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Anon. (1568)

(NB. This play has typically been assigned to 1598 on the basis of performance records, but see Theatrical Provenance below for the significant redating)


Historical Records

Records of St. John’s College, Oxford

St. John’s College ms. Acc.v.E.1, college Computus Hebdomalis (16-22 January):

fol. 57 v

A tragedy of Astiages/
Acted post 30a <...>os in
aedibus Praesidentis

A tragedy of Astiages
Acted after thirty years in
the president's house

fol. 58

Eadem tragœdia
Astiages publice acta
in Aula/

The same tragedy
of Astiages performed publicly
in the hall

(Quoted by Elliott-Nelson, REED: Oxford I.245, II.1007)

Theatrical Provenance

Performed at St. John's College, Oxford, c.1568, and revived twice at St. John’s in 1597-8: once privately in the President's lodgings (between 16-22 January) and again publicly at the college (between 23-29 January). The description "post 30a [ann]os" seems to suggest that the play had originally premiered thirty years prior, c. 1567-8. Wiggins thus departs from Harbage in assigning this play to 1568 rather than 1598. It was probably written in Latin.

Probable Genre(s)

Latin (?) Tragedy (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Summary from Encyclopedia Britannica:

The last king of the Median empire (reigned 585–550 bc). According to Herodotus, the Achaemenian Cyrus the Great was Astyages’ grandson through his daughter Mandane, but this relationship is probably legendary. According to Babylonian inscriptions, Cyrus, king of Anshan (in southwestern Iran), began war against Astyages in 553 bc; in 550 the Median troops rebelled, and Astyages was taken prisoner. Then Cyrus occupied and plundered Ecbatana, the Median capital.

The main source of information on Astyages is Herodotus's Histories. The action of the lost play most likely involved the following major events in the tale of Astyages:

*Astyages has a prophetic dream that his daughter Mandane will give birth to a son (Cyrus) who ruins Astyages' empire
*He marries his daughter Mandane off to Cambyses I, but has another, similar prophetic dream.
*Astyages sends a general, Harpagus, to kill the child when it is born, but Harpagus instead gives the child to shepherds to raise.
*Cyrus is eventually found alive, aged 10. Astyages deceives Harpagus into eating his own son at a banquet, as punishment for not killing Cyrus as commanded.
*Harpagus, seeking vengeance, encourages Cyrus to rebel against Astyages.

References to the Play

None known. (Content welcome.)

Critical Commentary

Treating the play in the context of its performance in 1598, Knutson and McInnis (55) observe parallels between "Astiages" and commercial drama in terms of plot devices (e.g. "the noble child raised by shepherds, the banquet of human flesh, a series of prophetic dreams, and cases of mistaken identities") as well as comparable early modern treatments of the ancient Persian history, including Thomas Preston's Cambyses (1561), The Wars of Cyrus (1594), the Admiral's "Hester and Ahasuerus" (1594), William Alexander's The Tragedy of Darius (1603), and John Crowne's Darius, King of Persia (1688).

Wiggins (17-18), assigning the play to 1568, observes the "striking" parallel between "Astiages" and another play on a similar subject performed at St. John's around the same time, namely the "Tragœdiam Cyri Regis Persarum, quæ habetur Oxonij in Collegio S. Ioannis Baptistæ" (p. 782) attributed to Gregory Martin (1542?–1582) in John Pits's Relationum historicarum de rebus Anglicis (1619). Martin became one of the first scholars at the newly established St. John's College in 1557, eventually resigning from his fellowship in 1568. Wiggins raises the possibility that Martin's "Cyrus" may in fact have been same as the "Astiages" named in the college records (17).

For What It's Worth

To the list of plays mentioned by Knutson and McInnis might also be added Alexander's Croesus (1604), since Croesus is the Lydian king who, in Herodotus, avenges Astyages' death by waging an unsuccessful campaign against Cyrus.

Works Cited

Grogan, Jane. The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Herodotus. The Histories of Herodotus. ed. Henry Carey. NY: D. Appleton & company, 1899. Print. (Internet Archive)
Knutson, Roslyn L. and David McInnis. "The Lost Plays Database: A Wiki for Lost Plays." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 24 (2011): 46–57.
McCoog, Thomas M. "Martin, Gregory (1542?–1582)." ODNB.
Pits, John. Relationum historicarum de rebus Anglicis. Paris, 1619. (Internet Archive)
Wiggins, Martin, in association with Catherine Richardson. British Drama, 1533–1642: A Catalogue. Volume II, 1567–1589. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; additions by Misha Teramura; updated 23 March 2017.

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