, so Tereus travels to Athens in order to bring Philomena to Thrace for a visit. However, upon returning to Thrace, he lands his ship in a secluded location, rapes Philomena, kills her attendants, cuts out her tongue and locks her up in a cave. (Well, that escalated quickly.)

Tereus tells Procne that her sister fell overboard in a storm and was drowned. However, one of Philomena's servants turns out to have escaped the slaughter and he eventually makes his way to the palace, telling Procne what really happened. Procne then rescues her sister and plots a suitably grisly revenge: she kills her (and Tereus's) son Itys, cooks and roasts some of his flesh, and serves it up to Tereus. (I couldn't help being reminded of the lines from Tom Lehrer's Irish Ballad: “She cut up her baby brother in two,/ And served him up as an Irish stew,/ And invited the neighbors in!” :))) She then tells Tereus what he had just eaten, and places Itys's head on the table for bonus gruesomeness.

The play ends a bit suddenly: Tereus is suitably shocked, and seems to be planning to abdicate (“Where, where shall I flee from the sight of my citizens, unholy man that I am?” l. 1048), and in the last lines of the play he and Procne are bickering in a way that you'd expect a married couple to bicker about something much less important and rape and murder. In ancient versions of the myth, the story continues with Tereus trying to kill the two sisters, whom the gods eventually turn into birds to save them from his pursuit (Philomena into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow), and they even turn Tereus into a hoopoe, “which is crested to indicate that his head is a royal one. However, he lives on excrement as a reminder of the son he ate.” (From Correr's introduction, p. 113.)

I'm not quite sure what to make of this tragedy. On the plus side, it was definitely pleasantly gruesome, and Correr shows us at least some of this in the play itself instead of just having messengers and choruses obliquely refer to gruesome events that happened offstage, like some of the other playwrights in this book do. (Still, the details of Tereus's rape of Philomela are told by the escaped servant at the start of act IV, and Procne's murder of Itys is described by a messenger in act IV.)

But there were a few details where the characters' behavior bothered me. For example, why did Tereus keep Philomena alive and imprisoned, instead of killing her and hiding her body (e.g. throwing it into the sea)? That would greatly reduce the risk of his crime becoming known. Well, I guess that maybe he intended to return to her later and rape her again; apparently, that's exactly what he did in Ovid's version of the story (p. xxix). I'm also surprised that Tereus waited until landing before committing his crime; he should have done it while at open sea, to prevent anyone from escaping.

Similarly, I don't understand why Procne and Philomena don't make any provision for escape after taking their revenge; surely they should have assumed that Tereus would try to kill them. I can only assume that they were so mad with grief and thirst for revenge that they didn't care what happens afterwards. (As Procne said earlier: “Whoever despises death is king over a tyrant. I shall die so that he will meet his death.” ll. 673–4.)

In act III, Procne describes her planned revenge in detail to her nurse, who disapproves and tries to dissuade her by pointing out, not unreasonably, that Itys isn't really guilty of anything. It seemed to me that Procne exposed herself to an unnecessary risk here — what if the nurse had betrayed her plans to Tereus? Fortunately, she turns out to be quite loyal to Procne (ll. 787–8).

I was impressed to see that Correr was only 18 years old when he wrote this play (pp. xxix, 117). He also wrote an interesting introduction in which he described the various kinds of metre he used in different parts of the play (pp. 113–17). I was impressed by how abstrusely complex some of this stuff is. “This chorus consists of nine types of meter. [. . .] The second is the sapphic; it iscomposed of a troche in the first foot, a spondee in the second, a dactyl in the third, a choriamb in the fourth, a spondee or a trochee in the fifth foot [. . .] The third meter consists of a dactyl in the first foot, an amphimacer in the second, a fourth epitrite in the third, a pyrrhic or iamb in the fourth foot” etc. etc. (p. 115). I wonder to what extent these changes in metre really contribute to making different parts of the play feel different; sadly, none of this comes through in the translation, since this is entirely in prose.

Anyway, I guess the big question regarding his story (apart from the obvious one, namely what were the Greeks smoking to come up with this gory stuff as an explanation for the origins of some cute small harmless birds) is whether Procne was right to kill her (and Tereus's) son as a way of taking revenge upon Tereus. Nowadays, of course, our ideas of ethics are simple and straightforward. We would simply say that she was wrong in doing so, since Itys had not committed any crime. I suppose that this is probably for the best. But nevertheless it's always interesting to be reminded that this is not the only possible approach to morality, and the one that underlies the story of this play is different: it's a morality in which the ties of blood and kindship are stronger and work a bit differently than they would amongst us nowadays. As Procne points out in act III: sure, Itys is her son — but he is also Tereus's son (ll. 763–4); and sure, she is a mother — but she is also a sister (l. 774). We would simply say that Itys is an individual, guilty of no crime himself, and his relationships to other people must therefore not matter; but to the people in this play, kinship ties matter more than they do to us.

