Sejanus His Fall

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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 Seianus, the favourite of the Roman emperor Tiberius. It was possibly interpreted as an allegory of James I and his corrupt court, leading to Jonson's arrest.

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 author 'had good share' in the version of the play 'acted on the public stage'. Jonson published a revised edition of the play, accompanied by copious marginal notes citing its historical sources, in quarto in 1605 and in folio in 1616.

Stage history[edit]

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]

From 1604 on, there is no record of a performance of Sejanus His Fall until 1928, when it was put on by William Poel.[4] According to Ayres, Poel 'cut the play by roughly a quarter' to 'get away from the "literary" 1605 published version to the "hidden" stage play'.[5]

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:

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.[6]

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.

Printing history[edit]

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. In the winter of 1618–19 Jonson told William Drummond of Hawthornden 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]


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.[12]

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.[13] Shakespeare was certainly connected with the play as an actor. Another candidate for co-authorship is George Chapman, who later wrote a poem praising the play.[14]


  1. ^ Ayres 1990, p. 37.
  2. ^ Ayres 1990, pp. 37–8.
  3. ^ Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p. 342.
  4. ^ Ayres 1990, p. 38.
  5. ^ Ayres 1990, p. 38.
  6. ^ David Grote, The Best Actors in the World: Shakespeare and His Acting Company, Greenwood Press, Westport, 2002, p. 121.
  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. ^ Ayres 1990, p. 52.
  13. ^ Andew Gurr, The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642, Cambridge University Press, 15 Apr. 2004, p. 144.
  14. ^ Anne Barton, Ben Jonson, Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 12 Jul. 1984, p. 91.


  • Ayres, Philip, ed. (1990). Sejanus His Fall. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 
  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.

External links[edit]