Anon. (1596)

Historical Records

Performance Records

Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 14 (Greg I.27):

ye 16 of Jenewary 1595
. . . . . . . . . . . ne . . Rd at pethageros . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . iij li j s

Fol. 14v (Greg I.28):

ye 23 of Jenewary 1595 Rd at pethagorus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxxvj s
ye 28 of Jenewary 1595 Rd at pethagoros . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxx s
ye 9 of Febreary 1595 ——————— Rd at pethagores . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xx s
ye 15 of Febreary 1595
Rd at pethagores . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxxv s
ye 23 of Febreary 1595 shroft tewsday Rd at pethagores . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxxiiij s

Fol. 15v (Greg I.30):

ye 21 of aprell 1596 Rd at pethagorus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xviij s
ye 4 of maye 1596 Rd at pethagorus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xx s
ye 22 of maye 1596 ——— mr pd ——— Rd at pethagoros . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxvij s

Fol. 21v (Greg I.42):

ye 31 of maye whittsen mvnday . . . . . . . . Rd at pethagores . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . iij li
ye 15 of June 1596 Rd at pethagores . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxiij s
ye 1[3]4 of July 1596 Rd at pethagores . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxij s

NB. On July 1st, 1596 Henslowe entered the takings from a new play. It appears that he began to write pethagores, but crossed it out and wrote "paradox" instead:

Fol. 21v (Greg 1.42)

ye 1 of Ju[n]ley 1596 . . . . . . . . . . ne . . . . . . Rd at <peth> paradox . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxxxvs


Purchase of playbooks from Martin Slater in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 45v (Greg 1.86)

Lente vnto the company the 16 of maye 1598 to bye }
v boocks of martine slather called ij partes of hercolus }
& focas & pethagores & alyxander & lodicke wch laste } vijli
boock he hath not yet delyuerd the some of . . . . . . . . . . . }


Philip Henslowe's papers in the Dulwich College Library

List of playbooks

Another reference to this lost play occurs in an inventory of Admiral's men's plays made by Henslowe. Dulwich Library lent the inventory papers to Edmond Malone, whose transcriptions were published in 1790; subsequently, the originals were lost. Malone's transcriptions are here reprinted as by Greg, Papers (APX. I, art. i, p. 121, col. 2, l. 190).

Heading: "A note of all suche bookes as belong to the Stocke, and such as I have bought since the 3rd of March 1598"

Theatrical Provenance

Marked "ne," the play was performed by the Admiral's men at the Rose on 16 January 1595[6].

Probable Genre(s)

Since the play presumably centers on the Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, it could perhaps fall under the category of Classical History. Harbage offers the tentative suggestion "Classical Biography(?)". Pythagoras, however, was a magnet for colorful legends and apocryphal tales and his earliest biographies did not appear until several centuries after his death. So the label “Classical Biography” may give a misleading impression of historical accuracy. On the possibility Pythagoras could have been a "magus" play, see the "For What It's Worth" section below.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Most educated Elizabethans would have been familiar with Pythagoras from his lengthy oration in Book 15 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was one of the most popular sourcebooks for Renaissance dramatists.

Heere dwelt a man of Samos Ile, who for the hate he had
To Lordlynesse and Tyranny, though unconstreyned was glad
To make himself a bannisht man.

Ovid’s account, however, is rather skimpy in terms of biographical detail. He mentions Pythagoras’s quarrel with the tyrant Polycrates, his subsequent exile and settlement in Croton, and his (historically impossible) advising of King Numa. Perhaps these could have furnished a crude outline for the narrative. But the bulk of the speech is a redaction of key tenets of Pythagoras’s moral and natural philosophy: vegetarianism, the transmigration of the soul (metempsychosis), the nature of the four elements, and mutability (the paradox of constant change). Philosophy lectures do not, as a rule, make for gripping drama on stage. So Ovid may merely have imparted a basic knowledge of Pythagorean doctrine, which the playwright(s) could have spun out into any number of conceivable plots.

