Queen of Ethiopia, The?

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Anon. (1578)

Historical Records

Listed in the Bristol Mayor's audits (31 August-6 September):

"Item paid to my lord Charles haward players at the end of their play before master mayer and the Aldermen in the yeld hall their matter was of the Queen of Ethiopia' (REED: Bristol, 116)

Note that the reference is to the "matter" of the play and not necessarily the title. (See also the entry in REED PP.)

Theatrical Provenance

Howard's at Bristol. If this was one of the plays seen (and disliked) by Stephen Gosson (see sources below), then it would likely have made its way to one of the theaters in London, perhaps the Theater, where Gosson's own plays were reportedly performed.

Probable Genre(s)

Heroical Romance.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Much about this play can be learned from its possible sources. Wiggins (183) cautiously speculates that this play might be identified with Chariclea of Ethiopia (and the subject of "Chariclea" (1572)), although he concludes that there is "no knowing" the exact source or this play's association with an earlier play. If this play adapted the story of Chariclea, then the plot would have been drawn from Heliodorus.

Additional evidence, though, allows for a stronger argument that this play was in fact based on the story of Chariclea. The translated versions of Heliodorus's history of Theagenes and Chariclea would have been well known in London during the time of this production. In Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), Stephen Gosson mentions an 'Aethiopian History' as one of the books "ransackt to furnish the Play houses in London" (D6v). Gosson was almost certainly referring to Heliodorus's An Aethiopian History, translated from a Greek text by Thomas Underdowne and printed around 1569 (STC (2nd ed.), 13041). This edition was reprinted in 1577 (STC (2nd ed.), 13042), just before the admittedly obscure record of the possible performance of The Queen of Ethiopia.

The story of the Queen of Ethiopia was also translated from the French by James Sandford in 1567, a supplement to a translation entitled The Amorous and Tragicall Tales of Plutarch (STC (2nd ed.), 20072).

This evidence strengthens the narrative connection of this play to the lost play entitled "Chariclea" in 1572.

The romance is the story of Chariclea, the daughter of King Hydaspes and Queen Persinna of Ethiopia, who was born white because her mother gazed upon a painting of Andromeda while Chariclea was being conceived. This happened just after the queen was rescued by Perseus. The queen fears being accused of adultery. So Persinna leaves the baby Chariclea in the care of Sisimithras, who takes the baby to Egypt and in turn leaves her in the care of a Pythian priest.

Chariclea is later taken to Delphi, and made a priestess of Artemis. When Theagenes the Thessalian comes to Delphi, the two fall in love. Theagenes runs off with Chariclea with the help of Calasiris, an Egyptian employed by Queen Persinna to find Chariclea. Theagenes and Chariclea go through a number of trials, having encounters with pirates and thieves. The plot culminates with Chariclea taken and offered as a sacrifice to the gods by her own father. But her birth is made known, and Chariclea and Theagenes are married.

References to the Play

Stephen Gosson in 1582 lists an 'Aethiopian History', the probable source text for this play, as one of the books "ransackt to furnish the Play houses in London". The passage reads,

I may boldely say it, because I haue
seene it, that the Palace of pleasure,
the Golden Asse, the AEthiopian hi-
∣storie, Amadis of Fraunce, the
Rounde table, baudie Comedies in
Latine, French, Italian, and Spanish,
haue beene throughly ransackt, to fur-
∣nish the Playe houses in London. (D6v).

Critical Commentary

See Wiggins, sn 625.

The London Shakespeare society reprinted a 1577 anti-theatrical sermon by John Northbrooke in 1843. Northbrooke's work is entitled (somewhat famously for those who study religious diatribes against plays during this period) 'A treatise against dicing, dancing, plays, and interludes. With other idle pastimes.' In the critical introduction to this work, reportedly written by John Payne Collier, it is noted that Northbrooke did not have to make it as far as London to be disturbed by the idle pastime of playgoing. It is pointed out that Bristol was 'much frequented by different companies of players' during this period (viii). The excerpts involving Howard's company and the Ethiopian themed play are here printed to show Northbrooke's attitudes toward the theatre may have arisen from a provincial locale. This seems to be the first time the Bristol Mayor's account was drawn upon as evidence for this play. Here it is speculated that the content was historical and romantic rather than a morality play, thus perhaps part of a trend in the provinces toward accepting entertainments that drew the ire of certain types of churchmen.

Sibley picked up on this connection several times in Lost Plays and Masques, and also points out that Fleay identifies this play with the story of Chariclea (250).

For What It's Worth

It is worth noting that popular interest in Ethiopia and Africa in general may have been escalated by the publication of The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies (1577, STC (2nd ed.), 13041), This is Richard Willes' completed version of Richard Eden's translations of travel writing that began in 1553 and over the following years included the writings of Sebastian Münster, Pietro Martire Anghiera's, and Martín Cortés.

Also this play, if it indeed is about a queen of Ethiopia, would fall within the scope of Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan's work on representations of Sub-Saharan Africans during the early modern period. There is of course a possible connection here with Shakespeare's Othello.

Works Cited

Fleay, BCED. Internet Archive
Gosson, Stephen. Plays Confuted in Five Actions (London: Thomas Gossson, 1582). EEBO-TCP (text only). STC (2nd ed.), 12095.
Harbage, Annals.
Heliodorus, of Emesa. An Aethiopian History. trans. Thomas Underdowne (London: Frauncis Coldocke, 1569, rpt. 1577). EEBO-TPC (1577 edition, text only). (2nd ed.), 13042.
Sandford, James. The Amorous and Tragicall Tales of Plutarch (London: Leonard Maylard, 1567). EEBO-TCP. STC (2nd ed.), 20072.
Sibley, Gertrude Marian. The Lost Plays and Masques: 1500-1642 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1933). Internet Archive.
Vaughan, Alden and Virginia Mason. 'Before Othello: Elizabethan Representations of Sub-Saharan Africans.' The William and Mary Quarterly, 54.1 (Jan., 1997), 19-44. JSTOR.
Wiggins, Volume II .

Site created and maintained by Thomas Dabbs, Aoyama Gakuin University; updated 27 February, 2017.