I remember another instance which shows how the ancient Greek ideas of these things differed from ours: in the Oresteia, Klytaimnestra kills her husband and is afterwards killed by their son Orestes in revenge. You might imagine that this is all fair and square, but no — furries Furies start persecuting Orestes on the basis of the fact that killing one's mother is a worse crime than killing one's husband, because the first is a relationship by blood (nowadays we'd say DNA) and the second one isn't. Though I can't help feeling that if we apply this line of thinking to the story of Procne, it shows her to have overreacted: to revenge your sister by killing your husband should be fine, but to kill your son seems excessive.

I wonder if the story of the play was not also inspired by a bit of good old fashioned xenophobia. The chief villain of this story, Tereus, is king of Thrace, a country north of Greece of which the Greeks had only vague knowledge but which they perceived as wild and barbarous (cf. p. 309, n. 14). So maybe part of the inspiration for the story was simply ‘don't marry off your daughters to those nasty, hairy barbarians from the north”.

Leonardo Dati: Hiempsal

This play is considerably shorter than the previous two, and I didn't like it much. The story is inspired by the events described in Sallust's Jugurthine War. King Micipsa of Numidia has two sons, Adherbal and Hiempsal, but doesn't seem to be overly impressed by either of them, since on his deathbed he decides to leave the kingship jointly not only to the two of them, but also to his nephew Jugurtha, who is apparently a valorous and virtuous man. The two brothers, especially Hiempsal, are of course not happy with this, and to make matters worse Jugurtha's mother was a mere concubine. This leads to various silly quarrels about who gets to sit where at the table, and to Hiempsal's slightly more serious efforts to have Jugurtha deposed, but eventually Jugurtha sends assasins to Hiempsal's quarters and, when these fail to do their job, murders Hiempsal by himself (l. 732).

I have two big complaints about this play: not much happens in it, and it overemphasizes its moral message (I think the technical term is ‘anvilicious:)). Most of the action takes place off-stage, and we just hear about it from the characters discussing those events afterwards, commenting upon them, and more often than not trying to draw some moral instruction from them; it feels as if at least half of the play was occupied by various choruses, messengers and other characters not directly involved in the action. The actual human characters of the play are nearly outnumbered by the allegorical ones: the play's speaking parts include Envy, Ambition, Modesty, Discord, and Perfidy. (Curiously, Envy changes its name and sex during the play: it's Invidia in act I but Livor afterwards; see p. 315, n. 16.)

And just to make sure you don't miss the moral of the play, Dati helpfully includes it in his introduction: “Ambition begot Envy. Envy begot Discord. Discord begot Treachery, from which follow Poverty, Thievery, and Plunder.” (P. 191.) I have to admit that some of these relationships strike me as a bit dubious :] In any case, the translator's introduction suggests that Dati's real purpose behind this play was to comment on a failed literary competition that took place in Florence the previous year; the judges in that competition awarded the prize to nobody, apparently because they were too envious of the best entries; hence, Dati decided to write a play against Envy (pp. xxxii–xxxiii).

To make matters worse, much of the moral message here is of the Stoic kind (p. 315, n. 15), which makes it blindingly obvious and completely useless due to not taking human nature into account. Sure, it would be a good idea to not let your emotions sway you too much; suppress your feelings of envy and don't act on them; etc., etc. But that's just not realistic, it's not how human nature works, and saying that it would be good if it did is simply not helpful. Don't get me wrong, I like the Stoics, I enjoyed reading Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and even the Letters to Lucilius of Seneca, that hypocritical rich old bastard. They are pleasant to read, and to nod along at their wise advice, but they are completely impractical anyway.

Besides, I don't even think that there's anything wrong with envy. I know that for some reason, many people seem to think it's bad, but I actually think it's a force for the good, and that the world would be a better place if there was a lot more envy in the world. Basically, it comes from an underlying idea that people are, or should be, in a certain fundamental sense equal, and if someone has something that you don't (but that you want), this is in a certain fundamental sense unfair, and he shouldn't have it. I agree completely with this impulse, since supporting it allows one to feel entitled to everything that other people have, without having to expend any effort for it. I just wish that it could be put into practice :P Anyway, in my opinion most of the problems in the world today come from the fact that some people are better off than others, and envy is basically the healthy and correct natural reaction to this. If the better-off people knew that the others will, due to envy, drag them back down to their own level, they would take care to only improve their lot in ways that would simultaneously improve the lot of everyone else. This would lead to a harmonious and, above all, egalitarian society, in which most property and resources would either be equally distributed, or held communally so that they do not effectively belong to anyone in particular.

