The Tragedy of Valentinian by John Fletcher.

1778 edition of The Dramatic Works of Beaumont and Fletcher vol. IV.

The Tragedy of Valentinian was my spin result for the Classics Club 13th Spin; I have many plays listed on my Classics Club list and decided this summer, in lieu of reading the ill-fated Faerie Queene by Spenser I would try and focus on the 16th and 17th Century plays listed, hence my list was full of plays from this era. Even so these plays make me nervous! A worthy project I think to read them, but they are tough and The Tragedy of Valentinian was one of the hardest ones I've read so far.

The Tragedy of Valentinian was written by John Fletcher, first performed around 1610-14 and first published in 1647. It's based on Valentinian III, the Roman Emperor from 425 to 455 A.D who was assassinated (it's thought his assassination was perhaps arranged by Petronius Maximus who declared himself emperor following Valentinian's death though he was never officially recognised as such). He is thought to be a poor emperor, Edward Gibbon writing in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88):
He faithfully imitated the hereditary weakness of his cousin and his two uncles, without inheriting the gentleness, the purity, the innocence, which alleviate in their characters the want of spirit and ability. Valentinian was less excusable, since he had passions without virtues: even his religion was questionable; and though he never deviated into the paths of heresy, he scandalised the pious Christians by his attachment to the profane arts of magic and divination.
John Fletcher explores this idea of Valentinian's power and lack of humanity and compassion: in the play he is a tyrant in charge of an empire that is in effect collapsing. A general, Aëtius, attempts to reform Valentinian, repeating criticisms to him honestly and frankly whereas Petronius Maximus, a soldier, privately shares his hatred of the emperor. Valentinian meanwhile is obsessed with Maximus' wife, the chaste and virtuous Lucina who he ultimately rapes. She later kills herself, supported by Maximus, and after his death he dedicates his life to seeking his revenge.

As I say it's a difficult play to read, or at least I thought so. It's essentially about power and power struggles; Valentinian as emperor has both political and divine power (I'm referring to the 'divine rights' of the emperors). However his power and his legal justifications lack compassion and actual justice. He perceives a right to rape Lucina, a struggle of power in itself between morality (embodied in Lucina not only as the victim of the rape but also in her character as being good and pure) and immorality (that is of course Valentinian). The power struggles continue with Petronius Maximus who is determined to act out revenge for the rape of his wife and to become Rome's next emperor.

One final note: the epilogue of this play is quite bizarre in its rather jolly tone. It's thought that there was a mix up at the printing office and actually belongs to Fletcher's The Fair Maid of the Inn, which (I've just checked) doesn't appear to have an epilogue. Here it is in full - you can imagine reading this after such a bleak tragedy!
We would fain please ye, and as fain be pleas'd;
'Tis but a little liking, both are eas'd:
We have your money, and you have our ware,
And to our understanding good and fair:
For your own wisdoms sake, be not so mad,
To acknowledge ye have bought things dear and bad:
Let not a brack i'th' Stuff, or here and there
The fading gloss, a general loss appear:
We know ye take up worse Commodities,
And dearer pay, yet think your bargains wise;
We know in Meat and Wine, ye fling away
More time and wealth, which is but dearer pay,
And with the Reckoning all the pleasure lost.
We bid ye not unto repenting cost:
The price is easie, and so light the Play,
That ye may new digest it every day.
Then noble friends, as ye would choose a Miss,
Only to please the eye a while and kiss,
Till a good Wife be got: So let this Play
Hold ye a while until a better may.
The Tragedy of Valentinian is a good play, not the greatest of reads I must admit (I felt that it didn't quite flow as well as it might have done), but I'm glad I've read it. I would even read it again!  


  1. dryden valued beaumont and fletcher above both shakespeare and jonson: "their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage, two of theirs being acted through the year for one of shakespeare's or jonson's"... this from a footnote to the introduction to the mermaid edition of beaumont and fletcher by st. loe strachey... "the knight of the burning pestle" is arguably their best known production...

    1. I'm planning on reading The Knight of the Burning Pestle fairly soon - looking forward to that one, actually. Perhaps Valentinian wasn't the best 'solo' to start with, so I'll be positive and hope for better, especially from the Beaumont collaborations.

      So far I think Marlowe's my favourite from this era, even though I've only read 2! :)


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