Friday, April 16, 2010

Those pistol-packing Romans: Richards' "Messalina", 1640

Some work by one of my postgraduate students led me to read Nathaneal Richards’s The tragedy of Messallina the Roman emperesse, 1640. The passage in the page image above is the most rewarding moment. Our author ushers his text to the press with an array of dedicatory poems complimenting him on successfully writing such a chaste and inoffensive play about such an unchaste woman. Throughout his text, the author supplies footnote quotations, often for the naughtier moments of his play, deploying pieces of choice Latinity as a fig-leaf for his own inevitable sensationalism. So, the empress’s context with a prostitute as to who can take on most men in a night features in the play (Messalina winning her bet with a total of 25, to the disgust of the bawd Veneria, whose contestant Calphurnia has lost her 10,000 sesterces), and it gets its substantiating quotation from Pliny.

But here Richards manages in a single opening to quote Tacitus (bottom right), and yet have his Roman empress enter with a pistol to threaten Silius (top left). The situation is that Silius opened the play as a virtuous-minded man (he was even reading a book, not itself an entirely Roman moment ). However, as soon as he sees Messalina, he succumbs. She is forcing him to kill his wife:

Silius kneels.
Desist faire beauties abstract, I implore;
Spur me not on to murders horrid act
Which I shall ever rue; let it suffice,
I’m only yours, never Syllana’s more;
Sworn a perpetual exile from her bed.
Exit Messalina.
Vanished so soon, how wondrous strange seems this?

Enter Messallina with a Pistol.

Death and destruction satisfy my will
Or take’t in thy bosom, I’m intemperate
Briefly resolve.
But I protract delay, there’s danger in’t;
Video meliora, proboque, deteriora Sequor.
Never was man so infinitely
Bewitcht; charm’d, and inchanted as is Caius
Silius, to leave a constant wife; farewell,
We must part…

The Latin tag is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Richards has his pistol-toting Romans occasionally given to using a bit of Latin. The effect is disconcerting:

What saies our Roman phrase,
Si non letaris vivens laetabere nanquam?

Of course, hunting out anachronisms in a 16th-17th century play is always easy (Richard’s Romans also play tennis). These dramatists did not worry about such things. But a pistol is so egregious an error, in an age which considered the printing press and gunpowder to be two great inventions that distinguished their time from the past, that I wondered what led Richards so far.


My first thought was that he was being deliberately anachronistic, to trigger the audience into seeing his play in contemporary terms. I thought of Richard Brathwait’s verse attack on Frances Howard, Countess of Essex:


‘Upon our Ages Messalina, insatiat Madona, the matchless English Corombona’

Here lies Lust,
Revenge, Defame.
Woe to man, to woman shame;
Faire and false, as great as ill,
Weake in Grace, but strong in Will.
Honours blemish, Hymens stayne,
Virtues poyson, Beauties baine,
Albions -Siren, tyrant-woman,
Faith-infringer, true to no man;
Femall-Divell, plots-contriver,
Worths-tormenter, lifes depriver;
Tragick actor, blood effuser,
Times corrupter, States-abuser;
Brothel-Turner, virgin-Trader,
Husband-hater, Lusts-perswader;
Ages-monster, youths-deflourer …

- there’s plenty more of this outpouring; it appeared in his The honest ghost (1658). Was a Messalina play always going to be a Frances Howard play in Roman dress? The play forcing the audience, at pistol-point, to see the depravity of the present in that of the past?


But reading the play shows what the form is: Richards was a highly derivative writer. His work contains many moments of plagiary; half-quotation, half-imitation:

‘The thanks 'mong Princes of ignoble brain / That shines like rotten wood…’ uses a famous line from Ralegh’s anti-court poem, ‘The Lie’.

An asseveration about having your ‘eye-balls to drop out’ rather than see something unwelcome is Tourneur’s Damville: “Drop out mine eye-balls, and let envious Fortune play at tennis with’em”. “A drab, /  Of state, a cloth of Silver slut” is a direct lift from The Revenger’s Tragedy, where Vindice gets indignant about Castiza his sister might become ‘The duke’s son’s great Concubine: / A drab of State, a cloth a’silver slut, / To have her train borne up, and her soul trail i'th dirt.”

Richards’ Messalina threatens Silius with a pistol because Richards was thinking only of the scene in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi when Julia enters to court Bosola at pistol-point. Julia charges Bosola with having put a love-potion in her drink: it is almost as if Richards wants us to be as attuned as him to Webster, as he barely explains that Silius is also dosed with a love potion, and so loses his head.

The ‘drab of state’ phrase also appears in Richards’ commendatory verse to Women beware Women:

‘UPON The Tragedy of My Familiar Acquaintance, THO. MIDDLETON.

Women beware Women”! 'tis a true Text
Never to be forgot: Drabs of State vext,
Have Plots, Poisons, Mischeifs that seldom miss,
To murther Virtue with a venom kiss.
Witness this worthy Tragedy, exprest
By him that well deserv’d among the best
Of Poets in his time: He knew the rage,
Madness of Women crossed; and for the Stage
Fitted their humors, Hell-bred Malice, Strife
Acted in State, presented to the life.
I that have seen’t, can say, having just cause,
Never came Tragedy off with more applause. 

Richards commends Middleton for having written such a rattling good anti-feminist play, accurately capturing the immorality of great women. His own play follows the model, and incorporates the same sentiment:


Weake mindes of men they are, fit to be fool’d,
Slighted, add scorn’d, whose dull ignorance
Knowes not that women in their height of ill,
Who barres them their delight, delight to kill.


Adam Roberts said...

OED suggests that 'pistolet' and its diminutives was originally applied to small daggers, and thence to small firearms. But its citations aren't much use in terms of rescuing Richards from gross anachronism.

DrRoy said...

Well, I can see 'pistolese' for a short sword or dagger, named from the town where they were made, Pistoia, but that's in some 1566 travels, with a note in the margin to explain what it is. Hard, as you imply, to get away from Richards having messed up. (Unless he meant Messalina to threaten him with 'a small bread roll, originally from Belgium'?)