King Xerxes

Anon. (1575)

Historical Records

Accounts of the Office of the Revels

The accounts of the Office of the Revels record various expenses disbursed in the preparation of the performance of "King Xerxes" and its aftermath. Payments were made for Thomas Blagrave's two trips to peruse and reform the play; for armor lent from the armorer Roger Tindall; for wax for a cake; for a wig to be worn by Xerxes' sister; for a canvas fringe to decorate the set; and for the transportation of three loads of materials to Blackfriars after the play was performed.

Thomas Blagrave esquier for mony by him disburced
vpon sundry occazions concerning this Office and Thaffares
thereof as foloweth         videlicet
26o Novembris. 1574
Iorneyeng charges    Horshyer and charges by the waye at Wynsor
stayeng there ij dayes in November iiij
daies for pervzing & Reformyng of ffarantes
playe &c. xlijs vjd
.5o. Decembris 1574
Horsehyer to hampton Coorte to conferr with
my Lord Chamberlayne the Lord Haward, &
Mr Knevett vpon certayne devices & to pervze
ffarantes playe there againe iij daies the charges
wherof with horsemeate at kingston is xxvijs viijd
6o Ianvarij
Hier of Armour To Roger Tyndall tharmerer for Lending of Armor for
ffarrantes playe and for attending the same xjs. iiijd.
Wexchaundler Wax for A Cake in ffarrantes playe iijs vjd.
Edward Buggyn gentleman clerkcomptrowler of Thoffice
for mony by him disburced videlicet
xjo. Ianvarij.
for A periwigg of Heare for king xerxces syster
in ffarrantes playe iiijs. viijd.
for Cariage of iij Lode of stuf (for the playe &c. on
twelfe Nighte) to the watersyde at the Blackfryers iijs.
.jo. ffebruarij .1574.
neccessaries for ij ells of Canvas to make frenge for the players
howse in farrantes play xxd

(The National Archives, AO 3/907/4, ff. 9r–10r, 12r; qtd. Feuillerat 238-40, 244)

Declared Accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber

To Richard Farrūnte mr of the children of the chapell of wyndsor vppon the counselles warr' dated at Hampton cowrte xxijj Ianurij 1574 by way of her mates reward for prsentinge a play before her matie vpon Twelvth night then last paste the some of... xiijli vjs viijd
(The National Archives, E 351/541, f. 178v; qtd. 'MSC VI, 9)

Theatrical Provenance

Performed on 6 January 1575 by the Children of Windsor before the Queen at Hampton Court.

Probable Genre(s)

Classical History (?) (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The narrative of the play probably revolved around the Persian invasion of Greece, their occupation of Athens, and their ultimate defeat in the naval battle at Salamis, as recounted in Herodotus' Histories. As Wiggins observes, the wax cake acquired for the performance seems likely to have been used to dramatize an episode in which the Athenians decide to evacuate Attica to flee the approaching Persians:

it is said by the Athenians that a great snake lives in their temple, to guard the acropolis; in proof whereof they do ever duly set out a honey-cake as a monthly offering for it; this cake had ever before been consumed, but was now left untouched. When the priestess made that known, the Athenians were the readier to leave their city, deeming their goddess, too, to have deserted the acropolis. (Herodotus 8.41)

If the climax of the play was the Battle of Salamis, one major role was almost certainly the Athenian general Themistocles, who leads the Greek forces the victory.

Less clear is what role would have been played by "king xerxces syster." Wiggins (121) proposes that the episode may have come from Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotecha historica (11.57) that takes place several years after the victory at Salamis and the retreat of the Persians from Greece, when Themistocles' political rivals organize to have him ostracized from Athens. After fleeing to Argos, and then Epirus, Themistocles eventually ends up in Persia at the court of Xerxes. While the Persian king pledges not to punish the Athenian, Xerxes' sister Mandanê pleads with him to avenge the death of her sons at Salamis by having Themistocles killed. Despite the king's initial refusal, Mandanê incites a mob to demand punishment and Xerxes agrees to convene a jury of noble Persians to decide Themistocles' fate. At the trial, Themistocles defends himself in Persian and is acquitted. Xerxes celebrates by marrying him to a virtuous and beautiful Persian woman.

