Ninus and Semiramis

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Anon. (1595)

Historical Records

Book Trade Records

Stationers' Register

10 May 1595.

Io. hardye.     Entred for his copye vnder the handes
of the Wardens. The tragedie of  vjd
Ninus and Semiramis, the
first Monarchs of the world

(Liber B, fol. 132r; cf. Arber 2.297)

Theatrical Provenance

Unknown. (See For What It's Worth below.)

Probable Genre(s)

"Tragedie" ("Poss. not a play") (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Ninus and Semiramis were the legendary rulers of Assyria, which, as Wiggins notes, was famous as the "first monarchy to be established after the Great Flood" (172). Cooper's Thesaurus provides succinct overviews of the reputations of the king and queen, with a keener interest in the latter:

Ninus, A king of Assyria, and sonne of Belus, was the first that made warre. Hee conquered vnto Indie, and vanquished Zoroastres, kinge of Bactria, which first inuented arte Magike, and also caused first money to be currant. Hee had to his wyfe Semiramis: he reigned 52. yeares, before the incarnation of Christ .2055. yeares.
Semiramis, A famous Queene of Assyria, wyfe to king Ninus, who, after the death of hir husbande, being loth on the one part to commit the charge of so great an empyre to the gouernment of hir yong sonne, and on the other, fearing that the fierce people woulde be loth to be gouerned by a woman, altered hir apparayle so[m]ewhat to the fashion of men, and tooke on hir the person of hir sonne, to whome she was both in stature and fauour very lyke. But when by many notable enterpryses and valiaunt actes she had so much confirmed and inlarged hir Empire, as she might seeme to haue passed the compasse of enuie, she disclosed what she was, & why she had so done. Which thing knowne did not onely nothing appayre hir authoritie, but styrred greater admiration toward hir. As she was on a time attyring hirselfe, worde was hastily brought to hir, that the citie of Babilon rebelled. She being in a rage therewith ranne forth with the one side of hir heare not dressed vp, and with a power that she had in a readynesse assayled the citie, and neuer gaue ouer, nor dressed vp hir heade tyll she had brought the citie in subiection. At the last, falling from noblenesse to sensuall lust, shee desired the companie of hir owne sonne, and of him was slaine.
(Cooper, s.v. "Ninus" and "Semiramis.")

Cooper's version of the Semiramis story follows that in Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, which elaborates on her achievements—including the conquest of Ethiopia and the construction of the walls of Babylon ("Belying her sex, she preserved both kingship and military discipline while accomplishing many great deeds worthy of even the most powerful men. […] It was almost as if she wanted to show that spirit, not sex, was needed to govern" [9])—as well as her vices, especially her promiscuity, incest with her son Ninyas, novel legislation championing sexual freedom, and the invention of the chastity belt to satisfy her jealousy. (Dante places her in the second circle of Hell as the foremost among the lustful.) Boccaccio also records some details found in variant accounts—such as Semiramis's habit of ordering the death of her erotic conquests in the interest of secrecy—and proposes a variety of motives for Ninyas's decision to murder his mother. Semiramis's double reputation as both a peerless female leader and a wanton reprobate is evident in the two allusions to her in Spenser's Faerie Queene (I.v.50, II.x.56).

How might a playwright have treated the relationship between Ninus and Semiramis? Several narrative possibilities for the story of their marriage were available to Renaissance readers, the fullest classical account being found in Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca historica (II.1-6). In Diodorus' narrative, Semiramis was a child of divine lineage, left for dead as an infant in a rocky desert. The doves of the area protected and fed the abandoned child until she was discovered and raised by Simmas, the keeper of the royal herds. Her beauty later captures the attention of Onnes, an officer from the king's court inspecting the royal herds, who marries her. During the siege of Bactra, Onnes, assisting Ninus in his campaign, summons Semiramis to join him, and she undertakes her journey disguised as a man. When she arrives, however, she quickly discerns a way to conquer the city, and leads a group of soldiers to capture the acropolis. Ninus is impressed and soon becomes infatuated, offering to Onnes his own royal daughter in exchange for Semiramis. When Onnes's refusal provokes Ninus' furious threats of torture, the former goes mad and hangs himself. Semiramis becomes queen.

In Diodorus' account, Ninus's death appears to follow soon after: "he begat by Semiramis a son Ninyas, and then died, leaving his wife as queen. Semiramis buried Ninus in the precinct of the palace and erected over his tomb a very large mound" (II.7). Boccaccio specifies Ninus' death by arrow wound. However, a very different version of the story—recorded as a variant by Diodorus and later recounted by Plutarch and Erasmus—has Semiramis assume her power by treachery. In this version, Semiramis asks her husband's permission to sit on the throne to rule for five days, and after he agrees to her desire, she discovers the extent of her authority by ordering his imprisonment (Diodorus) and, eventually, his death (Plutarch).