The comic dialogues of the Roman satirist Lucian could also have inspired the author(s) of the lost play. In “Philosophies for Sale,” Zeus and Hermes auction off philosophers—including Pythagoras—in a parody of an Athenian slave-market. Lucian’s works were available in Latin in Elizabethan London; Marlowe’s celebrated line about Helen of Troy’s face is thought to be a paraphrase of a macabre query in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead.

Although a few terse anecdotes about Pythagoras and his followers appear in scattered sources such as Plato and Herodotus, much of our knowledge of this enigmatic sage derives from the third-century CE biographies of Diogenes Laertius, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. A Latin translation of Diogenes Laertitus’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers was published in Geneva in 1570 and reissued in 1585. A parallel Greek-Latin version of Iamblichus’ biography appeared in Paris 1598 (two years after the lost play first appeared in Henslowe's Diary).

Perhaps the most detailed vita of Pythagoras in Elizabethan English is the entry in Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae tam accurate congestus (1578), a popular reference work in Tudor England.

A man of excellent witte, borne in an yle called Samos, which countrey being subdued by the tyranne of Polycrates, he forsooke and went into Aegipt and Babilonia, to learne mysticall sciences, and afterwarde came into Italy, where he continued the rest of his lyfe. Hee was the first that named himself Philosopher, where before men of great learning were called wyse men: and bycause he woulde eschewe the note of arrogancie, when one demaunded of hyme what hee was, hee sayde, Philosophus, whiche signifyeth a louer of wysedome. He was in sharpnesse of wit passing al other and found the subtile conclusions and misteries of Arithmetike, Musike, and Geometrie. Plato wondreth at his wisedome: his doctrine was diuine and compendious: the which he teachynge to other[s], enioyned them to keepe silence fiue years, and heare him diligentlye, ere they demaunded of him any question. He neuer would do sacrifice with any bloud, he woulde eate nothing that had lyfe, and lyued in a marueylous abstinence, and continence, and was in such authortie among hys disciples, that when in disputation they maintained their opinion, if on demaunded of them, why it should bee as they spake, they would aunswere onely, Ipse dixit, he sayde so, meaning Pythagoras: which aunswere was reputed as sufficient, as if it had been prooued with an ineuitable reason: so much in estimation was he for his approoued truth an incomparable learning. He was noted to be expert in magyke and therefore it is written of him, that nigh to the citie of Tarentum, he behlde an Oxe byting the toppes of beanes there growing, and treading them down with his feete: wherefore he bade the heardman to aduise his Oxe that he should absteyne from graine: the heardman laughing at him, sayde, that he neuer learned to speake as an Oxe: but thou (sayde he) that seemest to haue experience therin, take myne office upon thee. Foorthwith Pythagoras went to the Oxe, and laying his mouth to his eare, whistered somewhat of his Arte. A marueylous thing, the Oxe, as if he had beene taught left eating of the corne, nor neuer after touched any: but many yeares after mildely walked in the citie, and tooke his meate onely of them that woulde gyue it him. Many lyke wonderfull things are written of him. Finally his disciples, for their wysedome and temperance, were always had in great estimation. He was before the incarnation of Christ. 522 yeares. (sig.O7.Ii r-v)

The most accessible biography of Pythagoras, however, would be that found in William Baldwin's Treatise of Moral Philosophy: Contayning the Sayings of the Wise. The book includes over two dozen sayings of Pythagoras, as well as a three-page vita chronicling some of his most famous deeds and proverbs: his travels abroad, his discovery of music, his coining the word "philosopher," his analogy between a philosopher and a spectator at a public games, his scorning of riches and meat, and his sect's idealization of friendship. First published in 1547, Baldwin's book went through six editions prior to 1595, and a seventh appeared in 1596 - the year the Pythagoras play premiered.

References to the Play

Except for the cumulative records in Henslowe's diary and inventory, there appears to be no other documentation of the play, "Pythagoras."

