Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary
A single record of performance survives in Henslowe’s accounts for early 1592 (new style):
Fol. 7 (Greg I, 13)
Rd at senobia the 9 of marche 1591 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxijs vjd
The play was acted by Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
Zenobia was a third-century queen of the desert city of Palmyra in Syria. A number of ancient and medieval sources (c.f. Scriptores Historiae Augustae; Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus) relate the true and embelleshed details of her rise and eventual fall at the hands of the Romans in 272 A.D.
Elizabethan playwrights had ready access to her story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. “The Monk’s Tale” prominently features “Cenobia” in its catalogue of de casibus tragedies, characterizing her as a fiercely independent noblewoman who delights in masculine bloodsports:
- Cenobia, of Palymerie queene,
- As writen Persiens of hir noblesse,
- So worthy was in armes and so keene
- That no wight passed hire in hardynesse,
- Ne in lynage, ne in oother gentilesse.
- Of kynges bloode of Perce is she descended.
- I seye nat that she hadde moost fairnesse,
- But of hir shape she myghte nat be amended.
- From hire childhede I fynde that she fledde
- Office of wommen, and to wode she wente,
- And many a wilde hertes blood she shedde,
- With arwes brode that she to hem sente.
- She was so swift that she anon hem hente;
- And whan that she was elder, she wolde kille
- Leouns, leopardes, and beres al torente,
- And in hir armes weelde hem at hir wille.
- She dorste wilde beestes dennes seeke,
- And rennen in the montaignes al the nyght,
- And slepen under a bussh, and she koude eke
- Wrastlen, by verray force and verray myght,
- With any yong man, were he never so wight.
- There myghte no thyng in hir armes stonde.
- She kepte hir maydenhod from every wight;
- To no man deigned hire for to be bonde. (The Canterbury Tales l. 2247-2270)
The same poem identifies her as luxurious and intellectually ambitious:
- Hir riche array ne myghte nat be told,
- As wel in vessel as in hire clothyng.
- She was al clad in perree and in gold,
- And eek she lafte noght, for noon huntyng,
- To have of sondry tonges ful knowyng,
- Whan that she leyser hadde; and for to entende
- To lerne bookes was al hir likyng,
- How she in vertu myghte hir lyfe dispende. (The Canterbury Tales l. 2303-2310)
When her husband Odenathus dies, Zenobia embarks on a series of Tamburlaine-like military conquests which greatly expand the Palmyrene empire. Her encroachment on Roman territories in Alexandria and Antioch however finally provoke a catastrophic response by the Emperor Aurelian:
- Aurelian, whan that the governaunce
- Of Rome cam into his handes tweye,
- He shoop upon this queene to doon vengeaunce.
- And with his legions he tooke his weye
- Toward Cenobie, and shortly for to saye,
- He made hir flee, and atte laste hire hente,
- And fettered hire, and eke hir children tweye,
- And wan the land, and home to Rome he wente.
- Amonges other thynges he wan,
- Hir chaar, that was with gold wroght and perree,
- This great Romayn, this Aurelian,
- Hath with hym lad, for that men sholde it see.
- Biforen his triumphe walketh shee,
- With gilte cheynes on hir nekke hangynge.
- Coroned was she, after hir degree,
- And ful of perree charged hir clothynge.
- Allas, Fortune! She that whilom was
- Dredeful to kynges and to emperoures,
- Now gaureth al the peple on hire, allas!
- And she that bar the ceptre ful of floures
- Shal bere a distaf, hire cost for to quyte. (:The Canterbury Tales l. 2351-2374)
The novella “Zenobia Queene of Palmyres” in William Painter’s second volume of The Palace of Pleasure (sig. Aaiii-Bbiiijv) provides another likely source for the lost play. In Painter’s account, Zenobia is “one of the most famous Women of the worlde,” a paragon who “hadde the heart of Alexander the great, she possessed the riches of Croesus, the diligence of Pyrrhus, the trauell of Haniball, the warie foresight of Marcellus, & the iustice of Traiane (sig. Aaiiij-Aaiiijv).
Painter emphasizes the murder of Zenobia’s husband by a boar-spear and the widow’s subsequent protection and expansion of their “Orient Empire.” The queen diligently acquires equestrian skill, dons armour, surrounds herself with an armed guard, and personally takes to the battle field:
- The Captains of hir Armie neuer gaue battell or made assault, they neuer skyrmished or did other enterprise of warre, but she was present in hir owne person, and attempted to shewe hir selfe more hardie than any of all the troupe, a thing almost incredible in that weake and feble kynde. The sayde noble Queene was of stature bigge and well proporcioned, hir eyes black and quicke, hir forehedde large, hir stomake and breastes fayre & vpright, hir face white and ruddy, a litle mouth, hir teeth so white, as they semed like a rancke of white pearles, but aboue all things she was of such excellent spirit and corage, as she was feared for hir stoutnesse, & beloued for hir beautie. (Bbiv-Bbij)
As in Chaucer’s version, Painter’s account emphasizes Zenobia’s final humiliation in a spectacular triumphal pageant:
- … the Emperour Aurelianus retourned to Rome carying wyth hym Zenobia not to doe hir to death, but to tryumphe ouer hir. At what tyme to see that noble Ladie goe on foote, and marche before the triumphing Chariot barefoted, charged wyth yt burden of heauie chau[n]e, and hir two children by hir side: truly it made the Roman Matrons to conceiue great pitie, being well knowen to all the Romanes, that neither in valorous dedes, nor yet in vertue or chastitie, any ma[n] or woman of hir time did excel hir. (sig. Bbiiij-Bbiiijv)
References to the Play
None are known.
Malone did not comment on "Zenobia" (p. 290), nor did Collier (p. 23). Uncharacteristically, neither did Fleay, BCED (2.298 # 108). Greg II confirmed the absence of previous scholarly commentary by stating that "[n]othing is known of this piece" (#13, p. 153).
Wiggins, Catalogue observes that "Zenobia" was likely a "response to the commercial success" of Marlowe's Tamburlaine plays (#889). He assigns the play to 1591 within a range of 1576-92. Basing his argument on its solo performance, he considers the play "right at the end of" of its stage run compared with other plays performed by Strange's Men that also were not marked "ne" (see a discussion of the problem of non-ne plays in Henslowe's playlists @ Wiggins #878).
Manley and MacLean point out that Zenobia was known not only as a "warrior and ruler famous for her armor and horsemanship ... but also for her married chastity," citing The Instruction of a Christian Woman (Juan Luis Vives, 1529) and The Defence of Good Women (Thomas Elyot, 1545) as sources (148). Observing that the play would have flattered Queen Elizabeth, they imply flattery also of the wife of the company patron, who in her widowhood might have been cast as Zenobia in Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queenes in 1609 (149). More broadly, Manley and MacLean add Zenobia to the "virtuous heathen" in plays performed by Strange's men (242).
For What It's Worth
This dramatization of increasingly grand military conquests by a powerful eastern warlord probably resonated with audiences thrilled by Tamburlaine. One imagines that Zenobia’s gender added an intriguing extra dimension in the predominantly patriarchal culture of late-sixteenth-century London.