King Robert of Sicily
(NB: This title is editorial, but is used by Harbage and other reference sources).
Diary of the English College at St Omer’s
The ‘’Diary’’ records that on 19 June 1623 the College staged a play on the subject of superbi Imperatoris qui verba illa (deposuit potentes) ex Sacris Litteris audaciore animo deleverat casum [the fall of the arrogant Emperor who recklessly deleted the words 'he has humbled the mighty' from the Scriptures]. (McCabe, 84-5)
Performed by the students at the Jesuit College at St Omer’s
Comedy (but Bentley, JCS 5.1175 thinks it a tragedy)
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The story of Robert of Sicily.
This is a story which exists in many versions, typified by the very popular medieval English poem Robert of Cisyle. In this tale, a proud king goes to church and during the service unwisely declares that he is so powerful that nothing can remove him from his throne. He promptly falls asleep, and awakes to find the church deserted, with his own appearance transformed into that of a beggar. Robert rushes out of the church and is treated, by all of his courtiers, as a madman. No-one will believe his protestations that he is the true ruler of everyone he meets, since, as becomes apparent, a stranger has taken on Robert’s own form and supplanted him as king without anyone noticing the difference. Robert attempts to gain entrance to his throne room; scuffles with his own porter; and comes face to face with his double, who is in fact an angel in disguise.
Robert is taken from the court in disgrace, still unrecognized. He is forced to wear the garb of a fool, imprisoned, and given an ape for a counsellor, who is dressed in the same clothing as him. Still he refuses to relinquish his claim that he is the real king. After many humiliations, Robert finds that he is indeed tolerated only as a fool at the court of the new king. For three years the stranger rules Sicily with great success. Finally, Robert of Sicily has a religious conversion; realizes that he is indeed a mere fool measured against God; and accepts his new role as a fool. When he tells the impostor this, the impostor reveals that he is really an angel. He at once returns to Heaven, and Robert finds that he is once again recognized by those around him as the King of Sicily.
References to the Play
The play is untitled in the original diary record. It sounds, at first glance, as if it might be a tragedy of some description, and indeed Bentley calls it "Unnamed Tragedy" on that basis. But the incident described seems so specific that subsequent critics have been confident in identifying it with the story of Robert of Sicily, in which case its genre is surely comic.
Most critics have had no hesitation in identifying this play, based on its description, as telling a version of that story. The story of Robert of Sicily was popular throughout Europe and throughout the early modern period. The large family of retellings of it are studied by Hornstein; and by Steggle, who enumerates thirteen extant versions of the story from early modern Continental Europe, four non-dramatic and nine dramatic. McCabe (84-5) suggests that the play used at St Omer’s might have been one of these, Sapor Admonitus by the Jesuit Louis Cellot, but Cellot's is about the one version it cannot be: Cellot’s innovation is to move the story out of Christendom, and his pagan protagonist has no obvious dealings with copies of the Scriptures. Instead, this sounds much more like the group of versions described by Hornstein, and linked to France, in which the arrogant king specifically orders that the verses about ‘’deposuit potentes’’ be removed from his copy of the bible. The author is generally, and reasonably, conjectured to have been Joseph Simons, teacher at St. Omer's, who wrote much of the other drama performed at St Omer’s in this time frame. Some of Simons’s drama is extant: see McCabe, and also the edition of his play Vitus at the Philological Museum: http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/vitus/intro.html
For What It's Worth
There are also numerous lost retellings of the story of Robert of Sicily in English drama. These include plays performed at Lincoln in 1452-3; plays at Chester in 1529 and 1563. (See Steggle, 139). It was also, possibly, the subject of the lost play The Angel King, licensed by Sir Henry Herbert for the Palsgrave’s Men in 1624.
Page created by Matthew Steggle, University of Bristol, 7 November 2019.