Performance Records (Henslowe's Diary)
F.14 (Greg I.27)
16 of Jenewary 1595 ne––Rd at pethageros . . . iij li j s
F.14v (Greg I.28)
23 of Jenewary 1595 Rd at pethagorus . . . xxxvj s
28 of Jenewary 1595` Rd at pethagoros . . . xxx s
9 of Febreary 1595 Rd at pethagores . . . xx s
15 of Febreary 1595 Rd at pethagores . . . xxxv s
23 of Febreary 1595 shroft tewsday Rd at pethagores xxxiiij s
21 of aprell 1596 Rd at pethagorus . . . xviij s
4 of maye 1596 Rd at pethagorus . . . xx s
22 of maye 1596 mr pd Rd at pethagoros . . . xxvij s
31 of maye whittsenmvnday Rd at pethagores . . . iij li
15 of June 1596 Rd at pethagores . . . xxiij s
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.
1 of Ju[n]ley 1596 ne––Rd at [peth] paradox ... xxxxv s
14 of July 1596 Rd at pethagores . . . xxij s
Another reference to this lost play occurs in a company inventory, transcribed and published by Malone and reprinted by Greg in Henslowe Papers (121)
“A Note of all bookes as belong to the Stocke, and such as I have bought since the 3d of March 1598.”
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(?)" in his Annals of English Drama (64-65). 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. It is noteworthy that Pythagoras premiered at a time when the Admiral's repertoire featured a number of conjuror-and-devil plays (and in the midst of a successful run of "Wise Men of West Chester"). So the lost play may have been a magus play in the tradition of Faustus (whose protagonist mentions Pythagoras in his final soliloquy).
Possible Narrative Sources or Dramatic Analogues
Most educated Elizabethans would have been familiar with Pythagoras from his lengthy oration in Book 15 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses--––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 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 premiered).
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, (Image 861) 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. (Ooooooo.Ii r-v)
Pythagoras did enjoy some notoriety on the Elizabethan stage prior to 1596. 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 repertoire, it is possible that this moment in Faustus supplied an impetus for the lost play.
Other 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 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.
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 below), 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.
References to the Play
Apart from Henslowe’s Diary and the Admiral’s inventory of recently purchased playbooks, there appears to be no other external documentation of the Pythagoras play.
Robert B. Sharpe contends that this lost play “seems to have had a considerable influence on the thought of the times, through a discussion of the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis” (89). The references to transmigration in Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne, support that statement.
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” (33).
For What It's Worth
Since Pythagoras was one of the play-books in the possession of Martin Slater, Grace Iopollo proposes he could be a potential candidate for the author: “it is possible, although not known as an author, Slater wrote or collaborated in the writing of plays” (196).
By piecing together contemporaneous allusions to Pythagoras it may be possible to speculatively reconstruct some features of the lost play. Shakespeare makes three explicit mentions of Pythagoras; the first, in Merchant of Venice (c.1596) is concurrent with the performance of the Pythagoras play at the Rose.
- Thou almost mak’st me waver in my faith
- To hold opinion with Pythagoras
- That souls of animals infuse themselves
- Into the trunks of men.
Merchant of Venice contains three additional references Pythagorean teachings. First, in the opening scene Antonio compares the world to “a stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (1.1.77-78). These lines rehash a well-known Pythagorean maxim, quoted in the Elizabethan play Damon and Pythias:
- Pythagoras said this world was like a stage
- Whereon many play their parts. (7.71-72)
Gratziano’s subsequent mockery of the taciturn philosopher “Sir Oracle” (1.1.93), 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. The final allusion is more positive: 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 orb which thou behold’st
- But in his motion like an angel sings,
- Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
- Such harmony is in immortal souls,
- But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
- Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Scholars have remarked on the Pythagorean underpinnings of this speech (Heninger and Danson), 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 a fair assumption that the lost play aired the philospher’s theory on the harmony of the spheres.
In the same year 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).
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). 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 willfully 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.
Shakespeare’s final allusion to Pythagoras occurs in Twelfth Night when Feste quizzes Malvolio on “the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl” (4.2.44).
Given that the Admiral’s Men opted to purchase the playbook from Martin Slater in 1598, it seems feasible that the play was revived sometime after that date.
Borlik, Todd A. Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Harbage, Alfred and Samuel Schoenbaum. Annals of English Drama. Third Edition.
Sharpe, Robert Boies. The Real War of the Theatres.
Site created and maintained by Todd Borlik, Bloomsburg University.