Critical Commentary

Malone attributes the play to Martin Slaughter (p. 298); Collier repeats the claim (p. 63), as does Fleay, BCED (2.305 #178). Greg II names Slaughter as the seller of the play on 16 May 1598 but not as its author (p. 178 #85).

Robert B. Sharpe, like Fleay, BCED one of few theater historians to bring lost plays into the conversation, does advance some unsubstantiated conjectures about the influence of those plays. "Pythagoras," he contends, "seems to have had a considerable influence on the thought of the times, through a discussion of the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis” (p. 89). While metempsychosis was rather infamous prior to 1596, it is possible the lost play may have contributed to its notoriety and circulation on the stage.

In Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature, Todd Borlik speculates about the nature of the lost play:

Though the legends surrounding the philosopher would offer some irresistible comic material (perhaps involving beans and talking oxen), if it was not a straight-forward satire like Aristophanes’ Clouds, it may have presented Pythagoras as a learned, yet dangerous sage in the tradition of other Elizabethan conjuror plays (Doctor Faustus, Friar Bacon) in the company’s repertoire. (p. 33)

Based on the fact that "Pythagoras" was one of the play-books in the possession of Martin Slater, Grace Ioppolo proposes him as a candidate for the author: “it is possible, although not known as an author, Slater wrote or collaborated in the writing of plays” (p. 196).

Borlik 2016

Robert Stretter, drawing on Borlik's work, places the play in the context of the Admiral's 1590s repertory, which featured multiple plays (both extant and lost) celebrating male friendship, their "well-known stories all suggest[ing] a nostalgia for a lost age of 'true' friendship defined by loyalty, sacrifice, and a prioritization of homosocial values" (p. 343). Stretter argues that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing offer "a critique of the kind of triumphalist male friendship that appears in the legends of friends such as Alexander and Lodowick, stories in which the needs of the male friends take priority over wives, children, and sometimes even traditional notions of truth and morality" (p. 332).

For What It's Worth

Given that the Admiral’s Men opted to purchase the playbook from Martin Slater on 16 May 1598, and it was kept in inventory, it is possible that the play was revived sometime after that date.

Contemporary allusions that associate Pythagoras with magic

It is noteworthy that "Pythagoras" entered the repertory of the Admiral's men at a time (January 1596) when the company featured a number of conjuror-and-devil plays (and in the midst of a successful run of "The Wise Man of West Chester"). "Pythagoras" might have been another such magus play.

1. References to Pythagoras occur in Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590) and Thomas Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament (c. 1593). Pythagoras himself actually appears on stage in Lyly’s Endymion (c.1591)—in which he retracts his heretical teachings and defers to the wisdom of Cynthia, a stand-in for Queen Elizabeth. Cumulatively, these allusions all associate Pythagoras with occult magic, raising the odds the lost play would have trafficked in magical spectacle.

2. Famously, in Doctor Faustus the eponymous conjuror wishes his soul could transmigrate into an animal’s body rather than suffer eternal damnation. Given the popularity of Marlowe’s play in the Admiral’s repertory, it is possible that this moment in Faustus supplied an impetus for the lost play.

3. Thomas Lodge composed The Devil Conjured (1596), which attributes similar ideas about the body to the philosopher: “Pythagoras seeing one of his followers pampering his flesh, and affecting belly chear, why (Saith he) art thou about to build a prison for thy self?” (B3r).

4. Another work that may have contributed to his popular reputation as a necromancer is A brefe and pleasaunte worke and science of the phelosopher Pictagoras (c. 1560?). Based on their astrological sign, readers choose from a selection of pre-set questions about their future health and fortune. They then pick a number between one and twelve. The corresponding answers are supplied by one of 36 "judges" in the back of the book. The names of these judges have a diabolical ring: several of them appear in Johan Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum. While the title-page claims that this system of divination is "taken and gethered out of ye sayde Pictagoras worke," this is patently false, as none of the philosopher's writing survive. Nevertheless, this text would have buttressed Baldwin's claim that Pythagoras was "well skilled in necromancy" (24).

