Sejanus His Fall

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Title page of the 1616 folio edition, with list of actors opposite Sejanus his Fall 1616.jpg
Title page of the 1616 folio edition, with list of actors opposite

Sejanus His Fall, a 1603 play by Ben Jonson, is a tragedy about Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the favourite of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

Ben Jonson Seventeenth Century English playwright, poet, and actor

Benjamin Jonson was an English playwright and poet, whose artistry exerted a lasting impact upon English poetry and stage comedy. He popularised the comedy of humours. He is best known for the satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox, The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and for his lyric and epigrammatic poetry. "He is generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare, during the reign of James I."

Tragedy form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences

Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences. While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilisation. That tradition has been multiple and discontinuous, yet the term has often been used to invoke a powerful effect of cultural identity and historical continuity—"the Greeks and the Elizabethans, in one cultural form; Hellenes and Christians, in a common activity," as Raymond Williams puts it.

Sejanus Ancient Roman general

Lucius Aelius Sejanus, alternatively spelled Seianus, commonly known as Sejanus, was an ambitious soldier, friend and confidant of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. An equestrian by birth, Sejanus rose to power as prefect of the Roman imperial bodyguard, known as the Praetorian Guard, of which he was commander from AD 14 until his death in AD 31.


Sejanus His Fall was performed at court in 1603, and at the Globe Theatre in 1604. The latter performance was a failure. According to Jonson, an unnamed co-author "had good share" in the version of the play as it was "acted on the public stage". For reasons unknown the play was accused of promoting "popery and treason". Jonson was questioned, but no action was taken.

Globe Theatre 16th/17th-century theatre in London

The Globe Theatre was a theatre in London associated with William Shakespeare. It was built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, on land owned by Thomas Brend and inherited by his son, Nicholas Brend and grandson Sir Matthew Brend, and was destroyed by fire on 29 June 1613. A second Globe Theatre was built on the same site by June 1614 and closed by an Ordinance issued on 6 September 1642.

Jonson published the play in a revised version, replacing the contributions of his co-author with his own words. The published version was accompanied by copious marginal notes citing its historical sources, in quarto in 1605 and in folio in 1616.

Quarto paper format

Quarto is a book or pamphlet produced from full "blanksheets", each of which is printed with eight pages of text, four to a side, then folded twice to produce four leaves. The leaves are then trimmed along the folds to produce eight book pages. Each printed page presents as one-fourth size of the full blanksheet.

Stage history

Sejanus His Fall was first performed by the King's Men in 1603, probably at court in the winter of that year. [1] In 1604 it was produced at the Globe Theatre. The play's reception in 1603 is unrecorded, but the 1604 performance at the Globe was "hissed off the stage". [2] According to Park Honan, Shakespeare's own later Roman works carefully avoided "Sejanus's clotted style, lack of irony, and grinding moral emphasis." [3]

The King's Men was the acting company to which William Shakespeare (1564–1616) belonged for most of his career. Formerly known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, they became the King's Men in 1603 when King James I ascended the throne and became the company's patron.

Park Honan American academic

Leonard Hobart Park Honan was an American academic and author who spent most of his career in the UK. He wrote widely on the lives of authors and poets and published important biographies of such writers as Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

The published cast list in Jonson's 1616 folio identifies the principal actors as Richard Burbage, Augustine Phillips, William Sly, John Lowin, William Shakespeare, John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Alexander Cooke (listed in that order). It is not known which parts were played by which actors. David Grote argues that the published list probably mixes two separate productions, as Lowin did not join the King's Men until after the first production. However Grote suggests that the most likely roles for these performers can be identified:

Richard Burbage 16th/17th-century English actor and theatre owner

Richard Burbage was an English stage actor, widely considered to have been one of the most famous actors of the Globe Theatre and of his time. In addition to being a stage actor, he was also a theatre owner, entrepreneur, and painter. He was the younger brother of Cuthbert Burbage. They were both actors in drama. Burbage was a business associate and friend to William Shakespeare.

Augustine Phillips was an Elizabethan actor who performed in troupes with Edward Alleyn and William Shakespeare. He was one of the first generation of English actors to achieve wealth and a degree of social status by means of his trade.

William Sly British actor

William Sly was an actor in English Renaissance theatre, a colleague of William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men.

Sejanus, the largest role and a classic over-reacher in the Richard III manner, was obviously played by Burbage. The proud Silius, whose confrontation with Tiberius occupies the core of the first three acts and whose suicide is a traditionally noble Roman death, most likely would have gone to Heminges, with the more military Condell as the Guards Captain Macro. Phillips, who had been playing dissolute men for some time, would seem very likely for Tiberius if not for Jonson's hint that it was actually Shakespeare. Still, with Shakespeare as Tiberius, there is a very large role for an indignant speechmaker, Arruntius, that would have taken advantage of Phillips's rhetorical skills. [4]

Richard III of England 15th-century King of England

Richard III was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1483 until his death in 1485. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, marked the end of the Middle Ages in England. He is the protagonist of Richard III, one of William Shakespeare's history plays.