One of the most detailed retellings of the Semiramis story available to Renaissance readers—that which appeared in Greenes Farewell to Folly (1591)—records the same event, although here it is less the result of the treacherous ambition implied in the classical sources than righteous revenge following a different version of the courtship story. In Greene's narrative, Nisus becomes infatuated with Semiramis while she is married to the simple labourer Menon. When she rejects his advances out of loyalty to her husband, the king offers Menon his own daughter as a wife in exchange for Semiramis. Menon refuses, and the furious Ninus murders him immediately. Semiramis mourns for her husband and nearly commits suicide before considering the possibility for revenge. She weds Ninus and the two live together in an apparently successful marriage: it is assumed by the lords that she was complicit in Menon's murder, although her admirable conduct as a queen eventually wins their love. After three or four years, Nisus offers his queen anything she desires, to which she demands exclusive sovereignty over the Babylonian empire for three days. Erecting "a sumptuous scaffolde in forme of a Theatre," Ninus calls his subjects to witness the transfer of power (sig. I4r). Before the assembly, Semiramis forces Ninus to confess that he alone was responsible for Menon's murder, after which she orders his death. The dramatic embellishment and novelistic detail of Greene's narrative (complete with soliloquies and letters) may have been the most attractive version to a playwright.

References to the Play

See Critical Commentary below for the possible reference by Heywood.

Critical Commentary

Malone (1:60), discussing the "plot" of "The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins," speculates that the story of Ninus and Semiramis may have constituted the moral lesson against pride in the first part of that play, citing the Stationers' Register entry in a footnote.

Fleay, BCED (2.310, #225) claims that the present play was "[a]lluded to in Heywood's Apology for Actors." The passage in Heywood to which Fleay refers (and which was noticed earlier by Malone in connection with the "Seven Deadly Sins") reads:

"If wee present a forreigne History, the subiect is so intended, that in the liues of Romans, Grecians, or others, either the vertues of our Country-men are extolled, or their vices reproued […] we present Alexander, killing his friend in his rage, to reproue rashnesse: […] Nynus, against ambition, with infinite others, by sundry instances, either animating men to noble attempts, or attaching the conscience of the spectators, finding themselues toucht in presenting the vices of others." (sig. F3v)

Greg, BPED (2:967): "This need not necessarily have been a play, but it seems from Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors […] that the subject had been treated on the stage." After quoting the relevant passage in Heywood, Greg adds: "Ninus, son of Bel and husband of Semiramis, was the mythical founder of Nineveh and the first king of Assyria."

Blayney (385) notes that December 1593 to May 1595 was a "peak period[ ]" for stationers acquiring play books, with 27 entrances in the Stationers' Register during that period. (Knutson [160] provides the full list, including the present play.)

Wiggins, Catalogue (#922) offers a conjectural reconstruction of the plot based on Plutarch and Richard Rainolde's The Foundation of Rhetoric (1563), and he contextualizes the play within "the early 1590s vogue for 'Terrible Queens' like Elinor in Edward I […] and Margaret in 3 Henry VI." He notes also that there are allusions to Semiramis in Tamburlaine, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and James IV.

For What It's Worth

Was "Ninus and Semiramis" a Queen's men's play? John Hardy's only other extant dramatic publication is George Peele's The Old Wiues Tale, which was entered in the Stationers' Register on 16 April 1595 by Ralph Hancock and was soon printed in a quarto "to be sold by Raph Hancocke, and Iohn Hardie." According to the title page, "The Old Wiues Tale" was originally acted by the Queen's Men. It is possible then that Hardy also acquired "Ninus and Semiramis" from the Queen's men, who were on tour in 1594-5 and perhaps playing in London too (REED).

Works Cited

Blayney, Peter W.M. "The Publication of Playbooks." A New History of Early English Drama. Ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 383-422.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. Famous Women. Trans. Virginia Brown. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.
Cooper, Thomas. Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae. London, 1578.
Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca historica. Trans. C.H. Oldfather. 12 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1933–67.
Greene, Robert. Greenes Farewell to Folly. London, 1591.
Heywood, Thomas. An Apology For Actors. London, 1612.
Knutson, Roslyn Lander. Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare's Time. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Malone, Edmond, ed. Supplement to the Edition of Shakspeare's plays published in 1778 by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens. 2 vols. London, 1780.
Parr, Johnstone. "Chaucer's Semiramis." The Chaucer Review 5 (1970): 57-61.
Samuel, Irene. "Semiramis in the Middle Ages: The History of a Legend." Medievalia et Humanistica 3 (1944): 32–44.
Wiggins, Martin, in association with Catherine Richardson. British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. Volume III: 1590–1597. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013.

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