Anon. (1591)

Historical Records

Disbursements of Christ Church, Oxford

25 December 1590 to 25 March 1591.

To the Bachilers when they played octavia           xx s.

[Marginal note:]
Expenses in
comoediis &

(Oxford, Christ Church Archives, xii.b.33, f. 28v; qtd. REED: Oxford, 1:213)

As Elliott and Nelson note, "This entry was also written on f. 91 and cancelled" (REED: Oxford, 2:1109).

Theatrical Provenance

Performed 1590-91 by students of Christ Church, Oxford.

Probable Genre(s)

Latin (?) Play (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Perhaps the most likely source for the play performed at Christ Church was Octavia, the Latin tragedy included in the Senecan canon. In the play, Octavia is unhappily married to the tyrannical Nero, whose injustices and affair with Poppaea have pushed the Roman people to the threshold of revolt. Exhorted by his tutor Seneca to change his course, Nero is unpersuaded and resolves to divorce Octavia. A riotous protest ensues, and the furious Nero responds by ordering that Rome be burned and Octavia, whom he assumes to have been an instigator of the riot, exiled and executed. The play ends with Octavia resigning herself to death.

Octavia was widely available in editions of Seneca's tragedies; Thomas Nuce's English translation was first published in 1566 and again in the collected edition of Seneca His Tenne Tragedies in 1581. (Modern scholars no longer attribute the play to Seneca himself, not least on the grounds that he appears as a character in the play.) It may be that the Oxford students simply offered a performance of the Senecan play in Latin, perhaps with verses added as when Seneca's Hippolytus was staged at Christ Church (on 8 February 15920) with Latin additions by William Gager (Panniculus Hippolyto Assutus).

Another candidate for the eponymous heroine could be the sister of Augustus. Samuel Brandon's The Tragicomedy of the Virtuous Octavia (published in 1598) depicts her tortured marriage to Mark Antony, his affair with Cleopatra, and his eventual suicide following the defeat at Actium. A self-declared "tragicomedy," the play ends with Octavia's determination to face her misfortune stoically: "Griefe is enchain'd with griefe, and woe with woe, / Yet must I beare it with a patient minde" (sig. F5r).

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Boas categorizes "Octavia," "probably the pseudo-Senecan play," among the "more formal theatrical productions" that took place at Oxford "due to the humanist revival" (196). He notes that the students "received, as recorded in the Christ Church accounts for 1590-1, the sum of 20 shillings, doubtless to defray the necessary expenses." (In a separate chart, Boas dates the play, apparently mistakenly, to 1588 [389].)

Norland states that the play "was very likely the classical Latin play ascribed to Seneca," noting also that "Seneca's Hippolytus with additions by William Gager was performed at Oxford in 1591/2" (47).

For What It's Worth

(Content welcome.)

Works Cited

Boas, Frederick S. University Drama in the Tudor Age. Oxford: Clarendon, 1914.
Brandon, Samuel. The Tragicomoedi of the vertuous Octauia. London, 1598. STC 3544.
Norland, Howard B. Neoclassical Tragedy in Elizabethan England. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2009.
Heywood, Jasper, et al., trans. Seneca His Tenne Tragedies. London, 1581. STC 22221.
Nuce, Thomas, trans. The ninth Tragedie of Lucius Anneus Seneca called Octauia. London, 1566. STC 22229.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 6 November 2016.