Gaius Silius was a Roman senator who achieved successes as a general over German barbarians following the disaster of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. For this achievement he was appointed consul in AD 13 with Lucius Munatius Plancus as his colleague. However, years later Silius became entangled in machinations of the ambitious Praetorian prefect Sejanus and was forced to commit suicide.

Quintus Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro was a prefect of the Praetorian Guard, from 31 until 38, serving under the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Caligula. Upon falling out of favor, he committed suicide.

Grote further suggests that the unnamed other members of the company, Samuel Crosse, William Sly, and Robert Armin, played the roles of Lepidus, Terentius, and Sabinius.

From 1604 on, there is no record of a performance of Sejanus His Fall until 1928, when it was put on by William Poel. [5] According to the play's modern editor Philip Ayres, Poel "cut the play by roughly a quarter" to "get away from the 'literary' 1605 published version to the 'hidden' stage play". [6]

Printing history

The play was entered in the Stationers' Register by Edward Blount on 2 November 1604. [7] On 6 August 1605 Blount transferred his copyright to Thomas Thorpe, who published it in quarto that year (STC 14782), printed by George Eld. [8] The printed text is accompanied by "copious marginal notes" citing the play's historical sources, which Jonson informs his readers were "all in the learned tongues, save one, with whose English side I have little to do". [9] The play is prefaced by an epistle "To the Readers" by Jonson, and commendatory verses by George Chapman, Hugh Holland, 'Th. R.', generally assumed to be Sir Thomas Roe, John Marston, William Strachey, one 'Everard B.', [10] and two poets who signed their verses as 'Cygnus' and 'Philos'.

A 1616 edition in folio features Jonson's Epistle to Lord Aubigny, in which the dramatist again indicates that Sejanus was a flop when staged at the Globe Theatre.

Allegations of treason

In the winter of 1618–19 Jonson told his friend William Drummond that the Earl of Northampton was his "mortal enemy" because Jonson had beaten one of the Earl's servants, and that Northampton had had Jonson called before the Privy Council on an accusation of "Popery and treason", based on Sejanus. [11] What led to these accusations is unknown. It might have been something in the text or the performance of the play. Nor is it known exactly when this accusation was made, though it is likely to have been in the early period of James I's reign. However, according to Jonson expert James Loxley, "no action was taken, as far as we know". [12]

There have been several theories about what may have led to the accusation. One theory is that the fall of Sejanus was thought to mirror that of the Earl of Essex, who had been executed in 1601. Another writer, Samuel Daniel was brought before the Privy Council in 1604 because his play Philotas was thought "to be a reflection of the dangerous matter of the dead Earl of Essex". [13] However Philip Ayres has argued that Sejanus was thought to parallel the 1603 trial of Walter Raleigh, who had been found guilty of conspiring with Spanish Catholics to murder James I in the Main Plot. This might explain how a play set in ancient Rome was suspected of promoting "Popery". [14] It has also been suggested that the central theme of the play, the dangers of rule by royal favourites, was the problem. In the early years of his reign, 1603–05, James was especially sensitive to criticism of his supporters, given the several conspiracies against him, culminating in the 1605 Gunpowder plot. [15]


Jonson's epistle "To the Readers" in the 1605 quarto states that an unnamed author had "good share" in the version of the play which was performed on the public stage:

Lastly I would inform you that this book, in all numbers, is not the same with that which was acted on the public stage, wherein a second pen had good share; in place of which, I have rather chosen to put weaker (and no doubt less pleasing) of mine own, than to defraud so happy a genius of his right by my loathed usurpation. [16]

Jonson's reference to "happy genius" have led some to speculate that William Shakespeare was Jonson's co-author on the original version of Sejanus, which has not survived. [17] Shakespeare is known to have been connected with the play as an actor. Another candidate for co-authorship is George Chapman, who later wrote a poem praising the play. [18] Jonson was certainly collaborating with Chapman in this period, as his next play, Eastward Ho , was co-written with him.


  1. Ayres 1990 , p. 37.
  2. Ayres 1990 , pp. 37–38.
  3. Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p. 342.
  4. David Grote, The Best Actors in the World: Shakespeare and His Acting Company, Greenwood Press, Westport, 2002, p. 121.
  5. Ayres 1990 , p. 38.
  6. Ayres 1990 , p. 38.
  7. Ayres 1990 , p. 1.
  8. Ayres 1990 , p. 1.
  9. Ayres 1990 , pp. 2–14.
  10. Ayres states that this was not, as earlier assumed, Edmund Bolton; Ayres 1990 , p. 69.
  11. Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 367.
  12. James Loxley, Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson, Routledge, New York, 2001, p. 25.
  13. Ian Grant Donaldson, Jonson's Magic Houses:Essays in Interpretation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997, p. 37.
  14. Philip Ayres, "Jonson, Northampton, and the Treason in Sejanus", Modern Philology, 80 (1983), 356–63
  15. Evelyn May Albright, Dramatic Publication in England, 1580–1640: A Study of Conditions Affecting Content and Form of Drama, Modern Language Association of America: New York, 1927, p. 146.
  16. Ayres 1990 , p. 52.
  17. Andew Gurr, The Shakespeare Company, 1594–1642, Cambridge University Press, 15 Apr. 2004, p. 144.
  18. Anne Barton, Ben Jonson, Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 91.

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