Alexander and Bagoas

Anon. (1582)

Historical Records

Laurence Humphrey’s Ash Wednesday Sermon

Laurence Humphrey’s Ash Wednesday Sermon (De Fermento Vitando), 1582, reproduced in Elliott and Nelson, REED Oxford I.178.

John Finnis and Patrick H. Martin provide an English translation to accompany the Latin:

Quod etiam in illis vestries fabulis vidisse & animadvertisse vos arbitror: in quibus Amoris flamma sic apparuit & erupit, ut non amor sed amaror, non fervor sed furor esse videretur. An non meministis Euclionem sic ollam suam [marginal note: Fabulae in col: D. Ioannis, Christi, M. Magd.], Antonium sic Cleopatram, Alexandrum sic Bagoam suum Eunuchum, Philarchum sic Phaedram suam, Meleagrum suam Atalantam, & Menechmum Plautinum meretricem Erotium, Oedipum etiam matrem Iocastam, Iulium Caesarem sic imperium deamasse, ut regni causa iusiurandum imo omne ius violandum censeat?

[And I think you will have seen and noted this in the plays of yours I mentioned: there Love’s fire was so manifest, so uncontrolled, as to seem not love but bitterness, not fervor but madness. Don’t you remember Euclio like this about his pot [of gold], [marginal note: Plays in St John’s, Christ Church, Magdalen colleges] Antony like this about his Cleopatra, Alexander about his eunuch Bagoas, Philarchus about his Phaedra, Meleager about his Atalanta, Plautus’s Menechmus about the harlot Erotes, and Oedipus even about his mother, Jocasta; and Julius Caesar so in love with power that for the sake of it he thought he could violate oaths and any other kind of right?]

(Finnis and Martin 392)

Theatrical Provenance

Played at Oxford as part of a series of entertainments performed at St John's (a comedy and two tragedies on Sunday 18, Monday 19, and Tuesday 20 February 1582), Christ Church (a comedy and three tragedies) and Magdalen (musical activity) (the Christ Church and Magdalen performances occurred in the following week of February 1582) (see Finnis and Martin 393; see also Boas 161).

Probable Genre(s)

Latin, Historical (?)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

"The Life of Alexander the Great" in North's Plutarch relates one of the more famous anecdotes about the two men:

It is said, that one day whē he had dronke hard, he went to see the games for daunsing: & amongst thē, the games which a yong man called Bagoas had set forth, (with whō Alexander fel in liking) & bare the bel. This Bagoas being in his daunsing gar|mēts, came through the Theater, & sat him downe by Alexander. The MACEDONIANS were so glad of it, that they showted & clapped their hands for ioy, crying out alowde, to kisse him: So that in fine he toke him in his armes, & kissed him, before them all. (758)

Book 10 of The history of Quintus Curcius relates the incident in which Alexander, accompanied by Bagoas, opens the tomb of Cyrus in the expectation of buried riches:

It chaūsed yt Alexāder caused Cyrus tombe wherin his body was buried to be opened, pretēding to vse certaine [c]eremonies for ye dead. But thinking in very dede yt his tombe had bene full of golde and siluer, wherof ther was a constant fame amonges the Percians.

But when it was vyewed there was not thyng found but a rotten target, two Scythian bowes and asword. Alexander therefore caused the Coffyn wherein Cyrus body was laid, to be couered wyth the garment he was accustomed to weare, and set therupon a crowne of golde, meruailinge that ther was no more sumptuousnes vsed in buryall of such a kyng, endued wyth so great riches, that laie there, but after the commen sort of men. When this thing was done Bagoas stode next vnto Alexander, who behyld him in the face and sayed: what maruail is it though the sepulchres of kinges be emptie, when lordes houses be not hable to receyue the goulde they haue taken out from thence. For my parte I neuer sawe this tombe before, but I haue hard Darius reporte, that there were .iii.M. talentes buried with Eirus. (Therof (qd he) proceded Orcynes liberalitie, in wynning your fauour by ye gift of the thinges, which he knewe he could not keape. When he had thus sturred vp Alexanders wrathe against Orcynes, he presented them whō he had suborned to accuse him. By whose reporte and by Bagoas surmised tales, Alexander was so encensed againste Orcynes, that he was put in pryson, before he coulde suspect that he was accused. The Enuke was not contented with the destruccion of this Innocent man, but at his death, laied violent hands vpon him. Vnto whō Orcines saide: I haue hard that women in times past haue reigned, & borne great rule in Asia, but it is nowe a more straung thing, ye agelding should haue thimpire in hys handes. (Fols.207-08)

Bagoas has here schemed to set Alexander against Orcynes; this manipulation, coupled with Orcynes' comment about the strangeness of a gelding having the empire in his hands, suggests that the source material could yield a play which emphasised issues of political rule and authority as much as personal issues pertaining to Alexander's famed relationship.

References to the Play

Only Humphrey's sermon, REED Oxford I.178.

Critical Commentary

Frederick Boas noted that seven plays were performed at Oxford in February 1582 but could only identify Meleager and Caesar Interfectus (160-63). It was Finnis and Martin who identify the remaining plays (including Alexander and Bagoas) from Humphrey's previously neglected sermon, which subsequently appeared (with an English translation) in Nelson's REED volume.

See also Wiggins serial number 720.

For What It's Worth

Interestingly, from the point of view of the relationship between University plays and the London commercial theatre, Finnis and Martin note that "Of these nine plays staged at Oxford in the first two months of 1582, Shakespeare would subsequently make substantial use of central themes of at least four of them (Menechmi in The Comedy of Errors, Supposes in The Taming of the Shrew, Caesar Interfectus in Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra)..." (393).

The Stately Tragedy of the Great Cham also has a Bagoas or "Bagous" character, but because that play only exists in a MS fragment, it is not possible to gauge the extent of that Bagous's role.

Works Cited

Boas, Frederick S. University Drama in the Tudor Age. Oxford: OUP, 1914; rpt. Arno Press, Inc., 1978.

Curtius Rufus, Quintus. The history of Quintus Curcius conteyning the actes of the greate Alexander translated out of Latine into Englishe by Iohn Brende. Jmprinted at London : By Rycharde Tottell, 1553.

Finnis, John and Patrick H. Martin, “An Oxford Play Festival in February 1582,” Notes & Queries 50:4 (December 2003), 391-94.

Humphrey, Laurence. "Ash Wednesday Sermon" (1582), qtd. in Elliott and Nelson, REED Oxford I.177ff.

Plutarch, The lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes compared together by that graue learned philosopher and historiographer, Plutarke of Chæronea ; translated out of Greeke into French by Iames Amyot ... ; and out of French into Englishe, by Thomas North. Imprinted at London : By Thomas Vautroullier and Iohn VVight, 1579.

Site created by David McInnis, updated 11 Nov 2010.