Ajax Flagellifer (Oxford)

Anon. (1605)

Historical Records

Cambridge University Library MS. Add. 34

(Narratives by Cambridge Men)

Under the heading---

"The preparacion at Oxford in August 1605, against the comminge
thither of king Iames with the quene and Younge Prince, together with
the thinges then and there done, and the maner thereof./"

---is an account of the play by Philip Stringer, visiting from Cambridge:

f 37* (28 August)

...The same daye after supper about 9. of the Clock they began to act the
Tragedye of Aiax flagellifer, wherein their stage varried 3. times, they had all
goodlie anticke apparrell, but for all that yt was not acted soe well by many
degrees as I have seene yt in Cambridge, the kinge was verye weary before
he came thither, but much more wearied by that, and spake manye wordes
of dislike/
REED Oxford 1.299

Theatrical Provenance

Performed at Christ Church, Oxford, 28 August 1605 by players from Magdalen College, for a royal visitation.

Probable Genre(s)

Latin Tragedy

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Sir Isaac Wake's account of the play in Wake, Rex Platonicus (1607) STC: 24939

In REED Oxford 2 (Appendix 6.2), Elliot and Nelson observe: "Not apparently a translation from Sophocles, but an independent play. This was probably a different play from the Ajax Flagellifer performed at Cambridge in 1564" (825).

Their evidence for this assertion is Sir Isaac Wake's 1607 account of the play, which the REED editors translate (from Latin) as follows:

pp 78-9 (28 August)

The name of the play, which young men chosen from the whole University performed, (was) Ajax Flagellifer: although the title was borrowed from Sophocles, still (the play) was as different in matter as in expression. The choice of its argument was made not only because it provided, with a splendid and stately variety of representations, abundant delight for such great spectators, but because the matter also seemed to be very appropriate for both courtly and academic ears and minds. For that celebrated dispute over the arms of dead Achilles is represented. Ajax claimed those arms as a reward for military prowess, but Ulysses obtained (them) as the deserts of (his) wisdom and learned eloquence. The conquered soldier fills the stage and all (its) round with (his) furious bellow; he calls upon the Furies; he curses gods and men; he breathes nothing but threats and vengeance. But wrath indeed (is) vain without strength, and strength (is vain) without prudence; and a ferocity, which the cultivation of letters and learning does not temper, results in (its) possessor's destruction. After the madman's various wicked deeds, after he had slaughtered a flock of sheep instead of the Greek leaders and had scourged a large ram savagely in the place of Ulysses, he, when finally restored to (his own) mind, kills himself, more insane (now) than when (he was) insane. Tecmessa most piteously mourns the death of her lord, but the shade of Hector, which completely undetectable to Ajax provided the function of the chorus, rejoices. It is not easy to say with how marvellous a variety all these things fed both the eyes and the ears, all the more so because, on account of the variety of the matter, the whole fabric of the stage and the artful apparatus of the embroidered hangings were renewed again and again to the amazement of all. Where just now you had gazed on the living image of Troy and the Trojan shore, soon afterward you would see woods and deserts, horrific caves and the dwellings of the Furies, and while these were immediately vanishing, (you would see) unexpectedly the very agreeable appearance of tents and of ships.

Oxford 2.1022-23

Dramatis Personae

From Wake's account it is therefore possible to conclude that the play contained at least:

Hector's ghost, as Chorus

References to the Play

See above.

Critical Commentary

Stephen Orgel suggests that periaktoi were deployed at the Oxford entertainments of August 1605, when the lost plays Alba (Robert Burton) and Ajax Flagellifer, and the extant Vertumnus (Matthew Gwinne) and The Queen’s Arcadia (Samuel Daniel), were performed for a royal visitation:

For these classical texts [Inigo] Jones created what he understood to be a classical stage, with periaktoi and other scenic machines, so that (a spectator records) “not only for separate performances given on different days, but for a single play, new settings of the entire stage were made to appear with a diversity and suddenness that astonished everyone.” … Jones used his periaktoi to create a realistic Italian setting for the tragedy [Ajax Flagellifer] and an emblematic Elizabethan one for the comedy [Vertumnus]. What was similar about them was the really crucial innovation, the use of perspective for both. (376-77)

Orgel's claim appears to be contradicted by Sir Isaac Wake's testimony (above) in which Wake states that it was "the embroidered hangings", not periaktoi, which "were renewed again and again to the amazement of all."

For What It's Worth

"Flagellifer" literally = "lash bearer" (REED Oxford 2.1190)

Works Cited

Orgel, Stephen. "The Poetics of Spectacle." New Literary History 2 (1971): 367-89. Print.

Site created by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated 07 April 2010.