SEJANUS was likely first performed by the King’s Men at Court in the winter of 1603 and at the Globe early in 1604.1Measure for Measure was probably first performed at the Globe in the summer of 1604 and at Court the day after Christmas that same year.2 The general scholarly consensus is that Shakespeare played the part of the Emperor Tiberius in Jonson’s play.3 If this is the case then not only would Shakespeare have known the text of Sejanus, he would have been learning and performing it as he was writing Measure for Measure. That said, comparatively little attention has been paid to possible connections between the two plays. In his First Arden edition of Measure for Measure, H. C. Hart pointed out some parallels between the scene in Act Four where Angelo and Escalus discuss the letters that have distracted Angelo, and a scene in the last act of Sejanus where Cotta and Latiaris discuss the letters that precipitate the downfall of the titular character.4 Drawing on Hart’s work, Brian Gibbon’s Cambridge edition observes the same thematic parallel and suggests an additional small verbal parallel between III.i. of Sejanus and V.i. of Measure for Measure.5 There is, however, an earlier scene where the verbal parallels between the two plays are quite striking and have not, to my knowledge, been noted before. In Act One of Sejanus we see a malcontented group of senators and soldiers including Silius and Arruntius commenting on the repressive political nature of Rome under Tiberius. As befits their republican sympathies, they are particularly concerned by the loss of the ‘old liberty’ (I.404). In his speech, Silius notes that ‘Wished liberty / Ne’er lovlier looks than under such a crown’ (I.408–409, says that the actions of the Emperor’s flatterers are ‘lechery unto him’ (I.414), and notes that in such a society all men are ‘offenders’ (I.424). In Act One, scene two of Measure for Measure, the arrested Claudio says that his predicament is caused by ‘too much liberty’ (I.ii.117). Under Angelo’s repressive regime, he will now experience ‘restraint’ (I.ii.120). He then comments as follows: Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die. (I.ii.120–122)6 This unusual image bears close comparison with Arruntius’ response to Silius’ speech: We that know the evil Should hunt the palace-rats, or give them bane; Fright hence these worse than ravens, that devour The quick, where they but prey upon the dead. (I.426–429) Tiberius’ followers are likened to rats whom those of Arruntius’ faction should poison because they support a ruler who inhibits liberty. Shakespeare reworks this conceit in Claudio’s speech: too much liberty has corrupted his nature which is likened to a rat that greedily devours poison. There may even be a small intertextual in-joke here. Jonson’s noun ‘ravens’, who eat both the living and the dead, are transformed by Shakespeare into the verb ‘ravin’ which, as the OED notes, means ‘the action or practice of seizing and devouring prey or food; predation’, such as a Raven would perform.7 It is an apt linguistic transformation and shows Shakespeare reworking a striking passage in Jonson’s play in typically imaginative fashion. Footnotes 1 Ben Jonson, Sejanus, ed. Philip J. Ayers (Manchester, 1999), 9. 2 William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever (London, 1994), xxxi–xxxv. 3 See Jonson, Sejanus, 37, and William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons (Cambridge, 2006), 22. 4 William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. H. C. Hart (London, 1925), 118–19. Hart also notes a possible verbal parallel with Sejanus at V.i.220 (132). 5 Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. Gibbons, 22. 6 The image of the rats, thirst, and poison does not appear to be proverbial. The Variorum edition of Measure for Measure quotes an example from 1605, after both plays were written—A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, ed. Mark Eccles (New York, 1980), 33. 7 ‘Ravin, 2b’, Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford, 2017). © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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