Sebastian, King of Portugal

Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle (1601)

Historical Records


For playbooks in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 86v (Greg, I.136)
Lent vnto Jubey the 18 of aprell 1601 to lend }
vnto Thomas deckers & harey chettell in earneste } xxs
of a Boocke called kinge sebastiane of portingalle }
the some of . . . . . . . }

Fol. 87r (Greg, I.137)
Lent vnto the company the 16 of maye 1601 to paye }
vnto Thomas deckers & harye chettell in parte of } xxxxs
payment of a playe called kynge sebastion }
of portingall the some of . . . }

pd at the a poyntment of E Alleyn the 22 of may }
1601 vnto Thomas deckers in fulle payment of } iijli
a boocke called kynge sebastian of portyngall the }
the some of . . . }

Theatrical Provenance

The play was purchased by Admiral's Men in 1601, presumably for performance at the Fortune.

Probable Genre(s)

Foreign History (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Sebastian, King of Portugal, had appeared as a character in Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1594), which dramatized his assistance of the deposed Muly Mahamet to regain the throne of Barbary in exchange for the crown of Morocco. Peele's play depicted the death of Sebastian during the eponymous 1578 battle, and his body is carried on stage during the final scene. However, in 1601, the subject of Sebastian had become newly topical after a man in Venice claimed to be the supposed-dead king, returning to regain control of Portgual, which had fallen under Spanish power. The news was first published in England with a book titled "Strange newes of the Retourne of Don SEBASTIAN Kinge of Portugall," which was entered in the Stationers' Register on 1 February 1599 (Arber 3:137). While the 1599 book does not survive, another book published in early 1601 does: The Strangest Adventure that Ever Happened: Either in the ages passed or present. Containing a discourse concerning the successe of the King of Portugall Dom Sebastian, from the time of his voyage into Affricke, when he was lost in the battell against the infidels, in the yeare 1578. vnto the sixt of Ianuary this present 1601. Based on a Spanish original, the English translation was the work of the dramatist Anthony Munday, and given Munday's connections to the theatre and collaborations with Chettle in particular, it is likely that this was the source for the 1601 play (Wiggins, Catalogue #1284). (A ballad on the same subject, entered on 12 April 1601, suggests the broad interest in the story.)

The Strangest Adventure is a compilation of documentary sources relating to the appearance of the possible Sebastian, who had been held prisoner in Venice. The book opens with a letter written by the Venetian Giovanni Capugnano encouraging King Henry IV of France to believe in the claims of this purported Sebastian and to intercede his behalf. The most substantial portion of the book is an account of what happened to Sebastian from the battle of Alcazar to the present, written by the Dominican friar José Teixeira. According to Teixeira, Sebastian was defeated in battle and fled to the mountains of Barbary. It was the Castilian King Philip, to assist the Spanish conquest of Portugal, who arranged for the body of a Swiss soldier to be buried as if it were Sebastian's, "thrusting a dead man into the mouthes of the Portuguezes who iustified their king to be liuing" and "deceiv[ing] others who knowing litle or nothing herein, might the better be emboldened in following his course" (C3r). The real Sebastian, as Don Juan de Casto attested, lived in a private hermitage before being being inspired by God to return to claim his throne in Portugal (G1v). Arriving in Sicily in 1598, he hired a number of servants and, at Messina, boarded a ship bound for Rome, where he intended to make his case before the Pope. However, his servants robbed him, and he changed his course for Venice. As Doctor Sampayo picks up the story:

But so soone as he arriued here in this city (where he hoped to find good fauor and support) immediatly the Embassadour of Castile persecuted him most cruelly: perswading the Seigneurie, that he was a Calabrois, a theefe, &c. For this cause the Lords imprisoned him, and rigorously proceeded against him… (F3r)

Sebastian is interrogated by the Signoria, maintaining his claim to be the true King of Portugal. After a term of imprisonment, the Signoria releases him on the condition that he leave Venice, a solution to appease the Spanish (I3r). The newly freed yet vulnerable Sebastian addresses an assembly of Portuguese expatriates, asking them for news of his friends and country. A written account of the identifying physical marks of the king's body has been sent from Portugal: while the Portuguese in Venice refuse Sebastian's offer to shed his clothes, they all witness the uneven hand size, pimples on his face and hands, and battle scars that all testify to his identity (L1v). Teixeira's last piece of news is that Sebastian is traveling to Florence.

References to the Play

(Information welcome.)

Critical Commentary

Fleay (BCED, 1:127), Greg (Greg II, 217), Hunt (49n), and Wiggins (Catalogue, #1284) all suggest The Strangest Adventure as the probable basis of the play.

Since Philip Massinger wrote a play of his own (c. 1630) about on the reappearance of Sebastian, Edwards and Gibson (3:294) propose that Dekker and Chettle's play may have served as a source. (The subject of the play was prohibited by Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, on 11 January 1631, and Massinger adapted the story to a different historical context as Believe as You List, which was licensed in May of that year.)

For What It's Worth

Lockey (26) notes that Teixeira's account, which "combines fantastical elements with other elements that have a realistic and even legalistic quality to them," resembles "contemporary romance narrative." In particular, the identification of Sebastian by physical marks on his body recalls "that signature romance trope—the identifying birth mark."

Hopkins (97–117) notes that in both Twelfth Night and The Tempest a character named Antonio is accompanied by a character named Sebastian, an onomastic connection possibly suggested by King Sebastian's cousin and putative heir, Dom Antonio (1531—1595), whose claim to the Portuguese throne was published in English in 1585 (STC 689). That Sebastian of Twelfth Night (performed around the time of Dekker and Chettle's play) is miraculously discovered to be alive after his presumed death may suggest a resonance with the narratives of the Portuguese king.

Wiggins, discussing Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (#811), suggests that both plays were apparently in the Admiral's Men's repertory in 1601 and that Peele's play may have been revised for this revival so that Sebastian's body was not shown on stage as it is in the 1594 quarto.

Works Cited

Edwards, Philip, and Colin Gibson, eds. The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
Hopkins, Lisa. Drama and the Succession to the Crown, 1561–1633. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011/2016.
Hunt, Mary Leland. Thomas Dekker: A Study. New York: Columbia UP, 1911.
Lockey, Brian C. "Elizabethan Cosmopolitan: Captain Thomas Stukeley in the Court of Dom Sebastian." ELR 40 (2010): 3–32.
Teixeira, José. The Strangest Adventure that Ever Happened: Either in the ages passed or present. Containing a discourse concerning the successe of the King of Portugall Dom Sebastian, from the time of his voyage into Affricke, when he was lost in the battell against the infidels, in the yeare 1578. vnto the sixt of Ianuary this present 1601. London, 1601. STC 23864.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 12 May 2021.