Contemporary allusions to the philosopher by Shakespeare

1. The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) makes one explicit mention of Pythagoras:
Thou almost mak'st me wauer in my faith,
to hold opinion with Pythagoras,
that soules of Animalls infuse themselues
into the trunks of men  :(4.1; Internet Shakespeare Editions TLN 1963-66)

It contains three additional references to Pythagorean teachings. First, in the opening scene Antonio compares the world to “a stage where euery man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (1.1; Internet Shakespeare Editions TLN 83-84). These lines rehash a well-known Pythagorean maxim, quoted in the extant Elizabethan play, Damon and Pithias, by Richard Edwards (Q1571):

Pythagoras said this world was like a stage
Whereon many play their parts. (7.71-72)

Second, Gratiano’s subsequent mockery of the taciturn philosopher, “Sir Oracle” (1.1; Internet Shakespeare Editions TLN 91), who tries to gain a reputation for wisdom by sparing-ness of speech likely spoofs Pythagoras and the vow of silence he imposed upon his pupils.

Third, Shakespeare pays tribute to one of Pythagoras’s most notorious doctrines in Lorenzo’s celebrated speech on the music of the spheres:

there's not the smallest orbe which thou beholdst
but in his motion like an Angell sings,
still quiring to the young eyde Cherubins;
such harmonie is in immortall soules,
but whilst this muddy vesture of decay
dooth grosly close it in, we cannot heare it (5.1; Internet Shakespeare Editions TLN 2392-97)

Scholars have commented on the Pythagorean underpinnings of this speech (Heninger, Ferguson), but have failed to remark that it was composed at a time when a play entitled "Pythagoras" was in performance at the Rose. It thus seems possible that the lost play aired the philosopher’s theory on the harmony of the spheres.

2. As You Like It

Shakespeare makes another overt allusion to the Greek sage in As You Like It when Rosalind cracks wise about her prior life as a rat in “Pythagoras' time” (3.2.161; Internet Shakespeare Editions TLN 1373). Earlier in the play, Celia cites the Pythagorean adage that friendship makes two into one, while the Duke references the Pythagorean belief in the music of the spheres. The cerebral Jaques in particular exhibits Pythagorean tendencies: he denounces the hunt and equates it with political tyranny, just as the Greek sage denounced blood-sport and meat-eating and defied the tyrant Polycrates. Like Pythagoras, he wilfully seeks solitude, he praises silence, and his most famous line—“All the world’s a stage”—is a twist on the same Pythagorean maxim cited above.

3. Twelfth Night

Yet another Shakespearean allusion to Pythagoras occurs in Twelfth Night when Feste quizzes Malvolio on “the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl” (4.2; Internet Shakespeare Editions TLN 2036).

Some other Pythagoras?

One other possible analogue must also be mentioned. In his History of Rome, Livy tells of a heroic Spartan captain named Pythagoras who defends the town of Argos against a Roman siege. Given the rash of jokes about metempsychosis in Elizabethan drama after 1596 (see above), however, it seems far more likely that the lost play dealt with the exploits of the notorious Greek philosopher rather than an obscure Spartan soldier.

Works Cited

Borlik, Todd A. Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Borlik, Todd A. "Unheard Harmonies: The Merchant of Venice and the Lost Play of 'Pythagoras'." Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 29 (2016): 191–221.
Ioppolo, Grace. Dramatists and Their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Heywood. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Sharpe, Robert Boies. The Real War of the Theaters: Shakespeare's Fellows in Rivalry with the Admiral's Men 1594-1603. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1935.
Stretter, Robert. "Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Lost Friendship Plays of the Admiral's Men." Comparative Drama 55 (2021): 331–54.

Site created and maintained by Todd A. Borlik, Bloomsburg University; updated 27 September 2013.