Catiline's Conspiracy (Catiline)

Robert Wilson and Henry Chettle (1598)

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 49v (Greg I.94)

Lent mr willsone the 21 of aguste 1598 in <e> }
earnest of a Boocke called cattelyne some of } xs

Lent vnto harey cheattell the 26 of aguste }
1598 in earneste of a Boocke called } vs
cattelanes consperesey the some of }

Lent vnto mr willsone the 29 of aguste }
1598 at the Request of hary cheattell in } xs
earneste of cattelyne the some of }

Theatrical Provenance

There is no evidence of performance (as is the case with "Hannibal and Hermes" and "Conan, Prince of Cornwall"), but "it remains overwhemingly likely" that the play was staged by the Lord Admiral's Men at the Rose in 1598 (Wiggins, 1137). However, Wiggins also adds that "we cannot rule out the possibility that, in a year of heavy surplus in his play purchasing, Henslowe might have had some other purpose in mind for the plays" (ibid.).

Probable Genre(s)

Classical history (Harbage); tragedy ([[WorksCited|Wiggins, Catalogue #1145).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Lucius Sergius Catiline (108–62 BCE) was a Roman senator. The historical tradition, mostly hostile, presents him as a decayed and ambitious patrician possessed of the qualities and flaws of a gang leader, who had exhibited his ferocity since the beginning of his political career both during Sulla’s proscriptions of 82 BCE and as propraetorian governor of the province of Africa in 68–67 BCE. He presented himself as a candidate for the consular elections in 66 BCE, but the Senate rejected his candidacy following an appeal of a delegation from Africa indicting Catiline for abuses. Some historians contend that Catiline took part in the so-called “First Catilinarian Conspiracy”, a failed plot to murder the consuls in 65 BCE, but the claim is now widely disputed. Catiline ran again for consulship in 64 and 63 BCE but was defeated both times. This is when he decided to resort to violence and organize a conspiracy aimed to seize power by means of an insurrection in Rome backed up on the outside by an army raised in the Italian peninsula. Among Catiline’s accomplices were a few of Sulla’s veterans, discontented and indebted patricians, and adventurers who hoped to profit from a political upheaval. The seditious plan was exposed in a series of orations in the Senate by Cicero, who had won the consular elections against Catiline. Catiline was then forced to leave Rome, and joined the army of his lieutenant Gaius Manlius in Etruria, while pretending to go into exile in Massilia. However, his accomplices were discovered in Rome through the betrayal of the co-conspirator Quintus Curius and the ambassadors of the Gallic tribe of the Allobroges. Against the advice of Julius Caesar, who was inclined to impose some lesser penalty, they were sentenced to death and immediately executed. Catiline was finally defeated and killed in Pistoia in 62 BCE, after fighting courageously against the Roman army led by Petreius.

The main sources for this lost play are likely to have been Sallust's De coniuratione Catilinae and Cicero's In Catilinam. However, Sallust's text had not been translated into English yet in 1598 (the first English translation by Thomas Heywood was only published in 1608). The only English version available to Wilson and Chettle would have been The Conspiracie of Lucius Catiline, translated into Englishe by Thomas Paynell; worthy, profitable, and pleasaunt to be red (London, in officina T. Bertheleti, 1541), a translation of Costanzo Felici's Historia Coniurations Catilinariae, published in Latin in 1518. Felici's account was reprinted in The conspiracie of Catiline, written by Constancius Felicius Durantinus, translated by T. Paynell, with the historye of Jugurth, writen by the famous Romaine Salust, and translated into Englyshe by A Barcklaye (London, John Waley, 1557), thereby essentially replacing Sallust's account of the conspiracy. We know that Ben Jonson drew heavily on (the Latin original of) Felici's work for his 1611 Catiline His Conspiracy (see Duffy; Bolton, Gardner; Lovascio); consequently, it is legitimate to conceive that Wilson and Chettle may have resorted to Felici's Historia too. Interestingly, as Wiggins, Catalogue (1145) notes, the Admiral's Men also produced "Jugurtha, King of Numidia" only two years later.

References to the Play

None known; information welcome.

Critical Commentary

Collier suggested the play may have been a rewrite of (what may have been) an earlier play on Catiline by Wilson, defined as "Shorte and sweete" (EEBO-TCP, open access) in an anonymous text (subsequently attributed to Thomas Lodge) defending plays, written in response to Stephen Gosson’s antitheatrical School of Abuse (1579) (see the entry for "Short and Sweet" for a fuller discussion):

it has been stated that Robert Wilson, as early as 1580, was author of a dramatic performance on the subject of the life of Catiline. A history, named by Henslowe Catalin's Conspiracie, is entered by him with the date of August, 1598, and it is there attributed to Wilson and Chettle. The probability is, that at this time, Wilson (who must have been senior to his coadjutor) and Chettle had employed themselves in reviving a play, then nearly twenty years old. (Collier, HEDP 3.93)

Knutson categorizes "Pierce of Exton" among the titles in Henslowe's diary without evidence of having been completed (p. 162).

Rutter maintains that the piece "was evidently abandoned" and never completed, but there is no conclusive evidence about it (p. 148).

Feldmann and Tetzeli von Rosador (329) point out that this play, together with "Caesar and Pompey, Parts 1 and 2" and "Caesar's Fall", would have made up "a Caesarean project of some magnitude, showing Caesar in the round" (see also the entry for "Caesar's Fall").

For What It's Worth

The conjecture that in this play Wilson was recycling material and ideas from his earlier dramatic attempt at Catiline's conspiracy (namely, "Short and Sweet") is consistent both with the low sum paid by Henslowe to Wilson and Chettle (25s; which may suggest additions/revisions rather than a completely new play), and with the fact that the first payment was made to Wilson alone. However, it is important to stress that there is no explicit evidence that these were indeed alterations to the older play and that there is nothing in Wilson's dramatic history suggesting that he used to rework old plays into new ones.

As far as the possible sources are concerned, if Wilson and Chettle did indeed draw on Felici's account of the conspiracy, one may even wonder whether Jonson was following their example in his Catiline, especially because Jonson and Chettle were collaborating on "Hot Anger Soon Cold" in the very same period when the latter was working with Wilson on "Catiline's Conspiracy" (August 1598).

Works Cited

Protogenes can know Apelles by his line though he se him not, and wise men can consider by the penn the aucthoritie of the writer thoughe they know him not.. London : Printed by H. Singleton?, 1579. (STC (2nd ed.), 16663); EEBO-TCP, open access)
Bolton, Whitney French, and Jane Fisher Gardner. "Jonson’s Classical Sources." Catiline by Ben Jonson. London: Arnold, 1972. 176-193.
Collier, J. Payne. The History of English Dramatic Poetry to the Time of Shakespeare: and Annals of the Stage to the Restoration. London: John Murray, 1831. Internet Archive
Duffy, Ellen M.T. "Ben Jonson’s Debt to Renaissance Scholarship." Modern Language Review 42 (1947): 24-30.
Feldmann, Doris, and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador. "Lost Plays: A Brief Account." Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007. 328-333.
Knutson, Roslyn L. “The Commercial Significance of the Payments for Playtexts in Henslowe’s Diary, 1597-1603.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 6 (1991): 117-63.
Lovascio, Domenico. "Jonson’s Catiline: A Few Unrecorded Borrowings from Felici’s Historia Coniurationis Catilinariae." Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 278-282.
Rutter, Carol Chillington. Documents of the Rose Playhouse. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 04 July 2015.