An alternative candidate for Xerxes' sister proposed by Wiggins comes from a separate episode in Herodotus (9.108-13), in which Xerxes falls in love with his sister-in-law, the wife of his brother Masistes. She refuses him and his affections shift towards her daughter Artaÿnte. Xerxes' own wife, Amestris, discovers the affair and jealously assumes the culpability of Masistes's wife, upon whom she exacts revenge by mutilating her.

Of the two candidates, Wiggins prefers the former, which would "have given Richard Farrant an opportunity to have written a woman's song of lament for her dead menfolk, which seems to have been a speciality of his: both of his surviving dramatic songs ["Alas, you salt-sea gods" for "The Tragedy of Panthea" and "Come, tread the paths of pensive pangs" for "The Tragedy of Gismond"] are on the same theme" (121).

Another distinct candidate for Xerxes' sister (unmentioned by Wiggins) could be Artozostre, the daughter of Darius (thus, sister to Xerxes) who is married to the Persian commander Mardonius (Herodotus 6.43). Mardonius is a key advisor to Xerxes—he is "ever with the king and had more influence with him than any Persian" (7.5)—and is instrumental in convincing him to attack the Athenians. After the Persian defeat at Salamis, Mardonius leads the sack of Athens; he is eventually killed in battle at Plataea (9.64). Perhaps the death of Mardonius could have occasioned a lament by his widow, Xerxes' sister.

References to the Play

None known. (Content welcome.)

Critical Commentary

Wallace (124) assumes that the play was authored by Farrant, describing its tragic theme "well suited to such serious-mindedness of the man as exhibited in his rolling anthems."

Arkwright (129), notes that one of Farrant's extant songs, "O Jove, from the stately throne," refers to a character named "Altages"; assuming that this was intended to be a Persian name, he speculates that the song may have been written for "King Xerxes."

Wiggins (121-22) offers a narrative reconstruction of the play (see Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues above). He also proposes that the "Marrynels whissell," which appears in the Revels accounts unconnected to a specific play (Feuillerat 236), might well have been used in the production of "King Xerxes." On the subject of Thomas Blagrave's "perusal" of the play, he suggests that Blagrave either read the play or saw it performed, and that in his second trip he may have been aided by Thomas Knyvet.

Streitberger (122n) argues, contra Wiggins, that there is "no evidence for the speculation […] that Knyvet assisted Blagrave in reforming" the play. Rather, given "Knyvet's connection to the storehouse at Westminster, he was probably consulting on material for the revels."

For What It's Worth

Farrant's song "O Jove, from stately throne" is found in the consort song part-books, British Library, Add MS 17786-17791. The text of the song reads:

O Joue from stately throne
   Cast downe thine heavenly eye,
And search the secrets of my hart
   Accused wrongfully.
Aye mee, if you in heaven
    Regard the faithfull wight,
Defend O God my righteous cause
   And bringe the truth to light.
[Alas, alas,] Alas to just request
   You gratious graunt, ah yeald
That my Altages may perceave
   How truth my hart doth shild. ("Early Elizabethan," 32)

Works Cited

Arkwright, G.E.P. "Elizabethan Choirboy Plays and Their Music." Proceedings of the Musical Association 40 (1913-14): 117-38.
Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Trans. C. H. Oldfather. 12 Vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946.
"Early Elizabethan Stage Music." The Musical Antiquary 1 (1910): 30-40.
Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Trans. A. D. Godley. 4 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.
Streitberger, W.R. The Masters of the Revels and Elizabeth I's Court Theatre. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016.
Wallace, Charles William. The Evolution of the English Drama Up to Shakespeare. Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1912.
Wiggins, Martin, in association with Catherine Richardson. British Drama, 1533–1642: A Catalogue. Volume II, 1567–1589. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.

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