Marcellino Verardi: Ferdinand Preserved

The titular Ferdinand of this play is the famous king of Spain, who ruled the country together with his wife, Queen Isabella; they are probably best known for expelling the Moors from Spain in 1492 and then becoming the patrons of Columbus's voyages. The play was written in 1493 and was inspired by an actual (and unsuccessful) assassination attempt against Ferdinand in late 1492 (p. xxxv). The motives of the would-be assassin, a certain Ruffus, seem to be unclear; judging by the translator's preface (p. xxxv), perhaps he was simply a madman without any rational motive.

This led some people at the time to suggest that Ruffus was acting under the influence of the devil; the author's uncle, Carlo Verardi (who wrote an earlier prose sketch on which this play is based; p. xxxvi), explains in a short introduction to the play that god occasionally allows the demons to tempt and harass people, though only in moderation (enough to strengthen their virtue, but not to ruin them; §3, p. 247). He argues that the fact that Ferdinand was not actually killed (or even seriously injured) supports this theory.

The play takes this theory as a starting point, but for some reason implements it not with Satan and his minions, but with their ancient Greek cousins. Thus in the first act, we see Pluto, ruler of the underworld, talking to the Furies and telling them to do something to stop Ferdinand, whose virtuous conduct and successful warfare are becoming a serious threat to Pluto's sphere of interest.

To make the weird cultural mix even weirder, Pluto seems to consider himself as a champion of islam; he talks about how “broad Africa [. . .] Asia [. . .] and a great part of Europe” belonged to him (ll. 42–4), and his hatred against Ferdinand seems thus to be mainly motivated by Ferdinand's recent successful expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Pluto is worried that Ferdinand would not stop there and would conquer other muslim territories as well (ll. 49–50), surely an unlikely prospect.

One of the Furies then approaches Ruffus, who is portrayed as an aggressive madman looking for someone or something to kill, and suggests to him to try killing Ferdinand. Ruffus gladly takes up the idea, and seems to imagine that he'll be able to rule Spain after Ferdinand is gone (ll. 268–70). But surely that is completely unrealistic; I doubt that Ferdinand was so unpopular that his assassin could then command the loyalty of the rest of the population. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate that Ruffus really isn't quite right in the head. In any case, I felt that the question of Ruffus's motivation isn't really explored adequately in this play. Instead of having him as simply a lunatic, he is now a lunatic that has been manipulated by daemoniac influences, which isn't really a much better explanation.

The actual assassination attempt occurs somewhere between the second and third act of the play, so we don't get to actually see it. In the third and final act, the queen has heard about the incident and is suitably worried about her husband's safety, and then Ferdinand himself shows up alive and well, saying that the assassin's attempt was blocked by the power of god, or perhaps of St. James (patron saint of Spain). A bit of discussion follows, which revisits previously mentioned themes: god allows that sort of thing to probe the virtue of his followers; the assassin was a madman with no rational basis for his action; etc.

Here in act 3, we see a few references to Ferdinand's up-coming empire in Asia (ll. 412, 469). I wonder if that's a reference to Columbus's discoveries; this play was probably written around the time when he was returning from his first voyage to America, when he and most other people must have been the impression that he had discovered some sort of islands off the east coast of Asia, and Ferdinand presumably expected to expand his dominion into Asia from there. But admittedly, Ferdinand also talks of the conquest of Africa (ll. 413, 468), so perhaps the idea was simply to push through the Mediterranean into the near East and beyond.

This play is the shortest one in this volume, and probably the least to my liking. My main complaint is that not much happens in it; the only bit of action happens offstage — the assassination attempt between acts 2 and 3; each character has so little text that we hardly get to know them as a personality in their own right; the behavior of various characters is poorly motivated; and the jumble of cultural and religious references is a bigger mess than usual (Pluto as a supporter of islam, wtf :P).

I guess that one interesting thing about this play is its happy ending; in this it differs from the other tragedies in this volume, and in fact the translator's introduction (p. xxxvii) refers to it as a tragi-comedy (it deals with serious things like a tragedy, but has a happy end like a comedy), one of the first of its kind.

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